I am green – viridian. Ron Pattinson has been dropping hints every time I see him about his secret big new project with Goose Island in Chicago, and it’s now been revealed: a reproduction of a London porter from 1840, including authentic heritage barley, properly “blown” brown malt, and blending a long-vatted beer with a much younger version. Who do I have to kill to get hold of a bottle?
Of course, some people have knee-jerked in and slapped this down because it involves the Evil Empire, AB InBev, owner of Goose Island and, in the opinion of many, too many other formerly small craft breweries, from Four Peaks to Wicked Weed. The PC line is “I’ll never drink anything produced by a company that is fundamentally bad for, and opposed to, small independent operators and their survival.”
As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out Josh Noel’s deservedly award-winning book from last year on the take-over of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch – do try to get hold of a copy, it’s an excellent, even-handed and sympathetic analysis of what happened and why it happened. You’ll certainly put it down after 345 pages and conclude that AB InBev is indeed interested in nothing more, ultimately, than getting you to buy its product in preference to anybody else’s, and if that meant using its weight, wealth and power to crush the entire global craft beer scene, it wouldn’t care. But that’s what big corporations do: criticising them for wanting to dominate the world is like criticising lions for chasing down and killing wildebeest. It’s the nature of the animal. Run faster, wildebeest.
And if AB InBev wants to spend silly sums of money flying my mate Ron, and Derek Prentice, former brewer with Truman’s of Brick Lane, then Young’s, then Fuller’s, and now Wimbledon, out to Chicago to advise on recreating an almost 180-year-old beer, and take enormous pains getting the ingredients and the methodology just right, in the hope that this will greenwash their corporation and get people like me to write admiringly about them, rather than attack them for trying to squeeze smaller rivals out of the market, then they’re partly correct: I’ll still criticise where necessary, but I’m also writing admiringly about the Obadiah Poundage porter project, because I think it’s wonderful to be able to drink this beer from the past, and I don’t believe very many other organisations would have the big wallet, or the commitment, to undertake such a recreation. This is an expensive beer made with unusual ingredients back in March last year, which was then left sitting around occupying valuable real estate in Chicago for a year before being blended with the newer version and put on sale. Most companies’ accountants would have been screaming themselves puce. If not AB InBev, who else would undertake such a journey?
Anyway, watch this fascinating 20-minute video about the project, listen to Mike Siegel, research and development boss at Goose Island explain it all, see if you can spot John Hall, founder of Goose Island, popping into shot uncredited occasionally, and then come back here and I’ll discuss a few interesting points that arise, so pay attention and listen out in particular for the mentions of hornbeam, there will be questions afterwards.
I didn’t expect to find anything to criticise about the history when I watched that. I nodded along as Derek Prentice accurately recounted the role of porters in 18th century London, and as Ron described the change from the all-brown-malt porters of the early 18th century to the more complicated grain bills of later porters, with pale malt, “patent” black malt and “blown” malt dried and browned over faggots of hornbeam wood, and I sat awed as Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt in Massachusetts showed the making of just such a batch of “blown” malt over a fire of hornbeam. And then something strange happened. My subconscious popped up and said: “Hornbeam – are you actually certain about that?” So I checked.
For the past 18 months I’ve been writing what is meant to be the definitive history of porter and stout, and I’ve read several hundred books and articles to pull that together. All that information goes down into the subconscious, where, as is the way of the human brain, new connections are formed that the conscious mind is unaware of until something bubbles up from the id. Now, “maltsters made blown malt for porter by drying the grains over blazing hornbeam” is a solid received fact among historians of brewing. I never doubted it. Hough, Briggs and Stevens’s Malting and Brewing Science from 1971 says so: “dried in a fierce heat from a fire of hardwood faggots made from oak, hornbeam, ash or beech” (p166). Steeped in Tradition, a history of the malting industry from 1983 by Jonathan Brown says so: “These kilns were fired by wood, mostly and preferably oak, but beech, hornbeam and ash were also commonly used.” It makes sense: blown malt was a speciality of the maltsters of Ware and other towns in East Hertfordshire, and hornbeam, which burns with a bright, hot flame, is abundant in the woods of East Herts.
But as my subconscious prompted me into confirming, if you go and look, you will not actually find any references to hornbeam being used by maltsters during the time that blown malt was still being made. Many authors do not specify any particular wood. Of those that do, William Black in his Practical Treatise on Brewing of 1844 says blown malt is heated with “faggots of dry, hard wood, commonly beech or birch; fir imparting a tarry taste.” (p26). Henry Stopes, who was the 19th century’s Mr Malt, spoke only of billet and faggot wood “generally of oak but occasionally of beech” in making the blown variety (Malt and Malting, 1885, p159). E.R. Southby’s Systemic Handbook of Practical Brewing from the same year says blown malt is “dried rapidly over a fire of beech or birch wood” (p215). Herbert Edwards Wright’s A Handy Book for Brewers from 1892 says blown malt is made by subjecting the barley to “a sudden blast of intense heat generated by heating up the kiln fire with oak or beechen faggots or billets” (p309). (Wright also says that the fire risk “and the high rates of insurance demanded in consequence” meant this was a variety of malt generally made only by specialists.)
So, what to say to Ron, Derek, Andrea and Mike: “Er, thanks for all the trouble you went to, guys, that was amazing, especially the hornbeam, but, um, you might have been better off with beech …” I’m not saying nobody ever used hornbeam to make blown malt: I think it’s very likely they did. It was available, in the right place, and has similar characteristics to both birch (which is in the same botanical family) and beech, which we DO known were used (indeed, the hornbeam is known in some parts of Britain as the “ay beech”, for its habit of keeping its leaves through winter, that is “for aye”.)
Best not to say anything to dampen the party, really. And let’s not mention that the American hornbeam that Andrea used is a slightly different species to English hornbeam: that would be taking my (deserved) reputation for picky pedanticism too far down the road. Nor let us question why an 1840 porter is named for a man who probably died at least 70 years earlier, the pseudonymous commentator whose letter to the London Chronicle in 1760 about the tax on beer provides historians with so much information about the history of porter. (Someone in the film wonders where the original “Obadiah Poundage” got his name from: “Poundage” is an old word for tax, and one of the many Obadiahs in the Old Testament was a porter “keeping the ward ” [Nehemiah 12:25].) And please, let’s not ask why you have to query every single damned received historical fact because too often what you thought was indisputably true isn’t indisputably true at all. No, there’s a much more important question than all that: where’s my bottle?
There ARE smaller breweries that Poppyland, but not very many: the room that the 2½-barrel brewkit sits in measures about 160 square feet. Your living room is probably larger. So the “brewery tour” consists of standing in a corner and pivoting on one heel through 180 degrees. That’s it: you have now done the Poppyland experience. Maybe we should copyright it …
Poppyland, in West Street, Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast, named for the nickname given to the area around Cromer in the late 19th century, was founded by Martin Warren in 2011, and built a reputation for well-made and eclectic beers: Poppyland was probably the first brewery in the UK to brew with kveik, Norwegian farmhouse yeast, for example, and its smoked porter with smoked hops, smoked in the local fish smokery in Cromer has been very popular, while Roger Protz featured its East Beach IPA in his book IPA: A Legend in Our Time.
Martin has now decided to retire, and the brewery was bought by my brother Dave at the start of this year. It’s a small enough operation to really not need more than one man and his missus (the lovely Mandy) to run, but I have a small role as part-time adviser and consultant, probably much in the style of Harry Enfield’s Mr Only Me (“You don’t want to do it like that!”). I look forward to saying to Michael Turner some time soon: “Hello, Michael, I’m a family brewer, and you’re not …”
The brewery is in premises that were once a small garage operation, and the sign outside on the fascia that says “ALES GAS ’N LAGER” is an anagram of “ALLEN’S GARAGE”. Next to the room where the brewing takes place is another room where beer, currently, is stored, which has a tiny (really tiny) bar. The plan is to move most of the beer storage elsewhere and stick in a couple of armchairs and a pair of stools, so that a maximum of four people can be accommodated for beer tastings and the like. Unfotunately there are no lavatorial facilities on site, which limits the amount of hospitality that can be put on somewhat: I doubt the White Horse just up the road will be excited by people popping in from the brewery to use their loos …
Brewing has been slow to restart, not least because of the bureaucracy that has to be gone through. This includes, but is not limited to
● Signing up to the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme (this may involve a 45-day wait …)
● Obtaining a certificate of recognition to be a producer and holder of beer
● Obtaining a premises licence
● Obtaining a personal licence (this involves a police check, and passing an exam …)
● Obtaining permission to discharge waste
● Obtaining a licence to be a holder of acid
At the same time my brother has been undergoing a swift education in how to brew, courtesy of, among others Norfolk Brewhouse in Hindringham some 16 miles to the west of Comer.
So: hopefully, Poppyland should be ready to roll under its new owner within days. The first brew under the new management, my brother tells me, will be called Coddiwomple, which, he says, is an old English word meaning “to travel purposefully towards an as-yet-unknown destination”. I hae ma doots about that, but the motto of Poppyland since Martin Warren started it eight years ago has always been “adventures in beer start here”, and that’s certainly true. I’ll be keeping you up to date with our adventures, as we travel towards that as-yet-unknown destination …
Kveik: a word we’re likely to be seeing a lot more of in the beer world. But what is kveik? Here are a couple of things it’s not:
Kveik is NOT a beer style. It’s the name given in parts of Western Norway to yeast used in the local tradition of farm brewing, it looks to be derived from an Old Norse word meaning “kindling”, as if the kveik kindled the fire in the brew, and it is apparently related to the English word “quick” in the sense of “alive”. In particular, kveik is NOT the Norwegian equivalent of Saison. Kveik is just one of half a dozen or so terms for “yeast” used in Norway, the others including barm (also found in Britain, of course), gjaer, gjest (from the same root as “yeast”) and gong, with kveik limited to the south-west of the country, but competing, even there, with the latter three words, which all had wider distribution.
Some similarities can be found in the brews made across the area where the term “kveik” is used: north of the Jostedal glacier they will generally be “raw” ales, that is, made without boiling the wort, and hop usage will be light to non-existent: generally restricted to leaving a bag of hops in the stream of wort running from the mash vessel. All will be made with water that has been boiled with branches of juniper in the pot, which gives a sharp, lemony/citric flavour to the ale, as well as helping to preserve against bacterial infection.
Kveik is NOT a particular strain of yeast, and saying “kveik yeast” is a bit tautological, although the term looks to cover a distinct family of yeasts. However, within that family are dozens, perhaps hundreds of different individual strains, and any one person’s kveik can contain between two and ten different individual strains. This use of multiple yeast strains appears to be important.
Some kveik are bottom-fermenting, some top-fermenting, and some intermediate, depending, basically, on where the brewer collected the yeast from at the end of fermentation. According to Lars Marius Garshol, who literally wrote the book on Norwegian farmhouse brewing, “in some areas, such as Sunnmøre and Nordfjord, there was a tradition that yeasts should be mixed every five years or so, and kveiks from those places show a much greater variety of yeast strains.”
Richard Preiss, co-founder of Escarpment Laboratories, based in Guelph, Ontario, whose company has done perhaps the most research into kveik of any on the planet, has suggested that these different strains need each other, that one makes a vitamin that the other ones need, and vice versa. According to Garshol, Preiss “always seems to get slower fermentations with single-strain yeasts from kveik cultures than [we see from others] with the mixed cultures. So they can survive without each other, but fermentation goes faster and easier with the help of the others. But doing an experiment to prove or disprove that in a way that’s reproducible by others is very difficult.”
That is not the most interesting fact about kveik, however. The aspect of kveik brewing that is most likely to ensure its adoption outside Norway is the range of flavours it is possible to get from the yeast, fruity and deep, which chime with the search for more flavour that seems to power much of the innovation in craft brewing right now. But there are other wonders: the high temperature tolerance exhibited by kveik strains, for example, many of which are happy fermenting at up to 40ºC.
Preiss, a tall, bearded and friendly Canadian, speaking at the Norsk Kornøl Festival in Hornindal, Western Norway, last month, revealed that his company had tested 25 different strains from samples of kveik supplied by Garshol, “and all of the ones we tested grew at 40ºC, while two thirds of them were tolerant to 42ºC, which isn’t normal in the larger world of beer: most people are fermenting at 20. This is remarkable. There are prominent yeast scientists that have engineered yeasts to work at 42ºC, and here’s a whole bunch of natural ones from Norway that do it too.
“This means that a home brewer who doesn’t have a lot of equipment, they don’t have a fridge to control the temperature, if it‘s 30ºC in a small city apartment they can still make a clean beer in the summer, and that‘s a little bit revolutionary, because that wasn’t really possible without these yeasts.” There are also, Preiss says, “some real opportunities for using these yeasts elsewhere, such as the ability to make good flavours, good beer at high temperatures. It means that a craft brewery in a tropical climate can maybe reduce their cooling costs and make their beer more energy-efficient.”
How did kveik yeasts evolve to be happy at such high temperatures? Garshol suggests it was due to the pressures the farm brewers were under, which influenced the yeasts they chose to preserve for brewing the next batch of ale: “The fermentation temperatures are crazy. But when you look at the old sources, they say ‘milk-warmÆ pretty much everywhere, in other words around 37ºC. Why is this? Obviously brewers want to add the yeast as quickly as they can. But as the wort cools, it cools more and more slowly. And with old-fashioned cooling methods and 150 litres of wort, that was slow. So there are lots of accounts of brewers having to stay awake until the middle of the night before they can add the yeast. And of course, the longer you wait, the greater the chance that some lactic acid bacteria gets in there. So you really want to ferment warm – the warmer you could ferment, the better.” Those yeasts that survived being thrown into wort at 40ºC to go on and ferment a successful, tasty beer would be the ones that get preserved for use in the future.
The same is true of kveik’s ability to dry out and still come back and thrive when rehydrated. Preiss says that when Escarpment received its initial samples of kveik, “the first thing we found out, and we found it out very quickly, is that this is not normal yeast. We got the dried sample in and rehydrated it, and the cells were looking healthy and plump within five minutes. We put some into some wort, went for lunch and came back 40 minutes later, and it was fermenting. That’s not normal for beer yeast. That was the first sign that this was probably something special.
“We did some fermentation trials of 25 kveik yeasts in comparison with standard Californian ale yeast, WLP001, the commonest yeast in homebrewing, and found they were pretty fast fermenters. Measuring the CO2 release rate 24 hours into the fermentation, some of the kveik yeasts had fermented twice as fast as the California ale yeast, and the majority, 19 out of 25, were outpacing it. This makes sense with what we saw with just rehydrating the yeast: it starts fermenting very fast. This seems to be a fairly common property with the kveik yeasts, and it is fairly unique, this rapid start to the fermentation. Brewers like that – brewers want to know that the fermentation is working. Some of the strains we tested were pretty much finished fermenting within two or three days.”
Again, the explanation for this comes from the pressures the yeast was put under. Norwegian farmhouse brewers did not, and do not, brew regularly: perhaps only two to four times a year. They needed to preserve their yeasts between brewings, and before refrigeration the only way to do this was by drying. Those yeast strains that survived drying were thus selected for. Similarly a farm brewer might have very little notice that a new supply of ale was needed: the arrival of unexpected guests, for example. Once more, those yeasts that started up quickly, and finished speedily would be optimally selected for.
Rather harder to explain is the alcohol tolerance of kveik strains. According to Preiss, “in terms of alcohol production from the wort, some were pretty efficient, but there was a big range of attenuation, from 66 per cent to 95 per cent, and in alcohol production, from 4.4 per cent to 6.4 per cent.” However, when Escarpment tested for how much alcohol kveik strains could cope with, “we were pretty stunned. We tested eight kveik yeasts for ethanol tolerance, and they were all growing in up to 12 per cent alcohol, which is not normal: conventional ale yeasts exhibit a spectrum, some that are not very good at surviving in high alcohol and some that do survive. It’s very rare to screen eight strains and find all of them growing like that. We found that even if we went up to 16 per cent alcohol, a third of the kveik strains will still grow, which is pretty remarkable.
“We also looked at the flocculation and we found that two thirds were very flocculent, many very, very flocculent. But even in one kveik sample there might be a huge variability in the flocculence between the different yeasts in the strain. Some are not very flocculent at all, some are dropping crystal clear in ten minutes. It’s again interesting to see that kind of variability in a single yeast community.
“We also tested the flavours they produce, using gas chromatography. We picked up a few pretty consistently with the kveik strains, fatty acid esters such as ethyl caproate, giving pineapple flavours, ethyl caprylate, giving pineapple, waxy and cognac flavours, ethyl decanoate, which is red apple, phenethyl acetate, which is floral and honey. Only two of the strains were phenolic, meaning [the rest] were likely picked at some point by humans because they were not phenol-producing, making for a taste that is very typical of ale yeasts, clean but with some fruitiness as well. The isobutenol, or fusel, levels were only around 50 per cent of US-05 [a common American homebrew yeast]. We also tasted citrus in a lot of the kveiks, we tasted rum and caramel flavours and we tasted almost mushroomy flavours as well. We’re still not sure what all those favour compounds are, and we may very well find that there are some unique ones made by kveik that are not made by other yeasts.”
Another thing Escarpment noticed, Preiss says, is that there seems to be two main groups of kveiks, looking at their genomes, which correspond, for the most part to the geography of the region where kveik is found: one group, including Hornindal, to the north of the Jostedal glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, and the Sognefjord, Norway’s largest and deepest fjord, and the other group, including Voss, to the south of those two important geographical barriers. “It suggests that though they may have had a common ancestor, they evolved separately because of the geographic isolation of the regions they are now mostly found. The glaciers and the fjords in Norway create barriers which made it hard for people to move around in the past. We don’t often see these kind of geographic links in the genetics of yeast cultures.” Garshol points out that the divide also matches a split between brewing processes: to the north, almost entirely raw ales, with the wort unboiled; to the south, most brewers boiling their wort. (For a proper discussion see Garshol’s own blog here)
The unanswered question at the moment is where kveik strains fit on the yeast family tree. A study released in 2016 by the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology and the University of Leuven in Belgium found that all commercial beer yeasts come in two strains, Beer One, which dates from the late 1500s or early 1600s and Beer Two, dating from the 1650s or so. So far Preiss and his team at Escarpment have only been able to make a rough fingerprint of the kveik strains they have, “which is not very high-resolution, but it’s typically accurate and it can give us an indication of the genetic relatedness of different yeasts. So what we found when we took this approach is that the kveik yeast across different samples were more closely related to each other than they were to the other strains of domesticated ale yeasts.
“Because of that, we think that the kveik may form a separate branch on the family tree of beer yeasts. That being said, if we go and look for the most closely related yeasts, it’s a group of strains that includes some Kölsch yeasts and English yeasts, as well as a Lithuanian strain we looked at. So it’s possible that all these yeasts have a common ancestor at some point in history. But we can’t say that confidently yet, without whole-genome sequencing.”
Finding out more with whole-genome sequencing is expensive – $1,000 or $2,000 per strain. “But we think that because of the way the kveik have been maintained, and maintained for much longer, they haven’t been stuck in a lab for 100 years, this may be a new way for us to study yeast domestication without necessarily studying the commercial yeasts,” Preiss says. “We applied for a grant, and I’m happy to say that we did get funding to do the whole-genome sequencing for these kveik strains. We can hopefully have an answer some time in the spring, and hopefully say for sure that the kveik are a separate line on the family tree and have a little bit of a better idea of exactly where and when they broke off from the other beer yeasts. We’re using these Norwegian yeasts to really push brewing science, and yeast science, forward.”
Another question to be answered is: are there other yeasts like these? “Yes, of course, in Lithuania, and Russia and probably in other places,” Preiss says. “That’s a really exciting opportunity, to maybe look at these and start to understand these other yeasts that aren’t industrial and aren’t wild. The term I’ve started to use is ‘landrace yeasts’, which I think works well for an organism that’s been domesticated traditionally, without the involvement of industry, and because of that unique cultural framework, it has become genetically distinct from the other populations of that species. It suggests a third entire category of yeasts that have not really been explored in brewing.”
I was lucky enough to get to see a “Norwegian farm brewer” in action: Stig Seljeset, whose father was a farmer brewer, and who wanted to maintain the tradition. Stig brews at Borghild Tunet in Hornindal, “tunet” being the Norwegian for “farmstead”, home of Idar Nygård, deputy mayor of Hornindal, who has preserved the old farmstead much as it would have looked a century and more ago. The beer Stig brews is a “raw ale”, made without boiling the wort. The first step is to boil up water (which comes from a borehole up in the mountains, and contains lots of dissolved limestone/chalk) and branches of juniper in a large iron pot, perhaps 100 litres or so, suspended over the fire in the old farmstead kitchen (exactly the same way that Frank Clark does in his reproduction 18th century farmhouse kitchen in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia). All the equipment is then scrubbed down and washed out with the hot juniper-water, before Stig uses milk churns to carry hot juniper-water to the “mash tun”, a blue 200-litre food-grade plastic tub set up in the garage across the farmstead yard.
The malt – on this occasion Munton’s pale lager malt from Suffolk, though Stig is happy to use whatever malt he can get hold of – is added, and mashing takes place at 68-70ºC. Once sufficient time has passed for conversion of starches to sugar, the grain is transferred by buckets into the “lauter tun” – another blue plastic tub, this one with a tap set in the bottom. Beforehand, Stig has set a wooden “filter” in the tun, above the tap hole, augmenting this with leafy twigs of juniper. The wort left in the “mash ” is then poured into the “lauter tun”, and allowed to strain through into milk churns, while more hot juniper-water is poured in to “sparge” the malt. A bag containing loose hops – Challenger this time, though again Stig isn’t fussy, and will use what he can get – is hung in the churn and the hot wort runs over the hops, like a teabag. This is the only contact Stig’s ale has with hops.
Wort cooling takes place by looping a circular length of hosepipe with holes in round the top of the milkchurn and running cold water from the tap through the hosepipe, which trickles down the outside of the churn. Once cooled sufficiently, the wort is carried down to the cellar of the old farmhouse, where it is added to the “fermenting vessel” – one more blue plastic tub. Stig aims for a temperature of 32ºC when he pitches the kveik into the fermenting vessel, but it was a cold day, and his thermometer (the only “technology” Stig uses) showed the wort had dropped to 28ºC, so the last 10 litres of wort were added uncooled to bring everything up. The kveik, a mixture of dried yeast from brewings in 2012 and 2016, is warmed up and brought back to life in a wooden bowl of wort by the kitchen fire, and then added to the fermentation tub and left in the dark cellar to work magic. The final result, in a few days, will be cloudy, slightly lemony and sharp, probably around five per cent alcohol by volume, and delicious.
Beer can take you to some strange and unexpected places. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.
The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.
Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.
Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery? Continue reading How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen→
Early European explorers in North America had to be shown the healthy properties of the spruce tree by the existing inhabitants. When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36 on his second visit to the land he had named Canada, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree was probably White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, a member of the cypress family, rather than spruce. But later French settlers turned to spruce trees, a better source of Vitamin C, and thus a better way to combat scurvy, the curse of long-distance voyagers, than cedars. The secretary to the new French governor of Cape Breton Island, Thomas Pichon, writing in 1752, noted that the inhabitants of Port-Toulouse (now St Peter’s) “were the first that brewed an excellent sort of antiscorbutic [“la bière très bonne” in the original French], of the tops of the spruce-fir”, “Perusse” or “Pruche” in Pichon’s French.
Spruce beer is made from the tips of spruce trees. Except that the connection is not as simple as it appears: it is pretty much a coincidence that spruce beer and spruce trees have the same name.
There are actually two traditions of spruce beer in Britain: the older, the Danzig or Black Beer tradition, only died out very recently, while the other, which could be called the “North American tradition”, was hugely popular in Regency times, and included Jane Austen among its fans, but disappeared nearly 200 years ago on this side of the Atlantic.
The first mention of “spruce beer” in English is from around 1500, when Henry VII was on the throne, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament, in which a hung-over drunkard is persuaded to write his will. Colyn lists the drinks he wants served at his funeral, including more than a dozen types of wine, mead, “stronge ale bruen in fattes and in tonnes”, “Sengle bere, and othir that is dwobile”, and also “Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur.”
The fact that spruce beer and “the beer of Hambur[g]” were mentioned together is because both came from North Germany. The name “spruce beer” is an alteration of the German “Sprossen-bier”, literally “sprouts beer”, more meaningfully “leaf-bud beer”, since it was flavoured with the leaf-buds or new sprouts of Norway spruce, Picea abies, or silver fir, Abies alba. “Sprossen” was meaningless to English-speakers, but in early modern English the similar-sounding “Spruce” was another name for Prussia, from which country’s main port, Danzig, Sprossen-bier was exported. “Sprossen-bier” became in English the more understandable “Spruce beer”, meaning, originally, “Prussian beer”. (Chaucer called the country “Sprewse”, and it was being called “Spruce-land” as late as 1639.)
Meanwhile English had to wait more than a century and a half after the beer was named to get its own word for Picea abies, the tree known as Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. When the tree did get an English name, first mentioned by the naturalist John Evelyn in 1670, because it, too, like the beer, came to Britain via Prussia, it was called the “Spruce”, short for “Spruce fir”, that is, “Prussian fir”. Thus “spruce beer” is not actually named for the spruce tree, and “spruce beer” in English is around 170 years older as a phrase than “spruce tree”. (The adjective “spruce” meaning “neat” or “smartly dressed” probably also comes from “Spruce” meaning Prussia, via “Spruce leather”, leather from Prussia that was a favourite, it appears, among Tudor dandies.)
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 How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse→