In 1874, Queen Victoria had been Queen for 37 years;
New York City annexed an area called The Bronx; the first football team on the continental mainland of Europe in Dresden is formed; some noticeable people were born; Ernest Shackleton, Gertrude Stein, Harry Houdini, G.K. Chesterton, W. Churchill and Nance O’Neil and it also saw the death of Chang and Eng Bunker!
However, most importantly for this article The House of Keys, lower house of the Tynwald, the legislature of the Isle of Man, moves from Castletown to Douglas.
Until 1874 there were very few rules, outside of Germany about beer making. The Germans, well those in the Munich area at least had made laws concerning beer production in 1487. In 1516 as Bavaria united this law was taken on in the whole region and as German states united these ‘beer purity laws’ became law across the whole country. Water, hops and barley. That’s it!
So 387 years after Munich, the Isle of Man decided to also implement laws about beer purity. When you look into the reasons for laws from our 21st century we are able to wonder why. Munich in 1487 had issues about bakers and brewers vying for the same ingredients. But why on the Isle of Man?
Beer was drunk by all and was in all probability safer than drinking water. However we are talking economics here. Certain additives in beer had seriously negative effects on the workers and that effects the profits of the owners, and as they were the ones in the House of Keys, they may well have had reasons of their own. Also some of them were brewers and were being effected by the rise in unlicensed and more importantly untaxed brews.
The 1874 Manx Government Pure Beer Act states; “No brewer shall use in the brewing, making or mixing with, recovering or colouring, any beer, or any liquid made to resemble beer or have in his possession any copperas, coculus indicus, nux vomica, grains of paradise, Guinea pepper or opium, or any article, ingredient or preparation whatever for or as a substitute for water, malt, sugar or hops.”
Let’s go through the list then to see what the Manx Govt. objected to. Copperas is a name given to hydrated ferrous sulphate, it can be used to colour liquids, especially at the time India ink, but one side effect on the human body, as it can replace iron deficiencies is constipation. Coculus indicus is a climbing plant from India and SE Asia. It is the souce of the poison Picrotoxin. This poison when added to drinks, [as long as you don’t add too much and induce death] leads you to behave in an intoxicated manner and have all the effects of being intoxicated. This is much cheaper than going through all the brewing processes! Grains of Paradise and Guinea pepper are the fruit and seeds of the Aframomum melegueta plant. People took grains of paradise as a stimulant at the time. Nux Vomica is the plant that strychnine is produced from. Strychnine is a popular poison that features in the Agatha Christie's murder mysteries!
Now we all know that in general the UK has some difficulty in not letting the market decide, and is supposedly comfortable with only really changing legislation after mass deaths of many hundreds of people, but. Voters weren’t necessarily drinkers of such low price poison. In 1832 voting rights were extended to men who owned a household worth more than £10. In 1867 more men were allowed to vote if they paid rent of more than £10 per year or owned land worth more than £10. This meant that 60% of men could now vote, but no women, and you had to be over 21. As those lucky few allowed to vote were in effect, wealthy, it doesn’t seem likely they were really interested in the health of the voter. In reality the effects of this ingredients allowed into beer didn’t really kill that many voters, so no real issue on the government of the day.
However on the Isle of Man something had changed. One of the main proponents of the new law was one Dr. William Okell. He may have done so as his general interest in public health as a doctor, or maybe the fact he was the founder of Okell’s brewery on the island, we may never know.
What we do know is that the Isle of Man Government decided to follow the lead of the ancient brewers of Munich and state what can and more importantly can’t be used to brew beer. This then made all those beers containing; colouring, stimulants, poisons and opium were banned on the IOM. Still today beers brewed with the laws label on them only use those four ingredients of water, hops, sugar, malt. Thanks to the IOM for their far sightedness in guaranteeing the drinking standards for all those who did then enjoy a pint and those of us today who do still do so.
Today there are brewers who continue to brew to the purity laws, including Bushy's as well as Okell's. Thank you both and all those others who keep us poison free!
Beers with opium? Beers with stimulants? Beers with poisons? Far sighted reformers or spoilsports stopping drug filled stimulant poisons coloured to look like beer but at less than a tenth the cost? You decide!