Draught Horses, Distillery Cats, and Hop Yard Sheep: How animals bring you your drinks

Horse-drawn wagon with streamers, riders and advertisements for Hamm's Beer, standing in front of Ed F. Weingartl and Company Liquor Dealers // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Horse-drawn wagon with streamers, riders and advertisements for Hamm’s Beer, standing in front of Ed F. Weingartl and Company Liquor Dealers // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

In the 1980s, Stroh Brewing Company in Detroit, Michigan, released a memorable series of commercials featuring Alex, a dog that would (with some mishaps) fetch bottles of Stroh’s beer. While this was a publicity stunt, there have been many real-life examples of animals helping to bring us alcoholic beverages throughout history and into the present day. (Animals used in advertising not included—they’re a subject to their own.)

Without question, the most important animals associated with beverages are horses, and the beverage they’re most famously associated with is beer. Massive horses and the drays (wagons) they once pulled have long been symbols of many breweries, as well as the beer industry as a whole. An 1893 Milwaukee Sentinel article went so far as to describe the drivers of drays as “a race of modern knights, who sit on wagons and guide stolid Percheron or Clydesdale draught horses instead of prancing on war steeds.” 

While such delivery teams today are used mostly for show, before motorized trucks they were a constant sight on city streets and country roads. Large breweries often kept more than 200 horses, which required large stables and an equally large care staff. The great Midwestern breweries Schlitz, Pabst, and Anheuser-Busch even had their own horse farms; today, Anheuser-Busch InBev continues the tradition at Warm Springs Ranch in Missouri, home to around 70 Clydesdales. The stable at the actual brewery in St. Louis, with its vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, looks more like a cathedral than a horse barn—a bit excessive, even if a team of two horses in the 1880s did cost $500 (about $13,000 today).

Brewery horses had to be strong and well-trained, but, just like any other horse, they sometimes strayed from their professional duties. Pre-Prohibition newspapers are riddled with reports of draught horses bolting and dumping their load of kegs, crashing into other teams, or otherwise causing chaos in the streets. Young’s Brewery of Wandsworth, London, continued using horses for some city deliveries until 1997, when they were forced to stop due to accidents with cars (and occasional cases of road rage against the teams). Despite the potential for trouble, Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes, East Sussex, still delivers to local pubs using horses—albeit only on Tuesdays.

Historically, horses did more than just deliver the beer, though—they also helped make it. Before steam or electric power was widespread, horses did much of the heavy labor of grinding grain and drawing water from the well, and horse-powered devices were standard equipment for breweries and distilleries.

Pye, the horse, works the cider mill with help from Sam Williams at Fair Oaks Cider in Herefordshire, England // Photo by Jenny Halse

Pye, the horse, works the cider mill with help from Sam Williams at Fair Oaks Cider in Herefordshire, England // Photo by Jenny Halse

The use of horsepower carries on today at Fair Oak Cider in Herefordshire, England. There, the owners have restored a 16th-century horse-powered cider press and employed Tommy the Gypsy Cob horse, who recently replaced Pye the stallion (see pg. 31), to walk around the press (supervised by two human workers) and crush the apples. 

A popular nursery rhyme from the 16th century calls out yet another domestic animal employed by the beverage industry: cats. The original version of “The House that Jack Built” reads:

“This is the cat
That kill’d the rat
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.”

Protecting barley and other grains in breweries and distilleries is no small task. While dogs lounge around a taproom, cats serve as security officers. Grain is attractive to mice, rats, and birds, and cats provide an environmentally friendly way of scaring off (or otherwise eliminating) such undesired pests.

Hoodie, the brewery cat at Newburgh Brewing Company in Newburgh, New York // Photo by Paul Halayko

Hoodie, the brewery cat at Newburgh Brewing Company in Newburgh, New York // Photo by Paul Halayko

As if they didn’t have enough on their plates, brewery and distillery cats today also double as internet stars. Brad Thomas Parsons, a James Beard Award–winning drinks writer, wrote “Distillery Cats,” a book about cats working in distilleries, breweries, and other drinks factories; the book’s companion Instagram account already boasts more than 1,200 photos. Minnesota-natives Caroline and Nick Campion combined their love of craft beer and cats to create CatsOnTap: a website that offers maps of breweries, distilleries, wineries, and pubs with resident working cats. They also have an Instagram account, called thebrewerycats. Further adding to their internet stardom are the cats’ names, many of which are inspired by their workplaces. There are at least two named after Mosaic hops, including one at DuClaw Brewing Company of Maryland, who is joined there by Simcoe, Bock, and HellRazer. And then there’s Two-Row at Hamilton Distillers in Tucson, Arizona; CO2 at MB Roland Distillery in Kentucky; and many others, including Cooper, Copper, and, of course, Barley and Hops.

Jobs for animals extend beyond the inside of the brewhouse. Many pre-Prohibition breweries of the Upper Midwest kept livestock on the grounds, which, in addition to providing food and income, helped dispose of spent grain. Modern barnyard animals prove their usefulness in other ways. 

Indian Runner ducks at Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate in Cape Town, South Africa // Photo courtesy Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate

Indian Runner ducks at Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate in Cape Town, South Africa // Photo courtesy Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate

For more than 30 years, Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate in South Africa has used almost a thousand Indian Runner ducks to eat snails and insects in the vineyard in place of pesticides. The ducks run to the vineyard every morning, patrol the 140-acre estate for five hours, and then return to their pens to rest after a hard day’s work. 

Another example of livestock as pest control is hop yard-weeding sheep. Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, New York, has been researching the costs and benefits of this practice. So far, findings are mixed. On one hand, the sheep can’t be trusted in the yard until the hop bines have grown to about seven feet, otherwise they will eat the bines instead of the weeds. After that point, however, the bines are apparently not very tasty, so the sheep instead turn their attention to lower leaves and surrounding weeds, thus fulfilling their intended duty.

The emphasis of “craft” as an important aspect of modern beverage production has brought back many practices that seem novel today, but were once a regular part of successful brewing, distilling, and winemaking. The animals that help make, protect, and deliver our drinks would have been familiar sights centuries ago, and their increasing use in modern production helps connect beverages to their agrarian past.