Category Archives: History of beer

Bristol-fashion Guinness and the roast barley question

Where and when was the first Guinness brewery opened in England? If you answered “Park Royal, 1936”, whoops, the loud noises and flashing lights have gone off, that’s the WRONG answer, by more than 100 miles and just under 100 years.

In 1838 John Grattan Guinness junior had been sacked from the brewery business in Dublin started by his grandfather for drunkenness and “mixing with degraded society”. His uncle, Arthur Guinness II bought him a brewery in Bristol to try to give him another chance. Unfortunately John Grattan Guinness does not seem to have been a businessman, and the Bristol brewery went under in 1845. Much later, after he fell into poverty, John G tried ungratefully and unsuccessfully to sue his cousin Benjamin Guinness for wrongful dismissal from the Dublin brewery.

While John G was still running the brewery in Bristol, however, he was evidently visited by the brewer and writer George Stewart Amsinck, who was shown several different brews, all apparently based on St James’s Gate originals. Amsinck eventually printed the recipes for the beers as part of Practical Brewings, a manual of 50 different brewings published in 1868.

Their interest comes from their being the closest we have to genuine Dublin Guinness recipes of the late 1830s, showing us brewing methods and, in particular ingredients and proportions of different grain types.

Guinness had been among the first porter brewers to seize upon Daniel Wheeler’s “patent” malt for colouring porters and stouts when it appeared in 1819. This was the first properly legal beer colouring (because tax had been paid on the malt before it was roasted into Stygianity) to let brewers make really black beers, which is what the public expected in their porters and stouts, while using almost entirely pale malt, which gave a much better extract of fermentable sugars than the high-dried and “blown” malts the original porter brewers had used. An advertisement for Plunkett Brothers, the Dublin makers of patent malt, dated 1873 quotes a letter from Guinness saying the St James’s Gate brewery had used its products for “over fifty years” – in other words, since at least the very early 1820s.

The recipes Amsinck recorded at John G Guinness’s Bristol brewery included a Dublin stout of 1096 OG, using 96.8 per cent new pale Suffolk malt and 3.2 per cent “black” (that is, roast) malt; a Country Porter (the name Guinness at St James’s Gate gave to the beer delivered outside Dublin) of 1067 OG, brewed with the same ratio of black and pale malts; and a Town Porter (the name Guinness gave to the beer brewed for sale in Dublin) of 1061 OG, ditto for the grain bill but with half the hops of the Country Porter. This last, Town beer was kept for only a day after fermentation was finished, before being mixed with 10 per cent fresh wort (a technique called gyling) and put out into the trade for consumption within a fortnight, making it truly a mild porter, in the proper sense of mild as fresh beer made for quick consumption.

The particular point to note today about all these beers is that they used roasted malt, not the roasted barley that commentators such as Roger Bergen, writing in Brewing Techniques in November 1993 say is “critical” to the Guinness palate. In fact Guinness could not have used roasted barley when John G was working there, because it was illegal: no grains could go into the brewing of beer that had not been malted, and paid the malt tax.

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The forgotten story of London’s porters

It’s a mark of the low status given to working class history that the role in London’s life and economy played by the city’s thousands of street and river porters, the men who gave their name to the beer, is almost completely forgotten, only 70 or so years after the last of the porters died.

Almost no modern books on the history of London mention the Ticket Porters and their rivals the Fellowship Porters, not even Weinreb and Hibbert’s 1,000-page London Encyclopedia (which does, however, manage to mangle a nonsensical story about ale conners and the Tiger pub at the Tower of London).

The exception is Peter Earle’s A City Full of People, subtitled Men and Women of London 1650-1750, published in 1994, which leans for its scholarship about the subject on Walter Stern’s The Porters of London, written in 1960.

This lack of general knowledge about the people who played an irreplaceable role in London’s economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries, one that was the equivalent of white van delivery driver, motorcycle courier and postman rolled into one, meant confusion for beer writers in the 1970s when they came to write about porter the drink.

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An 800-year-old beer drinking song

The anonymous minstrel who, some time around 1210, took Laetabundus (“Full of Joy”). a popular Nativity hymn to the Virgin Mary written by St Bernard of Clairvaux, and rewrote it in Norman French as a song in praise of beer, Or Hi Parra, was taking a risk.

It was certainly a clever parody, leaving the last line in each triplet in the original Latin, but ensuring the new lines altered the interpretation of the remaining one, so that “Semper clara” no longer referred to the Virgin, “always bright”, but the beer pouring from the barrel, “always clear”, while “Carne sumpta” no longer meant the Word “becoming flesh” but was turned into an instruction to hungry drinkers – “take the meat!”

Not all the original Latin lines stayed totally unaltered: “Valle Nostra“, “our valley”, was changed to “Valla Nostra”, “our health!”, a toast to the company of tipplers. But the power of the parody was undoubtedly that even first-time listeners would have been very familiar with the tune, and the proper words (Laetabundus was sung in churches all over Europe, and was especially popular in France and England) and could join in singing the still-Latinised bits.

However, Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux in North Eastern France, who was made a saint only 21 years after his death in 1153, was one of the most powerful figures in the 12th century Roman Catholic Church, and the man who prosecuted Peter Abelard for heresy. It seems unlikely he, or his fellow Cistercian monks, would have been delighted at some dodgy itinerant hurdy-gurdy player turning his best-known, faith-drenched hymn to the Virgin birth into a tavern sing-along about ale.

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What’s a brewster? No, you’re wrong …

Or at least you’re not as right as you think you are. I, too, used to believe that “brewster” meant, exclusively, a female brewer, until a discussion recently on the excellent wordorigins site about the word spinster. Someone put up the Oxford English Dictionary entry on the –ster suffix which revealed that it wasn’t as simple as I had thought:

In northern M(iddle) E(nglish), perh. owing to the frequent adoption by men of trades like weaving, baking, tailoring, etc., the suffix [-ster] came very early to be used, indiscriminately with -ER, as an agential ending irrespective of gender…
It is probable that “-ster” was often preferred to “-er” as more unambiguously referring to the holder of a professional function, as distinguished from the doer of an occasional act. In Scotland, baxter and webster survived as masculines down to the 19th c. …
In the south the suffix continued to be predominantly feminine throughout the M(iddle) E(nglish) period. The Old English formations, baxter, seamster, tapster, were in southern English usually feminine before 1500 … also spinster, which alone of the group has survived (though with change of sense) solely as a feminine…

In other words, if you see “brewster” in a Southern English context in the Middle Ages, it probably means a female brewer, but in the North of England and Scotland it could be female, it might just as likely be a male.

Continue reading What’s a brewster? No, you’re wrong …

Making S&Nse

So the sharks have started moving closer to Scottish & Newcastle. This is the latest in a series of foregone conclusions in the British brewing scene since a Conservative government decided it would be a jolly idea to partially sever the tie between brewers and pub ownership with the Beer Orders of 1989.

The result, which had been predicted as far back as 1950, by a right-wing economist called Arthur Seldon, writing in The Economist. was that the big brewers – Bass (including Tennents of Scotland), Whitbread, Allied (Ind Coope, Ansells and Tetley’s), Courage, Grand Met (Watneys), Whitbread and S&N, quickly abandoned pub ownership almost entirely.

Then, because brewing in the UK isn’t that profitable, the big brewers abandoned brewing, so that by 2001 only Scottish & Newcastle was left of the Big Seven brewers of 1989 – the rest merged with others or transformed into something else, such as distillers or hotel companies.

S&N, which swallowed the brewing interests of Courage and Watney, rose from being the smallest of the Big Seven to being the largest UK brewer, while the rest of the industry was brought by Interbrew of Belgium (Whitbread and part of Bass), Coors of the United States (the rest of Bass) and Carlsberg of Denmark (Allied).

Unfortunately for S&N, it never dominated its home market the way Heineken, Anheuser-Busch, Carlsberg or SAB of South Africa did theirs, and it has never been able to find the transformational deal that would turn it into a true and invulnerable giant. It bought Kronenbourg off Danone in 2000, and became the biggest brewer in France; it bought Hartwall of Finland in 2002 and gained a half-share, with Carlsberg, in BBH, owner of the biggest brewing concern in Russia (to Carlsberg’s great annoyance). But what it really needed to do was acquire a truly global coverage, the way Interbrew did by merging with Ambev of Brazil, or SAB did by merging with Miller of the United States.

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Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

Here’s another titbit* from the Times archives: a report from 1840 on the hop harvest with some fascinating clues about what hops went into IPA (I was wrong, incidentally, in saying the archive is not available to the public – if you can use your public library card to access resources like the Oxford English Dictionary from your home computer, you can probably use it to access the Times 1785-1985 archive).

One of the reasons The Times carried hop harvest reports was because of the betting that went on over the yield of the hop tax. By the mid-19th century, according to Peter Mathias’s magisterial The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, as much money was being bet on the hop tax yield as on the Derby.

This was not simple gambling, however, but a way for hop growers and hop dealers to lay off, or hedge, the risks that came with involvement in a trade that could see prices triple one year and halve the next, as yields went down and up depending on the weather, outbreaks of pests and the like. If you were a hop buyer and you thought yields would be low, and the tax take (based on quantity) subsequently low as well, but the price high because of scarcity, you bet on a low tax take, and at least made some money as you paid top whack for your hops. If you were a seller and feared a big harvest and low prices, you bet on a high tax yield, and made up for the smaller amount you got for your hops by winning on the hop betting.

The most interesting part of the Times report from September 12 1840 on “Hop Intelligence”, however, is not the details of the bets being made on the size of the hop harvest, at 25 guineas or 50 guineas a time (huge sums when a guinea – 21 shillings – was as much money as a labourer might earn in a fortnight.)

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Government ale

A mention over on Patto’s blog about Government ale reminded me of one of my favourite beer songs – Ernie Mayne’s Lloyd George’s Beer from 1917. Click that link and check it out – it’s fantastic.

Mayne was a 20-stone (that’s 280 pounds for Americans) music hall artist who died 70 years ago this year, aged 56, and who specialised in numbers such as You Can’t find Many Pimples on a Pound of Pickled Pork (“whether you come from China, Japan or Carolina, you can go to Pimlico and then go on to York but you can’t find many pimples on a pound of pickled pork”) and I Can’t Do My Bally Bottom Button Up (that would be all the pickled pork, Ernie).

Lloyd George’s Beer was, by the standards of the time, hard-hitting social commentary that undoubtedly deeply annoyed the government. Around the time the song came out, the Central Control Board, which was in charge of wartime brewing restrictions, and pub pricing and opening hours, banned brewers from using the term “Government Ale” on price lists for beers under 1036 OG, presumably because the government did not want to be associated so directly with watery pints.

But for the brewers, and the beer drinkers, the situation was rough. Under the impact of the U-boat campaign, which was badly affecting food imports from America, and making supplies scarce, in February 1917 all malting of barley was stopped by government order.

In April 1917 brewers were ordered to produce no more than a third of 1915/16’s “standard” barrelage, that is, the total actual alcohol produced had to be just a third of the year earlier – which meant if you wanted to make the same amount of beer, it had to be only a third as strong. As it happened, both strength and output suffered: the average strength of beer in 1917 was a fifth lower than in 1916, and only three quarters of the pre-war level, while production fell more than a third from 30 million bulk or “real” barrels in 1916 to 19 million barrels.

Industrial unrest in the summer of 1917, at least in part caused by the beer situation, made the government think again, and the restrictions were eased for the second half of the year. But no doubt a thirsty populace, taking solace in the music halls, cheered Mayne until the limelights shook when he sang:

“Have you read of it?
Seen what’s said of it
In the Mirror or the Mail?
It’s a substitute and a pubstitute
And it’s known as Government Ale
… or otherwise …
Lloyd George’s beer, Lloyd George’s beer,
at the brewery there’s nothing doing –
All the waterworks are brewing
Lloyd George’s beer.
Oh they say it’s a terrible war
And there never was a war like this before
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Was Lloyd George’s beer.”

Ales, churches and brides

I’m grateful to Knut Albert for bringing to my attention a review in The Economist on a new book by Sir Roy Strong, A Little History of the English Country Church. The review says that in the mid-1600s:

“the loss of income, particularly from banning the making and selling of church ales, meant that the buildings started to crumble.”

Either the reviewer, or Sir Roy, is confused here. Church ales were events, not drinks, fundraising happenings designed to raise money for the parish: similar fundraisers by newly married couples were called “bride ales”, from which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, our modern word “bridal” is derived.

 “Bridal”, now an adjective, was originally a noun, “bride ale”, meaning “wedding feast”, with “ale”, the drink word, taking on the extended meaning of “celebration”. The same semantic extension is seen in the Irish expression for feasting, “coirm agus ceol”, which literally means “ale and song” (well, what else does a celebration consist of?).

I won’t repeat here what I told KA about church ales – you can read much more about them, what they were used for and how they died out, on his blog.

Come-back for the Burtons

One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.

The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.

Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.

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Pernicious myths and a ban on hops

When I worked on a local newspaper in one of Hertfordshire’s duller towns in the mid-1970s, the news editor rushed in from the pub one lunchtime frothing with excitement – he had just been given a story by a guy in the bar that was bound to make the week’s front page splash.

This man’s mate knew a young woman who was getting into her vehicle in the town’s only multi-story car park, when a little old lady appeared. The old lady asked if she could possibly be given a lift home. “Of course”, the young woman replied, getting into her car to let the old lady in. But as she lent across to open the passenger door, she noticed that the old lady’s hand, reaching out for the door handle, was extremely hairy …

Immediately the young woman slammed her own door shut, reversed out of her parking space and hurtled as fast as possible round to the town’s police station. A squad car shot off to the car park, our news editor was told in the pub, and though the old lady had gone, the police searched the area and found, behind a pillar alongside where the young woman’s car had been parked, a large axe …

Yeah, yeah, many of you will now be saying, and you’ll be unamazed to learn that when the newspaper sent a reporter, notebook ready, rushing round to the police station to check the facts and get a comment, Herts Constabulary said they had no record of this alleged “incident”. Meanwhile, of course, the news editor’s saloon bar informant could not give him a name or address for the young woman driver – our head newshound had fallen for a popular urban myth.

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