Why the man from Firestone was deservedly tired

My life is far too deadline-driven. Fortunately the unexpected is always to be expected. On Saturday Jay Brooks, one of California’s top beer writers and beer bloggers, booted my schedule off course with an email saying he was flying in to London, arriving early Monday morning, and catching a train up to the Midlands in the afternoon – any chance of a meet-up?

Jay is accompanying Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California, who has been invited to brew a Californian-style pale ale at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent, which will then be one of the beer available at this year’s Wetherspoon’s International Beer Festival, running at ‘spoons pubs from October 30 to November 16 (other brewers coming to the UK to brew for the festival are from Japan, Australia and Denmark, apparently).

The wrinkle or link is that Firestone is the only other brewer apart from Marston’s to use the union fermentation system, where the beer is run after primary fermentation begins into oak casks to finish fermenting. It’s an expensive set-up to construct and maintain, which is why everybody else who once used it apart from Marston’s has abandoned it. But in the many years that all the other brewers of Burton upon Trent used the union system it was reckoned, along with their gypsum-impregnated water, to be one of the prime reasons for the excellence of their pale ales. Firestone, which was founded by one of the members of the family that owns the tyre makers Firestone, is also a pale ale specialist, with a string of awards for its beers.

The union room at Allsopp's brewery in Burton upon Trent circa 1889
The union room at Allsopp's brewery, Burton upon Trent circa 1889

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Sainsbury’s winning bottled beers

This blog is currently the top result in a Google search for outsize menswear chain Massachusetts. I haven’t, you’ll guess, ever written about retailers of XXL male clothing in the Greater Boston area, but I did make a joke when I blogged on judging at the Sainsbury’s beer competition in April about the name of the High & Mighty brewery in New England being in honour of the outfitters for gentlemen of a more substantial scale.

It’s not, of course, the brewery’s name comes from an alleged comment supposedly made by Julius Caesar about the ancient Britons drinking a “high and mighty liquor” made from barley and water which left “space enough for the performance of many great actions before it quite vanished the spirits.”

Sadly, I’m really sorry guys, and also sorry for the Ridgeway Brewery in Oxfordshire, which brews High & Mighty’s Beer of the Gods under licence in the UK, Caesar never said any such thing. This “quote” appears in several modern publications, and is even given a precise chapter reference as to where it allegedly appears in Caesar’s De Belli Bello Gallico by Mia Ball in her history of the Worshipful Company of Brewers. It’s not in De Belli Bello Gallico, nor in anything else Caesar or any other Roman wrote. It’s a fake quote. Somebody, some time, for some reason, made it up.

I’m also sorry for High & Mighty, and Ridgeway, for their missing out on the top prize in the 2008 Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, the results of which were announced today at Sainsbury’s HQ in Holborn, central London. High & Mighty Beer of the Gods was one of 16 bottled beers to get through the first round of judging back in April, and those 16 beers went on sale in more than 400 Sainsbury’s stores for five weeks over August and the first part of September. The top two best-selling beers were guaranteed a further six months on the shelves in 260 Sainsbury’s stores.

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A tasty drop: the history of an almost-vanished fermentation system

Brakspear’s Triple is a regular on the Zythophile shopping list: not just because I try to support old fermentation methods, it’s a very tasty beer, marvellously fruity, toffee apples, peardrops and bananas, hints of fruitcake, sweet and bitter in perfect balance, a long and lingering tart, very dry finish, and remarkably light-footed for a beer of 7.2 per cent abv. It ages to an interesting state as well: I tried an 18-month old version at the weekend, sour tartness was coming through much more, which I’m not certain is meant to be there, but it was very pleasing regardless.

The beer gets its name partly because it is hopped three times, and also, and more relevantly, because it undergoes, effectively, a triple fermentation, two at the brewery, using what its brewers call the “double drop” system, and one in the bottle.

Brakspear’s in Henley, Oxfordshire was about the last brewery in Britain to use what most brewers call the “dropping” system of fermentation, (rather than “double drop”); the fermenting wort is “dropped” after 12 or 16 hours from the initial fermentation tun into another vessel below to continue and finish its fermentation, leaving the unwanted “gick” produced in the early part of the fermentation behind. When Refresh, then owner of the Wychwood brewery, purchased the right to brew Brakspear’s beers after the Henley brewery closed, it moved all the “dropping” equipment from Henley to Wychwood’s site in Witney, Oxfordshire.

Fermentation hall Rogers's brewery Bristol about 1890
The fermentation hall at Rogers's brewery in Bristol circa 1889 showing the two levels used in the dropping system

However, although nobody else, or almost nobody, as far as I am aware, still regularly uses the “dropping” method to brew beers in Britain, it was once wide- spread. As the brewing scientist Charles Bamforth has commented, the existence of several different technologies for trying to achieve the same end is an indication that none of them is perfect. One of the important processes any brewer has to perform is to remove the excess yeast from his fermenting beer, and Victorian brewers used at least six different methods to achieve this. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard, in his four-volume Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland, published 1889/91, described four of them, saying that while Burton used unions, Yorkshire the stone square and London and the South the skimming system, the beer was finished “in the East of England by the dropping system”.

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The history of yeast: breaking news

UPDATE

Ha! As I wrote yesterday, researchers in yeast genetics are changing the story on the history of yeast all the time, and the day I put that post up, new findings on the genetics of lager yeast came out which, as New Scientist reported, take the hybridisation narrative further down the road to a fascinating destination.

To quote New Scientist, Gavin Sherlock and Barbara Dunn of Stanford University, California, compared the genes of 17 lager and ale yeast strains across the world, with origins dating from between 1883 and 1976, and derived from breweries as diverse as Carlsberg and Labatt, Rainier and Heineken:

It has long been thought that Saccharomyces pastorianus, the yeast used in lager production, formed only once from the hybridisation of S. cerevisiae and S. bayanus. Instead, the team discovered that it happened at least twice in two separate locations in Europe, giving rise to the two different lager families … The hybrid, which makes lager instead of ale, probably evolved in Bavarian beer-brewing cellars during the 16th century.

The team also found that Saaz yeasts have a single copy of each parent yeast’s genome, whereas the Frohberg yeasts have an extra copy from S. cerevisiae. They believe this difference affects the flavour of the lager, as well as how quickly the yeasts can ferment the hops

[my emphasis, and sic, fer gawd’s sake. Bloody journalists … do they know nothing?]

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A short history of yeast

A fine yeasty head on a fermentation vessel at the former Whitbread brewery in London about 1948
A fine yeasty head on a fermentation vessel at the former Whitbread brewery in Chiswell Street, London about 1948

Around 80 million years ago, when Triceratops still browsed the plains of what wasn’t yet North America, some flowering plant species developed a new strategy to spread their seeds, encasing them in a soft, fleshy cover – fruit – that became sweet and tasty as everything ripened. The fruit was then eaten by animals, which would subsequently deposit the seeds far away from the mother plant, and with the addition of some useful fertiliser as well.

It did not take long, however, for enterprising funguses to start exploiting the sugar in the ripe fruits for their own growth and development, using oxygen to break the sugar down into carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy at the same time. If there was no oxygen about they would turn the sugar, via acetaldehyde, into alcohol, and make energy that way, although they very much preferred not to: alcohol was poisonous.

These funguses mostly reproduced by budding – dividing into two, and giving each daughter cell a complete copy of her mother’s genes. However, on one occasion, at least, a daughter received two copies of her mother’s genome instead of one. The daughter’s descendants evolved this spare set of genes so that, unlike their ancestors, they could make alcohol all the time, not just in the absence of oxygen. The spare copy of the gene that created the enzyme that turned acetaldehyde into alcohol also evolved so that it could do this trick in reverse – turn alcohol into acetaldehyde.

What these changes enabled the clever little fungus – the ancestor of brewing yeast – to do when it landed on sugary fruit was to quickly flood its environment with alcohol, which was toxic to most of its microbial rivals (our double-genome yeast had, of course, also evolved greater tolerance to alcohol, to cope with the extra alcohol it now created). Once it had swamped the area with alcohol, and thus seen off rival funguses, it could then win even more energy by turning the alcohol into acetaldehyde.

The alcohol content of over-ripe fruit attacked by yeast has been tested at as high as 4.5 per cent, and there is a theory that humans like alcohol in part because our early primate ancestors learned to associate its smell with the presence of ripe, sugary fruit – a sort of ancient alcopop. Appreciating alcohol, therefore, looks to be something deep in humanity’s genes, going back to when we lived in trees and were still covered in fur.

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How to find decent beer in Greece

Olympic – which really ought to be renamed Icarus Airlines, since as a company it looks very likely to follow soon the trajectory of the doomed early Greek aeronaut – is manned by incompetent twazzocks. They reschedule flights which then arrive so late they take off at the originally scheduled time anyway. They cancel flights completely, repeatedly. But sometimes airline twazzockness works to benefit the beery traveller. When my connecting flight from Athens to Lesvos to join Mrs and Miss Zythophile on their extended break from English August rain was cancelled, it made a trip to the Craft microbrewery and bar considerably easier.

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