The Meux and Company Brewery, located on Tottenham Court Road in central London, had one of the largest beer vats in the city. The 20 foot high container could hold 3,555 barrels (511,920 liters) of beer and was held together by 29 strong metal hoops. Several other large vats were also housed in the same building. The ale had been fermenting there for almost ten months, but the containers were very old and starting to show signs of fatigue.
On October 16, 1814 the metal hoops that held the big vat together snapped and beer exploded in every direction, causing all the other vats in the building to rupture. A total of 8,500 barrels (1,224,000 liters) of beer smashed through the brick wall of the building and out into the crowded slum area of St. Giles. The sea of beer ran through the streets, flooded basements, and demolished two homes. The wave collapsed a wall in the nearby Tavistock Arms pub and buried a barmaid for three hours. In one home, the beer busted in and drowned a mother and her three-year-old son. A total of eight people were killed, seven due to drowning and one due to alcohol poisoning.
People quickly waded into the flooded areas and tried to save all the free beer they could. Some scooped it up in pots while others lapped it up in their hands. Chaos ensued at the local hospital when the smell of the beer-soaked survivors quickly filled the building. Other patients, convinced there was a party and that beer was being served, rose from their beds and demanded pints of their own.
Most of the victims were poor people who lost their lives or lost everything they owned. Relatives of some of the people who drowned had their corpses displayed in their homes and exhibited to crowds for a fee. In one house, too many people crowded into a room and the floor gave out. Everyone was plunged into a cellar still half-filled with beer.
For weeks afterwards the neighborhood stank of beer and the primitive pumps of the day could not get rid of all of it. The brewery was brought to court but the judge and jury blamed no one. They found that the flood was an 'Act of God' and the brewing company was not liable.
Crazy, eh? After reading all the various accounts, I've found other tidbits that weren't mentioned here. First, that beer vats waere apparently how some of the beer barons back then decided to compete with one another for status. They each sought to build the largest vat possible. Just before this crazy monstrosity was built, another brewery had made one large enough to have a formal dinner for 100 people inside it. When this was one completed the owners held a dinner for 200 in it before cleaning it out and then filling it with beer. When the beernami (1.3 million gallons of beer) swept through the neighborhood, the police couldn't manage to get into the area because of all the people who had gathered trying to drink the beer off the street. Oh, and the one person who died of alcohol poisoning? He tried to drink his way to safety.
In the end, even though the company won its court case, it almost went out of buisness because they had already paid for the duty on the beer in the vat. They had to get the government to agree to refund the cost to stay open. Surprisingly, this incident led to a dramatic downturn in the value of the brand and the company eventually went out of buisness anyway. I would have thought that flooding a neighborhood with beer might have been a nice advertising gimmick. Well, except for the drowned corpses and all.
Oh, and in case there are still some of you doubting Tomas's out there, here's the entry from Snopes. Sometimes the unbelievable really is true.
I've never been a beer fan personally. I can't understand the fasination for the stuff. It tastes like what I imagine fermented horse piss might. I've tried sips of various kinds but they've been almost uniformally vile. I wouldn't mind see a flood of cookiepusses though.