Barrel-aged stout and my own egregious selling-out

Amid all the dodgy news that has hit the American craft beer scene over the past month or so – Founders Brewing Co, the largest in Michigan, having to settle a racial discrimination suit, AB-Inbev  stealing the slogan a small brewer has been using for nearly ten years, Lagunitas dumping all over community groups that had been relying on it for fund-raising, Redhook of Seattle finally being swallowed completely, New Belgium of Colorado, the fourth-largest American craft brewery, also losing its independence to a brewing megagiant – one scandalous example of appalling misbehaviour by a big brewer attempting to throw its vast weight around in a morally disgusting fashion seems to have passed by surprisingly unnoticed.

I’m referring to the attempt by AB-InBev – them again – to punish the Chicago-based journalist and author Josh Noel, in total defiance of the values of free speech and honest, upright dealing: the most shocking example of trying to crush commentary you don’t like that I can recall in the beer industry.

Josh has been writing about the Chicago beer scene for many years for the city’s big newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, and in particular he has been championing Bourbon County Stout, the whiskey-barrel-aged Imperial stout first made by Goose Island Beer Company in the mid-1990s that started an entire new beer style. In 2018 he wrote a book on BCS, Goose Island, and the acquisition of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch back in 2011 called Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, subtitled “Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and how craft beer became big business”.

It’s one of the very best books on craft beer history I have read – possibly THE best – and one of the best business books I have seen in general. It was deservedly garlanded with the Book of the Year award by the North American Guild of Beer Writers, and if you haven’t read it, you really should get yourself a copy right now. It’s a thorough, deeply researched, sometimes brutal but totally fair and honest account of the origins and growth of Goose Island since it was founded by businessman John Hall in 1988, looking hard at the pressures that led to the sale of the brewery in 2011, and how and why the brewery, its products and ethos have changed over the decades. AB-Inbev clearly hated it.

I was going to paraphrase what happened after the book came out, but Josh wrote it up so much better than I could in a series of tweets, so here is Josh’s story, with occasional interjections by me (and American spellings). We pick it up just after Goose Island has declined to invite him to the annual preview release of the latest iteration of BCS:

“First time in the 10 years I’ve covered beer for the Chicago Tribune. I was told the brewery ‘wasn’t comfortable’ [mealy-mouthed creeps. Be honest, ye scabs – MC] with me attending. What does that mean? Who wasn’t comfortable? Why? They wouldn’t explain any of that. How’d we get here? What’s happening? Well it began last year.

Goose Island initially didn’t invite me to last year’s Bourbon County preview either — six months after my book came out. The book was mostly Goose-positive up to its 2011 sale to Anheuser-Busch. Then the story took on a lot more nuance about the brewery and brand in AB’s hands.

That change was inevitable thanks to Anheuser-Busch’s needs and goals — and why it bought Goose Island in the first place (along with 10 more craft breweries). There was no way around AB’s anti-competitive practices, lack of transparency and aim of market domination.

So, faced with not being invited to last year’s Bourbon County media preview — something about “needing to have a better working relationship” [“needing you to kiss our bottoms” more like – MC] — I argued I’d been fair and measured. Not always positive. But fair. They ultimately agreed. I attended the tasting. I championed the debut of Bourbon County Wheatwine (which went on to win a FOBAB medal). Didn’t much care for Vanilla or Bramble.

I’d been covering Bourbon County since 2010. Back then there was no media tasting. Goose Island was too busy to think much about media at all. Aside from a few dedicated bloggers, very few people were writing about Bourbon County — or craft beer in Chicago at all.

This was the earliest story I wrote about Bourbon County. About the (gasp!) $45 price tag on the first iteration of Rare Bourbon County Stout, in 2010. And year by year, buzz built for the annual Bourbon County release. As time went on, I expressed interest in tasting ahead of the releases, to tell the story of beers changing the beer drinking game in Chicago and beyond. I called Bourbon County Chicago’s “most important beer ever.

We did annual tastings, just the brewers and me. It was low-key and very relaxed. In 2015, things changed. Biggest change: Goose and AB went all in on the barrel-aging program, building a gargantuan new barrel-aging warehouse to blow up Goose’s barrel-aging program. The brewery also realized it shouldn’t just give me and the Chicago Tribune an informal first taste. It should make an event of it. And Goose did. The first “proper” Bourbon County media tasting happened in 2015, at that barrel warehouse. It was a candlelit affair with two tables full of writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. They’ve done it every year since, and even expanded it to NYC media.

(Side note: at that 2015 tasting, I believe I was the first person to note what would inevitably be a disastrous infection issue in four of that year’s Bourbon County beers. I said Bourbon County Coffee tasted peppery and “off to me.” But I digress …)

2015 was also the year that, thanks to the scope and scale of the barrel-aging warehouse, Bourbon County morphed from a lovely boutique product into a national workhorse. (Arguably the entire point of AB buying Goose Island.) Goose Island flooded the market with Bourbon County while also trying to maintain the aura of “exclusivity.” A beer called “Rare,” for instance, which people had stood in line/paid a premium for in 2015 landed on supermarket shelves a year later.

As part of the Anheuser-Busch machine, Bourbon County became a story beyond what was simply in the bottle. Yet, what was in the bottle also continued to matter. Bourbon County came out every Black Friday. People cared. Some of the beer was outstanding. And every year I reviewed it at Goose Island’s annual media preview with others who write about beer.

Meanwhile I wrote that book. And blogged. And found fresh ways to write about barrel-aged beers in Chicago. That included a blind tasting that showed Revolution Brewing surpassing Bourbon County in 2017. Which brings us to this year. Last week I realized I hadn’t been invited to this year’s Bourbon County tasting. So I reached out and asked what was up. That’s when I was told that the brewery “wasn’t comfortable” with me attending [translation – senior execs had got a massive snot on about Josh’s depiction of AB, and decided he needed to be punished – MC]. I asked for an explanation.

I write for the city’s largest newspaper, have written about Bourbon County for 10 years and covered Goose throughout the year, whether beer or marketing. Seems fair to be at that tasting. The issue wasn’t about special treatment or favors. It was about getting the same access as other media.

Goose Island came back with a changed story, along the lines of, “Every year there are limited seats and we have to make difficult decisions about who to invite.” Clearly untrue [indeed – why do corporations come out with this bullshit when they must know no one believes them and they simply look like shystering liars? MC], but OK, fine. It’s their party. I asked for samples of the 2019 Bourbon County beers instead, so that I could taste and review this week along with the others who will be doing so. In return, more corporate speak: “We have allocated a limited number of advance samples to the tasting events and will not be able to fulfill your request at this time.”

Blackballed by Goose Island.

Were they disinviting me because of the book? My blog posts? My Tribune coverage? Tweets? My general demeanor and disposition? I don’t know. They refused to say. Instead, they’re flying off to New York today to do a tasting for media there.

Goose Island can decide not to invite me and the Chicago Tribune to its Bourbon County media tasting for whatever reason. Its choice. But we dictate our coverage — not the people and companies we write about.”

Yes, exactly. There are two big issues here. The first is simple liberty of discussion. AB InBev is attempting to punish someone for saying things it doesn’t like. The company’s executives need to have a copy of the Fourth First Amendment to the US Constitution poked hard into their faces: “The Freedom of Speech, and of the Press … shall not be infringed.” (Addendum – just to explain, I don’t meant it’s illegal for AB InBev to ban Josh, I mean it’s utterly against the spirit of the values the country they operate in was founded upon.) The second is an important, and surprisingly little-discussed, aspect of the implied contract between sellers and buyers. If you are asking the public to give you its money for your goods and services, then there is a moral right, which you as a seller cannot and should not attempt to take away, for commentators to express their view on whether or not the exchange you are proposing – my money for your product – is a fair one. In other words, for any proposed sale/purchase, there is a right to review and to criticise which should not be suppressed, most importantly because that right is a counter-balance to the power of the seller, and acts in defence of the buyer. That applies to everything offered for sale, from theatrical performances to automobiles to beer. For AB Inbev to attempt to take that right to criticise and comment away from Josh is a morally wrong move, which should be called out, and for which the company should be ashamed.

So: given I feel so strongly about what has happened to Josh, how come, you are entitled to ask, I attended TWO events this month in London organised by Goose Island/AB InBev, one  celebrating the Obadiah Poundage recreation stout, the other for the UK launch of BCS, swallowed its beers (for free) and ate its pizza (for free)? Hypocritical, much? Should I not, rather than enjoying the warmth of the company’s East End bar and brewhouse, have been outside in the November cold waving a placard that declared: “I stand with Josh Noel: Boycott Goose Island!” and attempting to persuade fellow beer writers not to cross my picket line?

Um. Maybe. But ultimately, no, I think, and for a host of reasons. The first, and not the least, is that boycotting AB Inbev, is, as the old joke goes, like pissing myself in a dark suit: it might give me a warm feeling, but nobody else would notice. AB InBev wouldn’t have cared, certainly. Virtue signalling to no effect doesn’t help anybody. Second, for the first event, certainly, I was there to support several old pals, notably Ron Pattinson and Derek Prentice, who were involved in the Obadiah Poundage project, which I wrote about here, (Before you ask, I was sent a case of the beer beforehand. What’s it like? More Bretty, and rather sweeter, than I was expecting: not a beer that you absolutely have to rush out to buy, but a fascinating experiment, and worth picking up if you see it.)

For the second event, the London launch of BCS, I was there out of extreme curiosity, having never drunk the beer before, and unsure when I would ever get the chance to again: if you write about beer, passing up the chance to drink the beer that started the whole, now massive, barrel-aged movement, in a fit of politically correct solidarity with a fellow journalist who was barred from a press call but, let’s put this in perspective, not actually blown up seems to be to be, well, unnecessary.

I know there are beer writers who eschew any involvement with corporate freebies, but my argument has always been that I’m very happy to accept free stuff, from beer to trips abroad, when it enables me to put information in front of my readers that I would not be otherwise able to give them. Certainly I do not believe I have ever held the boot back because someone had dropped off a case of beer. Carlsberg, for example, paid me to appear in one of their corporate videos, flew me to Copenhagen three times, took me to Twickenham and Wembley to see the national rugby and football teams play and stuffed me to my eyebrows with food and drink on multiple occasions, but that didn’t prevent me from being very rude about the new-look green-label pilsner earlier this year.

As it happens the Federal Trade Commission in the US has just issued a leaflet, “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers”, about openness in blog posts, tweets, Instagram posts and the like, which you can see here. It says:

“If you endorse a product through social media, your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship (“material connection”) with the brand. A “material connection” to the brand includes a personal, family, or employment relationship or a financial relationship – such as the brand paying you or giving you free or discounted products or services.

Telling your followers about these kinds of relationships is important because it helps keep your recommendations honest and truthful, and it allows people to weigh the value of your endorsements.

As an influencer, it’s your responsibility to make these disclosures, to be familiar with the Endorsement Guides, and to comply with laws against deceptive ads. Don’t rely on others to do it for you.”

Which I think is entirely fair enough – and if you’re thinking “I don’t live in the US,” the FTC’s guide also points out: “If posting from abroad, US law applies if it’s reasonably foreseeable that the post will affect US consumers.”

So on that basis: what were those free Bourbon County Stouts you drank like, Martyn? Very fine indeed, actually: this IS a beer you really need to track down and try. It’s massively filled with flavours, something to sip, savour and enjoy, and also, judging by the differences between the 2018 and 2019, a beer that will change in fascinating ways as it ages: the 2018, for example, was very much less coconutty than the 2019, as, clearly, the influence of the wood in the Bourbon barrel began to fade. I also greatly enjoyed two beers made at the Shoreditch brewhouse (which, incidentally, is barely a hundred yards from what was once Harwood’s Bell brewhouse, famous, incorrectly, for supposedly being the place where porter was first brewed). One was a  madeira-cask-aged doppelbock, served straight from the cask it was aged in, which was wonderfully rich, the other a sour cherry and tonka bean porter, like black forest gateau in a glass.

OK, you may passionately loathe AB InBev, and vow never to approach it or its works except with a pitchfork and a flaming torch. But the unpleasant arseholes at the top of the company who decided, stupidly and unforgiveably,  that Josh Noel had to be punished for not placing his nose as far up the AB InBev bottom as they wished are not the very many thousands of people who work for the company, who are doing the best jobs they can, and who are producing beers like that sour cherry porter, and that Madeira-cask-aged doppelbock, and those iterations of BCS, and those projects like Obadiah Poundage porter, and I believe THOSE people SHOULD be supported. But supporting them doesn’t mean not being as rude as possible about the bad things corporate AB InBev gets up to, and calling the company out on it as loudly as I can.

(Addendum 2: I meant to say, but forgot, so I’m saying it now, that as a fine example of how quickly myths arrive and take root, on both the embossed bottles that Bourdon County stout now comes in, and the T-shirts that Goose Island/AB InBev gives away, the claim is made that BCS was first brewed in 1992. This appears to be down to Greg Hall, who invented the beer, being unable to remember more than a decade later when he had had the dinner with the legendary Bourbon maestro Booker Noe that led to the beer’s creation. It was, as Josh Noel uncovered while researching his book, in 1995, not 1992.)

The legendary Mercer’s Meat Stout returns after 75 years

There is not a lot will make me drop everything and rush 200 miles north to Blackburn, but a message saying that the recipe for the legendary Mercer’s Meat Stout had been discovered in an attic and the beer was being brewed again got me on the first available train out of Euston.

Guinness might be good for you, but meat stout is better …

Mercer’s Meat Stout must be the weirdest beer ever brewed by a mainstream British brewer. It first appeared just before the First World War, and early advertising claimed that it was “brewed with the addition of a specially prepared meat extract.” It was introduced by Harold Irving Mercer, son of the founder of the Plough brewery in Adlington, Lancashire, John Mercer, who had died in 1907, and advertised in 1914 as “The Body Building Beverage for Brain Bone and Blood”.

It was part of a trend for “nourishing stouts” in vogue since a London wine merchant named George Raggett passed off Truman’s stout as “Raggett’s Nourishing Stout” in 1860, and which had seen “invalids’ stout” appear as early as 1861, “nursing stout” in 1867, “oat malt stout” (celebrated for its restorative properties) in 1895, and milk stout (“anti-rheumatic, energising”) in 1909.

Mercer’s was taken over by its bigger rival, Dutton’s of Blackburn, ten miles to the north, in March 1929, and the following month someone (presumably Mercer’s head brewer, perhaps Harold Mercer him self) typed up, or had typed up, a complete seven-page document headed “Meat Stout Brewing”, clearly instructions for Dutton’s on how to produce what was a popular beer in Lancashire. Mercer’s brewery closed in 1936, and the brewing of meat stout continued at Dutton’s Salford brewery in Bow Street, Blackburn until around 1943: it was still on sale in April 1942, priced at one shilling and five pence for a pint bottle, 9½ pence for a half-pint, against Mackeson milk stout and Guinness at one shilling and sixpence per pint bottle and Whitbread’s Oatmeal Stout and John Smith’s Milk Stout at one shilling and four pence a pint.

Mercer’s Meat Stout advertised on the outside of an unidentified Dutton’s pub some time in the 1930s

Quite likely the end came because of the increasing difficulty in the middle of the Second World War of getting hold of the large quantities of the tightly rationed sugars of various types that went into the brewing of meat stout: more than 14 pounds to the barrel. (Harold Mercer died in October 1943, aged 64, at his home in Bare Lane, Bare, Morecambe, meaning his best-known beer disappeared off the planet around the same time that he did.)

The recipe remained in Dutton’s possession even after meat stout stopped being made, and when the brewery in Blackburn closed in 1978, 14 years after it had been bought out by Whitbread, a brewer at Bow Street named Derek Malcolm Dixon decided that he did not wish to transfer to the new Whitbread brewery at Salmesbury and, though only 50, he would take his pension – and the recipe –  and retire. (Today Salmesbury is owned by AB InBev and produces Stella and Bud.) Derek died a few years later, aged just 58, and the recipe for meat stout that he had removed from work was inherited, along with a couple of brewing books and a hydrometer, by his son Phil.

Phil then misplaced the recipe for more than 30 years, until the boom in craft brewing spurred him to look for it and, when he found it, to take it to a local craft brewery, Three B’s, based at the Black Bull inn, in the countryside just outside Blackburn, to see if they would like to try to reproduce it. Brewery founder Robert Bell and his son Mark did their best with matching the original ingredients from 1929, which included more than 200 pounds of something called “meat extract caramel”, made by the food additives and flavourings manufacturer A. Boake, Roberts & Co of Stratford, East London, which disappeared about the same time that Dutton’s brewery did.

The yeast “goes a bit daft” on its introduction to Bovril

Not having “meat extract caramel”, the Bells improvised with Bovril: two catering packs-worth, 900 grams in all, added at the whirlpool stage. The recipe they came up with also included pale Maris Otter malt, roast barley, black malt, wheat malt and treacle, with Goldings, Fuggles and Northern Brewer hops. The yeast certainly appreciated the Bovril: when Rob Bell came back three hours after pitching, it was “going a bit daft,” in his own words, with a river of foaming, frothing yeast pouring from the four-barrel fermenter all over the brewhouse floor.

The final result was a 5.5 per cent abv deep black stout with a fine creamy head, and complex layers of flavour, matching sweetness with bitterness, and a touch of dryness in the finish. The Bells called it Winter Warmer Stout, rather than meat stout, worrying that drinkers would be put off by the name, but the reaction in the Black Bull pub from customers has been highly enthusiastic, and Phil Dixon is delighted: “I’m over the moon with the beer – I couldn’t have expected it to be any better, they’ve done a really good job of brewing it,” he told me. Phil is one of the few people around to be able to make any sort of comparison with the Mercer’s Meat Stout of old: his father was a home-brewer after he retired, and “as far as I’m aware this is one of the recipes he brewed at home. I remember tasting a brew that can’t have been anything else, it was very similar.

Phil Dixon at the Black Bull with a pint of the revived Meat Stout

“It was mashed in a bath, and then the wort was transferred into one of those top-loading washing machines to be boiled with hops, and then it was pumped out and fermented. So we couldn’t have a bath for a week and we couldn’t wash our clothes.”

Although the Three B’s brewery, which is now 20 years old, though it only moved to its present site a former Daniel Thwaites pub, in 2011, delivers its beers to 30 or 40 pubs a week, the revived Mercer’s Meat Stout will only be on sale at the Black Bull. If you want to try it, be warned that the pub is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and only open from 4pm Wednesdays to Fridays, though it opens at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. The Black Bull does not serve food, and it has no televisions and no fruit machines – “it’s a talking pub,” Mark Bell says.

The original recipe, meanwhile, is a fascinating document, revealing much about the methods used by a small North of England brewer in the 1920s. Three different types of coloured malt went into Meat Stout, for example, amber, black and crystal, made by Charles E. Seed Ltd of Clayton, Bradford, Yorkshire, and the recipe is firm about their use: “These Patent Malts should be mashed within about 48 hours of being roasted. Seeds send them to us newly roasted specially for each brew by passenger train [a journey of some 40 miles]. We pay half the carriage. (note: Black Malt is NOT mashed. It is added to copper at start of second 50-minute boil.)” Those three made up seven per cent of the grain bill each: 68 per cent was “high dried” Norfolk and Californian malt from the Leeds maltsters W.J. Robson & Co, and 11.5 per cent was flaked maize from the Liverpool Malt Co Ltd.

The hops were a real mix, though annoyingly the author of the recipe gave only the geographical origins of the hops used, not their varieties: not quite a quarter 1928 Worcesters, the same amount of 1928 Kents, 15 per cent each 1927 Kents and Worcesters, nine per cent 1927 “Continentals”, the same amount of 1927 “Oregons” (possibly Fuggles, through probably Clusters), three per cent 1925 Oregons and three per cent “sundry pieces to use up end of pockets”. There were also 18 pounds of “stew hops”, a mixture of 1928 “choicest” Worcesters and Kents, which were placed in a bag with a chain attached and hung in the copper for 20 minutes after the 110-minute boil was over, to be retained and reused in the next brew; and 4½ pounds of White, Tompkins & Courages Hop Concentrate, equivalent of 54 pounds of leaf hops, to give 192 pounds of hops for 80 barrels, or two pounds 6.4 ounces of hops per barrel.

Other wacky ingredients in the recipe besides that mysterious “Meat Extract Caramel” (Boake, Roberts & Co’s records are at Hackney Local Archives, apparently: time for a trip to East London) are “copper wort adjunct” from George Clark & Son Ltd of Millwall Docks in London, “a slowly fermentable sugar for use in the copper with all types of beer”, designed to give palate-fulness at a lower gravity; “Jetose Caramel”, which looks to be a typographical error for “ketose caramel” (j and k are adjacent on the keyboard) from the Liverpool sugar manufacturer Harvey Steel; and “block juice”, “a solid block, resembling coal, but with the overpowering liquorice flavour and bitter-sweet taste”, from the Manchester-based chemists J. Woolley Sons & Co. It is notable, though of course, not surprising, that most of the suppliers were from the North of England.

Other points from the recipe: the stout was dry-hopped at a rate of two ounces of 1928 Worcesters, two ounces of 1928 Kents and 1½ ounces of 1927 Oregons per barrel for the draught version and five ounces of 1928 Worcesters, two ounces of 1928 Kents and three ounces of 1927 Oregons per barrel for the bottled version, and the draught version was primed with around two pints three fluid ounces of 1148ºOG priming solution to give a gravity equivalent to 1056º; and the bottled stout was delivered “as near as is practical … new bottled to the customer. The ideal is to bottle it and load it on the motors direct off the bottling machine.”

Very many thanks indeed to Phil Dixon’s late father for preserving the recipe for Mercer’s Meat Stout, and to Phil for finding it again and persuading the Three B’s brewery to reproduce it, and then telling me about it (this is not such a great scoop as I thought it was at first, as there is apparently a version of the recipe in the Whitbread archives, and Brian Glover mentions it in one of his books, though it appears to be two pages shorter than the Dixon version) and very many thanks to Rob and Mark Bell for picking me up at Blackburn Station, driving me to the Black Bull and filling me with excellent stout. I very sincerely hope this will not be the last time we see Mercer’s Meat Stout on a bar top again.

Rob and Mark Bell: thanks very much, guys, athat’s a great beer you brewed

The surprising secrets behind the origins of the Fuggle hop uncovered at last

Despite being one of the most important hops in the history of beer, the precise origins of the Fuggle variety have been a puzzle for a long time. Its genetic parentage has been a mystery, since it appeared to be unrelated to other English hop varieties, and the long-accepted story of when it was discovered, by whom, and when it was first launched turned out to be dubious at best. Now research by Czech botanists, and a Kentish local historian, has answered all the questions: it turns out that everything you have read until now, in every book and article, on the year the Fuggle hop was first launched has been wrong. In addition, the surprise answer to the exact parentage of the Fuggle hop turns out to be … well, read on.

The Fuggle is, along with the Golding variety, one of the iconic English hops, loved by brewers across Britain for more than a century for the flavours it brings to traditional bitters and milds. Equally importantly, the Fuggle hop has been widely used in breeding programmes around the world, and its descendants include some of the best-loved hop varieties of the craft beer era, including Cascade, Willamette, Citra, Nelson Sauvin, and even the new German aroma varieties Mandarina Bavaria and Huell Melon.

The long-accepted version of the origins of the Fuggle variety was laid down by John Percival, professor of botany at the South-Eastern Agricultural College, Wye, near Maidstone, Kent, more than a century ago. Writing in 1901 about the first Fuggle hop, Professor Percival said:

“The original plant was a casual seedling which appeared in the flower-garden of Mr George Stace of Horsmonden, Kent. The seed from which the plant arose was shaken out along with crumbs from the hop-picking dinner basket used by Mrs Stace, the seedling being noticed about the year 1861. The sets were afterwards introduced to the public by Mr Richard Fuggle of Brenchley, about the year 1875.”

Unfortunately, when researchers came to look at these claims in the 21st century, a number of problems were uncovered. Nobody by the name of George Stace could be found in the village of Horsmonden in or around the 1860s. Nor was it clear who of three different Richard Fuggles living in the area around that time was the one who had developed the hop that had taken his name: none of the three appears to  fit the narrative very well. In addition, 1875 seemed too late for the hop’s introduction, as it was already being talked about in newspapers from that year as an established variety.

George Stace Moore’s cottage by the green in Horsmonden, Kent, where the hop that become the Fuggle was found growing in a flower garden now behind that hedge and wall on the right …

The first clue to a solution to the mystery came with the discovery some five years ago that Professor Percival had got the wrong name for the man in whose flower garden the first Fuggle hop was found. He was properly, in full, George Stace Moore, which revelation enabled his exact home, and his wife’s name, to be identified at last. George Stace Moore (known locally as just George Stace) was 55 in 1861, he lived in a cottage with a flower garden on the corner of The Heath, Horsmonden’s village green, that is still there today, diagonally across the road from the Gun Inn (now the Gun & Spitroast), and his wife, Mrs Stace, from whose dinner basket the seed that became the Fuggle hop fell among the flowers, was called Sarah, née Dadswell, aged 46.

Lionel Burgess, whose researches uncovered the facts about the first sale of Fuggle’s hops, and the relationship between the Fuggle family and the Stace Moores

The important missing parts of that tale were finally filled in earlier this year by a local historian born in Horsmonden called Lionel Burgess. Mr Burgess discovered an advertisement from a local newspaper, the Maidstone and Kentish Journal, in October 1871 announcing the sale the following month by auctioneer William Tompsett of 100,000 bedded sets of “The new hop, known as ‘Fuggle’s Goldings'” on behalf of “Messrs Fuggle.” This was the first commercial sale of the hop that had been found in George Stace Moore’s flower garden, and it took place four years earlier than indicated by Professor Percival. Later, at least, Fuggle hop sets sold for £1 for a thousand, suggesting the brothers would make £100, less auctioneer’s fees, from the sale, worth perhaps £8,500 today. (That means, of course, that November 2021, just two years away, will be the 150th anniversary of the launch of the Fuggle hop: if we can’t get “Fugglefest 150” organised to celebrate that, I will be deeply disappointed.)

Maidstone and Kentish Journal, Saturday October 21 1871, p1: the Fuggle hop goes on sale for the first time

Mr Burgess was also able to identify “Messrs Fuggle”: Richard Fuggle junior of Old Hay farm, near Brenchley, and his younger brothers, John (known as Jack) and Henry (known as Harry), who were running their father’s former farm together. This identification also explains another small puzzle: why George Stace Moore did not offer the hop found in his flower garden to one of the several hop growers living closer to Horsmonden Green than the Fuggles. George and his wife were Richard Fuggle junior’s uncle and aunt. Richard junior was the son of Sarah’s sister, Ann Dadswell, who had been working as a servant for John Fuggle, father of Richard senior, at Old Hay since at least 1841, when she was 26 (it appears that she and Richard senior never actually married, despite having three children together). The family link also makes it likely—perhaps even probable—that the seed that fell out of Mrs Stace’s dinner basket got in there while she was hop picking for her relatives at Old Hay, which would put an even greater obligation on George to tell the Fuggles, and nobody else, about the extra-special hop that was growing in his flower garden.

The 100,000 Fuggle hop sets put up for sale in 1871 were bedded out near the Maidstone Road Inn, Paddock Wood. The inn later went through several changes of name, including the Railway Hotel and the Hop Pocket. It was rebuilt in the 1950s, but closed in 2007 and later demolished. However, planning permission currently exists for a new pub and an apartment block to be built on the site. By coincidence, the site where Fuggles first went on sale is only a short distance from the headquarters of English Hops Ltd, the hop growers’ co-operative, which is based in Hop Pocket Lane, Paddocks Wood.

In 1874 the Fuggle brothers dissolved their partnership as farmers at Old Hay, with an announcement appearing in newspapers that November. Strangely, the fame of their hop variety had already crossed the Atlantic, with several US newspapers, including in Vermont and Los Angeles, reporting in March 1874 that “Fuggle’s Goldings” were among “several” early kinds of hop “which have sprung up lately” that English hop growers were planting as they expanded the acreage given over to the crop. Some time between 1874 and 1878 Richard Fuggle moved from Old Hay to Wittersham, a village in Kent around 20 or so miles to the south of Brenchley. He died in 1913, being buried back in Brenchley, in the graveyard of All Saints Church, where his grave can still be seen, alongside that of his father and mother.

GHrave of Richard Fuggle junior
The grave of Richard Fuggle junior, 1841-1913, developer of the hop variety that bears his name, hidden in a corner of the churchyard at All Saints church, Brenchley, Kent

Jack Fuggle, born 1845, died in 1877, aged 32, and the youngest brother, Harry, born 1846, died the following year, aged 31: both, like their older brother, are buried at All Saints church, Brenchley. However, it remains a puzzle why Richard Fuggle moved away from the village, and why he became so obscure, despite the success of “Fuggle’s Goldings,” that Professor Percival was unable to find him, and uncover more accurate facts about the origins of the eponymous hop.

The hop variety the Fuggle brothers first sold in 1871 continued to be called by some growers “Fuggles [sic] Goldings” (and often “Fuggle’s Early Goldings,” in recognition of their cropping a week or two before other varieties) until at least 1934. In 1884, when the hop was being advertised to growers in Worcestershire, in the English Midlands, the second great hop-growing area in Britain, it was called “Fuggle’s Noted Golding.” But at the start of the 20th century most commentators were calling the variety simply the Fuggle or Fuggle’s hop, clearly feeling that it was too different from Goldings to carry the Goldings name.

That early naming of the variety as “Fuggle’s Golding”, incidentally, explains why the variety became known as Savinjski Golding, or Styrian Golding, when it was grow in Slovenia. In 1886 a local entrepreneur and activist, Janez Hausenbichler, from Savinja in what was then Austro-Hungarian Slovenia, acquired some Fuggle hop sets, at a time when the variety was still known in England as “Fuggle’s Golding.” As a result local hop farmers believed they were growing a Goldings variety, and the Fuggles grown in Slovenia became acclimatized under the name “Savinjski Golding.” The hop turned out to fit the local climate and soil perfectly and even in 1964 the Savinjski Golding was the only type of hop being grown in the Savinja Valley. When Slovenian hops started being imported into Britain, certainly by the late 1930s, the variety became known as the Styrian Golding, most likely because Britons could not pronounce “Savinjski,” and Styria was better known anyway.

Meanwhile, as growers and researchers teased out the relationships of hop varieties to one another, evidence that the Fuggles were wrong in naming their hop “Fuggle’s Golding variety”, and the Fuggle hop could not be related to the Golding hop looked to come with the discovery in 1949 by the Czech biochemist František Šorm of farnesene as a component of hop oils in some varieties of the hop plant, but not others: Fuggles contain 4 per cent or more of farnesene, Goldings have none, or at best a trace. Indeed, the hop oil make-up of the Fuggle suggested it was more similar to the German Tettnanger variety than any English hop.

Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, Farnham, Surrey

However, early this year a genotype analysis was published by two more Czech researchers, Josef Patzak and Alena Henychová of the Hop Research Institute in Zatec, that showed the Fuggle brothers had been correct: their hop WAS a member of the Golding family, close enough genetically for either a mother-daughter or grandmother-granddaughter relationship. The Czech researchers tested 109 cultivars from the world hop collection at Zatec, and found that they fell naturally into three groups, “Continental European,” including the Saaz, Tettnang, Spalt and Hallertau varieties, “Island European,” including Fuggles and Goldings, and “North American.” In particular, a dendrogram of genetic distances found the Fuggle hop sitting very close to the Golding hop.

Dr Peter Darby, research director at Wye Hops Ltd, near Canterbury in Kent, told me: “A few years back, it was suggested that Fuggle was more related to the European varieties such as Tettnanger rather than the British varieties of the time such as Golding. This was based mainly on oil analysis data and the fact that Goldings have no farnesene in the oil but it is a major part of the oil of Fuggle, being about four to eight per cent of the oil content. Farnesene is also a major part of the oil of Tettnanger, comprising up to 25 per cent of its oil. Furthermore, Fuggle was known to be exactly the same genetically as Styrian Golding and Czech Green Saaz and there was a little uncertainty about which was the chicken and which was the egg.

“However, several bits of information have since clarified the situation. First, WGV [Whitbread Golding Variety] was also found to contain small amounts of farnesene, with one to two percent content. But this argument that other historic British varieties contained farnesene was always countered because WGV has wilt resistance, which suggests strongly that it arose as a seedling of a US male being grown at White’s Farm at Beltring. So its farnesene could have come in from the US father. However, at Wye our analyses of Colegate in our national collection, a variety selected in 1805, well before Fuggle, indicated that it also contains five to eight percent farnesene in its oil. Hence, farnesene does not necessarily imply non-British origin.

“But molecular methods have now confirmed Fuggle to be closely related to Golding. Four methods of molecular markers were used; SSR (simple sequence repeats), STS (sequence-tagged sites) and EST-SSR (expressed sequence tag-simple sequence repeats) and SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms). The relationship is so close that Golding and Fuggle are likely to be within a few generations of each other – mother and daughter or granddaughter. So, the story of Fuggle arising from a seed at Brenchley is perfectly plausible. It certainly will have arisen as a seedling where Goldings were also being grown, which is not the Tettnang region.”

A field full of Fuggles at Puttenham Farm hop garden, near Farnham, Surrey

Today the Fuggle is struggling a little in the land where it originated: it has plunged from more than 75 per cent of all hop acreage in England at one time to less than ten per cent today, mainly because of the ravages of a disease called Verticillium Wilt, which first appeared in 1924, and to which it is badly susceptible. There is, as far as I know, only one farmer still growing the variety in Kent, Clive Edmed, of Hayle Farm, Horsmonden. (Update 12/12/19 – make that two six growers in Kent. The Fuggle hop is also grown by Hukins Hops at Haffenden Farm, St Michaels, Tenterden, and you will find the names of four more at the end of this piece.) But demand is encouraging more plantings of the variety: in 2014 the Hog’s Back brewery near Farnham in Surrey planted Fuggle hops for its own use, and in 2017 Puttenham Farm, in Seale Puttenham, also near Farnham, added to its existing 5.66 hectares of Fuggle hops another four hectares. The same year the first hops were harvested from two new yards planted with Fuggles at Orleton Court Farm in Worcestershire, 12 miles north-west of Worcester, specifically for the Yorkshire brewer Timothy Taylor. They were planted on land that had not grown hops before, and was thus free from Verticillium wilt, and which stands above the nearby River Teme, meaning it is flood-free and thus not in danger of being infected from land upstream. Richard Fuggle’s hop is looking good for a sesquicentenary celebration in 2021.

Supplier update: another hop supplier growing the Fuggle hop is Brook House Farm in Bromyard, Herefordshire.

Further supplier update: four more farms growing Fuggles in East Kent
Thomas Johnson, Elverton Farms Ltd, Harbledown, Canterbury
Rickards Farms, Old Wives Lees, Canterbury
S.C. & J.H. Berry, Selling, Faversham
T G Redsell Ltd, Boughton-under-Blean, Faversham

Do you gyle your ale after it leaves the cooler and finishes fermenting in the vat or krausen your beer post-coolship when it’s run out of the foeder?

I had a small Twitter spat yesterday with Duration Brewing after they said they were installing a coolship and foeders at their brewery in Norfolk. A wave of grumpy old mannishness washed across me, and I tweeted that we don’t have coolships and foeders in Britain, we have coolers and vats. Why use a foreign word when we have English words that mean the same thing?

Indeed, “coolship” is not even a “proper” foreign word, but a calque, or literal translation, of Kühlschiff or koelschip – in fact a classic example of what is called a paronymous calque, an incorrect “literal” translation, where a word in language A that appears similar to a word in language B is wrongly used to translate that similar word. Schiff in German means “ship”, yes, but also “vessel”, in the sense of “container” (as in “cooking vessel”, and “fermentation vessel”). So Kühlschiff and its Dutch equivalent, koelschip, should be literally translated as “cool-vessel”, not “coolship”.

However, we already have an excellent translation for Kühlschiff into English: “cooler”. What a German brewer calls a Kühlschiff, and a Dutch or Flemish brewer a koelschip, a British brewer calls a cooler. I have stood next to the koelschip at the top of the Halve Maan brewery in Bruges, and next to the cooler at the top of the Hook Norton brewery in the Cotswolds, and they are identical vessels. (Well, except that the Belgian one is as gloriously shiny as a very large new penny and the English one was dull, dirty and covered in turquoise-blue streaks, but apart from that …) A cooler in a brewery is exactly the same as een koelschip in een brouwerij or ein Kühlschiff in einer Brauerei.

At the top of the Haalve Maan brewery in Bruges: in the UK this would be a cooler

As for “foeder”, let me quote from the Dutch Wikipedia entry on that fine Belgian brewery, Rodenbach:

“Het aanvankelijk bovengistende bier rijpt in grote eikenhouten vaten (‘foeders’) en krijgt daar door gewenste infectie met de melkzuurbacterie een licht zurige smaak.”*

You don’t, I think, need to actually speak Dutch to understand that it’s saying THE NORMAL DUTCH WORD FOR THE SPECIALIST BREWERY TERM “FOEDERS” IS VATS. Sorry, got a bit shouty there.  So even in Dutch, the words foeder and vat are synonyms. And since we already have the word vat in English, we don’t need to import the word foeder.

Duration Brewing (and as the brother of another Norfolk brewer I would like to wish them every good success in their new venture – I hope to try their beer soon) tried to defend themselves by insisting: “Vat means long-term storage, foeder means primary or long-term fermentation, which is what we plan to do. Cooler means cool your wort, much like both Germans and Brits did and still do, not a koelschip for inoculation like Belgian brewing.” Multiple problems there: while SOME Belgian brewers now use their koelschepen for wild yeast inoculation, ALL Belgian brewers once, at least, used their koelschepen for what they were designed to do, as coolers, for cooling their wort. And as we’ve seen, in its home language foeder is another, and more obscure word for “vat”. In addition we’ve talked about “fermentation vats” in English since at least the 18th century: English brewers built hundreds, probably thousands of vats for the long-term maturation of beer, mostly porter, during which maturation that beer underwent a slow secondary fermentation. So “vat” has been used in English for centuries as the word for a vessel in which beer undergoes a long-term fermentation. So has “tun – and another synonym for foeder in Dutch is ton, in English “tun”: the online Nederlanse Encyclopedie defines foeder as

Ton met een grote inhoud (200 tot 300 hectoliter) bestemd voor het opvoeden van de wijn.

Which translates as “Tun with a large capacity (200 to 300 hectolitres) intended for maturing wine.”

Dutch also had the word foederzaalzaal is a cognate of the English word “saloon”, so in the spirit of paronymous calquing that gave us “coolship” for koelschiff, we perhaps ought to translate that as “foeder saloon”. The definition of foederzaal in Dutch, according to the online Nederlanse Encyclopedie, is

een (grote) ruimte, speciaal ingericht om met meerdere foeders (houten lagertanks) te herbergen.

Which means “a (large) room, specially equipped to accommodate several vats (wooden lager tanks).” So clearly another synonym for foeder in Dutch is houten lagertank, “wooden lager tank”.

At the top of the Hook Norton brewery: in Dutch or Flemish this would be a koelschipp

There are occasions when importing a new word into the English language is necessary because it perfectly covers a concept that English hasn’t previously had to have a word for, but now needs. The Norwegian dialect word kveik, for example, has speedily joined the English language brewers’ dictionary, because there isn’t a simple English equivalent for “Norwegian farmhouse yeast strains”. John “Beer Nut” Duffy suggests that coolship is a useful word because it means “vessel used to inoculate wort with wild yeast strains”, and is therefore performing a function that the word “cooler” doesn’t cover. I’m semi-demi swayed by that argument, but koelschip, from which “coolship” was calqued, doesn’t mean “vessel used to inoculate wort with wild yeast strains”, it means “cooler”. It’s just that some Belgian brewers used their coolers to inoculate their worts with wild yeast strains. So if the Belgians don’t need a separate word to distinguish between “cooler” and “vessel used to inoculate wort with wild yeast strains”, why do English-speakers? If the Belgians use the same word to describe something that can be used for two different functions, why can’t we?

(There’s an argument, incidentally, that no one has used against me, so I’ll use it myself: American brewers come from a tradition heavily influenced in the past by German brewing customs and practices – indeed, the major brewing organisations in the US conducted much of their business in German in the 19th century – and undoubtedly those many German brewers in the US translated Kühlschiff as “coolship”, so why should they not do the same now? That’s a good argument if you’re in the US. I’m not.)

As for foeder, the Dutch call foeders vaten (or tonnen, tuns), a foeder doesn’t perform any function that a vat (or tun) doesn’t and hasn’t: English will survive very happily calling a vat a vat. The giant vessel full of maturing porter that collapsed at the Meux brewery in 1814, killing eight people in the Great London Beer Flood, wasn’t a foeder, it was a vat. It’s not the Giant Foeder of Heidelberg (which actually, in Dutch, is called De Grote Heidelberg Tun [sic]…) As Ed Wray commented in the Twitter spat, it would be very odd to call the vessel at Greene King in Bury St Edmonds that is used to mature 5X a foeder. You may think me a curmudgeonly old Canute: I prefer to regard myself as a fighter against the unnecessary and pretentious expansion of technical vocabularies. We don’t need to call a vat a foeder, particularly when the Dutch themselves are happy to call a foeder a vat.

A coolship/Kühlschiff/koelschipp at the Černokostelecký brewery in the Czech Republic

(Etymological aside: the German for vat is Faß, and as Fuß in German became “foot” in English, so Faß in German should have become “fat”. In Old English the word was “fat”, but it was replaced by “vat” in Modern English. Etymological dictionaries will tell you “vat” is from the West Country English dialectical voicing of “f” as “v”. It seems to me, however, much more likely that the replacement of Old English “fat” by “vat” is down to immigrant beer brewers from the Low Countries, who brought us not only hops but words such as firkin and gyle. In Dutch, Fuß became voet and Faß became vat. That Dutch vat then, I suggest, replaced its Old English equivalent, “fat”, when Flemings and other Lowlanders began working in English breweries from the 15th century onwards. So “vat” in English is already a Dutch word …)

Final note: why does “gyle” appear in the headline at the top? For several hundred years the Anglo-Irish word for “adding some fresh still-fermenting wort to your beer to give it extra carbonation” was “gyling”. As that practice died out, in the 1960s in Ireland, long before in Britain, so the word – originally Dutch, as it happens, and doubtless imported because we didn’t have an equivalent word in English – disappeared. When the practice reappeared, it came in via the US under the name “krausening”, from a German word meaning, roughly, “fizzy”. I’d like to see brewers in these islands (nod to Irish sensibilities in difficult times there) reject “krausening” for “gyling”.

*But if you don’t speak Dutch and can’t work it out, it says: “The initially fermented beer matures in large oak vats (‘foeders’) and gets a slightly sour taste due to the desired infection with the lactic acid bacterium.”

How even giant multi-national brewing corporations can screw it up by lazily copying and pasting

Rule number one in the history writing biz is: don’t just copy-and-paste stuff off the internet (or from anywhere else), because the chances are high that what you have copied is wrong, and some fecker (me, in this case) will come along and hold you up to ridicule and abuse.

I’m talking about you, today, Carlsberg, for some egregious copying-and-pasting with no original research at all on your corporate website, which claims, vis-à-vis the Lion brewery in Sri Lanka, a fair slice of which is owned by the Danes, that

“The Ceylon Brewery was the first brewery in Sri Lanka. It was established in 1881 by Sir Samuel Backer as a cottage industry, catering for the British colonial tea plantations in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya. With its cool climate and natural spring water, Nuwara Eilya was the ideal location for a brewery. It acquired limited liability company status in 1911.”

Let us deconstruct this nonsense. The man they are talking about as the alleged founder of the Ceylon Brewery was actually Samuel Baker, not Backer. He started a small brewery at the hill station of Nuwara Eliya, high in the mountains of what was then Ceylon, around 1849/50, which closed a few years later. It was not built to cater for tea plantations, because there were none in Ceylon at that time: the first tea field on the island was only planted in 1867. Baker’s brewery was nothing to do with the brewery that opened 26 years after he left Nuwara Eliya. That brewery did not rely on spring water, but a stream that flowed down through the brewery site from the Lover’s Leap waterfall nearby. The brewery founded in 1881, which was, of course, the second on the island, after Baker’s, became a limited company in 1910.

Mind, even at five errors in four sentences, that’s not the worst pile of nonsense on the internet about what is now the Lion Brewery, famous today for an award-winning strong stout that is one of the last links with British colonial brewing in Southern Asia. The Lion Brewery’s own website is full of rubbish (and bizarre random capitalisation) as well:

“It is in 1860 that our story Begins. British Planter Sir Samuel Baker decided to establish a home brewery in the cool climes of Nuwara Eliya, although it was in 1881 that the facet of commercial brewing is evidenced, managed by Messrs Bremer and Pa Bavary. Ownership changed in 1884 to Murrey Brewery Company Rawalpindi, who later sold out to Ceylon Brewery, helmed by the pragmatic J B Hampson and later G W Lindsay White, who founded The Ceylon Brewery Limited in 1911.”

At least that doesn’t claim that Baker actually founded the concern that became the Ceylon Brewery Ltd, but there are still some very odd errors there. Baker had left Ceylon for Britain in 1855 (and he wasn’t knighted until 1866), so our story doesn’t begin in 1860 at all. “Pa Bavary” is a bizarre mangling: this was actually a young Belgian brewer and chemist called Auguste de Bavay. The brewery he started with a Nuwara Eliya planter named Mountsteven Bremer in 1881 suffered from a serious lack of capital, and collapsed early in 1884, and it was subsequently bought by the Murree Brewery Company (not Murrey) of Ghora Gali, 30 miles from Rawalpindi. (De Bavay left Ceylon in March 1884 to take up a position as brewer with T & A Aitken’s Victoria Parade brewery in Melbourne, Australia. He went on to have an extremely successful career as a brewer, chemist and yeast scientist, building on the work of Emil Christian Hansen at the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen to develop the first pure yeast used commercially in Australia, and joined Foster’s brewery in Melbourne as chief brewer in 1894, later acting as a consultant for, among others, the Swan Brewery in Perth and the Cascade brewery in Tasmania. He also had success in areas as diverse as bacteriology, metallurgy and paper making.)

The Murree Brewery Company ran the brewery in Nuwara Eliya for nine years, before pulling out, and the concern was acquired around April 1893 by a consortium led by the former transport agent for the business, an Irishman called George William Lindsay White, who was managing director of the Ceylon Brewery for nearly 30 years until a year or so before his death aged 77 in 1922. Under Lindsay White the Ceylon Brewery became a limited company in 1910. I have no idea how “the pragmatic J B Hampson” got into the story so early: John Bagshawe Hampson was a child, at best, when Lindsay White died. He was a student brewer at Samuel Smith’s in Tadcaster in 1939, and had moved to the Ceylon Brewery by 1950 when the first of his three children was born and christened in Nuwara Eliya. Hampson was manager at the brewery until 1963, when he returned to England to work for Porter-Lancastrian. So that’s six errors by the Lion brewery, five new and one repeated.

I used to slag off Wikipedia for its multiple errors, but the general level of accuracy has improved greatly over the past ten or 12 years. However, the entry on the Lion Brewery repeats most of the inaccuracies on the Carlsberg and Lion websites and adds some extra, just for you:

“The Ceylon Brewery was the first brewery established in Sri Lanka. It was established in 1849 by Sir Samuel Baker (1821–93) as a cottage industry, catering for the British colonial tea plantations in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya was the ideal location for a brewery, with its cool climate and natural spring water. It wasn’t however until 1881 that it began brewing on a commercial basis, with the Ceylon Brewery Company, managed by Messrs Bremer and Pa Bavary. In 1884 the brewery was taken over by the Mohan Meakin Brewery of India, who later sold out to Ceylon Brewery, operated by John Bagshawe Hampson. In 1911 the brewery was acquired by G.W. Lindsay White and received limited liability company status, as the Ceylon Brewery Limited.”

That’s ten errors, including the Murree Brewery Company inaccurately and anachronistically being called “Mohan Meakin”: not only did the name Mohan Meakin not exist until the 1960s, but the Murree Brewery Company was always (and remains) a separate concern from the constituents of what became Mohan Meakin. Anyone digging into the history of brewing in India ought to know that. I also struggle to understand how anyone could look at “Pa Bavary” and not think: “Hang on, that can’t be right.” This is really not at all difficult to research: the British Library can give you web access to scanned, OCR’d copies of the Ceylon Observer, where you can speedily find the facts about De Bavay, Bremer, the Murree Brewery Company and the rest. Some trifling online detectiving, and gaps in the narrative, such as De Bavay’s and Bremer’s first names, can be filled in. It took me a morning.

Of course, the appearance of “Pa Bavary” in the Wikipedia entry means this invented individual now pops up in a host of different places. “Rewrite the Wikipedia entry!” you cry – thanks, but I don’t have the time right now to mess with Wikipedia’s templates, only to have some clown revert it later because it’s “original research”. I am also reluctant to help Wikipedia while it maintains its indefensible stance that it knows better than the Manners family how to spell the title of the Marquis of Granby: while “Marquess” is the spelling preferred by many families in Britain who use that title, the Manners family is one of those that uses the spelling “Marquis” in the courtesy title of the Duke of Rutland’s eldest son. Wikipedia, however, has decreed that its style for the title is “Marquess”, and in the face of all the evidence insists on calling the man who gave his name to so many pubs the “Marquess of Granby”. It’s rich when a pub sign is more accurate than an on-line encyclopedia.

Yes, it’s VERY possible to define a ‘sessionable’ craft beer

I was thinking of ignoring the “what does sessionable mean” debate, even through I was dragged into it by my ear by having my research quoted. Then I saw a tweet yesterday from someone talking about “a sessionable 5.5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout”, and the world swam and dissolved before me as I plunged screaming and twisting into a hellish, tormented pit of dark despair.

Let me make this as clear as I can. This is an egregious and unforgivable total failure to understand what the expression “sessionable” means, is meant to mean, and was coined for. A 5.5 per cent alcohol beer is not, and cannot be, “sessionable”. A smoked oatmeal stout, while I am sure it can be lovely, is not and cannot be “sessionable”. Nobody ever spent all evening drinking four or five, or six, pints of smoked oatmeal stout.

This is NOT a session beer …

The rant you are now reading springs less from that particular beer review than a piece this week by the British beer writer  Lily Waite on the American website Vinepair headlined “It’s Impossible to Define ‘Sessionable’ in Craft Beer”. I don’t think Lily wrote the headline, which looks to go further than her article does, but her piece, which references my research back in 2011 into the origins of the term “session beer”, raises a number of potential difficulties around a definition of the term “sessionable”, not least the existence now of beers called “session barley wine” with eight per cent alcohol and 75 IBUs, and “session double IPA“, again at eight per cent abv.

I try not to be prescriptivist about language, but for me “sessionable” is a very useful word with, actually, yes, a precise meaning, and if people are going to start being stupid with it by releasing something called a “session barley wine” or “session double IPA”, even as a “joke”, then we are in great danger of destroying an important descriptor, and losing an easy way of summing up one of the fundamentals of British pub culture.

It’s entirely possible to define “sessionable”, but only if you understand what the expression was coined to describe, which many American beer drinkers – and brewers – apparently do not. A large part of the problem is that the word springs from a very British practice, the “session”, and Americans don’t really understand what the “session” is about. Britons and Americans are fooled into thinking that, because they speak the same language (more or less) and drink the same sorts of beers (more or less) in places that are called “bars” (even if the British “bar” is actually a room in a pub, rather than the descriptor for the whole establishment), then their out-of-home drinking cultures are entirely similar and compatible. They’re not. “Sessionable” means “beer capable of sustaining a session”, and “session” means “extended period of three or four hours drinking pints and engaging in conversation with friends”. That is why the fundamental definition of a session beer has to be that it has a comparatively low gravity and is comparatively unobtrusive. Americans, in my experience, do not generally spend entire evenings in one bar drinking pints. (See also the bizarrely tiny glasses used at American beer festivals.)

Another problem is that people are confusing “sessionable” with “drinkable”. The two are very much not the same. An eight per cent barley wine may well be “drinkable”, in the sense of that great beer-reviewer’s cliché, “dangerously drinkable”, that is, it slides away down the throat very easily. But “sessionable” means “you can drink several and still walk out the door without bumping into the frame.” An eight per cent barley wine is therefore NOT “sessionable”.

… and this is not a session beer either

Lily Waite’s piece is specifically looking at “sessionability” in the context of terms such as “session IPA”, and the craft appropriation of a term than applies much more to mainstream, non-craft beer drinking in the UK, and beers such as Carling, Fosters and the like. She interviewed some people with – ahh – interesting takes on sessionability, including James Rylance who helped create the now highly popular Neck Oil, Beavertown Brewery’s “session IPA”, which comes in at 4.3 per cent abv, and “masses of hop additions during the whirlpool and a huge dose of dry hops” (I quote from the brewery’s website). I’ve never tried a session on Neck Oil, but while 4.3 per cent is just on the edge of sessionability, I’m not sure about “”masses of hop additions”, even ignoring ” a huge dose of dry hops”. The classic British session beers are milds and light bitters, which generally have low hop rates. High hop rates are, I suggest, the antithesis of sessionability: too many hops, and you really can’t drink more than a couple of pints without hop overload.

This MIGHT be a session beer, if the hops aren’t overdone

James Rylance told Lily Waite that sessionability was less about abv than “balance”, and insisted: “I think ‘sessionable’ is a beer that can be drunk repeatedly, multiple times, in its correct volume. There’s a lot of Belgian beers that are super sessionable, like Saison Dupont at 6-point-something percent — that’s sessionable, but I’m just not drinking a pint of it.” No, sorry, couldn’t disagree more. You’re confusing “sessionable” with “drinkable”. You might be able to drink several small Duponts, I’m sure, lovely beer, and one is certainly not enough, but a true session beer has to be gulped in pints, not sipped. And probably I drink too fast, but after a four-hour session, I wouldn’t even be able to find the bar if I were drinking something that was 6.5 per cent. So no, Saison Dupont is NOT “sessionable” either.

But this is DEFINITELY a session beer – or was …

I can’t agree, either, with another of Lily Waite’s interviewees, Chris Hannaway of the London-based alcohol-free beer venture Infinite Session (see what he did there?), which launched last year with a 0.5 per cent pale ale brewed at Sambrooks in Battersea. ” “A ‘session’ is no longer about everyone ordering the same 4 to 5 per cent lager rounds for everyone in the group,” he says – but it never was. It was about people drinking 3.2 per cent to 4.3 per cent milds, bitters or lagers, depending on what they wanted, and drinking them all night long.  

So: what’s the definition of “sessionable” and does it apply to craft beer? Sessionable means a beer you can drink over an extended period without getting too drunk and without growing tired of it and wanting something else. And yes, clearly that can apply as much to craft beer as it does to macro, mass-market beer. (Indeed, personally I find mass-market beers entirely unsessionable because they bore me after half a pint. Dull is not sessionable either.) A sessionable craft beer is going to be one that is not too strong, and not too challenging in terms of massive hop flavours or other flavour attributes such as roastiness, sourness or whatever. There – not impossible at all.

Why oh why is the Good Beer Guide STILL getting British beer styles so totally, shambolically wrong?

I apologise for greeting the new edition of Camra’s Good Beer Guide, with a spittle-flecked rant. A little. But not much. Because SIX YEARS after I pointed out that the “British beer styles” section of “the UK’s best-selling beer and pub guide” was choked with errors, the 2020 edition of the guide, just out, is STILL printing paragraph upon paragraph of nonsense about practically everything, from IPA to porter, and barley wine to mild.

It is also seriously misleading by what it omits to say: failing to point out, for example, that today’s American-style IPAs, with their emphasis on fresh, fruity, flowery hop flavours using modern varieties of hops, are radically different beers from the aged IPAs of the 19th century, or the debased IPAs of the mid-20th century; and that modern interpretations of porter and stout, frequently adding a wide range of ingredients from coffee to vanilla to blackberries to peanut butter, are again very different from the versions that sustained the street porters of London in the time of the Georges.

Inside sources tell me that suggestions for changes to the “British Beer Styles” section for the 2020 edition were made, but were ignored. That’s shameful, frankly: of the many thousands who buy the guide, all those who knew little to nothing about beer styles will now be utterly misled into believing nonsense, while all those who DO know about beer styles will be deeply under-impressed by an obvious lack of knowledge in a book that purports to be the country’s leading pub guide, published by an organisation that purports to be the country’s leading organisation for beer drinkers.

It’s not as if all the information on beer styles that the GBG gets wrong isn’t out there in easily discoverable forms: there are now a considerable number of books, blogs, magazine articles and so on giving the true facts about how the beer styles we know today developed. And yet the 2020 GBG still prints utter nonsense such as “a true pale ale should be different to bitter,” and “From the early years of the 20th century, bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” I wrote an article 15 years ago – FIFTEEN YEARS AGO – for What’s Brewing, the Camra monthly newspaper, detailing the history of bitter, and pointing out that bitter and pale ale were and always have been synonyms for the same drink, and that brewers have never differentiated between them. To claim that there is any difference, and that at some time ” bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity”, is total made-up spherules. Here’s something I wrote 12 YEARS AGO about why saying otherwise is historically totally wrong.

Since the guide screws up “pale ale” so badly, unsurprisingly it gets the section on bitter wrong as well. It starts off talking about “running beers”, but running beers only began appearing at the end of the 19th century, and the first bitter beers appeared 40 or more years earlier, a cut-price, lower gravity response to the popularity of India Pale Ale, which was always a premium beer. It also claims that the rise of “running beers” (most of which, anyway, were mild ales, not bitters) was connected with the growth of brewers’ pub estates, which is more nonsense. It was a consumer-led desire for less alcoholic, lighter beer that saw the formerly well-aged “stock” bitters disappear. All the same, bitter/pale ale was a minority, middle-class drink until the early 1960s.

The section on IPA repeats the canard that the original “pale ales as prepared for India” were high in alcohol, a fallacy which I thought Ron Pattinson and I had stamped out, again, 15 or more years ago. At six per cent to 6.5 per cent abv, 19th century India Pale Ales were lower in strength than 19th century milds, which were up to seven or 7.5 per cent abv. It also gets the history of the entire brewing industry wrong, claiming that IPA “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, as “new technologies of the Industrial revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to produce paler beers.” It was always possible to produce pale malt, but developments in the 17th century – not the 19th – made pale malt production easier, and pale ales began growing in popularity from the end of the 1600s. (It’s a curious fact that the first known mention of the expression “pale ale” came in 1706.) What these were, however, were unhopped, or very lightly hopped pale ales: the more hopped “export” kind were an 18th century development.

Those lightly hopped, sweetish pale ales were what the brewers of Burton upon Trent specialised in before they started brewing the more bitter IPAs, and those sweetish pale ales became known as Burton Ales. It’s a style that has almost vanished now: Marston’s Old Rodger and Young’s Winter Warmer are two of the very few survivors. The 2020 GBG beer styles section actually mentions Burton Ale, but screws it up unforgivably by claiming that the beer launched in 1976 under the name Ind Coope Burton Ale was a Burton Ale of the sort once popular around the country until the 1950s. This makes me really want to smack someone hard, because I have again been pointing out for years that the 1976 beer was an IPA, with a recipe derived from what was once Ind Coope’s premium India Pale Ale, Double Diamond, and it was the marketing department at Allied Breweries that decided to mess with beer historians’ heads by giving their “new” cask bitter/pale ale the name of an older beer of a completely different style. So allow me to shout it out: IND COOPE BURTON ALE IS NOT A BURTON ALE. Thank you.

Let us continue with cataloguing the mistakes. This is very tedious, because I detailed these errors in 2013 and NOBODY TOOK ANY NOTICE, which makes me today VERY SHOUTY. Old ale was not called “stale” by drinkers because of the lactic acid and tannic flavours that developed as it aged, it was called “stale” by brewers because “stale” formerly indicated something that had “stood” (the word is related to “stall”), and thus meant merely something that had been around for a while, as opposed to fresh ale or beer, which was called “mild”. The same ale (or beer) would be “mild” when first brewed and “old” (or “stale”) after it had aged.

Mild was NOT “drunk primarily by industrial and agricultural workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who needed to refresh themselves after long hours of arduous labour.” That role was filled very specifically by porter, which actually gets its name from the workers who were its first big fans, the street and river porters, coal porters, and the like, of London. Mild ale never took off in popularity until the second half of the 19th century, though after it replaced porter in popularity, mild remained THE working class drink, urban and rural, until the 1950s

Barley wine does NOT date “back to the early 18th century”, and nor was its development anything to do with “thumbing a nose at France”. Very strong “doble-doble” beers were being brewed when Elizabeth I was complaining about them, and ales that had been aged for up to ten years were around in Queen Anne’s time. It is claimed that such ales became more popular when brandy was unavailable during Britain’s frequent wars with France. But the expression “barley wine” as a term for such strong brews is extremely rare until the end of the 19th century.

I suppose I should be happy that the worst of the myths that were once repeated about the origins of porter do not appear in the GBG 2020, but there is nonsense enough: the development of porter did NOT “herald in the commercial brewing industry”, since we had had a thriving brewing industry in Britain for more than 350 years before porter. Nor were there special restrictions on dark malt during the First World War: and the dominance of “Irish brewers” (why the coyness? If you mean Guinness, say so) was grounded in developments happening long before the Kaiser kicked off in 1914. Nor, I suggest are stouts jet-black and roasty while porters are dark brown and sweeter: I do not believe there are any generalisable differences between beers brewed today called porter and beers brewed today called stout.

At least the 2020 GBG has the decency to admit that it is “an urban myth that Scottish beers are less heavily hopped that English ones”, a myth that it was spreading in the 2014 edition, but it still claims that Scottish beers “tend to be darker and maltier than those south of the border” – not true – and insists that “Wee Heavy” was a style of beer. It was not: it was the nickname for a particular brand, Fowlers’ Twelve Guinea Ale.

There we are then: two pages on beer styles, more than a dozen silly mistakes, with the true facts in each case easily available for years. The blurb on the 2020 guide’s back cover claims that it is “fully revised”. Can I suggest that for the 2021 edition the “British beer styles” section is not “revised”, but thrown right out the window, and a completely new version written by someone who has taken on board research done into the history of this glorious brewing nation’s beer styles over the past 20 years.

Blissful unions

I cannot lie, my stomach made a little flip when I walked into the union room at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent on Wednesday. Here it was: the most iconic fermentation system on the planet. The only example left, out of – well, dozens, certainly, perhaps even hundreds, of unions in use in breweries from London to Edinburgh back in the 19th century, though the most famous sets of unions were in the breweries of Burton.

The union room at Marston’s brewery: the company has ten union sets in total, with 24 4½-barrel casks per set

It is not a cheap method of brewing, and accountancy-led brewing companies, combined with brewery closures, means that today Marston’s is the only place where you can still find beer being made in traditional union sets. Pictures don’t prepare for how big the union room is at Marston’s, packed from wall to wall with sets of oak fermenting casks, each double row of 12 casks mounted under a long, deep trough, there to catch the excess yeast produced in the fermentation as it spills out of the swan-neck pipes that rise up from the casks.

This being Wednesday, the unions had just been filled with fermenting beer, which had already spent 48 hours in more conventional fermenting vessels after the initial pitching of yeast into the wort. The regime followed since a man called Peter Walker invented the union system in the 1830s is that after that first fermentation has built up speed, the yeasty wort is “dropped” out of the initial vessels, leaving behind trub and other debris, and run into the troughs above the unions, before descending into the union casks, each one of which hold 162 gallons – four and a half barrels

Close-up of some of Marston’s union casks

There, in the dark, the Marston’s union yeast gets into its stride, multiplying furiously as it turns the sugars in the wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast loves life in the unions, and it increases so fast it foams up out of the casks and into the troughs in – from some of the unions last Wednesday – a constant creamy pour. The beer the yeast carries with it then runs back into the casks, leaving the yeast behind (to be, eventually, scooped out and turned into Marmite). Fermentation is effectively finished by the Friday, but the beer sits in the unions until the Monday, when it is run off to be packaged in cask, bottle or keg. Despite the expense, Marston’s brewers firmly believe the union system produced a beer with great stability and considerably enhanced flavours, and it is the only method used to make the brewery’s flagship Pedigree pale ale, as it was the main method of brewing in the many other breweries that once filled the town’s air with the beautiful scent of mashing barley, in the glorious past when Burton sent constant trainloads of IPA out around the world

And now, for the first time, Marston’s unions have been used to make an Imperial stout, the latest in the “Horninglow” series of one-off beers, which is why I was up in Burton, to talk to the head brewer, Pat McGinty, about the new beer, and also to have my first ever look at the Marston’s union room (shameful, I know. Call myself a beer writer?)

Pat McGinty, Marston’s head brewery: as a union man he’s wise

It’s not totally unknown to use unions to make porters and stouts, and by coincidence only a few days before my trip to Burton I was reading an article in a brewers’ trade magazine from 1878 by Charles Howard Tripp of the Stogumber brewery, near Taunton, in Somerset about brewing porter in unions. But I’m not aware of anyone making an Imperial stout that way. Equally unusually, Pat McGinty has made this 7.5 per cent abv beer using straight-up Burton well-water, rammed as it is with sulphates, which, conventionally, is seen as terrific for pale beers but not so great for dark ones, where a more London-like brewing liquor, with lots of calcium carbonate in, is regarded as optimal. The reason for not altering the water chemistry, Pat says, is to ensure this stout has a proper “Burton” character, which search for a Burton character is the reason for brewing the stout in the unions, and fermenting it with the standard Marston’s union yeast as used in making Pedigree. (The yeast apparently got on fine with the dark grains and the higher OG of the stout, though the brewers had to spend twice as long as they normally do, 4½ hours, cleaning the unions used for stout brewing, to ensure no contamination of the next batch of Pedigree.)

In the brewery yard at Marston’s

To make up for the possibly unsuitable mineral profile, Pat has used malted oats in the brew, to help round out the mouthfeel: the other grains are pale ale malt, roasted barley, chocolate malt (Charles Howard Tripp was keen on chocolate malt, which had only just been invented in his time, saying: “chocolate malt [gives] a capital rich and full flavour to the porter in which it is used”) and malted wheat, while the hops are Challenger. The beer, which will, I believe, be exclusive to Waitrose, was only two weeks old when we sampled it, unfiltered and heavy on the roasty flavours, and it still had to be filtered, partially carbonated and sent to the bottling plant, where each bottle will be seeded with the same union yeast the beer was originally fermented with (the union yeast apparently happily drops to the bottom of the bottle). It will then be held on to for 14 days before being sent out for sale in stores, though Pat McGinty suggests keeping the bottles for six to eight months to be “nicely conditioned”.

As well as a look at the union room we were also given the chance to meet Marston’s last remaining cooper, Mark Newton, who spends most of his time maintaining and repairing the union casks. That was fascinating, too, and rather sad: Mark has trained up an apprentice, who now works elsewhere in the brewery, but he is currently the last man in the town doing a job that once was carried out by hundreds. Here’s a little photo-essay.

Mark Newton, Marston’s (and Burton’s) last working cooper, leans on a union cask taken out from one of the sets for some maintenance
Mark Newton uses a cooper’s axe to trim a stave
Getting your head together … Mark Newton demonstrates two stages in the making of a head for a cask, with the staves dowelled together and then the shape of the head marked on. Heads are cut slightly oval, because when fitted they will squeeze a little in the direction of the grain
Cutting in a bevel on a cask head with a cooper’s double-handled heading knife
Mark Newton shaves the edge of a firkin with a topping plane. The dark stripes on the wood are the acids coming out of the oak as it is squeezed in the making of the cask.

Mani hands make light beer

I’ve been going on holiday with my family to the Mani, in the middle “finger” of the Peloponnese, pretty regularly since 2006: it’s a beautiful, almost entirely unspoilt place, the beaches are broad and sandy, the sun almost continuous, the people are friendly, the food is excellent, locally sourced and cheap. The beer, until now, has generally not been up to much, but when it’s 32ºC almost anything cold and wet will do. All the same, I was thrilled to discover this year that a local entrepreneur, Takis Kapetanéas, has opened a craft brewery on the edge of the small fishing village of Agios Nikolaos, in the Western Mani, just five minutes down the road from the seaside village of Stoupa, where we always stay.

Nema logo

Greece now has 45 breweries, up from 35 two years ago, 13 in 2009 and a mere five at the start of the century. Most are still tiny, however (indeed, the Mani Brewery, despite being one of the newest is the second-largest “craft” beer brewery in the country), some have struggled and closed, such as the Messinian brewery, near Kalamata, opened in 2009, which made beer under the similar-sounding Neda brand, but which closed a couple of years or so back; and beer remains down the list of priorities for Greek drinkers: for comparison, the country is said to have some 500 different brands of ouzo, and 3,500 wines.

Takis Kapetanéas tries some of his own beer

The brewery’s founder, Takis (short for Panagiotis) is in his early 40s and proudly Maniot born and bred: the “-éas” at the end of his family name is the universal ending for surnames in the Messinian Mani, and the brand name of his beers Nema, is a Maniot dialect word meaning “gesture” or “nod”, while the brewery logo features the  tower houses found in almost every Maniot village, where, in the past, families would retreat to defend themselves against their enemies – generally rival families from the same village.

Takis, who worked in the property business before he became a full-time brewery owner, says he “fell in love” with beer on his travels abroad, and became a “long-time” home brewer, always with the ambition to open his own brewery. The brews currently being made at the Mani Brewery, a 16 IBU 4.6 per cent abv blonde ale and a 20 IBU, 4.6 per cent abv summer ale, are “pragmatic” beers, Takis says: not the beers he would like to make which would be well-hopped IPAs and stouts, but the ones he knows will sell in the Greek market, where 99.5 per cent of the beer on sale is pale euro-lager.

The blonde is an excellent, refreshing, unfiltered, unpasteurised easy-drinking top-fermented ale, best served well-chilled: citrussy, slightly sweet, made with  the local spring water, treated as necessary (Mani tap water is unfit for drinking, containing four times more fluoride than EU recommendations, but the springs in the region provide nicely lime-hard brewing liquor), Magnum hops, Greek pils malt from the Vergina brewery in Thessaly and a touch of Vienna and carapils,. It’s a great beach or poolside beer. The summer ale, paler, slightly bitterer, slightly hoppier, is a little more complex, and a fine companion for the generally unfussy, excellent-value Greek food, all made from local ingredients, found in the many family-run restaurants in Ag Nik and its larger neighbours, Stoupa and Kardamili, where you can still dine very well for under €14 a head, including drink.

Me sampling beer at the Mani Brewery, with the Taygetos Mountains in the background

Takis and John Malcolm, an expat Scot in his 60s and another long-term home brewer who met Takis through their mutual interest in making beer, and who is now one of two assistants at the three-man brewery, offered a sample of the blonde ale that had been souped up post-fermentation with masses of extra Citra hops, a beer closer to the sorts they would like to educate local drinkers into appreciating. It was tremendous: the pale malts giving an almost transparent underpinning, like clear glass struts, to a beautifully sculpted structure of lemons, limes and mangoes whirled together in a frothy, scented, just-bitter-enough delight.

The brewery itself, which opened in June last year just off the main road south from Stoupa, between the mountains and the sea, after a short period where Nema beers were being made by the Sparta brewery, on the other side of the Taygetus mountains that divide the Mani peninsula, is housed in a building that started as an olive oil factory, spent some time as a marble works and was later a disco, which has to be, surely, one of the most varied careers of any brewery premises on the planet. Today it holds shiny Chinese-made stainless steel brewing kit: 1,200-litre brew length, mash tun, copper, lauter tun, whirlpool and hop kettle, four fermenting vessels (three 25hl, one 12.5hl), pumps and valves computer-operated, it only brews top-fermented, unfiltered, unpasteurised ales, so no lagering tanks, and there is a very small bottling and kegging line, with CO2 flushing. The kit was manufactured by Tiantai, in Jinan, Shandong, China to Takis’s specifications, and Tiantai send its Mr Wu over to Greece to put it all together: according to John Malcolm, Mr Wu did not speak English, let alone Greek, and all communication with him was via Google Translate. How much the kit actually cost, the Mani Brewery won’t say (indeed, they were rather upset when I made a guess), although John Malcolm did reveal that it cost more to ship the kit from Piraeus, Greece’s main port, to Ag Nik than it did to get it from China to Piraeus.

Lovely shiny Chinese brewing kit, installed by Mr Wu

Takis is coy about the whole source of the brewery’s funding, saying only that it is “local financing”. He has backing from a big local drinks distributor, and he has also had encouragement from Mythos Brewery, the Carlsberg subsidiary that supplies what is probably the best of Greece’s macro-lagers. The encouragement from Mythos, he thinks, is there because the company sees an operation like the Mani Brewery as expanding the market for beer in Greece, and Carlsberg would like to be able to introduce some of its more “craft” brands, such as Grimbergen (yes, I know, but that’s how Carlsberg sees it) into the country. The reasoning seems to be that if, through the availability of more craft beer from the likes of the Mani Brewery, the Greeks are persuaded to drink more unusual beers and less macro-lager and ouzo, then this will be good for Carlsberg as well.

John Malcolm serves up some beer

It’s a brave step to push unfiltered, unpasteurised, slightly hazy ales at a market that doesn’t really understand such beers yet, and once, at least, in my multiple samplings of Mani Brewery beers in numerous outlets over more than a fortnight it didn’t work – ironically, at a restaurant in Ag Nik itself, where the beer in two consecutive bottles was clearly badly oxidised. That was the only hiccup, however, and I report it solely in the interests of honesty. Otherwise, if you’re in Greece, Nema beers are worth grabbing wherever you see them. The beers of the Mani Brewery are available, on draught and/or in bottle, in almost every outlet in the region, and pushing up into Kalamata, the local big city. I greatly look forward to sampling them again, and seeing what new brews Takis, John and the rest of the team come up with.

The original version of this post contained a story that I was told by two different people, which Heineken Greece insists is totally false. It was alleged to me that after the Mani Brewery opened, Heineken Athens, brewer of leading brands of beer in Greece such as Alfa and Amstel, contacted all the local bars, restaurants and supermarkets and told them that if they started stocking the new brewery’s beers, Heineken would withdraw its own brands, plus the dispense equipment, from their premises. “Fine,” all the bar owners allegedly replied, to a Maniot. “Do you want to come and collect it now, or shall we just throw it out into the street?”

It appeared a fine example of how you should never try to bully a Maniot – they are descendants of the Spartans, and fought the Ottoman Empire for more than 350 years, eventually leading the revolt starting in 1821 that finally saw the Greeks re-establish their independence – and Heineken, unfortunately, has form: it was fined a whopping €31.45 million only five years ago (reduced on appeal to €26.73 million) by Greece’s Competition Commission for abusing its dominant position in the country’s beer market. However, the Mani Brewery was swift to distance itself as far as possible from the story, and after I contacted Heineken for a statement, Yiannis Georgakellos, communications and corporate affairs director at Athenian Brewery, Heineken’s Greek subsidiary, insisted: “The allegation that ‘Heineken Greece contacted bars and restaurants in the local area and told them that if they stocked the new brewery’s beers, Heineken would withdraw its own brands and dispense equipment from their premises’ is simply untrue. 

“Over the last five years the number of local microbrewery brands available in the market has drastically increased. This is a positive shift for us, as it gives consumers more options, thus contributing to a thriving beer culture in Greece, which is one of our main objectives as well.”

I am happy to repeat Mr Georgakellos’s assurances that the story is false, and should anybody tell you this story, Mr Georgakellos wants everybody to know that Heineken subscribes to something called Speak Up, “a service available to anyone, internally and externally, who wishes to raise a concern about possible misconduct within our company. We encourage everyone to Speak Up in confidence and without fear of retaliation about any concerns they may have. We offer several Speak Up channels such as speakup.heineken.com through which people can raise questions and concerns. They include trusted representatives and an external Speak Up service (telephone and online) which is run by an independent third party and available 24/7, 365 days a year.”

That’s good to know.

The ‘I was a teenage under-aged drinker’ 50th anniversary pub crawl

How many people in Britain ever waited until their 18th birthday before they ordered their first alcoholic drink in a pub? Not you, I bet, and not me, certainly.

In fact this year marks half a century since I started regularly drinking in pubs, and as I’m still a little shy of 68, you may assume, correctly, that my earliest out-of-home pints were seasoned with the spice of illegality. Not that it was much of a spice: 50 years ago bar staff, and the authorities, bothered even less about not-quite-legal under-aged drinkers than they did about drink-driving, which was not, shamefully, taken very seriously at all.

Not that I drove to the pub: strictly public transport. Onto the 801 bus, my throbbing green diesel-powered Routemaster to pleasureland, and away to Stevenage Old Town, where the High Street, once part of the Great North Road, offered a sufficiency of pubs, all ancient and characterful, to satisfy the keenest crawler. (And all a total contrast to the soulless boxes that were the pubs on the new town estates. But that is another essay, for another day.)

Not, either,  that I crawled that much back in 1969: there were two pubs out of the eight on the High Street itself where most of my pals would be found, so those were the two where I did most of my drinking. Generally Friday and Saturday evenings those pubs would be rammed almost to bursting with, largely, under-20s drinking pints (or brandy-and-babycham for the teen females: at least, that was what they always seemed to be drinking when I was getting the rounds in). I don’t recall any trouble or violence: the physical aggro was restricted to the only two pubs in Stevenage’s vast pedestrian shopping centre, and mostly to only one of those, the Edward the Confessor, know universally as the Ted the Grass..

The Chequers, Stevenage, a more welcoming pub today than it was to teenage me 50 years ago

I moved from the town almost four decades ago, back to London, where I was born: grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts have died, other friends have moved away, and now my brother has sold his house in Stevenage to move permanently to enchanting Norfolk, cutting the last big link I have with the town I moved to when I was two. I went up a few months ago for a last look round, a couple of weeks after Lewis Hamilton, who also grew up in Stevenage, infuriated most of its inhabitants by calling it “the slums” on the BBC (he did correct himself immediately, but Twitter, of course, was already ablaze). No better way to say goodbye, my brother and I decided, than one last pub crawl down the High Street, starting at the bottom and moving north until we’d had enough.

Stop number one, the Chequers, was not, in fact, a pub that featured regularly on my nights out, being out of what today would be called “the circuit”. It was once, until the middle of the 20th century, the first drinking place travellers saw as they entered Stevenage proper from the south up the main road from London to York. The building of the new town’s huge pedestrianised shopping centre obliterated a long stretch of the old Great North Road at the gateway to the Old Town, and left the Chequers down what had become a largely unhurried cul-de-sac. It’s a quietly attractive, faintly arts-and-crafts influenced building, rebuilt in 1889 at a cost of £500 by its owners at the time, the Lytton family of Knebworth House, a couple of miles to the south, who were the big local landowners. (Edward Bulwer “dark and stormy night” Lytton was a big friend of Charles Dickens, which is why there was once a pub about 400 yards down the Great North Road from the Chequers called the Our Mutual Friend, after one of Dickens’s novels, which opened a month or so after the novel was first published: that pub is now demolished, but the name was transferred to a newly built pub in the New Town, close to where I grew up,)

When I started going into pubs regularly, about 1968/69, the drinkers at the Chequers were mostly Old Towners whose ancestors had lived in North Hertfordshire for, probably, 500 years or more, and who spoke in a noticeably different accent from the tens of thousands of New Towners, like my parents, who had moved to North Hertfordshire in the early and mid 1950s from North London suburbs such as Willesden and Burnt Oak, 30 miles to the south. (A few years ago I met a work colleague of my wife, and recognised her accent immediately: turned out that she had grown up in a village about two miles outside Stevenage.) Today the Chequers is probably one of the best pubs in Stevenage: its two bars, almost inevitably, have become one, but the deep black, hefty, solid oak serving area, surrounded by black and white floor tiles, the settles and oak table, have a comfortable pubby authenticity as welcoming as a hug from your favourite aunt, and although it is still owned by Greene King (who took over the local big brewer, Simpson’s of Baldock, in the 1950s) the beer range is excellent: the first place I can remember finding two dark milds on sale, one Greene King’s own, the other from the Tring Brewery away over the other side of the county.

Would you let this long-haired teen into your pub?

Teenage me, beamed forward half a century, would still probably not come in here, since there continued to be no other teens in the place, even if there would not be the slightly hostile vibration there was in 1969 from middle-aged small-town working class pub-goers against somewhat feminine-looking 17-year-olds with wavy hair down to their shoulders. (My father, a bricklayer, once told me that one of his fellow brickies, astonished by his toleration of his sons’ long hair, asked him why he did not take the scissors to us while we slept.) Teenage me knew next to nothing about beer, except that he liked the taste, and he had not yet realised that there was good beer and bad beer (that would only come a couple of years later, at university in a town dominated by Watney’s). Teenage me went to the pub to meet friends and chat, in particular try to chat to girls (with almost no success). The Chequers in 1969 was not a place to find girls to try to chat to. Old man me, however, now with very much less hair, was entirely happy to be drinking in the Chequers, however. Still no teenage girls in there, but, of course, they’d be even less interested in me today than they were 50 years ago, and the lack of interest among girls in the 1960s in getting to know spotty teenage me better was an almost solid thing even then.

I have always enjoyed the atmosphere of pubs, what Iain Banks in one of his novels calls the frague, the almost indefinable vibration that a good pub has going on between its walls, the interaction of multiple people intent on having an enjoyable experience, the surroundings (which should be a barely heard basso ostinato of warmth, comfort and security), and friendly, attentive service, that makes even sitting in a bar on your own a pleasure. I still enjoy the crack that comes with good company in a good pub, too. Now, however, the beer is probably the most important part of the mix, up from something that didn’t matter at all when I was a teen. Great pub, poor beer or poor pub, great beer? Today it would have to be a really great pub, a “not to be missed”, to make up for the beer not being up to scratch. Fifty years ago, teenage me would have considered that an incomprehensible question.

The Coach and Horses, Stevenage: attractive exterior but a fine example of that excellent rule: ‘Never go into a pub advertising its pool tables’

It was poor pub, poor beer at the next stop on the anniversary crawl, another place I rarely visited 50 years ago, the Coach and Horses. Despite being quite attractive on the outside, a solidly built 19th century brick-and-red-tile inn that, as the sign suggests, catered for travellers until the railway arrived in the town in the early 1850s, this never had much appeal to teenage me, being, like the Chequers, mostly full of people then twice my age or more, and an early example, if I recall correctly, of the banquette and padded Windsor chair style of pub furnishings. In 2019 the interior is now darker and more basic, and the large pool table in the knocked-through bar attracts exactly the sort of customer you would expect to be attracted to a large, dark bar with a pool table. The one handpump had the clip turned round, so it was a half of Hop House 13 (strange how Guinness still provides the one fall-back for a discerning drinker in a pub with no properly acceptable beer, but now in the form of a flowery pale lager-like beer rather than a bottle-conditioned stout) and off up the road.

Pub number three on the anniversary crawl is probably the one I spent most time in during 13 or so years of drinking beer in Stevenage, the Marquis of Lorne. A converted 17th or 18th century cottage built of now worn red bricks, it is named for the man who married Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, in 1871, and thus ought, pedantically speaking, to be the Marquess of Lorne. I doubt the signboard has ever carried the correct version of the name. The Marquis is a rare example of a pub that still retains its original two drinking spaces, a “tap” or public bar at the front and a long, narrow saloon or lounge bar at the side. For reasons that remain unknown to me, I and my teenage friends drank exclusively in the lounge bar, though, this being the 1960s, when the distinction still remained between public and saloon, we were probably being charged a couple of pence or more per pint for the privilege of carpet on the floor and cushions on the seats than the drinkers in the more basic, bare-boarded tap. Nevertheless, the lounge bar of the Marquis was hugely popular, and frequently, on a Friday or Saturday night, more rammed with teens than a telephone box filled with rag-stunt students. This is not an exaggeration. Sometimes it was almost impossible to move.

The Marquis of Lorne, Stevenage: mis-spelt name, wildly ahistoric pub sign, but still a very good pub

The draught beer in the Marquis 50 years ago was, I now know (and certainly didn’t then), top-pressure: cask ale, brewed at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade, up the road in Bedfordshire, but served up from the cellar with the help of a cylinder of CO2, the taps on the bar shaped like miniature porcelain handpumps. Greene King IPA was the most popular choice, but nobody called it “IPA”: the order was always for “a pint of bitter”. Nobody, that I can recall, drank lager: there might have been a Harp fount on the bar counter, and there were bottles of Satzenbrau, Guinness’s attempt at a pilsner, on the shelves behind. Teens, of course, did not drink mild (that was what your dad drank), and I don’t recall seeing Greene King’s excellent dark mild on sale in any Old Town pub, though since my beer consciousness was minimal in 1969, consider me a deeply unreliable memorialist. Other Greene King pubs in the Old Town still had proper handpumps, though teenage me failed to notice any difference in the quality of the beer. What did I know? Forgive me, at the time I had probably drunk the products of fewer than half a dozen breweries. (It would, in fact, be another nine years or so years before the Marquis got its handpumps back, as Greene King finally caught up with the real ale revolution that began in 1971: by that time I was vastly more beer-aware, and on the local Camra branch committee, and we recorded these changes.)

Today the Marquis seems pretty much unchanged, the alterations in 50 years minimal: of all the pubs on the 50th anniversary crawl, it is the one teenage me could step into today without blinking. It has kept the pubby vibe, the smart but comfortable feel that would have made it worth visiting even if it had not been so popular with my teenage peers. Unlike the Chequers, the beer selection is entirely GK, but while nobody’s heart leaps today at the sight of a GK IPA handpump the way we did in 1978, when it meant another gain for the anti-fizz cause, when it’s looked after, GK is entirely acceptable: the Marquis wouldn’t, now, be my first choice of Stevenage pub as it was in 1969, but if you suggested it, I wouldn’t insist on going somewhere else.

The next pub going north 50 years ago, the White Hart, closed in 2010, and is now an Indian restaurant. I spent more time here after I became beerily “woke”, around 1975, than I did as a teen, since it was a rare local outlet for Ind Coope of Romford and, thus, their Burton ale and KK light mild (and, later, the revived Benskins bitter, named for the former Watford brewery), and I miss those vanished beers more than I do the pub.

Happily, the Red Lion, smallest of Stevenage’s former coaching inns and third call on the anniversary crawl, is still open: this was the other Old Town pub deeply popular with teens half a century ago, and it still seems popular with their grandchildren. Teenage me might have been slightly puzzled by the music being played over the sound system today, late 1970s heavy metal and its derivatives, but not that puzzled: I was an early fan of Led Zeppelin (I owned, and gave away, one of the first copies of Led Zeppelin I, with the turquoise lettering on the cover, which would be worth several hundred pounds today: ho hum) and I remember being deaf for at least an hour after sitting in row E for a Zeppelin concert circa 1970 at the Albert Hall. The pub is now properly a music venue, with regular rock band appearances at weekends and an annual “Redfest”, and it is with intense amusement that I note one band due to perform there this October, Gridlock, does a version of “Whole Lotta Love”, a song itself 50 years old this year. (There’s a theme for another essay: it’s like 1969’s teens and early 20s listening to the Original Dixieland Jass Band. What is the continuing attraction of granddad’s music?)

The Red Lion, Stevenage, magnet for teens for the past 50 and more years

The Red Lion’s interior has been worked over, the back bar extended sideways into the courtyard where coaches once pulled up to have their sweating, tired teams of horses changed, and it is now possible to walk from the front bar to the back without going outside and through the arch that connects the courtyard with the High Street. The unbelievably manky men’s urinals, with their strange bright green mossy growths on the walls, have vanished, and so have the bar billiards table, and the darts board, where George Newberry, the tall, thin, elderly landlord, and a former News of the World darts champion, would occasionally come out from behind the bar and demonstrate how to hit treble 20s with six-inch nails, a performance even more remarkable since he had artificial legs. The walls, at least in the back bar, are now painted black rather than the nicotine-stained light caramel they were 50 years ago. (When the pub was decorated in the late 1970s, the brewery – Greene King again – actually chose a shade of paint almost identical to the effects of 40 years of cigarette smoke on white emulsion: perhaps Farrow & Ball should try adding “Public Bar” to its shades of cream and off-white.)

I find it hard to explain why the pub, in particular the back bar, was so popular with 1969’s teens: it was a classic Old Town boozer unchanged, at that time, since at least the Second World War, and should have been full of cloth-capped middle-aged Old Towners drinking the probably well-looked-after hand pumped bitter, or Abbot, and smoking roll-ups with, in the front bar only, their wives drinking Babycham or a small sweet sherry. Likely it was because George the landlord (his wife was known, inevitably and semi-accurately, as the dragon) was entirely laissez-faire about under-age drinking, provided you bought him the occasional rum-and-pep. Once it became a. place for teens to meet, and drink, then it stayed a place for teens to meet, and drink: we went there because we knew our friends were likely to be there. We might have driven the locals out, but we packed the place, and drank, very likely, as much as they would have.

After George and his wife retired to a home for ex-publicans, the Red Lion became more biker-oriented, and eventually music-oriented, and in half a century it has not lost its attraction to that apparently constantly renewing demographic in its 20s which enjoys shaking its hair to very loud guitar solos. Would teenage me still enjoy going down the Red Lion? Yes, I’m sure I would think it was tremendous. What about 50-years-on me? I have no problems still with loud music designed to make the audience bounce up and down – the last concert I went to, in June, was the fabulous Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans, which was strictly standing room only – but Led Zep covers, perhaps not.

The Standing Order, Stevenage High Street, a former butcher’s shop and then a bank, ‘spooned’ in 2010, which from the outside looks little different from other old Stevenage pubs

However, we have a pub crawl to finish, so drain that pint and on up the road, past the two bars in the High Street that have opened in the past 50 years, balancing the two that have closed (the new pubs are a Wetherspoon’s in, inevitably, a disused bank and another large outlet in a former hardware shop, which at one time was selling a beer called Four Candles) to what was once Stevenage’s leading coaching inn. This thrived under the sign of the White Lion for more than 400 years: Greene King, with the thoughtless ignorance that characterises the company’s attitude to its heritage, decided to toss that in the skip four years ago and rename the inn the Mulberry Tree, for no known reason.

The Mulberry Tree, Stevenage High Street. That plaque on the wall giving the inn’s history still calls it the White Lion

It’s another attractive old red-brick 18th century building on the outside, and another that I didn’t use that much as a teen: this was the most up-market of the Old Town pubs, popular with young couples on their tenth date, and my only reason for revisiting was to see how much it had altered. Teenage me would not have recognised the interior: the bar had been completely repositioned, the layout chopped about, walls demolished, and the entire set-up now making it clear this was a place expecting you to dine rather than drink: pub dining, of course, is a phenomenon that became widespread only in the past 30 years. The Mulberry Tree, like the White Lion, probably remains popular with young couples on their tenth date: teenage me would hate it, and modern me was pretty underwhelmed.

Conclusions? It was a surprise to me to realise, reflecting on the changes in the pubs, how much I had altered myself as a pub-goer in half a century, without losing a love for pubs. Thank heavens, frankly: going down the pub played a large and enjoyable part in my life 50 years ago, and I still enjoy it greatly today, but for wider and, I think, deeper and more considered reasons. I have no idea how many pubs and bars I have been in, from Sydney to San Francisco, since I first started drinking in Stevenage, but the ordinary British boozer remains my favourite place to have a beer, after 50 years.

'Zee-tho-fyle', by Martyn Cornell, an award-winning blog about beer now and then, founded in 2007