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When Beer Flowed Like Water and Not all Survived the Party

It all began with the battle among brewers in England to build the largest beer vat in the country. Sam Whitbread, a brewer started the competition. He built a porter tun room and a vat in his brewery which was so huge that only Westminster hall was considered larger than it.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:October 1, 2017, 9:54 AM IST
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When Beer Flowed Like Water and Not all Survived the Party
How much beer can you take in one sitting? How can you say no to a party where drinks flow literally? (Image: Getty Images)
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How much beer can you take in one sitting? How can you say no to a party where drinks flow literally?

Sometime in the 19th century, Godwin, a poulterer in England desperately wanted to say no to beer. He was busy in the backyard of his house with his family one morning when someone shouted “beer”. The poor man swiveled around and extended his hand to accept it.

But it was too much beer for his feeble fingers.

The beer picked him and his whole family, carried them through their house, and out of the front door where they were running a shop until fifteen minutes ago, and flung them into the opposite side of the street.

Godwin had been swept off the floor many times by good beer. But this was different.

He later learned that not all in his neighbourhood had survived to tell the story. A young girl was sitting on the first floor of her house with her mother when beer came. The torrent swept them off the balcony. Only the mother survived.

It was the biggest tragedy ever recorded in the 7000 years of brewing history. Those who attended the party didn’t ask for it. Those who couldn’t, sulked that they were not invited.

It was a tragedy to everyone.

Twenty-four hours after the impact: Stories abounded of people collecting whatever beer that was left on the floor; some flinging themselves on the ground to lap up puddles.

Ever since the tragedy, the place had become something of a holy place, a Mount Abora, for beer fans all over the world. Whenever they get cash-strapped for buying beer, they think about all that beer that flowed through the streets of England a couple of centuries ago and also about the people who drank it to their heart’s content.

It all began with the battle among brewers in England to build the largest beer vat in the country. Sam Whitbread, a brewer started the competition. He built a porter tun room and a vat in his brewery which was so huge that only Westminster hall was considered larger than it.

Finally, the competition led to the building of the biggest vat in the Tottenham Court road near the Oxford street, London by the Meux brewery.

The monster was 22 feet high, held together by 29 large iron hoops.

On Monday 17th October 1814 Meux’s vat was filled to nine-tenth of its capacity. More than 511,920 litres of beer which had been ageing for the last ten months swilled inside, waiting for the day it would be siphoned off to little bottles, kegs, vessels and beer bellies.

On that day, George Crick, a clerk in the brewery found that one of the 29 iron hoops fastened on the vat, had burst and blown off. He reported the matter. But the authorities dismissed it as they trusted the remaining 28 hoops to do the job, to hold the beer inside. This had happened many times before.

At 6pm, Crick heard a deafening explosion. He dashed to the cellar where the vat was situated. “I found myself up to my knees with beer,” he later reported. Crick pulled his brother out from the wreckage. Together, they began to scoop up as much beer as they could from the floor. But they didn’t realize they were in the middle of a monumental disaster, until they saw the body of one of their colleagues, floating past them.

The explosion had triggered off a chain reaction; big corks flew out in all directions; vats burst one after the other; a huge wall of the brewery that was the last frontier was pulled down by the potent beer which had already got designs to surprise Godwin, his family and the neighbourhood.

Next day, the Morning Chronicle reported that it was so powerful an explosion that bricks of the brewhouse shot like missiles over the tops of houses in the nearby street. The noise was apparently heard as far away as five miles!

Nearly 2.6 million pints (10,00,000 Kingfisher-sized-bottles of beer!!!) flowed out in a tidal wave of beer engulfing the street outside. Most of the residents were poor, out of job, and hence were right at home when the vats burst. With little money they were dreaming about a remote chance of some good beer coming their way.

It was.

Those who were hit were taken to the Middlesex hospital. That set off a riot. Other patients suddenly smelled it, and accused doctors and nurses of holding out on beer they thought was served elsewhere in the hospital.

Eight bodies were finally recovered after the beer flood. A ninth died later of alcohol intoxication. Poor guy, he tried to save as much beer as he could.

The beer deaths were so unique those days that the relatives of the departed began to exhibit the dead bodies for tourists from afar for a fee. Finally the police intercepted and forced them to bury their exhibits. The stench of the beer lasted in the area for months.

A few of them dead were reportedly teetotalers. But now drunk to death. Many alcoholics felt they were avenged.

(On 15 January, 1919, another huge tank collapsed in Boston, Massachusetts. People had in mind the images of the London beer tragedy; they dived into the black, sticky liquid to save it as much as they could. 21 people died. It was plain molasses water).

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)
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