A happy soldier is a motivated soldier. And what better way to boost the morale of the troops than a floating dance hall, a cinema, a canteen and a brewery producing 250 barrels of English beer a week?
That was the idea behind HMS Menestheus, the Royal Navy’s floating brewery. Fitted out as a commodity ship, the Menestheus was designed to provide respite to soldiers and sailors fighting in the Pacific during World War II.
Now the Royal Navy is known for its drinking culture. After all, it’s the organization behind the toddy and rum ration. However, getting beer to the distant battlefields of the Pacific Theater was a problem at this time.
As delicious as it is, beer can be difficult to ship long distances. Drastic changes in temperature, exposure to sunlight, how it’s stored, and how long it’s been brewed can all affect the taste of beer, and not for the better.
Given the length of supply journeys from England or the United States across the Pacific, this meant that by the time these beers found their way into the canteens of soldiers and sailors, they often tasted rather foul. . Skunk beer isn’t the best morale booster, after all.
That’s where the Menestheus and other proposed convenience ships came in: they could brew the stuff on board.
A former ocean liner launched in 1929, the Menestheus had spent the early years of the war laying mines in the Atlantic. By 1943, that mission was over and the Menestheus, along with sister ship HMS Agamemnon, was selected for its next, more frothy work.
The Menestheus was sent to Vancouver, Canada in 1944 for the conversion process. In addition to a dance hall and a theatre, the hull was fitted with a 55-barrel brew pot, heated from steam coils fed by the ship’s boiler. There were also six fermentation tanks, allowing the Menestheus to produce 250 barrels of beer per week.
Beer could be stored in stainless steel kegs or one could enjoy a pint at the ship’s Davy Jones bar.
George Brown of Truman Breweryat the time one of the largest breweries in England, was recruited to oversee shipboard operations and made an officer of the Royal Navy.
For all craft beer lovers, be warned – there was only one item on the menu, a mild English ale of about 3.7% ABV.
A 1947 article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing describes the ingredients as “distilled seawater, special brewing malt extract, and hop concentrate.”
Simple, but it looks like it would do well while resting and recuperating after a battle in the Pacific.
Ultimately, the process of converting to a commodity ship survived the war. The Menestheus produced its first batch of beer on New Year’s Eve 1945.
After the war was over, plans to build a total of 10 of these floating breweries were abandoned, much to the dismay of subsequent generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. With tens of thousands of troops still on occupation duty, the Menestheus toured the Pacific, stopping in Yokohama, Kure, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
With the Pentagon looking to retire 24 ships, including nine of the struggling Freedom variant littoral combat ships, it might not be such a bad idea to take a cue from the Menestheus. For a ship that has often struggled to find a mission, has the Navy considered outfitting a few as floating brewhouses for the 21st century?
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