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.
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
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
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?)
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.)
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:
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
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.
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..
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.
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.
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 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’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.
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.
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.
Should you wish to know the differences between the craft beer scenes in London and Munich, Burchard Stock is a good man to ask. For two years he was a brewer with the pub brewery chain Brewhouse & Kitchen in Britain’s capital, ending up in charge of the Islington branch, close by the Angel: indeed, his pictures are still all over the venue’s website. Then in May this year he moved back to Bavaria to take charge of the Schiller Bräu operation, a “house brewery” in a restaurant on the ground floor of a modern hotel a short distance from Munich’s central station.
The Islington Brewhouse & Kitchen will sell you mac ’n’ cheese, beetroot burger in a vegan bun, or spicy Cambodian curry, with a hoppy American pale ale, a stout or a session bitter, all brewed on the spot. At Schiller Bräu, despite the modern interior, all tiles and distressed wood, it’s “traditional favourite dishes inspired by grandma’s kitchen”, and traditional beers inspired by grandpa’s Brauarei (sic), that is, “Schweinerei”, pork schnitzel covered in pretzel crumbs; “Bleede Kua”, grilled fillet of veal, and “Sauer macht lustig”, sour vinegar dumplings with onions, gherkins and radish, with, to drink, a selection of beers from the beautifully shiny brewkit at the front of the restaurant so solidly Bavarian, like the food, it will make any lederhosen-clad boarisch Mo fling himself into a chorus of “Ein Prosit!” immediately: Helles, Dunkel and Weißbier. And maybe a Maibock if it’s the right time of year. Don’t dream of offering anything that isn’t Reinheitsgebot-compliant, or they’ll have you outside and strung up on a lamp-post before you can say “Oans! Zwoa! Drei!”
Despite the conservatism of the drinkers in Freistaat Bayern, there are, in fact, more than twice as many “start-up” breweries in its borders, at 220-plus, than in any other single Land in Germany. At the same time it is the only state in the federal republic where the “traditional,” established breweries, of which there were 424 as of August last year, still outnumber the new ones: indeed, Bavaria has two thirds of all Germany’s old-established breweries, but only just over a quarter of the new ones (and just over 16 per cent of the total population). But Munich, which if it followed even the Bavarian average, ought to have around 25 new breweries, falls far short: nobody I spoke to seemed to known how many small breweries there are in the city, but it’s a handful, at best. The Big Four Munich breweries (counting the partly Heineken-owned Paulaner and Hacker Pschorr and the AB Inbev-owned Löwenbräu and Spaten-Franziskaner as one each) dominate, and one, the still independent Augustinerbräu, dominates most of all. For a city that boasts of its beerhalls and its world-famous 16-day-long celebration of beer, the Oktoberfest, the choice of beer, and beer styles, is more limited than in the average British corner shop.
Burchard, a mid-20s look-alike (he will hate me for saying this) for Harry Potter without the scar, says: ” A lot of people think Munich is the capital of beer. I think there was a time when that was definitely true. But what we have nowadays in Munich is basically four or five big old brands, while if you go to Berlin, you know, you have 50 small breweries and one big one, or Hamburg, which has such a variety of small breweries. There are plenty of people who say, ‘If you want to start a business that’s not going to succeed, start a brewery in Munich.’ I was impressed when I came here that this brewery was so young and doing so well. Everyone here drinks Augustiner: I think it’s 55 per cent of the Munich beer market, which is huge, and then another 40 per cent goes to breweries that are just copying Augustiner, so there’s not much left for others to claim.”
The Schiller Bräu brewery, on Schillerstraße, now two years old, is one of several “house breweries” based in hotels run by MK Hotels, which itself is owned by the Lindner Group, a large German construction company specialising in facades and interiors (its works include the Gherkin, 70 St Mary Axe, in London). Burchard says: “It’s a family-owned business, and at the beginning of this century the founder said, ‘I want to set up a hotel business.’ So he started a small hotel chain – I think we’re about 12 or 13 right now – and with the hotel group he also fulfilled one of his oldest dreams, which is owning his own brewery. With the first hotel they built they put in a brewery, in Mariakirchen, in Lower Bavaria, and there are now four hotels with breweries in.
“The beers vary depending on the location: in Mariakirchen, for example, they’re very, very, very traditional, because the Bavarians down there just drink the local equivalent of mild. Moving up to Munich, we’re still traditional, but from time to time we do a little bit more of a tweak. The more northern you go, though, the crazier it gets: In Remscheid, [near Dusseldorf], one of the other production sites, he’s doing quite similar stuff to what the people in London are doing, so watermelon ale and stuff like that – he’s into the craft beer stuff. But It depends on the people around you and who drinks your beer. The Bavarians are very conservative.”
“Here we have four standard beers: Helles lager, dark lager, wheat beer, and a lower-abv Helles, 2.5 per cent alcohol. Every month there’s a new seasonal coming out, so for this month it’s a Pilsener: this is where the brewer gets to vary things.” The local cut up the last time Burchard brewed a pils, though: they don’t like ’em too hoppy in Bavaria, unlike in Northern Germany. “This is how all the breweries in the group work: you have your core beers, and then every month you get a little special treat. After August we are going to have a Märzen, for the Oktoberfest, that will stay on for two months, and then we’re going to have a dark wheat beer, a dark doppelbock, a dark bock, a rye wheat beer, a Märzen again, a Maibock – pretty much a standard Bavarian selection. It’s just slightly different from what I was brewing in Islington,” he says, smiling. “We had real ales, we had a session lager, a really fruity American pale ale, oatmeal stout, Saison, witbier, sour biers, all the usual craft beer range.”
Burchard was born near Bonn, grew up in Berlin, and spent a couple of years in Munich. He started out wanting to study psychology, or social work, and applied to various universities in the south and west of Germany. “My mother told me that someone was studying social work at Weihenstephan, just outside Munich, so I looked it up on the internet, couldn’t find that course, but saw the brewmaster diploma course, and thought, ‘that looks really fun,’ so I applied for it almost as a joke.
“They gave me an offer of a place, so I thought I had better take a serious look at the course. It involved a one-year internship before the course, and I really liked the idea of that – earning money so I didn’t have to live off my parents’ money, and if I didn’t like the job, at the end of the year I could move on and go and study psychology after all. I was 18 years old, what did I have to lose?”
Before he could take up the course, Burchard did an internship at Oettinger, Germany’s biggest brewer, and “really really like the subject it, really enjoyed it, enjoyed my time a lot. I moved on to Munich to study at Weihenstephan, studied for three semesters and with every semester, for me, the fun was going out of the subject. I looked at it and I said, ‘If you finish that course and you become a Diplom Braumeister, as we call it in Germany, then in the end of the day you end up in a laboratory, overseeing everyone who is doing the brewing stuff, but basically having no hands on the beer any more.’ If I wanted to do that I could have done a business degree, and apply to a big brewery for a management post, or study microbiology and gone into a laboratory. That was not what I was looking for, but in the very beginning, when I applied, I had no idea how the business worked.
“So I quit the university at that point, went back to the beginning, did my apprenticeship in a very small brewery, Eschenbräu in Berlin, a really good brewery, I recommend anyone to go there. I finished my apprenticeship really quite quickly – in general you do a three-year apprenticeship, but since I had quite a bit of pre-knowledge from my studies I could finish it in a year and ten months, something like that. I came back to Munich and worked half a year for Paulaner, where I made my choice that I would never work in a big brewery again, because it’s, excuse my French, fucking boring, pushing buttons and observing and controlling, the practical work is missing. That’s what I really like in this job.
“So then I moved over to London for two years to work in Brewhouse and Kitchen, became head brewer in one of their branches, in Islington, and then came back to Munich and started here.”
The brewing kit at Schiller Bräu consists of a copper-clad mash tun/copper, lauter tun and whirlpool, plus three fermentation vessels and seven conditioning tanks down in the hotel’s cellars, where the beer is also stored in tanks when ready for serving. All the equipment was made by the highly regarded small-brewery specialists Caspary in the village of Hart, near Chieming, in the far south-east corner of Bavaria, who recently supplied the London Fields brewery with a 15-hectolitre brewhouse. Schiller Bräu’s kit cost €400,000, vastly more than the cost of the kit at Brewhouse and Kitchen, and it is considerably more sophisticated as well. While the kit in London was set up for single-step infusion mashing, the Schillerbrau kit will do multi-stage decoction as required, depending on the style of beer, though Burchard generally does what the Germans call the Hochkurz mash, literally “high-short”, where a portion of the mash, usually one third, is boiled for five minutes and then blended back in. The Helles stays in the conditioning tanks for at least a month, the dark lager and pils for the same time, the Weissbier “I think is good after two weeks, but usually it has three weeks, because the tank it’s served from isn’t empty yet.”
Burchard brews twice a week, in 900-litre batches, using malt from the Bavarian maltster Weyerman, while most of the hops are from the Hallertau, the yeast from Augustiner, 20 litres at a time, replaced every two to three weeks, and the water straight from the tap, with acidulated malt used if he ever needs to lower the pH. Almost all the beer is sold on draught, unfiltered and unpasteurised, with 96 or 97 per cent of the beer drunk on site, and only a very small amount put in bottles, growlers or mini-kegs for taking home. No other brewery’s beers are sold in the restaurant, apart from Schneider’s alcohol-free Weißbier.
The business, as it should be, is booming: ” It’s hard to find a table here if you don’t have a reservation. Around Schillerstraße there are a lot of hotels and you get a lot of tourists here, but I wouldn’t say tourists are our main customer group. We have quite a lot of regulars, who are typical Munich Bavarians, who have lived here a long time, they just want a regular pub, so they come together every week, sit down and have something to eat and drink a few beers.” Those beers are solid, down-the-line interpretations of Bavarian styles, not, perhaps, worth making a special journey for, but if you’re in Munich, definitely worth looking up.
And what about Munich itself as a beer tourism destination? It’s a tricky call, to be frank. You can go elsewhere in Bavaria and find better Helles, better Dunkel, and so on than anything the city’s big breweries offer. The Oktoberfest is a joke: six million people all drinking basically exactly the same beer. But the beer halls of Munich ARE worth seeing, and experiencing, for the architecture and the atmosphere, and you can watch elderly Bavarians gathered at the Stammtisch enjoying what beer should be all about – convivial chat. So no, you probably don’t know beer well enough until you’ve downed a Dunkel in the Hofbräuhaus. Even if it is full of Japanese tourists taking selfies with the brass band. And if you do go there, you’ll also be able to buy an HB-branded blue spotted handkerchief in the gift shop: that beats a T-shirt any day.
Should you be looking for something more beerily adventurous in Munich, let me point you to a place Burchard tipped his hat at for me: Meisterstück, a bar/restaurant in Weißenburger Straße, in the upmarket suburb of Haidhausen. Behind it is the Hopfenhäcker brewery, one of those rare Munich micros, producing beers you certainly won’t find at Oktoberfest – Indian Pale Lager, for example, or a witbier called Kill Bill (the brewery was originally called Hopfenhacker, “Hop Hackers”, without the umlaut on the A, but Pschorr enough a larger Munich brewery objected, so the name had to be typographically tweaked). Meisterstück sells more than just Hopfenhäcker beers, however, with eight or so draught beers, and 100-plus different bottles available to drink on the spot or take away. I only had time for one as I sat in the little “beer garden” behind the restaurant, which was not actually a “new small craft” brewery, but a dark, sweet and malty Kellerbier from the North Bavarian family brewery Zirndorfer (and, er, not actually that great, alas …).
Still, the next day I just had time, before leaving for Munich airport (which has its own brewery, natürlich) for a swift and delicious Dunkelweiß in the very lovely Schneider Bräuhaus in the heart of the city, and to regret that I had only arranged for a day to explore a tiny fraction of Munich’s attractions. Aufwiedersehen, München – I hope to be back.
Anything they do in That London, Manchester can do as well, including the catastrophic collapse of a giant vat full of maturing porter. Admittedly the Great London Beer Flood of 1814 was rather bigger than the event in Lancashire 17 years later, with the vat that burst at Meux’s brewery, off Tottenham Court Road, containing nearly six times as much porter as the one that collapsed at Mottram’s brewery in Salford in 1831, but eight people, all women and children, died in the London flood, while the only real victim of the one in Salford was a pig that must have had a serious hangover the next day.
Here’s a report of the event in Manchester, from an Irish newspaper, the Westmeath Journal, in Mullingar, Thursday 3 March 1831, p2:
Another newspaper had a slightly different take on the event, including the drunken pig. This is from the Chester Courant of Tuesday March 1 1831, courtesy of Peter Dyer:
A Flood of Porter – On Wednesday morning a large porter vat, containing about 380 barrels of the best brown stout, burst on the premises of Messrs. Mottram, in Brewery-street, Salford (Manchester.) The liquid rushed out with such force as to carry before it a portion of a wall, under which it nearly buried a man and horse, which were at the outside. Another man, who was in the same room in which the vat stood, was carried out into the yard by the flood. The beer overflowed a pond, and was for a few minutes two feet deep in the cellar of a cottage. All sorts of vessels were in requisition for carrying off the precious liquid from the pond. Among other comers was a sow, which was seen in the course of the day staggering off in a state of disgusting inebriety. The loss from the accident, we regret to state, is estimated at from £700 to £1000.
The Westmeath Journal was right to say that London brewers “occasionally” suffered from such “casualties”: among others there were at least two vat collapses at Whitbread’s brewery in Chiswell Street, in 1776 and 1794, in the latter of which hundreds of rats “were taken up by pailfuls in an intoxicated state,” while one of four vats, each containing 1,500 barrels, collapsed at Henry Thrale’s Anchor brewery in Southwark (later Barclay Perkins) in 1772. Outside London, a 530-barrel vat collapsed at Searanke and Biggs’s brewery in Hatfield, Hertfordshire in 1805, though locals with “tubs and pails”, knee-deep in beer, managed to save around 150 barrels-worth of beer; and a 40-fee-high vat containing 720 barrels of vinegar burst at Fardon’s vinegar brewery in Westley Street, Birmingham on Christmas day, 1891, flooding the surrounding streets several feet deep: THAT must have stunk.
In Cork, Ireland, in 1913 a 560-barrel vat at Murphy’s Lady’s Well brewery burst. One brewery worker, who had been underneath the vat when it collapsed, had to swim 40 yards through porter to save himself as the stream carried him along. Outside in the street the porter was diluted with water from a fire-hose by quick-reacting brewery workers, to stop anyone from trying to drink it.
Mottram’s brewery, incidentally, looks to have recovered from its loss and ran through until 1897, when it was acquired by a local rival, the Cornbrook Brewery Co. Ltd, itself acquired by Eddie Taylor’s United Breweries in 1961.
By coincidence, on the same page of the Westmeath Journal as the story about the collapsing vat was another report of an accident at a brewery, this time more tragic:
The newspaper report suggests the poor victim’s internal pain was caused by his diving into the cold water after the accident: my understanding of how this works is that in fact he almost certainly didn’t stay in the cold water long enough. If you’re unlucky enough to be badly burnt or scalded, you have to cool down the affected parts as much and as quickly as possible, because otherwise the underlying flesh, muscle and organs stay very hot, conpounding the harm the heat has already done. This was discovered in the Second World War, when doctors realised that badly burnt RAF pilots who had ditched in the sea recovered much better from their injuries than those who had bailed out over or crashed on land: the cold sea water cooled down their burnt bodies internally and lessened the harm. Morris’s brewery in Lewes became Ballard’s in 1876, which was acquired by Page & Overton’s brewery in Croydon in 1927.
It’s a beer fact guaranteed to make British drinkers boggle in disbelief: one of the biggest selling beer styles among black working-class South African men is milk stout
While milk stout has seen a tiny renaissance in the UK, with craft beer brewers producing examples of the style, it is still mostly thought of, if it is though of at all, as the beer drunk by little old ladies sitting in the saloon bar on their own. The last person in Britain to be known for drinking milk stout was Ena Sharples, sour-faced harridan of the soap opera Coronation Street, who disappeared from television screens almost 40 years ago.
In South Africa, however, milk stout has a totally different image: Castle Milk Stout, originally a South African Breweries brand and now, since it acquired SAB, owned by AB InBev, is a long-time favourite of black workers, and is now being marketed at the country’s black middle class as the beer to drink to show you haven’t lost touch with your roots. (Great ad, that – possibly one of the best beer ads ever.)
Stout and porter had been popular in South Africa from the earliest days of British colonisation, but by the start of the 20th century lager was starting to take over. However, variants on stout were appearing in South Africa, such as oatmeal stout, which was made by several firms, including South African Breweries, which advertised its Castle oatmeal stout in 1916 as providing “health and strength for tired people,” and Chandler’s Crown brewery in Ophirton, Johannesburg, which was still advising customers in 1932 to “Drink Chandler’s Oatmeal Stout and keep colds away!” There was also the peculiar-sounding and short-lived Marrow Stout (bone marrow or vegetable marrow, it is not clear which) brewed by the Thoma (sic) brewery in Johannesburg (founded in 1892 by a German, August Thoma, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg and taken over by Ohlsson’s Cape Breweries in 1902), which was first advertised in the Rand Daily Mail in 1909 but does not appear again after 1910.
However, just as “marrow stout” was disappearing, a new style of stout appeared that would turn South Africa into one of the biggest stout-drinking countries in the world. Sweet stout had been growing increasingly popular, but as the beer aged it lost its sweetness. The idea of brewing stout with a dose of unfermentable lactose sugar, derived from milk, to keep it staying sweet, had been first patented by William Melhuish, a food chemist from Poole, Dorset, in 1908, and the first “milk stout” was brewed by the English brewer Mackeson’s of Hythe, in Kent, in 1909. Mackeson licensed other brewers to make their own milk stouts, and the Castle brewery launched its version in August 1912 with a full-page advertisement in the Rand Daily Mail. Castle Milk Stout became one of the company’s biggest selling beers, particularly after a ban on black South Africans drinking “European” beers, imposed in 1928, was lifted in 1962.
The appeal of the six per cent abv drink to black South Africans, according to the South African advertising guru Happy Ntshingila, was that the traditional sorghum beer which was all they were legally allowed to drink during those years has always been regarded as a food as well as an alcoholic drink, and the “milk” part of milk stout gave it the same image. By the 1990s milk stout in South Africa was primarily a drink of blue-collar Nguni men – members of the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and other South African peoples. The beer was frequently sold in quart bottles, for sharing, the way a calabash of sorghum beer would be shared, and was described as “the most physically masculine brand in the SAB stable.” It was about as far from the image that milk stout drinkers had in the beer’s country of origin – elderly ladies sipping a half-pint in the pub on their own—as it was possible to travel.
The large market for milk stout in South Africa did not go unnoticed in Chiswell Street, the London headquarters of Whitbread, the company that had acquired Mackeson in 1929. However, when the British brewer launched the Mackeson brand in South Africa in 1967, it was as Mackeson Porter, not Mackeson Milk Stout. This, the first launch of a beer under the name “porter” by a British brewer since, probably, the 19th century, was most likely because South African Breweries had a local trade mark monopoly on the use of the expression “milk stout”: there had been other milk stouts in South Africa besides the one from Castle, including Ohlsson’s Lion “melk stout”, as it was branded in Afrikaans, which was still being sold in 1952, but SAB had acquired Ohlsson’s in 1954. (In the UK the term “milk stout” had been voluntarily abandoned by brewers for fear that legislation would be introduced to ban it anyway.) Mackeson Porter was on sale in South Africa until 1972 before disappearing, unable, without the world “milk stout” on the label, to make any impact on a market that had not seen a beer called “porter” for generations.
Early in the 1990s, after the government of South Africa unbanned the African National Congress, and with black Africans increasingly drinking lager rather than milk stout, South African Breweries gave the advertising brief for Castle Milk Stout to the country’s first all-black ad agency, HerdBuoys. A series of advertisements that successfully combined images of black urban success with rural tradition—and milk stout drinking—sent sales soaring again, to 100,000 hectolitres (84,000 US barrels) a year. By 2003, Castle Milk Stout was the fourth biggest liquor brand in South Africa, and the second biggest stout brand in the world. Its production still included roast malt added in the mash tun, unlike Guinness, which had long gone over to using an extract of roasted barley, added post-mash, and other tweaks peculiar to making Castle Milk Stout, including adding caramel alongside the lactose, crash-cooling the fermentation to encourage the yeast to produce stop the yeast mopping up diacetyl, which increases the “butterscotch” flavours in the beer, and a lager-like maturation at -2ºC.
By 2011 Castle Milk Stout was available in a nitrogenated draft version, though it is still most often found in 75cl bottles and in cans. However, in the winter of 2014 SAB introduced “ultra-smooth” milk stout in a nitrogenated can, and also a limited-edition “chocolate-infused” 4.5 per cent abv version of Castle Milk Stout, which came back as a regular variant the following year, again available in 75cl bottles. This, together with “repositioning” the brand as a “premium” product, and whites picking up on the brand as the growth of craft beer made them more aware of “unusual” beer styles, helped push sales up 14 per cent year-on-year. It has still been maintaining its “traditional” image in South Africa, however, with promotions that included printing tribal clan names, and clan praise songs, on the cans. The brand has also moved abroad, capturing market share from Guinness in Nigeria, where stout makes up 14 per cent of the beer market, and also being brewed in Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda and even South Korea.
This is a glass of something called Herr Axolotl, from Ale Browar of Poland, bought in a bar in the charming city of Wrocław. It is described as a Berliner Weisse with guava. I struggled very hard to find anything at all about it that might deserve the name “beer”. It looked like cloudy apple juice. It tasted a lot like very sour cloudy apple juice. It certainly didn’t taste as if it had ever been in the same postcode district as a hop. As I went further down the glass, there was something nasty lurking in the background, harshly sharp and unpleasant. I have become Old Man Yells at Cloudy Beer.
Nine days in Poland, on a return visit four years after I first travelled to the country to check out its craft beer scene, involved meeting large numbers of friendly, enthusiastic Polish craft brewers, beer geeks and bar owners and drinking considerable quantities of beer in an expansive range of styles, almost all of it of it well-made, some of it absolutely fascinating, rare and thrilling, and some of it pushing the envelope so hard it rips. I used to think I was on the far-left libertarian wing of the beer world, able to accept pretty much anything brewers came up with. But after walking into several Polish craft beer bars, looking at the menu on the wall, filled with opaque sours, fruit ales, vanilla ice-cream IPAs and the like and wondering if I should ask: “Um – do you have any beer-flavoured beer?”, I realise that I’m not actually as liberal as I thought, and that there is a line which, once crossed, I find myself saying: “You may be a brewer, but that’s not a beer.” Too many brewers, it appears, are chasing novelty at the expense of a decent drink.
Much of the reason for this realisation arriving in Poland rather than, say, Hoxton comes from the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is driven far more, I think, than other countries’ by novelty, which in itself is an artefact of the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is hugely enthusiastic but tiny – still less than one per cent of what is, admittedly, the third biggest beer market in Europe – which itself is down to the cost of craft beer compared to mainstream beer. A 50cl bottle of Tyskie is three or four złoty, when it’s 4.8 złoty to the pound. A bottle of craft beer is four times more expensive. Poland is still not a rich country, and most people can’t afford craft beer. Meanwhile those craft beer drinkers who do exist want something different every time they go up to the bar, which puts pressure on bar owners, who put pressure on brewers, who are aware enough about what goes on in places like the US to use trends such as New England IPA and barrel-ageing and souring and fruit beers to come up with an ever-changing variety of new products flowing from the fermenting vessels.
I was lucky enough to visit Browar Palatum, now three years old, the only proper brewery actually in Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million people, where the owner, Łukasz Kojro, told me he makes more than 300 brews every year, each one different, because that’s what the market demands. Almost all of Palatum’s production is draught – the brewery has only a small hand-bottling side – and Łukasz is able to sell all he makes across Poland, even though the market is comparatively so small, and there are now some 250 actual craft breweries open and another 150 “cuckoo” or contract brewers using other people’s kit. Something helping Polish craft brewers is that because of the price problem, there is very little craft beer imported into Poland from outside: it’s too expensive.
But constantly having to think up new beers means that, inevitably, you’re going to get some that aren’t beers at all: at least not beers according to the definition I now find myself formulating after my Polish experience. This is, of course, pretty majorly subjective, and based almost entirely on what I like about beer and why I drink it, but it does have some grounding in measurable facts. A hopped cider, for example, is not, I hope, by anybody’s definition, a beer: nothing wrong with hopped cider, I’ve drunk some and it was good, but no grain, so not a beer. Similarly, just because it contains grain and hops, that doesn’t make it a beer automatically: if you can’t taste either grain or hops in the glass then I am very reluctant to call it a beer. If it tastes mostly of fruit juice, if you’ve put 600kg of mango into the fermenting vessel, as one Polish brewer boasted to me, then what you’ve got is fermented mango, that is, fruit wine, and not beer. If you drink it and enjoy it, fine, but I reserve the right to say: “No thanks, I like drinking beer.”
Let us not, however, give the impression that the Polish craft beer scene is entirely the preserve of the wild and the weird. There are plenty of straight-up, solid brews, from very good pilsners to fine pale ales. I particularly enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Pinta brewery’s Atak Chmielu (Hop Attack), 6.1 per cent abv, 69 IBU which was the first ever commercial “Polish craft beer”, in 2011, and which, when it appeared, blew every Polish beer drinker’s socks off their feet and away over the horizon. It’s now venerable enough to be described as “old-fashioned” after only eight years, but it’s an excellent American pale ale, and a safe call in any bar selling it while you contemplate what weirdness to try next.
Pinta, based way down in the south of Poland, 40 miles south-west of Krakow and 11 miles from the Slovak border, has grown from being a contract brewer to one of the largest independents in Poland and one of the thriving stars of Polish craft beers, along with Stu Mostów (“Hundred Bridges”) and Profesja of Wrocław, both of those only five or so years old, both, like Pinta, producing very well-made beers.
There are newer brewers doing impressive stuff too: Cześć Brat! (which means Hello Brother!, and which, surprise, is run by brothers Grzegorz and Michał Malcherek in the town of Jelcz-Laskowice, 15 miles south-east of Wrocław), for example. You’ll find one or two handpumps tucked over in a corner in many Polish beer bars, and one of the beers I kept finding being served on handpump when I was there was Cześć Brat’s 4 per cent abv tonka bean milk stout, Coś na Wieczór?, which means “Something for the Evening?”. Interesting beer flavouring, tonka beans, they contain a big hit of coumarin, which gives a similar taste and aroma to woodruff, and they’re also quite bitter, which in this case nicely counteracts the sweetness of the milk stout. (Cześć Brat!, as an aside, is another Polish brewer with terrific graphics, produced by a well-known Polish graphic designer: the brothers loved her work and wrote to her saying: “We’re only a small, poor brewer, but what do you charge?”, and she wrote back saying: “I like the idea of working for a brewery, so I’m not going to charge you very much at all.” Don’t ask, don’t get.)
The Hopium brewery, from the village of Nowy Drzewicz, south-west of Warsaw, won my unofficial prize for “best beer name of the Wrocław beer festival”, with Michaił Jakson, a “white Imperial Russian Stout”, not, you’ll conclude, a nod to the late beer writer. The beer was a bit of a Thriller, too: a strong (8.5 per cent abv) pale ale with coffee infused in during maturation, which I wouldn’t have expected to work had I not tasted it and enjoyed it. Hopium gives all its beers “celebrity pun” names, such as Al Apacino, an APA, Danny De Wheato, and Kwasko Da Gama, a fruit sour ale, kwas, pronounced “kvas”, being the Polish for “sour”. Quite a few of the beer names are puns on Polish celebrities unknown across the Oder, which puns obviously don’t travel. At least one, a mango fruit ale called Vincent ManGogh, is based on a mispronunciation I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about (for Americans reading this, it’s Van GOFF, not Van GO).
The beer I was most thrilled to discover, though, was one I had travelled to Poland specifically to find: Jopejskie, a revival of an obscure, strange, fascinating Polish beer style, more than 500 years old, which, bizarrely, was brewed in the North of England under the name Black Beer until 2013. I knew the Polish contract brewer Olimp had a version on sale in 100ml bottles, but as I wandered the Wrocław festival, where the 50-plus stalls are almost all run by the brewers themselves, I spotted that the Świdnica brewery, from the town of the same name some 30 miles south-west of Wrocław, was selling Jopejskie on draught – at 35 złoty (£7.30) for 10cl, when other beers were 10 to 13 zloty for 50cl. To save you turning on your calculator, that’s 13 times more expensive, and the equivalent of £41 a pint!
Not that you could possibly drink even half a pint: it was “only” 9 per cent abv, but had started out at a barely believable 50º plato, which if my maths is right is all of 1233 OG, and suggests a FINISHING gravity of around 1164, higher than almost all other strong beers begin at. Olimp is apparently very secretive about how it brews its Jopejskie, but Rafał Harchala of Browar Świdnica was entirely happy to tell me all: he starts with a strong Russian Imperial Stout wort and then boils it for 24 hours (24 hours!), to end up with something closer to tar than wort. This is then pitched with a standard lager yeast – the well-known 34/70, I believe – and left until the lager yeast cells wave the white flag, after which the brew remains in an open vessel for any wild yeasts to have a go if they think they’re hard enough. Finally the beer is kegged: the batch at the festival had been made in October last year, and was thus eight months old..
Even the wildest of wild yeasts eventually give up, however, and what is left is still sweet and treacly – and delicious. I confess to a tingle in my feet when I drank this: liquid history, chewy, powerful, filled with dark, deep flavours, simply fabulous. One of my best beer experiences of the past few years. Later I managed to find the Olimp version on sale in a shop in Krakow (39 złoty per 100ml bottle: I saw it in a bar for 49 złoty), and a very kind Polish-based home brewer, Tomasz Spencer, gave me a bottle of his home-brewed Jopejskie. So that’s three different versions of a beer I never thought I’d see: amazing.
There were some disappointments, and ironically the worst beer I had was in a brewpub in Krakow that claims to brew the finest British-style cask ale. Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the inspiration for a white RIS) held to a philosophy that it wasn’t his job to be unpleasant to people, but to encourage everybody, so perhaps it might be kindest to draw a discreet bartowel over these failings. But frankly, if you’re selling a “cask-conditioned bitter” you call “England’s Glory” to Poles, it really needs not to taste of unfermented wort and lack all condition. I tried the porter, to see if this was just one poor cask, and it was barely better: thin, little condition again, sweetcorn on the nose and something nastily sharp lurking in the background.
But apart from that, I had a terrific time: if you like beer tourism, Poland is now an absolutely must-visit destination. The Wrocław beer festival, outside the football stadium a tram-ride from the city centre, is one of the best in Europe, well-organised, a great selection of dozens of different Polish breweries, and a fine range of Polish street food to mop up the beer. The beer bars, in Krakow and Warsaw in particular, are almost uniformly excellent, and if the selections of beers are almost entirely Polish, well, those beers are good enough, and varied enough, that you won’t miss anything. Among the places I particularly enjoyed were Hoppiness, in the aptly named Chmielna (“Hop Street”) in central Warsaw and Maryensztadt in Warsaw Old Town; and Omerta in Krakow.
Many thanks to the guys at Crookham Travel for organising the travel around Poland and brewery trips in Wrocław and Krakow, and Tony Fox-Griffiths in particular for his impeccably researched guides to bars in those two cities; to Tomasz Kopyra and the crew at Festiwal Dobrego Piwa for the free beer and hotel accommodation in Wrocław (and more brewery trips); and to Tom Spencer for giving up his time to take me on a bar crawl of Warsaw. and organising yet another brewery visit. See you all again soon, I hope.
That’s another one crossed off the bucket list … standing in a “live” floor maltings, watching the chemical magic that is barley enzymes turning starch into sugar in many millions of little seeds, all spread in a carpet four inches deep and probably 60 yards long and 15 yards wide. I grew up in Hertfordshire, where long, narrow maltings buildings can be found in most towns: there was one next door to my school, which had been acquired as overspill classrooms, so I can say I absorbed some of my education where malt was once made. I’ve been in plenty of disused floor maltings over the decades, in the UK and abroad, and I’ve seen a Saladin drum maltings in action, but never, until last Friday, a working floor maltings where malt is made in a way basically unchanged from the way it was made a thousand and more years ago.,
What I wasn’t expecting on the joint Brewery History Society/Guild of Beer Writers trip to Crisp’s maltings in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk was to be allowed inside the kiln, where the malt, once it has germinated enough, is dried off. These pyramidal structures, often topped with cowls that turn with the prevailing wind, are again familiar to anyone who has ever visited Ware in Hertfordshire, once the greatest malting town in the country, or Burton upon Trent, where multitudes of breweries had their own maltings. They are – or at least the one we were taken into – surprisingly spacious inside. Less surprisingly, it’s hot: but not that hot. To make properly dried pale malt takes about two and a quarter days of gentle heat. Too hot, to try to speed life up, and the malt will be too dark.
Next up, though, was a wonderful piece of 21st century malting kit just installed at Great Ryburgh, the Speciality Malt Plant, the only one of its kind in the UK, and so new its products are not even on sale yet: two 20-feet-high towers wrapped in spiral tubes that take raw malt and then toast, roast, stew or bake it to produce the complete range of coloured malts, from amber through brown and chocolate to black. The towers will also make crystal malts and other speciality malts, continuously, at a rate of 1.5 tonnes an hour, with the kind of control over the colour of the final product impossible using batch production methods.
Each tower has two off-balance electric motors attached that vibrate the assembly, shaking the grains of malt up the spiral tubes. In the tubes the grains are blasted with heat as they rise, making them darker and more toasty/roasty, with the changes in flavour – coffee, chocolate, burnt raisins, even liquorice – that come with browning the malt. (Malt trivia: so-called “chocolate” malt doesn’t have chocolatey flavours, but coffee-like ones: the name comes from the colour. Chocolatey flavours are more likely to be found in brown malt, one step backwards down the level of roasting.) As the first grain comes out the other end, after 50 minutes or so, its colour can be checked against spec, and the heat adjusted as needed for the rest of the run. Water can be injected into the first tower, which will mean green malt can be stewed on its way through and then converted into crystal malt. The system was originally designed by a Frenchman to dry wood pellets for burning in power stations, but is now used for everything from drying almonds and other nuts to roasting coffee.
It all starts in a field, of course: and on the way back to Norwich our mixed group of hacks and historians took a side trip to the Maris Otter mother field, at a secret side “somewhere in Norfolk”. This is where seed is grown up in the first year of a four-stage process to produce the grain that is sold to farmers who grow the barley that is turned into malt that craft brewers around the world love because of the way it handles in the mash tun and because of the way the beers it produces develop in the cask. But why does it need a mother field? Because all organisms, if not watched, will fail to breed true, and in a few generations, with 36 seeds per head of barley, bouf! No more pure-bred Maris Otter, with all the genetic characteristics so many brewers love.
So the “mother field” seed actually comes from a one-hectare plot that has been rigorously vetted to ensure everything harvested from it is pukka pure seed of exactly the sort released by the Plant Breeding Institute in Maris Lane, Trumpington, near Cambridge, back in 1965, and the plants in the mother field will be vetted again: at least one mutation is found every year, and the offending barley plant pulled up out of the soil, taken round the back of a hedge and shot in the head. (More malt trivia: among the other varieties of barley released by the Plant Breeding Institute in the 1960s was one called Maris Baldric, which appeared on the agricultural stage in 1961: alas, it was a cunning plan that lacked longevity, and Maris Baldric eventually disappeared. A baldric, to save you looking it up, is a sword belt, the sort that goes over one shoulder and diagonally across under the other arm.)
All this trouble is necessary to get the required certificates that allow the seed to be sold to farmers. Maris Otter’s popularity among specialist brewers means that it has lasted as a commercial variety almost 55 years, though it came close to disappearing at one point, and its low yields in the field mean farmers have to be paid a premium to grow it. Still, there are plenty who will proclaim that Maris Otter grown in Norfolk soil, comparatively poor glacial till over chalk, and nurtured by Norfolk’s dry, sea-influenced climate, is a tough upbringing that results in the best malting barley in the world.
And they’ve been malting barley in East Anglia for more than two thousand years, probably. Under King Cunobelin, the Catuvellauni minted coins in Camulodunum, modern Colchester, that showed what was pretty clearly an ear of barley on one side. If the Iceni, their neighbours to the north in modern Norfolk, were not also growing barley, and turning it into malt, that would be surprising. We know the Angles, who took over in the 5th century AD from the Iceni, or what remained of the Iceni after 400 years of Roman occupation, certainly malted, because a malthouse has been excavated in the last few years dating from the Anglo-Saxon period, around 800 AD, near the north-west Norfolk village of Sedgeford, 12 miles north of King’s Lynn. After learning about modern malting in the morning, the BHS/BGBW learnt about ancient malting in the afternoon, in a session with archaeologist Neil Faulkner, who has been uncovering the oldest known malthouse in Britain.
I think most archaeologists would accept that archaeology has, with a few very honourable exceptions, not been very good until quite recently when dealing with the evidence left behind by ancient malting and maltsters. Many archaeologists working on digs didn’t understand how malting worked, they didn’t understand the processes – steeping, couching, spreading on the malting floor, drying – and what structures were required to house and facilitate those processes, which meant they couldn’t work out what they were finding in the ground actually meant. In particular they were operating under the misapprehension that the kilns used to dry the malt were outside in the open, and they didn’t grasp that the malt to be dried would be on a floor above the kiln, lying, probably, on a haircloth, in a two-storey structure.
Now, under prodding from those few archaeologists with actual experience of malting and brewing, such as Merryn Dineley, the archaeological mainstream is getting a lot better at seeing holes in the ground and working out what those holes mean in terms of ancient malting buildings. This has been helped at Sedgeford by the nature of the site: the maltings sat in a gully, and when it was abandoned it was swiftly covered with hill wash. That meant it was buried deeply enough for modern ploughing not to strip much of the archaeology away, as normally happens, meaning that the holes that represented where the clay-lined steeping tank was, where the kiln once was, where the posts that held up the building where the malt was dried were, are better preserved. So is other evidence such as the flat floor of baked clay that would have been used for germinating the barley after steeping and couching, burnt grains of malt, where the drying got out of hand and the toasting went too far, and burnt daub (as in wattle-and-daub), where the drying got really out of hand and burnt the whole building down: fire has always been a risk in maltings, and it looks as if, during the life of the Sedgeford maltings, it may have burnt down and been rebuilt two or three times.
What there isn’t is evidence for is brewing: what happened to the malt made at this maltings, which was a substantial operation, remains unknown. Three hundred years later, at the time of the Norman conquest, long after the 9th century maltings had vanished under the soil, two manors at Sedgewick were in the hands of Ægelmar, or Aylmer, Bishop of Elmham, 20 miles to the east, which was then where the diocese covering East Anglia was based. Within 30 years or so of the conquest the see was transferred, via Thetford, to Norwich, and in the 12th century, those two manors at Sedgeford were in the hands of Norwich Cathedral Priory, with malt from a later maltings at Sedgeford going to make ale for the monks at the priory. Was the ninth-century maltings, now being explored by archaeologists some 1,200 years on, built by the church? Probably, Neil Faulkner thinks …
To go with the talk on Anglo-Saxon maltings (just Angles on their own, strictly, of course, the Saxons, or East Saxons at least, being down south of the Stour) we had some reconstructed Anglo-Saxon ale, brewed with malted barley, wheat, oats and rye, flavoured with bog myrtle, sage, nettle tops, ale hoof and liquorice root and fermented with a Belgian yeast. I’ve no problem with the mixed grain bill, since brewing with oats, barley and wheat together was certainly happening in the medieval period, but all those herbs together, I suspect, was at least three and probably four too many: possibly even five too many. There are hints that brewers in Norwich at the end of the Middle Ages were using bog myrtle: I’d have just stuck to that, it grows locally and it was widely used in pre-hop brewing. And maybe a Norwegian farmhouse yeast …
But that wasn’t the only fun at the seminar. We got to taste “malt tea” made from various types and grades of malt, courtesy of Crisp’s, which is a far better was of assessing and appreciating malt flavours than chewing the grains: crush the malt, pour water at 60ºC over it, let stand, serve. The Maris Otter tea was lovely, real depth of flavour, and the teas made from different grades of crystal and dark malts highly instructive. Crystal 150 still had a lot of biscuit evident, but with a bit of toffee too. Crystal 400 had tar, treacle and burnt raisins: this is the stuff for your hefty stout. Brown malt had the chocolate flavours, but the tea with 40 per cent black malt was the revelation: smoke, coffee, liquorice, masses of character. It would, I suggested, make a fabulous ice-cream ingredient.
We also had a talk from Chris Ridout of the John Innes Centre, the man who reintroduced Chevallier*, once one of the most popular malting barleys in the world in the 19th century. Dr Ridout revealed that the next heritage barley variety to be released will be Plumage-Archer, which I find terrifically exciting. Plumage-Archer itself is actually almost a century younger than Chevallier, first seeing daylight in 1905 courtesy of the Warminster maltster and barley breeder Edwin Sloper Beaven, but as the name implies, it is a cross of two (much) older varieties, both of them “landrace” types. Plumage comes from Sweden, where it was known as plumage-korn from at least the 1760s, while the birthplace of Archer is lost in the early mists of a summer’s day many centuries back: Beaven, who literally wrote the book on barley (Barley by ES Beaven, Duckworth, London, 1947), said he had “never been able to ascertain [its] origin,” (it was known in some places as “Archer’s”, which suggests a possible association with someone called Archer) but it was “probably the old common English narrow-eared barley of the country” – meaning if you want a barley type similar to the sort that 18th century and earlier brewers used, then one with Archer in its parentage is an excellent choice. I greatly look forward to tasting recreation brews made with Plumage-Archer: truly, this is a wonderful time to be a beer drinker.
Many thanks to the BHS, the BGBW’s Susanna Forbes and Ros Shiel and Frances Brace of Red Flame for organising the event, Crisp Malt and Greene King for helping to support it, and the Georgian Townhouse in Norwich for being the hosts.
*Malting trivia three: I had a chat with Dr Ridout after his talk, in which the spelling of Chevallier came up: the family name of the man who developed the strain was Chevallier, but the habit seems to have grown up in the 19th century to call the barley Chevalier, apparently to differential man and plant, and ES Beaven, writing in the 1940s, deliberately and carefully wrote about Chevalier barley and the Reverend John Chevallier of Suffolk, who introduced it to an eager world. When the John Innes Institute reintroduced the variety seven or so years ago, they had to choose which spelling to adopt when registering it, and decided to go with two Ls, on the grounds that, as Dr Ridout said, that was the way the Reverend John spelt his name. So, strictly, from a style guide POV, if you’re talking about the family, Chevallier; if you’re talking about the barley variety in a 19th or 20th century context, Chevalier is permissible, because that’s the version farmers and maltsters themselves regularly used; if you’re talking about the revived 21st century version, Chevallier. Although frankly …
A few years back, when I was still involved in hospitality trade journalism, I would get occasional invites from Carlsberg to PR gigs. One was to Wembley to see England play San Marino. The match itself was the predictable turkey-stuffing (5-0) but it was the entertainment beforehand we were particularly supposed to appreciate: Northampton’s Danes had taken over part of Wembley town hall and turned it into an “If Carlsberg did pubs” pub, with unlimited free pints of lager delivered on sushi-style conveyor belts, the Lightning Seeds as the pub band and Ian Wright, Paddy McGuinness and Jeff Stelling as pre-match pundits. It was quite fun, as quite fun goes, but the big drawback was the beer: Carlsberg.
I don’t have anything against big-corporation beer in itself, but I do have a big problem with dull beer: I can’t drink it. I have a very low boredom threshold with food and drink (and most other experiences, actually) and I would literally rather drink nothing than drink more than a couple of pints of beer with no interest. And that Carlsberg: it wasn’t actually bad, or faulty, it was simply a cypher, a blank hole where beer should have been. There was no pain in drinking it, but it was a hedonistic vacuum that actively repelled me, that made me not wish to experience this beery nothing.
The one upside, I thought, was that at least I wasn’t going to get embarrassingly drunk on free beer, since I couldn’t bring myself to bring it near my mouth. So I waited, faintly bored, until the drinking was over and we could go and watch the match – which was a similar sort of experience to the beer, ironically. Had it been a ten-nil walloping, that would have been good to watch. Had it been decent opposition, that would have been good, too. But five-nil against San Marino, a country with a population the size of Letchworth: meh.
So: come forward to the present day, and the Cobblertown-based Danes are now apparently admitting that, indeed, their beer really hasn’t been up to much: the San Marino of beerdom. In the run-up to a relaunch last month of the basic 3.8 per cent abv “Green” Carlsberg, the company started retweeting tweets from drinkers comparing the beer to drinking stale breadsticks, or the bathwater your granny died in, using the increasingly popular “beat us, we’re bad” strategy marketeers seem to think makes consumers love them because they’re apparently being deeply honest, for a change. Then its VP of marketing in the UK, Liam Newton, pulled on the sackcloth, dumped a pile of ashes over his head, threw himself on his knees and wailed: “At Carlsberg UK, we lost our way. We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best. In order to live up to our promise of being ‘probably the best beer in the world’, we had to start again.” Actually, Liam, you used to say “Probably the best lager in the world”, you little fibber, not least because prosodically the two beats of “lager” make for a better-sounding slogan that the single beat of beer: cretic, trochee, spondee, cretic rather than the clunkier cretic, cretic, cretic,
Green Carlsberg is now calling itself a Danish pilsner, rather than a lager: presumably “consumer feedback” suggests “pilsner” sounds posher. Poor Bhavya Mandanna, head brewperson at Carlsberg UK, ventriloquised the following nonsense, courtesy of Carlsberg’s PR people: “Our new Pilsner has a fuller body and a perfect balance of bitterness and sweetness made possible through modifications to our brewing process and the addition of bittering hops in the brewhouse.” Wow, they’re adding bittering hops in the brewhouse! There’s innovative! Tell us more, Bhavya, and let’s see if you can say it while the PR man sits you in his knee with his hand up the back of your jacket as he swallows a pint of supposedly perfectly balanced lager: “Aroma hops with citrus and floral top notes give a greater depth of flavour whilst maintaining the light and refreshing qualities of Carlsberg.”
Enough guff. Just because PR people make it appear you’re as filled with marketing bollocks as they are, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically a bad brewer. It’s only fair to put Bhavya’s new-style Green Carlsberg in a taste-off to see how it performs. I decided to pair it against Camden Town’s new “Weeknite Any Day” lager, a 3 per cent beer I suspect only escaped being called “Everyday lager” because that would have given the Portman Group the blue giptions for suggesting you could drink every day. And the result is (the envelope, please …)
The result, I’m actually disappointed to say, is exactly what a cynic might expect. The “new” Green Carlsberg, selling for £1 a 33cl bottle in your local corner offie (that’s £1.72 a pint), is scarcely less dull than its previous incarnation. It smells of almost nothing. It tastes of almost nothing. There’s a faintly meaty, metallic aftertaste that lingers for too long. More flavour comes through as the beer opens up in the glass, but so does a bitterness just hovering on the edge of unpleasant. A slight malt sweetness is present, but the main sensation is of something massively watered down. I’m bored even thinking about it.This is NOT the future of beer, and Carlsberg are only wasting time on what should be a controlled rundown of a beer in terminal decline.
Camden Town’s Week Nite, though, is a little bit of a revelation. It’s one of a growing number of what might be called “floral” or “fruity” lagers, cold-fermented beers made with hop varieties more normally associated with warm-fermented American IPAs – see, for example, Guinness’s Hop House 13 lager, hopped with Galaxy, a strongly flavoured Australian hop with lots of tropical fruit/peach aromas, Topaz, another Australian hop, with hints of clove and lychee and Mosaic, from the US, with more tropical/floral/citrus flavours – that are becoming increasingly popular – see, for example, Guinness’s Hop House 13, very likely to be already on a bar top near you just three years after its launch.
What this new style of lager is delivering is taste, something that, 20 years after the American IPA revolution, is finally becoming a mainstream demand, plus “cold refreshingness”’ something beers such as Carlsberg once had tied up and held down on the ground, but which is no longer enough. What Week Nite is delivering as well is relatively low alcohol: it used to be that a three per cent beer would have to be made with roasted or high-dried malts, like a brown ale or a dark mild or a sweet stout, to deliver flavour. Brewers are now discovering that it is possible to deliver flavour in a low-gravity beer with American-heritage hops:
Week Nite has Motueka, a New Zealand hop with Saaz in its family tree but also NZ hops to give a distinctly tropical fruits aroma, and Centennial, one of the classic American “C-hops”, adding more citrus flavours, as whirlpool hops, and it is then dry-hopped with Motueca and Centennial again, plus Cascade, another citrussy American C-hop, and left unfiltered and unpasteurised – but moves likely to increase the flavour in a low-gravity beer. The result is a somewhat austere beer with a restrained mango, physalis and passionfruit nose, mango juice in the mouth, just enough bitterness to hold it all up and the body of an ultra-marathon runner: not so much thin as wiry. That sounds harsher than I mean to be on this beer: for a three per cent alcohol brew it stands up very well, and it should hit the target market, people wanting something tasty that won’t lay them out, right in the eye. The 33cl can represents exactly one UK unit of alcohol: pace yourself and you could drink one of these every 40 minutes while staying totally sober.
You don’t have to stare too deeply into a beer-filled crystal ball to predict that (1) there will be a constant flow of launches of floral/fruity lagers, in the wake of Hop House 13, and (2) this poses big problems for the “standard” lager giants, who can’t reformat their existing beers, for fear of alienating their existing drinkers, but who are not recruiting new drinkers in enough numbers to maintain market share. The “lager louts” of the 1980s are now, to revive an old joke, becoming Saga louts, 30 years on, as they close in on their 60s, and nobody aged 18 wants to drink the beer a 60-year-old drinks. It looks like Carlsberg’s pet British micro, London Fields, has already had an attempt at a “fruity” lager with the launch of Broadway Boss, using a “traditional” hop in the boil but “a new American variety in the whirlpool to give it a lemony zing.” Unfortunately the whole first batch has had to be recalled after high levels of DMS in the final product, but they’ll be back …
What, then, do AB InBev and Heineken do, with so much invested in Stella, Budweiser, Fosters and the rest? Will we see the launch of Stella floral, of Fosters fruity, or will they try new brands entirely, using, perhaps, their recently acquired “craft” breweries as cover? Those of you at the back shouting “Camden Town is owned by AB InBev!” – yes, exactly. What we have here with Week Nite is a floral/fruity toe in the lager by AB InBev’s marketers, to see if anybody bites. If it doesn’t work, no problem: no embarrassment for the big brands. If it does, then woo-hoo, roll that baby out round the distribution network.
And on cue, *ding* into my email intray today comes a release from Shepherd Neame about its new Bear Island Triple Hopped Lager, hopped with Saaz, pretty much the standard “noble” lager hop, from Bohemia, somewhat herby, but also Challenger, a British hop with a touch of orange marmalade, and, that one again, Mosaic, for the floral/tropical/citrus delivery. There’ll be plenty more along soon.
I am green – viridian. Ron Pattinson has been dropping hints every time I see him about his secret big new project with Goose Island in Chicago, and it’s now been revealed: a reproduction of a London porter from 1840, including authentic heritage barley, properly “blown” brown malt, and blending a long-vatted beer with a much younger version. Who do I have to kill to get hold of a bottle?
Of course, some people have knee-jerked in and slapped this down because it involves the Evil Empire, AB InBev, owner of Goose Island and, in the opinion of many, too many other formerly small craft breweries, from Four Peaks to Wicked Weed. The PC line is “I’ll never drink anything produced by a company that is fundamentally bad for, and opposed to, small independent operators and their survival.”
As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out Josh Noel’s deservedly award-winning book from last year on the take-over of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch – do try to get hold of a copy, it’s an excellent, even-handed and sympathetic analysis of what happened and why it happened. You’ll certainly put it down after 345 pages and conclude that AB InBev is indeed interested in nothing more, ultimately, than getting you to buy its product in preference to anybody else’s, and if that meant using its weight, wealth and power to crush the entire global craft beer scene, it wouldn’t care. But that’s what big corporations do: criticising them for wanting to dominate the world is like criticising lions for chasing down and killing wildebeest. It’s the nature of the animal. Run faster, wildebeest.
And if AB InBev wants to spend silly sums of money flying my mate Ron, and Derek Prentice, former brewer with Truman’s of Brick Lane, then Young’s, then Fuller’s, and now Wimbledon, out to Chicago to advise on recreating an almost 180-year-old beer, and take enormous pains getting the ingredients and the methodology just right, in the hope that this will greenwash their corporation and get people like me to write admiringly about them, rather than attack them for trying to squeeze smaller rivals out of the market, then they’re partly correct: I’ll still criticise where necessary, but I’m also writing admiringly about the Obadiah Poundage porter project, because I think it’s wonderful to be able to drink this beer from the past, and I don’t believe very many other organisations would have the big wallet, or the commitment, to undertake such a recreation. This is an expensive beer made with unusual ingredients back in March last year, which was then left sitting around occupying valuable real estate in Chicago for a year before being blended with the newer version and put on sale. Most companies’ accountants would have been screaming themselves puce. If not AB InBev, who else would undertake such a journey?
Anyway, watch this fascinating 20-minute video about the project, listen to Mike Siegel, research and development boss at Goose Island explain it all, see if you can spot John Hall, founder of Goose Island, popping into shot uncredited occasionally, and then come back here and I’ll discuss a few interesting points that arise, so pay attention and listen out in particular for the mentions of hornbeam, there will be questions afterwards.
I didn’t expect to find anything to criticise about the history when I watched that. I nodded along as Derek Prentice accurately recounted the role of porters in 18th century London, and as Ron described the change from the all-brown-malt porters of the early 18th century to the more complicated grain bills of later porters, with pale malt, “patent” black malt and “blown” malt dried and browned over faggots of hornbeam wood, and I sat awed as Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt in Massachusetts showed the making of just such a batch of “blown” malt over a fire of hornbeam. And then something strange happened. My subconscious popped up and said: “Hornbeam – are you actually certain about that?” So I checked.
For the past 18 months I’ve been writing what is meant to be the definitive history of porter and stout, and I’ve read several hundred books and articles to pull that together. All that information goes down into the subconscious, where, as is the way of the human brain, new connections are formed that the conscious mind is unaware of until something bubbles up from the id. Now, “maltsters made blown malt for porter by drying the grains over blazing hornbeam” is a solid received fact among historians of brewing. I never doubted it. Hough, Briggs and Stevens’s Malting and Brewing Science from 1971 says so: “dried in a fierce heat from a fire of hardwood faggots made from oak, hornbeam, ash or beech” (p166). Steeped in Tradition, a history of the malting industry from 1983 by Jonathan Brown says so: “These kilns were fired by wood, mostly and preferably oak, but beech, hornbeam and ash were also commonly used.” It makes sense: blown malt was a speciality of the maltsters of Ware and other towns in East Hertfordshire, and hornbeam, which burns with a bright, hot flame, is abundant in the woods of East Herts.
But as my subconscious prompted me into confirming, if you go and look, you will not actually find any references to hornbeam being used by maltsters during the time that blown malt was still being made. Many authors do not specify any particular wood. Of those that do, William Black in his Practical Treatise on Brewing of 1844 says blown malt is heated with “faggots of dry, hard wood, commonly beech or birch; fir imparting a tarry taste.” (p26). Henry Stopes, who was the 19th century’s Mr Malt, spoke only of billet and faggot wood “generally of oak but occasionally of beech” in making the blown variety (Malt and Malting, 1885, p159). E.R. Southby’s Systemic Handbook of Practical Brewing from the same year says blown malt is “dried rapidly over a fire of beech or birch wood” (p215). Herbert Edwards Wright’s A Handy Book for Brewers from 1892 says blown malt is made by subjecting the barley to “a sudden blast of intense heat generated by heating up the kiln fire with oak or beechen faggots or billets” (p309). (Wright also says that the fire risk “and the high rates of insurance demanded in consequence” meant this was a variety of malt generally made only by specialists.)
So, what to say to Ron, Derek, Andrea and Mike: “Er, thanks for all the trouble you went to, guys, that was amazing, especially the hornbeam, but, um, you might have been better off with beech …” I’m not saying nobody ever used hornbeam to make blown malt: I think it’s very likely they did. It was available, in the right place, and has similar characteristics to both birch (which is in the same botanical family) and beech, which we DO known were used (indeed, the hornbeam is known in some parts of Britain as the “ay beech”, for its habit of keeping its leaves through winter, that is “for aye”.)
Best not to say anything to dampen the party, really. And let’s not mention that the American hornbeam that Andrea used is a slightly different species to English hornbeam: that would be taking my (deserved) reputation for picky pedanticism too far down the road. Nor let us question why an 1840 porter is named for a man who probably died at least 70 years earlier, the pseudonymous commentator whose letter to the London Chronicle in 1760 about the tax on beer provides historians with so much information about the history of porter. (Someone in the film wonders where the original “Obadiah Poundage” got his name from: “Poundage” is an old word for tax, and one of the many Obadiahs in the Old Testament was a porter “keeping the ward ” [Nehemiah 12:25].) And please, let’s not ask why you have to query every single damned received historical fact because too often what you thought was indisputably true isn’t indisputably true at all. No, there’s a much more important question than all that: where’s my bottle?
Exactly when it started happening I’m not sure, but bitter, once the glory of the British beer scene, is disappearing. In the place of all those marvellously hoppy, complex bitters and best bitters we once sank by the pottle and quart, we now have brews sold under the same brand names, made by the same breweries, very probably to the same recipes, with the same ingredients – but describing themselves as “amber ales” instead.
Take London Pride, for example. Until very recently Fuller’s was delighted to call this classic beer exactly what it was and is, and has been for more than 60 years, since it first appeared on bartops – a best bitter. Now it’s an “original ale”. Let’s stifle the pedantic retort that an “original ale” would be brewed without any hops at all, and merely ask ourselves: WTF?
Similarly with Wadworth’s 6X, formerly a “traditional draught bitter”, now a “crafted amber ale”. It would take Jacques Derrida to deconstruct what the word “crafted” is doing in that description, but he’s dead, and since he was French I doubt he drank English beers of any sort anyway, so let’s have a stab ourselves and suggest it’s been stuck in there in an attempt to add some unneeded “authenticity” to a beer that has been around for more than 90 years and needs no help from clueless marketeers.
The word “bitter” is disappearing from bartops and bottle labels across the country. Marston’s Pedigree, “The King of Bitters” once, now just another amber ale. Shepherd Neame Spitfire – “premium bitter” when it launched, “Kentish amber ale” today. Hook Norton Brewery’s Hooky bitter – now just “Hooky”, “amber and well-balanced”. Brain’s SA, formerly proud to call itself a best bitter, now just a “premium cask beer”. Arkell’s BBB, which is actually short for “best bitter beer”, is now branded simply as “3B”, with no clue as to where that comes from. Wells’ Bombardier, “English premium bitter” until recently, today a “British hopped amber beer”. Again, WTF? Unless the Scots and Welsh have started growing hops again, and as far as I am aware the last hop gardens in those countries closed in the 19th century, what will be going into Bombardier will be English hops. Is “English” another word, like “bitter”, that cannot now be mentioned in the context of beer marketing?
Not all bitters are dark cornelian-amber, of course, particularly those from the North West of England: thus Robinson’s Unicorn Bitter from Stockport is now Robinson’s Unicorn Golden Ale. JW Lees seems to be resisting, but even its bitter, while still proudly branded “Bitter”, is described today on the pumpclips bottle labels as an amber ale (though, while you CAN get amber that pale, that’s not what I’d call “amber-coloured. And incidentally, Lees, that claim on your website that “our all-malt amber bitter was first brewed in 1828” – I doubt that very much. Nobody was brewing well-hopped bitter ales outside London and Burton for decades yet.)
If you think this is just the big guys trying to move their beers away from cloth caps and roll-ups, I’m afraid not. Woodforde’s Wherry bitter, which stunned me when I first drank it more than 35 years ago – today, another amber ale.
Not everybody is doing it, of course, and it still looks to be only a minority that have ripped the page with “bitter” on out of their dictionaries: there are plenty of brewers, hurrah, large and small, still proud to call their beer a bitter, a best bitter, even an extra special bitter. But it worries me that some brewery marketing departments seem to think “bitter” is a dirty word, and the way to sell a classic, traditional English product is to call it an “amber ale” instead. It’s dumb, it’s dumbing down, and it’s insulting to the beers and to drinkers, suggesting that they would skitter away from a word that they might associate with their granddad, and refuse to drink something called a bitter lest they sprout a fuzzy grey beard and their Converse sneakers turn into sandals.