Roast beef, plum pudding and ale

I blame Charles Dickens. If he hadn’t ended A Christmas Carol with the by-then thoroughly reformed Scrooge ordering the prize turkey to be delivered to the Cratchits’ home in Camden, perhaps we wouldn’t now be persuaded in Britain that a tasteless, monstrous bird should be the centre of the December 25 dinner, and we would have stuck to the traditional yuletide treat – roast beef, lots of it, accompanied by plum pudding and strong ale.

If you search through 19th century newspapers, it quickly becomes clear that the trinity of beef, heavy dried-fruit-stuffed pudding and good ale was at the heart of the Christmas festivities everywhere in Britain, literally from palace to poorhouse. Here’s the Liverpool Weekly Mercury for Saturday September 29 1855: Continue reading Roast beef, plum pudding and ale

The origins of pils: a reality Czech from Evan Rail

If there is one blessing the Oxford Companion to Beer has brought us, it’s the beginnings of a much better, and myth-free understanding of the origins of the world’s most popular beer style, pale pils lager, and the brewery that first made it, Pilsner Urquell, which is in what is now the Czech Republic. We didn’t get this new understanding from the OCB itself, obviously, but from Evan Rail, who lives in Prague, who writes with insight and erudition about Czech beer, Czech beerstyles and Czech brewing history, and who knows the number one rule about writing history: go back to the original sources – an apt commandment here, since “Urquell” – “Prazdroj” in Czech – means “original source”.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his latest blog post adding, clarifying and correcting the OCB’s Czech-related entries.

Evan has done something few, if any, writers in English about the origins of Pilsner Urquell, the “world’s first pale lager”, have bothered doing. He has uncovered, and read, the document in 1839 which effectively founded the brewery in Pilsen, the “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brewhouse”, made by 12 prominent Pilsen burghers. He has also read the brewery’s own history, written for its 50th anniversary, Měšťanský pivovar v Plzni 1842-1892.

Among the fascinating facts that Evan has revealed so far, the following seem particularly worthy of note:

  • The town of Pilsen was already being “flooded” by bottom-fermented “Bavarian-style” beer in 1839, the 12 would-be founders of the new brewery declared, and it seems one big reason why they wanted to build their own new brewery was to fight back against imports of lager beers from elsewhere, by making their own bottom-fermented brews in Pilsen.
  • The builder of the new brewery, František Filaus “made a trip around the biggest breweries in Bohemia which were then already equipped for brewing bottom-fermented beer,” while in December 1839, the brewery’s architect, Martin Stelzer, “travelled to Bavaria, so that he could tour bigger breweries in Munich and elsewhere and use the experience thus gained for the construction and furnishing of the Burghers’ Brewery.”
  • The yeast for the new brewery was certainly not “smuggled out of Bavaria by a monk”, as far too many sources try to claim (did anybody with their critical faculties engaged ever believe that?), nor even, apparently, brought with him by Josef Groll, the 29-year-old brewer from the town of Vilshofen in Lower Bavaria who was hired to run the new brewery. Instead, “seed yeast for the first batch and fermented wort were purchased from Bavaria,” according to the 1892 book. (The Groll family brewery, incidentally, no longer exists, but another concern in Vilshofen, the Wolferstetter brewery, still produces a Josef Groll Pils in his memory.)
  • The maltings at the new brewery were “dle anglického spůsobu zařízený hvozd”, that is, loosely, “equipped with English-style malt kilns”, according to an account from 1883. That meant indirect heat: the same 1883 account says the kilns were “vytápěný odcházejícím teplem z místnosti ku vaření“, which looks to mean “heated by heat from the boiler-room”. Indirect heat makes it easier to control the heating, and easier to produce pale malt, which is just what the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery did to make its pale lager.

That still leaves THE big mystery: if the burgher brewers of Pilsen wanted to compete against Bavarian-style bottom-fermented lagers, which would still have been quite dark (think “Dunkel”), why did they make a pale beer? Were they attempting to imitate English pale beers? Since pale bitter beers were only just taking off even in Britain in 1842 (although pale mild ales had been around for a couple of centuries), I don’t personally find that particularly likely.

However, Evan has promised “more on the origins of Pilsner Urquell coming up”, and I am hugely looking forward to reading additional revelations. I was delighted to read that Stelzer had toured the big breweries of Munich before the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery was built, because I suggested in an article for Beer Connoisseur magazine in the US two and a half years ago that he must have done. In Munich he surely met Gabriel Sedlmayr II, of the Spaten brewery, who had been round Britain looking at the latest brewing and malting techniques being practised in places such as London, Burton upon Trent and Edinburgh, and Sedlmayr would have been able to tell him about English malting techniques. Munich, at that time, was becoming a magnet for brewers in Continental Europe because of the advances in brewing methods being made by Sedlmayr, as he perfected the techniques of lager brewing.

Sedlmayr wasn’t, at that time, making pale malts: however, the man who accompanied him to Britain on one of his trips, Anton Dreher of the Klein-Schwechat brewery near Vienna, DID come back and start producing paler English-style malts, allied with Bavarian-style lagering, which resulted in a copper-brown beer, the first “Vienna-style” lager. Vienna was then, of course, the capital of the Austrian empire, of which Bohemia (and Pilsen) were still a part: it would not be surprising if Stelzer, a citizen of the Austrian empire, also visited Vienna and met Dreher (whose name, it always amuses me to note, translates as “Tony Turner”), and talked about malting techniques, but there seems to be no evidence as yet that he did so.

I’d also love to know why Josef Groll was hired (apparently by Stelzer) to run the new brewery: Vilshofen, while nearer Pilsen than Munich is, is a comparative backwater, and if Stelzer had been to Munich, why did he not bring a Munich brewer back with him to Bohemia? This site claims (on what authority I know not) that Groll studied under both Sedlmayr and Dreher, but both allegedly complained about his rudeness, obstinacy, stubbornness and lack of self-control. If that’s true (I have no idea), it doesn’t look as it Stelzer bothered checking up on Groll’s references before he hired the young brewer …

A short history of water

Christie;s of Hoddesdon artesian well
An artesian well dug at Christie & Co's brewery, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire around 1926

In November 1799 a brief paragraph appear in the Times newspaper:

“A Porter Brewery is about to be established at Portsmouth, by a number of opulent Gentlemen, who have subscribed £5000 each. The Thames water for this undertaking is to be conveyed by shipping.”

The reason for the appearance of the second sentence is that many drinkers, at the time, were convinced that good porter, then easily the best-selling beer in London, and perhaps the most popular style in the British Isles, could only be brewed with water from the Thames. The “opulent Gentlemen” behind the proposed Portsmouth venture clearly felt that if they could say their porter was made with Thames water, it would give them instant credibility.

In fact, although several of the big London porter breweries stood by the banks of the Thames, including Barclay Perkins in Southwark, Calvert’s Hour Glass brewery almost directly opposite Barclay Parkins on Upper Thames Street in the City, and Hoare’s by St Katharine’s dock, even the Thames-side ones took their water from wells, or, like Whitbread in Chiswell Street, on the northern edge of the City, from reservoirs supplied by the New River, constructed in the 17th century to bring water to London from near Amwell in Hertfordshire.

In the “pre-scientific” era, writers on brewing knew that different waters had different effects on the final brew, and regularly recorded myths about which waters were best. A brewing book from 1719, A Guide to Gentlemen and Farmers for Brewing the Finest Malt Liquors insisted that “Upon the whole, the best Liquor to Brew with, is that which is taken from a small clear Rivulet or Brook, undisturb’d by Navigation or Fording,” though

“Possibly much the best Water in England is that at Castleton in Derbyshire, commonly called, The Devils Arss, Which Owzes from a great Rock, covered over with a shallow Earth … I have seen the Ale made of Castleton-Water as clear in three days after it was Barrelled, as the Spring-Water it self, and impossible to be known by the Eye in a Glass from the finest Canary Wine.”

Some had preferences that seem frankly bizarre today. A book called A Treatise on the Brewing of Beer, self-published in 1796 by one E Hughes of Uxbridge, declared that when it came to brewing liquor: Continue reading A short history of water

How they brought the good news from 1700 to today

Now I understand why those nice people at Brains Brewery wanted to invite me to be on their table at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner and awards last night. They knew – which I, of course, didn’t – that I’d won the “Best Use of Online Media” award, perhaps better described as “beer blogger of the year”, which Brains sponsored.

Alas, the need to earn a living kept me 6,000 miles away from the dinner, so I never found out until checking Twitter this morning, to see what people were saying about the event, that I’d won the online category. Thank you, Zak Avery, for letting me know. And very well done to all the other victors, especially Marverine Cole and Des de Moor, both first-time category winners, and Ben McFarland, who picked up his third Beer Writer of the Year tankard, a feat which puts him on a par with Michael Jackson and Allan McLean as a three-times winner, and makes him easily the most successful writer in the awards in the past 10 years. Only Alistair Gilmour has won more golds overall, and his first one came in 1998.

I was actually hoping for a runners-up mug – seriously, I’ve never won one of those, and I genuinely didn’t fancy my chances in the online category over-much, so I’d ruled myself out as a category winner: there are currently a large number of VERY good beer blogs from UK operators, all much more accessible than my 2,000 to 4,000-word rants and essays, I thought. Evidently the judges this year disagreed. Yay!

That was the particularly good news of the week: but there was excellent news from earlier, too. I love the British Library: it keeps making my life as a beer historian easier and more rewarding. You may have seen the announcement that thousands of old newspapers from 1700 to 1949, from the holdings of the British Newspaper Library at Colindale (a subsidiary of the BL at St Pancras), have now been scanned and put on line. Suddenly, from my own computer, and while supping a Mackeson XXX (brewed in Trinidad – more on that another time) I can seek answers to all sorts of interesting questions.

Such as? Well, were they really drinking pale ale in London early in the reign of George I? Why yes: here’s a tragic story from the Ipswich Journal of 18 September 18, 1725: Continue reading How they brought the good news from 1700 to today