Sometimes it takes 20 years and more before the significance of something you read become apparent.
In January 1997, What’s Brewing, the Campaign for Real Ale’s monthly newspaper for members, ran a piece by Michael Jackson on a trip he made to what was then the Pripps brewery in Bromma, just outside Stockholm (closed by Carlsberg just six years later). Most of the article was concerned with Carnegie porter, which is still going, though now made at what is its fourth home, the Carlsberg plant in Falkenberg, on Sweden’s west coast. (Which is, somewhat ironically, only about 60 miles from where the beer was born, in 1817, when an entrepreneur from Hamburg called Abraham Lorent opened a porter brewery in Gothenburg which was acquired by a young Scot called David Carnegie in 1836). But at the very end of the article, after discussing a sampling session of vintages of Carnegie porter dating back more than 20 years, Jackson mentioned another beer his hosts at Bromma had given him to try:
” a brew called Pryssing (‘Prussian’), taking its name from the days when Sweden ruled parts of Germany. It had an oily, brown colour, a very syrupy consistency, a slightly medicinal finish, and an alcohol content of 20 per cent. I believe this potency was achieved by fortification, though Hans would not confirm that. The product, available only to guests at the brewery, was an attempt to re-create a beer allegedly served by teaspoon to King Gustav Vasa, in the 1520s to cure his toothache.”
I read that in 1997, and it whizzed way over the top of my head. Then earlier this year I came across “Pryssing” again, in the Sound Toll Registers, the accounts of the toll which the king of Denmark levied for some 360 years on the shipping through the Sound, the strait between Sweden and Denmark. where it is defined as “strong ale from Danzig”. Those records show Pryssing was being exported on ships travelling through the sound from at least 1597 to at least 1843, originally to places such as Amsterdam, and from at least 1677 to destinations in the British Isles, including London, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Dundee, Hull, and even Dublin.
I had totally forgotten about that Michael Jackson article, and not being able to find “Pryssing” in a dictionary, I asked a Danish friend, Bjarke Bundgaard of Carlsberg, if he knew what it meant. Turns out Pryssing is actually the old Danish/Swedish/Norwegian name for Prussia, which in the modern languages is Preussen, the same as it is in German. Ping! On comes a lightbulb. The old English name for Prussia was Spruce – Chaucer called the country “Sprewse”, and it was still being called “Spruce-land or Prussia” as late as 1697. The “Spruce beer”, beer from Prussia, that appears in an English poem in 1500 and was on sale in London in 1664 is clearly the same drink as Pryssing. (The “spruce tree”, first mentioned in 1670 by John Evelyn, was so called because it was the fir from Spruce.)
Now, I wrote about Spruce beer from Danzig here, and described how it was eventually, from about 1800, copied by brewers in England, mostly in the North, under the name “black beer”. The last manufacturer of black beer, which despite a stonking 8.2 per cent abv, paid no excise duty, because it was regarded as a “tonic”, being rammed with Vitamin C, was a firm from Leeds called JE Mather & Sons. Michael Jackson, who grew up in Leeds, certainly knew of Mather’s Black Beer, and probably drank it, in the combination with lemonade called a “Sheffield stout”: he talked about it in an article in the Independent newspaper in 1992.
However, there was nothing for him to connect the black beer he knew from Leeds with the “oily, brown syrupy” Pryssing he was offered in Sweden. It was only when I came across his article from 1997 again a short while ago while digging around for information about Carnegie porter and the mention of this strange beer King Gustav Vasa drank to cure his toothache that I made the connection myself, and another lightbulb turned on. How wonderful it would be to beam back to Bromma 21 years ago and tell Michael that what he was drinking was the ancestor of the black beer he knew from his Yorkshire childhood. Alas, Michael disappeared from this world in 2007, six years before Mather’s Black Beer disappeared as well, after a change in the law meant it lost its duty-free privilege.
The Polish historian Piotr Rowicki has written about Spruce beer/Pryssing, known in Polish as “Piwo Jopejskie”, a name that Rowicki says comes from the “double-sided” wooden scoop, or “jopy”, used to measure the malt and hops that went into the beer, which used twice as much ingredients as standard Danzig beer. (“Piwo Jopejskie” became “Joppenbier” in German, confusingly, since there is another, very different historic beer called Joppenbier from the Netherlands.) The secrets of Piwo Jopejskie, he confirms, were in the prolonged boiling of the wort – ten hours, instead of the normal three – and the fermentation for up to nine weeks in open tubs in “mouldy sheds or cellars”, so that the mould fell from the walls into the tubs and helped ferment the beer, after which it sent a year in barrels to mature. The result was a beer with about 14 per cent alcohol, “dark colour, tar-like texture, reminiscent of thick syrup.”
And now Piwo Jopejskie is being brewed again, by Browar Olimp, a contract brewing operation based in Torun, a town some 80 miles south of Danzig, and sold in 100ml bottles. To my knowledge this has not made it to the UK yet, but if anyone knows better, do let me know, and I will be raising a glass to Michael Jackson, Mather’s Black Beer and the Pripps brewery in Bromma.