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!”

When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

In a shiny 12-storey building in Bishopsgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, is a company that represents the last faint echo of a time when one family ran the two biggest breweries in the world.

colb-brown-stout-labelThe City of London Investment Trust is, today, a £1 billion business with investments in everything from pharmaceuticals to mining, and power supply to media, and a record of increasing its dividend every year for the past half-century. But the firm started in 1860 as the City of London Brewery Co, and its roots lie in the brewing industry as far back as the 15th century.

The family that dominated the early history of the concern were the Calverts, landowners from East Hertfordshire, who married into ownership of, first the Peacock brewhouse in Whitecross Street, by the Barbican, on the northern side of the City of London, and then the Hour Glass brewhouse, three quarters of a mile away off Thames Street, by the river. In the middle of the 18th century these were the two biggest porter breweries in London, and, therefore, the biggest breweries in the world.

However, the Calverts today are much less well known than their rivals, such as Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins, in part because the family name was taken off the business in the middle of the 19th century, partly because no physical trace remains of their brewing sites and partly because the firm they founded did not quit brewing so much as drift away from it. But one big reason for the Calverts’ current obscurity is the extreme difficulty involved in untangling the dense thicket that is their family tree, as the descendants of Felix, Thomas and Peter Calvert, the three sons of Felix Calverd (sic) the family’s 17th century patriarch, spread out and multiplied down the years.

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The common habit of using the same first names down and across generations means that after the first Felix Calvert, or Calverd, was born in 1596 there were 12 Felix Calverts, seven William Calverts and seven Peter Calverts in the 17th to 19th centuries. Thanks to cousin marriage, one Felix Calvert, 1729-1764, a partner in the Peacock brewhouse, had a father also called Felix Calvert, and both his grandfathers were called Felix Calvert as well, while his great-grandfather’s great-nephew, Felix Calvert 1735-1802 (who also had a son called Felix Calvert), was a partner in the rival Hour Glass brewhouse.

The result is that there has not been a book or article mentioning the Calverts and their breweries that does not have major facts wrong. One book from 2011 has six errors in one six-line paragraph. Another recent publication called a high-profile member of the clan, Sir William Calvert, “the grandson of Thomas Calvert”, adding: “though there is some confusion in various books”. Indeed: Thomas was actually the one son of Felix Calverd that Sir William was not descended from. Cousin marriage meant his father (another William) was the son of Felix junior while his mother Honor was the daughter of Felix junior’s and Thomas’s brother Peter. The Museum of London Archaeology managed to invent a completely fictitious member of the family, “Henry”, and get the date the family acquired the Hour Glass brewhouse totally wrong.

calvert-book-coverHurrah and thrice hurrah, then, for Patricia Richardson – herself a tenth-generation descendant of Felix the patriarch – who has pulled apart all the different Calvert strands and published a book that is a readable, illuminating and fascinating telling of what could more than easily have been an extremely confusing story. She has solved the problem of tracing all those Felixes, Williams, Peters and the rest by labelling the families of Felix Calverd’s three sons A, B and C, and then numbering each new bearer of an old first name consecutively within the stream, so that, for example, Felix Calvert 1729-1764 of the Peacock brewery is Felix Calvert B3, his grandfathers are Felix Calvert B1 and C1 respectively, and his distant cousin at the Hour Glass brewery, Felix Calvert 1735-1802, is Felix Calvert A4.

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Plain and powerful: 1930s German brewery advertising

In the 1920s and 1930s, cafés and bars in German-speaking Europe were decorated by enamel advertising signs promoting the local brewer that have rarely been bettered for their visual qualities: plain, simple, striking and powerful. Here are some of my favourites:

The Sacrau brewery opened in Zakrzów, a suburb of Breslau – modern Wrocław – in what was then Germany and is now Poland in 1885. It finally closed in 1995

The Sacrau brewery opened in Zakrzów, a suburb of Breslau – modern Wrocław – in what was then Germany and is now Poland in 1885. It finally closed in 1995

The brewery was founded in the 17th century in the Moravian village of Jarošov, next door to the town of Uherské Hradiště. Later called Pivovar Jarošov, it closed in 1997

The brewery was founded in the 17th century in the Moravian village of Jarošov, next door to the town of Uherské Hradiště. Later called Pivovar Jarošov, it closed in 1997

The Bürgerliches Brauhaus Breslau, or Breslau Burgers' Brewery, in modern Wrocław, Poland, was founded in 1894 and acquired by the Breslau innkeepers’ association to supply its members with beer. In 1945 its name was “Polonised” as Browar Mieszczański, and it closed in 1996. The six-pointed star is the brewers' alchemical symbol, combining fire, air, earth and water.

The Bürgerliches Brauhaus Breslau, or Breslau Burgers’ Brewery, in modern Wrocław, Poland, was founded in 1894 and acquired by the Breslau innkeepers’ association to supply its members with beer. In 1945 its name was “Polonised” as Browar Mieszczański, and it closed in 1996. The six-pointed star is the brewers’ alchemical symbol, combining fire, air, earth and water.

The Engelhardt brewery was founded in Berlin in 1860, and closed in 1998

The Engelhardt brewery was founded in Berlin in 1860, and closed in 1998

The Brauhaus Gunzenhausen, ran by the Müller family in Gunzenhausen, Bavaria, had a claimed foundation date of 1564 but closed in 1998

The Brauhaus Gunzenhausen, ran by the Müller family in Gunzenhausen, Bavaria, had a claimed foundation date of 1564 but closed in 1998

The Gorkauer Bürgerbräu was opened in the Lower Silesian village of Sobótka-Górka, Gorkau in German, in 1817 by Ernst von Lüttwitz. Production ceased during the Second World War but it reopened in 1945 and was finally closed in 1998.

The Gorkauer Bürgerbräu was opened in the Lower Silesian village of Sobótka-Górka, Gorkau in German, in 1817 by Ernst von Lüttwitz. Production ceased during the Second World War but it reopened in 1945 and was finally closed in 1998.

The Haase brewery was founded in Breslau in 1858 by Eduard Haase, whose surname is the German word for “hare”, hence the brewery logo. It was the biggest brewery in Eastern Germany, but was badly damaged during the attempted defence of Breslau against the Russians in 1945 and never reopened

The Haase brewery was founded in Breslau in 1858 by Eduard Haase, whose surname is the German word for “hare”, hence the brewery logo. It was the biggest brewery in Eastern Germany, but was badly damaged during the attempted defence of Breslau against the Russians in 1945 and never reopened

Founded in Breslau in 1844 by a man named Carla Kipkego, called Carl Kipke in German. Ceased production during the Second World War

Founded in Breslau in 1844 by a man named Carla Kipkego, called Carl Kipke in German. Ceased production during the Second World War

The Brauerei Ernst Bauer was founded in Leipzig in the 19th century and used as its logo the tower of Leipzig’s town hall. It was nationalised in 1972, but privatised 20 years later. Brewing stopped in 2008

The Brauerei Ernst Bauer was founded in Leipzig in the 19th century and used as its logo the tower of Leipzig’s town hall. It was nationalised in 1972, but privatised 20 years later. Brewing stopped in 2008

Bilin, in Czech Bílina, is a town in the modern Czech republic that was part of the historic German-speaking Sudetenland, incorporated into Germany between 1938 and 1945.

Bilin, in Czech Bílina, is a town in the modern Czech republic that was part of the historic German-speaking Sudetenland, incorporated into Germany between 1938 and 1945.

Brauerei Baar is a still-open brewery, founded in 1862 in the canton of Zug in Switzerland

Brauerei Baar is a still-open brewery, founded in 1862 in the canton of Zug in Switzerland

Caley’s self- crafted approach to being craft

Are you a mature but still lively Victorian brewery? Do you worry that younger breweries, with their weird American hop varieties, shiny stainless steel lauter tuns and one-off wacky recipes, are luring your customers away? Is your 150-barrel minimum brewlength too inflexible to make experimental brews on? Worry no more: install your own microbrewery on the premises, and you too can be hitting the bartops with mango-flavoured double IPAs and smoked malt saisons. Comes with clip-on manbun and removable extra-bushy beard for all brewhouse operatives …

That’s unfairly sarcastic: I have no problems at all with big brewers who respond to the craft micro-brewery challenge by bringing in their own tiny set-up: I had great fun playing with the 10-barrel mini-brewery Brains installed at its site in Cardiff. The Brains plant, like those installed at Shepherd Neame in Kent, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire and Adnams in Suffolk, is designed to brew short-run one-off beers for selling in the company’s pubs. The Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, however, has gone for something craftily different: an on-site microbrewery that is solely for experimenting with, making brews that, should they prove to be successful, will then be scaled up for commercial production in the main brewery.

The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989

The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989

I last visited the Caledonian brewery more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, which was just two years after it had been the subject of a management buy-out to acquire it from Vaux, the Sunderland brewer, which had bought it in 1919. The brewery was founded by George Lorimer and Robert Clark in 1869, and Vaux took it over to supply the North East of England with Scotch Ale, a style of dark, fruity beer then very popular in the region. Edinburgh was once the third biggest brewing city in Britain, after Burton and London, and even in 1958 it has 18 surviving breweries. One upon one they closed: Vaux announced it wanted to shut the Caledonian in 1985. Fortunately for posterity, its then managing director, Dan Kane, an active Camra member, and his head brewer, Russell Sharp, felt there was enough demand for the traditional beer it made for the business to be viable on its own. In a regular irony, the lack of investment by Vaux over the years meant the Caledonian brewery still retained old-style equipment long replaced elsewhere, most notably open direct-fired coppers, which gave the brewery an excellent marketing story.

Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewerry, Edinburgh, in 1989

Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, in 1989

Despite a couple of fires at the brewery in the 1990s, those coppers are still there (though one is a replica, replacing a vessel lost in the fire of 1998, and they now appear to have suspended lids I don’t remember from before). Brewery manager Craig Steven says the now unique coppers give all the brewery’s beers a distinctive rotundity he always recognises in blind tastings. In 1991 the brewery launched a golden IPA using the name of another old Edinburgh operation, Deuchar’s, which had closed in 1961. That beer’s popularity was cemented with the award of the Champion Beer of Britain title by Camra in 2002, and it remains one of the UK’s best-selling cask ales. Then in 2004 the Caledonian Brewery lost its independence again, being bought by Scottish & Newcastle after S&N closed the old McEwan’s Fountainbridge brewery in Edinburgh. Just four years later the Dutch giant Heineken swooped on S&N, and Caledonian is now the second-smallest brewery (out of 165-plus) in what is currently the world’s third-largest brewing group.

Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of ther Caledonian brewery

Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of the Caledonian brewery

Which is why, presumably, they can afford to fly me up to Edinburgh, stick me in a four-star hotel, take me out for a very fine dinner in one of the Scottish capital’s best eateries, and all so I can see the new “Wee George” microbrewery (named for George Lorimer) and try the first beer to be scaled up and rolled out after trials on Wee George, an American-style IPA called Coast to Coast. There are those beer writers who would turn down being filled full of roast venison at a brewer’s expense in the belief that it would compromise their independence: I like to claim I’m not that cheaply influenced. (That is to say, you CAN influence me, but it will cost you lots …)

Talking of independence, Caledonian’s MD, Andy Maddock, who joined the Scottish brewer in March last year after six years as a senior sales and marketing man at Heineken, says his operation has an “arm’s length” relationship with its Dutch parent, allowing it to be entrepreneurial and to follow its own path as a “modern craft brewer”. There seems to be considerable fondness for the Caledonian brewery at the top in Heineken: they like its hands-on old fashionedness, and Michel de Carvalho, husband of Charlene Heineken, who inherited the business from her father Freddie in 2002, has apparently said Deuchars is his favourite beer.

Three Caledonian keg tapsThe advantages Caledonian has over most of its rivals, of course, are that as part of a huge conglomerate its financing is cheaper to arrange than a totally independent operator could manage, though it still has to have “all the rigour” in its budgets that any commercial operation has to have; and it can use its Heineken connections to get into other markets. Currently 95 per cent of sales are “domestic”, but in the next four to five years, Maddock says, he wants to see exports increasing, with Deuchars in particular and also Coast to Coast and the brewery’s new “craft lager”, Three Hop, being aimed at Western Europe. He also wants to see Caledonian’s beers making a bigger impact in the off-trade (“We haven’t punched our weight there yet,” Maddock says), and a greater awareness among drinkers that Deuchers is a Caledonian beer: it appears many Deuchars drinkers don’t actually know who makes it.

An original Deuchar's brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescuded from a pub in Bath

An original Deuchar’s brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescued from a pub in Bath

On the other hand, they know why they drink it, or at least Caledonian does: “drinkability”, that mysterious characteristic no brewer knows for certain how to achieve, but which is vital for a beer to win a substantial slice of the market. Strangely, Caledonian is one of the few breweries I’ve visited where “drinkability” has been emphatically placed in the heart of the business strategy. Maddock says that the future of Caledonian will be based on a “modern” range, with beers such as Coast to Coast, that emphasises “distinctiveness and accessibility”, and a “traditional” range, led by Deuchars, where “drinkability is really important”. The idea, clearly, is that if you fancy trying one of those new craft beers, you can be reassured by the Caledonian name that it won’t be a frightening experience you’ll never want to repeat; and if you’re looking for something comfortable and more familiar, Caledonian has that for you as well. “Comfortable and familiar” are, frankly, far too under-rated among beer raters: most people most of the time don’t want to be challenged by their beer. Indeed, probably, most people don’t want to be challenged by their beer any of the time. “Predictable but not boring” is a great position for your brand to take, if you can capture it. “Predictable” also has to mean “predictably good”, of course, and part of that means making sure your raw materials are top quality: Caledonian has insisted for a long time on using what it says is the best malting barley in the world, from the east coast of Britain, both Southern Scotland and East Anglia, it also only uses whole-leaf hops, and it has now altered the way it buys hops, eschewing the traditional hessian hopsack for vacuum-packing in foil, believing this to keep the hops fresh for longer.

THe 'Wee George' microbrewery set-up at the Caley

The ‘Wee George’ microbrewery set-up at the Caley: note mini-hopback above the drain

So to Wee George: Caledonian’s answer to the fact that there are now 100 breweries in Scotland, very few of which can match it with the popularity of its “traditional” line-up, but at least some of which offer are going to have widespread appeal – “widespread appeal” being the market sector Andy Maddock and his crew would like to own most of, thank you. It’s a £100,000 collection of hand-assembled stainless-steel kit capable of producing just 400 litres at a time, around a thirtieth of the main brewery’s capacity, but it has its own filler that can be used to put the beer into bottle, cask or keg, and it even has a hopback, just like the “big” brewery. Hopbacks are an old-fashioned item of kit today, replaced almost everywhere by whirlpools, but brewers who have kept them have realised that a hopback can be a terrific tool for adding all sorts of flavour to your hot wort. The new kit went in on June 1, and since then it has been producing one beer a week – the first being a version of Deuchar’s IPA, presumably to see how different the recipe would turn out on the Wee George kit compared to the Big George kit. Scaleablity was a problem at first, but the Caley brewers are getting better, they told me, at working out what tweaks were likely to be needed to translate a brew from Wee George to the main brewery.

The first Wee George beer to make it from experiment to scaled-up bar-top brand, Coast to Coast, was pushed through in eight weeks, which shows that for a 146-year-old, the Caley can be nimble enough when it wants to be: most big breweries barely have a meetings cycle that short, never mind the NPD pipeline. The name comes from the combination of West Coast of American hops – Simcoe, apparently – with East Coast of Britain barley. It’s a perfectly fine craft-beer-with-training-wheels, I suspect there’s an as yet untapped market for such brews among people looking for a beer to have when you’re only popping in for one and you want something with more flavour that usual but not TOO much, and I’d give it a fair chance of doing very well. Though if I were any good at predictions, I’d be much richer than I am.

Many thanks to the Caley crew for taking me north to meet Wee George, and I look forward to tasting future roll-outs.

Mash run with Steele's masher, Caledonian brewery

Mash run with Steele’s masher, Caledonian brewery

Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed

Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed

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Filling a copper at the Caledonian brewery, 2015

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One of the three copper coppers at the Caledonian brewery

A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery

A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery

A steaming louvre over the copper room at ther Caledonian brewery

A steaming louvre over the copper room at the Caledonian brewery

Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015

Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015

 

Goodbye to the last of London’s million-barrel breweries

Flag on the top of the Mortlake brewery 1932

Flag on the top of the Mortlake brewery 1932

It is one of history’s ironies that just as London hits more breweries than at any time in the past 110 years, its brewing capacity is more than halved with the closure of the last of the capital’s remaining megabreweries, at Mortlake.

That the brewery at Mortlake, which has been pumping out hundreds of thousands of barrels a year of Budweiser for the past two decades, should have survived to be at least 250 years old this year is remarkable: it lost its independent in 1889, and the guillotine has been poised above its neck for the past six years.

The Mortlake site, famous as the home of Watney’s Red Barrel, was one of eight huge breweries still operating in London in the mid-1970s, which between them made one in every five pints drunk in Britain. Four closed between 1975 and 1982: Charrington’s in Mile End, Whitbread’s on the northern edge of the City, Mann’s in Whitechapel and Courage by Tower Bridge. Truman’s brewery shut in Brick Lane in 1989, and Ind Coope in Romford in 1992. In 2005, Guinness closed the Park Royal brewery. With the shuttering of Young’s in 2006 (yes, I know there’s still brewing on the site, but it’s not a commercial operation), in 2007 brewery numbers in London hit what was almost an all-time low, of just 10.

It’s instructive to see how brewery numbers have fluctuated over the past 300 years: Continue reading

A short account of the surprisingly long history of putting beer in cellar tanks.

Tank beer – “tankova” – may be a hot new trend in London, with Meantime in Greenwich and Pilsner Urquell delivering fresh unpasteurised beer to pubs in beautiful shiny big containers, but the idea of putting beer in cellar tanks to deliver better quality is, even in London, more than a century old.

The first “tank” beer system in the capital appears to have been introduced by Hugh Abbot, a brewer at Watney’s original Stag brewery in Pimlico, London, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. In 1913 he had three standing butts fixed up in the cellar of a Watney’s pub, and beer delivered in an old horse-drawn tank wagon of the sort that brewers used to transport beer to their bottling stores. The experiment was successful enough that by 1920 Watney’s had electric-powered tanker lorries, fitted with copper tanks, taking beer around to its pubs. It was still using electric vehicles in 1949, though by then tank deliveries to pubs were done using trailers mounted behind standard tractor units.

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Another of London’s “big seven” 20th century brewers, Charrington’s, of the Anchor brewery in Mile End, was also delivering tank beer by the early 1920s, and a Charrington’s brewer, Alfred Paul, described the system to the Institute of Brewers in a talk in May 1922. Only “bright” mild beer, chilled and filtered, was delivered by Charrington’s tankers to its pubs, he said, although “experiments are being made with a tank for the bulk delivery of naturally conditioned beer.” The road tanks, made of copper lagged with iron, had a capacity of 24 barrels each, that is, 864 gallons, and the tanks in the pub cellars generally held three barrels each. “On arrival of the delivery tank, or road tank, at the house, the hose, is let down through the cellar-flap or any other available aperture, and the beer allowed to run down into the cellar tank. Should the fall from the street to the cellar be insufficient, a band-pump attached to the foot-board of the chassis could be used.” Charrington’s cellar tanks were generally made of earthenware, Paul said, being upright, cylindrical vessels, with a glazed inside, but ” experiments are now being carried out with aluminium and glass-lined steel.” The tanks, he said, “are carefully examined prior to filling, with a powerful electric torch. The men, who are carefully selected, are definitely instructed not to fill a tank unless, in their opinion, which by constant practice has become expert, the tank is scrupulously clean.”

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Ciao Biella: an Italian family brewery woos the bloggerati

You can hardly get fresher beer than from a bottle snatched off the production line by the managing director of the brewery, only seconds after it had been filled and capped – and, indeed, it’s excellent, cold, refreshingly flavourful and welcome, even at 10.30 in the morning. Mind, there are few or no Anglo-Saxon breweries where this would be possible, since health’n’safety barriers would be in place to prevent anyone from being able to reach across into the filling machinery and grab a passing bottle from the conveyor. However, this is Italy: while in a British brewery everybody would be forced into hi-vis jackets, ear protectors and goggles, here, where life is visibly more relaxed, visitors can wander about unworried by the HSE.

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

I am at Menabrea (pronounced roughly “MENahBRAYah”), one of the few surviving family-run Italian breweries, with roots that go back to before Italy was a single country. Menabrea is based in the town of Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps, 40 miles from Turin to the south-west and 50 miles from Milan to the east. It is a town of 46,000 people, with soft water coming down from the Alps that, with plenty of nearby pastureland for sheep, has encouraged a local woollen industry: the town is home to Cerruti and Fila, among others. That same soft water is also very good for brewing lagers.

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

The brewery was started in 1846 by a couple of cafe owners, Antonio and Gian Battista Caraccio, and Antoine Welf, from Gressoney in the Aosta valley, to the north-west of Biella. Welf was a Walser, that is, a speaker of the Walliser dialect of German found in the Swiss canton of Valais and surrounding territories such as Aosta. Welf disappears, and in 1854 the Caraccio brothers started leasing the brewery in Biella to another Walser, Anton Zimmermann, also from Gressoney, and his compatriot Jean Joseph Menabreaz (sic), who were already running a brewery in the town of Aosta itself. Piedmont – and Aosta – were at that time part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy, but in 1861, with some help from the French and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, was able to declare himself King of a more-or-less united Italy. Three years later, in 1864, Zimmermann and Menabreaz – now, post-unification, with Italianised first names, Antonio and Giuseppe, and, in the latter’s case, a more Italian-looking surname as well, with the final “z” disappearing – bought the brewery in Biella from the Caraccios.

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Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst: Continue reading

How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong. Continue reading

When Brick Lane was home to the biggest brewery in the world

Black Eagle sign

Black Eagle sign, Brick Lane

The huge sign on the outside of the building on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane is clear enough: Truman Black Eagle Brewery. Nobody passing by could have any doubt what used to happen here, even though no beer brewing has taken place on the premises for more than 20 years. But what few people know is that for a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century, this was the biggest brewery in the world.

Today Brick Lane, Spitalfields, in the East End of London is bustling and cosmopolitan, the heart of what is sometimes called “Banglatown”. For hundreds of years Spitalfields – filled with cheap housing, in large part because it was to the east of the City, so that the prevailing westerly winds dump all the soot from the West End over it – has been a place where poor immigrants to England come to try to scrabble a living, generally in trades connected with making clothes: Huguenot silk weavers from France fleeing Catholic oppression,  Irish linen weavers fleeing unemployment in Ireland, Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia, Bangladeshis fleeing poverty, all adding their tales to a place crowded with both people and history. But it wasn’t always thus: the author Daniel Defoe, who was born in 1660, remembered Brick Lane from his childhood in the early years of the Restoration as “a deep, dirty road frequented chiefly by carts fetching bricks into Whitechapel”.

Over the decade after Charles II returned to England, as London expanded, development spread up Brick Lane itself from the south, and new streets were laid out in Spitalfields where previously cows had grazed. Two of these streets, on the west side of Brick Lane, were named Grey Eagle Street and Black Eagle Street. Thomas Bucknall, a London entrepreneur, is said by some to have built the Black Eagle brewhouse in about 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, on land known as Lolsworth Field, Spittlehope belonging to Sir William Wheler. However, it remains unclear whether Bucknall actually was a brewer: the best that can be said is that on the land he leased “in 1681-2 the lay-out of buildings on this part of Brick Lane approximated to the present arrangement of brewery buildings round an entrance yard, and that this lay-out may date back to 1675.”

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