Strange Tales of Ale – ideal summer reading for the beach-bound beer fan

Of all the different styles of books about beer, the old-fashioned anecdotal ramble, as exemplified by John Bickerdyke’s classic Curiosities of Ale and Beer from 1889, or Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles from the 1970s, seems to be the rarest. I’m delighted, therefore, to be able to add to the genre with Strange Tales of Ale, a collection of 28 stories involving beer, brewing, breweries or pubs in some way.

Regular readers of this blog will have come across many – though not all – of the stories in Strange Tales of Ale here over the years, as the book is a bit of a “best of Zythophile” collected between hard covers. There’s the Great London Beer Flood of 1814, of course; the story of Spitfires ferrying beer to the D-Day troops in their fuel tanks; why England’s aristocrats brewed beer that was meant to be laid down and only drunk after 21 years; the mystery of the yard of ale; the true origins of the Red Lion as a pub name (with a picture of the attractive Art Deco innsign from the Red Lion, Fulwell, my local); the most notorious brewer in history; what to order in a Victorian public house; the history of the ploughman’s lunch; what Pliny the Elder really said about hops; how the Dove in Hammersmith got its tiny public bar; pea beer; the British National Dinner, and others that are among my personal favourites from the 300-plus posts, totalling more than 600,000 words, that I’ve stuck up here over the past eight years. There are a couple you might not have read even if you have been a Zythophile follower since 2007, on Dutch Schultz, the beer baron of Brooklyn (here’s a beer trivia question for you – which New York brewer, born in Leeds, was played on film by Bob Hoskins?) and on “the brewery that salami-sliced itself to death”.

If you’re looking for some beery holiday reading for yourself, or a birthday or Christmas present for someone you know likes beer, and reading, can I recommend STOA? Indeed, I’d hope you don’t even have to like beer to enjoy the book: the tales are in themselves engrossing, from the link between beer and bridal gowns to how the Jerusalem Tavern near Smithfield became the Trigger’s Broom of pubs to potboys in literature and art.

Strange Tales of Ale is published by Amberley Publishing, and costs £12.99 hardback, £7.80 as an ebook (unlike Amber Gold and Black, my last book, from a different publisher, I get rather less of a royalty on the ebook version of STOA than on the Finnish forest version, so I’m happier for you to go traditional …) You can support small businesses and buy it from my good friend Paul at Beer Inn Print here or if you don’t mind tax-dodging conglomerates you can put more money in my pockets by buying it though my Amazon Associates page here. (Or, if you’re in North America, The Dove(s), Hammersmith circa 1880

A rare picture of The Dove, Hammersmith – then still the Doves – when the landlord was Samuel Richardson Gamble, the name on the (birdless) signboard, some time between at least 1874 and January 1881, the month the licence was handed over to Henry Thomas Saunders. The window to what became the smallest public bar in Britain is on the right of the door. If you look at a modern picture of the pub, you can see the bracket for the innsign is still the same piece of wrought iron, albeit with a bit missing …

Ciao Biella: an Italian family brewery woos the bloggerati

You can hardly get fresher beer than from a bottle snatched off the production line by the managing director of the brewery, only seconds after it had been filled and capped – and, indeed, it’s excellent, cold, refreshingly flavourful and welcome, even at 10.30 in the morning. Mind, there are few or no Anglo-Saxon breweries where this would be possible, since health’n’safety barriers would be in place to prevent anyone from being able to reach across into the filling machinery and grab a passing bottle from the conveyor. However, this is Italy: while in a British brewery everybody would be forced into hi-vis jackets, ear protectors and goggles, here, where life is visibly more relaxed, visitors can wander about unworried by the HSE.

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line
Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

I am at Menabrea (pronounced roughly “MENahBRAYah”), one of the few surviving family-run Italian breweries, with roots that go back to before Italy was a single country. Menabrea is based in the town of Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps, 40 miles from Turin to the south-west and 50 miles from Milan to the east. It is a town of 46,000 people, with soft water coming down from the Alps that, with plenty of nearby pastureland for sheep, has encouraged a local woollen industry: the town is home to Cerruti and Fila, among others. That same soft water is also very good for brewing lagers.

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella
Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

The brewery was started in 1846 by a couple of cafe owners, Antonio and Gian Battista Caraccio, and Antoine Welf, from Gressoney in the Aosta valley, to the north-west of Biella. Welf was a Walser, that is, a speaker of the Walliser dialect of German found in the Swiss canton of Valais and surrounding territories such as Aosta. Welf disappears, and in 1854 the Caraccio brothers started leasing the brewery in Biella to another Walser, Anton Zimmermann, also from Gressoney, and his compatriot Jean Joseph Menabreaz (sic), who were already running a brewery in the town of Aosta itself. Piedmont – and Aosta – were at that time part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy, but in 1861, with some help from the French and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, was able to declare himself King of a more-or-less united Italy. Three years later, in 1864, Zimmermann and Menabreaz – now, post-unification, with Italianised first names, Antonio and Giuseppe, and, in the latter’s case, a more Italian-looking surname as well, with the final “z” disappearing – bought the brewery in Biella from the Caraccios.

Continue reading Ciao Biella: an Italian family brewery woos the bloggerati