Tag Archives: stout

Did Michael Collins drink a pint of Clonakilty Wrestler the day he died?

Today is the 96th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary who played a major part in the Irish War of Independence, which saw the establishment of what was known as the Irish Free State, and who was then killed in an ambush during the civil war between those that accepted the treaty which divided Ireland into an independent south and a north that was still part of the United Kingdom, and those who would not accept that settlement. He is still an important figure in Ireland, where whichever of the major Irish political parties you support still, basically, depends on whether your great-grandfather supported Liam Neeson or Severus Snape – sorry, Michael Collins, whose pro-treaty wing of Sinn Féin developed into Fine Gael, currently the governing party in the republic, or Éamon de Valera, whose anti-treaty wing eventually spawned Fianna Fáil, currently the largest opposition party in the Dáil, the Irish parliament.

Deasy’s brewery in Clonakilty circa 2010

None of the very many accounts of the events that led up to Michael Collins’s death on August 22 agree on all the details, with multiple and contradictory variations in the narrative: from why, as Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Army, he had travelled to County Cork, heartland of the anti-Treaty rebellion, with only a small number of soldiers, and what he was hoping to achieve, to the details of his last day, from the route taken by Collins and his convoy west out of Cork to the towns of Clonakilty and Skibbereen to how many vehicles – and soldiers – travelled with him, to who fired the fatal shot (or shots) – at least seven possible candidates among the ambushers – and even to the name of the place where the ambush took place: Béalnabláth, pronounced “Bale-nu-blaw”, and probably best translated from Irish as “mouth of the ravine”, is frequently, and mistakenly, given as Béal na mBláth, which would mean “mouth of the flowers”. Much of what has been written about the day is demonstrably wrong, and much is now unprovable.

Of greater interest to the beer historian, however, is another contentious question: on the day he died, did Michael Collins drink a pint of Clonakilty Wrestler, the now legendary porter brewed by Deasy’s of Clonakilty, easily the best known of several small West Cork porter brewers.

The brewery was founded some time around the start of the 19th century, and was certainly running by 1810, when it was recorded that at “Cloghnikilty” [sic] “A porter brewery, the plan of which is remarkable and convenient arrangement, and upon a scale of considerable magnitude, was built by Rickard Deasy, Esq, and Co. The business, carried on with spirit, and conducted with care and prudence, fully answers the expectations of the proprietors.”

Deasy’s Prize Stout ad, Southern Star newspaper, Skibbereen, Cork, 1936

Deasy’s porter was nicknamed “The Wrestler” (or “Wrassler”, in a West Cork accent) at least as early as 1890, when the Irish journalist John Augustus O’Shea eulogised it, declaring:

‘In every district there is some show pot, some natural curiosity, some distinguished or erratic character in the community pointed out to the stranger. The great local wrestler is the big pot of Clonakilty. The fame of Milo of Crotona pales beside his, for he has no fear of the clutch of wood. A full-bodied, swarthy fellow, with a white head, he is stronger than most human beings, and seems to get stronger the oftener he is tackled. He is usually cool, fluent, and even tempered, but can be roused to a ferment at times, and when he is doesn’t he just froth? His main struggles are with that proverbially robust class brewers’ draymen, but he has taken many a fall out of the finest peasants, and hardiest seamen of Ross and Cloyne, and it is mysteriously bruited that he once laid by the heels a whole station of the RIC. He is a descendant of John Barley Corn, and is addicted to hops. Far be it from me to act as an intermediary in a prize fight, but not to spoil sport I may say he has a standing challenge with one Guinness of Dublin. Like most men of his call he has his price. His price is two pence a pint.”

O’Shea appears to have been wrong about the price: Deasy’s porter was popular at last in part because of its cheapness compared to rivals. A commentator in 1892 said that “the western man”, “though on pleasure bent, was of a frugal mind, and preferred to pay three half-pence rather than two pence for a pint of porter.”

Deasy’s harvest porter and stout ad, 1938, less than two years before the company stopped brewing beer (it continued making soft drinks for another 70 years). The typeface top and centre is Cooper Blasck, which was being used by the Brewers’ Society in Britain for its series of ‘Beer is Best’ ads.

Michael Collins was born in 1890 at Woodfield, the family farm, some four miles west of Clonakilty. Between 1903 and 1905 he lived with his sister Margaret and her husband, Patrick O’Driscoll in a house in Shannon Square, just a few yards from Deasy’s brewery, (today Emmet Square). The claim has been made by several writers that Collins’s favourite drink was “Clonakilty Wrestler”, and one Irish craft brewery produces today a stout called “Wrasslers XXXX” with a picture of Collins in his general’s uniform on the pumpclip (based on the iconic photograph taken at the funeral of Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, six days before Collins himself was killed). One source says that Collins actually “loathed the sight of porter”. However, he certainly did drink Deasy’s most famous beer on occasions. When he came home to Cork from Frongoch prison camp in North Wales in December 1916, after the British government released the surviving prisoners taken at the end of the Easter Rising, “the Big Fellow” spent three weeks, in his own words, “drinking Clonakilty wrastler [sic] on a Frongoch stomach,” before returning to Dublin. But Collins’s preferred drink actually appears to have been whiskey: “‘a ball of malt’ was his usual,” according to one biographer, and another named Jameson’s as his favourite.

Collins apparently went to West Cork in August 1922 in the hope of meeting republican leaders and persuading them to end the civil war, as well as to inspect the pro-treaty forces on the ground and boost the morale of the commanders and soldiers now fighting men who, in many cases, had been their friends and colleagues against the British only months earlier. After his arrival in Cork, he left on August 22 to travel west in a convoy that included Collins himself, being driven in a Leyland 8 four-seater tourer, a Crossley troop carrier and a Rolls-Royce armoured car. The route taken was a circuitous one, to avoid bridges blown up by annti-treaty forces. On its way out from Cork to Clonakilty, Collins’s convoy had passed Long’s pub in Béalnabláth village alerting a group of anti-treaty ‘Irregulars’ holding a conference nearby to his presence in the area, and they decided to lay an ambush on the assumption that the convoy was likely to return the same way later on.

It is certain, since Emmet Dalton, who was with Collins on his final journey, recorded it in the account of that day he wrote just three months later, “The death of Micheal O’Coileain”, that Collins’s party lunched in Clonakilty, and shortly after leaving, that is, between two and three in the afternoon, they arrived at the hamlet of Sam’s Cross, about two thirds of a mile from where Collins was born, (though even here one writer insists, against all the evidence, that the convoy arrived at Sam’s Cross early in the evening, departing at 6.15pm. There Collins met and spoke with his brother John/Séan and other family members, including his cousin Michael O’Brien, who had a house at Sam’s Cross. According to O’Brien’s son Jimmy, Collins and some officers in the convoy had a cup of tea while sitting in the O’Brien’s kitchen, waiting for John Collins to arrive, after which the two brothers went into the parlour and talked by themselves for 20 minutes. Michael Collins then got into his car, and the little convey left, after a warning from John Collins: ‘You’d better put up that hood –you could be shot before night!”

The Four Alls Sam’s Cross
The Four Alls, Sam’s Cross, near Clonakilty, Cork

Dalton’s report from November 1922 does not mention any beer drinking (though he is alleged to have told an RTE film crew recording a programme about his life, decades later, that “We were all arseholes!”, that is, drunk) and neither did Jimmy O’Brien. But at least five other accounts say that during the stop at Sam’s Cross, Collins and his escort, which included 12 soldiers in the Crossley tender, a motorcycle outrider, and the armoured car with a crew of four – 20 men in total – went into the pub across from the O’Briens’ house, now, if not then, called the Four Alls. (The pub was run by a man called Jeremiah Collins, whom several authors mistakenly identify as “a cousin” or “a kinsman”. Someone who was a kinsman, Brother Jerome Collins of the Hospitaller Order of St John of God, whose father shared a grandfather with the Big Fellow, emphatically denied that the pub landlord was a relative – “He just wished he was.”) In the pub, several authors assert, Michael Collins treated his escort to “a pint”, or “two pints” of the Clonakilty Wrestler, and, according to at least two writers, he had a pint of the Wrestler himself.

Deasy’s Stout and Porter, advertised in the Southern Star, Skibbereen in 1925, with an emphasis on the firm’s localism

Another investigator, John Feehan, reported that rather than pints at Sam’s Cross, “the convoy had drinks in White’s pub,” White’s being at the Pike Cross, a mile away to the south at Lisavaird, on the main road between Clonakilty and Rosscarbery. Drinks would have probably been welcome for men driving around dusty Irish roads in August in open-top vehicles. But this was an armed venture into potentially hostile territory. Certainly the idea of serving 20 men, plus, supposedly, relatives of Michael Collins also gathered at the Sam’s Cross pub, with two pints each in the sort of time allowable in the convoy’s journey around West Cork seems unlikely. It was in Skibbereen by “mid-afternoon”, having gone by Rosscarbery, where Collins had talked to the commander of the garrison there and visited the mother of an old friend who had just died. In Skibbereen there was time for more talk with the officers of the local garrison “for a considerable length of time”, a meeting in the Eldon Hotel with the editor of the local Eagle newspaper and a local schoolmaster, a quick talk with Cameron Somerville, brother of Edith, co-author of the Irish RM novels, who was a member of the local Protestant aristocracy, and a speech to the people of the town, including 150 horsemen who had ridden in to see him.

By then it was “around 5pm”, and the decision was made not to continue to Bantry, as originally planned, but to return to Cork. All that activity suggests Collins arrived in Skibbereen no later than 4pm. The total distance from Sam’s Cross to Skibbereen is 16 miles: say a journey of 40 minutes under early 1920s conditions, plus 40 minutes spent in Rosscarbery, as a minimum. Collins spent at least 30 minutes in Sam’s Cross taking tea with his mother’s nephew, and waiting for and then talking to his brother. If he arrived in Sam’s Cross as early as 2pm – and it may well have been later – that only leaves a few minutes unaccounted for. It is possible the rest of the convoy had time for a pint of porter in Sam’s Cross while the family reunion in the O’Briens’ house was happening: Michael Collins, not so much.

Deasy’s Stout ad, Southern Star, Skibbereen, Cork, 1937

Another brewery also played a bit-part in Collins’s last day. Back at Béalnabláth village it was a Tuesday, the day a one-horse brewery dray came over from Beamish & Crawford’s depot seven miles away in Bandon, formerly (until 1913) Allman Dowden & Co’s Bandon brewery, founded 1785, to take away the empties from Long’s. The Irregulars commandeered the dray to use as a barrier, and took it a little up the road out of the village to a likely spot for an ambush, removing the wheels and standing them in front against the dray. Around 7 or 8pm in the evening, the convoy did indeed come back down the road. In the gunfight that followed, Michael Collins, just 31 years old, was the only person killed.

How long have UK brewers been using American hops? 200 years, you say …

I’ve written before on how American hops were being imported to the UK in the late 1810s, after a couple of years of dreadful summer weather wrecked the English hop harvest, but this is the first time I’ve come across a specific advertisement by a brewer for American hops. This is from the Belfast Newsletter in April 1818: Belfast, of course, was a major port for the North Atlantic trade, so it was natural that hops from New York would arrive there by ships, though normally the high import tariffs then imposed on foreign hops would keep them out. Can we assume Clotworthy Dobbin was using some of those American hops in his own porter and pale ale? I think we can.

(Incidentally, I wonder if the Hesperus, the ship that, according to Dobbin’s ad, brought the hops to New York to Belfast, was the schooner whose sinking in 1839 partly inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write the poem The Wreck of the Hesperus? Hmmm …)

Dobbin’s first name, though weird-looking in the 21st century, is surprisingly common in 18th century Ulster. (There was a haberdasher’s business in Belfast in the 1790s run by Clotworthy Birnie and Clotworthy Faulkner, for example.) It comes from the surname of Sir Hugh Clotworthy of Clotworthy in Devon, High Sheriff of Antrim in the early 17th century, and more particularly Sir Hugh’s son John Clotworthy, a militant Presbyterian who, nevertheless, was on good terms with King Charles II and became the first Viscount Massereene in 1660 (Massereene being the name of an area on the eastern shores of Lough Neagh). So basically being called Clotworthy was like wearing a T-shirt shouting: “I AM A PRESBYTERIAN!”

When Dobbin entered the brewing business is a little blurry, two centuries later. He pops up in 1812 as the partner in a wine and spirits business in Hercules Street, Belfast, with John Bell, selling Cork and Dublin whiskey, Jamaican rum and Spanish red wine. Bell was also a brewer, probably from at least January 1808, when he was at 51 Hercules Lane, and advertising for a maltman “who has a perfect knowledge of his business and can be well recommended for Sobriety and Honesty,” and certainly by 1809, when he was one of four brewers to advertise in the Belfast Newsletter that they were putting up the price of their ale to 48 shillings a barrel, “in order that we may be able to make Ale of a sufficient strength to encourage its consumption, for which purpose we are now using a greater proportion of Materials in the Manufacture of that Article; and are determined to make it of such Strength and Quality as cannot fail to give general satisfaction. Table and Small-Beer to remain at the former Prices.”

In July 1813 Bell and Dobbin ended their partnership, with Bell announcing that he would be continuing to carry on the spirits business at his brewery in Hercules Street, while Dobbin had moved to new premises in North Street, where he continued to sell whiskey, rum, red wine and pickling vinegar. In December 1814, however, Dobbin formed a partnership with John Wandesford Wright to acquired the Belfast Porter Brewery in Smithfield, Belfast.

That concern looks to have been in operation by 1802, when Kennedy, Seed, Hyndman & Co were advertising that they paid the highest price for good barley at their brewery in Smithfield. It was known as the Belfast Porter Brewery by 1806, when it was being run by Forbes Anderson & Co (there had been an earlier “new Porter Brewery” in 1789 in Barrack Street, about 500 yards away, which had become a distillery by 1799). The Belfast Porter Brewery advertised regularly for barley, “for which a fair price will be given”, with, in 1809, James T Kennedy & Co of Rosemary Lane given as one of the contacts.

Then in February 1810 the Belfast Newsletter carried an announcement for “Dissolution of the partnership and sale of the Belfast Porter Brewery”. The announcement said the brewery was “in perfect working order and capable of turning out 6,000 barrels in the season”, and included a pale and a brown malt kiln, while the premises were “abundantly supplied with excellent Spring Water.” Would-be purchasers were told that “as the Porter heretofore made by this Company has given general satisfaction, and as the natural demand is greater than the Buildings on the Concern are at present capable of supplying, it is an object highly deserving the attention of such as may be inclined to enter into the Business more extensively, there being ground sufficient on the Premises to enlarge the Buildings to any extent.” They were also told that the current brewer, Mr Donovan, “whose knowledge of brewing Porter, and making and preparing Malt for the same, has been fully proved,” was willing to remain “for a time” with the purchasers “on proper terms”.

The Belfast Porter Brewery was advertising its porter for sale in May 1810, and “a large quantity of Pale and Brown Malt”, plus porter “delivered in Belfast, provided it is paid for in Bank Notes,” the same July. Then in the October of that year proposals were invited in writing for the brewery and all its fixtures and utensils, to be sent to James Kilbee of the Belfast Sugar House. It does not look to have sold, because it was on offer again in May 1812, including “breweries, malt houses, Etc Etc … capable of Brewing 10,000 Barrels of Porter annually, with a never-failing supply of most excellent Spring-Water,” along with “a few Bags Hops, growth 1809”, 50 barrels of porter, “remainder of the unsold”, “a large quantity of Porter Barrels and Half Barrels” and other items, “for particulars apply at the offices of Greg & Blacker or James T Kennedy & Co.” No buyer was again apparently found and the brewery was once again on sale  in December 1812, with “coppers, coolers, kieves [the Irish term for a mash tun], working tuns, vatts [sic] … pale and brown malt-kilns”.

After their acquisition of the brewery in 1814, Dobbin and Wright promised the public ale and beer in barrels and half-barrels “which they hope (from CD’s practical knowledge of the Brewing Business, and their determination not to use anything but Malt and Hops of the very best Quality) will be found equal to anything offered here,” suggesting that Dobbin had been brewing alongside Bell in Hercules Street. Their advertisement in the Belfast Newsletter was dated “the 15th of 12th mo. 1814”, a clue that Wright, at least, was a Quaker, since not using the names of the days or months was a practice of the Society of Friends.

The Mountain Brewery, Glen Road, Belfast, drawn by Maurice Oliphant: the last big brewery in Northern Ireland before it closed in 2005, its roots can be traced back to the Belfast Porter Brewery, founded in or shortly before 1802

Not quite 18 months later, in May 1816 Wright and Dobbin announced the end of their own partnership, with Dobbin declaring that he would be continuing on his own as a brewer of double brown stout porter, common porter, strong ale and table beer. Before the partnership broke up, there had been a fire at the brewery which resulted in a claim of £1,840 against the Atlas insurance Company – equivalent to perhaps £1.4 million today. The insurance company refused to pay, claiming that the premium had not been paid, and the case went as far as the High Court in Dublin before the insurers handed over the money.

Dobbin’s business went through a dodgy patch in the early 1830s which saw him insolvent at one point, but he pulled everything together and eventually paid off all his creditors at 20 shillings to the pound, plus interest – a performance which earned him the presentation of a valuable set of silver plate from several English finance houses with whom he had done business, and a thank-you dinner in December 1835 attended by 80 Belfast merchants and dignitaries.

What sort of employer Dobbin was we may be able to tell from the fate of one of his unfortunate draymen, James McFerran, who was fined six shillings plus costs at Belfast Police Court in July 1852 after being found guilty of desecration of the Sabbath, for collecting beer barrels with a horse and dray on a Sunday evening. In mitigation, McFerran told the court that he could not collect as many barrels on a Saturday evening as would be required on a Monday morning, and he was “afraid of losing his situation, as Mr Dobbin was out of town, and he had no person to get directions from.”

The brewery in Smithfield eventually passed to Dobbin’s son-in-law Thomas Caffrey, a Dubliner. In 1897 Caffrey began moving operations to a new brewery on the Glen Road in Andersonstown, west Belfast, which opened officially in 1901 as the Mountain Brewery. After Caffrey’s death the concern was run by his son, and then by his grandson. In the 1920s it defended itself against rivals by boasting that its Treble X stout was the “strongest stout brewed in Ireland” (not strictly true, since Guinness FES was a lot stronger, but that wasn’t sold in Ireland at the time) and pitching itself as the price-conscious pint, at 6d (six pence) a pop. For the even more price-conscious it sold a stout called “Caffrey’s 4d Pint”, which was knocked on the head when the Second World War started and rises in the tax on beer in the UK made it impossible to brew a stout that could be sold for 4d. The brewery also played on local loyalties, declaring that its beer was “brewed by Ulstermen for Ulster people”, and inventing a little bowler-hatted Ulsterman character called “Mr Treble X”.

A casualty of war: Caffrey’s announces the end of its 4d stout, October 1939

Caffrey’s finally went under in 1950, but stayed shuttered for only four months before being acquired by a consortium of Ulster-based pub owners and reopened as the Ulster Brewery Company. In October 1960 the Ulster Brewery Co agreed to be taken over by Northern Breweries, the growing empire put together by the Canadian entrepreneur Eddie Taylor to provide outlets for his Carling Black Label lager in the UK, though by the time the deal was completed Northern Breweries had become United Breweries. United merged with Charringtons of East London in April 1962 to form Charrington United Breweries, and two months later work started on a new brewery in West Belfast, built in front of the old one, at a cost of £500,000 , which opened in November 1962. Charrington United then merged with Bass, Mitchells & Butlers in July 1967 to form Bass Charrington.

The Ulster brewery remained part of Bass, and in 1994 it was used as the base to roll out a new “nitrogen-serve” or “smoothflow” keg bitter under the Caffrey’s name. Caffrey’s ale was hugely successful when it first launched, with 150,000 barrels sold in its opening year. Then, in 2000, Bass sold all its brewery holdings to Interbrew. Since the Belgian giant already owned Whitbread, Interbrew was forced by the British government, after Competition Commission inquiries and court cases, to sell most of the former Bass empire, including the Caffrey’s brand. But it kept hold of the Ulster brewery (and the Bass brand, which it has subsequently managed to royally screw up). However, the loss by the Ulster brewery of a €9 million contract to bottle Lucozade, of all things, led Interbrew in August 2004 to decide to shut down the Belfast operation, after failing to find a brewer, and it closed the following year.

A rather cheeky ad for Caffrey’s Treble X stout from the Northern Whig newspaper in 1927 showing the Minstrel Boy apparently waving the trademark of another well-known stout maker

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

Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

Hong Kong Beer Awards logoSome British beer bloggers get invited to be judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Well, poot to them: I’ve just had a much more exclusive gig. Only 12 people are invited to judge in the Hong Kong International Beer Awards, and this year I was one of them.

If you’re thinking: “Yeah, man, tough job”, I can assure you it was no picnic: not unless your picnics involve sipping and sniffing 145 or so different lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales, and 21 ciders, over two three-hours sessions, with nowt to eat except crackers, there to take away the taste of the more egregiously bad examples of the brewer’s art. After about the 25th almost identical pale and generally undistinguished euro-style lager, some of the judges at the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong where the drinks had been lined up for scrutiny, appeared to be eyeing the exit and wondering if they could sprint fast enough to be out the door before they were tackled to the ground and brought back to the table. By the time the 39th and last entry in the lager section had been dismissed, it was a relief to move on to the ciders, a drink I don’t normally find much kind of relief in at all.

The judging was simple: up to 20 points for appearance, aroma, clarity and colour, up to 80 points for taste, body and mouthfeel. Most of the lagers were getting just 40 to 50 points from me, and the highest I gave was a rare 71. None was as vile as the “flavoured” ciders, mind: cheese on top of strawberry is not what I want in a glass. However, a couple of the ciders were authentically very “English” (tart, plenty of character) and, grateful, I awarded them good marks.

Pale and uninteresting
Spot the interesting lager … no? Me neither.

The “ordinary” (ie non-IPA) pale ales were almost as hard to tell one from the other as the lagers, with only one truly memorable  afterwards, thanks to a strong aroma of cedary pencil shavings (not that pencil shavings earned it more marks, at least from me). I was even more underimpressed with the brown ale category. None of the five was what I would describe as a brown ale (that is to say, dark at the least, and preferably veering towards very dark indeed), and only one had any real roasty flavour, of which I like to see a hint. The hazelnut one was easy to spot, though: it would make a good ice-cream float, but as a beer, I dunno. (Knowing what beers are available in Hong Kong, I’m guessing that was Rogue’s hazlenut brown ale. I like many of Rogue’s beers, but not this time.)

The “Belgian” ales went past in a blur of golden Duvel-alikes and browner nods towards what were presumably meant to be more “abbey” types. The “British-style” ales (my personal favourite category, I own up) contained one of the rare instantly recognisable beers in the judging, from Hong Kong’s own Typhoon brewery, which is “British” in the sense that it’s a proper cask-conditioned ale (and the only one in Asia, I believe) but sits firmly in the American Pale Ale category as far as its hop usage and character are concerned: whatever, it’s an excellent brew.

I’d love to find out the name of the really orangey wheat beer we were given: of the 26, most, again were hard to distinguish, and I was disappointed that there were not more Dunkels among the wheat beers: it’s a style I am growing increasingly fond of. One style I’m not so fond of is fruit beer, and the 16 up for judging at the Globe confirmed my prejudice: mostly unidentifiable fruit, nearly all pretty meh. The 11stouts, too, contained none among them that truly conquered. The 14 organic ales were, inevitably, a mixed bunch in terms of style, and none, I’m afraid, you would want to take home and introduce to mother.  The IPAs, by contrast, had a couple or four stand-out entries: that, I suspect, will be the hardest category to win.

So, then: thus was the Hong Kong International Beer Awards judging 2012. While the bulk of entries were ordinary (a reflection of the mostly unadventurous nature of Hong Kong’s beer importers, although there are now several honourable exceptions to that), there still were, I think, enough fine brews to make a respectable winners’ enclosure, all the same. The top beers will be announced at the 10th Hong Kong Restaurant and Bar Show, from September 11 to 13 in the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Centre and I’ll be listing them here as well.

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

The stout that dare not speak its name

Sainsbury's Celebration Ale labelHave public perceptions of beer styles become so skunked that it would be a marketing disaster to call a beer by its proper name? On a rare trip to Sainsbury’s I picked up something from the supermarket chain’s current Taste the Difference beer range that it calls “Celebration Ale”, and which announces itself as “A rich, dark winter warmer”. It’s brewed by Black Sheep of Masham, which is a recommendation, for me, and since I couldn’t see McEwan’s Champion Ale on the shelves (a truly excellent Edinburgh Ale/Burton Ale) I though it might make a good substitute.

I know I’m not the average supermarket beer shopper – I write a beer blog, for a start. So my expectations might well not be the same as everybody else’s expectations. But when I see a 6 per cent abv beer described as “a rich, dark winter warmer”, I’m expecting something ruby-coloured, fruity, strong and slightly sweet, though, hopefully, with a good bitter kick. Back home, however, when I opened “Celebration ale”, it poured dark brown-to-black, with a firmly chocolate-roast nose.

A look at the back label (printed, as is typical for back labels, in the tiny 4pt type that requires anyone over 45 to find their glasses) shows that this is in fact, as you’ve probably guessed, not an Owd Rodger-style ruddy ale but “a dark, velvety stout”. Indeed, the allergy-alert ingredients listing on the back reveals that “Celebration ale” contains “cow’s milk”. What that must mean is milk-derived (and unfermentable) lactose sugar: and there’s only one style of beer I know that contains lactose. Yes, “Celebration ale” is not just a stout, it’s a milk stout, albeit a milk stout that seems afraid to reveal itself as such.

Why? I can imagine Sainsbury’s corporate lawyers might fear the wrath of the neo-temperance army if they sold a product with the word “milk” in its description that contained alcohol (supermarket promotes beer to milk-drinking children shock! horror!), but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Bristol Beer Factory promoting its own Milk Stout, with pictures of milkmaids and cows.

Is it the word “stout” that is the problem, fit today only to be printed in tiny letters on the back label, in case it frightens the shoppers? Is “stout” so completely associated with the Guinness-style product that Sainsbury’s fears that non-Guinness drinkers won’t buy a beer too clearly labelled a stout, and that Guinness drinkers will take the bottle back once they try it and find it’s nothing like the beer they’re used to?

Whichever, it’s a backwards step in beer education if a major UK supermarket feels it cannot describe properly a beer appearing under its imprimature, in apparent fear that the beer-buying public won’t understand accurate terminology. If you’re selling a milk stout, Sainsbury’s, call it a milk stout, not “Celebration ale” or “dark winter warmer”. THEN we can celebrate.

Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:

“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”

Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.

Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

The 1900 Pub – the biggest surprise

If a 21st century time tripper stepped through the door into the public bar of a London pub in 1900, what would be the biggest surprise? Probably not the sawdust on the floor, or the lack of seating: most likely, I’d guess, the draught ginger beer on handpump.

The existence – and importance – of draught ginger beer in London pubs in the past is one of those uncountable little details of social history that slip past generally unrecorded because they seem so everyday and ordinary to contemporary observers, nobody bothers writing about them. Today’s equivalent would be the bar gun – ubiquitous, observed by everybody who has ever stood at a bar to be served, and mentioned, I’ll bet, in no account of the modern pub, anywhere.

Fortunately, back in the summer of Queen Victoria’s last full year on the throne, one anonymous worker in the brewing industry spotted a reference in the Daily Express to “half-and-half” as a beer mixture, a term not then used for several decades (it referred, in the early years of Victoria’s reign and before, to ale-and-porter), seized the nearest available umbrage at this anachronistic solecism and ran with it for 1,300 words of invaluable exposition on the drinks available from the pumps in a public bar in London, and how they were mixed together, which the Express printed for the education of future generations on page seven of its issue of Thursday August 2, 1900. And hurrah, digitisation and the web means that for a small subscription, 111 years later we can read about what beer mixtures our great-grandfathers drank without having to travel out to the British Newspaper Library in deepest Colindale and whirr through miles of microfilm.

It’s an absolutely fascinating piece, studded with gems – who knew (not me), for example, that in a London “boiled beef house” (a restaurant specialising in serving “a most delicious ‘portion’ of stewed beef done up in a sticky, coagulated, glutinous gravy of surpassing richness”, Google reveals), the accompanying drink of choice was porter? Slow-stewed beef and porter: I’m channelling Harry Champion just thinking about it. Please contact me if you’re now planning this as a FABPOW, I’ll be over to try it out.

It also confirms information from other sources, such as the availability of draught lager in at least some outlets in Victorian Britain, the identification of “ale” and “mild” as the same drink, and the higher status given to bitter, compared to ale and porter.

Below is the article in its entirety, with asides and footnotes in square brackets by me. The picture above is of the public bar of the Dover Castle, 172 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, taken the year after it was rebuilt in 1895, and just the sort of bar being talked about: note the sawdust, the brass footrail (seats were found only in the saloon bar) the ten handpumps (the saloon bar only had one), and the rows of casks on the back bar filled with spirits from Old Tom (sweet gin) to brandy. No pumpclips: these never started appearing until the 1950s. I believe this pub was destroyed in the Second World War, since the site is now occupied by a building of typical late-1940s neo-Georgian style, though it’s still a bar, called the Walrus. Continue reading The 1900 Pub – the biggest surprise

Order the definitive book on British beer styles now

It’s now less than one month to go to the official publication of Amber, Gold and Black, The History of Britain’s Great Beers, the first book devoted solely to the development of beer styles in Britain, from bitter to porter, covering every aspect of their history, what they were when they started , how they developed and what they are today. Pre-order it today here and put a few pennies more in my pocket at the same time that you learn new facts to stun your beer drinking friends.

Amber, Gold and Black was previously only available as an ebook, but is now, thanks to the lovely people at The History Press, coming out in hardback, revised and, where needed, updated.

Whether you’re a beer beginner or a buff, I guarantee you’ll learn things you never knew about both beers you’re familiar with, and beers you’ve never heard of.

This is the book for beer lovers, for brewers, for people who work in pubs, bars and drink stores, for anybody interested in beer, the most complete and comprehensive study of British beer styles ever written. Its 16 chapters looking at the roots of the styles we enjoy today, as well as those ales and beers we have lost, and a study into how the liquids that fill our beer glasses, amber gold and black, developed over the years.

Continue reading Order the definitive book on British beer styles now

The ‘beeriodic table’: beautifully executed, fatally flawed

I feel bad about this, really bad. Pete Brown’s having a “let’s be nice” month over on his blog, and all I can do is be mean, nasty, negative and carping. (And it’s not because I didn’t win anything in the BGBW awards, ’cos I didn’t enter this year, so there.)

Someone has produced a beautiful “periodic table of beer styles” you can see here, it’s a lovely piece of graphics, based on the familiar periodic table in chemistry, but grouping beers into families of styles, rather than chemical elements. It’s obvious that a huge amount of care and craftspersonship went into the creation of the “beeriodic table”. It looks lovely, and I’ve no doubt many, many beer geeks will print it off and pin it up on their walls. It’s obviously been put together by somebody who loves beer very much. I admire enormously their dedication, and their skill: it must have taken hours, days to do. It’s a great piece of design. And it’s wrong, totally wrong, in so many ways.

Continue reading The ‘beeriodic table’: beautifully executed, fatally flawed