bannerIt wasn’t just beer that was adulterated in the Regency-the list is long and depressing, starting with bread and beer( and all alcoholic drinks) , flour and tea, and extending to coffee and tea, tobacco, snuff, mustard and pepper, vinegar and salad oil and what was called ‘catsup’ in the Regency that is ‘ketchup’ today.

Like all adulterations, it took two main forms- the use of harmless substances to eke out a product, which was bad enough as a fraud on the poor; and even worse, the use of poisons to eke out once more and  also create a chemical reaction that mimics a quality to be found in the beer, but at less cost.

The easiest way of adulterating beer was to add stale or sour beer to it.  It was argued in parliament that some breweries actually sold sour beer to publicans, but it is more likely that the innkeepers recycled beer and put it back into the barrel, taking advantage of the ullage- the space at the top of the container that contained no liquid to add more when the barrels arrived from the brewery. Today, most beers come from one tap, but in most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century your, beer came from a number of different barrels, which was a boon to the adulterator. Despite coming from three places- known as ‘three threads’ or ‘thirds ‘–it was normally called ‘Entire’, and you never knew what was being added to your tankard.

If you ordered strong beer (excise duty 10 shillings a barrel) one third of your drink might be weaker table beer (excise duty 2 shilling barrel).You would, of course, be charged the full price for table beer; you would not notice the reduced strength because it would also have been adulterated with something to make it feel stronger This was another inn keepers trick; although most adulteration took place in the brewery. Brewing beer was a complex operation that passed through many people, unlike most manufacturing and artisan trades, and it was easy to tamper with the product with only  few people being aware

All beer was much stronger in the Regency ( and up to World Was One) – a high 5% alcohol by volume bitter of today would be below average Georgian standards, and brewers were very much aware that their product needed to have an immediate effect- both in taste and intoxication.  The two main ingredients that provide this taste and intoxication were malt and hops, both heavily taxed by a Tory government that abolished income tax in 1816, replacing them with taxes on consumption- so the brewers-both big and small- tried to substitute the two key ingredients  for substances  that were cheaper .

 The taste provided by hops could be replicated with quassia, a South American plant with a bitter bark. It had some mild side effects that could have been put down to the alcohol, but the main advantage to the brewer is that the substance was not heavily taxed.

The brewers loved it, as can be seen in this cartoon by Gilray…THE TRIUMPH OF QUASSIA!(1808)


Multum was a  mixture of liquorice and quassia to economise on malt and hops, which were also taxed, especially the malt.  Coculus  indicus  berries – used legitimately in the dying and tanning industry -were  also used. When ingested it is a poison, but it was added at the brewing stage to give the impression of greater alcoholic strength. The berries were original  placed in rivers and streams in India to stun fish so they could be caught easily, and would have a narcotic effect on beer drinkers that they would assume was caused by alcohol. 

Beer could be made less acidic with addition of an alkaline – marble dust, potash or crushed oyster shells. A little sulphuric acid could make recently brewed beer seem older and fuller. Coriander seed, if treated properly, could replace a bushel of malt but add no nutrition to the product. Sometimes coriander seed was mixed with nux vomica, the latter being related to strychnine.  The consequences for the bowels and stomach would normally be confused with the effect of drinking beer- beer that would taste stronger than it actually was.


An unregulated market in poison 1816  ( above)

Nux Vomica could be purchased in any pharmacy and was normally mixed into a paste with oatmeal to kill rats and mice. All of these ingredients were available legally- however, law merely assumed that if they were found in brewing premises, they were being used to defraud the customer- and more importantly, the customs and excise. Between 1812 and 1819 there were 200 prosecutions of brewers and associated trade for the adulteration of beer. The state was a vigorous defender of its revenues; if you had been sexually assaulted or robbed, you would have to finance any prosecution yourself. 

Some poorly brewed beer would look a little colourless so additives were used. Some   were harmless in themselves, such as molasses and treacle, and orange powder for flavour or gentian for bitterness. Such was the extent of the industry that you did not have to acquire all the separate adulterants   yourself. One  chemist and anti adulteration campaigner ( see below) noticed that the free market could provide a package deal of everything you would need. It was called bittern  and was composed of calcined sulphate of iron, copperas ,extract of coculus indicus berries, extract of gentian root and Spanish liquorice and …alum and green vitriol.

Copperas or Green Vitriol was ferrous sulphate, and was used to give the beer what was called a ‘cauliflower head’, much in demand by the customers. Alum, an adulterant also widely used in bread, was used to speed up the process and save energy.

250px-Thomson_-_Friedrich_Accum_(European_Magazine)Adulteration continued after the Regency period, but it was during the Regency that the first protests were made against it. In 1820, Frederick Accum, a German chemist   living in London produced a key book ‘A treatise on adulterations of food: and culinary poisons ‘ It was very popular with everybody except  the food and drink manufacturers. Accum received death threats and soon after was framed on a trumped up theft charge and consequently left the country �

There was still a long, long way to go before beer stopped being poisoned.



Do you share my interest in the Regency?. Please consider this book. Book and blogs are different.

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2 thoughts on “Who poisoned the (Regency) workers’ beer?

  1. “The two main ingredients that provide this taste and intoxication were malt and hops, both heavily taxed by a Tory government that abolished income tax in 1816, replacing them with taxes on consumption”

    Not true. In 1816 the tax on beer and hops remained the same. While the tax on malt fell from 4s 5.75d per bushel to 2s. 5d


    1. Thanks Ron
      The general point still stands above the shift towards consumption taxes, but I will alter the wording when I look into it.


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