When the sea turned to beer

by Pete Jennings Copyright 2018

Mention Southwold to many people and the one thing they know about the seaside town in Suffolk is that it is the home of the famous Adnam’s brewery, the ales of which have won many prestigious national awards. Brewing has gone on in the town for centuries, and until a few years ago it was delivered around local pubs by dray horses. Sadly they have been retired since the brewery moved from beside the lighthouse to a larger new site on the edge of town. It was the previous rapid expansion of the brewery back in 1905 that led to a remarkable event in the town’s history that has gone down in local folklore as ‘When the sea turned to beer.’

The great copper mash tub was connected by a pipe and valve which led to the barrel filling room. As the Adnam’s brand expanded along with along with the growth in population of local industries at Leiston, Halesworth and Beccles, a second pipe had to be added on from the main feed to a hastily erected second barrel store. This process was repeated until there were four separate feeds coming out of the pipe junction.

One night in August 1905 the inevitable happened: the much weakened joint gave way during the night and a huge quantity of beer flooded out and flowed downhill towards the sea. By the time the accident was discovered, thousands of gallons of Adnam’s beer had formed a top layer to the heavier seawater. Delighted summer swimmers no longer minded if they ‘got a mouthful’ as they frolicked in the sea. Although the weather was calm and tides low, the delicious addition to local attractions soon receded from the sandy beach. An enterprising fisherman rigged up a temporary ‘pier’ of planks and charged a halfpenny to people wishing to go and dip a bucket or any other container they could find in the heavenly froth. It became the basis for the later much sturdier Southwold Pier.

Adnam’s were losing beer and money fast. In those days the nearest supplier of copper piping and valves was in Ipswich, a long days cart ride away, so it was a total of three days before they could make any permanent repairs. Meanwhile the local residents took maximum advantage of the situation. In fact it gave an idea to Samuel Tellar, a local bicycle mechanic and salesman. Together with his two brothers he approached the towns somewhat primitive sewerage works, and made an offer to process all fluid waste for them. Up until then the works had discharged straight into the sea, but the town council had been making demands for the beach and sea to be kept respectfully clean for summer tourists.

A deal was agreed, and the three engineers rigged up a pump and filtration plant. It was so successful that they could get rid of the majority of unpleasant components of the liquid, leaving just water and alcohol. They had realised that even when the brewery wasn’t having a full scale leak that there was a large amount of alcohol contained within the water used to flush and clean the brewing apparatus. Unfortunately the brothers could not persuade Adnam’s to purchase it back from them since the brewery prided itself on making the finest of ales with quality ingredients. Neither could they find a small scale process to separate the alcohol effectively from the water. Facing ruin, they explored the field further and discovered that the nearest effective operation was in France. The oldest brother Stephen was dispatched to negotiate, having learnt a little French at school. Remarkably he was successful, and soon tanker steamers were docking at the new Southwold pier to export the water / alcohol mix across the English Channel, for it to have flavouring added to make a continental beer. Looking for a unique name and selling point the French company decided to name it after the three Tellar brothers. Since each of them had the initial S it seemed pointless to list them separately, so the one name and initial was used plus the French designation for a set of three. The product is still marketed today (albeit without the Southwold contribution) as STellar Artois.

 Pete Jennings























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