For as long as time and yeast have existed, the great philosophers of the world have argued one vital question: Beer, can it ever be bad?
Turns out that when it's smothering you to death, yes, beer can be evil.
This day, Oct. 17, marks the shocking anniversary of beer's sudden revolt against its human makers. The setting was London in 1814 at the Meux & Co.'s Horse Shoe Brewery, a charming production center of black beer that had slaked the thirst of tradesmen and farmers since the days of George III. The centerpiece of the plant was a mammoth maturing tank standing 22 feet high that contained 3,555 barrels of porter, which was "sufficient to supply more than a million persons with a pint of beer each."
According to Jim Hughes' entertaining account of the London Beer Flood of 1814, building oversized beer-containment vessels was a popular pastime among the English:
At the time of the calamity porter was one of the most popular choices among the London beer-drinking classes, and they liked it aged. Indeed, some porters could spend up to two years quietly maturing in massive oak vats, acquiring all kinds of interesting flavours before being blended with younger beer at the alehouse, according to the customer’s taste. Breweries competed with each other to see who could build the biggest vat, even holding opening ceremonies, one of which was reported to have included a dinner for 200 people inside the the vessel! (Emphasis mine.)
Indeed, who wouldn't want to swim in this vat of pure heaven?
The King Kong mug of ebony suds had a hidden flaw, however. The hoops holding it together were defective and had become weak, making structural failure only a matter of time. The worst-case beernario began in the afternoon of Oct. 17 when an 800-pound hoop fell off the vat and clattered to the floor. An employee took a look at it but apparently did nothing. That turned out to be a mistake.
The vat creaked and squeaked, swelled and cracked until finally exploding around 6 p.m. in a delicious outpouring of unfinished porter that built up into a tidal bore of beer that smashed through the walls of the brewery. The buffaloing beerwave crashed into several other tanks of beer, which disintegrated and added their contents to the brewswell until the wave's crest maxed out at 15 feet.
The residents of the impoverished parish of St. Giles had not undergone preparation for a beernami and were caught completely by surprise, in some cases being lifted right off the ground and dashed into walls. Two buildings collapsed and several unfortunate souls were buried under beer-soaked debris, while others were made senseless from the reeking alcohol fumes. It is probably an urban legend that a ninth person died after heroically trying to drink the beer away, but I choose to believe it, anyway.
From there on, fermented chaos reigned. According to this not-fact-checked history from H2G2:
Fearful that all the beer should go to waste, though, hundreds of people ran outside carrying pots, pans, and kettles to scoop it up - while some simply stooped low and lapped at the liquid washing through the streets. However, the tide was too strong for many, and as injured people began arriving at the nearby Middlesex Hospital there was almost a riot as other patients demanded to know why they weren't being supplied with beer too - they could smell it on the flood survivors, and were insistent that they were missing out on a party!
The resolution of the catastrophe was probably not all that the victims' relatives had hoped for. The brewery was found not responsible for the accident, with a judge ruling it an "act of God." The owners even got back the excise tax they had paid upon the spilled porter.
For months afterward. the blocks around the brewery stunk like a Delta Tau Chi frat pad after a righteous kegger. Today, the Dominion Theatre sits upon the old brewery site, the Horse Shoe Brewery and the fad for aged porter having dropped out of existence in the 1920s.