Excuse the indentations in my forehead, that’s where I’ve been banging my head hard against my desk.
I’ve been reading the “Beer Styles” section in the just-published 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. Ron Pattinson gave a comprehensive triple kicking last year to the effectively identical section in the 2013 GBG, and yet this year the GBG’s claims about the history of British beer styles are still just as horribly, awfully wrong. It’s as if nothing Ron, or I, or other researchers into the history of beer have written over the past ten to 15 years or so had ever existed: a stew of errors, misinterpretations, myths, erroneous assumptions and factually baseless inventions. All of the errors, frankly, even before Ron gave them a good pounding back in 2012, were heartily demolished (apologies for the sound of my own trumpet) in my book Amber Gold and Black, published three years ago (and which sprang, as it happens, from a series of articles published in Camra’s own What’s Brewing on the history of beer styles). But since the GBG sells far more every year than AG&B has, that’s many thousands of beer lovers being fed gross inaccuracies about the history of the beers they drink, and only a few thousand getting the truth.
What exactly is the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide getting wrong? Let’s begin with its insistence that “pale ale” and “bitter” are different products, which leads to the nonsensical statement (p29, last paragraph) that “From the early years of the 20th century, Bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” This is completely wrong, and a total misunderstanding, as I pointed out back in 2007 here. From the moment that bitter beers started to become popular in Britain, around the beginning of the 1840s, “bitter beer” and “pale ale” were used by brewers and commentators as synonyms. There never was any difference between the two. Why did “pale ale” come to be appended as a name mostly to the bottled version of bitter? Because generally in the 19th century brewers called the drink in the brewery “pale ale”, and that’s the name they put on their bottle labels, but in the pub drinkers called this new drink “bitter”, to differentiate it from the older, sweeter, but still (then) pale mild ales.
The section also claims that pale ale was invented because IPA was “considered too bitter for the domestic market” – total made-up rubbish, there is no evidence anywhere for this, and if IPA was “too bitter for the domestic market”, why did so many brewers advertise an IPA as part of their line-up? The weaker pale ales, below IPAs in brewers’ price lists, simply reflected 19th century brewers’ practice of selling two, three or four examples of each beer type, ale (that is, old-fashioned lightly hopped ale), porter/stout and the newer bitter/pale ale, at different “price points” (to use a modern expression) for different budgets. Thus, for example, the Aylesbury Brewery Company in 1899 sold four grades of pale ale, BA (for Bitter Ale), at the IPA “price point” of one shilling and sixpence a gallon (almost all “IPAs” sold at 1s 6d), BA No 2 at 1s 2d a gallon, BPA at one shilling a gallon and AK at 10 pence a gallon; four grades of mild ales, from XXXX at 1s 6d to XA at 10d; and three black beers, from Double Stout at 1s 6d to Porter at 1s. Shepherd Neame two years earlier was calling all its four grades of bitter beers “India Pale Ale”, from “Stock KK India Pale Ale” at 1s 8d a gallon through East India Pale Ales Nos 1 and 2 at 1s 4d and 1s a gallon to East India Pale Ale AK (sic) at 11d a gallon.
That brings us to the section on IPA itself. There’s the usual canard about the original IPAs being “strong in alcohol” to survive the journey east, although as Ron P has shown conclusively, at around 6 to 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 19th century IPAs were in the middle of the contemporary strength range, and weaker than 19th century milds. The GBG also asserts that India Pale Ale “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, and “the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were pale bronze in colour.” Wrong again – for a start, pale ale was around from at least the second half of the 17th century, a good hundred years before the Industrial Revolution began, as I showed in 2009. Second, almost ALL beers called “ale” in the 18th and 19th century were made from pale malt, as Ron Pattinson has comprehensively demonstrated with extracts from actual brewers’ records, which led eventually to “ale” meaning any malt liquor pale in colour, with “beer” restricted to the dark kinds, stout and porter, something I wrote about here. So in appearance, IPA wasn’t new at all. What it was, was the first bitter, well-hopped pale ale, as opposed to older sorts of pale ale that, following the style of malt liquors in Britain of the post-1710s “ale” type, were hopped (unlike the original unhopped ales) but less-hopped than “beers” such as porter and stout, and which were sold either “mild” (fresh) or “old” (aged).
This takes us on to another error. Under “Burton Ale” the GBG repeats the terrible untruth that Ind Coope Burton Ale, when it appeared in 1976 as the first new cask ale from a national brewer since Camra began, was a revival of the style of beer that had been popular under the name Burton Ale until the 1950s. But it wasn’t any such thing, as I pointed out here. Ind Coope Burton Ale was a proper IPA: indeed, it was said to be based on the original 19th century Double Diamond, which, before it became an infamous keg beer, was Ind Coope’s top-of-the-line India Pale Ale. Ind Coope had brewed a Burton Ale in the 19th and early 20th centuries – a proper Burton Ale, rather dark, fruity and bitter sweet. But that brew disappeared some time after 1956, and it was only its name, not its recipe, that was revived for the beer that appeared in 1976.
Ron Pattinson is going to go potty when he sees that the entry on Scottish beers remains unaltered: it repeats the idea that they are “darker, sweeter and less heavily hopped” than beers south of the border, and claims that this is “a reflection of a colder climate where hops don’t grow”. But hops WILL grow in Scotland (they grow in Norway, too), and, of course, Scots brewers could import them if they wanted. At the same time, Ron’s analyses of old brewing records fail to substantiate any claims that Scottish beers are less hopped than English ones, and don’t, I believe, show that they were darker or sweeter than English beers, either: an Edinburgh Ale and a proper Burton Ale are about as dark and sweet as each other, and an Edinburgh IPA and a Burton one are both equally pale and bitter. The entry also claims that “the Scottish equivalent of a barley wine” was “a Wee Heavy or 90 Shilling Ale”, again totally wrong: as Ron has shown, the only beer called Wee Heavy was brewed by Fowlers, and that was actually a nickname for what was more properly called Twelve Guinea Ale. Ninety Shilling ale was something different again, in the 19th century: a relatively low-gravity bottled pale ale.
Under “Porter”, we have the bizarre claim that this was the beer that “created the first commercial brewing industry in the world in the early 18th century”. Eh? Whatever definition of “industry” you want to use, I think it’s undeniable that the widespread use of hops in Northern Europe from the end of the 13th century onwards turned brewing from a largely artisanal occupation into a proper industry, 400 and more years before the arrival of porter – see Richard Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, p52, and the subsequent chapter about beer exports by the Hanseatic League. Then we again have the totally wrong declaration that the British government banned brewers from using heavily roasted malts during the First World War “in order to divert energy to the arms industry”. Made-up nonsense, again, as Ron Pattinson has demonstrated. Any capture of the porter/stout market by Irish brewers was not because this non-existent rule wasn’t applied in Ireland, it was because Irish brewers were allowed to keep brewing at higher gravities than British ones, in an attempt to cut down on the number of grievances the Irish already had.
The section on Mild contains just as grievous errors. Mild did not develop “in the 18th and 19th centuries as a less aggressively bitter style of beer than Porter or Stout”. Mild – properly mild ale – was the unaged, fresh version of ale, which began as the original unhopped British malt liquor, gradually (under the influence of beer, the hopped drink from the Continent) began being made with hops, but was around as a lightly hopped drink long before the arrival of porter and stout (which were developed from well-hopped brown beer). It was the 1960s that saw sales of mild overtaken by those of bitter, not the 1950s. And McMullen’s AK is a light bitter, not a mild: AK was always used as a designation for a lightly hopped but still bitter pale ale by Victorian brewers.
Things don’t get any better in the section on Old Ale. It wasn’t “dubbed ‘stale’ by drinkers” in the 18th century “as a result of the sour taste” caused by storage for months in wooden vessels and the subsequent infection by wild yeasts: “stale” simply meant that it had stood, or aged (the word is related etymologically to “stall”), and was the opposite to “mild” or unaged. You could get “stale” porter as well, which was simply porter that had aged, as opposed to “mild” porter, which was fresh. The definition of “stale” as something that is “off” is comparatively modern. Nor was old ale “one of the components of the early blended porters”, because the early porters weren’t blended: they were “entire”, that is, made from one complete set of mashings from the same piece.
Old ales, of course, were normally strong, since they had to be strong to survive ageing. As I explained here, there is no clean dividing line between old ales, strong ales and barley wines. I also showed that “barley wine” as a name is pretty much an invention of the very late 19th/very early 20th centuries. None of this, of course, is mentioned in the Good Beer Guide’s section on barley wine, which claims barley wine “dates from the 18th and 19th centuries”, and mangles the idea that very strong ales were a response to French brandy: it wasn’t “patriotism” that encouraged the gentry to drink strong ales as a substitute for brandy, it was the high taxes brandy paid and its frequent unavailability when we and the Frenchies were at war. The section also goes on about “Whitbread’s” Gold Label (originally brewed by Tennant’s of Sheffield, of course), and fails to point out that this was unique at the time for being a pale barley wine, not a dark one.
That’s more than a dozen errors, in just three pages, all or almost all of which have been pointed out before. Definitely an “F” for the GBG.