Twenty beers before lunchtime

The time is 10am and there are 20 different beers to be drunk before lunchtime. It must be another supermarket beer judging.

I judged for the twice-yearly Tesco Beer Awards quite a few times, but this week’s was the Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, and although Sainsbury’s has brought in the same PR team to organise the entries and judging as previously ran its rival’s event, the Morrice Partnership, there are several significant differences between the two contests.

For a start, the beers in the Tesco judging were drunk “blind”: nobody except the organisers knew which brewery produced which numbered beer. But Sainsbury’s deliberately has “shelf appeal” as one or its judging criteria, alongside flavour, aroma, appearance and aftertaste, believing, correctly, that no shopper will pick up a beer and take it home to find out how good it is without initially being attracted by the packaging. So all the bottles bore their labels.

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The Prize goes to Fuller’s

When Fuller’s announced in 2005 that it was acquiring Gale’s of Horndean, I couldn’t get very upset, in large part because I was angry at what Prize Old Ale had been allowed to become.

This should have been a proud and heavily promoted flag-carrier for British beer, about the last survivor of the “strong old ale” type made by almost every brewery in the country in the 19th century, still bottle-conditioned at a stomping nine per cent alcohol by volume and still, amazingly, available in corked bottles.

By the beginning of the 21st century, however, there was something very wrong: when you opened the bottles the ale inside was utterly flat, showing no condition at all, and the flavour was one-dimensional and over-sweet. Gale’s apparently bottled Prize Old Ale without adding extra priming sugar or yeast, relying on the yeast cells still in the beer, and the unfermented sugars that remained after the primary fermentation, to bring it into condition. Obviously, whatever the yeast used to do in the bottle in the past, it wasn’t up to the job any more. But nobody at Gale’s seemed to care, and what should have been a triumph was a disaster and an embarrassment.

The news that one last brewing of Prize Old Ale had taken place at the Gale’s brewery in Horndean just before it closed in March 2006, and the fermented beer had then been trucked up to Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick for maturing, gave me a little hope. At Horndean the beer was apparently matured for six to 12 months. Fuller’s looks to have taken at least 19 months: the last Horndean Prize Old Ale was only bottled in December last year, given the three months that Fuller’s likes to give its bottle-conditioned ales before it puts them on sale (believing they take that long to settle down after bottling), and they were released to the public in March.

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The Lego(TM) ale conner

I’ve just put up a new myth page on this site completely debunking the story that medieval ale conners ever sat in puddles of drink in order to test it – so it’s a bit naughty to plug this page, which tells the (totally inaccurate, remember) story of the ale conner and the leather breeches test, using Lego figures, and is just simply terrific. Click on the links below to see the pics:

How to be an ale conner

Are you fed up with cleaning up other people’s mess? Want a job that’s a bit less smelly? (and a bit more sticky!) Do you like drinking beer and wearing leather trousers? Then you should become an ale conner! These vignettes will teach you the basics…

1) Find a place that serves ale

2) Buy a pint of ale to test

3) Pour half the beer onto a wooden stool

4) Sit on the stool (and drink the rest of the ale!)

5) After 30 minutes stand up – if your leather trousers stick to the seat then the ale contains too much unfermented sugar. Fine the brewer (and confiscate the ale!)

Enjoy – but don’t forget, ale conners never did sit in puddles of ale.

What colour was mild?

In the mid-1970s I had a girlfriend who was a student at Liverpool University. The campus pub-of-choice was (and still is, I believe) the Cambridge on the corner of Mulberry Street, which was, back then, a Burtonwood Brewery outlet.

Its popularity was partly down to its closeness to the university, of course, but also for the excellent, well-priced food – ham and cheese cobs – and the more than acceptable beer. The Burtonwood dark mild, although top-pressure, was always good, and cheap, and it sometimes looked like most of the pub was drinking Guinness: tables loaded with inky-black pints.

Burtonwood also brewed a light mild, but that was a rarity for the time, both as a beer in its own right and as a style. An analysis of the 1976 Camra Good Beer Guide shows that of 130 milds being brewed by 106 brewers, 101 – 77.7 per cent – were coloured dark through to black, while just 29, or 22.3 per cent, were pale or light. Even some of those, like McMullen’s AK, were actually misunderstood low-gravity bitters, not really pale milds at all.

Mild was a style that came into its ascendancy from the 1830s onwards, pushing out the previously dominant English beer style, porter, until itself being replaced after 1960 as the best-selling style by bitter. You’d assume, I think, that dark mild, easily the leading variety, nationally, in the lifetime of any drinker alive today, must be the ancient, original version. Most commentators certainly believe this was the case: the Handbook of Brewing, by Priest and Stewart, published in 2006, for example, says:

Victorian mild was … a strong dark brown beer …

Ron Pattinson of Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, however, seems to have demonstrated convincingly that dark mild is actually a 20th-century phenomenon. Looking through the records of brewers such as Barclay Perkins, Whitbread and Truman, Hanbury & Buxton at the London Metropolitan Archives, and analysing the grains they used, Ron found that

… all these beers use only pale malt. They weren’t dark as we would expect milds to be.

Further investigation has led him to say more recently, looking at the standard X mild ale of the last half of Victoria’s reign, that

In the 19th century X Ales were usually pale in colour, but with fewer hops and a lesser degree of attenuation than pale ale. At the end of the 19th century, fashion turned back to darker beers and ales became darker again … Mild [moved] from pale to amber to dark in the period 1890 to 1940.

You can’t dispute the facts as recorded in the contemporary brewing books, and you can’t brew a dark beer from just pale malt (or, not unless you run the wort off at a very high OG and boil it long enough to induce caramelisation, and as these were cheap “running beers”, that wasn’t happening). But it all seems counterintuitive: the general trend over the past century and a half is for the popular drinks to move from dark to pale, so red wine was replaced in popularity by white wine, whisky and (dark) rum by gin, vodka and white rum, bitter by pale lager. Why did mild apparently go the other way?

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