Size: 250 ml
ABV: 5.2 %
Bavik is a famous old Belgian brewery; and one that is proud of its traditional history. I am almost certain that the labelling of their sweet milk stout comes with a glowing testament to the role of the horse in the history of brewing beer. It might not be obvious to all of us who have grown up in the modern world, but the horse (or pony) once played two pivotal roles in ensuring the production and delivery of beer to the masses.
The first is grossly underestimated. Probably the most labour intensive part of brewing is the grinding of the malt. Even during the Middle Ages, brewers had used oxen, water or wind to supply power to turn the mill stones. Horses became the next best way of providing this service, and were harnessed to a series of spokes which radiated from the central shaft of the milling equipment. These often malnourished and ill treated animals would walk in circles all day massively increasing the efficiencies of entrepreneurial breweries. In the 18th Century, the horse wheel was also used to work pumps moving the liquor to and from the coppers. Horsepower was cheap and very effective – any decent sized brewery of the time could easily have around twenty horses in service.
Horse lovers must have breathed a sigh of relief in 1781 when James Watt patented the steam engine, however the need for the horse remained, as brewers and distributors began to rely heavily on the horse and cart for deliveries. As an example, in the late 19th Century your average brewery in London required about fifty horses for every 100,000 barrels of beer sold. In England, these tended to be dray horses, normally Shires, or Suffolk Punches. In Belgium, the most popular type tended to be the Percheron. This reliance on the horse or pony continued until the early 20th Century when the motorised transport revolution began. By the end of World War II the horse had largely been consigned to the knackers yard. In fact in thirty years between 1920 to 1950, the number of draft horses alive and working in England had astonishingly been decimated from 2,000,000, to just 2,000.
This led Winston Churchill to comment that ‘the substitution of the Internal Combustion Engine for the horse marked a very gloomy passage in the progress of mankind’. It is this sentiment that has sparked something of a nostalgic return to horse and cart delivery, but only really as a gimmick by some craft brewers. If it could happen anywhere though, then my bet would be on Belgium.
As for the beer itself, it was something of an anti-climax. It was certainly dark and sweet, but had a slightly odd flavour, ranging from the deeply herbal to what you might call synthetic. Like the pony on the label, this one was being consigned to the knackers yard. This is no thoroughbred!