Navy Beer 18th century

Navy Beer – Amber/Pale Ale

Numerous commentators describe beer that is suitable for transportation to the far corners of the world as supply or trade in the growing empire. In a society where the staple drink is beer, the Navy supplied men with beer rather than water. We tend to think of the navy supplying sailors with rum but originally the liquid of preference was beer. Rum was not officially served in the Navy until 1731. Lack of money meant that sailors were often ill served regarding food and drink up until Pepys’ time. Eventually a victualling contract was published on 31 st December 1677 that, among other daily allowances, each man was to have a gallon of beer (wine measure) per day. If the ship was south of latitude 39° north (south of Ibiza) the diet could be varied due to the warmth of the climate. A gallon of beer could be replaced with two pints of wine or half a pint of brandy, both wine measure. Water is not mentioned and although the Navy carried water it was not popular. An entry into Gent’s dictionary of cant refers to:

“Pinch-gut -money, allowd by the King to the Seamen, that Serve on Bord the Navy Royal, when their Provision fails Short ; also in long Voyages when they are forced to Drink Water instead of Beer.” (A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew 1698)

It was accepted that beer would deteriorate in a hot climate but there are reports of bad beer at home. On August 10 th 1665 Commissioner Middleton wrote to Pepys about a sailor on the Coventry in port at Portsmouth who “drank a great draught” and was nearly poisoned. The Gloucester, on 15 th March 1671 protested about bad beer. The Victualling Board tried to ensure that beer was of sufficient quality to last for 6 months by making it a condition of brewers’ contracts that they would stand the cost of beer which did not last the full term. The brew was defined in terms of very good malt and sufficient hops for its continuance. A victualling contract of August 1690 states that beer should be:

“of such a standard as every guile of 20 Tunns of Iron bound Beere shall be brewed with 20 Quarters of very good malt, as good as generally to be had att the place where the said beere is brewed and a sufficient quantity of very good Hopps to keep the same for the time of its warranty; and 18 Quarters of the like malt with the like quantity of the like sort of Hopps to every Guile of 20 Tunns of Woodbound beere to be good sound Wholsome & of Sufficient Strength fitting for the use of his Majesties Shipps in Petty Warrant Victualling;”

The Requirements for Good Beer

The requirement was for very good malt to make sufficient strength and very good hops for keeping. The quantity of hops is not given but as the instructions for malt stay the same until 18 th century we can infer from regulations what the hop quantities were likely to have been.

Sea Beer – Iron Bound
20 tuns produced from 20 quarters malt, 9lbs hops per quarter

Channel Beer – Wood Bound (identical to Petty Warrant Beer above – harbour beer)
20 tuns produced from 18 quarters malt, 9lbs hops per quarter

Working on 316lb per quarter and an apparent attenuation of 66%, Sea Beer weighs in at 2.53% abv and 49 IBUs and Channel Beer is 2.3% abv at 49 IBUs. Hops at this rate ought to provide enough preservative power[1] but the low strength probably reflects the lack of money provided for victualling and/or the risk of inebriation from strong beer. It is also possible that the brewers fraudulently used less malt for profit, and therefore weaker beer than specified. Attempts to defraud the government were rife. Early in the next century a certain excise officer E. Denneston describes the discovery of a scheme to provide the fleet with extremely small beer so that the sailors were necessitated to drink (horror) water!:

“I had the Names of the several Places given me by the said Hore [informant], where the Strong Beer lay, that was usually concealed from each Guile brewed at that House. Upon which , having taken a proper Time, and Officers to assist me, upon exact Search, i found twenty six Barrels of Strong Beer, taken from one Guile of Small Beer, which whole Guile ought to have been bestowed for the sole Service of Her Majesty’s Fleet : But those Seamen, tho’ serviceable to the Government, had only the Refuge of the Worts, which was only a bare Degree above Water, whereby many of them extremely suffered. .. Nay, so bad part of it was, that several hundred Tons [Tuns] thereof were staved, and thrown over-board ; instead of which those poor service able Men were obliged to drink Water, when they could come at it.” (A Scheme for Advancing and Improving the Ancient and Noble Revenue and Excise on Beer and Ale Denneston 1713, 17)

 A communication dated 28 th July 1676 highlights smaller (weaker) beer than expected:

S. P. to Sir Robert Robinson,- commander-in-chief of the fleet in the Downs. Will make known to the victuallers ‘ the complaint made against the smallness of the Garland’s beer.’.” (Tanner, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Naval Manuscripts in the Pepysian Library Vol 3 1909, 236)

Note that in these last two instances complaint was made not about bad beer but weak beer. My analysis indicates that sea beer is projected to be a maximum of 2.5% abv and it is possible that the Garland’s beer was far weaker than this. High hop rates aside, alcohol is an antiseptic that counters infection. Brewers of the time knew nothing of lactobacillus, pediococcus and acetobacter, all of which produce acid flavours. The busiest time for the Navy was in the summer and a fleet needing victuals would necessitate the brewing of beer in the months when civvy street had shut down brewing for the summer months. Warm weather combined with no attemperation meant that fermentations could reach high temperatures. Warm summer air is a reservoir of wild yeast and bacteria which would infect wort in coolers open to the atmosphere. Couple this with poorly cleaned wooden casks, returned with the residue of old stale beer or filled with seawater. The universal practice of cleansing beer by expelling yeast from the cask bunghole and letting it run down the cask (a wood surface not sterile) to the stillion (not sterile) for retrieval for the next brew is a recipe for disaster. Hops will counter none of this if the alcohol content is low! It was known at the time that poorly brewed beer did not survive a secondary fermentation at sea; I quote Worth:

“for Experience shews us, That Beer ill brewed will not admit of Transportation, for it soon takes a Ferment by the Sea, and so sours and ropes: When on the contrary well brewed Beer may be transported to the East Indies; for having a Body and Ripeness withal, the Ferment of the Sea exalts it so, that it becomes in the end like Mum in comparison to the former, and will remain in its full Goodness many Years” (Cerevisiarii Comes: or the New and True Art of Brewing, Worth 1692)

Many commentators have said that any alcoholic beverage improves with a sea journey. Madeira was transported and returned; the sea journey having improved it. Later, IPA was said to improve with the journey to India from England, but the alcohol content had to be higher than a derisory 3% abv. Note that Worth believes a sea ferment to render beer like mum (mumme), a notoriously strong beer!

The Research

The fascinating subject of Naval beer was explored by me and Navy historians Martin Kelly and Andy Plumbly (What Beer did Royal Navy Sailors Drink in the 18C?, Journal: Brewery History188 2-12 ). The replicated sea beer is given below.

Sea Beer – Iron Bound
20 tuns produced from 20 quarters malt, 9lbs hops per quarter

4320 ale gallons * 101.65% = 4391.28 galls imp = 19963 ltr
316lb/qtr malt = 6320lb = 2866.7kg, Amber malt may have been used for 10% along with 90% pale.
hops 180lb = 81.6kg. East Kent hops were in use at the time therefore Goldings were selected.
apparent attenuation 66%, ABV 2.5%, IBU 49

An attempt to replicate the above beer using mash temperatures, attenuation rates and malt quality of the time. Quantities of malt and hops reduced to make a brew of 25 litres.

Malt replication is problematic because methods of kilning are now quite different. Slow dried pale may have been dried with coke, but if hay or straw were used there was likely to me a smoky tang. Reports suggest that smoke flavour was popular in the west country but not in London. If the malt was made in Portsmouth it could well have been kilned with wood. Amber is now roasted in drums and is not diastatic: before the 19 th century it was kilned similarly to pale but finished by darkening with extra heat which may have been supplied with beech faggots. Due to the impossibility of obtaining original malts I have not attempted to replicate an unknown colour; however I have used a small charge of Weyermann’s beech smoked barley. N.B. If the original malt had been dried with coke or culm this recipe would be a pale ale. To make a pale ale substitute the beech smoked malt with pale malt. The amber could also be omitted but the colour would be far too light.

Yeast has evolved and individual cultures have been isolated. Before 19C yeast consisted of multiple strains, some giving off-flavours. The recipe uses Nottingham Ale Yeast, a clean, neutral English strain. To give more character I have included a brettanomyces strain. The manufacturer’s notes:

Originally isolated from strong English stock beer in the early 20th century, this yeast has low-intensity Brettanomyces character and is closely related to Brettanomyces anomalus. This strain produces fruity, pineapple-like aroma with an earthy hay-like background aroma and aroma note.

The Recipe

25 litres
OG. 1.030, Full strength at 1.010

Maris Otter Pale         3.8kg
Amber Malt                 0.26kg
Beech Smoked 0.45kg

Goldings Hops 0.1kg

Nottingham Ale yeast  0.11kg
WLP 645                     35ml

Mash for 60 minutes with an initial liquor temperature of 80°C.

Anticipated to attenuate to 10, it went to 11. This made the intended abv of 2.5% slightly weaker at 2.4%. Such a low gravity beer lacks the malt body to contain strong hop and smoke flavours and I consider it unbalanced; however, the palate does acclimatise and I would think that if the beer was sound, it would provide a welcome nutritious form of hydration. The ration on board ship was a gallon per man per day wine measure which equates to 6.66 pints of the modern imperial gallon.

Sea Beer

[1] L Bacteria killing properties are derived from the hop resins, alpha and beta acids and the pH value of the medium. Research in the early 20C tried to formulate a quotient to compare the preservative value (pv) of hops. This was difficult to use in brewing because it did not factor in the quantity of hops nor length of boil. There are also some bacteria which are hop tolerant. There is no definitive method to determine pv, which basically boils down to the bitterness of the finished beer.