The mystery of sessionability

Brewers will tell you that designing a beer to have “sessionability”, the indefinable something which keeps bringing the drinker back throughout the evening to refill their glass from the same fount, is one of the most difficult problems they can set themselves.

Simple one-off tasting sessions are unlikely to tell you if you have achieved your goal: it’s just like the “Pepsi Challenge”, where, in the battle of the colas, the sweeter drink wins in a head-to-head comparison, but over the distance the drier fluid wins. The only way to find out which new beers have sessionability, one brewer once told me, is to set a table up with a variety of free beers and ask the public to help themselves: the beer that is drunk the most, the beer that people come back to most often, will be the most sessionable.

Back in February, Lew Bryson, one of America’s leading beer bloggers, flattered me by asking for my comments about session beers, to go into an article he was writing. I found I had written several hundred words by the time I had finished, and as Lew couldn’t possibly use them all, and it’s long enough after his piece was published, here they all are, plus some extra just for you.

I love session beers. I love the way they make a good evening down the pub with friends even better. What makes a good session beer is a combination of restraint, satisfaction and “moreishness”. Like the ideal companions around a pub table, a great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention; at the same time its contribution, while never obtrusive, will be welcome, satisfying and pleasurable; and yet, though each glass satisfies, like each story in the night’s long craic, the best session beers will still leave you wishing for one more pint, to carry on the pleasure.

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Kieve, tierce and bub

Sound like a trio of Victorian lawyers, don’t they? Kieve, Tierce and Bubb, solicitors and commissioners of oaths: I can picture their brass plate, polished and worn, at the top of a set of stone steps, screwed to the slightly crumbly brickwork of a flat-fronted three-storey town house with a shiny black-painted front door, somewhere near Carey Street.

They’re actually, however, not minor characters from Bleak House but three obscure words linked to brewing, the first and least obscure being an old term for a mash tun, which I mentioned in my last posting about a 13th century Norman French poem describing the brewing of ale. I said kieve was “still used in Ireland”, leading Beer Nut, one of Ireland’s finest beer bloggers (you can pay me later, John), to ask: “Is ‘kieve’ used for mash tun outside of St James’s Gate? I’ve never heard it in the context of any other Irish brewery.”

I was originally going to write a short reply to Beer Nut’s comment saying yes, indeed, other people than Guinness used the term “kieve”, but the interwebs is an increasingly marvellous resource for historians as more and more information from the past becomes digitised, and very quickly, as I chased after extra facts on kieves, I was distracted by bub, and then off in pursuit of tierce.

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How to brew like an Anglo-Norman knight

There are almost no descriptions of brewing processes in Britain from the medieval period, a reflection of the universality of ale and the universality of the knowledge of how to brew it: similarly “everybody” in the British Isles today knows how to make a cup of tea, and nobody wastes their time writing down a narration covering how to mash the Assam and when to add the milk.

One odd account of brewing “cerveyse”, or ale, was recorded in a late 13th century collection of poems written as an educational guide called the Treatise of Walter de Biblesworth, or, in his own words and spelling, “Le treytyz ke moun sire Gauter de Bíbelesworthe”. Biblesworth, or Bibbesworth, who was born in or before 1219 and died some time in or soon after 1270, was a knight who owned Bibbesworth manor, in Kimpton, Hertfordshire, and he was friends with some powerful people in the England of Edward I, such as the de Lacys, earls of Lincoln, and the de Veres, earls of Oxford. His rhyming treatise is written in the Norman French of the 1200s, with many obscure words. Here is the section on brewing:

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Beer: NOT the oldest drink in the world

Finding factual errors in Wikipedia is, of course, easier than machine-gunning a cask full of cod, and I’ve done it here before. I can’t stand reading Wikipedia’s pages on beer, since I constantly think: “No, that’s wrong … no, that’s not quite right … no, that’s a misinterpretation …”. What particularly gets me shouting at the computer screen is statements that two seconds’ critical thought would show can’t possibly be true: like the assertion in the opening words in Wikipedia’s main article on beer that “Beer is the world’s oldest … alcoholic beverage”, a claim that is repeated in the “alcoholic beverage” article.

The “beer” article justifies this claim by citing in a footnote the book by the German-American author John Arnold with the lengthy title Origin and History of Beer and Brewing: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science and Technology, written in 1911. Arnold wrote one of my favourite beer quotations, about the study of the history of beer, “the people’s beverage”, being the study of the history of the people. My copy of the reprint of his book by the guys at Beerbooks.com is a long way from where I’m writing this, so I can’t currently check exactly what he said. But if Arnold did say beer is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, he was writing (excuse the Britishism) bollocks.

Think. Beer is not a simple drink to make. To get the sugars that the yeast will turn into alcohol, the starches in grain must be converted by enzymic reactions to sugar. If this is done by malting, that is, soaking grains and then letting them begin to grow, the malting process must be controlled and growth halted before the sprouting grains consume all the sugars they are making from their starch. Human intervention and control is effectively essential. Beer – alcohol derived from grains – does not happen in the wild, because the conditions to make beer do not occur in the wild.

However, alcohol is most certainly produced in the wild using other sources of natural sugar: this is what yeast, opportunistic scavengers of sources of energy, evolved to do. Ripe fruit can, and will, ferment spontaneously as yeast arrive to grab the sugar in the fruit and flood the surroundings with alcohol to keep their rivals away. The story of elephants getting drunk on over-ripe and fermenting fruit may be a jungle myth. But if you walk through an untended apple orchard in the autumn, after the apples have fallen from the trees and been lying on the ground, the scent of cider will envelop you, as yeasts attack the rotting fruit. Right now, I’m in a Middle Eastern city where thousands of date palms line every road, and in the evening the strong smell of vinegar is on the warm air: this is because dates that have fallen to the ground have fermented, and then gone on to the next stage, where alcohol is converted by specialist bacteria into acetic acid.

We can thus trump Arnold’s claim about the antiquity of beer with a quotation from a book called Fermented food beverages in nutrition, by Gastineau, Darby and Turner, written in 1979, that “Fruit wines were probably discovered as soon as man tried to collect and store sweet fruits and berries.” Fermentation of the juice that runs free from grapes simply piled on top of each other is the basis of the Hungarian wine Tokay Eszencia. Ripe dates soaked in water were used to make a sweet drink in Arabia, and if left for even a day the sugary date water would ferment to make a drink called fadikh, which an Arabian traveller called Yūsuf ibn Ya’qūb Ibn al Mujāwir found still being made in the 13th century.

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Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

I just caught up with BBC 4’s Food Programme from last Sunday, which was about the British hop industry, and as a side issue, IPA in a couple or so of its current incarnations – there are just two days left before it disappears from the BBC website, so if you’re quick, and you’ve got RealPlayer or similar installed on your computer, you can catch it here (oh, and you have to be in the UK, or be able to fool the BBC’s website that you’re in the UK, or it won’t let you listen – sorry.)

Anyway, I though it was a fair treatment of the subject, with a quick scamper through what hops do for beer (flavouring and preserving – but you knew that), and interviews “in the field” with David Holmes, head brewer at Shepherd Neame; Tony Redsell, a Kentish hop grower; and Dr Peter Darby of the National Hop Collection at Queen Court Farm, near Faversham, who talked about the more than 300 different oils found in hops, and the different flavours that, singly and in combination, they bring to beer, from mint to passion fruit.

Back in the studio, the presenter, Sheila Dillon, talked to Roger Protz, and to Martin Dickie, brewer and co-owner of Brewdog Brewery. In a quick tasting, bottles were opened of Brewdog’s Punk IPA, made with Chinook and Ahtanum hops from the US and Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, and Atlantic IPA (which spent two months in cask on a fishing boat being rocked by North Atlantic waves and will cost you £10 a bottle), and, for contrast, Meantime Brewery’s IPA, flavoured with nothing but finest English Fuggles and Goldings. It was excellent to hear Sheila Dillon saying “Wow, that’s good!” as she tried the Punk IPA, and expressing surprise that, at 65 or 70 units of bitterness, twice as much (at least) as, say, a best bitter, it didn’t pucker your mouth, as Roger and Martin explained that this was because the bitterness was balanced by the alcohol, at 6.5 per cent by volume. Continue reading Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

Apologies for my absence

To those of you who have noticed that nothing has been happening here for almost six months, apologies for my absence – this has been caused mostly by the need to try to earn a living, which rather came before beer blogging, and which has taken me a long way away from home (and sources of varied good beer).

However I’m delighted to say that I’ve found a “printed copy” publisher for Amber Gold and Black, my book on the history of British beer styles, which appeared as an e-book last year and which is due to appear as a “proper” book in the UK in April next year – it’s already on Amazon UK, why not pre-order it now and help the cash flow at The History Press, my publisher?

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