Beer and the Industrial Revolution
The beer that we drink today has been shaped in many ways by the Industrial Revolution which began in Britain in the late 1700s. This industrialization marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production and away from hand tools and working in homes.
Prior to the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution the production of beer was limited by natural resources as well as the limit of human ingenuity and as such it was based on tradition and habit without much understanding.
Consequently production of beer was characterised by two things, small batches and inconsistency of the quality of the beer. Also, the only choice of beer was ale
So what changed with the Industrial Revolution?
Well the emergence of technologies like the steam engine, crop production, refrigeration and the railway began to change the way that beer was brewed. The first brewery to install a steam engine was that of Messrs Cook & Co, at Stratford-le-Bow, London, in 1777. The brewery paid £200 for a small 18-inch cylinder engine from Boulton & Watt. Most of these engines were originally purchased for milling the vast quantities of grain necessary for large-scale beer production and for various pumping operations.
Indeed by 1801, 14 steam engines were operating in London breweries. The breweries that did embrace the new technology were able to expand dramatically. Whitbread, for instance, tripled their annual barrelage (to 202,000) by 1796.
Of course, beer in the UK is synonymous with Burton -upon-Trent where the great brewers of Bass, Salt and Allsopp were in the ascendant and the innovations in technology such as stationary steam engines that allowed for mechanisation of milling and mashing, as well as efficient pumping of well water and brewing ‘liquor’, and the parallel developments in transportation with the coming of the railway meant that Burton became a centre for mass market production.
In fact, with the arrival of the Midland railway in 1839 Burton became a hub for beer production and distribution and the cumulative output of the town’s brewers quadrupled to 300,000 barrels per annum during the 1840s. Not surprisingly other railway companies were quick to realise the huge revenue potential of the town’s premier industry and either built direct lines as did the North Staffordshire Railway in 1848) or acquired running powers over the Midland From the late-1840s, Burton’s booming economic development saw it transformed from being a small provincial town into an industrial brewing centre of national, indeed international significance (see the Beer and the British Empire Blog)
A more surprising and little reported consequence of the Industrial Revolution and its relationship with beer was a large increase in the population, as noted by Cambridge social anthropologist Alan Macfarlane. The infant mortality rate halved in the space of 20 years across all classes and in both urban and rural areas. Records show that there was a reduction in the incidence of waterborne disease at this time, and it was argued that a change in drinking habits back to beer (from gin) were behind this. The antibacterial properties of the hop may well have given Great Britain the population capable of fueling the Industrial Revolution.