The one where I start an argument with a professor

It’s not necessarily a great idea to start arguing with an actual professor of history over matters historical when one is, let’s be frank, an amateur with no actual qualifications in the subject. Still, here we go: Richard Unger, distinguished scholar, professor of medieval history at the University of British Columbia, former president of the Medieval Academy of America, author of books including A History of Brewing in Holland 900-1900 and Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, has an article in the latest edition (Winter 2020, no. 185) of Brewery History, the journal of the Brewery History Society, that not only repeats previously debunked nonsense about the origins of porter but adds some extra untruths to the stew.

It is particularly embarrassing for me to have to call out the professor in public for getting his facts wrong, as we are both on the editorial board of Brewery History, and colleague attacking colleague is never a good look. But I haven’t spent the last three and a half years trying to write the definitive history of porter in order to let someone get away in a rightly well-respected publication with ahistorical and totally unevidenced assertions, even if they are a professor.

The professor’s misstatements come in an article comparing the brewing industries of England and Holland between 1650 and 1800. He picks up on the illegal blending of very strong beer and weak beer that was going on in the 1690s as part of a tax avoidance scam, claims this very strong beer was called “stout” – might be called stout, might be called double beer, according to a source from 1698 – and then claims, on no evidence whatsoever, that “To make stout brewers used more hops to preserve the drink and lower quality brown malts so the beer, even watered down, had a brown colour, different from many pale beers on sale in the city. Londoners came to prefer darker beers as a result.”

There are at least three major problems with those claims, even ignoring the fact that there is no evidence for them. To start, if you are making very strong beers, of course, you need fewer hops to help preserve the beer, ceteri paribus, as the extra alcohol acts as a preservative. Next, there is no evidence at all of pale beers, or pale ales, being on sale in London in the 1690s, let alone “many”: it is only late in the reign of Queen Anne that we start to see pale ale mentioned in the capital (and we were, of course, still in the period when ale, lightly hopped, and beer, well-hopped, were regarded as separate drinks, something the professor does not seem to be aware of.) Instead the most popular malt drinks in London were brown ale and brown beer, the one lightly hopped, the other more heavily so. There is excellent evidence for the novelty of pale ale in early Georgian London: it is only in the early 1720s that we start to see references to “pale ale” breweries in the capital. This is one of those classic cases of “the exception proves the rule”. These breweries were specifically referred to as pale ale breweries because being a pale ale brewery was exceptional: the rule was that ale breweries were almost universally brown ale breweries, and therefore you didn’t have to specify “brown ale” when talking about an ale brewery, that would be assumed. Only when it was a pale ale brewery did you have to differentiate the exceptional from the rule.

Londoners did not, therefore “come to prefer darker beers as a result” of this new “stout” – they ALREADY preferred dark beers, and dark ales. In any case, how would that even work? This is one of those unevidenced assertions presented as supposed fact which, when you poke it, collapses completely. Why would Londoners come to prefer dark beers just because brewers were now selling them rubbish dark beers made with poor quality dark malts? How did that work? The whole claim is nonsense on stilts, frankly, and any undergraduate presenting an essay with that kind of illogical, badly thought out rubbish would get a red line struck through it.

The professor then goes on to claim that “porter solved the problems of illegal mixing,” which is a variation on the old “porter was a substitute for three-threads” myth that first popped up in 1802, 90 or more years after the events the myth purported to explain. Again, there is NO actual evidence that porter and the illegal mixing of weak and very strong beers to avoid tax were connected. Next, Professor Unger says that “The resulting porter was then aged to counteract the bitterness that hops imparted to the beer. Sitting in the vats, over time the drink lost some of its sharpness, but also gained alcohol content. Aging porter made the drink more cloudy, but this was hardly noticed because the drink was dark.”

Again, there is no evidence at all to support any of this, and much of it is demonstrably wrong. Little of the porter brewed before the 1760s was aged in vats: it was aged in butts, 108-gallon casks. The most likely original reason for the ageing of porter was because it was brewed with cheap brown malt dried over wood, and the ageing allowed the smoky tang to die down. The serendipitous result of long ageing of a well-hopped beer was the development of masses of luscious estery flavours thanks to the ubiquitousness of Brettanomyces yeasts in wooden brewing vessels, which munched up the higher sugars Saccharomyces cerevisiae left behind and at the same time added extra depth to the beer’s flavours. And ageing the porter actually helped it clear, rather than making it cloudy.

9 thoughts on “The one where I start an argument with a professor

  1. incredible – how can such contrary statements get into print – if you’re both on the editorial board of Brewery History, don’t you check information with one another?

    1. Submissions are normally peer-reviewed. I assume that, as an editorial board member, Professor Unger was allowed a pass.

  2. God, this is really depressing…
    I have always really respected Unger’s work, but much of this is schoolboy error.
    Thank goodness we have someone to monitor and correct this type of fake history.
    Good work Martyn (as always).

  3. “Sitting in the vats over time the drink lost some of its sharpness, but also gained alcohol content. Aging porter made the drink more cloudy, but this was hardly noticed because the drink was dark.”
    This is muddled, and does not suggest very thorough knowledge of the effects of this type of wood aging.
    “The drink lost some of its sharpness” – as a west country man I’m assuming by “sharp” he means “tart/acidic”. Precisely the opposite of what he says is more likely during wood aging. The beer is likely to become more sharp/tart/acidic over time as a result of lactobaccilus bacteria infecting it and creating lactic acid, whilst acetobactor bacteria could also be creating acetic acid. This is what normally happens when lambic is wood aged, creating (usually after blending) gueuze, a notably sharp/tart beer.
    “Aging Porter made the drink more cloudy” – this is not what would normally happen during prolonged aging. Normally gravity would bring about sedimentation, whereby solid particles (such as protein, for example) would sink to the bottom of the vessel, resulting in a clearer, less turbid, beer.
    This is pretty basic stuff, to be honest.

    1. Indeed. The point of porter, of course, was that because it was heavily hopped, the development of lactobacillus and acetobactor was delayed, allowing the Brett more opportunity to add its own estery flavours before the sour/acid flavours developed

  4. Hello Martyn, I just came back to the post to see if perhaps there had been a comment added regarding a further discussion with Prof. Unger. I think I share that he’s someone I consider a good source, of course, it is easy for all to miss things. Was there admission, reconciliation, or the lot with him since the summer?

  5. I doubt very much that he noticed. It’s one of the problems in any field that keeping up with the latest findings is hard, and in history I suspect that there’s always a feeling among the “experts” that nothing new can be uncovered in your field, you know it all and what you know isn’t going to be altered – so you never read any recent publications because you can’t believe they can tell you anything you don’t alread know.

    1. Martyn, thanks for responding. I made the mistake of assuming that you might discuss it with him, or bring it through the journal as a letter to the editor, or even as an article review in the book review section. This is a problem that I see in multiple academic journals. Few have correspondence sections that cover commentary on articles. I assume that the reason is that they have conferences where the papers are given, and these sometimes have formal paper responses printed for the conference attendees. (obviously some of this comes out in the normal peer-review process as well, but that’s limited to just a few anonymous reviewers.) I think it would be useful to have the conversation at least through the editorial board. It has been argued by an Dr. Spears at the MIT Sloan center speaks about the importance of these journals and the interaction that certain professions have with them. (citing the medical community originally). I think more conversation in the public space and commentary is valuable for all, in moving consensus forward. Maybe even just throw him the blog link with a wink even? Just a thought, but what do I know? I’m not a renowned historian. Have a Happy New Year and thanks for the great writing!

      1. In fact, while, as you say, the BHS journal does not have a letters page, the contents of the blog rebuttal went into the quarterly BHS newsletter, which does accept letters. Perhaps not the most satisfactory way of conveying disagreement, but there …

        Thanks for enjoying what I do.

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