The Horse in Brewing History

Horses have played two important roles in the history of brewing, one very public, and one very private. Publicly, we are all familiar with the beauty and power displayed by a team of draft horses, dazzling our eyes with polished brasses and shaking the ground under our feet as they pass. But behind the scenes, horses played a very different role as brewing evolved from a craft into an enterprise.

As brewing moved from homes, inns, castles and monasteries into ever larger city breweries, a few visionaries saw that a mass market could support mass consumption which could be satisfied by mass production. Simply put, brewers with an eye to wealth saw the need for larger utensils and the mechanical innovations to manage them.

The grinding of malt was one of the first tasks to be mechanized, and horses were chosen to supply the power. Since the Middle Ages, mill stones had been turned by water, wind or oxen, and now they were incorporated into breweries to grind huge amounts of malt. Horses were harnessed to spokes radiating from a vertical shaft, forming the “wheel,” and led in endless circles to turn the shaft which rotated the mill.

The horse wheel worked and in the 1700’s, brewers found more ways to use its power. The London and Country Brewer, a technical journal first published in 1734, showed how the horse mill could work the pumps required to raise the brewing liquor initially to the copper, and pump the wort back into the copper for boiling. The French Encyclopaedia of 1760 shows four horses turning a large shaft that is connected to both a malt mill and to an elevator lifting sacks of malt. In 1787, a London inventor proposed a mechanical rake — deriving its power from the horse mill — to agitate the mash tun.

The large breweries of London employed an average of 20 mill horses, working them in shifts to power their breweries. Such horse power was cheap and easily available. Any horse would do, even (often) a blind animal that was fit for little else. It was not an enviable existence.

In 1781, the wheel horses caught a break — or were doomed, depending upon your point of view — when James Watt patented the steam engine. In May of 1784, London’s St. Katherine’s Brewery replaced their four-horse mill with Watt’s invention. The following month, Whitbread replaced its six-horse mill and was able to dispense with 24 horses who were costing them £40 each in upkeep per annum. (For £40, a lone engineer could be hired to tend the steam engine for an entire year.)

Of course, horses could still be used to turn the wheel in the event the steam engine broke down, and many brewers left the bridle attachments on the wheel for years after converting to steam. Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness (1798-1868) related the story of a horse who, while driving the brewing plant at Guinness’s Brewery, dropped dead during the mash. His point was that unlike steam engines, horses could be replaced quickly.

Ignoring such cautionary tales, the major breweries in London were all using steam engines by 1830. The great brewers of the era were wealthy men, ever on the lookout for ways to cut costs and gain an advantage over their competition, and easily able to afford whatever new machinery made their breweries more efficient and profitable. But smaller breweries, especially those in England’s smaller cities and in countries where technology was less advanced, continued to rely on horses to power their plants for many years to come.

The era of the mill horse was passing, but the use of draft horses continued to grow with the breweries’ output of beer. To deliver its beer, a London brewery required approximately 50 horses for every 100,000 barrels of beer sold. In 1889, Whitbread had 105 horses, along with 83 stablemen, wheelwrights and draymen directly connected with them. In 1899, Ind Coope, with a large and widespread trade, had 543 horses and 370 light drays.

Draft horses (referred to as dray horses in England) had a different life and a different history altogether. In England, the predominant breeds were Shires and the Suffolk Punch, and brewers bought the best examples from country fairs and horse shows. From Scotland came the Clydesdales. In Europe, the Belgians and French Percherons were the most popular, and were to provide many sires and mares for brewers across the Atlantic.

Each breed, of course, had its adherents. Author Maurice Telleen notes, “The Clydesdale, for instance, lays claim to superlative pasterns, hocks and action; the Percheron to a quality and refinement of head and neck not unlike that of an Arabian horse, and a gay way of going; the Belgian to excellent muscling and tremendous power, coupled with style; the Suffolk to being an easy keeper, with a very fast walk, and great stamina and longevity; the Shire to Clydesdale-like feather and action coupled with great bulk.”

Indisputably imposing and powerful, draft horses were indispensable to the trade and a prized symbol of tradition and prestige in a very competitive industry. In London, from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth, they were the finest working horses on the streets; their draymen were a class apart, proud of their status and intolerant of their inferiors. Fully six feet high at the shoulder and eight feet at the tips of their ears, the brewers’ gigantic horses astounded visitors to the nation’s capital and prompted complaints from the other draymen who were forced to share narrow lanes with them.

In London, the typical team consisted of two horses pulling a dray, with a drayman to drive and a trouncer to help load and unload the beer kegs. Prior to the 1850’s, a full load commonly consisted of three 108-gallon barrels. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, drays were enlarged to carry 12 to 20 barrels each, a load that weighed four tons. This required two horses in superb condition, perhaps even three.

To complicate matters for the brewer, the draymen — and a large brewery might employ more than one hundred — were traditionally paid by the task. At Truman’s brewery, the tasks numbered 16, and it took seven pages to describe them. This created the need for a legion of clerks to calculate the draymen’s pay. Add an army of stable hands, farriers, wheelwrights, et al, along with tremendous bills for feed and a 10% annual replacement cost for the horses, and you can see that a brewer’s stables were a significant investment and expense. Many brewers expressed frustration at trying to manage this aspect of their operations. At the dawn of the twentieth century, technology provided a solution: motorized transport.

The first electric beer wagons were put in use by the Böhmische Brauhaus in Berlin, Germany, in 1898. In 1904, Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis replaced all of its horses with a fleet of 28 trucks; they were electric with the exception of one powered by gasoline. Weather did not affect the higher speed of the trucks; they had a greater range, and this gave the brewery an immediate advantage.

In London, all of the large breweries began experimenting with motorized transport in the early 1900’s. The complete acceptance of automobiles by the end of World War One made it necessary for breweries of any size to invest in delivery trucks.

Sir Winston Churchill noted, “I have always considered that the substitution of the Internal Combustion Engine for the horse marked a very gloomy passage in the progress of mankind,” and surely the horses left in harness must have agreed. They now had to deal with noise, exhaust fumes and speeding motor vehicles, as well as hard, paved roads that could take five years off their working life.

In the United States, Prohibition brought an end to most breweries, and their stables. When Repeal arrived in 1933, the age of the automobile was well underway, and there was no thought of returning to horse-drawn delivery. In England, however, where the past seems often to live comfortably with the present, horse-drawn delivery returned to favor during World War Two gasoline rationing, but was short-lived. In 1947 and 1948 alone, 200,000 draft horses were taken to the knackers to be slaughtered. From 2,000,000 draft horses alive and working in England in 1920, the number declined to just 2,000 by 1950.

As of 1997, horse-drawn beer delivery survived in only a few instances. The dapple-grey Shires of Samuel Smith’s in Tadcaster, Yorkshire, were among the last active dray horses in the world; they delivered Sam Smith’s beers to accounts within a seven-mile radius of the brewery, as they had for more than a hundred years. In height and weight, Shires are the greatest draft horses in the world, and eat the equivalent of 30 three-course meals each day, munching on a mix of bran, chopped hay, carrots, boiled linseed, treacle and seed hay. The mixture is varied for each horse, as each thrives on a different diet. A pampered lot, they all got a month’s vacation, and never traveled faster than a walk while in harness.

Shires are descended from the English Great Horse, created when native English horses were bred with larger European horses to repel invaders who came mounted on giant steeds. The Great Horse carried a knight in armor, plus its own armor, and provided a mobile throne from which the knight could tower over the battlefield and impress upon opposing foot soldiers the wisdom of retreat. When musket and cannon shot made the horses’ role in combat obsolete, they wisely turned to agriculture. In the 1700’s, the Great Horses were bred with black Flemish stallions to produce the breed known today as Shires.

In the United States, no team has a higher profile than Anheuser-Busch’s Clydesdales, who take their name from the Scottish valley, or dale, where the River Clyde flows and the breed was developed. They are bay in color (reddish brown, to those of you who weren’t raised in horse country), with four white stocking feet “feathered” with long white hair, a blaze of white on the face, and a black mane and tail.

Horses returned to Anheuser-Busch just as Prohibition was coming to a close. In late 1932, the Board of Directors met and approved a motion to budget $15,000 for a six-horse team of Clydesdales “for advertising purposes.” Two months later, August A. Busch, Jr., informed the directors that in January he had purchased 16 Clydesdales for $21,000 — something you can do when you’re the boss’s son — and successfully requested another $10,000 to finalize the purchase, buy harnesses and build an old-time beer wagon. In April, he surprised his father, August Busch Sr., with the team and its red, white and gold wagon, delivering the first case of post-Prohibition beer from the St. Louis brewery to his home. Later that month, the Clydesdales delivered a case of Budweiser to New York Governor Al Smith, a long-time foe of Prohibition.

Anheuser-Busch has three hitches of Clydesdales, based in Missouri, California and New Hampshire, but their official home is an ornate brick and stained-glass stable built in 1885 at the brewery in St. Louis. The three teams travel extensively and appear often at Busch Gardens.

The Clydesdale and the Shire have a common ancestor, the Belgian, a draft horse from Flanders and Brabant that was exported to Britain and the United States.

In 1997, the best-known brewery to host Belgians was Coors; Coors Belgians had to have a red, sorrel (brownish orange to light brown) coat, white legs, mane, tail and the characteristic stripe of white down its face. Each of the six Coors Belgians pulled from a specific, selected location. The bigger horses were used at the wheel, or the spot closest to the wagon, and did most of the pulling. The pair in the “swing” or middle position were usually a bit smaller, and the lead horses had to be the smallest and quickest because they have to cover twice the distance of a wheel horse on a turn. The Coors Belgians made their home at Sparrow Farm in Zearing, Iowa, and toured extensively.

Perhaps the best-known Percherons in the U.S. were those who paraded for Pabst Brewing, and their tradition was an old one. In 1847, Philip Best wrote to his family in Germany and said, “We have three horses and want to buy another one, for the delivery of beer in the city and in the country, and at the same time, we grind our malt with horsepower.” From these humble beginnings, Best’s brewery grew to be Pabst Brewing, one of our first national brewers. By 1870, the brewery had more than 20 horse-drawn beer wagons, and publicized its far-flung trade by parading them all at once through the streets of Milwaukee with beer bound for the shipping depot.

In the mid-1880’s, Captain Frederick Pabst began importing and breeding French Percherons, building to his proudest hour. At the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, in the hometown of arch rival Anheuser-Busch, the Pabst Brewing Company paraded a navy-blue brewery wagon drawn by a six-horse team of dapple-gray Percherons in gold-ornamented harness. More recently, the Pabst Percherons, a four-horse hitch, made their home at Miller Farms in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and also paraded on behalf of the Pearl Brewing, which was owned by the same company as Pabst.

From a vital source of power to a symbol of prestige, horses have played a major role in the brewing industry, surely worth a carrot, an apple or a pat on the nose to those who still labor and bring to mind those who went before. From the sidelines, we applaud their beauty, their strength, and their quiet courage, and eagerly await the day when a microbrewery with a sense of humor fields a six-horse hitch of Shetland ponies.

* * *

This article was written for All About Beer magazine in 1997.

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