Brewing in crisis

Throughout history, brewing has responded to times of societal crisis, writes Alaster Phillips

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History is not just littered, but awash with national and global events crises that have turned the world upside down, and when they take hold some industries, like brewing, manage to play their part in keeping spirits up, and somehow we still manage to have a drink.

Unprecedented times, to describe the shape of society, has been used a lot recently whether it’s political change, economic crisis, or a global pandemic. In an emotional address to the nation shortly after the coronavirus lockdown began in the UK, the Queen told us that as a nation history would be the judge and that “those that come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any”. History will indeed be the judge.

In the mid 14th century the Black Death swept across Europe, reaching Britain in 1348 killing millions, but what seemed to follow was a real terms rise in wages and a boom in brewing. Much like the monks, beers were brewed by women at home as something nutritious to drink. As populations slowly began to recover, by the 1400s the commercialisation of brewing saw taverns and ale houses spring up, and this period of relative prosperity was the beginning of the pub as a staple of our society. 

While these days drinking beer is more of a pastime, it has been at times a necessity. In the 1600s Paulaner monks relocated from Southern Italy to the cloisters at Neudeck ob der Au in Bavaria. A strict Catholic order, solid food during lent was forbidden so they brewed “liquid bread”, a strong early doppelbock style full of carbohydrate and nutrients for their 40 day fast. Eventually they would sell the beer to the local community and the Paulaner brewery was founded in 1634.

Temperance made lasting societal changes in our approach to alcohol, whether it was the gin craze that saw five Gin Acts passed between 1729 and 1738, (and in fact it took another 20 years to end the craze, but only because a series of crop failures led to a ban on distilling grain) or being prosecuted for taking beer home to your wife, which was one of the swingeing and increasingly ridiculous sounding restrictions that were imposed during World War One.

Britain’s first temperance society opened in Greenock in 1829, and within three years there were 14 in Glasgow alone. This increased the stigma of drink that only encouraged men to pack into bars and drink against the clock until closing time.

By the early 20th century most Glasgow councillors were members prohibitionist lobbies. The anti-drink campaigners won what may have been seen as a feather in their cap when Edwin Scrymgeour became Britain’s only Prohibitionist MP, ousting Winston Churchill from his Dundee seat in the 1922 General Election. Scrymgeour later failed in his opposition to disbanding the Scottish Prohibitionist Party in 1935.

Two world wars have had the most significant reactionary impact on brewing in the last 100 years, and probably more so than anything previously. There were labour shortages due to workers being called away for the war effort, rationing of ingredients like grain and sugar, and higher taxes all of which were strictly enforced by the government. 

Just days after Britain entered the First World War in August 1914, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was passed, enabling the government to funnel resources into the war effort. Six amendments to the Act throughout the course of the war were used for everything from banning narcotics to censoring the press and subjecting civilians to the rule of military courts. Its impact on society was far reaching to include rationing, introduction of British Summer Time, widening police powers, and of course prohibition. It was even used to ban bon fires, whistling in the street and flying kites.

In March 1915, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, who would later become prime minister, declared “We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink.”


We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink.

Until August 1914 London pubs had almost unrestricted opening hours up to 19.5 hours a day, but after DORA they were slashed to just 5.5 - split between lunchtime and early evening - our friend DLG again, saying that some workmen were “shirking their duty, in this great emergency” due to the lure of drink. While DORA was used to limit the consumption of alcohol, apart from tax on beer tripling, the breweries were largely left alone until early 1917 when German U-boats began to seriously limit transatlantic trade. This made the key ingredients for brewing - barley and sugar - scarce commodities, so the government restricted the brewing of beer to 11.5m barrels annually, less than a third of what was produced in 1914. A few months later, breweries were forced to brew half of their beer at lower gravities, less than 3.5% ABV, and later that year it was reduced even further to 3%.

While Great Britain’s previous wartime leader viewed drink as a deadly foe, the prime minister during World War Two, Winston Churchill was a famously enthusiastic drinker who refused to introduce prohibition.

However, much like the Great War, similar restrictions began to affect the breweries. In 1938 more than half of the barley used in the UK was imported, but following the outbreak of war it fell dramatically until by the end of 1941 imports stopped entirely. As imports fell domestic yields did however increase, but not enough to match pre-war levels, so the government stepped-in to ration the barley with larger allocations for bakeries. 

Throughout the war a brewer’s work was not easy: limited supplies, variable quality and rationed materials, reduced gravities, higher taxes, tighter regulations, air raids, shortages of transportation and labour; and despite all this he did his job and breweries survived.

No matter what history has thrown at us over the centuries, and whatever we endure that shapes society past and present, one thing hasn’t changed: our appetite for a beer at the end of the day.


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