Category Archives: Beer

Everything you wanted to know about X

This is going to bring me large numbers of search engine hits from people looking for something else entirely, but I’m going to talk about the joy of X, which inevitably means mentioning XX, and XXX of course, and XXXX and so on, right up to Simonds of Reading’s strong stout, Archangel XXXXXXX.

The usual (and only semi-likely) explanation of the original use of X and XX as markings on ale and beer casks, and subsequently as beer names, was that they were used as a guarantee of quality by monastic brewers: Frederick Hackwood’s Edwardian-era Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England says that

in shape the crosses were at first more akin to the crucifix, and served to indicate that by the oath of the monks, ‘sworn on the cross’, the beer was of sound quality, fit to drink.”

though, of course, there is no contemporary documentary evidence given for this, and it seems unlikely, frankly, that monks would use Christianity’s holiest symbol on casks of ale. In any case, † is † and X is X.

Another explanation is that it comes from the habit of excisemen from the middle of the 17th century, when beer was first taxed, marking XX on casks of strong ale or beer and X on casks of small beer. The problem with that idea is that the excisemen’s marks were X for strong beer and T for table beer.

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The Hunting of the Stout

In February 1961, 47 years ago, Guinness paid the London brewer Watney Combe Reid £28,000 – equivalent to more than £400,000 today – to discontinue brewing its Reid’s Stout. It was part of the Irish firm’s drive to put its newly perfected nitrogen-serve Draught Guinness into as many pubs as possible: Watney’s also had a draught “container stout”, presumably using the keg system that powered Red Barrel, and the Dublin boys were happy to pay to eliminate this potential rival.

Reid’s, whose original brewery was in the aptly named Liquorpond Street, near Hatton Garden, before it merged with Watney and another London firm, Combe’s of Covent Garden, had been one of the great stout brewers of the 19th century, The journalist Alfred Barnard wrote in 1889: “Who has not heard of Reid’s stout? And what better accompaniment to a dozen of oysters could be found?”

With the demise of Reid’s, and all the other once-famous stout brewers of England’s capital, such as Meux, which once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the title of “sole big stout brewer” fell to Guinness.

Effectively, the only sort of stout still brewed in England was the sweet Mackeson-style version that had become popular in the 20th century. London’s formerly enormous role as a centre for brewing the original, 19th century-style, stout became forgotten, so that Michael Jackson could assert, in his first Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1982,

English stouts are sweet … Irish stouts are dry.”

Surviving English stouts were, in 1982, pretty much in the sweet Mackeson-type style only. That certainly hadn’t been true 20 or 30 years earlier.

But if Watney’s had turned down the Irish brewer’s money in 1961, and Reid’s had continued as a rival to Guinness, a living example of the beers once made by all the biggest London brewers, would we, today, be talking about “Irish stout” as the synonym of not-sweet stout? Is there actually such a thing as “Irish stout”? Would Guinness and Reid’s not be known as two examples of “stout”, geography unstated? If a tighter description were needed, to differentiate the Mackesons from those stouts not made with unfermentable lactic sugars, should it not be the retronym “dry stout”, to include all the English versions alas, no longer with us?

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S&N and continental cock-ups

So Scottish & Newcastle falls to the Carlsberg/Heineken combo, thanks to what now turns out to be its foolish involvement in the Russian beer market, leaving not a single one of the former “Big Six” British brewers in existence, and plenty of questions to be answered – what will happen to S&N’s stake in Caledonian, for example? What about WaverleyTBS, the distribution company S&N owns that delivers many independent small brewers’ beers to British pubs?

Just as important, does Heineken have the ability and experience to make any decent sort of run in the British beer scene, now it has become UK brewing’s biggest player, covering everything from keg and cask ale through standard lager to cider? It’s a much more complicated market than any other the jolly green Dutch giant deals in (even if the head of the Heineken family does live in Britain).

Two other news items you may have missed if you don’t read the trade press suggest that big continental companies can’t hack the intricacies of the UK beer market. First, Inbev is withdrawing the strong Artois Bock after less than three years.

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Mr Golding’s descendants

From all the iterations of Fuller’s Vintage Ale produced so far, my favourite is still the 2002. The only hops used were Goldings: coincidence? I don’t think so. Actually, I’m drinking one as I write this, and it’s still marvellous, at six years old: musky, biscuity, honeyed, marmalade and toffee, perhaps the faintest lick of lavender – yum! Goldings is one of my favourite hops: I love the apricot aromas Meantime in Greenwich gets out of the variety in its bottle-conditioned IPA.

There are surprisingly few “pure” Goldings beer on the market: Shepherd Neame’s Bishop’s Finger and Hop Back’s Summer Lightning being two. But the “classic” English combination of Goldings and Fuggles hops is used in a swath of bitter ales of high repute: Brakspear’s Special, St Austell HSD, Young’s ordinary, Wadworth’s 6X, Adnam’s bitter, Brain’s SA and Marston’s Pedigree. I wouldn’t rush past any pub selling those.

One remarkable aspect of the hop Mr Golding found more than 220 years ago is the degree to which its genes have contributed to other popular varieties of hops. Even in the 19th century different types of Goldings began to be recognised. One of the most important was Bramling, an early-ripening variety (about 10 days before “main crop” Goldings) selected, according to George Clinch, writing in 1919, by a farm bailiff called Smith on a farm run by a man called Musgrave Hilton at Bramling, a hamlet in the parish of Ickham, near Canterbury.

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St Brigid and the bathwater

One of the perks of being a journalist is that you can get married in St Bride’s, the church at the foot of Fleet Street in London which continues to be the “journalists’ cathedral”, even though the hacks and blunts have all moved out of Fleet Street and their former offices are now occupied by bankers and lawyers.

St Bride, or Brigid, is, of course, an Irish saint, from Kildare, and when the lovely E and I married, she being Irish and me being a journo, there seemed no better place to have our marriage blessed than a church dedicated to journalism and named for an Irishwoman.

While I was putting together the order of service, I even found a suitably beery quote from The Life of St Brigid the Virgin, written by a Kildare monk, Cogitosus Ua hAedha, around AD650, to use as one of the readings:

On another extraordinary occasion, this venerable Brigid was asked by some lepers for beer, but had none. She noticed water that had been prepared for baths. She blessed it, in the goodness of her abiding faith, and transformed it into the best beer, which she drew copiously for the thirsty. It was indeed He Who turned water into wine in Cana of Galilee Who turned water into beer here, through this most blessed woman’s faith.

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Stout v Porter: a northern perspective

What does it tell you about the world that if you want to access the electronic archives of The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of the planet’s great campaigners for raw capitalism, you can do so for free, via your local council’s website; but if you want to access the electronic archives of The Guardian, spiritual home of soggy left-wing whingers and anti-enterprise social workers, you have to pony up £7 a pop?

I was doing some research for a piece I was being paid for the other day, however, so that £7 could be claimed as “expenses”, and in the 24-hour window The Guardian allows you to rummage around in its archival drawers for the equivalent cost of three pints of ale I ran some searches on beery terms in pre-1850 editions.

The paper then, of course, was the Manchester Guardian, and its advertisements reflected its Manchester base and the demands and availabilities of the Manchester market. Burton ale, for example, which could be shipped from Staffordshire to Lancashire by canal from 1771, is advertised from the beginning: in June 1821, just a month after the newspaper was founded, Nightingale and Worthy were advertising on the front page “excellent SCOTCH and BURTON ALES, in bottles and small casks, for families”.

This is, incidentally, the year before the Burton brewers had their Russian market taken away from them by the introduction of prohibitively high import duties. The move by the Russians prompted the Burtonites to turn to the Indian market instead, by imitating the pale ale then being successfully exported to the East by Hodgson’s brewery in Bow, Middlesex; it also forced them to pay more attention to the home market,

According to J Stevenson Bushnan, writing in Burton and its Bitter Beer, published in 1853, the collapse of the Russian market led Samuel Allsopp in March 1822 to advertise the beer he could no longer sell to the Baltic in a circular delivered around the UK, and “the effect of this circular was the introduction of Burton Ale to the London and English market … immediately after the issue of this circular ‘Burton Ale houses’ sprang up.”

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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

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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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