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Death by Beer

February 3, 2010
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You’ve probably heard the one about the brewer who drowned in a vat of his own beer. On the solemn occasion of the announcement of the tragedy to his colleagues, one of them inquired as to whether the brewer had died quickly. ‘No’, the brewery manager replied. ‘He got out three times to pee.’

That such jokes are told is proof enough that some beer drinkers are fascinated by the idea of drowning in their preferred beverage, or at least being immersed in a large container of it.

Breweries of old, with open fermenters disgorging carbon-dioxide into poorly ventilated spaces, could be hazardous places to work. It is a fact that many brewery workers, and sometimes others, have met their ends through suffocation and drowning. Probably the most famous case occurred in 1814 at Meux’s brewery in London. A gigantic vat of porter burst its hoops, and eight people in the neighbourhood of the brewery were drowned or suffocated in the resultant flood.

Nothing quite so dramatic has happened in any Australian brewery, although several individual deaths by drowning are on the record. In 1903, George Castle, a cellarman at the Walkerville Brewery in Adelaide, drowned in a large vat of stout. He was thought to have been overcome by carbon-dioxide fumes and fallen in while testing the fluid. Several years earlier, a nightwatchman inspecting beer at the Castlemaine Brewery in Melbourne drowned under almost identical circumstances.

Harry Lindsay, brewer at the Metropolitan Brewery in Melbourne, was found drowned in a vat of beer shortly after the running of the 1895 Melbourne Cup. Lindsay had attended the race, and went to the brewery afterwards; a betting ticket was found in his pocket. There was a suspicion that he had committed suicide, as he was separated from his wife and was threatened with legal proceedings for the recovery of maintenance. An inquest, however, returned a verdict of accidental drowning, it being supposed that Lindsay had been overcome by fumes while leaning over the vat to check his beer. There was no such ambiguity about the drowning of a New Zealander named Edmond in a brewery at Dunedin in 1932. He left a note, which read: ‘You’ll find me in No. 3 vessel. Cheerio to all.’

While it is perhaps understandable that some may be amused by the thought of drowning in beer, death by suffocation in an empty vessel is a different matter. That is what happened to two workers at the Tooheys Brewery in Sydney on Christmas day in 1952. Three men had been assigned to hose out recently emptied brewery vats. The usual practice was for water to be played onto the floors of the vats to dissolve and disperse the left-over carbon-dioxide. One of the men fell into a vat from a catwalk, and was immediately overcome by the gas. His two companions jumped in to rescue him, but were also overcome. Only one of the three men survived.

Probably the earliest recorded brewery deaths of this nature occurred in the middle part of the nineteenth century. In 1855, Patrick Doyle was overcome by carbon-dioxide while cleaning a large vat in a brewery in Hobart, and died before he could be rescued. Several years later, Hugh Cartwright expired as a result of inhaling carbon-dioxide while cleaning an empty fermenting vessel at the brewery at Campbell Town, also in Tasmania. The jury at the inquest recommended that the brewery’s owner take measures to improve ventilation of his cellar.

More horrifying and certainly less joke-worthy than drowning and suffocation is death by scalding in hot wort or liquor. It seems to me that more Australian brewery-workers have died this way than by drowning in beer. A labourer named Mainwaring was scalded to death at the Tooth brewery in Sydney in 1876. He had fallen into a vat containing more than a metre of depth of boiling wort. David Hallahan, a brewer at the Wahgunyah Brewery in Victoria, met the same fate in 1882 when he slipped and fell into a copper containing boiling liquor. The following year, a similar accident occurred at the Kangaroo Brewery at Hindmarsh in South Australia.

In 1889, Joseph Oddy, brewer and partner at the Mount Cook Brewery at Cooktown, in far northern Queensland, lost his footing when stepping across a mash tun and fell partly into the scalding mash. He died several days later as a result of his injuries. Two years after that, James Hickey, an employee of the West End Brewery in Brisbane, fell into a tub of boiling water being used to wash casks preparatory to filling them with beer. He was badly scalded, and, like Oddy, died a few days later.

A plumber named Brown suffered a severe scalding accident at the Castlemaine Brewery, Newcastle, in 1901. He was installing a new tap above a large vat when one of his tools fell to the bottom. He climbed into the vat to recover the tool, but missed his footing and fell feet first into about a metre of boiling water. He died in hospital about ten days later. Perhaps most gruesome of all was the death of James Kirby at the Esk Brewery, Launceston, the previous year. Kirby, the assistant brewer, was sent to take the temperature of boiling mash in a vat nearly three metres deep with a railing around the top. The recommended procedure for doing so was to kneel down and take hold of the railing with one hand, not to lean over it. Nevertheless, it was Kirby’s habit to take the temperature while standing, which meant leaning over the railing. His cap was later found floating in the vat, and after the contents were run to waste, his boiled body was discovered at the bottom.

Nowadays, when enclosed fermentation vessels are the norm, and on-the-job safety is paramount, fatalities like these are happily rare, so give thanks for such innovations when next you are enjoying a glass of your favourite fermented malt beverage. Spare a thought, too, for the brewery workers who have died doing their jobs, so that the rest of us may have our beer.

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Beer and Food