The London Beer Flood occurred on this date in 1814 in the parish of St. Giles in London at the Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road. A vat containing over 135,000 imperial gallons (610,000 L) of beer ruptured, causing other vats in the same building to succumb in a domino effect. As a result, more than 323,000 imperial gallons (1,470,000 L) of beer burst out and gushed into the streets. The wave of beer destroyed two homes and crumbled the wall of the Tavistock Arms Pub, trapping teenage employee Eleanor Cooper under the rubble. Within minutes neighboring George Street and New Street were swamped with beer, killing a mother and daughter who were taking tea, and surging through a room of people gathered for a wake. The brewery was among the poor houses and tenements of the St Giles Rookery, where whole families lived in basement rooms that quickly filled with beer. At least eight people were known to have drowned in the flood or died from injuries.
The brewery was eventually taken to court over the accident, but the disaster was ruled to be an Act of God by the courts, leaving no one responsible. The company found it difficult to cope with the financial implications of the disaster, with a significant loss of sales made worse because they had already paid duty on the beer. They made a successful application to Parliament reclaiming the duty which allowed them to continue trading.
The flood was the result of the general method of brewing porter. Porter is a dark style of beer developed in London in the 18th century from well-hopped beers made from brown malt. The history and development of stout and porter are intertwined. The name “stout” as used for a dark beer is believed to have come about because strong porters were marketed under such names as “Extra Porter”, “Double Porter”, and “Stout Porter”. The term “Stout Porter” would later be shortened to just “Stout”. For example, Guinness Extra Stout was originally called Extra Superior Porter and was only given the name Extra Stout in 1840.
Porter was originally a more-aged development of the brown beers already being made in London. Before 1700, London brewers sent out their beer very young and any aging was either performed by the publican or a dealer. Porter was the first beer to be aged at the brewery and dispatched in a condition fit to be drunk immediately. It was the first beer that could be made on any large scale. Early London porters were strong beers by modern standards. Early trials with the hydrometer in the 1770s recorded porter as having an OG (original gravity) of 1.071 and 6.6% ABV. Increased taxation during the Napoleonic Wars pushed its gravity down to around 1.055, where it remained for the rest of the 19th century. The popularity of the style prompted brewers to produce porters in a wide variety of strengths. These started with Single Stout Porter at around 1.066, Double Stout Porter (such as Guinness) at 1.072, Triple Stout Porter at 1.078 and Imperial Stout Porter at 1.095 and more. During the 19th century the porter suffix was gradually dropped.
The large London porter breweries pioneered many technological advances, such as the use of the thermometer (about 1760) and the hydrometer (1770). The use of the latter transformed the nature of porter. The first porters were brewed from 100% brown malt. Now brewers were able to accurately measure the yield of the malt they used, and noticed that brown malt, though cheaper than pale malt, only produced about two thirds as much fermentable material. When the malt tax was increased to help pay for the Napoleonic War, brewers had an incentive to use less malt. Their solution was to use a proportion of pale malt and add coloring to obtain the expected hue. When a law was passed in 1816 allowing only malt and hops to be used in the production of beer (a sort of British Reinheitsgebot), they were left in a quandary. Their problem was solved by Wheeler’s invention of the almost black patent malt in 1817. It was now possible to brew porter from 95% pale malt and 5% patent malt, though most London brewers continued to use some brown malt for flavor. Until about 1800, all London porter was matured in large vats, often holding several hundred barrels, for between six and eighteen months before being racked into smaller casks to be delivered to pubs.
By the mid-20th century porter had fallen out of favor and was widely discontinued in favor of stout. But it started to make a comeback in the latter part of the century and has a certain vogue in England and the continent, as well as in the U.S. It is not as heavy and bitter as the more common stouts and is sometimes produced with fruit flavorings similar to some German and Belgian beers. Either plain or flavored, porter makes an excellent choice for braising beef. Here’s a fairly standard recipe for braising a brisket which I used all the time when I lived in beer country. Like porter, this dish is much better if “aged” in the refrigerator for a day or two.
Porter Braised Brisket
1 tbsp coarse kosher salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp dry English mustard
2 tsp chopped fresh sage
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
6 lb flat-cut brisket, trimmed but with some fat still attached
2 tbsp rendered bacon fat
12-oz bottle porter
2 tsp dark brown sugar
6 cups thinly sliced onions
8 whole garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
1 lb medium carrots, peeled and cut crosswise
2 tbsp whole grain Dijon mustard
1 tbsp malt vinegar
Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F.
Mix salt, pepper, mustard, sage and thyme in small bowl. Rub herb mixture all over brisket. Heat the bacon fat in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the brisket and brown on both sides. Transfer the brisket to a platter. Add 2 cups of beef broth to the pot and bring to a vigorous boil, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pot. Stir in the porter and brown sugar, and bring to boil. Return brisket to pot, fat side down. Layer the onions on top of the brisket
Cover the pot, place in the oven and cook for 1 hour. Remove the pot from oven and turn the brisket over so that the onions and garlic are now on the bottom in the liquid. Return the pot to the oven and braise uncovered 30 minutes. Add 1 cup of broth. Cover and bake for another 1 hour 30 minutes.
Transfer the brisket to a platter. Add 1 more cup of broth to the pot, then add the mushrooms and carrots. Return the brisket to the pot. Cover and return to the oven and braise until the meat and carrots are tender, adding more broth if needed to cover vegetables (about 45 minutes). Cool, then refrigerate covered for 1 to 2 days.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Spoon off any fat from the surface of the brisket pan juices and discard. Transfer the brisket to a cutting board and thinly slice across the grain. Place the brisket slices in a large roasting pan. Bring the pan juices with vegetables to a simmer in a pot and add the Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper, adding more vinegar if desired. Pour the pan juices and vegetables over the brisket in the roasting pan. Cover the roasting pan tightly with heavy-duty foil and cook in the oven until brisket slices and vegetables are heated through (about 1 hour)
Serve meat, vegetables and sauce together on a heated platter with crusty and a green salad.