More lager letters to Scotland

More from J.C. Jacobsen and his letters to his son. The letters give a good idea of export developments to Great Britain but more tellingly give a cracking insight into Jacobsen’s worries about sending his prized beer so far away.

To understand  why requires a bit of background. Jacobsen was a disciple of the great Munich brewer Gabriel Sedlmayr and originally collected his first batch of lager yeast from Sedlmayr’s Spaten Brewery. His views on quality – especially with regard to limits on quality by scale of production – stem from Sedlmayr. He stated that there was a natural limit for any brewer, and that over this limit beer quality would begin to fall (I can’t find the reference) .

Reputation at home or abroad?

With growing demand at home, the last thing Jacobsen wanted to risk was his domestic reputation by expanding too quickly abroad. As revealed by the letters, Jacobsen was at turns amazed and flattered that his beer was in demand, and terrified that it wouldn’t survive the journey intact.

His awe of British brewers’ technical ability to brew beer that could stand the test of shipping to the other side of the world, led him to underestimate his own. It also lay behind his almost manic insistence that Carl should learn everything about British brewing methods.

The first mention of beer sent to Great Britain is in October 1868. His letters reveal that Theilmann, a Danish merchant Carl had met while at Younger’ s in Edinburgh had asked for “more of my beer”. Typically, Jacobsen apologised for not having any of the right quality despite the novelty of having beer for sale in Scotland.

Self-imposed lager limits

Interestingly, he has more faith in a test sending of cold fermented top-fermenting beer (presumably with ale yeast) that would better survive the journey and could be stored without problems. By the following month, however, he decides to limit himself to a crate (50 bottles) as a present. He adds that he has worried about putting Carl in a difficult position in Younger’s if his father began to compete (“no matter how unworthily”), but with Carl’s trip to London he will send some beer that will do him some honour “… and honour in this case is more important to me than any possible advantages”.

The fact that shipping from Denmark to Edinburgh (via Leith) was suspended over the winter months made Jacobsen’s task of exporting harder. Not enough beer was available of the right (stored) quality when Carl wrote asking for a further four half-barrels of beer. Jacobsen refused thinking that it was for sale not private use. After clearing up this misunderstanding he apologises and promises to send him more beer – but emphasises the less than brilliant quality should be for Carl and not for sale.

Warming up to sales

By January 1869, the weather and Jacobsen had thawed slightly and the brewer wrote saying that  four half barrels were on their way – but again with the proviso that they were only samples, with no guarantee they would be any good.  He asked Carl only to take payment if the beer was any good – but he wanted the empties back.

By March the beer circle had widened and he dispatched a further 6 half-barrels for “friends and acquaintances” of Theilmann. And this time he mentions the bill straight away and even inquires if the “friend” would like an invoice from the brewery. The tone becomes more businesslike as Jacobsen wins over his coyness on news that the lager beer he has sent would do better than any version of ale or porter he could produce.

By November 15, 1869, Jacobsen wrote that he was sending a few crates of Bavarian beer left over from a batch brewed for Theilmann to the English East Indian ports. True to form he was sceptical of the commercial value, “but it is always interesting to discover whether it can withstand the journey,” he noted.

Carl’s view at this time we can only guess at  as his letters in return haven’t been preserved in the same number as his father’s. But one letter from Carl in October 1868 could give a clue. In it he asked his father: “Is it possible or beneficial to allow German beer be replaced by English, will the public change its taste and its habits in favour of English beer?” He answers his own question in no uncertain terms: Never! Under no circumstances!”


About Andrew

Former Grocer journalist and Carlsberg PR, turning lager historian
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