Michael Jackson and the invention of beer style

British Guild of Beer Writers trip to West Flanders 1988, Poperinge Hop Museum (for key, see below – click to enlarge)

How long have we been talking about styles of beer? Fewer years than you might think. In the firestorm set off around the beer blogging world by the zythographers’ union‘s recent seminar on the subject of beer styles (see, for example, here and here and here, and also here and here, and here as well) one perhaps important point seems to be missing. The expression “beer style” is entirely an invention of the late Michael Jackson, it’s barely 30 years old, and it’s only been “mainstream”, in the sense that “everybody” uses it when talking about beer, for a couple of decades.

I was invited to be one of the speakers at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ “beer styles” seminar in the Old Brewery at Greenwich, but to my deep regret I couldn’t make it. However, here’s a little taste of what I would have said had I been there, based on the research I did for the forthcoming Brewery History Society magazine “Michael Jackson” special edition.

The perhaps remarkable thing is that before Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer in 1977, nobody used the expression “beer style” at all. I searched through books on beer from the 1830s to the mid-1970s, and they talked about “divisions”, “species”, “kinds”, “varieties”, “types”, “classes” and “families” of beer, but never “styles”.

Continue reading Michael Jackson and the invention of beer style

The boss of Molson Coors is an idiot

I’m basing that headline solely on the report in the Morning Advertiser, but if the pub trade paper’s summary of what Mark Hunter, UK chief executive of Molson Coors, just said to the International Brewing Convention 2010 in Manchester is correct, Mr Hunter needs to step down straight away and let someone who actually understands the UK beer business take his place.

According to Mr Hunter, the answer to all the problems the beer market faces in Britain is – fanfare please – beer menus in pubs! Yes, the reason why beer’s share of the alcohol drinks market has fallen from 70 per cent in 1970 to under 40 per cent now, with beer being replaced for many by (I quote Mr Hunter) “more relevant, unisex, innovative, exciting categories” is because you don’t get handed a list of the beers available that night by the landlord as soon as you pop your head round the door at the Duck and Dive.

You’ll have spotted, of course, that the rise in sales of wine, spirits, alcopops and the like over the decades is solely because even the meanest backstreet boozer puts a lengthy winelist on every table, chalks up its wide range of whiskies and vodkas on a board prominently positioned behind the bar and features a floodlight cabinet right inside the entrance containing every flavour and colour of RTD beverage known to marketing science.

Mr Hunter also called for “greater innovation” in the industry, and apparently, according to the MA, declared that “not much” new has been offered since flat-top beer cans were introduced in the mid-1950s. Right. So the rise of keg beer, the explosion in sales of lager, nitrokeg “smooth” beers, the whole cask ale/Camra thing, the massive boom in new small breweries, the introduction of new styles such as golden ales and whisky-cask-aged beers, the big expansion in beer choice in supermarkets, the arrival in the UK of previously unknown beer styles from continental Europe such as wheat beer and lambic, the flood of innovative new brews such as DIPA from the US, the recent envelope-pushing efforts of British brewers from Brewdog to Sharps, that was all a figment of my beer-sodden imagination. I can go back to sleep, and wake up again in a time when every pub had at least two draught milds and Watney’s Red Barrel was a well-respected bottled pale ale.

Continue reading The boss of Molson Coors is an idiot

So what REALLY happened on October 17 1814?

Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery, Tottenham Court Road in 1830

I can stake a tenuous family link to the Great London Beer Flood disaster of 1814, which took place exactly 196 years ago today. My great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Maurice Donno, was living in Soho, a minute or three’s walk from the Horse Shoe Brewery off Tottenham Court Road, when a huge vat of maturing porter at the brewery collapsed violently and flooded the surrounding tenements, killing eight people. Most, if not all, of those who died were poor Irish immigrants to London, part of a mass of people living in the slums around St Giles’s Church, the infamous St Giles “rookeries” (later to be cleaned away by the building of New Oxford Street in 1847). Maurice Donno was very probably Irish, his surname most likely a variation of Donough or something similar (which would make his first name a common Anglicisation of the Irish Muirgheas). Perhaps he knew some of those who died, or were injured, in the Great Beer Flood, or knew people who knew them. It seems very likely he would have gone across the road at some point after the tragedy, to join the hundreds who came to see the destruction wreaked by that dreadful black tsunami of beer.

What has prompted me to write about the Great Meux Brewery Beer Flood, is not the anniversary, however, It’s because I have finally been called out over some dodgy maths in the book Beer: The Story of the Pint, which I wrote in 2003.

I said in BTSOTP, correctly, that the vat of porter which burst suddenly on Monday October 17, 1814 at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery contained 3,550 barrels of beer. I said, correctly, that this amounted to more than a million pints. Then for some mad brain-burp reason I said the beer in the vat weighed “around 38 tons” – almost precisely 15 times less than the correct answer, which was actually more than 571 tons.

Thank you, Eugene Tolstov, for pointing to my mistake, and for not laughing too much at my inability to multiply 3,555 by 36 by 10 and divide by 2,240. But at least my narrative on probably the worst industrial accident involving a British brewery was more accurate than many. The late Alan Eames, for example, in The Secret Life of Beer, claimed that the vat burst “with a boom heard five miles away” – not mentioned in any of the many sources from the time that I’ve read – while “eyewitnesses told of besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” – no, newspaper reports of the rescue don’t support this at all – and “many were killed suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” – again, the contemporary reports don’t say this – while “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma” – no, the newspaper reports from the time make it clear that only eight people died, all women and children, and all killed by the initial huge wave of beer and the destruction it caused to the buildings in the tenements behind the brewery. Continue reading So what REALLY happened on October 17 1814?

Look, will you all stop misusing the word ‘ale’. Thank you

I realise I’m whistling into a gale here. But if you want an expression that will cover everything from Kölsch to porter, taking in saison, IPA, mild, Oud Bruin and Alt on the way, then it’s “warm-fermented beers”. Not “ale”. Please. Because if you use “ale” in a broad, ahistoric sense to mean “any beer made with top-fermenting yeast”, then you’re making my job harder than it should be.

Now, I know that “ale” has already changed its meaning over the centuries. Many words have suffered semantic drift as they travelled downriver towards today. My favourite changed word is “soon”, which originally meant “immediately”. You can see the same sort of slow alteration in meaning at work today on “presently”, which is heading the other way, with many people using “presently” to mean “now”, when it used to mean only “in a while”.

Among the many other words that no longer have the meanings they used to, there’s “decimate”, which was first used to mean “kill one in ten” but now (presently?) means a much looser “subject to considerable loss”; and “fulsome”, which originally meant “abundant, plentiful, full”, then “disgusting, repulsive, odious”, so that “fulsome praise” meant praise so greasily insincere it made observers sick. It has now been reanalysed by many to mean “effusive, enthusiastic”, producing much spitting from pedants, who will insist that this is incorrect, and that a “fulsome welcome” shouldn’t, properly, be welcomed at all.

So with “ale”, a word derived from the Old English alu, which once meant “unhopped malt liquor”, in contrast to the continental hopped bere that arrived in Britain in the 15th century. By the 18th century, brewers were adding at least some hops to everything, so that “ale” now meant “malt liquor that is hopped, but not as much as beer is”. Thus the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1773 defined the word “ale” as “a fermented liquor obtained from an infusion of malt and differing only from beer in having a less proportion of hops.”

It’s important, if you study the history of brewing, to know this, to know that porter was a beer, not an ale, because it was heavily hopped, that all the many varieties of ale brewed around Britain – Burton Ale, Windsor Ale, Dorchester Ale, and others – were called ale because they were lightly hopped, to know why recipes for pale ale and pale beer in 1773 could differ so much, with the pale ale only lightly hopped while the pale beer was stuffed with hopcones; and to know that the London ale brewers were a completely different set of people to the London porter brewers. (Spot the two terrible errors at that link, btw.)

It also means that you’ll have the knowledge to see ale and beer as the two great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, one originally unhopped and then only lightly so, the other hopped from the start and then increasingly hoppier over time, from which all British beer styles are derived. Mild and old ale sprang up alongside the River Ale: porter and stout along the River Beer. Eventually, of course, the Euphrates and the Tigris run together, and so did the Rivers Ale and Beer, at a place called Pale Ale, the name of a lightly hopped fermented malt drink in the 18th century which became the name of a heavily hopped drink in the 19th century, after the success of “pale ale as prepared for the India Market”.

Continue reading Look, will you all stop misusing the word ‘ale’. Thank you

Taylor Walker, the brewery name that just won’t die

Huge guffaws from me at the news that Punch Taverns is to bring back to life for a third time the name Taylor Walker, a former London porter brewer that had strong links with the earliest days of brewing in Philadelphia. Clearly, to be a marketing man you have to have every irony-containing cell filleted from your body. This really does smell of desperately reinventing the past to paint over a tawdry present.

Although Taylor Walker’s substantial brewery in the East End closed exactly half a century ago, the name will still be familiar to many drinkers in their late 20s and upwards. This is because in November 1979, what was then the giant brewing/pub owning corporation Allied Lyons decided to revive the name Taylor Walker for its London pub operations, as part of a plan, apparently, to pretend that it wasn’t a giant brewing/pub owning corporation. (This also involved reviving other vanished brewery names, such as Benskin’s of Hertfordshire and Friary Meux of Surrey.) Suddenly hundreds of London pubs had the Taylor Walker name painted on to their fascias (even though many had never belonged to Taylor Walker), while their innsigns sported a “cannon” trademark that had, in fact, belonged to one of the many concerns Taylor Walker had taken over, the Cannon Brewery of St John Street, Clerkenwell.

Twenty years later, in 1999, Allied (by now Allied Domecq) sold all its pubs to Punch, and the Taylor Walker name disappeared again. Now, 11 years on, Punch has decided that it wants to dig this twice-dead corpse up once more and slap the words “Taylor Walker” on the front of about a hundred or so of the more “iconic” (for which read “old-looking and marginally upmarket”) outlets run by its managed pub arm, Punch Pub Company.

If you think this is copying the rival pub company Mitchell & Butlers (itself operating under the name of a long-vanished brewery) and its up-market Nicholsons pub chain, tsk – you’re as cynical as me. Clive Briscoe, Punch Pub Co’s marketing director, insists: “This is not a rebranding exercise but an opportunity to badge together a whole range of iconic London pubs.” But among the basketful of ironies in this is that one of the pubs that will bear the revived Taylor Walker name is the Anchor at Bankside, Southwark, which was once the brewery tap of Taylor Walker’s great porter-brewing rival, Barclay Perkins. (Another irony is that Punch, even though it owns many former Taylor Walker pubs, has had to licence the Taylor Walker name off Carlsberg, which acquired Allied’s brewing business, and all its beer brands, in the 1990s.)

Naturally, Punch’s PR company has screwed up the history, claiming in the announcement of the revival that “the Taylor Walker name dates back to 1730”. No it doesn’t: the concern never became Taylor Walker until 1816. But the history of Taylor Walker as recorded pretty much everywhere is full of errors: you’ll see it stated, for example, that the brewery “moved to Fore Street, Limehouse” and then “moved to Church Row, Limehouse”, when in fact it stayed exactly where it was, expanding from a small 18th century brewhouse to eventually cover more than seven acres, which abutted Fore Street (now part of Narrow Street) on one side and Church Row (now Newell Street) on another.

Let’s take a history of Taylor Walker you might cobble together in 10 minutes from various internet sources and see how much is actually true:

Continue reading Taylor Walker, the brewery name that just won’t die