Tag Archives: porter

A short history of beer and food

The history of beer and food in Britain is easy to summarise: we all, men women and children, used to drink beer with every meal, from breakfast to supper. Then, some time between around 1860 and 1914, due to changes in attitude and culture not easy to find a simple explanation for, we slowed and stopped. Drinking beer with your meals went from being so natural as to be unremarked to something alien and déclassé. Today, despite more than 30 years of campaigns to get Britons to appreciate the joys of beer and food pairing, you’re still not likely, at most dining tables, to see beer treated equally with wine.

Rowlandson’s late 18th century depiction of a slap-bang shop, so called because rather than wait for your bill, the waitperson slapped down your food and you banged down your money. Note that behind the lass with the grub is the guy with the liquor.

That won’t fill half an hour of exposition, though, so when I was invited to speak on the historical angle to beer and food pairing at the Beer Meets Food seminar organised by the Guild of Beer Writers in Bristol earlier this month I had to hunt out some illustrations of the popularity of beer with food in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best example came from an observer from abroad. This is out of the New York Tribune in 1843:

Every body drinks beer in England. I have astonished waiters, in two or three instances, by asking for water. When you seat yourself at table in a “Coffee Room” or “Steak House” for dinner, and have ordered your “joint” or “steak,” or “chop,” the waiter enquires, “Hale, porter, or stout, sir?” If in place of either of these national beverages you reply water, he either laughs in your face or turns away wondering where such a wild chap could have been caught … The drinking of hale, porter and stout is universal here, with the females of the poorer classes, when they can get it, and with those of the better classes of mechanics, females, people and shop-keepers. While at dinner at Birmingham, it was observed by all of us that the ladies (a dozen) at table drank porter as if they were thirsty, and as if it did them good.

The universality of beer drinking at mealtimes for everybody is demonstrated most clearly by the records of English public schools. Winchester College had its own brewery, like other schools, hiring an outside brewer to make the beer, which was stored in a cellar measuring 30 feet eight inches by 24 feet three inches. In 1709 the schoolmaster and fellows (ie teachers) were reckoned to drink 10 to 11 pints of small beer a day each, the servants six pints a day and the 70 pupils, or scholars, and 16 choristers three pints a day. Beer, brewed at three bushels of malt to the hogshead, which would have given an OG of around 1045 to 1055, was available to the scholars at breakfast, dinner and supper, with “beavor-beer”, or bever beer, “bever” being a term for a small repast between meals, available around 3:30pm and, in the evening after supper, with bread and cheese (in 1839 a revolution occurred, when the afternoon bever-beer was replaced by tea). The school had a “butler of beer” among its servants, who was paid two shillings by each new child upon the child’s joining the school. The boys ate at three long tables, with the beer arriving in “gispins”, large leather pots or jacks, one to each table, and the junior boys at the ends of each table serving their fellows.

The masters, meanwhile, drank with their cheese at the end of dinner an extraordinarily strong, well-hopped beer called “huff” (short for “huff-cap”, a term for strong ale dating to the 16th century), brewed at the college in March every other year at the frankly unbelievable rate of 14 bushels of malt to the hogshead. An analysis of a 10-year-old bottle of huff published in 1906 found it to have had an OG of 1116.67, a final gravity of 1008.73 and an abv of 14.46 per cent. It was served in small glasses “similar to a dock wine glass”. The last brewing of huff was in 1904, which seems to have been around the time that brewing of any sort ended at the college.

Eton College also had its own brewery, as did any large establishment, and when Charles I was held as a prisoner in Windsor Castle in 1647 the college brewery supplied his beer. The college beer was “very good” when Samuel Pepys drank it on a visit to Eton in 1666. However, the small beer provided with the dinnertime meal of roast mutton and “excellent” bread in the early 1830s was described as “so bad that no boy ever drank it”. By the early 1870s the college was buying in beer from the big Burton brewer Samuel Allsopp (at least two sons of Henry Allsopp, who was in charge of the firm at the time, went to Eton), and in 1881 the college brewery equipment, including a 36-barrel copper with furnace, an oak mash tun, a 28-barrel oak working or fermentation vat and 48 barrels and hogsheads, was put up for auction.

Beer for breakfast, lunch and supper was the fuel that kept the ordinary working man going too, of course, not just the scholars of Eton and Winchester. Around 1875 an “aged labourer” described the typical routine during harvest time on a farm in Sussex when he was a young man, in the 1830s or so:

“Out in morning at four o’clock. Mouthful of bread and cheese and pint of ale. Then off to the harvest field. Rippin and moen [reaping and mowing] till eight. Then morning brakfast and small beer. Brakfast – a piece of fat pork as thick as your hat [a broad-brimmed “wideawake“] is wide. Then work till ten o’clock: then a mouthful of bread and cheese and a pint of strong beer. ‘Farnooner’s-lunch’ [ie ‘forenooner’], we called it. Work till twelve. Then at dinner in the farm-house; sometimes a leg of mutton, sometimes a piece of ham and plum pudding. Then work till five, then a nunch and a quart of ale. Nunch was cheese: ’twas skimmed cheese, though. Then work till sunset [ie about 8:30pm], then home and have supper and a pint of ale.”

Despite the seven or eight pints of beer, at least, drunk during the day, the old man told his interrogator that “I never knew a man drunk in the harvest field in my life.” He himself, he said, could drink six quarts, and believed that “a man might drink two gallons in a day,” which since it’s very possible to lose 10 litres – nearly 18 pints – of water working in a hot environment, is only putting back what your body needs to function. (This sounds like long-vanished history: life as lived by the rural poor 180 years ago. But I knew a man who knew a man who was that farmworker: my great-great grandfather, John Cornell, an “ag. lab” living in Cherry Hinton, just outside Cambridge, would have been 17 in 1840, sweating those 15 or 16-hour days, reaping fields of barley or wheat under the hot harvest sun, losing a gallon or more of water in perspiration that those pints and quarts of beer helped replace. He died in 1900, when his grandson, my grandfather Harry, was 14, and I was 17 when Harry died.)

A potboy, and an advertisement from the 1840s that borrowed his cry

The great institution of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was the “ordinary”, a meal provided for a set price at an inn or tavern. The “ordinary” available to “young gentlemen” in Edinburgh in 1742 for four pence a head was “a very good dinner of broth and beef, and a roast and potatoes every day, with fish three or four times a-week, and all the small beer that was called for till the cloth was removed.” The “ordinary”, where the choice was effectively as non-existent as it would have been for those Winchester or Eton schoolboys, was eventually replaced by the innovation of the menu, a word not found in the English language (unless the OED is lying) until the 1830s.

If you did not have the time or money to spend on an “ordinary” or in a newly menued-up restaurant, there were other innovations: in the early 1840s Crowley’s brewery of Alton in Hampshire, where the water was similar to the gypsum-impregnated wells of Burton upon Trent, opened a chain of luncheon bars across London, known as Alton Ale Houses, where a glass of ale or porter and a ham or beef sandwich for four pence were advertised by signs outside. This was supposedly the first time beer had been widely paired with sandwiches. (The Alton Ale Houses were parodied in a production of Aladdin at the Lyceum Theatre in 1844, where the opening scene showed a small Chinese refreshment shop with a sign outside announcing: “Cup of tea and a bird’s nest – 4d”.)

For those dining at home who could not afford to buy, or had no place to store, a firkin or pin of “family ale”, beer was brought round by the potboy. This was a young apprentice barman who set out from the local pub carrying handled wooden trays bearing pewter pots filled with ale or porter around the streets at midday and in the early evening, shouting the while: “Beer-oh!” Householders, or their servants, would hail the potboy and purchase the contents of one or more of his pots to accompany the family meals. The empty pots would then be hung on the spiked iron railings outside the house, for the potboy to return and collect later. Inevitably, many were stolen: and in 1796 Parliament discussed banning potboys from roaming the streets with beer, on the grounds that the temptation of pots hung on railings should not be put in the way of those who combined light fingers with weak wills. It was claimed that pots to the value of £100,000 were being stolen every year, while opponents of the Pewter Pot Bill counter-attacked by declaring that 3,000 potboys would lose their jobs if the Bill were passed. The opposition also declared that banning the potboy would threaten the morals of children and female servants, who would now have to go to the public house themselves to obtain the beer needed to accompany the household’s meals. The Pewter Pot Bill eventually failed to get a second reading, and potboys remained part of the street scene for another six decades.

What finally killed off the roaming potboy was Gladstone’s reforms of the licensing laws in 1861, which allowed shopkeepers to purchase an “off-licence” to sell wine (in particular) and other alcoholic drinks for consumption off the premises. Servants could now be sent out to buy drink for the household meals without any risk to their morals from being exposed to the sight of the interior of a pub. Increasingly, too, take-home beer was available in bottles, rather than jugs, and bottled “dinner ale” became a product every brewer had to advertise.

Gladstone’s reforms also allowed “refreshment houses” to sell wines with meals, and by 1879 a witness to a parliamentary select committee was speaking of the increasing use of wine in cafes and restaurants as an accompaniment to food. But beer continued to be by far the country’s favourite alcoholic drink, with consumption per head actually increasing almost 28 per cent between 1860 and 1899, to 31.4 gallons a year, while wine was up only 18 per cent in the same period, to less than two and a half bottles per head a year, and spirits sales remained essentially flat. It was not, in fact, until the 1980s that wine began to seriously challenge beer in Britain. And while wine was increasingly available in eateries, in the 1890s those looking for good dining in London could still hie to somewhere like Simpson’s Chop House, just off Cornhill, and salivate over “a bountiful selection of most inviting and appetizing-looking chops and steaks … mutton chops and pork chops, loin chops and chump chops; steaks – succulent, juicy rump steaks, point steaks – fit for a bishop, large or small, for lunch or dinner,” all available with pints of porter in pewter.

London was also still the home of the boiled beef house, where rounds of beef weighing between 28 and 40 pounds were salted and then boiled, before being sliced and served hot with carrots, suet dumplings and potatoes – and porter. According to the Daily Express in 1900, the quality of the porter found in a boiled beef house was equalled only by the beer on sale at a brewery tap.

Where did it all go wrong: the Victoria, Banstead, Surrey, in the 1950s, when the curly sandwich was the acme of public house dining. (More interesting than the food is the sign announcing that Courage Burton was arriving: sadly, it would be totally disappearing within a few years)

The ties between beer and food were being cut, though, and for a host, probably, of little reasons: the increasing feeling that under-18s should really not be drinking alcohol three times a day meant that families (and schools) had to provide something else for them than beer; the growth in popularity of alternatives to beer, such as tea and coffee; the increasing mechanisation of working life, which made any possibility of befuddlement potentially lethal (you could steer a horse-drawn cart while several pints to the wind, for example, but not a motor-powered “lurry”); the growing association of wine with aspiration, class, tone, while beer in contrast was dropping down the social scale: in 1902 Arnold Bennett could begin a novel, The Grand Babylon Hotel, with the premise that it would not be possible to order a steak and a bottle of Bass pale ale for dinner at a five-star London hotel.

By 1955 the Scottish cookery writer Elizabeth Craig, in a too little remembered book called Beer and Vittles, could justifiably complain:

“If there is one form of cooking that has been neglected more than another in Britain, it is beer cookery. You have to go abroad to find housewives cooking freely with beer and taking trouble about what they serve it with. There are plenty of books telling you how to introduce wine to fare, but few extolling the flavour of beer; plenty of inns serving excellent beer, but not enough taking pains with its accompaniments.”

Unfortunately, in the past 63 years very little has changed. And yet, as Craig’s American-born husband, and fellow-journalist, Arthur E Mann wrote in the same book:

“There is a unique quality about beer, in that it both soothes and stimulates. In its infinite variety, from the lightest of the light lagers through the noblest of bitters and stouts to the heaviest of ales, a choice can be made which will please any palate, suit any climate, fit any occasion, and blend with any dish.”

Indeed: and this was admiably demonstrated with the excellent meal put together by the kitchen at Wild Beer Co’s restaurant at Wapping Wharf in Bristol, served up for the audience at the seminar, which took as a theme the five “tastes”, combining beers and foods to highlight each of the five in turn.

The only pairing that didn’t work for me was the pickled cucumber and the beer flavoured with the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu, meant to be demonstrating umami: personally I find umami much more easily in a young but heavy ale, and even more I don’t believe anything over-vinegary does anything for beer: too much clash. But that apart, the combinations were excellent, in particular the Gose with lemon tart and the sour beer with cheese. I don’t know what plans Wild Beer Co has to repeat this menu, but as a demonstration of how versatile beer can be with a host of different flavours in a way that wine would struggle desperately and unsuccessfully to match, it was tremendous.

Brewer accused of getting excise men drunk in order to avoid paying tax

A few days since, two Excise Officers came to Mr Harwood’s Brew-house near Shoreditch to Gage the Liquors, but instead thereof, finding several of his Men drinking hard therein, sate down with them, and tipled so heartily with them, as to be thoroughly fudled. In the meantime the Surveyor came, and finding a Guile of Beer not set down in their Accounts, made a Report to the Commissioners, that Mr Harwood had caused his Men to make their Officers drunk, in Order to defraud the King of his Duties; So that a Tryal is likely to ensue thereupon, which may be very expensive to Mr Harwood, and be Instructive to others of the same Occupation.

Parker’s London News, or the Impartial Intelligencer, Friday September 4 1724, p5

Isn’t that a wonderful story? I found it (serendipity is marvellous) while looking for something else entirely. Unfortunately, as yet, I’ve been unable to discover any follow-up stories, so I don’t know if Harwood was actually taken to court for getting the revenue officers drunk, and if so, what happened to him. Updates may follow …

Beer history geeks will recognise Mr Harwood, brewer of Shoreditch, East London as Ralph of that ilk, the man identified, incorrectly, by John Feltham in 1802 as the supposed inventor of porter “about the year 1722” (ie two years before the adventures detailed above) as a replacement for a mixed drink called three-threads. It’s a story that went round the world.  As early as 1812, German beer lovers were being told that ‘Der Brauer Harwood brauete den ersten Porter.’ In fact Ralph did nothing of the sort, and porter wasn’t developed to replace three-threads … but you knew that.

Still, that’s not as mangled as something you can still find on dozens of different sites all over the interwebs, which seems to be sourced from a book written for American home-brewers in the late 1990s:

Porter was the first commercially brewed beer. It was named for the train porters who were its original servers and consumers , and became hugely popular in 18th & 19th century Britain.

Train porters in the 18th century …  and nobody was brewing commercially before then … sometimes I wonder why people like me and Ron Pattinson even bother.

When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

In a shiny 12-storey building in Bishopsgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, is a company that represents the last faint echo of a time when one family ran the two biggest breweries in the world.

colb-brown-stout-labelThe City of London Investment Trust is, today, a £1 billion business with investments in everything from pharmaceuticals to mining, and power supply to media, and a record of increasing its dividend every year for the past half-century. But the firm started in 1860 as the City of London Brewery Co, and its roots lie in the brewing industry as far back as the 15th century.

The family that dominated the early history of the concern were the Calverts, landowners from East Hertfordshire, who married into ownership of, first the Peacock brewhouse in Whitecross Street, by the Barbican, on the northern side of the City of London, and then the Hour Glass brewhouse, three quarters of a mile away off Thames Street, by the river. In the middle of the 18th century these were the two biggest porter breweries in London, and, therefore, the biggest breweries in the world.

However, the Calverts today are much less well known than their rivals, such as Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins, in part because the family name was taken off the business in the middle of the 19th century, partly because no physical trace remains of their brewing sites and partly because the firm they founded did not quit brewing so much as drift away from it. But one big reason for the Calverts’ current obscurity is the extreme difficulty involved in untangling the dense thicket that is their family tree, as the descendants of Felix, Thomas and Peter Calvert, the three sons of Felix Calverd (sic) the family’s 17th century patriarch, spread out and multiplied down the years.

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge
The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The common habit of using the same first names down and across generations means that after the first Felix Calvert, or Calverd, was born in 1596 there were 12 Felix Calverts, seven William Calverts and seven Peter Calverts in the 17th to 19th centuries. Thanks to cousin marriage, one Felix Calvert, 1729-1764, a partner in the Peacock brewhouse, had a father also called Felix Calvert, and both his grandfathers were called Felix Calvert as well, while his great-grandfather’s great-nephew, Felix Calvert 1735-1802 (who also had a son called Felix Calvert), was a partner in the rival Hour Glass brewhouse.

The result is that there has not been a book or article mentioning the Calverts and their breweries that does not have major facts wrong. One book from 2011 has six errors in one six-line paragraph. Another recent publication called a high-profile member of the clan, Sir William Calvert, “the grandson of Thomas Calvert”, adding: “though there is some confusion in various books”. Indeed: Thomas was actually the one son of Felix Calverd that Sir William was not descended from. Cousin marriage meant his father (another William) was the son of Felix junior while his mother Honor was the daughter of Felix junior’s and Thomas’s brother Peter. The Museum of London Archaeology managed to invent a completely fictitious member of the family, “Henry”, and get the date the family acquired the Hour Glass brewhouse totally wrong.

calvert-book-coverHurrah and thrice hurrah, then, for Patricia Richardson – herself a tenth-generation descendant of Felix the patriarch – who has pulled apart all the different Calvert strands and published a book that is a readable, illuminating and fascinating telling of what could more than easily have been an extremely confusing story. She has solved the problem of tracing all those Felixes, Williams, Peters and the rest by labelling the families of Felix Calverd’s three sons A, B and C, and then numbering each new bearer of an old first name consecutively within the stream, so that, for example, Felix Calvert 1729-1764 of the Peacock brewery is Felix Calvert B3, his grandfathers are Felix Calvert B1 and C1 respectively, and his distant cousin at the Hour Glass brewery, Felix Calvert 1735-1802, is Felix Calvert A4.

Continue reading When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

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

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

Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)
From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst: Continue reading Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Why is Camra still getting beer history so very badly wrong?

Excuse the indentations in my forehead, that’s where I’ve been banging my head hard against my desk.

I’ve been reading the “Beer Styles” section in the just-published 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. Ron Pattinson gave a comprehensive triple kicking last year to the effectively identical section in the 2013 GBG, and yet this year the GBG’s claims about the history of British beer styles are still just as horribly, awfully wrong. It’s as if nothing Ron, or I, or other researchers into the history of beer have written over the past ten to 15 years or so had ever existed: a stew of errors, misinterpretations, myths, erroneous assumptions and factually baseless inventions. All of the errors, frankly, even before Ron gave them a good pounding back in 2012, were heartily demolished (apologies for the sound of my own trumpet) in my book Amber Gold and Black, published three years ago (and which sprang, as it happens, from a series of articles published in Camra’s own What’s Brewing on the history of beer styles). But since the GBG sells far more every year than AG&B has, that’s many thousands of beer lovers being fed gross inaccuracies about the history of the beers they drink, and only a few thousand getting the truth.

Rising Sun Enfield
Pale and stock ales advertised as on sale at the Rising Sun, Enfield circa 1900: you won’t find stock ales in many style guides, but they were aged versions of the drink otherwise sold “mild”, in other words, “old ales”.

What exactly is the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide getting wrong? Let’s begin with its insistence that “pale ale” and “bitter” are different products, which leads to the nonsensical statement (p29, last paragraph) that “From the early years of the 20th century, Bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” This is completely wrong, and a total misunderstanding, as I pointed out back in 2007 here. From the moment that bitter beers started to become popular in Britain, around the beginning of the 1840s, “bitter beer” and “pale ale” were used by brewers and commentators as synonyms. There never was any difference between the two. Why did “pale ale” come to be appended as a name mostly to the bottled version of bitter? Because generally in the 19th century brewers called the drink in the brewery “pale ale”, and that’s the name they put on their bottle labels, but in the pub drinkers called this new drink “bitter”, to differentiate it from the older, sweeter, but still (then) pale mild ales.

The section also claims that pale ale was invented because IPA was “considered too bitter for the domestic market” – total made-up rubbish, there is no evidence anywhere for this, and if IPA was “too bitter for the domestic market”, why did so many brewers advertise an IPA as part of their line-up? The weaker pale ales, below IPAs in brewers’ price lists, simply reflected 19th century brewers’ practice of selling two, three or four examples of each beer type, ale (that is, old-fashioned lightly hopped ale), porter/stout and the newer bitter/pale ale, at different “price points” (to use a modern expression) for different budgets. Thus, for example, the Aylesbury Brewery Company in 1899 sold four grades of pale ale, BA (for Bitter Ale), at the IPA “price point” of one shilling and sixpence a gallon (almost all “IPAs” sold at 1s 6d), BA No 2 at 1s 2d a gallon, BPA at one shilling a gallon and AK at 10 pence a gallon; four grades of mild ales, from XXXX at 1s 6d to XA at 10d; and three black beers, from Double Stout at 1s 6d to Porter at 1s. Shepherd Neame two years earlier was calling all its four grades of bitter beers “India Pale Ale”, from “Stock KK India Pale Ale” at 1s 8d a gallon through East India Pale Ales Nos 1 and 2 at 1s 4d and 1s a gallon to East India Pale Ale AK (sic) at 11d a gallon.

That brings us to the section on IPA itself. There’s the usual canard about the original IPAs being “strong in alcohol” to survive the journey east, although as Ron P has shown conclusively, at around 6 to 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 19th century IPAs were in the middle of the contemporary strength range, and weaker than 19th century milds. The GBG also asserts that India Pale Ale “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, and “the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were pale bronze in colour.” Wrong again – for a start, pale ale was around from at least the second half of the 17th century, a good hundred years before the Industrial Revolution began, as I showed in 2009. Second, almost ALL beers called “ale” in the 18th and 19th century were made from pale malt, as Ron Pattinson has comprehensively demonstrated with extracts from actual brewers’ records, which led eventually to “ale” meaning any malt liquor pale in colour, with “beer” restricted to the dark kinds, stout and porter, something I wrote about here. So in appearance, IPA wasn’t new at all. What it was, was the first bitter, well-hopped pale ale, as opposed to older sorts of pale ale that, following the style of malt liquors in Britain of the post-1710s “ale” type, were hopped (unlike the original unhopped ales) but less-hopped than “beers” such as porter and stout, and which were sold either “mild” (fresh) or “old” (aged).

Continue reading Why is Camra still getting beer history so very badly wrong?

When Brick Lane was home to the biggest brewery in the world

Black Eagle sign
Black Eagle sign, Brick Lane

The huge sign on the outside of the building on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane is clear enough: Truman Black Eagle Brewery. Nobody passing by could have any doubt what used to happen here, even though no beer brewing has taken place on the premises for more than 20 years. But what few people know is that for a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century, this was the biggest brewery in the world.

Today Brick Lane, Spitalfields, in the East End of London is bustling and cosmopolitan, the heart of what is sometimes called “Banglatown”. For hundreds of years Spitalfields – filled with cheap housing, in large part because it was to the east of the City, so that the prevailing westerly winds dump all the soot from the West End over it – has been a place where poor immigrants to England come to try to scrabble a living, generally in trades connected with making clothes: Huguenot silk weavers from France fleeing Catholic oppression,  Irish linen weavers fleeing unemployment in Ireland, Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia, Bangladeshis fleeing poverty, all adding their tales to a place crowded with both people and history. But it wasn’t always thus: the author Daniel Defoe, who was born in 1660, remembered Brick Lane from his childhood in the early years of the Restoration as “a deep, dirty road frequented chiefly by carts fetching bricks into Whitechapel”.

Over the decade after Charles II returned to England, as London expanded, development spread up Brick Lane itself from the south, and new streets were laid out in Spitalfields where previously cows had grazed. Two of these streets, on the west side of Brick Lane, were named Grey Eagle Street and Black Eagle Street. Thomas Bucknall, a London entrepreneur, is said by some to have built the Black Eagle brewhouse in about 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, on land known as Lolsworth Field, Spittlehope belonging to Sir William Wheler. However, it remains unclear whether Bucknall actually was a brewer: the best that can be said is that on the land he leased “in 1681-2 the lay-out of buildings on this part of Brick Lane approximated to the present arrangement of brewery buildings round an entrance yard, and that this lay-out may date back to 1675.”

Continue reading When Brick Lane was home to the biggest brewery in the world

Endangered beers

Beers, like animals, can be endangered species: some can even go extinct. Nobody’s seen West Country White Ale in the wild for more than 125 years.

Camra, I’m very pleased to say, has recently decided that it could be doing much more than Make May a Mild Month for promoting endangered beers, and has set up a Beer Styles Working Group to look at ways of plugging and encouraging endangered beer styles of all sorts.

I’ve managed to blag my way onto the working group, mostly because I’m keen to point out to Camra members, and beer festival organisers (and brewers) that endangered beer styles in Britain go a long way beyond mild, stout and porter, and to try to get the other half-dozen or more endangered British beer styles recognition and promotion as well: and maybe even get some of the extinct beers remade. (That’s the advantage of beer: it may turn out to be impossible to resurrect the mammoth, but reproducing a vanished beer style generally only requires the will, a recipe and the right ingredients.)

So what ARE Britain’s vulnerable and endangered (and extinct) beer styles? Here’s my personal checklist: Continue reading Endangered beers