Beer History: The Brewnami

Since my last post, the days have slipped by rapidly. I promised a Fighting Flagships article, yet here I am, without a beer to write about. Spending money on such things is twice as hard when you only have one good foot, especially when the other one’s medical costs could pay for a used hatchback. But the flagships can fight on Thursday. Today we’ll discuss beer history! More specifically, the great London beer tsunami of 1814.

Our story begins at Meux’s Brewery, an establishment owned by Sir Henry Meux, a baronet and Member of Parliament, and situated in the London parish of St. Giles. This brewery had one unique and undoubtedly eye-catching feature: a 22-foot-tall vat that held 135,000 imperial gallons (or 610,000 liters) of English porter. To celebrate the construction of this behemoth beer tank, a celebratory dinner was thrown for 200 guests. The meal took place inside the vat. What could have possibly gone wrong?

The tidal wave didn’t occur during the dinner, of course. But on October 17, 1814, long after the vat had been drained of people and refilled with porter, an employee noticed a broken support hoop. No biggeth, he thought, ‘twas broken before, with no ill consequence! Then the vat ruptured, and the rushing ale crashed into several smaller vats, bringing the beer total up to about 323,000 imperial gallons (or 1,470,000 liters). Put that in your pint and drink it! Some actually tried, but more on that later.

This unstoppable payload of porter knocked down a brewery wall and surged into the street, forming a 25-foot wave that toppled two houses and flooded the basements of many more — basements occupied mostly by poor families. As the ale settled in the streets, onlookers gathered. Some dug for survivors in the rubble; others simply guzzled the alcoholic groundwater.

Eight or nine people died (reports differ). All but one drowned. The last croaked the next day from alcohol poisoning, presumably because he selflessly tried to “bail out” the street, with only mouth and belly as bucket and sea. His final words, recorded for eternity on a noble plaque, were, “Wooooooo! Free brewskies!”

That day was one of those most surreal and deadly in beer history. (Not that I found many others: I tried looking up “deadly beer history” on Google, but Google merely replied, “Did you mean: teddy bear history?” Thanks for nothing, Google.) Like the Titanic after it, this massive vat and its proportionate failure proved once again that hubris leads to naught but the loss of perfectly good beer. No, seriously. Think about how much booze now sleeps at the bottom of the sea, in the belly of that sunken colossus. I tear up every time I think about it.

P.S. – That photo comes from a 1959 issue of The Age magazine. I altered it only slightly.

3 Responses to “Beer History: The Brewnami”
  1. Ben says:

    love the photo alteration.

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