Who does not like a cool beer after a hard day’s work on a summer’s day…? ok, not everyone, but those that do enjoy more than just the taste. It is a drink that since earliest times has signified the purest and mildest form of the drug alcohol. Purest? The Germans enacted a law in April 1516 that decreed their beer was simply malt, hops, yeast and water — nothing else. It was only the EU that allowed that impure non-German beers — even suds made from, wait for it, rice (why, Budweiser, why?) — could be imported into Volksgemeinschaft of the beer fest.
At school we listened with envy as we were taught the reason kids in those olden times drank beer rather than water from an early age was not to numb the pain of medieval working conditions, but because the water was impure and the beer was not.
I had often wondered how what might be styled ‘social’ drunkenness in Victorian times seemed somehow more pharmacologically damaging during inebriation. Beer seemed to have effects in the many that are nowadays reserved for the few long-term alcoholics. We are talking psychoactive potency that induced hallucination and behavioural change way beyond that which an evening of drinking beer should.
I am forever indebted to journalist James Greenwood (1831 – 1927) for the answers. In 1869 Greenwood published The Seven Curses of London. The curses included ill treatment of children, gambling, prostitution and of course drunkenness.
Here, in Greenwood’s own words, are just some of the things that went into beer at that time.
Let us here enumerate a few of the ingredients with which the beer-shop-keeper re-brews his beer, and the publican “doctors” his gin and rum and whisky.
As is well known, the most common way of adulterating beer is by means of cocculus indicus. This is known “in the trade” as “Indian berry,” and is the fruit of a plant that grows on the coast of Malabar. It is a small kidney-shaped, rough, and black-looking berry, of a bitter taste, and of an intoxicating or poisonous quality. It is extensively used to increase the intoxicating properties of the liquor.
Fox-glove is a plant with large purple flowers, possessing an intensely bitter nauseous taste. It is a violent purgative and vomit; produces languor, giddiness, and even death. It is a poison, and is used on account of the bitter and intoxicating qualities it imparts to the liquor among which it is mixed.
Green copperas, a mineral substance obtained from iron, is much used to give the porter a frothy top. The green copperas is supposed to give to porter in the pewter-pot that peculiar flavour which drinkers say is not to be tasted when the liquor is served in glass.
Hartshorn shavings are the horns of the common male deer rasped or scraped down. They are then boiled in the worts of ale, and give out a substance of a thickish nature like jelly, which is said to prevent intoxicating liquor from becoming sour.
Henbane, a plant of a poisonous nature, bearing a close resemblance to the narcotic poison, opium. It produces intoxication, delirium, nausea, vomiting, feverishness, and death, and appears chiefly to be used to increase the intoxicating properties of intoxicating liquors; or, in other words, to render them more likely to produce these effects in those who use these liquors.
Jalap, the root of a sort of convolvulus, brought from the neighbourhood of Xalapa, in Mexico, and so called Jalap. It is used as a powerful purgative in medicine. Its taste is exceedingly nauseous; and is of a sweetish bitterness. It is used to prevent the intoxicating liquor from turning sour; and probably to counteract the binding tendency of some of the other ingredients.
Multum is a mixture of opium and other ingredients, used to increase the intoxicating qualities of the liquor.
Nut-galls are excrescences produced by the attacks of a small insect on the tender shoots of a tree which grows in Asia, Syria, and Persia. They are of a bitter taste, and are much used in dyeing. They are also used to colour or fine the liquor.
Nux vomica is the seed of a plant all parts of which are of a bitter and poisonous nature. The seeds of this plant are found in the fruit, which is about the size of an orange. The seeds are about an inch round and about a quarter of an inch thick. They have no smell. It is a violent narcotic acrid poison, and has been used very extensively in the manufacture of intoxicating ale, beer, and porter.
Opium is the thickened juice of the white poppy, which grows most abundantly in India, though it also grows in Britain. It is the most destructive of narcotic poisons, and it is the most intoxicating. It has been most freely used in the manufacture of intoxicating liquors, because its very nature is to yield a larger quantity of intoxicating matter than any other vegetable.
Oil of vitriol, or sulphuric acid, is a mineral poison of a burning nature. In appearance it is oily and colourless, and has no smell. It is used to increase the heating qualities of liquor.
Potash is made from vegetables mixed with quick-lime, boiled down in pots and burnt—the ashes remaining after the burning being the potash. It is used to prevent the beer souring, or to change it, if it has become sour.
Quassia is the name of a tree which grows in America and the West Indies. Both the wood and the fruit are of an intensely bitter taste. It is used instead of hops to increase the bitter in the liquor.
Wormwood is a plant or flower with downy leaves, and small round-headed flowers. The seed of this plant has bitter and stimulating qualities, and is used to increase the exciting and intoxicating qualities of liquors.
Yew tops, the produce of the yew-tree. The leaves are of an extremely poisonous nature, and so are the tops, or berries and seeds. It is used to increase the intoxicating properties of the liquors.
The quantities of cocculus-indicus berries, as well as of black extract, brought into this country for adulterating malt liquors, are enormous. The berries in question are ostensibly destined for the use of tanners and dyers. Most of the articles are transmitted to the consumer in their disguised state, or in such a form that their real nature cannot possibly be detected by the unwary. An extract, said to be innocent, sold in casks containing from half a cwt. to five cwt. by the brewers’ druggists, under the name of “bittern,” is composed of calcined sulphate of iron (copperas), extract of cocculus-indicus berries, extract of quassia and Spanish liquorice. This fraud constitutes by far the most censurable offence committed by unprincipled brewers.
To both ale and porter an infusion of hops is added, and in general porter is more highly hopped than ale. New ale and porter, which are free from acid, are named mild; those which have been kept for some time, and in which acid is developed, are called hard. Some prefer hard beer; and to suit this taste, the publicans are accustomed, when necessary, to convert mild beer into hard by a summary and simple process, to wit, the addition of sulphuric acid. Again, others prefer mild beer; and the publicans, when their supply of this is low, and they have an abundance of old or hard beer, convert the latter into mild, by adding to it soda, potash, carbonate of lime, &c. Various other adulterations are practised. The narcotic quality of hop is replaced by cocculus inducus; sweetness and colour by liquorice (an innocent fraud); thickness by lint-seed; a biting pungency by caraway-seed and cayennepepper. Quassia is also said to be used, with the latter view. Treacle is likewise employed to give sweetness and consistency; while to give beer a frothy surface, sulphate of iron and alum are had recourse to. Such is the wholesome beverage of which nine-tenths of the English people daily partake!