Category Archives: Beer styles

Legal smoking and drinking

What flavour did the first porters have? Empyreumatic, I reckon – a word you can easily work out the meaning of yourself (that “pyre” in the middle is the clue), which basically translates as “the taste or smell of something burnt”.

Henry Stopes, author of Malt and Malting, published in 1885, uses it in his description of the making of “brown, blown, snap or porter malt”, talking about how the porter malthouses of Bishop’s Stortford, on the Hertfordshire-Essex border, and elsewhere burnt faggots of beech-wood or oak under the wet malt to dry it, going slowly at first until almost all the moisture has been driven from the malt, then building up the fire so that the sudden violent heat makes the malt grains pop, growing 25 per cent in volume, and

the nature of the fuel employed communicates, very agreeably, the empyreumatic properties that distinguish this class of malt.”

In other words, it tasted burnt and, probably, smoky as well from the initial drying over wood at a lower heat.

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West Country White Ale, a lost English beer

The Tudor physician, traveller and former Carthusian monk Andrew Boorde is most famous in brewing history for his attack on hopped beer, calling it, in his A Dyetary of Helth, published in 1542,

a naturall drynke for a Dutche man [by which he meant Germans]  … of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men … it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely.

However, he also deserves recognition as the first person to write about West Country White Ale, a “lost” beer style with its roots, almost certainly, in the unhopped ales of the Middle Ages, which died out in the final decades of the 19th century.

Typically, Boorde was rude about the drink, writing of Cornish ale that it was “stark nought, lokinge whyte and thycke, as pygges had wrasteled in it,” adding that “it wyll make one to kacke, also to spew; it is dycke [thick] and smoky, and also it is dyn”.

Despite Boorde’s jabs, White Ale continued to be popular in the West Country, and William Ellis noted in The London and Country Brewer in 1736 that “the Plymouth People … are so attach’d to their white thick Ale, that many have undone themselves by drinking it.” Ellis gave the first recipe for White Ale, saying it was

a clear Wort made from pale Malt, and fermented with what they call ripening, which is a Composition, they say, of the Flower [flour] of Malt, Yeast and Whites of Eggs, a Nostrum made and sold only by two or three in those Parts.

However, the sellers of the “ripening” did not make the ale: instead

the Wort is brewed and the Ale vended by many of the Publicans; which is drank while it is fermenting in Earthen Steens, in such a thick manner as resembles butter’d Ale, and sold for Twopence Halfpenny the full Quart.

Ellis added that White Ale “is often prescribed by Physicians to be drank by wet Nurses for the encrease of their Milk, and also as a prevalent Medicine for the Colick and Gravel.”

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Bristol-fashion Guinness and the roast barley question

Where and when was the first Guinness brewery opened in England? If you answered “Park Royal, 1936”, whoops, the loud noises and flashing lights have gone off, that’s the WRONG answer, by more than 100 miles and just under 100 years.

In 1838 John Grattan Guinness junior had been sacked from the brewery business in Dublin started by his grandfather for drunkenness and “mixing with degraded society”. His uncle, Arthur Guinness II bought him a brewery in Bristol to try to give him another chance. Unfortunately John Grattan Guinness does not seem to have been a businessman, and the Bristol brewery went under in 1845. Much later, after he fell into poverty, John G tried ungratefully and unsuccessfully to sue his cousin Benjamin Guinness for wrongful dismissal from the Dublin brewery.

While John G was still running the brewery in Bristol, however, he was evidently visited by the brewer and writer George Stewart Amsinck, who was shown several different brews, all apparently based on St James’s Gate originals. Amsinck eventually printed the recipes for the beers as part of Practical Brewings, a manual of 50 different brewings published in 1868.

Their interest comes from their being the closest we have to genuine Dublin Guinness recipes of the late 1830s, showing us brewing methods and, in particular ingredients and proportions of different grain types.

Guinness had been among the first porter brewers to seize upon Daniel Wheeler’s “patent” malt for colouring porters and stouts when it appeared in 1819. This was the first properly legal beer colouring (because tax had been paid on the malt before it was roasted into Stygianity) to let brewers make really black beers, which is what the public expected in their porters and stouts, while using almost entirely pale malt, which gave a much better extract of fermentable sugars than the high-dried and “blown” malts the original porter brewers had used. An advertisement for Plunkett Brothers, the Dublin makers of patent malt, dated 1873 quotes a letter from Guinness saying the St James’s Gate brewery had used its products for “over fifty years” – in other words, since at least the very early 1820s.

The recipes Amsinck recorded at John G Guinness’s Bristol brewery included a Dublin stout of 1096 OG, using 96.8 per cent new pale Suffolk malt and 3.2 per cent “black” (that is, roast) malt; a Country Porter (the name Guinness at St James’s Gate gave to the beer delivered outside Dublin) of 1067 OG, brewed with the same ratio of black and pale malts; and a Town Porter (the name Guinness gave to the beer brewed for sale in Dublin) of 1061 OG, ditto for the grain bill but with half the hops of the Country Porter. This last, Town beer was kept for only a day after fermentation was finished, before being mixed with 10 per cent fresh wort (a technique called gyling) and put out into the trade for consumption within a fortnight, making it truly a mild porter, in the proper sense of mild as fresh beer made for quick consumption.

The particular point to note today about all these beers is that they used roasted malt, not the roasted barley that commentators such as Roger Bergen, writing in Brewing Techniques in November 1993 say is “critical” to the Guinness palate. In fact Guinness could not have used roasted barley when John G was working there, because it was illegal: no grains could go into the brewing of beer that had not been malted, and paid the malt tax.

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The forgotten story of London’s porters

It’s a mark of the low status given to working class history that the role in London’s life and economy played by the city’s thousands of street and river porters, the men who gave their name to the beer, is almost completely forgotten, only 70 or so years after the last of the porters died.

Almost no modern books on the history of London mention the Ticket Porters and their rivals the Fellowship Porters, not even Weinreb and Hibbert’s 1,000-page London Encyclopedia (which does, however, manage to mangle a nonsensical story about ale conners and the Tiger pub at the Tower of London).

The exception is Peter Earle’s A City Full of People, subtitled Men and Women of London 1650-1750, published in 1994, which leans for its scholarship about the subject on Walter Stern’s The Porters of London, written in 1960.

This lack of general knowledge about the people who played an irreplaceable role in London’s economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries, one that was the equivalent of white van delivery driver, motorcycle courier and postman rolled into one, meant confusion for beer writers in the 1970s when they came to write about porter the drink.

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Come-back for the Burtons

One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.

The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.

Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.

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The woodbegoods

There’s an odd feeling, like you’re doing something slightly illegal, when drinking and discussion beers that would have been poured down the drain by every generation of brewers before this one for being irredeemably faulty. But 21st century brewmasters have discovered the flavour found in wood, and declared it good.

Unlike wine-makers, especially many white wine makers, and distillers, especially whisk(e)y distillers, brewers who have used wooden fermenting vessels and wooden casks always made it an axiom not to have any influence from the wood apparent in their beers. Wood flavours were fine in chardonnay, or scotch, but not in IPA or porter.

Oak for casks, vats and brewing vessels was sourced from places such as Russia and Poland that were known for growing wood that would not impart any flavours to the beer. Casks were lined with “brewer’s pitch”, vats were scrubbed down so that when stock ales, porters and stouts were being matured in them, no tang of the timber would come through into the beer. Once fermenting vessels began being lined with metal, and steel and aluminium casks came in, wood flavours disappeared as a worry.

The introduction of wood flavours as a desirable characteristic, in the UK at least, was a serendipitous discovery springing from the wish of the Scotch whisky distiller William Grant in 2002 to add to its range of “cask reserve” whiskies, all finished off in casks that had previously held other alcoholic drinks, such as sherry or rum. Grant’s wanted a beer to fill casks with and enable it to make “ale cask reserve” whisky once the beer had been emptied out.

Dougal Sharp, then of the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, designed a malty, estery, sweet, not very hoppy beer he and Grant’s felt would give the casks a good foundation for maturing whisky in. The beer was aways meant to be thrown away once it had been in the casks long enough to impart flavour to the wood that could be absorbed subsequently by the whisky. But workers at Grant’s distillery sampled the beer, and liked the oaky, vanilla flavours it had picked up from the new wood so much that instead of disposing of it they started taking it home …

Intrigued, Sharp tried putting the beer into a blind tasting at the brewery, where it scored a consistent nine out of nine with the tasters. The “tweaked” version of their original brew for Grant’s that Dougal and his father Russell launched in 2003 as Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer has been so successful subsequently it has effectively launched a completely new category in the UK marketplace – wood-aged beer.

Which is why I was at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday for the Zythographers’ Union’s latest seminar, tasting different styles of beers aged in different ways in different types of cask, and listening to Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery, John Keeling of Fuller’s in London and Dougal Sharp himself talk about their wood-aged beer experiments and experiences.

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There Are No Favourites in Our House

Michael Jackson, whose funeral was yesterday, used to complain that people kept asking him what his favourite beer was. It annoyed him, I think, because it showed what a limited view the questioners had of great pleasures and deep enthusiasms, as if you could only like football by supporting one favourite team.

I have a favourite wine – Sauvignon Blanc for whites, Shiraz or Zinfandel for reds – and I have a favourite whisky (Lagavulin, thanks, though I wouldn’t spurn The Macallan). But what that shows to me is that I’m not a huge enthusiast for wine or whisky, and certainly not a real wine or whisky lover. Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker won’t have a favourite grape variety, and if I went into my local cigar specialist down the hill, I am sure the proprietor would tell me he doesn’t have a favourite cigar. Like Michael, I believe anyone who has a favourite beer doesn’t like beer that much (and Mr Jackson wouldn’t have had a favourite whisky; he showed as much enthousiasmos for, and knowledge of barley spirit as the undistilled version.)

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Top beer and cheese choices

As an example of truth in marketing, Charles Martell’s Stinking Bishop cheese is tough to beat – it really does stink enough to waken the dead, according to the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were Rabbit. which climaxes with Gromit reviving his master by waving a wedge of the cheese under his nose, whereupon the aroma of three-month-old unwashed socks drags Wallace back to life.

Stinking Bishop is the name of the pear, more properly called the Moorcroft pear, used to make the perry that is used to wash the rinds of the ripening Stinking Bishop cheeses at Mr Martell’s Laurel farm in Dymock, Gloucestershire. The washing with perry encourages bacterial growth on the rinds, and the bacteria produce the pong, though the cheese itself, made in part with milk from rare Gloucester cows, is delicious. It’s one of the few cheeses I’d hesitate to eat with beer: because of how it’s made, a sharp, dry perry is probably the best companion. However, a sulphury Burton bitter, particularly Marston’s Pedigree, also makes a good match: pong against pong.

Mr Martell’s other offerings include Hereford Hop cheese, covered in toasted, pressed hops, another cracking product just the crumbly side of firm. It makes excellent cheese on muffins, terrific for afternoon tea with Timothy Taylor’s Landlord bitter from Yorkshire, itself one of the most perfectly balanced matches of hop and malt flavours I know.

All beers go with cheese, the carbonation and the bitter hops preventing the palate from getting too clogged, though Yorkshire beers (and I say this as a southerner) do seem to pair particularly well with cheeses, especially with Yorkshire cheeses: try Swaledale with Black Sheep bitter for example (and if you can find the rarer ewe’s milk Swaledale, you’ll be eating sheep’s cheese with sheep’s beer …) Here’s half a dozen pairings, however, that include only one Yorkshire beer: some are not great beers, some are not great cheeses, but all are excellent combinations that are certainly grater than the sum of their parts.

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Pale Stout

Plugging different beer-related key words into the search facility in the Times newspaper archive 1785-1985 is continuing to turn up gold. In June 1843 a series of small ads began to appear in the newspaper for Bavarian Pale Stout – put that one in your BJCP guidelines – brewed, not in Munich, but by Beamish and Crawford of the Cork Porter Brewery in Ireland

… under principles personally explained by Professor Liebig to the manufacturers, and is remarkable for its purity and agreeable flavour, and produces a grateful and cheering effect, without exciting any irregular actions in the stomachs of persons even of the most delicate constitutions, or inducing the least drowsiness in those of sedentary or studious habits.

This is a late mention for pale stout, but it would not have seemed as surprising to early Victorian beer drinkers as it does to us. For 150 years or so after the word stout first began being applied to beer it was used simply as an adjective to mean “strong”. A poem from Scotland in the latter half of the 18th century called “The ale-wife’s supplication”, which urged George III to cut the taxes on malt and ale, included the lines:

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Inside the pale

The Times newspaper in London has recently completed the magnificent task of digitising its entire run of issues back to 1785, meaning every word, including all the advertisements, is now electronically searchable. This is a tremendous boon to historians, who will be greatly helped in finding the answers to many of the vexed historical questions of today, such as: is pale ale really a different drink from draught bitter?

Your man with his tent erected in the middle of the “pale ale and bitter are different styles” camp is Britain’s Leading Beer Writer™. In the latest edition of Beers of the World magazine, in a series of articles on beer styles, himself writes:

Let us begin by stating what pale ale is not. It’s not IPA – India Pale Ale – neither is it bitter. Pale ale stands between the two … Bitter, as we shall see later in the series, is an early 20th century beer, brewed to meet the demands of the new “tied pubs” of large brewers who wanted a draught “running beer” that could be served after only a few days of cellar conditioning.

However, the evidence points overwhelmingly towards pale ale and bitter being regarded as synonyms by both the public and brewers from the time the terms first appeared. (I won’t comment on Roger’s second claim, that 20th century bitter was a new invention that needed only a few days of cellar conditioning, until his promised piece on the history of bitter comes out).

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