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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Brewery quantification and industrialisation

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Detail from the frontis illustration to Michael Combrune's Essay on Brewing of 1758. The thermometer (symbolically carried by an eagle over barley fields and hop-poles) was central to a scheme of brewery management which Combrune developed through his reading of Herman Boerhaave's chemistry.

Why focus on the history of brewing? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, beer-production was a matter of enormous economic and social significance. The alehouse and its products provided not only release and relaxation for millions of working people, but also the sustenance necessary for hard physical labour. The excise duty on beer and its raw materials could account for as much as a quarter of the government's total revenues, and rural Britain was covered with small brewhouses patrolled by roving excisemen. In more populated areas, however, the trade was steadily being taken over by an ever-smaller class of ever-greater brewers. The largest brewhouses came to resemble factories, while their wealthy owners rose to national prominence, entering Parliament and assimilating into the landed gentry.

Science and technological innovation played an increasing, and eventually dominant, role in the changing culture of the brewery.  From the mid-eighteenth century a new class of brewing writers began to style themselves 'philosophical' or 'scientific'. Appealing to chemical and technical authorities, they promoted instruments such as the thermometer, new regimes of book-keeping and quantification, and an end to the 'darkness' in which they felt their art had traditionally lain.

Reforms in measurement practice and concepts of heat management were followed, in the nineteenth century, by the rise of a biochemical understanding of the fermentation process; scientifically-trained brewers in the larger breweries built laboratories and gradually established a common context between their work, the analysis of the government chemists, and the emerging academic research professions.

Brewing therefore represents a key case of a traditional craft discipline engaging with the unfamiliar agendas and practices of scientific knowledge-making -- an activity which itself remains constantly in flux.  Our work concentrates on the early brewing scientists and others who occupied the 'hybrid' space between the two, examining, for instance, the tensions between the rhetoric of openness associated with 'scientific' credibility and the need for privacy in a commercially competitive environment.  A well-argued appeal to scientific authority was no guarantee of credibility before a brewery audience -- and the converse was also true.  We thus focusparticularly on the rhetorical techniques used by these innovative figures, and on the consequences of their schemes, successful and otherwise, for the brewers' professional identity.

Recent publications by CHSTM staff and students

James Sumner. "Status, scale and secret ingredients: the retrospective invention of London porter". History of Technology, 2008, 24(3): 289-306.

James Sumner. "Retailing scandal: the disappearance of Friedrich Accum". In Amanda Mordavsky Caleb, ed, (Re)creating science in nineteenth-century Britain: an interdisciplinary approach. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, 32-48.

James Sumner. "Powering the porter brewery". Endeavour, 2005, 29(2): 72-77.

James Sumner. "Early heat determination in the Brewery". Brewery History 121 (Winter 2005): 66-80.

James Sumner. "Michael Combrune, Peter Shaw and commercial chemistry: the Boerhaavian chemical origins of brewing thermometry". Ambix, 2007, 53(1): 5-29.

James Sumner. "John Richardson, saccharometry and the pounds-per-barrel extract". British Journal for the History of Science, 2001, 34(3): 255-274.

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