Will Big Lager one day go the same way as Big Porter?

I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at th rear and protect the wearer's jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) - from the anonymously-written Real Life in London, 1821

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at the rear and protect the wearer’s jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) – from the anonymously written Real Life in London, 1821

Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”

In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins. then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.

A couple of ads for Charrington's XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

A couple of ads for Charrington’s XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.

Thomas Beames was still able to write in 1852, in a book called The Rookeries of London, that for the working classes “porter is the common beverage with them, just as vin ordinaire is in France.” But by then there were just two porter-only breweries left, Reid’s in Liquorpond Street, Clerkenwell, and Meux in Tottenham Court Road. Porter still made up three quarters of London beer sales even in 1863. But the pace against it, was increasing. A comparison of porter and ale sales at Whitbread and Truman, two of the very biggest London brewers, shows a steady if slow rise for ale as a proportion of total output for three and a half decades to around 25 per cent by 1864, followed by big leaps after that: 36 per cent in 1869, 45 per cent in 1874, more than 60 per cent for Truman in 1879, and 57 per cent for Whitbread,

A writer in 1875, reminiscing about the beers of 70 years earlier, during the Napoleonic wars, wrote: “It is strange how the taste of those days for old stale beer has turned to the opposite extreme in the liking for the new and the sweet by the present generation.” In 1872 Meux & Co, off Tottenham Court Road, which still held on its premises a “reservoir” of porter said to hold the equivalent of 35,000 barrels of beer, had given up its exclusive dedication to porter and stout and began brewing ales as well. Three years later, Reid’s began the construction of a new ale brewery, which opened in 1877.

Although the mild ale of the final decades of the 19th century is regularly described as “sparkling”, at some point it changed from being pale to, mostly, being brown again, as it had been in the 17th century. According to a writer in the Daily Telegraph in 1928, “The taste for a brown mild ale was developed about 50 years ago” – that is, around 1878 – “and mild ale soon became the chief and most popular drink among the lower-priced beers.” That the generality of milds were dark before the First World War is confirmed by an American brewers’ handbook of 1908, which said: “Mild ales are usually brewed of a darker color than old ales, with less original gravity and less hops … sometimes … mild ales receive an addition of caramel solution to the closure of the principal fermentation.”

By 1908 “fourpenny beer (mild ale)”, so called because it retailed at four pence a quart, was being described as “the large bulk of the trade of the country”. The pressure on brewers to lower the gravity of their beers during and after the First World War, in large part to keep prices down after huge increases in tax, saw porter drop from around 1055OG to 1036. When the war ended, former porter drinkers turned, if they could afford it, to stout, which was now the same strength as pre-war porter. Gradually brewers began dropping porter from their ranges. In 1920, Watney Combe Reid, an amalgamation of three former porter brewers, sent no porter to the Brewer’s Exhibition for sampling. Truman’s, another former great porter brewer, stopped making the beer in 1930. Taylor Walker was still brewing porter in 1936, but stopped soon after. The writer TEB Clarke in 1938 called porter “a lowly brand of draught stout selling in the Public [bar] at fourpence a pint,” about the cheapest beer available. Whitbread stopped brewing porter in the 1940s. It survived – just – in Ireland, but in 1958 the Times newspaper’s survey of Beer in Britain stated: “Porter, the strong dark staple beer of 18th century England, is no longer brewed in Great Britain.” Heavy wet was dead.

An opper-class couple come out of the Whistly Oyster in Holborn after stout and oysters

An upper-class couple come out of the Whistling Oyster in Vinegar Yard, off Catberine Street, Covent Garden after stout and oysters

There was one curious difference between porter and the beer that replaced it, mild. Porter, despite being named for the working classes, was a beer that appealed to all levels of society, and was certainly not shunned by the aristocracy. Harvey Combe, main partner in the big porter brewery in Long Acre, Covent Garden, put on a series of annual dinners at his brewhouse between 1805 and 1810 at which rump steaks cooked at the stokehole of the brewery boiler were served on a malt shovel covered with a tin lid to guests who included the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, the Dukes of Devonshire and Norfolk, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Henry Grattan. The only accompaniment was “sallad”, the only drink porter, the waiters were the brewery workers, the guests sat at a trestle table with a hop sack nailed on as a tablecloth, and ate off wooden plates, though with horn-handled knives and silver forks. The Prince of Wales, after one brewhouse steak and porter meal in 1806, declared he “never was more pleased” with a dinner. A similar steak-and-porter dinner was held at Truman’s brewery in Brick Lane in June 1831 for the Prime Minister, Lord Grey, and 22 other guests, including the Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, and other members of the cabinet. (The great French diplomat Tallyrand, then the French ambassador to Great Britain, had been invited but had to cry off to deal with a political crisis in Belgium.) The Carlton Club in the 1830s, the headquarters of the Tory party, served Guinness, and Benjamin Disraeli, then a young MP, drank it there, with oysters and “broiled bones”. Restaurants at the time supplied ale, stout or half-and-half – ale and porter mixed – to diners “as a matter of course”, Sir Walter Besant wrote in the 1880s

A small-ad from the Daily Telegraph in 1917: not cerrtain what "common spirits are – ghosts that drop their aitches?

A small-ad from the Daily Telegraph in 1917 for a high-class establishment in the Strand: not certain what “common spirits” are – ghosts that drop their aitches?

However, mild ale had no cachet: completely the opposite. Bars would emphasise their class by advertising: “no mild ale sold”. The drink was known as four-ale, from its pre-First World War price of four pence a quart, the place where it was drunk, the public bar, was nicknamed the “four-ale bar”, and the four-ale bar was not regarded as a salubrious place “smelling like a four-ale bar” was not a complement, and “that’s the sort of language you’d hear in the four-ale bar” was a sign that social mores had been broken. According to an American writing in 1933, pubs in London would not even server mild ale in the saloon bar, where the better sort of customer drank: ” Call for ale in the saloon bar of a London pub, and the barmaid will say, ‘Other side, please,’ jerking her wet thumb in the direction of the public, or four-ale bar; for ale in London is a vulgar word. The middle classes drink bitter, a pale, golden beer so sharply hop-flavoured that foreigners find it undrinkable.”

An ad for Mann's mild in the 1920s

An ad for Mann’s mild in the 1920s

Indeed, it was mild ale’s lower class associations that led to its own decline and fall. In 1959 draught mild was 42 per cent of all beer sales, outselling bitter two pints to one and representing six pints out of 10 served on draught, at 10.3 million barrels a year. But a study published by the Times newspaper in 1958 pointed up mild’s growing problem: “Traditionally bitter is looked on as the bosses’ drink. Any man reckons today he’s as good as his boss. So he chooses bitter.” In 1964 draught mild was down to 33 per cent of beer sales by volume. Around 1969 sales of draught bitter overtook those of draught mild for the first time. Six years later, in 1975, as draught mild plunged to barely one pint in eight of total beer sales, it was passed in popularity by a beer that had hardly existed in Britain in 1959 – draught lager.

Until very recently lager was still increasing its share of the UK beer market, up from 67 per cent in 2002 to 74.8 per cent in 2014. Last year, however, saw the first dip since the early 1990s (when the growth of the “guest beer” market after the Beer Orders of 1989 gave a brief boost to sales of bitter), albeit by less than 1 per cent, as “ale and bitter” pushed up its share to 21.5 per cent of a falling overall market, down 4.7 per cent to 4.25 billion litres (or 25.97 million barrels, in old-style money). With a growing (though still tiny) proportion of even the lager market now “craft”, are we seeing Big Lager start to slide just the way every “big” style has in the past?

I’d say it’s almost inevitable that, yes, Big Lager’s reign will end one day. What the timescale will be, and exactly what will replace it, is hard to guess. The change is likely to be demographics-led: new entrants in the market (those 800,000 or so fresh 18-year-olds legally drinking for the first time every year) choosing something different, rather than their elders altering their purchasing habits. I certainly don’t see those new recruits to alcohol automatically drinking Big Lager: though I may be wrong. But meanwhile the first wave of UK lager drinkers, those who powered the drinks growth in the 1970s as they themselves turned 18, are now in their mid-to-late 50s: give them 10 to 15 years and they’ll be dropping off their perches in vast flocks. That’s about how long I’d give Big Lager, at the most.

Meanwhile I’d just like to plug my credentials as a pundit: back in December, talking about the purchase of the Camden Town brewery by AB Inbev, I said: “I’d look to Italy for the next big acquisition of a craft brewer by a global marque.” Lo, five months later, at the end of April, five months after I wrote this, AB Inbev bought Birra del Borgo, brewer of ReAle, among other beers. Told you …

A Copenhagen exclusive: Carlsberg fills a wooden cask with lager

The Elephant Gate at the old Carlsberg brewery. That swastika's a hit of an elephant in the room – er, road …

The Elephant Gate at the old Carlsberg brewery

If anyone ever declares again that keg beers cannot ever be as good as cask beers, I shall tell them of the night I spent at the bar of the Taphouse pub in Copenhagen with Michael Rahbek, brewer at Carlsberg’s Jacobsen brewhouse, while Jens Ungstrup, the beer manager at the Taphouse, poured us glass upon glass of porter and stout (and the occasional pale ale), all of them excellent, some of them stunning.

It’s hard to pick standouts, but they would certainly include the Carnegie 175th Anniversary Porter, brewed in 2011, still presenting masses of deep, dark chewy chocolate/roast malt flavour, and worth every krone of the £10.70 per 40cl glass the Taphouse charges; the milk chocolate stout from Brewfist in Italy, like chocolate mousse and cream; Jacobsen’s own Mermaid porter, brewed in 2013; and Michael Rahbek’s latest porter, made with four per cent of peat-smoked malt from the maltings at Denmark’s Stauning whisky distillery, a lovely beer even at a few weeks old, the peat smoke giving just the right level of background spice.

I also got to contrast and compare a couple more Jacobsen beers, the 2007 version of the Golden Naked Christmas ale (named for the type of barley used, I believe) and its 2016 iteration. The nine-year-old version reminded me strongly of aged Fuller’s Vintage Ale, which would be proper, since this is described as in the “English Strong Ale” style: the foundation of sweetness still there in the new beer has dried out after nearly a decade, and there’s a tart, aggressive quality coming through. Danes have a great love for Christmas beers, and Tuborg Julebryg is the fourth best-selling beer in the country, even though it’s only on sale for ten weeks a year, but Golden Naked is now apparently challenging its position as the top-selling yuletime tipple.

Michael Rahbek is clearly a hugely talented brewer, and a terrific man to have a beer-fuelled evening of conversation with, and I can’t thank him and Jens Ungstrup enough for one of the best nights in a bar I have ever had.

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yreast lager brewing

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yeast lager brewing

I was in Copenhagen for my tiny contribution to the festivities celebrating the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory: my job was to give an outside beer historian’s perspective on the work done by Emil Christian Hansen at the laboratory in Copenhagen for a film being made about the event, and the special beer being brewed for the celebration using 133-year-old yeast resurrected from an old Carlsberg bottle. The plan is to to replicate as far as possible the first beer made that followed the precepts Hansen developed at the laboratory. Hansen, for those who don’t know, pioneered single-yeast-strain brewing, isolating from the mass of different varieties of yeast present in an old-style brew just the one that made the best beer and cultivating this pure strain up: and Carlsberg, instead of sitting on this technology, threw over any competitive advantage it might have gained, and gave it away to any brewer who wanted it – including, according to a letter of thanks found in the Carlsberg archives, one Mr Heineken of Amsterdam.

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

Mind, this followed on from the generosity of Gabriel Sedlmayr II of the Spaten brewery in Munich, the man who, in 1845, gave Carlsberg’s founder, Jacob Christian Jacobsen, his first lager yeast. Sedlmayr perfected Bavarian bottom-fermentation methods and then also handed over his secrets – and his yeast – to anyone who asked. If you go down Ny Carlsberg Vej (“New Carlsberg Way”) in Valby in Copenhagen, through the famous elephant gate, you will see on the wall of what was the Carlsberg brewery – closed 2008 – two busts in niches. One is of EC Hansen, the other Gabriel Sedlmayr. I doubt there is another brewery in the world that celebrates a rival in this way. (Spaten is now owned by AB InBev: one Carlsberg employee I know suggested, semi-seriously, that the Danish brewery ought to rescue Sedlmayr’s legacy by making an offer for Spaten that the Belgo-Brazilians could not refuse.)

I was filmed by Estonian TV in January, sitting in the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, for a programme about IPA: Baltic television viewers may be approaching peak Martyn Cornell. Filming for my slot in the Carlsberg programme took place in the Giniz bar, an “Engelsk inspireret Pub i midten af Valby”, and, fortified by a glass of rye porter from the Herslev brewery, one of my favourite Danish concerns, I attempted to sound convincingly erudite. Hopefully they won’t cut backwards and forwards in the final edit, and the beer in my glass won’t shoot up and down the way it does in the famous bar scene in Ice Cold in Alex. I think I got away with the act of appearing knowledgeable: at any rate, the film’s producer, Jesper Æro (to whom more thanks for making the process as painless for me as possible) didn’t throw me out of the bar and make me find the way to my hotel on my own, and instead invited me along to the next part of the filming.

This, I was very happy to find, was in the Carlsberg laboratory, where Erik Lund, the brewmaster at the lab, was filling one of the wooden casks that have been specially made by coopers in Lithuania for what is being called by Carlsberg the “Re-Brew” project. I’m guessing the casks are made out of the tight-grained wood once a favourite with brewers known as Memel oak, from the former name of the port in Lithuania (now Klaipėda) whence it was exported. Much care was taking with the filling: the cask itself, with a capacity of around 150 litres, was kept in a cold store before it was filled up, to ensure the beer would not get a shock when it was racked out of the cold lagering tank, and the cask was also flushed through with CO2 before the beer went in, to push out the atmospheric oxygen. Once filled, it was back into cold storage for another couple of weeks’ lagering.

After that, on 18 May, there will be a “tapping ceremony” at the brewery of this new-old beer, of which only 400 litres have been made. I’m delighted to say that, along with a fair number of other beer journalists, I’ll be there to try it: I’ll let you know how it goes.

Eric Lund at the Carlsberg laboratory fills a cask with ber from the lager tank that is as close to an authemntic 19th century lager as Carlsberg can get

Eric Lund at the Carlsberg laboratory fills a cask with beer from the lager tank that is as close to an authentic 19th century lager as Carlsberg can get

How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing. Continue reading

A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier supposedly pictured learning from a Canadian First Nationer how to save his men from scurvey: but the chap with the buckskin suit and the metal axe with the tepees in the background looks like a Plains Indian 1,500 miles and 220 years away from home rather than a Huron

Early European explorers in North America had to be shown the healthy properties of the spruce tree by the existing inhabitants. When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36 on his second visit to the land he had named Canada, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree was probably White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, a member of the cypress family, rather than spruce. But later French settlers turned to spruce trees, a better source of Vitamin C, and thus a better way to combat scurvy, the curse of long-distance voyagers, than cedars. The secretary to the new French governor of Cape Breton Island, Thomas Pichon, writing in 1752, noted that the inhabitants of Port-Toulouse (now St Peter’s) “were the first that brewed an excellent sort of antiscorbutic [“la bière très bonne” in the original French], of the tops of the spruce-fir”, “Perusse” or “Pruche” in Pichon’s French.

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A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Spruce beer is made from the tips of spruce trees. Except that the connection is not as simple as it appears: it is pretty much a coincidence that spruce beer and spruce trees have the same name.

There are actually two traditions of spruce beer in Britain: the older, the Danzig or Black Beer tradition, only died out very recently, while the other, which could be called the “North American tradition”, was hugely popular in Regency times, and included Jane Austen among its fans, but disappeared nearly 200 years ago on this side of the Atlantic.

The first mention of “spruce beer” in English is from around 1500, when Henry VII was on the throne, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament, in which a hung-over drunkard is persuaded to write his will. Colyn lists the drinks he wants served at his funeral, including more than a dozen types of wine, mead, “stronge ale bruen in fattes and in tonnes”, “Sengle bere, and othir that is dwobile”, and also “Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur.”

Norway spruce

Norway spruce

The fact that spruce beer and “the beer of Hambur[g]” were mentioned together is because both came from North Germany. The name “spruce beer” is an alteration of the German “Sprossen-bier”, literally “sprouts beer”, more meaningfully “leaf-bud beer”, since it was flavoured with the leaf-buds or new sprouts of Norway spruce, Picea abies, or silver fir, Abies alba. “Sprossen” was meaningless to English-speakers, but in early modern English the similar-sounding “Spruce” was another name for Prussia, from which country’s main port, Danzig, Sprossen-bier was exported. “Sprossen-bier” became in English the more understandable “Spruce beer”, meaning, originally, “Prussian beer”. (Chaucer called the country “Sprewse”, and it was being called “Spruce-land” as late as 1639.)

Meanwhile English had to wait more than a century and a half after the beer was named to get its own word for Picea abies, the tree known as Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. When the tree did get an English name, first mentioned by the naturalist John Evelyn in 1670, because it, too, like the beer, came to Britain via Prussia, it was called the “Spruce”, short for “Spruce fir”, that is, “Prussian fir”. Thus “spruce beer” is not actually named for the spruce tree, and “spruce beer” in English is around 170 years older as a phrase than “spruce tree”. (The adjective “spruce” meaning “neat” or “smartly dressed” probably also comes from “Spruce” meaning Prussia, via “Spruce leather”, leather from Prussia that was a favourite, it appears, among Tudor dandies.)

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Dishonest nonsense and Camra’s Clause Four moment

Is the Campaign for Real Ale about to have its Clause Four moment? For younger readers, Clause Four was the part of the constitution of the Labour Party that contained the aim of achieving “the common ownership of the means of production”, and it was when Tony Blair, Labour’s new party leader, and his allies managed to get that dumped in the dustbin of discarded socialist rhetoric in 1995 that New Labour was born. Traditionalists saw the policy celebrated in Clause Four, the rejection of capitalism, as the core principle that the Labour Party was founded upon. The Blairites saw this as outdated rhetoric that was damaging the party’s election chances, and dumping it as “revitalising” the Labour Party. Camra, you may have noticed, has now launched its own self-styled “revitalisation project”, designed to get a consensus on where the campaign, at 45 years old, should be going next.

The question being asked is “how broad and inclusive should our campaigning be”, and the choices offered in the survey on Camra’s website, frankly, are totally dishonest. There are six, and they are that the campaign should represent

  • Just drinkers of real ale, or
  • Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry, or
  • All beer drinkers, or
  • All beer, cider and perry drinkers, or
  • All pub-goers or
  • All drinkers
Andrew Boorde real ale campaigner

The Tudor physician Andrew Boorde (c 1490-1549), one of the earliest campaigners for real ale, who complained that while ale was ‘a naturall drynke’ for an Englishman, beer ‘doth make a man fat’.

But there isn’t a commentator that doesn’t know that four out of six of those choices are irrelevant nonsense, and the only real question Camra is asking is, “Look, are we finally going to ditch Clause Four start supporting craft keg as well as cask ale or not?”

Now, I’m aware that the support for cider and perry is controversial among some sections of Camra activists, and there are even some who question Camra’s pub campaigns, but it’s dishonesty through omission to stick those issues in there as if they were really a meaningful part of the debate about Camra’s future, and a disservice to the overwhelming majority of Camra’s membership not to make it clearer what this is really all about. In the 16-page document mailed to all Camra members about the “Revitalisation Project”, reference is made to Camra’s equivalent of Clause Four, that definition of “real ale” adopted in 1973, two years after the campaign was founded by four men who knew nothing, at that time about the technicalities of beer, only that they didn’t like the big-brand keg variety, which definition insists that the only sort of beer worth drinking is “matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed” and is “served without the use of extaneous carbon dioxide”.

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Hangmen, and other plays set in pubs

To the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End to see Hangmen, by Martin McDonagh, a play set almost entirely in the public bar of a pub in Oldham in 1965. If you go to see it yourself – and you don’t have to come up to that London, it’s being shown live at more than 700 cinemas across the country on Thursday March 3, as part of the National Theatre Live initiative – I strongly recommend you have a couple of beers beforehand. Watching  realistic-looking pints of mild and bitter being poured regularly from genuine handpumps and drunk onstage with signs of great pleasure brought on in me an aching desire to get up there with the actors and join in.

Martin McDonagh, who was born in Britain to Irish parents, became famous for a string of plays with Irish rural settings, including The Cripple of Inishmaan, and also for the screenplay to In Bruges, the gangster black comedy featuring Brendan Gleeson introducing incompetent hitman Colin Farrell to the pleasures of Belgian beer. Hangmen is a very different venture, based semi-biographically on Harry Allen, one of Britain’s last hangmen, who kept several pubs in Lancashire while performing the part-time post of sending people through trapdoors to their deaths. McDonagh calls him “Harry Wade”, using the surname of another hangman, Stephen Wade, and the play opens in the execution cell with Wade trying to get “James Hennessey” (clearly based on James Hanratty, one of Harry Allen’s genuine victims) to go to the last drop quietly and swiftly, while Hennessey continues to insist on his innocence. Continue reading

Shall we call this new British beer style – Hoppy Light Ale?

A new British beer style is being born as you read this. Indeed, “being born” is almost certainly wrong: “building up bulk” is probably much better, since it’s been on bar tops, arguably, for at least 15 years, albeit without being properly recognised and catalogued as the fresh branch in the evolution of pale ale that it is.

Redemption Trinity light ale

Redemption Trinity light ale: a classic modern Hoppy Light Ale

This new style of beer is, effectively, the British equivalent of the American “session IPA” or “Indian session ale“, though not inspired by those beers, which are still often stronger, at 5 per cent abv or more, than a British session beer would ever be. Instead the new brews take the floral, tropical hoppiness of a typically strong standard American Pale Ale or IPA and presents that at a much more comfortable UK session strength, 4 per cent alcohol by volume and below.

As with all truly sustainable movements, this has been an example of push and pull: demand was pushed by the makers, individual brewers deciding that they wanted to brew just such a beer, crossing true sessionability with dramatic New World hop flavours, and pulled by consumers, drinkers who had been converted to loving American hops and were very happy to find drinks with all the American IPA taste assertiveness they wanted but low enough in alcohol that they could comfortably have several pints over an evening, not something that is possible with your usual Seattle or San Diego hop soup thumper.

As the trend spread, it seems to have escaped recognition as a different style of British beer, not the least reason being, I suspect, that there wasn’t an easy name to apply to this new family of brews, the way Golden Ales, the last new British beer style, could be badged and corralled back in the 1980s when they initially arrived, with a name based just on their colour. Mark Dredge was one of the first to spot that there was actually a new movement happening, putting a selection of similar low-gravity but hop-filled British brews into a chapter in his 2013 book Craft Beer World and calling the category “pale and hoppy session beers”. His examples included Moor Revival (3.8% abv, brewed with Columbus and Cascade hops); Cromarty Happy Chappy (4.1%, Columbus, Cascade, Nelson Sauvin and Willamette); Hawkshead Windermere Pale (3.5%, Goldings, Fuggles, Bramling Cross and Citra); and Buxton Moor Top (3.6%, Chinook and Columbus). Mark also gave an excellent definition of the category: Continue reading

Pleasure versus risk, the honest alcohol debate

If Dame Sally Davies had really wanted to be honest, she would have said: “Here’s my advice on how to live a possibly longer but almost certainly less pleasure-filled life …”

Rose in Bloom frontInstead the chief medical officer for England completely failed to address why people drink – because we enjoy it – and concentrated solely on why we shouldn’t, insisting that the new recommendations on alcohol limits were “hard science” based on the health risks of even moderate drinking. With the old guidelines for men, compared to the new lower ones, “an extra 20 men per 1,000 will get bowel cancer. That’s not scaremongering, that’s hard science.” But why did she say “20 per 1,000” instead of the equally accurate “two in a hundred”? Because 20 sounds worse than two, of course. Scaremongering …

I realised recently that it will be 50 years this summer since I first drank beer, in the garden of the Rose in Bloom in Seasalter, Whitstable. My father (illegally) bought a pint of bitter for me, thinking correctly, that though I was only just 14, I would enjoy it, and thank you, Dad, I did, greatly: that cellar-cool, floral, hoppy initial pint was the start of a lasting love. If Dame Sally Davies had popped up over the fence as I was drinking and assured me that I was increasing my chances of cancer of many kinds, I hope that my 14-year-old self would have replied: “If all the pints for the next 50 years are as good as this one, I genuinely don’t care.”

The point about risk is that, as we all see every day, it’s calculable, all right, but totally random. My mother hardly drank at all: a Snowball, advocaat and lemonade, at Christmas, with a cherry on a cocktail stick balanced across the glass, was her limit. She certainly never smoked. She died, aged 60, having survived breast cancer when she was 45 but eventually being taken out by cancer of the oesophagus. My brother – a cancer survivor himself, having come through Hodgkin’s Lymphoma nearly 40 years ago – still rides motor bikes at the age of 59, big ones, Harley Davidsons and the like, and in the past few years he has taken motorbike tours through South Africa and the eastern United States. For a rider, the chances of dying in a motorcycle crash during your lifetime are about the same as the chances of getting bowel cancer through drinking alcohol. Do we see Dame Sally Davies on daytime TV urging us to cut down on the number of motorcycle journeys we take each week, to reduce the risk?

Rose in Bloom backWe do not, of course, because it would be preposterous. Risk is part of motorcycle riding, as it is of many activities, from mountaineering to hang-gliding. As it happens I had a friend who died in a hang-gliding accident in his early 50s. The risk of dying in a hang-gliding accident is one in every 116,000 flights, apparently. Let’s make the mathematics easier and say you go hang-gliding every weekend, and get in two flights each time for 100 flights a year. In a lifetime’s hang-gliding that gives you just over a three per cent chance of dying in a crash. Set the undoubted joy of soaring silently over fields and woods, one with the winds and sky, against a risk of death if you did it every weekend for 40 years of 33 to one against, and I’m sure most of us would vote with my friend Bryan.

And now we know, because Dame Sally won’t let us forget, that risk is a part of even moderate drinking, too. But as another friend of mine says, stay in bed to avoid all risk, the ceiling will probably fall on your head. Indeed, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, declared that the risk level Dame Sally wants us to lower ourselves to while drinking alcohol is lower than the risk from eating a bacon sandwich, or spending an hour watching a film.

The lifetime chances of a woman who doesn’t drink getting breast cancer, like my mother, are 11 in a hundred. If a woman drinks, that risk goes up to 13 in a hundred. It’s an entirely valid decision to weigh decades of the pleasures that drinking wine and beer bring against a one-in-50 greater change of breast cancer, and say: “I believe the risk is worth it,” just the way a hang-glider or a motorcyclist weighs up similar risks.

The big problem in the health-and-drink debate is that the pleasures of drinking are seldom discussed, and never calculated. Winston Churchill, speaking around 1953, after 60 years of regular solid drinking, including pints of champagne, and having Carlsberg invent Special Brew for him, declared: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” I have had huge enjoyment from drinking beer since that first pint of Fremlin’s bitter in the garden of the Rose in Bloom – in a coincidence Carl Jung would have appreciated, the pub’s address is Joy Lane – and if Dame Sally popped up at the end of my bed tomorrow with a scythe and hourglass to declare my time was over, adding that if only I had been a teetotaller I could have had an extra ten years, I’d spit in her eye and say it was more than worth it.

More frequently repeated beery history that turns out to be totally bogus

Bass No 5 signIt’s depressing and frightening, sometimes, if you start tugging at loose threads in the historical narrative, because the whole fabric can start unravelling. This all began with the Canadian beer blogger and beer historian Alan McLeod emailing me about claims that the “Hull ale” that was being drunk in the 17th century in London was really ale from Burton upon Trent, shipped down that river to the sea, and taking the Yorkshire port’s name on the way. Did I have any views, he asked?

I confess I’ve repeated the idea that “Hull ale probably really means Burton ale” myself, but Alan had several good points to make against it: Hull, like other ports, was known for its own ales, Burton lacked common brewers until the start of the 18th century, and in any case, until the opening of the Trent Navigation in 1712 it was not easy for Burton brewers to get their ales shipped out anywhere. So I hit the internets.

It all began to fall down with Peter Mathias’s reference in the otherwise magisterial The Brewing Industry in England (p150), written in 1959, to Samuel Pepys drinking Hull ale in London in 1660. Mathias wrote that “of course”, this Hull ale was “probably” from Burton upon Trent, with the town allegedly being “well known in the capital for its ale in the seventeenth century”, and the first consignment “reputedly” sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane London in 1623. However, once you start digging, these claims appear to be completely wrong. The reference Mathias gives, to back all this up, The history and antiquities of Staffordshire by Stebbing Shaw, published in 1798, Volume 1 p13, is only available in Google Books via snippet view but it appears not to give a specific year for Burton Ale being sold at the Peacock at all. What it says, talking about Burton, is:

“And so great is the celebrity of this place for its ale brewed here, that, besides a very considerable home consumption, both in the country and in London (where it was first sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, a house still celebrated for the vending of this liquor) vast quantities have been exported to Sweden, Denmark, Russia and many other kingdoms.”

– but with no date for when Burton Ale was first sold at the Peacock.

Almost a century before Mathias, William Molyneaux, in Burton on Tent: Its History, Its Waters and its Breweries (1869 ) claimed in a footnote (p223) that

“About the year 1630 Burton ale was sold at the Peacock inn in Gray’s Inn Lane and had even then acquired a high reputation amongst the famous ales of England.”

But Molyneaux offered no reference to back this up. This claim was subsequently repeated in several books. However, there is no evidence at all that the Peacock was even open in the 17th century. Continue reading