It's St. Patrick's Day, and all day long pubs will be serving up green beer for the occasion. The idea of adding green food coloring to a beverage always put me off. Doesn't the food coloring taint the beer? But a little green food coloring is nothing compared to the disturbing face I learned a few years ago, when my hubby and I toured a microbrewery in South Carolina. The guide shared with us that some beers contain propylene glycol--the same ingredient used in anti-freeze! I've never been much of a beer drinker, but that was enough to put me off beer forever. However, before I sound off on the modern food and beverage industry and their attempts to poison the masses, I must address a similarly disturbing additive often found within the beer served in Regency taverns and public houses... Read on to find out.
In celebration of St. Paddy's Day, here are nine fun facts about one of the world's favorite beverages and its use (and abuse) during the Regency.
1. Those who drank beer, wine, or other spirits lived longer lives. This was mostly due to the contaminants in the water. People often threw garbage, spoils, and fecal matter out into the streets. As a result, bacteria infected the run-off streams and rivers. Those who could afford it drank beverages that had gone through the fermenting process, which took care of nearly all bacteria.
2. During the Regency, ale contained a much lower alcohol content (less than 1%) and it was consumed at most every meal. It was not unusual to have beer with breakfast.
3. Hops was used as a preservative and had the added benefit of acting as antibacterial (not to be confused with antibiotic purposes. Beer didn't work very well for medicinal purposes).
4. Beer was often used as a meal replacement as it contained many calories, vitamins, and nutrients.
5. Even children drank a sort of beer called "small beer." This beverage went through several fermentation processes and contained just a little bit of alcohol.
6. Because of the heavy hops use, certain types of beer had a bitter flavor and came to be known as "bitters." This was one of the most popular kinds of beer in public houses.
7. Beer was heavily taxed to help pay for the war with France. Much of the burden fell upon the tavern owners, who were left with the quandary of demand exceeding their stock. In order to make the beer go further, they often added a mixture of strychnine and water. They had no idea that strychnine was poisonous; it was only later when doctors began seeing an inordinate amount of patients with strychnine poisoning, that this practice came to light.
8. Most of the well-to-do classes did not go to public houses and therefore did not manifest strychnine poisoning symptoms. They brewed their own ale, stout, and porter and stored them on their property.
9. Some men were said to have preferred the taste of beer laced with strychnine, and after the use of the chemical fell out of practice in the late 1800s, many men actually requested strychnine-laced beer.
Anti-freeze or Strychnine? Which would you prefer?
Sources and more information on this subject:
"Drinking Tea, Wine, and Other Spirits in Jane Austen's Day"
"When Beer was Poisoned"
"A Flask of Regency Liquor"