London’s earliest named brewer – or London’s earliest named maltster?

It looks as if the history of brewing in London can now be taken back to the very earliest decades of the city’s existence, with the discovery of what is claimed to be the city’s – and Britain’s – earliest known brewer, named on a writing tablet from nearly two millennia ago, found in waterlogged ground on a building site 500 yards to the east of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The writing tablet, used as a letter, was one of 15,000 artefacts found when the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) put 50 archaeologists to work betwee 2010 and 2014 digging through thousands of tons of wet mud on a three-acre site between Queen Victoria Street/Bucklersbury and Cannon Street during the early part of the construction of a new European HQ for the media company Bloomberg.

The site, which was previously the home of a 1950s office block, is on the course of the Walbrook, the long-buried river that runs from the border of Hoxton and Shoreditch down between Ludgate Hill and Cornhill to the Thames. Although much of the modern river’s flow is culverted, enough water still soaks the ground to leave it anaerobic, which stops wood, leather and other organic materials from rotting away. More than 400 writing tablets in total were found in the mud and debris of the site, 87 of which still carried legible writing scratched into the wood. The gems included one from around AD65 to 75 addressed “Londinio Mogontio”, “To Mogontius in London”. This is the earliest known mention of London by name, up to half a century before the previous earliest known mention, when Tacitus included the city’s name in his Annals, written around 115-117AD. Another tablet, from around AD80-90/5 has been hailed as the first record of a brewer in London.

The 'Tertius Braciarius' tablet from AD 80-90/95. The inscription left in the wood actually says TııRTIO BRACIA RIO, since in Roman handwriting an E was represented by two vertical (or slightly angled) strokes.

The ‘Tertius Braciarius’ tablet from AD80-90/95. The inscription left in the wood actually says TııRTIO BRACIA RIO, since in Roman handwriting an E was represented by two vertical (or slightly angled) strokes.

There is one small problem – the tablet is addressed Tertio braceario, “to Tertius the bracearius“, and while MOLA has happily translated bracearius as brewer – that is what the word meant in Medieval Latin – it comes from the Celtic word braces, which means either “grain for malting” or, more likely, just “malt”. Archaeologists, apparently over-awed by the authority of the Roman writer Pliny, who referred to braces as the Celtic name for a specific variety of grain, spelt wheat, seem reluctant to accept that he was wrong, and braces probably meant malt in general, made from any grain. Today, in modern Irish, the word for malt is braiche, and “maltster” is braicheadóir while the modern Welsh word for malt is brag, and “maltster” bragwr, all words clearly derived from braces. Bracearius may thus be better translated as “maltster” rather than brewer.

“Maltster” is certainly how the word was translated when it was found in the writing tablets uncovered late last century at the Roman fort at Vindolanda, in modern Northumbria, not least because another term meaning “brewer”, cervesarius, derived from the Latin for beer, cervesa (itself from a Celtic word), appears in the Vindolanda tablets. A fragment of an account of purchases for soldiers at the fort, probably from around AD 97-103, includes a mention of Atrectus ceruersar[ius], “Atrectus the Brewer”, a man with a Celtic name, who was, before Tertius, Britain’s earliest known named brewer. The same word meaning “brewer” – cervecero is still found in Spanish.

Meanwhile braces is mentioned several times in the Vindolanda tablets, including one lengthy letter from a trader called Octavius to another called Candidus, possibly written early in AD 122, covering all sorts of goods, including one significant reference to bracis excussi“bracis excussi habeo m[odios] cxix …”, “I have 119 modii of excussi bracis”. The translators of the Vindolanda tablets suggested excussi, from the verb excutio, literally “shake, strike (something) out of (something else)”, meant “threshed”, so bracis excussi would be “threshed grain”. But if, as it almost certainly did, braces meant malt, then excussi is likely to refer to deculming, knocking off the rootlets that had sprouted from the grain as it underwent the malting process, so bracis excussi mean “deculmed malt”. No brewer would want to buy malt with the culms still on: they need removing or they give a bad taste to the beer. (A modius was a volume measure equal to just under two gallons, incidentally, so 119 would be the equivalent of about 28 and a half bushels, around 1,200 pounds in weight, enough to make very roughly 450 gallons of beer.)

This identification of braces with malt means that the Vindolanda translators were happy to translate an address on one tablet from circa AD92-97, Vindoland[ae] Optato [b]raciiario A Montano fr[at]re as “At Vindolanda, to Optatus the maltster, from his brother Montanus”. (The spelling of bracearius with a double i probably reflects a pronunciation ending “ee-yario”). So if Optatus the braciiarius is called a maltster, why is Tertius the bracearius called a brewer?

On the other hand, the derivatives and descendants of the Celtic word braces show constant overlap between meanings to do with malting and words to do with brewing. For example, while the Welsh for malt is brag, the verb for “to brew” is the obviously related bragu (bracha in the variety of Welsh spoken in North Wales), bragwr means brewer as well as maltster, and brewery is bracty, that is, “malt house”. “Beer” in Welsh, meanwhile, is cwrw, from the same old Celtic root as cervesa. Old French had a word brais meaning “grains préparés en vue de brasser la bière”, in other words, “malt”, but the modern descendants of braces in French are brasser, “to brew”, brasseur, “brewer”, and brasserie “brewery”. (Cervoise in French, incidentally, refers specifically to unhopped ale, though the Spanish and Portuguese words derived from cervesa both mean “beer” generally.) Maybe calling Tertius a brewer, rather than a maltster, can be justified on the grounds that both Celtic and Latin-derived languages, later at least, failed to distinguish between malting and brewing as trades, so perhaps Londoners in the second half of the 1st century AD did the same. And it doesn’t fundamentally matter: if he was only a maltster, he was certainly selling his product to brewers in London, and early Roman Londoners, as we shall see shortly, were certainly drinking beer.

A Roman cask with its head-boards removed, used as a well-lining circa AD65-95, found on the 1 Poultry side in the City of London, just to the north of the Bloomberg site. The cask, made of fir wood, is almost two metres tall and would have contained around 200 gallons, rprobably of wine. Similar casks were also recycled into writing gtablets.

A Roman cask with its head-boards removed, used as a well-lining circa AD65-95, found on the 1 Poultry site in the City of London, just to the north of the Bloomberg site. The cask, made of fir wood, is almost two metres tall and would have contained around 200 gallons, probably of wine. Similar casks were also recycled into writing tablets.

There is one piece of evidence to suggest that Tertius might indeed have been a brewer. The wooden head-piece of half a barrel, probably larch or silver fir, dated by dendrochronology to AD63-4, was found in 2005 at the bottom of a well shaft in the London Clay in 2005 by archaeologists from MOLA working for the developer Land Securities at a site in Gresham Street in the City. The head-piece was 1.2 metres wide and made of five boards, with one scored with the name “TIIRTI[VS]”, “Tertius”. Barrels and brewers go together. But Tertius – which is simply the Latin word for “third” – was a common name in the era, and the barrel might have belonged to a different Tertius than the bracearius

The fact that Tertius was a common name, indeed, makes me dubious about the claim from MOLA that Tertius the London bracearius “is surely to be identified with Domitius Tertius”, a bracearius who had a writing-tablet letter addressed to him at “LVGVALIO”, a mis-spelling of the Latin name for Carlisle, Luguvalium, which was found in an archaeological dig in Castle Street, Carlisle in 1981/2 and dated to around AD80 to 95, the same time-span that covers the London Tertius’s letter. It’s possible, certainly, but a long was from definite that they were the same man.

A drawing of the tablet found in Carlisle addressed to 'Domitius Tertius brewer Luguvalium' and dated around AD80-95. Is this the same Tertius the brewer as the London one? (Drawing by Roger Tomlin)

A drawing of the tablet found in Carlisle addressed to ‘Domitio Tertio brasiiario Lugvali0’ and dated around AD80-95. Is this the same Tertius the brewer as the London one? (Drawing by Roger Tomlin)

Not all the tablets were letters: another found on the site, dating from AD65/70-80, was used to record an account for ceruesa, beer, either owed to or owed by a man called Crispus. Two other men were involved in the transactions listed, with one transaction going “through” Butus, and the other “through” Januarius. It looks as if Crispus could have been buying the beer, so we may have the name of London’s earliest known tavern keeper. The sums being paid, five denarii in one transaction, seven in another, one and a half denarii in a third, imply large amounts of beer, at the price being paid in Vindolanda of one denarius for 200 sextarii, a sextarius being 546ml, or 0.96 of a pint. Seven denarii, therefore, would buy 168 gallons of beer.

What did that beer come in? Casks, very likely. Another tablet from the site is addressed dabes Iunio cupario cotra Catullu[m], “You will give this to Junius the copper, opposite [the house of ] Catullus”. A cooper was not necessarily a “wet” cooper, making barrels for brewers, but some of the (apparently) wine casks recycled into well linings found during archaeological digs in the City show the Romans knew how to make large waterproof barrels.

In Roman times the Bloomberg site was only 100 metres from the Thames, and the mouth of the Walbrook: today the edge of the Thames is 300 metres away from the site, and the Walbrook exits into the Thames through a huge hinged iron door close by Cannon Street Station. The Walbrook was an important asset to Roman London, supplying it with fresh water. The water that still apparently flows down the river’s route outside the Victorian-era drainage system, while a blessing to archaeologists, because the water keeps out oxygen that would otherwise help rot and corrode items buried in the ground, is also a curse: to quote from the archaeologists’ own blog,

“The slightly annoying and inconvenient water levels do mean that organic and metal finds are amazingly preserved … On other sites, copper coins are usually corroded lumps of green; however on our site they are golden-coloured perfect examples. And our timbers are not just dark stains in the ground as you usually find, but lovely solid pieces of oak. So on site we love the Walbrook, but we also loath it at the same time. It provides us with so many happy positive memories of the site, but also so many terrible wet muddy ones.”

The muddy state of the ground is also the reason why so much Roman junk can be found along the line of the old river. The Romans built right up to the river-edge, sinking piers to support their buildings, and then back-filling with any old rubbish they could gather up to try to combat the sogginess and tendency to slip away of the land they were building on. That rubbish included broken pottery, animal bones, old shoes, old tools – and broken writing tablets. A Roman writing tablet was a hinged affair made of wood – often recycled barrel staves – with one side recessed, and filled with a thin layer of blackened beeswax. A message was scratched with a stylus into the wax, leaving white letters on a black background, and if it was a letter, the address would be written on the outside of the tablet when it was folded over to protect the message. The wax has generally disappeared after 2,000 years, but the stylus has often left an imprint in the wood, and sometimes this imprint can be read – though you need to be an expert in Roman cursive script, obviously, and also someone with enormous knowledge of Roman society and a clear and logical mind, to fill in as many of the inevitable gaps as can be filled. Hurrah, then, to Dr Roger Tomlin, the Wolfson College, Oxford University academic responsible for transcribing what was found.

When the Bloomberg building is finished in 2017, the writing tablets and more than 700 other artefacts are to be displayed in a public exhibition space in the building. Meanwhile, if you’re interested, you can read all the tablets, and all about the dig, by buying Roman London’s first voices: writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010–14 from the MOMA site for just £32.

Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Copenhagen exclusive: Carlsberg fills a wooden cask with lager

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

The Elephant Gate at the old Carlsberg brewery

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

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

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

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

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yreast lager brewing

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yeast lager brewing

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

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

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

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

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

Jacques Cartier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norway spruce

Norway spruce

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

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

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Dishonest nonsense and Camra’s Clause Four moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hangmen, and other plays set in pubs

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

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

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

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

Redemption Trinity light ale

Redemption Trinity light ale: a classic modern Hoppy Light Ale

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

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

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