Queen's College Brewhouse 1927

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Those who are privileged to visit the brewery of Queen's College, Oxford, have the most interesting experience of seeing how beer was brewed generations ago. In buildings which go back nearly 600 years, as far as the oldest part of the College, a process handed down from brewer to brewer, and probably differing only in such small details as the occasional use of a thermometer from that of the old monastic breweries, is still carried on. In the simplest of plant and by the crudest of methods, a beer is brewed which is a pleasure to drink, marrying the full flavour of malt and hops, but generally lacking the finished sparkle and brilliance of modern beer.

Fig. 1. THE MASH-TUN. From the Brewers Journal 15th November 1927

The accompanying illustrations indicate the plant and process employed, and show the present brewer, Mr. J. F. Hunt, who, after 56 years' service, is about to retire and hand on the details of his craft to his successor, who will carry on in the way thus handed down from generation to generation. Few, if any, similar breweries still exist, those of the other colleges in Oxford having gradually closed down until only a few, among them those of Magdalen, Oriel, Corpus and New, were left with Queen's, which for forty years has been the only one remaining. It has therefore a unique historical interest, and it is earnestly to be hoped that its traditions may be carried on for generations to come as a living example of an ancient British craft.

Fig. 2. COLD LIQUOR BACK, WORT PUMP AND COPPER. From the Brewers Journal 15th November 1927

The first photograph shows Mr. Hunt standing beside his Memel oak mash tun with the mashing rake in his hands. This mash tun differs from modern tuns, in that it has no false bottom, the two spend pipes being merely covered with metal strainers to hold back the grains. There are no means at all of sparging, and the wort is pumped up from an underback to the copper by means of the 16th century hand pump, shown in the second photograph. This pump is made of lead and wood, a wooden bucket working in a lead barrel with leaden pipes. The copper is open and boiled with a furnace, the door of which comes outside the range of the photograph.

Fig. 3. CLEANSING AND STORAGE CELLAR. From the Brewers Journal 15th November 1927

From the copper the wort is run along a wooden trough to the two wooden coolers, made of white deal, each a few inches deep and large enough to take the whole of the boiling, six barrels. In the second a removable copper cooling coil can be placed to accelerate the rate of cooling, no doubt a comparatively late addition to the plant. When cooled down to about 66 degrees Fahrenheit the wort is run to the wooden fermenting round and there pitched. There is no means of running off the wort from the fermenting vessel, and it has to be ladled out and filled into casks through a "tun-bowl." Fermentation is then continued in the casks arranged over a trough in the cellar, as shown in the third photograph. There is now no cask washing at the College. Until recently all this was done at an Oxford brewery, but since that was bought by another firm clean casks have been sent as required from Burton, as, also, have the malt and hops, and the yeast. Since brewing is only carried out once a month, and that only during the cooler half of the year, it is not possible to carry on the yeast from one brew to another.

The brewing process as described by Mr. Hunt is as follows: The liquor from the wooden back shown in the top left hand corner of Fig. 2 is run to the copper and there heated and run down is run to the copper and degrees Fahrenheit. The malt is tipped in from sacks and mashed with oars and the rake shown. Twenty-eight bushels of malt are used for each brew, and ten barrels of liquor are taken for the first mash. After standing two hours the first length is run off and boiled for two hours. A second mash is then made with six barrels of liquor at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and similarly boiled in a second length, twenty-six pounds of hops being used for the whole brew. The two lengths are separately cooled on the coolers, and require periods which vary from about two hours on a windy March day to six hours when the weather is unfavourable. When the temperature reaches 66 degrees, or sometimes not less than 70 degrees, the worts are run to the fermenting round and there mixed. Fermentation in this vessel lasts a day and a night, and the temperature goes up to about 75 degrees. There are no means at all for regulating the fermenting heat.

About nine barrels of wort is the length of each brew, and this is ladled into the casks shown on the left of Fig. 3, to undergo the most interesting part of the process, fermentation on a system still in vogue in many small top-fermentation breweries in Northern France and the forerunner of the Burton Union system. It is naturally a difficult matter to ladle fermenting wort into these casks through the tun-bowl, but ultimately they are nearly filled. and when quiet are rolled down to the cellar and set up over a wooden trough, as shown in Fig. 3. Here the beer remains for about three days with the bungholes of the casks open. Through the bungholes the yeast and beer work out into the trough, and so long as it can be cleanly returned the beer is ladled back into the casks, which are ultimately filled up from the casks set apart specifically for that purpose.

After remaining six days in these casks the beer is drawn off to quaintly shaped upright casks of three barrel capacity, one of which can be seen behind the right-hand row of casks in the photograph of the cellar. Here it remains for two or three weeks to brighten — there is no artificial aid to this process — when it will be ready for use. Duty is not charged on this beer in the usual manner, but on the malt used.

The details just given refer to the "College ale" which is brewed as a 25 pound beer and is the usual ale drunk in Hall. It used to be charged at 4d. a pint, but on account of the increased duty has now to be charged at ls. a pint. This is, however, not the only beer brewed at Queen's. Once a year, in October, a brew of 2 1/2 barrels of " Chancellor" ale is made. This is a 50 pound beer made from the first worts from the mash tun and boiled for three hours with 20 lb. of hops, which are afterwards reboiled with College ale. It is fermented in a small round and afterwards in the cellar casks, from which it is run to the upright cask to be kept for a year before it is broached when it is a drink fit for the Chancellor or even a King.

It is used on special occasions in Hall, among these being the great event when a man receives a "blue," on which occasion a "plate " is filled for his table and handed round. The plate referred to is a valuable two-handled silver mug, containing about a pint, of which the College owns a dozen, for the use of scholars and Fellows. These are among the treasures of old silver under the charge of the College brewer and takes a worthy place in the safe in the buttery with the wonderful buffalo drinking horn of the founder, Robert Eglesfield, dating from 1340. There, too. are the silver trumpet and Boar's Head dish, presented by Sir John Williamson in 1668, for Queen's is noted for the use of a horn to call to dinner, and for the Boar's Head and Carol of the Christmas Feast. The Boar's Head dish of silver weighs 233 oz. Here also is the first coconut washed ashore in England, 50 years before the discovery of America, made up into a cup for the Provost of the College, and a hammered silver Caudel cup of 1663, valued at £2,000. Old customs are represented by the Lion tankard, which when emptied of its contents of beer can be turned upside down and whistled through a mouthpiece in the bottom - whence "wet your whistle" - and the 3 pint tankard of 1700 with pegs at various heights inside to mark the place to which your drink extended. Here, too, is a sconce cup from which in old days any who misbehaved had to drink a quart right off and, if successful, then had revenge by making everyone drink a pint. Of late years the custom has been abolished, possibly because the College ale was too good to be thought of as a penalty, and as such a penalty would naturally lead to frequent misbehaviour.

In addition to its treasurers of silver, the College possesses a quaint old china cup, typical of the broad humour of its time. It is known as the Frog Cup from a model of that creature fixed on its bottom. The frog is hollow and fills with beer. Apparently the joke was to offer a drink from the cup. When it was emptied nearly to the bottom, the frog gurgled and shot the remainder of the beer into the face of the drinker! On the bottom of the cup are these words:-

"Tho' malt and venom seem united

Don't break my pot, or be affrighted"

How good the ale is may be judged from the following analyses of samples. The College ale was drawn from the casks now on tap. The Chancellor ale examined was three years old and in bottle. Its flavour, though acid, was wonderfully vinous and pleasant, the acidity being hidden by the buffering colloids of the beer. Both beers were bright though the sample of College Ale threw a deposit of secondary yeast, with scarcely any bacteria. The College Ale had a fair condition and had a very good malt and hop flavour. The Chancellor Ale was bright and poured out like port wine.

’’’College Ale’’’ ’’’Chancellor Ale ‘’’
Original Gravity 1068.2 1135.3
Pounds Gravity 24.6 48.7
Present Gravity 1017.8 1052.8
Acid lactic per cent 0.21 0.77
Alcohol per cent by weight 5.22 8.46
Colour, 1 in cell 30.0 104.0

[Note- The Editor of The Brewers Journal accompanied the author of this article on his visit to the Queen's College Brewery, and is pleased to be able to add his testimony to the high excellence and quality of both "College" and "Chancellor" ales]

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