Category Archives: Beer myths

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:
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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.

Beer: NOT the oldest drink in the world

Finding factual errors in Wikipedia is, of course, easier than machine-gunning a cask full of cod, and I’ve done it here before. I can’t stand reading Wikipedia’s pages on beer, since I constantly think: “No, that’s wrong … no, that’s not quite right … no, that’s a misinterpretation …”. What particularly gets me shouting at the computer screen is statements that two seconds’ critical thought would show can’t possibly be true: like the assertion in the opening words in Wikipedia’s main article on beer that “Beer is the world’s oldest … alcoholic beverage”, a claim that is repeated in the “alcoholic beverage” article.

The “beer” article justifies this claim by citing in a footnote the book by the German-American author John Arnold with the lengthy title Origin and History of Beer and Brewing: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of Brewing Science and Technology, written in 1911. Arnold wrote one of my favourite beer quotations, about the study of the history of beer, “the people’s beverage”, being the study of the history of the people. My copy of the reprint of his book by the guys at Beerbooks.com is a long way from where I’m writing this, so I can’t currently check exactly what he said. But if Arnold did say beer is the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, he was writing (excuse the Britishism) bollocks.

Think. Beer is not a simple drink to make. To get the sugars that the yeast will turn into alcohol, the starches in grain must be converted by enzymic reactions to sugar. If this is done by malting, that is, soaking grains and then letting them begin to grow, the malting process must be controlled and growth halted before the sprouting grains consume all the sugars they are making from their starch. Human intervention and control is effectively essential. Beer – alcohol derived from grains – does not happen in the wild, because the conditions to make beer do not occur in the wild.

However, alcohol is most certainly produced in the wild using other sources of natural sugar: this is what yeast, opportunistic scavengers of sources of energy, evolved to do. Ripe fruit can, and will, ferment spontaneously as yeast arrive to grab the sugar in the fruit and flood the surroundings with alcohol to keep their rivals away. The story of elephants getting drunk on over-ripe and fermenting fruit may be a jungle myth. But if you walk through an untended apple orchard in the autumn, after the apples have fallen from the trees and been lying on the ground, the scent of cider will envelop you, as yeasts attack the rotting fruit. Right now, I’m in a Middle Eastern city where thousands of date palms line every road, and in the evening the strong smell of vinegar is on the warm air: this is because dates that have fallen to the ground have fermented, and then gone on to the next stage, where alcohol is converted by specialist bacteria into acetic acid.

We can thus trump Arnold’s claim about the antiquity of beer with a quotation from a book called Fermented food beverages in nutrition, by Gastineau, Darby and Turner, written in 1979, that “Fruit wines were probably discovered as soon as man tried to collect and store sweet fruits and berries.” Fermentation of the juice that runs free from grapes simply piled on top of each other is the basis of the Hungarian wine Tokay Eszencia. Ripe dates soaked in water were used to make a sweet drink in Arabia, and if left for even a day the sugary date water would ferment to make a drink called fadikh, which an Arabian traveller called Yūsuf ibn Ya’qūb Ibn al Mujāwir found still being made in the 13th century.

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Arthur Guinness’s true genetic roots

Rarely (but thrillingly) a book comes along that makes everything else ever written on the same subject instantly redundant.

There must have been more books written about Guinness, the brand and its brewers, than any other in the world. I’ve got 14, now, four of them written by people called Guinness. But the latest to be published, Arthur’s Round, by Patrick Guinness, is the first to concentrate on the patriarch himself, the founder of the concern at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and it uses everything from proper, evidence-based historical research to genetic analysis to debunk more myths about Arthur Guinness and the early years of his brewing concern than you could shake a shillelagh at.

The biggest myth Patrick Guinness destroys, using modern genetic techniques, is the claim that Arthur Guinness and his father Richard were descended from the Magennis chieftains of Iveagh, in County Down, Ulster, in Irish Mac Aonghusa. The last-but-one Viscount Iveagh, Bryan Magennis had fled abroad after James II’s defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, about the time Arthur Guinness’s father was born, and the Magennis lands in Ulster were confiscated in 1693.

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Pernicious myths and a ban on hops

When I worked on a local newspaper in one of Hertfordshire’s duller towns in the mid-1970s, the news editor rushed in from the pub one lunchtime frothing with excitement – he had just been given a story by a guy in the bar that was bound to make the week’s front page splash.

This man’s mate knew a young woman who was getting into her vehicle in the town’s only multi-story car park, when a little old lady appeared. The old lady asked if she could possibly be given a lift home. “Of course”, the young woman replied, getting into her car to let the old lady in. But as she lent across to open the passenger door, she noticed that the old lady’s hand, reaching out for the door handle, was extremely hairy …

Immediately the young woman slammed her own door shut, reversed out of her parking space and hurtled as fast as possible round to the town’s police station. A squad car shot off to the car park, our news editor was told in the pub, and though the old lady had gone, the police searched the area and found, behind a pillar alongside where the young woman’s car had been parked, a large axe …

Yeah, yeah, many of you will now be saying, and you’ll be unamazed to learn that when the newspaper sent a reporter, notebook ready, rushing round to the police station to check the facts and get a comment, Herts Constabulary said they had no record of this alleged “incident”. Meanwhile, of course, the news editor’s saloon bar informant could not give him a name or address for the young woman driver – our head newshound had fallen for a popular urban myth.

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