Tag Archives: Burton ale

Pub passion personified

Nick Sharpe of the St John's Tavern, pub enthusiast

It’s an ill wind that doesn’t have a silver lining – or something like that. Anyway, I’m delighted to be able to give you a chance to see and hear Nick Sharpe of the St John’s Tavern, Archway, North London, give one of the most passionate expositions on the British pub, its present and its future, that I’ve heard. What I particularly enjoy about Nick’s views on pubs is that they are clearly rooted in a love of pubs’ past, without being fetishistic about it: he’s running a 21st century business at the St John’s Tavern, he delights in being able, thanks to help from English Heritage and his local council, to reflect some of the pub’s 19th century origins in the renovations that have been carried out, but he’s not about to turn it back into the multi-bar warren it would have been when it opened, because we no longer live in a society where Public Bar Man never mixes with Saloon Bar Man.

Click on the video you’ll find here, ignore (sorry) the first two minutes 45 second of the video – Jack Adams is a nice guy, but he’s a better interviewer and video maker than presenter, go and make a cup of tea, take the top off a bottle of beer or something until he’s finished – and then come back and listen to Nick talk with feeling and depth about pubs, about why he did what he did with the St John’s Tavern, and what he would like to do with it if his pubco would just let him.

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Extreme beers in the 19th century

Burton, legendarily associated with strong drink

Once more serendipitous synchronicity works its magic, as hacking through glades of old newspapers for something else entirely turns up fascinating info about one of the 19th century’s most famous “extreme beers”, Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, linking it firmly to the Baltic beer trade.

Arctic Ale, brewed by Samuel Allsopp and Co of Burton upon Trent, seems to have been first made under that name to supply the fleet of five ships of 1852 led by Sir Edward Belcher that tried to discover the fate of the expedition of 1845 led by Sir John Franklin. Franklin and his men famously disappeared while attempting to sail the Northwest Passage around the top of North America. The beer Belcher took with him was massively strong, with an original gravity of around 1130 and an alcohol by volume level north of 11 per cent.

I had always assumed that Arctic Ale was based on the brews Allsopp and the other Burton brewers exported to the Baltic in the 18th and early 19th century, before they began brewing paler, dryer, hoppier beers for the India market, the beers that became known as India Pale Ale, or IPA. That original Burton Ale for the Russian trade was brewed at 42 to 48 pounds of extract to the barrel, against Arctic Ale’s 47 pounds. Now here’s the evidence: it appears Belcher did not taken all the Arctic Ale with him. An advertisement fromThe Standard, a London newspaper, from Friday December 23 1853 declares:

Allsopp’s Ales for Christmas: Parker and Twining, 5 1/2 Pall-Mall, have a small stock, and can send out, as a curiosity for Christmas Consumption, the STRONG CHRISTMAS ALE as originally brewed by the same firm for the Czar Peter and the Empress Catherine of Russia, many barrels of which, by special order of the Lords of the Admiralty, accompanied the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin in the frozen regions of the Arctic Circle.

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Interpreting Victorian beer ads

Only a particularly sad beer history geek – that is to say, me – would greet the excellent news that Fuller’s, the Chiswick brewer, has released a reproduction of a 7.5 per cent 19th century brew under the name Past Masters XX Ale with the cry: “Hang on, that’s not an XX – it’s too strong.” OMG, FST XX NTST. So I was relieved that Ron Pattinson, who was heavily involved in helping Fuller’s produce this new-old beer, the first in what is apparently planned to be a series of absolutely fascinating journeys back into the Griffin brewery’s brewing books, calls it an XX(K). Because an XXK is exactly what it sounds like: 1065 to 1075 or so OG, which would have sold at one shilling and sixpence a gallon wholesale, and seven pence a (quart) pot, at a time when actual proper XX was selling for four pence a pot. (And if that doesn’t sound much – a mere two pence a pint – according to this extremely useful site, 2d in 1890 is the equivalent, in average earnings, to £4.10 today.)

Victorian brewers in Britain had a fairly rigid hierarchy of beers in terms of gravity and price: each of the three main styles, ale, pale ale/bitter and porter/stout, would be sold at one of five or six “price points”, the price per gallon dictated by the original gravity. Not every brewer sold every beer at every price-point, but brewers sold, normally, nine to 12 different beers. The remarkable lack of inflation in Victorian Britain also meant that ales and beers kept the same retail prices from the 1840s through to the rises in tax that began with the Boer War.

Many of the names brewers gave the different brews were fairly standard: ales (remember, we’re talking about a time when ale was still different from beer, being less hoppy, and usually sold “mild”, that is, unaged) were almost always given an X designation, the more X’s, obviously, the stronger the ale. A light one shilling (1s) a gallon bitter ale was almost always called AK. Why? After 25 years pondering this question, I still have no good idea. The big London brewers all seem to have indicated their versions of Burton Ales with the letter K, and Ron Pattinson has amassed good evidence for this meaning “keeping”. But “K” can’t mean “keeping” in AK, because AK wasn’t a keeping beer. In addition, “K” can’t be taken to mean solely the Burton Ale style, or a keeping beer: other, smaller London brewers than the really big ones, as we shall see shortly, used “KKK” to indicate, for example, a pale ale, not a Burton Ale.

Putting that problem aside for a moment, here’s a table that should enable you to work out from any Victorian beer advertisement what the likely OG was of any beer in it, and also the likely retail price (if the ad only gives the price per firkin, or nine-gallon cask, double it to get the price per kilderkin, of course): Continue reading Interpreting Victorian beer ads

So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?

I see Wikipedia reckons that “According to Martyn Cornell, ‘no historically meaningful difference exists between barley wines and old ales’.” Do I think that? You’ll be unshocked to learn that my beliefs are actually considerably more complex.

One problem is that in the real world, beer styles such as Burton Ale that have been called “barley wines” have also been called “old ales”. And milds. Another is that, as Michael Jackson pointed out in the 1970s, “barley wine” seems to be a name given to some very different beers. If Thomas Hardy’s Ale and Gold Label can both be called “barley wine” despite being utterly different beers, then we have a serious problem in defining “barley wine” as a style.

In fact I don’t believe there is actually any such meaningful style as “barley wine”, despite the BJCP attempting to draw up rules. Indeed, just to show how arsey such attempts at categories are, if you click on that link you’ll see the BJCP calls Fuller’s Golden Pride a barley wine and Fuller’s Vintage Ale an old ale, although they’re actually the same blahdy beer, the latter version being bottle-conditioned, the former not. And while Ratebeer and the BJCP says Thomas Hardy’s is a barley wine, Beer Advocate calls it an old ale. So: make your minds up, Yanks.

While you’re deciding on categories, however, I have to tell you – I’ve come to the conclusion that, as well as barley wine being effectively meaningless (it doesn’t even mean “any strong beer”, since no one seems to categorise Imperial stout as barley wine), there’s no such style as “old ale”, either. Not historically, anyway. From which it follows that (and this really will kick the hornet’s nest) there’s no such style as “mild”*.

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Stout v Porter: a northern perspective

What does it tell you about the world that if you want to access the electronic archives of The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of the planet’s great campaigners for raw capitalism, you can do so for free, via your local council’s website; but if you want to access the electronic archives of The Guardian, spiritual home of soggy left-wing whingers and anti-enterprise social workers, you have to pony up £7 a pop?

I was doing some research for a piece I was being paid for the other day, however, so that £7 could be claimed as “expenses”, and in the 24-hour window The Guardian allows you to rummage around in its archival drawers for the equivalent cost of three pints of ale I ran some searches on beery terms in pre-1850 editions.

The paper then, of course, was the Manchester Guardian, and its advertisements reflected its Manchester base and the demands and availabilities of the Manchester market. Burton ale, for example, which could be shipped from Staffordshire to Lancashire by canal from 1771, is advertised from the beginning: in June 1821, just a month after the newspaper was founded, Nightingale and Worthy were advertising on the front page “excellent SCOTCH and BURTON ALES, in bottles and small casks, for families”.

This is, incidentally, the year before the Burton brewers had their Russian market taken away from them by the introduction of prohibitively high import duties. The move by the Russians prompted the Burtonites to turn to the Indian market instead, by imitating the pale ale then being successfully exported to the East by Hodgson’s brewery in Bow, Middlesex; it also forced them to pay more attention to the home market,

According to J Stevenson Bushnan, writing in Burton and its Bitter Beer, published in 1853, the collapse of the Russian market led Samuel Allsopp in March 1822 to advertise the beer he could no longer sell to the Baltic in a circular delivered around the UK, and “the effect of this circular was the introduction of Burton Ale to the London and English market … immediately after the issue of this circular ‘Burton Ale houses’ sprang up.”

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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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Top beer and cheese choices

As an example of truth in marketing, Charles Martell’s Stinking Bishop cheese is tough to beat – it really does stink enough to waken the dead, according to the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were Rabbit. which climaxes with Gromit reviving his master by waving a wedge of the cheese under his nose, whereupon the aroma of three-month-old unwashed socks drags Wallace back to life.

Stinking Bishop is the name of the pear, more properly called the Moorcroft pear, used to make the perry that is used to wash the rinds of the ripening Stinking Bishop cheeses at Mr Martell’s Laurel farm in Dymock, Gloucestershire. The washing with perry encourages bacterial growth on the rinds, and the bacteria produce the pong, though the cheese itself, made in part with milk from rare Gloucester cows, is delicious. It’s one of the few cheeses I’d hesitate to eat with beer: because of how it’s made, a sharp, dry perry is probably the best companion. However, a sulphury Burton bitter, particularly Marston’s Pedigree, also makes a good match: pong against pong.

Mr Martell’s other offerings include Hereford Hop cheese, covered in toasted, pressed hops, another cracking product just the crumbly side of firm. It makes excellent cheese on muffins, terrific for afternoon tea with Timothy Taylor’s Landlord bitter from Yorkshire, itself one of the most perfectly balanced matches of hop and malt flavours I know.

All beers go with cheese, the carbonation and the bitter hops preventing the palate from getting too clogged, though Yorkshire beers (and I say this as a southerner) do seem to pair particularly well with cheeses, especially with Yorkshire cheeses: try Swaledale with Black Sheep bitter for example (and if you can find the rarer ewe’s milk Swaledale, you’ll be eating sheep’s cheese with sheep’s beer …) Here’s half a dozen pairings, however, that include only one Yorkshire beer: some are not great beers, some are not great cheeses, but all are excellent combinations that are certainly grater than the sum of their parts.

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