Albert Le Coq is NOT a famous Belgian

It’s a small error, as they go, but it has been around for at least 40 years, and it appears everywhere from Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer to the labels on bottles of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout, so let’s try to stamp it to death: Albert Le Coq was NOT a Belgian.

An advertisement for A Le Coq’s Imperial Extra Double Stout published in Estonia in the 1920s or 1930s

Le Coq is remembered as a 19th century exporter of Imperial stout from London to St Petersburg, whose firm eventually took over a brewery in what is now Tartu, in Estonia to brew Imperial stout on what was then Russian soil. The brewery is still going, it took back the name A Le Coq in the 1990s, and an Imperial stout bearing its brand has been brewed since 1999, though by Harvey’s of Lewes, in Sussex, not in Estonia. But every reference to the company founder, Albert Le Coq, apart from in the official history of the Tartu brewery – which is almost completely in Estonian – says he was a Belgian. He wasn’t.

In fact the Le Coq family were originally French Huguenots, who had fled to Prussia in the 17th century from religious persecution in their home in Metz, Lorraine, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. They prospered in their new home, operating mostly as merchants, though one, Paul Ludwig (or Louis) Le Coq, (1773-1824), the great-grandson of Jean Le Coq, born in Metz in 1669, rose to be chief of police in Berlin. It looks as if Paul had a brother, Jean Pierre Le Coq (1768-1801), born in Berlin, who was a merchant in Hamburg, and his branch of the family also became wine merchants, owning a winery in Kempten, near Bingen, on the borders of the Prussian Rhineland.

The year before Jean Pierre died he had a son, born in Berlin (although some sources say Bingen), called Jean Louis Albert, who became better known under the German version of his name, Albert Johann Ludwig Le Coq. Plenty of sources going back to at least 1939 claim the family company was founded as A Le Coq & Co in 1807, when Albert was just seven years old: there seems no documentary evidence of this, however. Nor is it clear when, and by whom, the wine business in Kempten was acquired. At any rate Albert was living in Kempten in 1827, when his eldest child, Andreas August, was born there.

Le Coq pale bitter ale

Some time in the 1830s Albert Le Coq moved to London, apparently to develop a trade in Britain for the family wine business. In 1851 Albert claimed he had been living in England for 20 years, implying he moved to London in 1831, though the births of all his children up to the youngest, Molli, born 1836 in Frankfurt, were in the same region of Germany as Bingen. Albert was certainly settled in London by 1841, when the census found him living in Mornington Crescent, St Pancras. He had probably been in business in Britain for some time, however, for the partnership of Albert Le Coq and Charles Seidler, merchants of Mark Lane in the City, operating as Le Coq & Co, was dissolved “by mutual agreement” on July 1 1841. Within a few years, of this, if not before, Le Coq had expanded from wine into exporting beer, not just stout but, surviving bottle labels show, pale ale, to Danzig, Riga and St Petersburg. One source suggests the trade was prompted by the opportunity to fill the holds of the returning fleets of ships were now coming the other way, from the Baltic to Britain, with cheap, high-quality barley from Livonia (covering parts of modern Latvia and Estonia) after the abolition in Britain in 1846 of the Corn Laws, which had previously placed high tariffs on imported grain.

Strong stout had been exported from Britain to Russia since at least the late 18th century, notably by Barclay Perkins’s Anchor brewery in Southwark, earlier known as Thrale’s. The landscape painter Joseph Farington wrote in his diary for August 20 1796: “I drank some Porter Mr Lindoe had from Thrale’s Brewhouse. He said it was specially brewed for the Empress of Russia and would keep seven years.” The average imports of porter and English beer into St Petersburg between 1780 and 1790, according to William Tooke, writing in 1800, were worth 262,000 roubles a year, when the rouble was five to the pound sterling. In 1818 almost 214,000 bottles of porter were exported to St Petersburg, with the figure for 1819 being just under 122,600 bottles.

From early on, Le Coq exported beers to Russia in bottles embossed with the firm’s name, bottles which the Russians were happy to recycle: according to Ronald Seth, writing in 1939, the first Russian wines from the Caucasus ever seen in Britain, on show at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851 as part of the Great Exhibition, were in repurposed A Le Coq beer bottles. The Crimea War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, put a short stop to exports to Russia, but at the end of the war, again according to Seth, Russian officers entertained their British guests at Sevastopol with A. Le Coq porter.

Albert settled in England firmly enough to want to become a British citizen, which he did in 1851 (when the claim about living in the country 20 years was made, and when his home and office were at 1 Muscovy Court, Trinity Square, Tower Hill). His business partners by now included the wine and drink merchants Thomas Butcher and William Henry Howes, John Watson and the shipping agent George Lee: in January 1858 the partnership of Le Coq and Watson of Muscovy Court was dissolved. The size of deals Le Coq was doing can be gauged from the wreck of the motor sail ship Oliva in 1869 on its way from London to Danzig, when it ran into reefs off the coast of Norway during a storm and went down shortly afterwards with a cargo that included bottled beer from Barclay Perkins’s brewery being exported under the A Le Coq name worth £751 – perhaps £150,000 today.

Pre-First World War Reid’s Russian Stout label. The Russian says ‘Brewed specially for Russia’

Albert retired from the business in 1861, and returned to Berlin, where he died in 1875, and the firm of A Le Coq & Co was left in the hands of two more partners, John Turnbull and Richard Sillem. The Sillems were also originally German, from Hamburg, where they had been merchants since at least the 16th century, and where they must have known Albert’s father. Richard’s father Herman had come to England at the beginning of the 19th century. However, Richard Sillem died aged 37 in 1866, and his place in the partnership was evidently taken by his brother Oscar Hyde Sillem, born 1838. After Albert Le Coq’s death his son, Andreas August was no longer interested in the London beer exporting business, preferring, it appears, to run the seeds business he had set up in Darmstadt, Hesse, and in 1881 the London export operation was sold to Oscar Sillem, though still operating under the A Le Coq name. (Back in Germany the Le Coqs were raised to the aristocracy, becoming Von Le Coq: Albert’s great-grandson, August Robert Gerhard Albert von Le Coq, was an officer in the German army, and died, aged 20, in 1917, on the Western Front, ironically not far from where his ancestors had lived two centuries earlier.)

In Britain, meanwhile, business flourished, with Oscar Sillem never having to visit Russia himself: the beer was shipped out, and the Russian merchants who bought it would turn up unannounced at A Le Coq’s offices in Orange Street, Southwark to pay upfront with Tsarist gold rubles. The firm had agents across Russia and into Siberia, and was even selling its stout in China, while “from the mysterious country of Tibet, even, reports had come of the long, slender A Le Coq bottles being used as candlesticks.” Andreas August Le Coq was in China from 1852 to 1855, having sailed out round the Cape and arrived in Hong Kong late in 1851: his son Albert August von Le Coq became a famous archaeological and ethnographic explorer in Central Asia and China, taking part in four expeditions to Chinese Turkmenistan that brought back hundreds of crates of material to Berlin.)

However, in the early 1890s Le Coq’s trade in Russia began a rapid decline, and in 1895 Oscar sent his 28-year-old son Herbert Oscar Sillem to St Petersburg to investigate the reasons for the drop-off in orders. Herbert did not, at that time, speak Russian, but he had been educated in Switzerland and did speak German and French. The latter was of particular benefit in dealing with the business community in St Petersburg, since French was the preferred language for communication in Russian high society.

Herbert quickly found there were two big problems. The first was the high tariffs imposed on imported beers, coupled with the high freight charges put on foreign beers by the Russian railways, four or five times higher for imports than for Russian ones. These together pushed up the price of A Le Coq’s products on the Russian market, hampering sales compared to cheaper local brands. The second problem was the enormous amount of fake A Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout being sold, produced by “several” different brewers. Acting as his own detective, Herbert Sillem uncovered “huge” warehouses in St Petersburg filled with counterfeit A Le Coq beer. However, when he reported this to the police, nothing happened.

The Russian finance ministry told Herbert explicitly that no change would be made to the high import charges, and the Sillems eventually decided that to protect their market they would have to move their headquarters to St Petersburg and start bottling in Russia, particularly after the import tax went up another 50 per cent in 1900 to 72 kopeks, or 1s 6d, per quart bottle, having risen from 15 kopeks a quart bottle in 1881. A warehouse was thus rented in Italyanskaya in St Petersburg, in 1906, a short distance from the Nevsky Prospect, where a bottling plant was installed, while Herbert Sillem lived next door in the Hotel d’Europe. A Le Coq dropped its long-time supplier, Barclay Perkins, and the beer supplied for bottling in Russia came instead from another big London stout and porter brewer, Reid & Co, which had merged with two of its rivals in 1898 to form Watney Combe & Reid: Reid’s had made a strong “Russian stout”, with an OG of 1100, for many years.

The Sillems also began looking for a brewery inside Russia where they could brew their own Imperial Extra Double Stout (instead of having to import it from England), and thus be taxed as a local product rather than a foreign one. Some had doubts that stout could be brewed in Russia successfully. But Oswald Pearce Serocold, a director at Reid’s, promised “counsel and help” in getting a brewery in Russia to brew good stout.

Le Coq imperial stout ad 1903

Before this happened, around 1903, A Le Coq began selling the Imperial Extra Double Stout in Britain, in pints and half-pints, advertising it in Country Life and Golf Illustrated as “Incomparably superior in nourishing and sustaining properties to any other … an unrivalled beverage for all accustomed to severe exercise and exposure to rough weather.” The Lancet magazine reviewed it, as it did other beers, finding the stout, “shipped hitherto exclusively to Russia”, had an abv of 11.61, “a rich malty flavour”, “a very considerable proportion of nutritives”, and was “free from excessive acidity”.

Eventually, in 1911, after a long search for a brewery in Russia, the A Le Coq directors picked the Tivoli lager brewery in Dorpat, Livonia, the town now known as Tartu, in modern-day Estonia. The operation had been started in 1827 by a man called Justus Reinhold Schramm, and a big new brewery had been built in 1894-96, with modern equipment, including a new drum maltings that was claimed to be only the second of its kind in the world. However, the owner since 1885, Julius Moritz Friedrich, had decided he wanted to sell up. Tests on water taken from boreholes at the brewery showed it was for “all practical purposes, identical with the water of the London Brewery which has hitherto supplied Messers A Le Coq and Co,” and it was acquired for £91,000.

In its prospectus to potential investors in the brewery in 1912, A Le Coq said the Tivoli operation would be able, once the brewery plant had been extended, to supply “a first-class Stout at a price within the reach of the general Russian public.” Oswald Serocold helped A Le Coq recruit an English brewer and a maltster to produce stout at the new plant in Dorpat. After problems were found with the plans for the new stout plant, which were designed in England, delaying the start of stout brewing for three months, the first sample batch arrived in April 1913. Unfortunately for British investors in A Le Coq, barely more than a year after the start of attempts to brew within the borders of the Russian empire, the First World War erupted, with Russia eventually banning alcohol as part of the war effort. Then came the Russian Revolution, which cut off the brewery, now in an independent Estonia, from its previous major market.

All the same, in 1921 the A Le Coq brewery reopened in what was now Tartu under the Sillems, making light and dark lager for the Estonian market, and in the 1920s it brewed approximately a third of all the beer brewed in Estonia. In 1926 it began production of imperial stout again. There was even an attempt, in 1929, to export imperial stout to Germany, with a couple of boxes of bottles being sent to Hamburg: the arrival of the Great Depression, however, put an end to that. By 1937 stout was just 0.4 per cent of the brewery’s total production, with 61 per cent being pilsen lager.

Herbert and James Sillem outside the A Le Coq brewery in Tartu in 1926

Then the Second World War came, and in 1940 the Soviet Red Army annexed Estonia, which was eventually incorporated into the USSR. The brewery, like every other industrial concern in the country, was nationalised, and its last director, Herbert Sillem’s son James Herbert, left Estonia: he and the other shareholders in A Le Coq were eventually compensated by the British government in 1969 for the appropriation of the brewery, from money made by selling the gold reserves of the former Republic of Estonia, which had been frozen in the Bank of England. During the Nazi occupation of Estonia the Tivoli brewery operated as the Bierbrauerei Dorpat, with around 80 per cent of production being consumed by the German army. After the Soviets swept back in the autumn of 1944, the brewery in Tartu eventually became one of the leading brewing concerns in the USSR, though it no longer made stout.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and Estonia declared its independence. Although the brewery was still owned by the state, the name A Le Coq was brought back for some of its beer brands in 1992. In 1994 it brewed stout for the first time in decades, though critics described the beer as “a little too lager-like”. A year later the Tartu brewery was privatised, and in 1997 it was bought by Olvi Oy, the last remaining large independent brewery in Finland, which renamed its entire Estonian operation A Le Coq Ltd in 2003.

Meanwhile, the beer writer Michael Jackson had mentioned A Le Coq’s Imperial Extra Double Stout in his World Guide to Beer, published in 1977. By then about the only Imperial Stout still being brewed was the original Barclay Perkins one, now made by the company that had taken Barclays over in 1955, Courage, whose brewery stood alongside Tower Bridge. But in the 1990s an increasing number of American craft brewers were making Imperial Stouts, and in 1998 an American importer, evidently inspired by Jackson’s account of a genuinely Russian Russian Stout, decided to try to get an authentic version of the beer recreated. The Tartu brewery was happy to put the A Le Coq name to the beer, but it was agreed that it should be brewed in England, with the Estonians insisting that it be made by a small, independent brewery with experience of making porter-style beers. The company chosen was Harvey & Son of Lewes in Sussex. What those who picked Harvey’s could not have known was that Harvey’s head brewer, Miles Jenner, came from a family that had actually brewed imperial stout itself at its own brewery in Southwark in the 19th century, long before they moved to the seaside.

Jenner and his team set about trying to recreate a recipe for Imperial Extra Double Stout, leaning on the memories of brewers who had produced Barclay Perkins Russian Stout in the 1950s. The well water at Harvey’s was similar to that used by Barclay’s, with levels of calcium carbonate, calcium sulphate and sodium chloride that matched quite closely, and those same levels of minerals also fitted old descriptions of the best sort of liquor for brewing stouts with. The ingredients were 54 per cent Maris Otter pale malt, 33 per cent a mixture of amber, brown and black malts and 13 per cent invert sugar, to give an original gravity of 1106 and a final alcohol level of 9%. The historical hop rate was 15 pounds to the quarter, but Jenner and his team decided to lower that figure to 11 pounds to account for modern hops containing more alpha acid than they did in the past. Even so, the resultant 6lb per barrel was six times the hops that went into Harvey’s best bitter.

An advert for imperial stout from the South London Brewery in 1849, which was run by Miles Jenner’s ancestors

The first brew was made in 1999, and after nine months of conditioning it was bottled in corked bottles and released for sale in February 2000. Drinkers raved over its complex mixture of flavours. But something was still happening in the beer, Unknown to Harvey’s, a wild yeast called Debaromyces hanseni was lurking in the bottles, and after nine months it began making itself known, consuming the remaining “heavy” sugars and producing carbon dioxide, which started pushing the corks out. Luckily, the Debaromyces added even more complexity of flavour to the finished beer, as well as raising its level of alcohol, and Harvey’s have been happy to leave it to do its work, adding another three months to the time the beer is left in tanks to let it finish. The final conditioning by wild yeast is, in fact, the last touch of authenticity: there is no doubt that the original 19th century Russian stouts would have been part-fermented by wild yeasts such as Brettanomyces as well.

Today A Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout is brewed once a year, 27 barrels at a time, and is matured in either stainless steel or glass-lined mild steel tanks. Harvey’s also now bottles a what Miles Jenner calls a “nouveau” version of the beer, within six weeks of fermentation, and sold under the name Prince of Denmark. “Originally we produced it as a bit of fun for the Copenhagen Beer Festival,” Jenner says. “It was chilled, filtered and pasteurised but was surprisingly good and we kept it going as, invariably, people got tired of waiting for the new IEDS vintages while we ruminated as to whether they were ready or not! That said, it’s not bad and, among its many awards, won the Supreme Championship at the International Beer Challenge in 2012, having beaten IEDS to the Stout and Porter trophy. Such are the unexpected joys of brewing!”

The mystery of the vanishing 2016 Vintage Ale

Vertical tasting: 20 years of Fuller’s Vintage Ale, in the Hock Cellar

If you haven’t bought your 2016 Fuller’s Vintage Ale yet, either to drink now, or to lay down for later, or to preserve as an investment (what with examples from the 1990s selling for up to £500 a bottle, and even the 2013 costing £40 a pop), tough tubas – there’s none left. Waitrose is totally sold out, so is the brewery shop. Luckily I had a hunch my local specialist, Noble Green in Hampton Hill, might have some, and I manage to snaffle their last five examples.

Fuller’s is being tight-lipped about why the 2016 is now impossible to find: there are rumours that something went terribly wrong with the packaging, but no one seems willing to say. It’s a great pity, because the 20th iteration of Vintage Ale since it was first brewed in 1997, is a lovely, lovely beer, already, at approaching a year old, deep and remarkable. This was the one with Nelson Sauvin as both a boil hop and an FV addition, the first time, I believe, that Fuller’s has used New Zealand hops in VA, and it works brilliantly: there’s limes coming through, and passionfruit, and mandarins, and a little bit of that Nelson Sauvin elderflower, all beautifully integrated over creamy toffee and deep brown malt sweetness, with just enough bitter (40 IBUs) to hold everything together. You’ll drink one bottle, and enjoy teasing out all the flavours so much you’ll want another one to continue the analytical fun, and then at the end of that one you’ll stand up and wobble slightly and realise you’ve just drunk a litre of 8.5 per cent ale.

How the 2016 will develop as it gains more age remains to be seen, but Fuller’s had a gathering in the Hock Cellar at the brewery a couple of weeks back to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vintage Ale with a tasting of ten different examples going back to 1999, and all are still very drinkable. John Keeling, Fuller’s brewing director, who helped the late Reg Drury brew the first Vintage Ale in 1997, conducted the tasting and revealed a few secrets about the beer. Vintage Ale was, he said, an idea first put forward by the marketing department at the brewery – “they do get a good idea every 40 years or so.” However, Fuller’s knew something like Vintage Ale was possible after bringing out 1845, a bottle-conditioned strong ale made originally to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fuller, Smith and Turner partnership in 1995, and discovering that it actually tasted better at 12 months old than when it was new – “totally the opposite to every other beer at that time”.

John Keeling gives a brief history of Vintage Ale

A beer has to be specifically designed to age, Keeling said: “Most beers will not age properly.” After 20 years, Fuller’s now has considerable experience in how beers age, with the interplay of negative reactions – notably oxidation – and a whole series of generally more positive chemical changes, such as Maillard reactions between sugars and proteins, which happen at different speeds, while at the same time alpha acids are breaking down, reducing the perceived bitterness (and boosting the perceived sweetness) and adding extra complexity of flavour, the colour of the beer is darkening and “madeira” and “sherry” flavours start appearing, and eventually “cherry” flavours, which you can cerrtainly spot in the older Vas.. The different speeds that the “good” and “bad” reactions take place at gives a “cycle” to beer ageing, which explains why that bottle of 2013 VA may taste disappointing now, but one of its brothers will be terrific if left for another nine months – and a third bottle of the same brew will disappoint another nine months after that, which a fourth, left for longer yet, will again cheer and enchant as it comes back “on” … you can regard this lottery-like aspect of beer ageing as annoying or part of the fun, but it does mean you shouldn’t dump the whole batch just because one aged bottle is disappointing. It may be just at a poor spot in its cycle.

One important aspect of beer ageing is that temperature is important – and room temperature is the worst temperature to store beer at, Fullers has discovered. It appears the oxidation cycle at around 20C is happening too fast for the “good” cycles to compensate. Either keep the beer cool, or, counter-intuitively, keep it warm: with the warmer beer, the “good” reactions are speeded up more than the “bad” ones, so the oxidation is outpaced. (Doubtless this was the clue to the success of ship-borne India ales in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the oxidation of beer in the casks lagging behind all the Maillard reactions and so on made extra-fast by the warm Equatorial seawaters of the mid-Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.)

VA is always parti-gyled with London Pride, which raised a question: each year the recipe is altered slightly, with different hops and combinations of hops. Have Pride drinkers never noticed over the past two decades that every spring their beer tastes rather different, from the Fuggles and Target of 1999 to the all-Goldings of 2002 (that year’s VA was always a personal favourite, and it’s still wondrously smooth aged 15), the Goldings, Liberty and Cascade of 2014 and last year’s Nelson Sauvin, Goldings, Northdown and Challenger? I’d love to know if anyone has ever commented … see if you can spot the “Vintage Ale” gyle this year.

Extract from the brewing books Spring 1999

Extract from the brewing books 2016

Is it morally wrong to drink an 89p bottle of good beer?

Bank's Amber bitterMy local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the  knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?

Continue reading

How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

Václav Berka explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

Václav Berka, senior trade brewmaster, explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

I’ve taken part in many beer-related events in the upstairs room at the White Horse in Parsons Green, from tasting porter rescued from a 19th-century shipwreck to making a presentation on my historical beer heroes, but I never thought I would one day be helping to brew a lager there. Even more unlikely, this lager was made with genuine Plzeň well water – and it stood a fair chance of going into large-scale production.

The event was organised by Pilsner Urquell, the invitation came from Mark Dredge, to whom I am extremely grateful for such a fun day, it was called the London Brew-Off, and it involved three teams of beer enthusiasts, each put in charge of a 20-litre Speidel Braumeister brewing kit, handed four kilos of ground Czech malt, pointed to bags containing a selection of other speciality malts and eight or ten different hop varieties, and told to think up a recipe for a pilsner that would be good enough to go on public sale, using those ingredients, and then brew it. Our raw, hopped wort would be cooled, then have proper Pilsner Urquell yeast added, and be taken away for fermenting and lagering and, finally, bottling. On Tuesday July 15, that is, just over six weeks later, all the lagers the teams had made will be test-tasted, and the best one will be put into full-scale production – 30 hectolitres, 5,270 pints by Windsor & Eton Brewery, ready for the White Horse’s Euro Beer Fest in September. Continue reading

And the winner is … 961?

I’ll forgive myself for never having heard of 961 Beer, because its products are apparently not yet on sale in the UK. But they ARE available in Hong Kong – and 961 Lager has just been declared the best lager in the city, after the blind tasting by me and 11 other judges I blogged about last month.

Those of you with an encyclopediac knowledge of international dialling codes will recognise 961 as Lebanon: the brewery, based in the village of Mazraat Yachoua, six miles or so north-east of Beirut, is now six years old and claims (I’m sure it’s true) to be the only microbrewery in the entire Arab world. It triumphed over 38 competitors in the lager category at the 2012 Hong Kong International Beer Awards, suggesting strongly that founder Mazen Hajjar, who started the operation in his kitchen, knows what he is doing.

British winners were BrewDog, which came top in the Amber Ale category with 5am Saint; Saltaire, which took the Stout first prize, with Triple Chocoholic; Little Valley, from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in the Organic category with Python IPA; and in the “British Style Ale” category, Strong Suffolk from Greene King. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for a “British Style Ale”: I’ve always had a problem with Strong Suffolk, it’s a beer I really want to like, because of the almost unique way it’s made, by blending an aged 5X old ale with a younger Burton Ale, and yet every time I try it I go away underimpressed. However, I’m glad it won, simply because I hope it encourages Greene King to carry on brewing 5X.

Pacific Coast American craft brewers also swept up four of the prizes, a sign of the boom in imports of microbrewed beers from the West Coast US to Hong Kong in the past 12 to 18 months. The Californian North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw took the Pilsner prize, Rogue of Oregon won both the Pale Ale category, for its Chatoe OREgasmic Ale, and the Brown Ale category, with its Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and another Californian operator, Mendocino Brewing, had the top Bock with Eye of the Hawk.

Despite strong competition from American craft brewers, the “Belgian Style Ale” winner was a proper Belgian brewer, Brouwerij Huyghe (best known for Delirium Tremens) of Ghent, with Artevelde Grande Cru, and Huyghe also walked off with the prize for best Fruit Beer with Floris Fraise. The Wheat Beer prize went to a German entry, Hopf White, from Weissbierbrauerei Hopf in Miesbach, in the far south of Bavaria.

The big surprise, however, was the winner in the IPA category – not an American, but Feral Brewing, from Baskerville, Western Australia, with its Hop Hog. Indeed, the judges loved this beer so much, they gave it the highest number of points of any of the more than 250 entries in the competition, meaning Hop Hog also carried off the palm for Champion Beer of the 2012 Awards.

Reports say the microbrewing scene in Western Australia is booming: hopefully Feral’s success will encourage more brewers from there to look north to the market in Hong Kong.

(Addendum: apparently Feral was extremely surprised to win, because it didn’t even know the competition was on, let alone that it was entered.)

The stout that dare not speak its name

Sainsbury's Celebration Ale labelHave public perceptions of beer styles become so skunked that it would be a marketing disaster to call a beer by its proper name? On a rare trip to Sainsbury’s I picked up something from the supermarket chain’s current Taste the Difference beer range that it calls “Celebration Ale”, and which announces itself as “A rich, dark winter warmer”. It’s brewed by Black Sheep of Masham, which is a recommendation, for me, and since I couldn’t see McEwan’s Champion Ale on the shelves (a truly excellent Edinburgh Ale/Burton Ale) I though it might make a good substitute.

I know I’m not the average supermarket beer shopper – I write a beer blog, for a start. So my expectations might well not be the same as everybody else’s expectations. But when I see a 6 per cent abv beer described as “a rich, dark winter warmer”, I’m expecting something ruby-coloured, fruity, strong and slightly sweet, though, hopefully, with a good bitter kick. Back home, however, when I opened “Celebration ale”, it poured dark brown-to-black, with a firmly chocolate-roast nose.

A look at the back label (printed, as is typical for back labels, in the tiny 4pt type that requires anyone over 45 to find their glasses) shows that this is in fact, as you’ve probably guessed, not an Owd Rodger-style ruddy ale but “a dark, velvety stout”. Indeed, the allergy-alert ingredients listing on the back reveals that “Celebration ale” contains “cow’s milk”. What that must mean is milk-derived (and unfermentable) lactose sugar: and there’s only one style of beer I know that contains lactose. Yes, “Celebration ale” is not just a stout, it’s a milk stout, albeit a milk stout that seems afraid to reveal itself as such.

Why? I can imagine Sainsbury’s corporate lawyers might fear the wrath of the neo-temperance army if they sold a product with the word “milk” in its description that contained alcohol (supermarket promotes beer to milk-drinking children shock! horror!), but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Bristol Beer Factory promoting its own Milk Stout, with pictures of milkmaids and cows.

Is it the word “stout” that is the problem, fit today only to be printed in tiny letters on the back label, in case it frightens the shoppers? Is “stout” so completely associated with the Guinness-style product that Sainsbury’s fears that non-Guinness drinkers won’t buy a beer too clearly labelled a stout, and that Guinness drinkers will take the bottle back once they try it and find it’s nothing like the beer they’re used to?

Whichever, it’s a backwards step in beer education if a major UK supermarket feels it cannot describe properly a beer appearing under its imprimature, in apparent fear that the beer-buying public won’t understand accurate terminology. If you’re selling a milk stout, Sainsbury’s, call it a milk stout, not “Celebration ale” or “dark winter warmer”. THEN we can celebrate.

Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Very few beer brands survive today that have modern examples to put into a worthwhile four-decade vertical tasting. That’s simply because forty years ago there were hardly any beers being brewed that had the longevity to be still drinkable when even the most junior brewer involved in their production is now at or approaching retirement age.

It wasn’t looking good for Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which was one of less than a handful of strong beers capable of great age being brewed in the 1970s and which stopped being made in the early 1990s despite a history going back more than two centuries.

But Courage IRS, doubtless in considerable part because Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 featured it across two pages, has inspired a huge number of imitators in the US and created an extremely popular beer style in the process.

When the Bedford brewer Wells & Youngs acquired the rights to the Courage beer brands from Scottish & Newcastle in 2007, the first two beers from the old Courage stable Wells produced were the Best Bitter and Directors Bitter. But I am sure it quickly occurred to the company’s marketers that here was a chance to bring back a truly iconic beer, which would surely have an instant appeal in the US as the ur-IRS, the Imperial Russian Stout in honour of which all others are named.

Thus in May last year the Bedford brewery produced the first new brew of Courage Imperial Russian Stout for 18 years, two bottles of which they’ve been kind enough to send to me, to my great delight, as I love a good IRS. And because I’m the sort of sad nerd who stuffs bottles of beers away for decades, I was able to pull out examples of Courage IRS from 1975, 1985 and 1992 to compare against the latest version. Continue reading

Why there’s no such beer as ‘English brown ale’

The man who invented brown ale …

The ability to deny the evidence of your senses is widespread. There’s the dictator insisting to television interviewers that his people love him, while across the country those long-oppressed people are taking up arms and waving the flag of liberation. And on a much less serious plane, there are people who will insist two beers that look totally different, taste totally different and are produced in totally different ways are variations of the same type.

It’s like setting up a category “horse” and insisting the seahorse and the clothes horse are its sub-categories. That’s slightly more ridiculous than insisting that Newcastle Brown Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale are sub-types of something called “English Brown Ale”. But it involves an identical confusion between “name” and “category”.

I don’t actually have any problems with the idea of “beer styles”. Labels can be very useful. But only if they’re meaningful. When I read that someone is going to be brewing “an English Brown Ale”, I have no idea what sort of beer they are intending to produce.

Look, here’s Newcastle Brown Ale, the urtyp “northern brown ale”, so-called. It’s “brown” only in the sense that if I had a pair of shoes that colour I would probably call them “brown”, if I didn’t call them “tan”. The beer is made – or was made, the method has changed, certainly since production was moved from Tyneside to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire – by mixing a low-gravity beer brewed at about 1030 OG (and sold separately for many years as Newcastle Amber Ale) with a matured, darker (from crystal malt and caramel) high-gravity beer to produce a blend with an abv of 4.7 per cent. The high-gravity beer gives fruity notes to the blend, and a final colour that is much the same as or only a little darker than many traditional English bitters, and certainly paler than, for example, Young’s Winter Warmer (which is a Burton Ale). The sweeter, maltier characteristics are more forward than you’d find in a bitter/pale ale, and there’s less of the hop apparent than would be found even in a Burton: bitterness, I believe is 24 IBU.

Then there’s Mann’s Brown Ale, the urtyp so-called “southern brown ale”. Brown? It’s almost black. That colour comes from roasted malt, and as you’d expect this is a beer with distinct chocolatey, roasty flavours (though less than you’d find in a stout or porter). It also has considerable sweetness (another one of the differences between this style of brown ale and stout – and Newcastle Brown Ale) and almost no hop character (brewers would use Mid-Kents and other non-premium hops for brown ales, and old hops as well, where the aromatic qualities had vanished but the preservative ones remained). Apart from the name also containing the words “brown ale”, Mann’s is utterly different from Newcastle Brown Ale. How can anyone with their brain not in “standby” mode think it works at all to ram these two very dissimilar beers under a single category called “English brown ale”?

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Bottle-ageing beers: the don’ts and do’s

There’s a simple rule for most modern bottled beers when it comes to ageing: don’t. It’s not worth it. Probably the vast majority of beers are designed to be drunk fresh, and all they will do if you keep them is deteriorate. However, a few beers actually need ageing before they’re in perfect condition, even if only for a couple of weeks to a month (in the case of lower-gravity bottle-conditioned ales) and some need even longer than that: nine months to two years before they’re drinkable.

For example, when bottled Guinness Extra Stout (at 4.2 per cent abv) was a “live” naturally conditioned beer (until 1994 in the UK and 2000 in Ireland) the expected number of days after bottling before the beer came into condition was seven to 14, with an average of 10 days. (This depended on the ambient temperature that the beer was stored at, of course, and it was the fact that, thanks to the arrival of central heating, pubs were much warmer inside by the 1980s that Guinness decided it needed to stop letting its stout mature naturally in the bottle: hotter pubs meant faster maturation meant the beer in the bottle was not in the condition Guinness wanted when it reached the customer’s glass.)

The stronger Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (7.5 per cent or so abv), when that was a naturally conditioned bottled beer, before 1948, required six weeks of conditioning after bottling but was then expected to remain in a perfectly drinkable state for at least a year. Lactic acid content increased as the beer aged in the bottle, but was balanced by the production of esters and other volatile components in the maturing beer, and the lactic acid was believed to add to the “fullness” of the flavour. Brewing chemists at Guinness found that yeast could survive in bottled FES for up to 35 years, suggesting that a beer could continue to mature for at least that long.

Worthington White Shield, the 5.6 per cent abv bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale, is considered to take four weeks from bottling to come into prime condition, and to stay in condition for another nine months. After that, the beer is likely to be in a less than optimum state. Anecdotal evidence suggests that White Shield will come back into condition at 15 or 16 months old, albeit with an altered taste profile. It will not, though, survive much beyond about 24 months without showing signs of deterioration.

It’s an interesting experiment to take a crate of newly-bottled lowish-gravity bottle-conditioned beers and taste them over three or four months: when I had a wedding stout made for me by the Pitfield brewery, which was bottled “live” in June at around 5 per cent abv, it hit perfection (and very fine it was) two months later, in August. After that it gradually went downhill (unlike, I’m happy to say, my marriage).

My experience is that the effect of bottle ageing on beer varies considerably depending on (1) the alcoholic content of the beer (2) whether it is bottle-conditioned, that is, contains live yeast, or not (3) the conditions under which the bottle is kept and (4) the colour of the beer, with darker beers ageing better than lighter ones. I’ve drunk a 20-year-old pasteurised 8 per cent abv stout that was fine: I doubt the same would be true of a pale beer that old, even one that strong.

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Cask beer equals live music, bottled beer equals CDs

A few weeks ago I went to a performance by Wynton Marsalis, whose music I have been buying since the early 1980s. He arrived then as a young trumpeter who could play jazz and classical music with equal genius: I remember listening to his recording of the Hayden Trumpet Concerto in 1983 and feeling that every note he blew was placed in exactly the spot required: not a femtosecond too early or late, too long or too short. At the same time it was Hayden’s music, but played by someone who was aware of everything that had happened after Hayden.

All the work he’s done since, I think, has been while standing on that same platform: technically impeccable, respecting the music’s history, recognising that we listeners come with modern ears. I commend to your own ears Mr Jelly Lord, his CD from 1999 of Jelly Roll Morton tunes first put down by the fellow New Orleans master 75 or so years earlier. It’s properly Morton, but played by people who are aware, and who know that we the audience are aware, of bop and other developments in jazz history in the decades since Morton’s death.

And yet … I came out of the Marsalis concert feeling that I had listened with real enjoyment to musicians who had played flawless improvisational jazz, rooted in the music’s history, though with enough of a flavouring to show this was not merely a reproduction, a tribute band. But I wasn’t blown away. Was that evening much different to listening to Wynton Marsalis on CD? Not a lot.

Seven days later I saw a performance by the Zawose family from Tanzania – and if you don’t have a grin across your face within 45 seconds of starting to watch those ladies, have yourself checked by a doctor: you may be dead. Fantastic, exhilarating, explosive: as a live experience they shove Wynton Marsalis off stage and out the door. I wouldn’t want to buy their CD, though. The Zawose family are an excellent illustration of a great live act that won’t reproduce well on an MP3 player, or similar sound-only recorded music deliverer. Tremendous visually, fantastic enthusiasm, send you home very happy, but paddling about in the shallows musically.

What has this got to do with beer? Only that while I was thinking about the difference between live and recorded music, and how ultimately live music, when it’s good, is unbeatably superior to the best recorded music, because nothing surpasses the enjoyment of being there while it’s happening, it occurred to me that I have similar feelings about cask beer, proper live maturing-in-the-cellar brews, and bottled beer.

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