For The True Beer Gent, A Hopsack Suit Perhaps?

From Sessional Papers, House of Lords, 1840

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The following was recorded in evidence at the Old Bailey on 9th December 1778 in a case of grand larceny.

Mr. PETER CORBETT sworn.

I am Bengal warehouse-keeper to the East-India Company. I have in my hand the invoice of the Duke of Portland; this was delivered to me from the company when the ship arrived, and it is my duty to see that every thing comes out clear from these packages into the warehouse agreeable to the invoice sent from the company’s servants at Bengal . In the second page, here is a No. 4. S. Taffety, which means striped taffety. Upon the opening of this chest, the servants under me gave me what we call a piling bill; they found only 176 pieces and a small bale containing ten, and this piece, which was kept for evidence. These goods were in a strong chest, nailed down, and there was a strong gunny or hopsack sewed upon it.

Hopsack. I know a bit about hopsack now as I own a blue blazer made of the stuff as well as a pair of black trousers. Neither Mr. Corbett in 1778 nor Mr. Lidbetter likely did. For them hopsack was definitely a packing or wrapping material. It’s formed by making your cloth in a basket weave. Often wool for clothes. Hemp and jute for bagging. Made into a jacket, it’s light summer weight cloth, the open weave letting the air flow. Fine fashion by the 1890s. For sacks and bags it’s strong, perhaps a grade or two above burlap.

The House of Lords was inquiring into the general economic circumstances when it was considering hopsack during its 1840 session, J. Mitchell, Esq., LL.D., Assistant Commissioner of the Hand-Loom Inquiry Commission reporting from the east of England. They learned about sacking and floor-cloth weaving in Reading, Berkshire and specifically Mr. William Harris of the delightful address, the “Hit or Miss beer-shop in Boarded-lane” who described the sad local state of affairs:

In the year 1815 there were as many as 11 masters and about 200 looms; now there are not 12 looms. The trade began to fall off in 1821, and has gradually become less and less, and when the old men, the present weavers, are gone, it is supposed this trade will be at an end in Reading. No person has learned the trade for years past. The price paid for weaving in 1815 was 2 J d. the square yard; this was reduced to 2 4 d., and afterwards to 2 d. per square yard. The sacking is three-quarters wide, or a little more. There is a great deal of time lost for want of regular employment.

There is now only one loom at work making floor-cloth. The web is six yards broad. There are looms which make floor-cloth eight yards wide, and even 10 yards wide. The cause of the want of employment in this branch is inability to manufacture the goods, and come into the market at the same price as the manufacturers of Dundee. The local advantages of that town in obtaining the raw material, in spinning and weaving and sending the goods to market, are such as to leave no chance for competition. The remnant of the business still lingering in Reading is the supply of the neighbouring farmers with sacks. There is no remedy, and with the present race of weavers the trade becomes extinct.

As stuff in demand, locally made Reading coarse packing cloth was on the way out. Why? Trains. It’s always the trains. Or the canals before them bringing in that cheap Dundee sacking… or a cheaper or tastier strong ale. Secondary manufacturers making the packing for the primary producers don’t need to be local when the trains can bring in stuff that’s as good for less. Mr. Lidbetter up there up top? He seemed to still be bucking the trend. He had a market the lads of Dundee couldn’t crack:

There is one article in which there is a decided advantage, that is hop bagging. The town is the very centre of a rich hop district. The consumer, therefore, is close at hand. The hop bagging is made very substantial. As it is the custom when the hops are sold to pay by the pound of the gross weight, hops and bag together, the hop grower has no interest in using a slight fabric. 

See the trick? Heavy sacking for the hops, higher price for the sack of hops. You don’t get that advantage by the train load.

Divisive “Local” Craft Culture Clash Marketing

My own favorite local.
 

Stan linked to this story a few days ago. It got me thinking… but not fast, “get me to the keyboard” thinking. It was this bit at the beginning that got me mulling:

I was watching a video online when it was interrupted by a commercial for Budweiser. The name of the spot was “Do You Know Where Your Beer Is Brewed?” Soft guitar music played while clips of idyllic landscapes and sunrises peaking over breweries slid across the screen. Nothing out of the ordinary there. The gentle voice of the narrator says, “With 12 breweries spread all across the United States, your next Budweiser is closer than you think.” Budweiser hangs its hat on the fact that it can produce the same beer at 12 facilities and it will always taste exactly the same no matter where you drink it. No small feat, to be sure. But then the voice adds, “You might even say we’re America’s largest local brewer.” My eyes narrowed and my brow furrowed. ‘What in the heck is this?” I exclaimed. “That is our word!”

Our word? There’s a lot of weird words in there. Not the least of which is “our” – whose the hecks is that referring to? Don’t get me wrong. I like the work of the author Jeff Baker just fine. He’s the manager of the Farmhouse Bar and Grill in Vermont. Nice place. Real nice. Just not my local. Because “local” can mean that, too. The distance of the drinker from the drink.

But that’s not his point. It sorta illustrates mine but that’s not really the goal of where I am going. He is asking about local ingredients. If you want that world, go back 200 years and have a look at the Vassar day book with local beer being made of local grain and hops being sold back in small batches to the farmers and tavern keepers of the central Hudson Valley just getting back to some sort of normal after the devastation cause by the Revolution. This is the mid-1830s book but in the 1808-11 book the economies of beer are clearly still defined by the cart horse. That is actual local brewing. Are we willing to go there? Doubt it. You don’t really want local. You want some local. Now and then. But you want the global economy beer made with the best ingredients brewed on the newest, bestest equipment. Right?

Craft beer and macro are not all that far apart in this respect. Brewed on computerized stainless steel to a scale and upon a recipe that meets the needs and budgets of their respective clients. The only actual local thing that is reliably present at the brewery is the staff. Hard to be a brewer who lives over 45 miles from the brewery. There’s a hint by the way. If the person discussing the beer in your glass doesn’t live about that close, not a brewer. Sales guy, likely… owner, sure… but that’s all. Both use good foreign malt and distant, shipped in hops. Both tweek their water and yeast to match those found elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong. I like “local” just fine. It just means, for me, the bok choi and beets I have growing out there in the yard. Not beer.

When anyone in beer – whether Bud or craft – claims a word like “local” or “small” or “real” there is marketing going on – even if only to a small circle. Even if only to the speaker. It’s all unnecessary. When I think of Bud, I think of the brewery at Baldwinsville, New York to my south where local people earn a decent wage. If I have a decent hoppy IPA, I think of the three nations and seven generations needed to make the beer exist. Beer is global and has been since at least the 1400s when the Hanseatic League was beginning to ship Baltic brewed hoppy beer to the Low Countries. Except for odd examples like postwar agricultural collapses like Vassar faced in 1808. Except for that, it’s been beer or large parts of it hauled out from the hold as often as not since the Dark Ages. Good non-local beer.

NCPR On Hop Farming In Ferrisburgh, Vermont

My local public radio station, North Country Public Radio, had a great story today as part of it’s series on Faming Under 40 that runs all this week. Today’s installment is called “New Direction for an Old Farm” and described how the next generation on a 210 year family mixed farm is trying out hops:

…last year Joe’s youngest son, Ian, approached him with an idea to grow hops in the lower field. Ian is 26 years old and his friend, Fletcher Bach, 23, had gotten him interested in brewing beer. They wanted to try growing hops – which flavors and preserves beer – instead of buying it. “We started with sixteen plants,” Ian Birkett said. “We were like, these are growing really well here. So we kind of put our heads together, wrote a business plan, and now we are on year two and we have 850 plants.”

The operation is called Square Nail Hops Farm. It has a Facebook page. They are getting in touch with the right advancement programs. They are getting involved with academic research. And they are selling to craft brewers. A great story.