Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result.

It was … OK.

What your great-great grandfather drank (if he was a Dane)

What your great-great grandfather drank (if he was a Dane)

And that, of course, was entirely the point. The Re-brew project, which culminated in a tasting in Copenhagen last week, was a celebration of the unexceptional, a tribute to the work of the Carlsberg scientist Emil Christian Hansen, whose invention 133 years ago of pure yeast cultivation enabled brewers for the first time to produce guaranteed standardised beers, so that the buying public could be sure the pint they were about to open would be as good as yesterday’s, and the one the day before, and the one tomorrow, without exception. That the world’s beer drinkers appreciated this can be easily demonstrated by the wealth amassed by the Jacobsens, owners of Carlsberg, and the way Carlsberg became literally a name known in every household, not only in Denmark but around the world.

Standing in the huge pillared conservatory at JC Jacobsen’s former home in Valby, Copenhagen, sipping the re-brewed 1883-style beer, a clear, clean, bright, copper-coloured Vienna-style lager, slightly sweet, a tiny bit lacking in condition, made with a barley variety called Gammel Dansk, literally “Old Danish”, and lightly hopped with Hallertau Mittelfrüh (the records showed only that the hops game from the Hallertau region, so the variety was a guess) while Carlsberg’s chairman, Flemming Besenbacher, and CEO, Cees ’t Hart, made speeches and photographers bumped elbows trying to get shots of Eric Lund, head brewer at Carlsberg’s laboratories, filling glasses from a wooden cask (hence the lack of condition), it would be fair to wonder what the fuss was about. This was certainly not a beer to knock anyone’s socks off.

SONY DSC

Eric Lund pours the beer, with Flemming Besenbacher and Cees ’t Hart on the left, and a thirsty crowd on the right: the keen-eyed will spot Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, as well as beer writers Jeff Evans, Stephen Beaumont , Jay Brooks and Ron Pattinson (and, er, Pete Brown’s forehead, I believe …)

But sock-knocking potential was not what this beer was ever about. The aim of Hansen – and his boss – was to give Carlsberg drinkers value-for-money consistency, and that’s what they got. In isolating the pure strain of yeast that was then used to make the beer in the bottle from 1883, and every other bottle of Carlsberg lager since (more or less: today’s Carlsberg yeast has apparently changed only slightly, genetically), Hansen invented modern industrial brewing. If the phrase “industrial brewing” makes your lip curl like a wine drinker on first encountering a Belgian brown sour, I’m afraid you don’t really understand beer. Dismissing mass-market beers is like dismissing the Ford Focus and saying F1 racers are the only valid form of motor car. Some terrible crimes have been committed under the banner of industrial beer, that’s true. But overall, industrial beer has brought more happiness to the mass of humanity than craft beer ever will, and EC Hansen is a vastly more important person in the history of beer than Ken Grossman. (Not least because Hansen’s boss, JC Jacobsen, refused to keep the Carlsberg lab’s findings for the company’s sole profit, and made the science – and the pure Carlsberg yeast strain – available to any brewer who wanted it.)

Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, portrayed in his conservatory – see the pillars – as the thoroughly modern scientific brewer, with miscoscope, retort and books – that top one is Pasteur's Etudes Sur La Bière

Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, portrayed in his conservatory – see the pillars – as the thoroughly modern scientific brewer, with miscoscope, retort and books – that top one is Pasteur’s Etudes Sur La Bière

Even so, and accepting that bottle of 1883 lager’s importance in the history of beer, was it worth reproducing the beer inside it? It’s fun for geeks like me, as I told the Danish newspaper Politiken, to taste “hvad vores oldeforældre drak. Her kan jeg i så høj grad som muligt dele en oplevelse, de havde. Det er en forbindelse tilbage i tiden.” (except in English, of course.) It was fun for all those involved at Carlsberg, too: Birgitte Skadhauge, vice-president for research at Carlsberg, who was in overall charge of the project, told me that everybody at the company was very excited about it, and I’m sure that’s accurate. The level of detail in reproducing the old beer was fanatic: the brewing liquor, for example, was first purified and then mineral salts added to match the water from a 68-feet-deep well dug out in January 1883, that is, exactly contemporary with the yeast.

The excellent internal PR available from this sort of venture should never be underestimated. If, as a Carlsberger, you get fed up with sniping from the beer snobs who only rate (in all senses) brews from “craft” concerns, it’s great to get involved in something with history and heft, something no small brewery would have the resources to pull off, in time or money or technological expertise, something that underlines the history the company has, and its importance in the history of beer brewing as a whole. Carlsberg’s influence goes beyond its perfection of techniques to isolate and propagate pure yeast strains that even the tiniest craft brewer today benefits from. For example, plenty of craft brewers make their wackiest beers with Brettanomyces yeast, but Brettanomyces was first properly discovered, studied and named by someone working in the Carlsberg labs in Copenhagen.

An 1883 Carlsberg beer bottle

An 1883 Carlsberg beer bottle

I’m sure when the research guys went to the Carlsberg Foundation, which controls the company, and said: “We’ve found this old beer bottle from 1883, the year EC Hansen perfected pure yeast cultures, that still seems to have viable yeast cells in – wouldn’t it be a great idea to recreate an 1883-style lager with it, and can we have the cash to do so?”, the foundation immediately spotted the trumpet-blowing possibilities, both inside and outside Carlsberg’s walls, and happily opened the corporate wallet. The 140th anniversary of the foundation itself, in 2016, was approaching, and here was something that could be tied in with the anniversary, and used to make Carlsberg people feel good about Carlsberg, as well as, hopefully, make other people feel good about Carlsberg. They could make a film about it (warning – contains scenes of me in a pub), they could fly in loads of journos who would surely say nice thinks about how clever Carlsberg was, and they could round it off with an excellent meal for 140 people prepared by a man who used to work at Noma in Copenhagen, probably the best restaurant in the world, with the Crown Prince of Denmark turning up to sprinkle his royal blessing over us. (Strangely, the last and only other time I was in a room with the Crown Prince of Denmark was when he was promoting another Danish brewer entirely, Mikkeller, during a Danish Trade Week in Hong Kong.)

And so we have it. Loads of effort for, um, something that wierdo beer geeks like me, and plenty of people at Carlsberg, certainly enjoyed, but you can watch the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont and the Californian beer writer Jay Brooks struggle to be complimentary about the result here. I wonder what, say, the 15 or so journos flown in from Israel, or the guy from the paper in Malaysia, both places where Carlsberg is an increasingly big player (and wants to be bigger), thought when they tasted this new/old beer. “Is that all there is?”, I fear.

Karrysild: very tasty, but at £9.20 for one small open sandwich, it needed to be

Karrysild: very tasty, but at £9.20 for one small open sandwich, it needed to be

Still, I’d like to thank Carlsberg very much for enabling me to have another great night in the Taphouse with what must be the finest line-up of beer writers ever gathered around a Copenhagen bar table, including not just Stephen Beaumont and Jay Brooks but Jeff “Beer Bible” Alworth and Stan Hieronymus, also from the US, Pete Brown from the UK, Evan Rail from Czechia and Ron Pattinson from the Netherlands. And I certainly found more challenging beers to drink in Copenhagen than Carlsberg’s Re-brew project. The next day I tried a lunch-time trip to Mikkeller’s new-ish Øl & Brød cafe, just up the street from the original Copenhagen Mikkeller bar in Viktoriagade, where I had an excellent karrysild smørrebrod –slightly spiced herring open sandwich on rye bread with a lightly poached egg – accompanied by a small glass of Hvedegoop, a fine wheat-based barley wine from Mikkeller and Three Floyds, followed by what was basically rhubarb crumble à la danoise, with a small glass of Mikkeller passionfruit Berliner Weisse, which went absolutely brilliantly together, the tartness of the rhubarb and the sourness of the beer complementing each other superbly, a marvellous example of a beer-and-food pairing where the sum was considerably greater than the two pretty-good-on-their-own parts. The one downer was that lunch for one, albeit a very tasty lunch for one, cost me 306 kroner – £32 for one small sandwich, a bowl of crumble and two small beers.

SONY DSC

Amber ale with – yes – real amber in it, and two other Ny Nordic Øl beers as well

To put that in context, my ticket to the Copenhagen Beer Festival later that afternoon, including 20 beer tokens, only cost me 325kr, and as a Camra member I was given more beer tokens for free: indeed, I had so many tokens in the end, I gave quite a few away to Stephen Beaumont, who was returning to the festival the next day. The Copenhagen fest is “American-style”, meaning you only get “tasters” of 10cl (for standard beers) or 5cl (for strong beers): that’s fine for some of the stuff on offer, but nothing like enough for the more drinkable beers. There were some 80-plus stalls, serving mostly Danish beers, and staffed, frequently, by the brewers themselves (something Camra still mostly doesn’t get right), though there was at least one Polish brewer represented, some Americans (Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn, Rogue, Widmer and others) at least two or three German (Schneider, Crew Republic, a microbrewery in Munich), quite a few British brewers’ beers (Fuller’s, BrewDog, Sam Smith’s, St Austell, Wychwood to namecheck four), some Belgians, including Westmalle and, to my personal amusement, Grimbergen (apparently Carlsberg now how the distribution rights outside Belgium for Grimbergen: big brewers from the days of Watney’s more than 30 years ago have been trying to promote Grimbergen’s abbey-style brews, with no success, for the excellent reason that they’re not very good); several from Italy, notably Baladin and Del Borgo; O’Hara’s from Carlow in Ireland; at least one Faroese brewery; Einstök from Iceland; and one stall each from the Taybeh brewery in Palestine and the Alexander brewery in Israel (these two were at the furthermost ends of the hall, a converted locomotive shed, from each other, though I was told that in fact the brewers are friends, and I believe it – beer accepts no boundaries).

The crowd looked a proper cross-section of Danish society – much more so than you would see at the GBBF, with a fair number of smart older middle-aged couples, and a definite lack of large groups of men in their 30s. The beers were solidly “eurocraft” – almost 100 per cent keg or bottled (I saw only three handpumps), large numbers of imperial stouts and double IPAs – though with a Danish spin, thanks to the influence of the Ny Nordisk Øl movement and its emphasis on local ingredients, so that there were plenty of beers around with sea buckthorn, sweet gale and the like as their bitterers, rather than hops, and even one “amber ale” with real extract of (presumably Baltic) amber in it, Cold Hawaii (the name of a Danish surfing centre), from Thisted Bryghus: distinctly resiny, and not one I’ll rush back to.

Unlike Copenhagen, which I’d definitely rush back to: lovely city, friendly, welcoming people, great bars. And if Carlsberg decide their next revival will be the double brown stout they used to brew in the 19th century from a recipe JC Jacobsen’s son Carl apparently nicked off William Younger when he was apprenticed to the Edinburgh brewer, I’d even pay my own air fare …

For more of my take on the Re-brew project, go here

Will Big Lager one day go the same way as Big Porter?

I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at th rear and protect the wearer's jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) - from the anonymously-written Real Life in London, 1821

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at the rear and protect the wearer’s jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) – from the anonymously written Real Life in London, 1821

Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”

In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins. then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.

A couple of ads for Charrington's XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

A couple of ads for Charrington’s XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.

Continue reading

A Copenhagen exclusive: Carlsberg fills a wooden cask with lager

The Elephant Gate at the old Carlsberg brewery. That swastika's a hit of an elephant in the room – er, road …

The Elephant Gate at the old Carlsberg brewery

If anyone ever declares again that keg beers cannot ever be as good as cask beers, I shall tell them of the night I spent at the bar of the Taphouse pub in Copenhagen with Michael Rahbek, brewer at Carlsberg’s Jacobsen brewhouse, while Jens Ungstrup, the beer manager at the Taphouse, poured us glass upon glass of porter and stout (and the occasional pale ale), all of them excellent, some of them stunning.

It’s hard to pick standouts, but they would certainly include the Carnegie 175th Anniversary Porter, brewed in 2011, still presenting masses of deep, dark chewy chocolate/roast malt flavour, and worth every krone of the £10.70 per 40cl glass the Taphouse charges; the milk chocolate stout from Brewfist in Italy, like chocolate mousse and cream; Jacobsen’s own Mermaid porter, brewed in 2013; and Michael Rahbek’s latest porter, made with four per cent of peat-smoked malt from the maltings at Denmark’s Stauning whisky distillery, a lovely beer even at a few weeks old, the peat smoke giving just the right level of background spice.

I also got to contrast and compare a couple more Jacobsen beers, the 2007 version of the Golden Naked Christmas ale (named for the type of barley used, I believe) and its 2016 iteration. The nine-year-old version reminded me strongly of aged Fuller’s Vintage Ale, which would be proper, since this is described as in the “English Strong Ale” style: the foundation of sweetness still there in the new beer has dried out after nearly a decade, and there’s a tart, aggressive quality coming through. Danes have a great love for Christmas beers, and Tuborg Julebryg is the fourth best-selling beer in the country, even though it’s only on sale for ten weeks a year, but Golden Naked is now apparently challenging its position as the top-selling yuletime tipple.

Michael Rahbek is clearly a hugely talented brewer, and a terrific man to have a beer-fuelled evening of conversation with, and I can’t thank him and Jens Ungstrup enough for one of the best nights in a bar I have ever had.

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yreast lager brewing

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yeast lager brewing

I was in Copenhagen for my tiny contribution to the festivities celebrating the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory: my job was to give an outside beer historian’s perspective on the work done by Emil Christian Hansen at the laboratory in Copenhagen for a film being made about the event, and the special beer being brewed for the celebration using 133-year-old yeast resurrected from an old Carlsberg bottle. The plan is to to replicate as far as possible the first beer made that followed the precepts Hansen developed at the laboratory. Hansen, for those who don’t know, pioneered single-yeast-strain brewing, isolating from the mass of different varieties of yeast present in an old-style brew just the one that made the best beer and cultivating this pure strain up: and Carlsberg, instead of sitting on this technology, threw over any competitive advantage it might have gained, and gave it away to any brewer who wanted it – including, according to a letter of thanks found in the Carlsberg archives, one Mr Heineken of Amsterdam.

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

Mind, this followed on from the generosity of Gabriel Sedlmayr II of the Spaten brewery in Munich, the man who, in 1845, gave Carlsberg’s founder, Jacob Christian Jacobsen, his first lager yeast. Sedlmayr perfected Bavarian bottom-fermentation methods and then also handed over his secrets – and his yeast – to anyone who asked. If you go down Ny Carlsberg Vej (“New Carlsberg Way”) in Valby in Copenhagen, through the famous elephant gate, you will see on the wall of what was the Carlsberg brewery – closed 2008 – two busts in niches. One is of EC Hansen, the other Gabriel Sedlmayr. I doubt there is another brewery in the world that celebrates a rival in this way. (Spaten is now owned by AB InBev: one Carlsberg employee I know suggested, semi-seriously, that the Danish brewery ought to rescue Sedlmayr’s legacy by making an offer for Spaten that the Belgo-Brazilians could not refuse.)

I was filmed by Estonian TV in January, sitting in the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, for a programme about IPA: Baltic television viewers may be approaching peak Martyn Cornell. Filming for my slot in the Carlsberg programme took place in the Giniz bar, an “Engelsk inspireret Pub i midten af Valby”, and, fortified by a glass of rye porter from the Herslev brewery, one of my favourite Danish concerns, I attempted to sound convincingly erudite. Hopefully they won’t cut backwards and forwards in the final edit, and the beer in my glass won’t shoot up and down the way it does in the famous bar scene in Ice Cold in Alex. I think I got away with the act of appearing knowledgeable: at any rate, the film’s producer, Jesper Æro (to whom more thanks for making the process as painless for me as possible) didn’t throw me out of the bar and make me find the way to my hotel on my own, and instead invited me along to the next part of the filming.

This, I was very happy to find, was in the Carlsberg laboratory, where Erik Lund, the brewmaster at the lab, was filling one of the wooden casks that have been specially made by coopers in Lithuania for what is being called by Carlsberg the “Re-Brew” project. I’m guessing the casks are made out of the tight-grained wood once a favourite with brewers known as Memel oak, from the former name of the port in Lithuania (now Klaipėda) whence it was exported. Much care was taking with the filling: the cask itself, with a capacity of around 150 litres, was kept in a cold store before it was filled up, to ensure the beer would not get a shock when it was racked out of the cold lagering tank, and the cask was also flushed through with CO2 before the beer went in, to push out the atmospheric oxygen. Once filled, it was back into cold storage for another couple of weeks’ lagering.

After that, on 18 May, there will be a “tapping ceremony” at the brewery of this new-old beer, of which only 400 litres have been made. I’m delighted to say that, along with a fair number of other beer journalists, I’ll be there to try it: I’ll let you know how it goes.

Eric Lund at the Carlsberg laboratory fills a cask with ber from the lager tank that is as close to an authemntic 19th century lager as Carlsberg can get

Eric Lund at the Carlsberg laboratory fills a cask with beer from the lager tank that is as close to an authentic 19th century lager as Carlsberg can get

How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing. Continue reading

A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier supposedly pictured learning from a Canadian First Nationer how to save his men from scurvey: but the chap with the buckskin suit and the metal axe with the tepees in the background looks like a Plains Indian 1,500 miles and 220 years away from home rather than a Huron

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.

Continue reading

A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

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.”

Norway spruce

Norway spruce

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.)

Continue reading

More frequently repeated beery history that turns out to be totally bogus

Bass No 5 signIt’s depressing and frightening, sometimes, if you start tugging at loose threads in the historical narrative, because the whole fabric can start unravelling. This all began with the Canadian beer blogger and beer historian Alan McLeod emailing me about claims that the “Hull ale” that was being drunk in the 17th century in London was really ale from Burton upon Trent, shipped down that river to the sea, and taking the Yorkshire port’s name on the way. Did I have any views, he asked?

I confess I’ve repeated the idea that “Hull ale probably really means Burton ale” myself, but Alan had several good points to make against it: Hull, like other ports, was known for its own ales, Burton lacked common brewers until the start of the 18th century, and in any case, until the opening of the Trent Navigation in 1712 it was not easy for Burton brewers to get their ales shipped out anywhere. So I hit the internets.

It all began to fall down with Peter Mathias’s reference in the otherwise magisterial The Brewing Industry in England (p150), written in 1959, to Samuel Pepys drinking Hull ale in London in 1660. Mathias wrote that “of course”, this Hull ale was “probably” from Burton upon Trent, with the town allegedly being “well known in the capital for its ale in the seventeenth century”, and the first consignment “reputedly” sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane London in 1623. However, once you start digging, these claims appear to be completely wrong. The reference Mathias gives, to back all this up, The history and antiquities of Staffordshire by Stebbing Shaw, published in 1798, Volume 1 p13, is only available in Google Books via snippet view but it appears not to give a specific year for Burton Ale being sold at the Peacock at all. What it says, talking about Burton, is:

“And so great is the celebrity of this place for its ale brewed here, that, besides a very considerable home consumption, both in the country and in London (where it was first sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, a house still celebrated for the vending of this liquor) vast quantities have been exported to Sweden, Denmark, Russia and many other kingdoms.”

– but with no date for when Burton Ale was first sold at the Peacock.

Almost a century before Mathias, William Molyneaux, in Burton on Tent: Its History, Its Waters and its Breweries (1869 ) claimed in a footnote (p223) that

“About the year 1630 Burton ale was sold at the Peacock inn in Gray’s Inn Lane and had even then acquired a high reputation amongst the famous ales of England.”

But Molyneaux offered no reference to back this up. This claim was subsequently repeated in several books. However, there is no evidence at all that the Peacock was even open in the 17th century. 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.”

Continue reading

The IPA shipwreck and the Night of the Big Wind

The “IPA shipwreck” is one of many long-lasting myths in the history of India Pale Ale. The story says that IPA became popular in Britain after a ship on its way to India in the 1820s was wrecked in the Irish Sea, and some hogsheads of beer it was carrying out east were salvaged and sold to publicans in Liverpool, after which the city’s drinkers demanded lots more of the same. Colin Owen, author of a history of Bass’s brewery, called the tale “unsubstantiated” more than 20 years ago, and others, including me, being unable to find any reports of any such wreck, nor of any indication that IPA was a big seller in the UK until the 1840s, have dismissed it as completely untrue. Except that it turns out casks of IPA did go on sale in Liverpool after a wreck off the Lancashire coast involving a ship carrying hogsheads of beer to India, a shipwreck that, literally, became a landmark – though not in the 1820s – and the true story is a cracker, involving one of the worst storms to hit the British Isles in centuries, which brought huge destruction and hundreds of deaths from one side of the UK to the other.

The story of the IPA shipwreck first turns up in 1869 in a book called Burton-on-Trent, its History, its Waters and its Breweries, by Walter Molyneaux, who described how the Burton brewers began brewing beer for export to India from 1823. Molyneaux wrote: “India appears to have been the exclusive market for the Burton bitter beer up to about the year 1827, when in consequence of the wreck in the Irish Channel of a vessel containing a cargo of about 300 hogsheads, several casks saved were sold in Liverpool for the benefit of the underwriters, and by this means, in a remarkably rapid manner, the fame of the new India ale spread throughout Great Britain.”

Molyneaux’s story has been regularly repeated in the past century and a half. But no one has been able to find a wreck that matched up with his story. This turns out to be, not because the wreck didn’t happen, but because he was 12 years out with the date.

The year after Molyneaux’s book came out, a different version of the tale appeared in the “notes and queries” section of an obscure publication called English Mechanic and World of Science. The account was written by a man who gave himself the name of “Meunier”, and it said: “Forty years ago [ie about 1830] pale ale was very little known in London, except to those engaged in the India trade. The house with which I was connected shipped large quantities, receiving in return consignments of East Indian produce. About 1839, a ship, the Crusader, bound for one of our Indian ports, foundered, and the salvage, comprising a large quantity of export bitter ale, was sold for the benefit of the underwriters. An enterprising publican or restaurant keeper in Liverpool purchased a portion of the beer and introduced it to his customers; the novelty pleased, and, I believe, laid the foundation of the home trade now so extensively carried on.”

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

The two clues – the ship’s name and the later date – together with the fact that large numbers of newspapers from the time have now been scanned and made available on the web make it easy to trace the story at last. The Crusader was a 584-tonne East Indiaman, or armed merchantman, described as “a fine large ship with painted ports [that is, gun-ports] and a full-length figurehead”, “newly coppered”, that is, with new copper sheathing on the hull to prevent attacks by wood-boring molluscs, and “a very fast sailer”, under the command of Captain JG Wickman. She had arrived in Liverpool early in November 1838 after a five-month journey from either Calcutta or Bombay (different Liverpool newspapers at the time gave different starting ports) with a cargo including raw cotton, 83 elephants’ tusks, coffee, wool, pepper, ginger – and opium, which did not become illegal in Britain until 1916. Captain Wickman and his crew were due to leave for Bombay again on Saturday December 15, after five weeks of roistering in Liverpool, with a cargo that included finished cotton goods, silk, beef and pork in casks, cases of glass shades, iron ingots, tin plates, Government dispatches – and India ale in hogsheads, brewed by two different Burton brewers, Bass and Allsopp, the whole lot being insured for £100,000, perhaps £8 million today.

Continue reading

The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

A Sot RampantOne of the biggest mysteries in the history of beer concerns a drink called three-threads, and its exact place in the early history of porter. Three-threads was evidently a mixed beer sold in the alehouses of London in the time of the last Stuart monarchs, William III and his sister-in-law Anne, about 1690 to 1714. For more than 200 years, it has been linked with the development of porter: but the story that said porter was invented to replace three-threads was written eight decades and more after the events it claimed to record, and the description that the “replaced by porter” story gave of three-threads early in the 19th century does not match up with more contemporary accounts of the drink from the late 17th century.

So what exactly was three-threads? Well, I now believe that enough people have dug out enough information that we can make a firm and definitive statement on that.

Continue reading