It looks as if the history of brewing in London can now be taken back to the very earliest decades of the city’s existence, with the discovery of what is claimed to be the city’s – and Britain’s – earliest known brewer, named on a writing tablet from nearly two millennia ago, found in waterlogged ground on a building site 500 yards to the east of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The writing tablet, used as a letter, was one of 15,000 artefacts found when the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) put 50 archaeologists to work betwee 2010 and 2014 digging through thousands of tons of wet mud on a three-acre site between Queen Victoria Street/Bucklersbury and Cannon Street during the early part of the construction of a new European HQ for the media company Bloomberg.
The site, which was previously the home of a 1950s office block, is on the course of the Walbrook, the long-buried river that runs from the border of Hoxton and Shoreditch down between Ludgate Hill and Cornhill to the Thames. Although much of the modern river’s flow is culverted, enough water still soaks the ground to leave it anaerobic, which stops wood, leather and other organic materials from rotting away. More than 400 writing tablets in total were found in the mud and debris of the site, 87 of which still carried legible writing scratched into the wood. The gems included one from around AD65 to 75 addressed “Londinio Mogontio”, “To Mogontius in London”. This is the earliest known mention of London by name, up to half a century before the previous earliest known mention, when Tacitus included the city’s name in his Annals, written around 115-117AD. Another tablet, from around AD80-90/5 has been hailed as the first record of a brewer in London.
There is one small problem – the tablet is addressed Tertio braciario, “to Tertius the braciarius“, and while MOLA has happily translated bracearius as brewer – that is what the word meant in Medieval Latin – it comes from the Celtic word braces, which means either “grain for malting” or, more likely, just “malt”. Archaeologists, apparently over-awed by the authority of the Roman writer Pliny, who referred to braces as the Celtic name for a specific variety of grain, spelt wheat, seem reluctant to accept that he was wrong, and braces probably meant malt in general, made from any grain. Today, in modern Irish, the word for malt is braiche, and “maltster” is braicheadóir while the modern Welsh word for malt is brag, and “maltster” bragwr, all words clearly derived from braces. Braciarius may thus be better translated as “maltster” rather than brewer.
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. Continue reading Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary→
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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 How to brew like an 18th century Virginian→
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.)
It’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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.