Category Archives: Ageing beer

So you think you know what porter tastes like …


I am always alert for any comments about how beers tasted in the past. They don’t appear very often, but they’re fascinating when they do. So I leapt upon a line out of a recent blog by Ron Pattinson, in a description from 1889 of an obscure style called Adambier, which Ron had translated from German: “… the beer was perfectly carbonated and tasted sour, porter-like.”

Now, this is from a German source, the Zeitschrift für Angewandte Chemie (Journal of Applied Chemistry), so its opinion might not hold outside the lands controlled by Kaiser Wilhelm. Did English porter in the 19th century have a sour taste? Well, not sour, I suggest (although one man’s “sour” is another’s “nicely tart”), but the evidence says that for a long time there was a definite acid component to the flavour of 19th century porter.

In 1899 a senior employee in one of the big London breweries, a man called John Kibble, gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry, the Home Office committee on beer materials. During his lengthy and fascinating evidence, Mr Kibble, talking about the porter brewed 36 years earlier, in 1863, said that it was “principally vatted beer, and brewed entirely from English barley, and it had a certain acid character with it.”

To show that Mr Kibble’s memory was good, here’s a quote from Charles Dickens’s magazine All The Year Round, September 19, 1868: “Porter owes much of its tart and astringent flavour to a high, rapid fermentation which carries down the density without diminishing the high flavour drawn from the materials.”

Tart, astringent, acid: these are not words you will find in the descriptions of porter in the latest Brewers Association beer style guidelines. But Dickens was wrong, I believe, in attributing that tartness to “a high, rapid fermentation”. As Mr Kibble said, this was vatted beer, well-aged. Here he is being questioned in 1899 on just that subject:

[Q] “The old beer and the porter in the year 1863, I suppose, had to be kept by the brewers for some considerable time before they were consumed?[A] “It was generally brewed in the winter. The supply for nearly the whole year was brewed in the winter months, and then they brewed more in the summer, up to perhaps about June; they missed July altogether and two weeks of August perhaps, missed six weeks in the summer, and up to that point they would blend the other beer with it. It was really sent out as a blend, a blend of the old beer with some of the new beer.”
[Q] “But there was a good deal of beer and porter kept by the brewer for some weeks, or possibly months was there not?” [A] “Quite so; it would be in his vats six to nine months stock, say.”

There’s a lot in that passage to absorb: no summer brewing, notice, this was still the pre-refrigeration era, when it was too hot to brew safely in July and early August. Mr Kibble was saying that in the 1860s porter was mostly brewed in the winter, kept for between six and nine months, and then generally sent out by the brewers pre-blended with fresher beer, presumably to give it some condition. The porter had a tartness that came, presumably, from being stored for half a year or more in vats. But it wasn’t, it appears, an overwhelming tartness of the sort that characterises certain long-aged Belgian beer styles, or, say, Gale’s Prize Old Ale, another vatted beer, judging by a comment from the Quarterly Review in January 1855: “… the foaming tankard of Meux’s entire … smooth, pleasantly bitter, slightly acid, and bearded with a fine and persistent froth.” Meux, pronounced “mewks”, was one of the “top 10” London porter brewers, and ran the brewery that stood on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and what is now New Oxford Street, where the Dominion Theatre now is.

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Aged White Shield

The Long Ship, where I misspent much of my youth, was everything you would expect of a pub run by Watney’s on the ground floor of a 1960s office block. Its attractions for the students who made up most of the customers, however, were that it was central, large, mostly dark inside and, crucially, the bar staff never asked any questions about your age.

The beer, of course, was generally awful (Red Barrel! Star Light!), but the Ship did stock Worthington White Shield, originally called Worthington IPA, and named for the “white shield” trademark on the label .

Beer&Skittles beermat
The beermat produced to publicise "Beer and Skittles"

In 1976 my then girlfriend had bought me my first ever book on beer, Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles. Boston wrote one of the pioneering columns on beer and pubs, in The Guardian, which started in 1973, and probably did as much as Camra to turn people on to a proper appreciation of the glories of British beer. Beer and Skittles devoted several pages to White Shield, then one of only five surviving naturally conditioned bottled beers in Britain, correctly describing it as one of the world’s greatest brews.

Because it contained a yeasty sediment in the bottle, Boston revealed to his wondering readership, White Shield altered as it aged. The beer came into prime condition about four weeks after bottling, Boston informed us, and would then stay in condition for up to another nine months. As this was the 1970s, “best before” dates were still in the future, and the only indication of when a bottle had been filled was through the numbers, one to 13, printed on the label, and the nicks, one, two, three or four, cut into the label’s edge. The nicks indicated which quarter of the year the bottle had been filled in, the numbers showed which week of the quarter.

After 10 months, Boston, said, White Shield went out of condition, and could develop a sulphury taste (not surprising, since it was made with the notoriously sulphury well-water of Burton). But if the drinker could hang on for “as long as fifteen months, one of two things may happen. If you are very unlucky, it will develop a really unpleasant flavour. Most bottles, however, should come back into condition with a flavour that is different from the original but which some connoisseurs consider to be even better.”

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