Come-back for the Burtons

One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.

The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.

Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.

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The woodbegoods

There’s an odd feeling, like you’re doing something slightly illegal, when drinking and discussion beers that would have been poured down the drain by every generation of brewers before this one for being irredeemably faulty. But 21st century brewmasters have discovered the flavour found in wood, and declared it good.

Unlike wine-makers, especially many white wine makers, and distillers, especially whisk(e)y distillers, brewers who have used wooden fermenting vessels and wooden casks always made it an axiom not to have any influence from the wood apparent in their beers. Wood flavours were fine in chardonnay, or scotch, but not in IPA or porter.

Oak for casks, vats and brewing vessels was sourced from places such as Russia and Poland that were known for growing wood that would not impart any flavours to the beer. Casks were lined with “brewer’s pitch”, vats were scrubbed down so that when stock ales, porters and stouts were being matured in them, no tang of the timber would come through into the beer. Once fermenting vessels began being lined with metal, and steel and aluminium casks came in, wood flavours disappeared as a worry.

The introduction of wood flavours as a desirable characteristic, in the UK at least, was a serendipitous discovery springing from the wish of the Scotch whisky distiller William Grant in 2002 to add to its range of “cask reserve” whiskies, all finished off in casks that had previously held other alcoholic drinks, such as sherry or rum. Grant’s wanted a beer to fill casks with and enable it to make “ale cask reserve” whisky once the beer had been emptied out.

Dougal Sharp, then of the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, designed a malty, estery, sweet, not very hoppy beer he and Grant’s felt would give the casks a good foundation for maturing whisky in. The beer was aways meant to be thrown away once it had been in the casks long enough to impart flavour to the wood that could be absorbed subsequently by the whisky. But workers at Grant’s distillery sampled the beer, and liked the oaky, vanilla flavours it had picked up from the new wood so much that instead of disposing of it they started taking it home …

Intrigued, Sharp tried putting the beer into a blind tasting at the brewery, where it scored a consistent nine out of nine with the tasters. The “tweaked” version of their original brew for Grant’s that Dougal and his father Russell launched in 2003 as Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer has been so successful subsequently it has effectively launched a completely new category in the UK marketplace – wood-aged beer.

Which is why I was at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday for the Zythographers’ Union’s latest seminar, tasting different styles of beers aged in different ways in different types of cask, and listening to Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery, John Keeling of Fuller’s in London and Dougal Sharp himself talk about their wood-aged beer experiments and experiences.

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One for the Curmisagios

When I was researching the etymological roots of various European beer-related words, I discovered there had been a Gaulish personal name, Curmisagios, which translates as “the beer seeker”, or, if you like, “the beer hunter”. Among the tribes who lived in Gaul, home of Curmisagios, were the Belgae, whose own name was borrowed in 1790 by the subjects of the then Austrian Netherlands for the short-lived Etats-Belgiques-Unis – United States of Belgium – they set up during a soon-crushed rebellion against the Emperor in far-away Vienna.

The name Belgium was revived 40 years later, in 1830, by the Roman Catholic Flemings and Walloons of the old Austrian Netherlands for their own new country after they rose against the Protestant Dutch who dominated the post-Napoleonic United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the 20th century the beers made in Belgium were championed by Michael Jackson, who – some of you can see where this is going already – called himself the Beer Hunter, and who was thus, in the language once spoken in ancient Belgium, the Curmisagios.

Tomorrow I’m travelling to the seminar on wood-aged beers being organised by the Zythographers’ Union in Yorkshire, and I am sure Michael’s benign influence will be felt at the event, even though his death a month ago has robbed us of his presence. He would, I know, have had pertinent and insightful comments to deliver on beer in wood. Every person there will be sorrowful he’s not around to let us have his opinions and experiences, gathered from 30 years of hunting beers across the planet.

For me, the most influential book he wrote during those 30 years was the Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion from 1993, mainly because of its 40-page section on matching food and beer, and cooking with beer. I began my own experiments with beer cuisine by trying out recipes from the book, before going on to try to invent some ideas of my own. One of the dishes from the Beer Companion I’ve made several times is a Belgian dish involving strips of lamb cooked in a beer-and-cream sauce which is a definite dinner party winner.

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