The Great Beer Tragedy of 1814

On October 17, 1814, a wooden beer vat burst at Meux & Co.’s Horseshoe Brewery in London. The force of the gushing liquid blew out the back wall of the brewery, unleashing killer waves of delicious heady porter onto the city streets. Estimates suggest that more than a million litres of beers flowed through the neighbourhood, with waves cresting at 15 feet!

This torrent of free-flowing beer flooded nearby basements and collapsed neighbouring walls and roofs, trapping people beneath beer and rubble. Altogether eight people died in the London Beer Flood, including four mourners who were, at the time, gathered in a basement, taking part in a toddler’s wake. Oof. Bad luck.

Some people, though, took a rosier view of things. Free beer! Free beer! A red-letter day! Stories quickly sprung up of people skipping out into the streets to help themselves to a free pint (or two, or three) from the river of porter. There’s even a legend about a ninth casualty who died of alcohol poisoning a few days later. Ah, human frailty.

But even counting that possible ninth victim, the Great Porter Disaster of 1814 is not the deadliest food flood in history. More than a hundred years later, a 50-foot high wave of molasses swept through the streets of Boston. The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, colloquially known as the “molassacre”, killed a whopping 21 people. Here’s a front page headline from the time.

image from wikipedia

The molasses came from the Purity Distilling Company, which had been using it to manufacture explosives for the first world war. Wartime pressures (and profits?) seem to have trumped safety concerns. According to this video, Purity was well aware of issues at its giant molasses tank, going so far as to paint the tank brown to mask noticeable leaks in a stunning display of industrial malfeasance. The molassacre eventually led to a successful class-action lawsuit, one of the first in Massachusetts history.

By contrast, Meux & Co. was let off the hook for the beer flood fiasco. An inquest declared this accident an Act of God. But the episode did prompt an industry-wide shift away from wooden fermenting vats. Concrete-lined vats and steel vats gradually supplanted the wooden variety. Today, though, wooden vats are making a comeback, with hipster brewers (who else?) pushing the cause. And so the great pendulum of history swings again, in its endless, aimless back-and-forth through time.