The Reconstruction of the Brewing Industry in N. France


Mr. W. A. RILEY, Junr., in the Chair.

The following paper was read and discussed :-


by EUGENE BOULLANGER  (Sous-directeur Institut Pasteur, Lille) and

BEER is very largely the popular drink in wide manufacturing districts in the North of France, and it was just those regions invaded by the enemy that were the largest brewing centres.  How hard the industry was hit will be realised when it is noted that there were about 1,800 breweries situated in the occupied zone at the time of its greatest extension in 1918.  All these breweries were more or less damaged, those in the lines being generally absolutely destroyed; others, spared this destruction, were systematically stripped by the Germans of all copper vessels, machinery, casks, belting, and the like.  But spoliation by the enemy and bombardment by friend and foe alike were not the only forms of destruction they suffered.  Breweries are useful places to an army: their vats make glorious baths, and their casks, when cut in two, ;we good for many purposes.  Looking back calmly on what scorned then the natural thing to do with casks, many of which were in truth to an English brewer’s eyes unfit for their normal use, but were all these small breweries possessed, one realises what an immense loss was caused by their use for baths, for tar-barrels, and even for firewood, at a time when casks were beyond price, and replacement was practically impossible.

The following statistics of the position in 1913 give an idea of the size of the industry and of the extent of the disaster which overtook it. There were 1,797 breweries in the invaded area, their output being 40 million degree-hectolitres* in 1913, or almost two-thirds of the total beer production of France.

*The “degree-hectolitre” is the number of hectoliters charged by the Excise authorities multiplied by the number of degrees of gravity, which are expressed in units of ten times the degree as known to English brewers.  Thus 1030 in English gravity is referred to as 3 “degrees” and 1045 as 4½ “degrees.”

The number of barrels given as charged is only a very rough approximation, based on the assumption that the average gravity is 1032, which is most probable, considering the large amount of beer brewed at 1020, 1025, and 1030 in the mining districts.

The actual total brewed would probably be nearer 8,000,000 barrels, as the Excise allow 10 per cent. when charging duty, which is calculated on the volume in the copper.  The figures given are based on Excise returns, but the brewer always takes advantage of the 10 per cent..

Among these breweries only about 100 turned out lager beer, and these were found in the Ardennes, Meuse, Marne, and Meurthe et Moselle.  The others were top fermentation breweries, and the majority were very small.  There were indeed only 60 producing more than 24,000 barrels a year, with an average output of 28,700 barrels, a total of 1,436,000 barrels.

There were 100 breweries producing between 12,000 and 24,000 barrels, with an average of 16,500 barrels a year, and a total of 1,660,000; 360 producing between 3,000 and 12,000 a year, with an average of 7,000 and a total of 2,560,000 barrels; and 1,300, producing less than 3,000 a year each, with an avenge of 1,600 and a total of 2,000,000 barrels a year.

The condition of these breweries as seen in the autumn of 1918 was indeed pitiful.  In the actual zones of fighting nothing but heaps of ruins was left.  Further east, in the areas recently occupied by the Germans, the buildings might still stand intact, but all inside was chaos and dirt.  Gaping holes whore once the coppers stood, a few broken pieces of machinery minus belts and motors–desolation of desolation!  Here the gruesome sight of a dead German greeted one in the mash-room, or there the pitiful tales of the old people who had remained behind in charge to half-starve through the occupation.

Further back still, in the occupied towns, some owners were able to replace the copper vessels with iron and resume work; but what they were able to brew was quite another matter: sometimes a fearsome concoction of sugar and bad hops called “tiszane.”  In certain towns where there used to be several breweries, all but one were dismantled by the Germans, who supplied the owners with a small ration of grain and obliged thorn to take it to the brewery which had been refitted with iron plant, where the beer for all was brewed.

Such was the position in the terrible years of 1917-18.  Faced with what would seem to be insuperable difficulties, the French set up a Central Bureau to study the situation, and, hopeful of eventual restoration even in the darkest hours, to make plans for the rebuilding of their vanished industries.

There were at least 1,000 brewers still living in the occupied regions, but they could do nothing to rebuild their fortunes.  Correspondence with the outer world was extraordinarily difficult and all the Central Office knew was that the copper and movable plant had been taken and many of the breweries destroyed.

Other brewers were refugees scattered over the rest of France.  Cut off from their families they had very little information about the condition of their breweries.  In absolute uncertainty as to the probable duration of their banishment they bought or rented breweries from mobilised owners and worked them under all sorts of difficulties—lack of raw materials, of casks, of labour, of horses and carts–but with the firm intention of returning to their old homes to rebuild their former businesses.  Many a former owner was to be found as a working brewer in some brewery in free France, waiting till he could return.

A law passed on August 6th, 1917, fixed the responsibility of the State for the material reparation of war damages and created a department called “The Office for Industrial Reconstruction of the Invaded Departments.”  It consisted as equal parts of officials of the ministries and of the various industries, to carry out the details of the enactment. On the other hand an association of manufacturers had been formed in the early stages of the war called the “CentralAasociation for the Resumption of Industrial Activity in the Invaded Regions.”  But for the effectual realisation of the schemes of these bodies it was necessary to form a body of juridical capacity and the Central Association set up for that purpose the “Comptoir Central d’Achats iudustriels pour les régions envahies,” which by virtue of a convention passed on October lst, 1917, became the mandatory of the State Office of Reconstruction and was charged with the preparation of a programme for the purchase of material and with the making of arrangements with contractors.  It was to make purchases on behalf of the State either on the direct order of the manufacturer or to build up stocks of material and plant for ultimate distribution to damaged industries for cash or on account of indemnities due from the State as damages of war.  This latter method of charging was of the utmost value to ruined manufacturers who had no available assets to rebuild their businesses.  The Republic had indeed proclaimed the solidarity of France in respect of war damages on December 26th, 1914, and the “Sinistrés” could rely on the reparation of their losses by the indemnities which would be ultimately allotted to them, but in 1917 and 1918 the law to that effect had not actually been passed, and in view of the immense sums involved and the time that would necessarily be taken in the verification and payment of claims it was obvious that great delays in the rebuilding of factories would inevitably arise.

The “Syndicate of French Breweries and Maltings for the Reparation of Material War Damages” was also active in taking necessary measures to safeguard the special needs of brewers, but in view of the financial situation of the ruined industries and the Law of Reparation at that time under discussion in Parliament and since passed, it was impossible to consider any action independent of the State.  Already the mining, textile and sugar industries had set up commissions in conjunction with the Comptoir Central d’Achats charged with the purchase of their particular needs.

In 1917 the Comptoir set up a Technical Commission for Brewing at the wish of the Brewers’ Society, composed of a dozen brewers from the devastated departments, to carry through the orders for brewing material given by brewers or on account of credits made for this purpose by the ‘‘Office” to the “Comptoir.”  This organization created and directed by brewers, was in close touch with the Government Office of Reconstruction, but was still an independent body and its programme was directed by brewers themselves.  It first sought out the refugee brewers, of whom about 600 were communicated with, and endeavoured to find out their needs.  But the uncertainty of the brewers themselves as to the actual condition of their breweries made definite action very difficult.

It was possible to set on foot a scheme for making casks and a special cooperage department was at once created and a credit asked for and accorded by the State Office for the construction of a first 250,000 casks.  The difficulties of this work will be at once appreciated.  It was necessary first to buy oak forests, to set up timber yards and arrange for felling, to get the staves and season them, with no other workers than prisoners of war. Everything was subordinate to National Defense and the lack of workmen and transport made the rapid advance of this scheme impossible.  But at the date of the Armistice several wood-yards were opened, and about 80 metres cube of staves a month were being made, but compared with the needs this was insignificant.  Since then the cooperage department has greatly extended its activities; it has bought stoves in America as well as cut them itself in the neighbourhood of forests and so supplied specialty prepared and seasoned wood to coopers who otherwise could not have carried on.  But despite great production supplies of casks are still insufficient to cover the enormous present day needs.

The Technical Commission had, in addition, made representations to the effect that the enemy should be obliged to furnish after the war at least a million beer casks, in replacement of a part of the asks taken by them.  None, however, have yet materialised.  In regard to coppers and refrigerators, the position was even more difficult.  It was impossible to determine during the war what would ultimately be required.  All authorities agreed that great benefits in regard to cost and rapidity of rebuilding mould arise through the previous preparation of standardised plants, but, again, the wishes of the 1,000 brewers most concerned who were in the involved districts could not be consulted, and the uncertainty of how the war would end made it impossible to come to definite decisions.  If the majority of the buildings should ultimately remain intact, it would be impossible to ask their owners to expend the large sums necessary above and beyond those covered by their indemnities to install standard plant.  Brewers could justly claim plant similar to that destroyed, but could hardly rely on their indemnity to cover the cost of the improved, and perhaps larger, and certainly more modern, plant contemplated in any plan of standardisation.  If, on the other hand, further hostilities resulted in more complete destruction, it would be a simpler matter to envisage the rebuilding with standard plant.

These notes indicate the difficulties faced by the authorities, and, from their consideration, it was decided that only a general programme, and that only applicable to a small part of the total needs, could be developed at that time.  Orders from favourably placed brewers could not be accepted to the detriment of those remaining in the devastated regions, whose needs were greater but unknown to the authorities.  Questions of amalgamations had also to be settled ; it was obvious that the reconstruction of all the 1,800 breweries was impossible, demanding too much time and expenditure, and leading to a position in the trade even worse than that existing before the war.  The decision on this point must be made by the brewers themselves; many viewed the idea of fusion with favour, but others considered that their needs would be better served by reconstruction on the old plan.

Finally, it was decided to commence with a programme that should not represent more than 15-20 per cent. of the prewar production, and involving the construction of 40 brewhouse installations of 50,000 hectolitres and 28,000 hectolitres (30,000 and 16,800 barrels) annual capacity.  In order that the small breweries of under 20,000 hectolitre annual capacity should not be left out of consideration, a number of these plants were to be reserved for amalgamated groups of these small breweries, which, before the war, produced half the beer.  Authorisation for this programme was obtained from the Office of Reconstruction in August 1918.

The happy events of November, 1918, and the liberation of invaded France, soon led to a radial modification of the strict conditions and obligations with which it was at first decided that a brewer must comply before obtaining one of those standard plants.  An individual brewer can now order one for cash or on account of indemnities due to him.  Between August and November, 1918, it was obviously impossible to make more than a beginning of the practical realisation of this programme, owing to the difficulties of a state of war, but the measures taken helped brewers very materially from the time of the Armistice.

As the rapid march of events liberated such regions as those of Lille, Roubaix, and Tourcoing, where the breweries were numerous and important, the position was found to be as follows.  The buildings had in general not suffered greatly, although every copper vessel had been ravaged with most of the machinery, in some cases leaving only empty shells charred and damaged, while in others the breweries refitted with iron vessels were carrying on a precarious trade.  Reconstruction generally meant the repair of remaining plant or the replacement of that destroyed by new.  But even this work was extremely difficult.  The difficulties of obtaining equipment, the severe military regulation of movement in the liberated zones, and the absence of means of communication, will give one a faint idea of the obstacles to be overcome before the industry could be set up again, and the time that must necessarily elapse before brewing could be recommenced.

Amongst the “Sinistrés” there soon appeared three classes :-

(1) Brewers who required only certain plant and casks to start work again, and whose chief desire was to replace that part of their equipment taken by the enemy as quickly as possible, so that they could start delivery of beer.  These brewers, representing very large numbers of breweries, did not desire amalgamations which would inevitably lead to delays and uncertainties as to indemnities.  Their sole object was to start work at the earliest possible moment with any sort of plant they could get, in order to profit from the high prices ruling, and not to be cut out by more energetic competitors.

(2) Brewers more seriously affected, whose building remained mainly intact, but whose plant was entirely gone.  These in general demanded individual reconstruction, but a certain number preferred to wait and consider eventual amalgamations, of which a number have now taken place.

(3) Brewers whose buildings and material had been entirely wiped out.  Theirs was the most difficult problem of all.  Their clientéle was scattered, and the resumption of their trade depended on its return and the resumption of the agricultural and other industrial activities of the neighbourhood.   For them, obviously, the building up of combined concerns was the most attractive, and many have formed groups and central breweries, but still a number are rebuilding as before.

There is no need for a brewer to apply to any Government or other office for the reconstruction of his brewery.  If he has the means at his own disposal, he can order what he wishes and where he likes, but in doing so he must face the risk that such expenditure without official sanction might not be allowed as the value of replacement when his indemnity came to be paid.  The settlement of losses claims by the various commissions and tribunals which have to deal with these matters takes time, and personal reconstruction is beyond the means of most ruined brewers.  So the best plan is, obviously, to utilise the advantages offered by the Comptoir Contra1 d’Achats, and this authority had suddenly after the Armistice to face a very formidable task, Its services had up to that time been embryonic, now it had to organise itself to undertake orders which, from January to February, 1919, were in excess of 200,000,000 fr.  per month for all industries.  For the whole year 2½ milliard francs’ worth of orders were received, and it is expected that for this year the total will reach 3 milliards. (a milliard = 1,000 x 1,000,000)

Such difficulties necessarily arose in the placing of the part of these orders received from the Brewing Industry that the Commission Technique made further inquiries with a view to finding out what standardisation of equipment was possible with a consequent greater rapidity of manufacture.  But the replics were not favourable to any unification of type–everyone wanted plant adapted to his already existing conditions.  Under these circumstances the Technical Commission decided on the following procedure :-

     (i) For plant which had to be adapted to existing conditions–Brewers who wished to avail themselves of the organisation of the Comptoir were to arrange details with a manufacturer.  The plans were to be submitted for the approval of the local secteur of the Reconstitution Industrielle, in order that the price be placed against the brewer’s provisional account for damages.  The order was then to be sent to the Technical Commission, who would authorise the transaction and put everything in order.  After delivery the Comptoir sends the bill to the brewer, who settles it by the simple signature of an assignment to the State of the equivalent amount from his war damages.

From January 1st to September 30th, 1919, more than 1,000 requisitions had been passed by brewers to the Technical Commission in this way, and these had resulted in orders for more than 20,000,000 fr.  Since then the orders represent an average of 3,000,000 fr. a month including materials, but not casks, which are dealt with by the Cooperage Department.

      (ii) Brewers whose plants were completely destroyed could obtain one of the forty standard brewhouse outfits. But, as it had only been possible up to January, 1919, to make a start with these, and consequently the ‘‘ravataillement” of the liberated provinces could not depend on them to any great extent, and it was necessary to assure as rapidly as possible the reopening of the less damaged breweries, the right to order one of these plants was thrown open to any brewer in the invaded regions who could thus obtain, with considerable economy of time, brewhouse plant and refrigerators made by engineers who specialised in these.

The Technical Commission, through the Association Centrale, also urged on the Government the justice of direct replacement by the Germans of plant and material stolen or destroyed.  The needs of the brewers were laid before the Peace Conference in regard to plant, casks, and bottles. But the matter was not so simple as it looked.  The seizure could not take place by any methods arranged in the Peace Treaty, and some of the Allies did not approve of this method of reparation, beautiful and simple as it seemed to the suffering French.  However, the demands of various industries, among which was Brewing, led to the insertion in the Peace Treaty, “Part 8,

Reparations, Annexe 4,” of special arrangements for reparation in kind.  Germany could be ordered to supply, in replacement of materials, machines, etc., destroyed or stolen, any articles of a technical character that the Allied and Associated Governments desired to see produced and manufactured in Germany.  But the methods of replacement, through the Commission of Reparations, are so complicated and impracticable that nothing has been obtained.

The Peace Treaty gave the right to levy from factories in Germany material up to 30 per cent. of the total there existing, and to transport it to factories in the liberated regions for immediate and urgent needs.  Many reports have been made, much ink and red tape used up, but, so far, nothing has resulted.

The Treaty also provided that German factories must produce, under the orders of the Commission of Reparations and under fixed conditions, plant for the reconstruction of the French industries.  But the arrangements could hardly be popular to French manufacturers, nor were they to patriotic French brewers, who disliked this trading with the enemy.  But a certain number of orders have gone to German engineers, and brewers can now buy in Germany directly or through the Comptoir Central against war damages.

There is a department of the Office of Reconstruction for the recovery of stolen material, and by the Autumn of 1919, 460,000 tons of material had been recovered for all industries. The recovery of brewery property has not been great as it consisted largely of copper plant which has been used up in the construction of German war materials.  But many casks have been found and returned to their owners who are at liberty to accept or refuse them.  If accepted their value is deducted from their owned war loss indemnity.  Repairs to those not claimed are carried out by the cooperage department of the Comptoir and the casks are delivered to the brewers most in need of them.

By Autumn 1920 the steps described had already permitted the reconstruction of about 400 breweries mostly, of course, from the least damaged class and those requiring only the replacement of such plant as coppers and refrigerators.  The more badly damaged will take much longer to refit.  Difficulties of transport, strikes, reduction of hours to eight per day, and lack of coal and mw materials and high prices have all sadly deranged the reconstruction of industry in the ravaged areas.

The breweries in France work on three different systems :-  Top fermentation, Mixed fermentation, Bottom fermentation.

Those in the devastated areas were practically all top fermentation breweries and the majority were small concerns carried on in a primitive fashion.  The beer is fermented in the actual trade casks or in puncheons at a high temperature and without any attempt at attemperation, it is fined with ray skins and sent out four or five days after mashing.

Bottom fermentation breweries are very exceptional in the north but are general in the east and at Paris where the largest French breweries are to be found.

“Fermentation mixte” combines some of the characteristics of both top and bottom fermentation.  A top yeast is used and the fermentation method is more like that practised in England.  There is, however, a short storage in casks similar to those in a Lager cellar but not chilled, and the beer is racked under counter-pressure through filters.

The newer breweries are, however, fitted with open or closed fermenting vessels, the latter on the Landouzy system, very much like Yorkshire stone squares but made of wood.  The cover is some little distance below the top of the round, and in the centre has a manhole through which the yeast works out, the beer running back into the vessel.  They are said to give more body with light beers than open vessels, but the open vessels have many partisans particularly for stronger beers.

The old fashioned fermentation in puncheons with its crude and dirty methods is now being gradually abandoned, the new breweries are adopting one or other of the alternatives mentioned.  Several of the larger concerns in the north are fitting up Lager plant either of the ordinary type or of the Nathan system of which one example already existed before war at Fére-en-Tardenoise, but which was destroyed during hostilities.  But the great majority of firms are building top-fermentation breweries with open or Landouzy vessels or adopting the “mixed” fermentation system.  A few breweries have been fitted with mash filters and more are being adopted, while the Wooldridge system has been introduced, one large brewery to adopt it being in Armentiéres, a name which brings to Englishmen many memories far apart from those of brewing, but among which the desire for beer may sometimes be recalled.


A discussion followed in which the Chairman, Messrs. P. Carter, R.J.B. Storey, H. E. Field, H. Heron, and G. M. Parsons took part

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