Category Archives: Beer

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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The sixth-best beer writer in Britain …

Big cheers to Alastair Gilmour, who has now pulled off the unique feat of winning four Beer Writer of the Year gold tankards at the Zythographers’ Union annual awards bash in London – nice man, fine writer.

This does mean, however, that the UK’s top beer writing trophy has been won by only 10 different people in its 20 years of existence, with just three – Alastair (four times), the late and much missed Michael Jackson (three times) and Roger Protz (three times) – sharing half the gold tankards between them.

Indeed, while nearly 70 different people have won awards at the BWOTY bashes over the two decades since it started, the table below (based on five points for being BWOTY, three for a silver/category winner, one for a runner up and two points for the Budvar trophy) shows how much the big guns have dominated.

Alastair’s two gold tankard wins in the past three years have catapulted him out of the pack and in sight of the leaders, but Protzie and Jacko are still comfortably in front and uncatchable for at least a couple of years, given that, as this year’s gold tankard winner, Alastair will be chairing the judges for 2008’s awards and thus ineligible to enter.

BWOTY league table 1988-2007

1 Michael Jackson 29 points
2 Roger Protz 27 points
3 Alastair Gilmour 23 points
4 Allan McLean 16 points
5 Brian Glover 15 points
6= Martyn Cornell 10 points
6= Andrew Jefford 10 points
6= Ben McFarland 10 points
6= Barrie Pepper 10 points
10= Arthur Taylor 8 points
10= Jeff Evans 8 points

Continue reading The sixth-best beer writer in Britain …

Guess who’s coming to dinner

I love “blue-sky” invitations, unexpected requests for my company, so though it’s only a “virtual” event I was flattered and delighted to be nominated by Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog as one of his four guests for a fantasy beer dinner.

The “fantasy beer dinner” question was thought up by the American beer writer and beer blogger Stan Hieronymous, and the idea, Stan says, is

If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?”

The 10 “beer dinner fantasists” Stan has put up on his site so far have chosen a range of guests for which “eclectic” seems utterly inadequate as a description. They include Bernardo O’Higgins, the 19th century South American revolutionary; Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys; Robert Noonan, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; William Shakespeare (nominated by two people); Martin Luther; Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson (also nominated by two people); David Bowie; Socrates; Winston Churchill; Ernest Hemingway; and John McEnroe. And me.

Since I’ve been chosen myself, I have naturally thouight about who I’d like to invite to my own fantasy beer dinner. I’m a little unhappy at the number restriction Stan has put on the game, as five – one host and four guests – doesn’t work that well in social situations. Sociologists say the ideal numbers of people for good conversation are three or four. Any more than that, and people get squeezed out, as the “natural” group number asserts itself. Take a look around at your next social gathering, and see how people naturally congregate in threes or fours – never fives. So it may be better to have host and three guests, or otherwise host and seven guests, which would the conversational group to split easily into two equal parts.

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Chocolate beer is 3,000 years old

They’ll be cracking open the bottles of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout in Bedford today at the news that archaeologists in Honduras have discovered that chocolate was originally just a by-product in brewing beer.

What’s more, it looks as if chocolate-flavoured beer, like DC Stout, is one of the most ancient beer styles in the world, dating back more than 3,000 years.

I don’t normally do stories I know are going to be pretty much everywhere else in the beer blogiverse, but this is a great tale, and it also gives me an excuse to print an ice cream recipe I’ve been meaning to share for some time.

The story has its roots in one of the puzzles of technological history: chocolate is made by fermenting the seeds of the cacao plant. The pulp of cacao fruit and seeds are fermented together, colouring the seeds purple. Unless you do that, you don’t get the chocolate taste. But who first thought that would be something worth doing?

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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.”

Continue reading West Country White Ale, a lost English beer

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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I Told You Those Lying Bastards Were Making It Up

It was fantastically satisfying to see the front page splash in The Times declare what I’ve been saying for years – that the government’s “safe drinking guidelines” of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women a week have no basis in fact, and were literally made up on the spot with no evidence to support them 20 years ago, solely because the “experts” thought they ought to be saying something rather than nothing.

To quote The Times:

Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the college’s working party on alcohol, told The Times yesterday that the figures were not based on any clear evidence … “David Barker was the epidemiologist on the committee and his line was that ‘We don’t really have any decent data whatsoever. It’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t’. And other people said, ‘Well, that’s not much use.’ … So the feeling was that we ought to come up with something. So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren’t really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”

On that basis, as The Times says, public health care policy, and private advice by doctors to individuals, has been conducted ever since, with the figures treated as if they were stone-hard, incontrovertible fact, wheeled out again for the latest report that claimed the middle classes are the new danger drinkers. To quote The Times again:

Professor Mark Bellis, director of the North West Public Health Observatory, which produced this week’s study, felt able to say that anyone exceeding the limits was “drinking enough to put their health at significant risk”. That a host of epidemiological studies had filled the intervening years with evidence to the contrary seemed not to matter one jot.”

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More anti-alcohol brigade rubbish

Sky TV rang me up at 1.45pm today to come into their studio in Isleworth to rant at the latest rubbish from the anti-alcohol brigade. Drinkers in middle-class areas are more likely to consume “hazardous” amounts according to the North West Public Health Observatory, commissioned by the Department of Health. But “hazardous amounts”, according to these people, starts at one and a half pints of beer a day, or a large glass of wine ditto. What planet are they on?

Second, while all the newspaper headlines today are about how the allegedly greatest number of “hazard level” drinkers are in affluent areas such as Runnymede in Surrey, and Harrogate in Yorkshire, the Department of Health have literally made these figures up. Their own report admits they don’t have figures to anything like that degree of geographical detail:

Sample sizes are not sufficiently large enough to allow for annual analysis of the data below Government Office region and even combining years does not allow local authority measures to be derived except through the use of synthetic estimates. Although many local areas conduct local lifestyle surveys it is currently difficult to aggregate the data from such surveys since the questions asked and the methods of collection can be sufficiently different to not allow consistent data definitions.”

What they have done is take the percentages of particular social types nationally who “drink to a hazardous level”, who tend to be the more affluent, settled, secure types found in areas such as Runnymede, Guildford, Harrogate and so on, and mapped those social classes to their percentages in individual local authority areas, multiplied one by the other, and claimed this as the percentage of “hazard level” drinkers in those areas.

Sadly, I had an unbreakable appointment to be elsewhere, so I couldn’t get out my soapbox and enlighten Sky’s (small) audience with my views on rubbish statistics, distortions and mythical and invented drinking limits.

Of course, the proper response to health fascists has to be: “Sod off and mind your own business. ” It is the responsibility of individuals to freely weigh up for themselves the risks of their freely chosen actions, from hang-gliding and mountaineering to taking the top off a bottle of beer. Self-appointed nannies should present the evidence, if they wish, and then butt out, and certainly not presume to lecture, harass or threaten.

Continue reading More anti-alcohol brigade rubbish

Government ale

A mention over on Patto’s blog about Government ale reminded me of one of my favourite beer songs – Ernie Mayne’s Lloyd George’s Beer from 1917. Click that link and check it out – it’s fantastic.

Mayne was a 20-stone (that’s 280 pounds for Americans) music hall artist who died 70 years ago this year, aged 56, and who specialised in numbers such as You Can’t find Many Pimples on a Pound of Pickled Pork (“whether you come from China, Japan or Carolina, you can go to Pimlico and then go on to York but you can’t find many pimples on a pound of pickled pork”) and I Can’t Do My Bally Bottom Button Up (that would be all the pickled pork, Ernie).

Lloyd George’s Beer was, by the standards of the time, hard-hitting social commentary that undoubtedly deeply annoyed the government. Around the time the song came out, the Central Control Board, which was in charge of wartime brewing restrictions, and pub pricing and opening hours, banned brewers from using the term “Government Ale” on price lists for beers under 1036 OG, presumably because the government did not want to be associated so directly with watery pints.

But for the brewers, and the beer drinkers, the situation was rough. Under the impact of the U-boat campaign, which was badly affecting food imports from America, and making supplies scarce, in February 1917 all malting of barley was stopped by government order.

In April 1917 brewers were ordered to produce no more than a third of 1915/16’s “standard” barrelage, that is, the total actual alcohol produced had to be just a third of the year earlier – which meant if you wanted to make the same amount of beer, it had to be only a third as strong. As it happened, both strength and output suffered: the average strength of beer in 1917 was a fifth lower than in 1916, and only three quarters of the pre-war level, while production fell more than a third from 30 million bulk or “real” barrels in 1916 to 19 million barrels.

Industrial unrest in the summer of 1917, at least in part caused by the beer situation, made the government think again, and the restrictions were eased for the second half of the year. But no doubt a thirsty populace, taking solace in the music halls, cheered Mayne until the limelights shook when he sang:

“Have you read of it?
Seen what’s said of it
In the Mirror or the Mail?
It’s a substitute and a pubstitute
And it’s known as Government Ale
… or otherwise …
Lloyd George’s beer, Lloyd George’s beer,
at the brewery there’s nothing doing –
All the waterworks are brewing
Lloyd George’s beer.
Oh they say it’s a terrible war
And there never was a war like this before
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Was Lloyd George’s beer.”