Category Archives: Beer myths

Guinness myths and scandals

Guinness on toast - nom
‘Guinness Marmite’ from the 1930s

Is there a brewery business with more books written about it – is there any business with more books written about it – than Guinness? Effectively a one-product operation, Guinness has inspired tens of millions of words. Without trying hard, I’ve managed to acquire 18 different books about Guinness, the brewery, the people, the product and/or the advertising (four of them written by people called Guinness), and that’s not counting the five editions I have of the lovely little handbook that Guinness used to give to visitors to the brewery at St James’s Gate, dated from 1928 to 1955. There are plenty more books on Guinness I don’t have.

Despite all those volumes of Guinnessiana, however, you can still find a remarkable quantity of Guinness inaccuracy and mythology, constantly added to and recycled, particularly about the brewery’s earliest days. The myths and errors range from Arthur Guinness’s date of birth (the claim that he was born on September 24, 1725 is demonstrably wrong) to the alleged uniqueness of Guinness’s yeast: the idea that the brewery’s success was down to the yeast Arthur Guinness brought with him to Dublin is strangely persistent, though the brewery’s own records show that as early as 1810-12 (and almost certainly earlier) St James’s Gate was borrowing yeast from seven different breweries.

Most accounts of the history of Guinness also miss out on some cracking stories too little known: the homosexual affair that almost brought the end of the brewery partnership in the late 1830s, for example; the still-unexplained attack of insanity that saw Guinness’s managing director, great-great nephew of Arthur Guinness I, carried out of the brewery in a straitjacket in 1895; and the link between the writings of Arthur Guinness I’s grandson Henry Grattan Guinness and the foundation of the state of Israel (which takes in the assassination of Arthur Guinness I’s great-great grandson in Egypt). Continue reading Guinness myths and scandals

Caught on the horns of a yard of ale

You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.

It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:

“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”

Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”

Continue reading Caught on the horns of a yard of 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 …

Wells gets Younger – which isn’t as old as claimed

Excellent news, I think, that Wells & Young’s has acquired the Scottish brands McEwan’s and Younger’s from their current owner, Heineken.

The announcement last week that W&Y was bringing back Courage Imperial Russian Stout genuinely excited me, and not just because it’s a fantastic beer. It showed that the Bedford company has a shrewd understanding of the sort of niche a medium-sized brewer can exploit with the right brands, and it has cottoned on to the growing desire of drinkers in the UK, the US and elsewhere to drink authentic, heritage beers again. McEwan’s and Younger’s have plenty of heritage – Younger’s No 3, for example.

But I’d like to make it clear, now, that if I notice ANY references by the brand’s new owners to Younger’s being “established in 1749”, I shall be driving up to Bedford and administering a few slaps. Because it wasn’t. This claim of a 1749 foundation date has been around since at least 1861, making it 150 years old, or more, and it still regularly pops up. Only yesterday the Scotsman newspaper printed this rubbish

“William Younger founded Edinburgh’s historic brewing industry when he set up his firm in Leith in 1749.”

There are two big errors in that one sentence: Edinburgh’s brewing industry is, of course, far older than 1749: the city was stuffed with breweries long before, so much that its nickname, “Auld Reekie” (“Old Smoky”), is sometimes said to have come from all the smoke that came out of the brewery chimneys. In addition, William Younger never started a brewery in Leith, in 1749 or any other year. In fact he was almost certainly never a brewer at all.

Continue reading Wells gets Younger – which isn’t as old as claimed

Four IPA myths that need to be stamped out for #IPAday

There’s an amazing amount of inaccurate, made-up rubbish that has been written about the history and origins of IPA, or India Pale Ale. So read on, and turn yourself into  an IPA mythbuster for #IPA day:

Myth 1: “IPA was invented by a brewer called George Hodgson from Bow, in East London.”

Fact: Hodgson was the best-known of the early exporters of pale ale to India. But there is no evidence at all that he “invented” a new beer style. Pale ale was already being brewed in England before Hodgson. And the beer Hodgson brewed wasn’t called “India Pale Ale” until more than 40 years after he is first recorded as exporting beer to the Far East. Indeed, there is no evidence that IPA was “invented” at all. It looks more likely the style developed slowly from existing brews as “Pale Ale prepared for the India market”, and was eventually, around 1835, given a new and separate name, East India Pale Ale.

Myth 2:IPAs started life as a British export to their troops stationed out in India back in the 1800s.”

Fact: Pale ale was around from at least the 17th century and pale ales were being exported to India from at least the 1780s, if not before. And they weren’t drunk by the troops, either those of the East India Company’s forces or the later British Army forces in India, who much preferred porter, and continued drinking porter in India right through to the end of the 19th century. The pale ales exported by Hodgson, Bass, Allsopp and others were drunk by the middle and upper classes among the Europeans in India, the military officers and the “civil servants”, the civilians who worked for the East India Company, trading, administrating and collecting taxes.

Myth 3: “British brewers discovered that if they put lots of hops and alcohol in the beers they were sending out, the strong beer wouldn’t go sour on the four-month voyage around Africa.”

Fact: Beer did not need to be strong to survive the journey to India, and IPAs were not particularly strong for the time: they were only about 6 per cent to 6.5 per cent abv. Certainly by the 1760s brewers were being told that it was “absolutely necessary” to add extra hops to beer if it was being sent to somewhere warm. But this was not limited to India. And there is absolutely no evidence that George Hodgson of Bow introduced the idea of hopping export beers more strongly than beers for home consumption.

Myth 4: “A few India-bound beer ships were wrecked on the coast of Scotland, which gave locals the chance to sample the cargo. The secret was out, and IPA has been a staple in the UK ever since.”

Fact: There is no record of any shipwreck being associated with the sale of IPA in the UK. Update October 2015: never say never. It turns out there WAS a shipwreck off the coast of Lancashire, in 1839, after which pale ale which had been on its way to India was sold off in Liverpool – you can read about it here.  But even so, “pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market” and “suitable for warm climates or home consumption” was on sale in London in 1822, no shipwreck needed. And IPA never took off in Britain until around 1841, after the railway had arrived in Burton upon Trent and made it much easier for the Burton brewers to send their bitter beers to markets around the UK.

For more about the history, and myths, of IPA, go here for a summary of IPA history, here for a (much) longer version and here to learn more about what George Hodgson really did.

Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:

“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”

Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.

Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

Bride ale – too many of you are getting this wrong

Just one day into six months or more of continuous “royal” wedding bollocks, and already I’ve made the first sighting of the claim that “the word ‘bridal’ is a corruption of ‘bride-ale’ – a special beer brewed for weddings.” No, it isn’t, all right? I don’t care how many sources you can find that say this – it’s not true.

“Bridal” does come from “bride-ale”, in Anglo-Saxon brýd-ealo, but “ale” was being used here in its secondary sense of “a festival or merry-meeting at which much ale was drunk” (just as “tea” means both the drink and – as in “afternoon tea” or “high tea” – the meal). By the 14th century “bridal” had come to mean the whole proceedings of the wedding or marriage, and it eventually became used, through misanalysis of the “-al” element, as the adjective for things to do with brides, as in “bridal gown”. But until Elizabethan times, or a little later, “ale” still mean “festival” or “celebration” as well as alcoholic drink, and “bride-ale” still meant the whole wedding shebang.

When Queen Elizabeth I visited Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, home of the Earl of Leicester, in July 1575, for example, among the entertainments put on for her, ranging from fireworks to feasting, was a “country bryde ale” that included a bride and bridegroom picked from the local peasants, the traditional wedding sport of “running at the Quinting” or quintain, that is, tilting on horseback with lances at a pole set into the ground, and “Morrice dancing”.

Now, very probably special ales would be brewed for weddings: bride-ales could be expensive, and sometimes the bride or bridegroom brewed a wedding ale to sell. With all the drinking, things could get out of hand, and though one Elizabethan writer noted with satisfaction that there had been an improvement in his time in people’s behaviour and “the heathenish rioting at bride-ales are well diminished,” the authorities sometimes took pre-emptive action.

Continue reading Bride ale – too many of you are getting this wrong

So what WAS the first purpose-built lager brewery in the UK?

It’s a comment on the public perception of beardy beer buffs that people who know I like pongy ale* frequently look surprised when they discover that I drink lager too. My response, of course, is that there’s plenty of great beer not brewed to traditional British criteria, that often a cold one from the fridge is exactly what I need, and anyway, there is a growing number of British brewers committed to brewing top-quality lager.

So hurrah, there’s now a group dedicated to pushing the message that British-brewed lager isn’t all Stella and Carling, they’re called Lager of the British Isles (LOBI – can’t decide if that’s creakingly bad or rather clever) and their website is here. You can also join them on Facebook, here. Maybe if LOBI lobbies hard enough, fewer people will drop their beerglasses like bystanders in a Bateman cartoon when they see the one the beer buff is holding has a lager in it.

But whoops, the “historical inaccuracy” alarms have gone off: LOBI’s Facebook page claims that “Britain has a long heritage of brewing fine lagers, with the country’s first lager brewery, the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, open in 1864.” WRONG. A little investigation shows that LOBI has based this claim on, yes, bleedin’ Wikipedia, which has an article on the Anglo-Bavarian showing its usual mixture of inaccuracies, misunderstandings and historical assumptionism. However, one of the reasons I started this blog was to put proper historical details up on the web, and try to counter the mountain of misinformation available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection. So let’s state the facts: the Anglo-Bavarian brewery, despite its name, never brewed lager and it wasn’t Britain’s first lager brewery. And it wasn’t opened in 1864, either.

Continue reading So what WAS the first purpose-built lager brewery in the UK?

So what DID Pliny the Elder say about hops?

What did Pliny the Elder actually say about hops? Not what you’ve been told, probably – and quite possibly he said nothing about hops at all.

Thanks to the chaps at the Russian River brewery in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California, who named their extremely hoppy, strong “double IPA” after him, the Roman author, lawyer and military man Gaius Minor Plinius Caecilius Secundus, who died in AD 79 from a surfeit of scientific curiosity after getting too close to the exploding Mount Vesuvius, is now probably better known than at any time in the past 1,900 years.

Russian River named their beer Pliny the Elder because he is supposed to be the first person to mention hops in writing, in his great survey of contemporary human knowledge, Naturalis Historia. (They named an even hoppier, stronger “triple IPA” after his nephew and heir, Pliny the Younger.

The hop, from Leonhart Fuchs’s De historia stirpium commentarii insignes

But the plant that Pliny the Elder wrote about, which he said was called lupus salictarius (which translates as “wolf of the willows”, salix being the Latin for willow tree*) may not have been the hop: there’s certainly no completely convincing evidence in Pliny’s own writings to confirm that lupus salictarius and hops are the same thing.

The first person to identify Pliny’s lupus salictarius as the plant that Italians call lupulo, the Spanish lúpulo, Germans Hopfen and English-speakers hops seems to have been a 16th century Bavarian botanist called Leonhart Fuchs, in a book called De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, or Notable commentaries on the history of plants. But Fuchs (after whom, apparently, the fuchsia is named), had made a big effort to try to match up “modern” plants with those mentioned by classical authors, and may have made a mistake in deciding that lupulo was derived from, and identical with, Pliny’s lupus salictarius. At least one writer has suggested that the word lupulo, far from being derived from the earlier term, may simply be an Italian error for “l’upulo“, via the French for hop, houblon, and nothing to do with lupus salictarius.

What did Pliny actually say about lupus salictarius? He mentions it, briefly, in Book 21, chapter 50 of his Natural History, which is a short section about wild or uncultivated foods. After talking about the wild plants eaten in Egypt, he then says:
Continue reading So what DID Pliny the Elder say about hops?

Hopping mad at bitter untruths

Actually, I’m not mad so much as grumpy and depressed, after reading an article by a beer writer I know and admire that contained this piece of nonsense about the hop:

In 1079, the Abbess Hildegarde of St Ruprechtsberg in Baden referred to the use if [sic] hops in beer.

No she blahdy didn’t, because as the American writer John P Arnold pointed out in 1911, when this error was already being repeated, the Abbess was not yet alive in 1079: she was born in 1098 and died in 1179, something that is very easy to check. And actually, as I wrote in Beer: The Story of the Pint six years ago, the Abbess didn’t talk about hops in beer, she talked about using hops “in potibus“, “in drinks”, to prevent putrefaction. And while there are several variants of the name of her religious settlement near Bingen, in Germany, the usual German version is Rupertsberg.

Unfortunately the internet is the most efficient method of disseminating bollocks ever invented, and what depresses me is that my attempts to stem the tide of inaccuracies are wrecked by people like the writer referred to above, and like Laurie Gilchrist of Crush, “Southwest Florida’s leading food and wine magazine” (fill in your own sarcastic comment here). Earlier this year Laurie wrote an article about hops now up on the net and ironically headlined “The Bitter Truth”, which is full of untruths about hops, picked up by Laurie out of whichever book or article he (?) plagiarised to write his piece and now stuck on the net for the next plagiariser to come along and steal and repeat. Laurie’s regurgitated errors include the following completely mistaken statements:

“The first recorded instance of hops being used in the making of beer was documented by Jewish slaves in Babylon around 400 B.C., who believed that the resulting drink was a cure for leprosy.”

No – this is a misunderstanding of something actually written in the 11th century AD, and the original plant referred to was not the hop, which would be at the very limit of its growing range in Babylon anyway.

” Hop plants have been cultivated since at least the 8th century.”

There’s no evidence for this at all, despite this claim being made frequently.

“The Germans began using hops to replace other beer additives in 1079 A.D.”

See above. Note how the original claim that something was talked about in a particular year has now become a claim that something actually began in a particular year. Why is Laurie Gilchrist so unthinking, or ignorant of history, to believe that we could possibly know exactly which year something like using hops began, especially since we’re talking about events that supposedly took place over a millennium ago?

“Medieval brewers in other European countries were skeptical about the hop plant, calling it a ‘wicked and pernicious weed’.”

I tried to kick this myth to death here, which is actually the top hit if you bother to Google “wicked and pernicious weed”.

“The English … deemed [beer] a ‘saucy intruder’ and the plant was even banned for use in brewing in some parts of that country.”

Another long-standing myth that I tried to squash here, which is the number two hit on Google for the words hops ban England. (I’m kept out of the number one searchslot by a commentary piece on the possible ending of the ban on liquids in containers over 100ml in aircraft passengers’ hand luggage, which uses “hop” as a verb.)

Anyway, to try to make myself feel better, I’ve stuck up Six More Myths About Hops in the “FAQ – False Ale Quotes” section of this blog, in the hope that future Laurie Gilchrists will Google first and write later. Some time in the next few hours I’ll also be putting up a short history of hops, which should give the plagiarisers something more accurate than most sources on the net to nick from.