Today marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the London Beer Flood at Meux’s Brewery on Tottenham Court Road. A huge vat of porter burst, sending a great wave into the street and destroying two houses. From the article:
Why did they store such huge quantities of porter at the brewery in such enormous vessels? Because experience had shown that porter stored for months in vats acquired a particularly sought-after set of flavours, and storing it in really big vessels reduced the risk of oxidisation (since the surface area merely squared as the volume cubed). This “stale” (meaning “stood for some time”, rather than “off”), flat and probably quite sour aged porter was then send out in casks when ready, and mixed at the time of service in the pub with porter from a cask that was “mild”, that is, fresh and still lively, and probably a little sweet. Customers would specify the degree of mildness or staleness they would like their porter drawn, having it mixed to their own preference. Tastes changed over the 19th century, “stale” porter fell out of favour, and by the 1890s the big vats were being dismantled.
Although it’s amusing to think of a flood of beer, it is good to remember that this was a serious industrial accident that killed eight people, including two children. And although I’m a fan of tort reform, holding companies liable for this sort of thing is not necessarily bad. Back in the day, things were a little different. From Wikipedia (emphasis added):
The brewery was eventually taken to court over the accident, but the disaster was ruled to be an Act of God by the judge and jury, 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.
So in 1814 your company could kill people… and get rewarded for it! Nice.