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:

Vulnerable
Porter
Porter, once made by thousands of brewers, large and small, in the UK, actually went extinct in Britain in the early 1950s, and in Ireland in 1973. It was brought back to life in 1978 by a couple of brewers, Timothy Taylor in Yorkshire and Penrhos in Herefordshire. A fair number of small brewers make porters today, but it is still far from the mainstream beer it was in the 19th century, when it was the most popular drink in the country.

Stout
Guinness aside, stout – today’s version began as simply the stronger version of porter – also suffered a sharp decline in the second half of the 20th century. London was once a huge centre for stout brewing (as it was for porter brewing): in the early 1950s the London brewer Watney Combe Reid made one draught stout and seven different bottled stouts. But by the mid-1980s a survey by What’s Brewing found just 29 brewers in the UK and Channel Islands still making stout, most of them milk stouts (qv), and as older breweries closed, few of the newcomers were making a stout. Stout has seen a small comeback among Britain’s new brewers in recent years, but one problem is the extremely blurry line today between stout and porter: some modern brewers actually make a stout that is weaker than their porter.

Endangered
Light mild
Twentieth-century light mild was the descendant of the strong pale light mild ales of the 19th and 18th centuries (qv), still lightly hopped, but with the strength drastically lowered in response to the huge rises in taxes on beer, and the restrictions on production, seen in the First World War. Together with dark mild (qv), this was the most popular draught beer style in Britain from the end of the 19th century through to the start of the 1960s. However, the drink failed to capture new generations of pub-goers, and it suffered a catastrophic decline in sales over the next 30 years. Arguably, since most modern drinkers expect a “mild” to be dark, “light mild” should really be in the “critically endangered” category.

Dark mild

Dark mild is pretty much a 20th century invention, and overlaps with (and sometimes includes) the weaker Burton Ales/Old Ales. It is related to Brown Ale (qv), but Brown Ale was always a bottled beer style. It may have sprung from an attempt by brewers during the First World War to produce a weaker beer that still had a full mouthfeel, by using darker malts (but this is just my guess). Dark mild suffered from the same late-20th century catastrophic decline in demand as light mild: both also had a marketing problem in the 1990s and 2000s as some brewers tried to revive them, that many drinkers apparently would not buy a beer called “mild”, though they would happily drink it if it was labelled something like “dark ale”. This may now be less true, as drinkers become keener on trying the beers their grandfathers drank.

Light bitter
Another product of the “Great gravity crash” of the First World War, light bitter has its roots in large part in the AK, KK and XK light bitters of the 19th century, which were themselves only “light”, at around 4.5 per cent alcohol by volume, in comparison with other 19th century beers. Twentieth century light bitter, between 3 per cent abv and 3.5 per cent abv, included the “boy’s bitters” of the West Country, as well as the AK and KK beers brewed in places such as Kent, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Monmouthshire. There appear to be very few examples around today.

Old ale

The boundary between Old Ale and Mild is blurry, simply because, historically, Old Ale was Mild Ale, but aged. Old Ales were generally stronger, however (which means they sometimes cross the line into the region known as “barley wine”, a catch-all for many different varieties of strong ale/beer) and a number of Old Ales still survive, including Robinson’s Old Tom, Theakston’s Old Peculier and Adnam’s Tally Ho.

Honey ale

One of the oldest styles in Britain, going back to Old Welsh bragaut, but killed off in the 18th century by a tax regime that wanted only (taxed) malt and (taxed) hops to go into beer. Revived in the late 20th century, but despite the success of honey beers from Wells & Youngs (Waggle Dance) and Fullers (Honeydew), still too much of a minority beer.

Imperial stout
One of the finest strong beers in the world, but extinct in Britain in 1994, after the last brewing (at that time) of Courage Imperial Russian Stout. However, it was successfully revived in the US, where it fitted perfectly the market for extreme beers, and a small number of UK brewers now make Imperial Stouts. In 2011 Wells & Youngs brought out a new version of Courage Imperial Russian Stout, but it is style a style more celebrated away from the country of its birth than in Britain.

Critically endangered
Burton Ale/winter warmer
Burton Ale, dark and slightly sweet, was one of the three most popular draught beer styles in Britain up to the 1950s, particularly in London, where it was a winter speciality. It then crashed out of favour, so that in 1971 Young’s changed the name of its own Burton Ale to Winter Warmer. Ind Coope thoroughly muddied the waters in 1976 by bringing out a beer called “Burton Ale” that was actually a draught IPA, a totally different style. Burton Ales came in every strength: Bass No 1 was an example of the strongest variety, Marston’s Owd Rodger is another strong Burton Ale, but some could be as low as 4 per cent alcohol, when they were sold as milds. A few examples of this classic and largely forgotten style survive: Fuller’s 1845 is one, and Fuller’s is reviving a version of its Old Burton Extra strong ale from the 1930s for its Past Masters series of beers. BPA, the beer that is blended by Greene King with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk, is a Burton, made with dark sugars and crystal malt: the initials stand for Burton Pale Ale. Almost no new brewers have ever made a Burton, one of the rare examples being Smiles Heritage.

Scotch Ale

Scotch ale is the Edinburgh version of Burton Ale: dark, with a bittersweet, sometimes slightly metallic tang, and generally strong. It survived in Belgium as Gordon Highland Scotch, which is sold (at a slightly lower strength) in the UK as McEwan’s Champion. Hopes are that Wells & Youngs may revive Younger’s No 3, a draught Scotch Ale.

Milk stout/sweet stout

In the late 19th century a taste arose for sweeter stouts, but such beers would quickly lose their sweetness as they aged. The perfection around 1907 of stouts made with an addition of unfermentable lactose sugar, derived from milk, eventually resulted in one of the most popular beer styles of the mid-20th century: even in the early 1970s there were still more than 40 sweet stouts being brewed in Britain. The style again crashed as older breweries closed down, with few or no new brewers making a sweet stout. There has been a small revival very recently in interest in the style, led by the Bristol Beer Factory and its draught Milk Stout.

Vatted old ale

About the only survivor of vatted old ale in Britain is Greene King 5X, which is, alas, almost never made available on its own, but generally blended with other beers to make, eg, Strong Suffolk. Up to the end of the Second World War, however, Old Beer, matured for a year or more in huge oak vats, was still popular in the West Country, particularly in Bristol. Few brewers, alas, have the time or space to make long-aged beers today.

Sour aged ale

A variety of vatted old ale is the sour aged ale represented now only by Gale’s Prize Old Ale, where a proportion of each brew is held back, solera-style, to add to the following year’s fresh ale. The complexity and depth available from such long-aged beers, particularly after several years in bottle, is stunning. Fuller’s rescued POA when Gale’s closed, but again, few brewers have the time or space to devote to such a minority beer.

Brown ale

Modern brown ale in Britain was the invention of Thomas Wells Thorpe, managing director of the London brewer Mann Crossmann & Paulin, who introduced Mann’s Brown in 1902. It did not take off until after the First World War, but by the 1930s every British brewer had at least one brown ale in its portfolio. A number of brewers made stronger Double Brown ales. Again, the closure of so many breweries from the 1960s onwards saw the number of brown ales made fall off a cliff, not helped by the sharply ageing profile of brown ale drinkers. Seriously endangered today.

Extinct
Brett-fermented stock ale
Brettanomyces yeast was first isolated by the Danish brewing scientist Niels Hjelte Claussen in or just before 1903 from an English “stock beer”, in the Carlsberg brewery’s laboratory, in Copenhagen, and the name Claussen gave them honours their origins: Brettanomyces literally means “British fungus”, as Saccharomyces, the name given to the standard brewing yeast, means “sugar fungus”. Brett gave cask and vat-aged stock beers their particular flavours, at it does to Belgian lambic beer, and at least one former classic British beer, Colne Spring Ale, from the Hertfordshire brewery Benskin’s, was deliberately infected with Brett in its production. The last brewing of CSA was in 1970. Today a number of American brewers have been making beers with Brett, but to my knowledge no British brewer has put out a commercial Brett ale.

Strong pale mild
London once had a set of brewers who specialised in making pale ales at around 8 or 8.5 per cent abv that were sold “mild”, that is, unaged: they included the former Lion brewery that stood on the site of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Strong milds gradually gave way to “four-ale” milds (weaker beers sold at four old pence a quart pot), which themselves were transformed by the restrictions of the First World War into the even weaker light milds of the 20th century.

Gale ale
Ale flavoured with bog myrtle, or sweet gale, Myrica gale, and a host of other herbs from yarrow to rosemary were being made in Britain until an Act of 1711 that brought in a tax on hops and banned any other “bitter ingredient (to serve instead of hops) in brewing or making any ale”. One of the few beers made today that contains sweet gale is Williams Brothers’ heather ale, Fraoch, which tastes, in fact, more of the gale than it does of the heather.

West Country White Ale
West Country White Ale, a “naturally fermented” ale containing eggs and wheat, was one of the oldest British beer styles known, made in Cornwall and Devon from at least the Medieval period. It was still being produced in the 19th century, but died out around 1875.

Mum
A beer style originally brewed in Germany but popular in Britain from at least the 1660s, mum was a heavily herbed, strong, bitter wheat beer. It had vanished by the start of the 19th century.

There are other beer styles you could argue should be on that list, such as oatmeal stout, and the East India Porter Ron Pattinson successfully persuaded the Pretty Things brewery in the US to resurrect. You can argue (I’m sure you will) about which category different beers should go in. And, of course, Continental Europe has its own selection of endangered and extinct beers. But I hope that’s a start to making EVERY month Endangered Beers Month.

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69 thoughts on “Endangered beers

  1. I’ve always been given to understand that dark milds were developed for steel- and mineworkers, providing a light – often under 3% – but satisfying session beer to clear the throat and slake the thirst. Moorhouse Black Cat is definitely a dark mild, as is (was?) Tetley’s Mild and there are other examples from northern brewers like Old Mill and Wold Top.

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  2. I agree, that’s a great article. I’m going to find a West Country White Ale recipe and have a crack.

    Martyn, I’m trying to find out some information about the weird and wonderful family I have married into. They used to own Garton & Co brewery in Bristol and were something to do with the Anglo Bavarian brewery in Shepton Mallet. Do you know anything about them? I’d love to try and recreate some of their beers (I know they did particularly clear pale ales with inverted sugar) to share with the family.

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    • Have a look at my post on the first lager brewery in Britain (which WASN’T the Anglo-Bavarian) – yes, one Garton owned the brewery in Bristol, and his brother, IIRC, a sugar dealer, owned a brewery in Southampton that moved to Shepton Mallet. Very interesting family, about whom too little has been written.

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      • Thanks Martin. I had indeed read that post which was also insightful – just trying to gather up anything else I can find.

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  3. Pretty Things have brewed a strong Pale Mild, too. Two of them, in fact.

    Doesn’t Greene King Strong Suffolk have a brettanomyces element to it? And for that matter, doesn’t Prize Old Ale?

    Fullers brewed OBE last week. Can’t wait to try it.

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    • Not certain exactly what microflora go into Strong Suffolk and POA, Ron, so I didn’t mention it/them. I forgot about Pretty Things’ strong pale milds, and I should have mentioned your Double XX (available in Hong Kong, to my great delight, along with the Stout). I agree, I’m really champing to try the OBE.

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  4. Another extinct ale is, believe it or not, Cock Ale. Brewed with chicken and Sack (insert joke here….but i think Sack was something akin to sherry).

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  5. Excellent topic, and one that is starting to get noticed by some. Through the efforts of your writings and other beer historians, these old style beers tell a story, spark intrigue and then get picked up by the passionate few. I believe in the past 4 or 5 years, Pete Brown sort of lead things off by his journey from Burton to India with his friend Barry. Tim O’Rourke sailing from London to St Petersburg for the love of Imperial Russian Stout , Ron Pattinson recreating historic recipes with Pretty Things and Fullers Past Masters. Williams Bros, producing historic ales of Scotland. In the US, Sam Caligione’s recreation beers of ancient times, and my Arctic Ale project. I think it is the passion for these old styles and the stories that will either bring back or sustain old ales and beers of the past.
    For me, knowing the history of the beer, the brewery, what was happening at the time(wars, taxes, acts..etc ) gives me as the consumer, an extra sensory receptor ( yes, a fourth sense) to sight, smell and taste.
    Our hope is to spread the “will ” to others, quirky but appropriate, was the “Save the Ales” tagline used some years ago.

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  6. Three cheers for Harveys then, whose sublime Nut Brown Ale is, as far as I can tell, the last Brown Ale produced in Britain apart from Manns (the most successful beer in terms of market share ever?). Harveys is also probably the last brewery in England to make a session strength sweet stout too, Mackeson having ‘done a Manns’.

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    • Southern brown ales are one thing, but in the north we have a tradition of somewhat stronger, but no less traditional, varieties, including the excellent Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale which is available in their 320 (ish) pubs and specialist offies nationwide. Then, Double Maxim – the former Vaux beer – a classic and very tasty northern brown ale revived by Maxim Brewing Co and supplied in cask, bottle and can. I’m also sure that Heineken UK might suggest that Newcastle Brown Ale’s success would probably have pipped Manns by now.

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      • Journo — Newcastle Brown Ale, Sam Smith’s Nut Brown and Double Maxim are all what have all my drinking life been termed Strong Dark Ales, not brown ales. It is one of the great ironies much remarked upon in the brewing industry, that the best-known beer called brown ale is not actually considered to be a brown ale (100 million bottles a year in the 1990s i believe), just as Draught Guinness is of course not draught at all, but keg.
        When a micro produces a brown ale it tends to veer towards the higher gravities. If anyone can come up with a ‘proper’ brown ale of around 3% other than Harveys Nut Brown I’d be very interested to hear.
        The last 15 years have seen King & Barnes, Fullers, Youngs, McMullen, Greene King (Harvest last year and the brilliant Burton Ale in about 1999), Ridleys, Gales, Batemans, Shepherd Neame Tolly and Gibbs Mew brown ales fall off the edge. I remember being very impressed that there were four different brown ales available in Redhill for example, in 1999.
        Of course the ‘men with beards’ never paid attention to any of these beers, because, as one local member of CAMRA pointed out to me repeatedly when I was drinking Burton Ale in the Red Lion, Stevenage, “it’s not real” (!).

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        • “Not actually considered to be a brown ale” by whom?

          All my drinking life I’ve never heard a single person refer to Newcastle Brown as a Strong Dark Ale until now.

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  7. Excellent list and commentary. I’d argue that 1700′s-style, aged porter – an all-brown malt porter vatted at least 6 months, the original entire – deserves a category on its own, as all modern porter and stout (to my knowledge) uses pale malt as the base. Aging is an essential part of the concept albeit porter was sold mild too in order that the coarse hops used meld with the malt flavour and also to lift off any disagreeable wood smoke flavour left from kilning brown malt where such fuel was used of course.

    Homebrewers have here and there shown that home-made brown malt can be used 100% in the mash. You must not mash it too hot and the malt must not be kilned too long or too hot so as to retain enough diastase to convert itself.

    Gary

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  8. Black beer! And, still on Barm’s blog, can we add “Black cork” to the list of extinct styles? (Probably not, given that nobody seems to know what it tasted or even looked like.)

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  9. Wonderful post. Reminds me of a bumper sticker I bought at an upstate New York brewery in the last 1990s: “Save the Ales”. At a beer festival this past weekend in Kansas City, I tasted the local regional Boulevard Brewing’s exceptionally hoppy and peppery Brett-Saison. I also saw Mild Ale, Milk stout, and several brown ales available (Grand Teton’s 5 o’clock Shadow was I thought a Brown ale until I just checked it and it is called a double black lager or schwarzbier).

    Knowing that fact about the name Brett makes me look at The Sun Also Rises a little differently.

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  10. Arguably, since most modern drinkers expect a “mild” to be dark, “light mild” should really be in the “critically endangered” category.

    Yes and no; I don’t think the style‘s in any danger (at least in the Northwest), but in terms of name recognition it’s already in spotter limbo. Robinson’s and Hyde’s both do light and dark milds as standard; in fact the light (1892 (fka Hatters) and 1863) are easier to find than the dark (1892 Dark and Owd Oak). But all of these are rather conspicuously not badged as ‘mild’; nor for that matter is Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best, a light mild that’s very popular around here. The 1863 pump clip actually describes it as a bitter. (OTOH, one barman I encountered in a Hyde’s pub on last year’s Mild Magic swore blind that his pub wasn’t included in MM, as “we don’t serve mild – just Owd Oak”.)

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  11. One final question: how can the punter tell whether he’s drinking an old ale (e.g. Old Tom) or a strong Burton (e.g. Owd Roger)? I’ll take your word on those two, but I’m thinking of dark, sweet, strong beers like Lees’ Moonraker (a barleywine according to AT-J), the same brewery’s occasional Manchester Star (a “hoppy porter’ according to ratebeer, although the tasting notes all seem to say things like “Prunes and raisins covered in chocolate”), and Marble’s Wee Star of blessed memory. I guess it largely depends what the brewers thought they were making, but I like the idea of being able to spot a “Burton-ish” flavour.

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  14. I’m doing my best Martyn, I’ve commercially brewed a stout, a dark mild, an AK light bitter, an Imperial Russian Stout and a Burton style Winter warmer. Hopefully I’ll be able to move the Brett-fermented stock ale beyond the pilot plant stage soon. West country white ale I’m happy to leave extinct though!

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  15. I’m confused. You list Oatmeal Stout as extinct. Doesn’t Samuel Smith’s brew an Oatmeal Stout? Anderson Valley, a California brewer has an Oatmeal Stout too (Barney Flat’s Oatmeal Stout) and I’m pretty sure a few others on this side of the pond are brewing the style. Also, there are several varieties “Scotch Ales” out there. Belhaven, Orkney. In Colorado, Oskar Blues has a Scotch Ale, Old Chub.

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    • Do I list it as extinct? I think I wrote ambiguously, and “in that list” meant “of endangered and extinct beers”, not “of extinct beers”. Mind, Oatmeal Stout WAS extinct, more or less, until Michael Jackson inspired a re-creation.

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  16. If someone would send me recipes for the brown ale (Mann’s), Burton ale and both milds, I would gladly try to help the revival by making some 5 gallon batches and try to get them made by a couple of friends who own breweries. I already make all the stouts listed, including Imperial, scotch wee heavy, several porters and old ale.
    Alas, I am in the USA, so it won’t help too much in Britain, but if there is any way that we can make beers more accurately to the historical styles, we definitely want to do so.
    Love the article.

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  17. Fascinating and instructive resume Martyn. Just a couple of questions if only to help my own sense of order – I find the dividing lines between certain Milds, Olds, Burtons and Barley Wines troubling. You list Theakston’s OP, Adnam’s Tally Ho and Robbie’s Old Tom as examples of old ales and I’m in no position to disagree (though I imagine they’re not aged in the manner of a true 19th. century olds). But couldn’t some or all of these be also described as being Burtons? Old Pec is dark (though not a porter) and is sweet and strong. I’d formed the impression that 19thC. milds and olds were “Burtons” anyway.

    A second point, we learn that Young’s Winter Warmer was their Burton re-badged and Fuller’s (superb) Past Masters XX Strong is described as a Burton yet there seems a real gulf in style between this and Young’s Warmer. Similarly, I was intrigued to see Fuller’s 1845 labelled a Burton. I’m sure I read that Fuller’s ESB was based on Fuller’s Burton (I may be wrong of course). If these are Burtons, where in terms of Fuller’s, does the change to Pale Ale come – between ESB and London Pride? I realise that the attempt to categorise styles naturally encounters blurring over time and across breweries but my thirst for accurate classification is as strong as anyone’s. But it sometimes feels the harder we delve into the subject the more areas for confusion it can throw up. Great blog, keep it up.

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    • Categorising beers is a mug’s game: the overlaps make a nonsense of any attempt to bring rigid order to beer styles, and it’s easy to disagree about how the cake should be sliced. Certainly, from my reading of 19th century accounts, a difference was made between Burton ales and other old and/or strong ales. To me, Theakston’s OP, Old Tom and Tally Ho are drier than, don’t have the fruitier element that characterises a Burton, and appear to lean more towards darker malts than the dark brewing sugars Burtons use (I could be talking horse manure here: these are my impressions, rather than a study of the different recipes.) They seem to belong to a parallel tradition of Old Ales, similar to but not the same as Burtons. The XX Strong is another very similar strong ale tradition again: Ron Pattinson suggests you could call it a Burton, an Old Ale or a Strong Ale, I think there’s so much overlap sometimes it may be pointless saying into exactly which slot a particular beer fits. Fuller’s ESB wasn’t based on its Burton, ESB replaced the Burton, a (strong) bitter replacing a (strong) ale.

      Hope that explains it all!

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      • One of the extinct styles most deserving for revival, and which would make great sense from an economic/touristic standpoint, is West Country White Ale. Given that there is detailed and relatively late (Victorian) information on the style, it is a puzzle to me that breweries out the Western way haven’t twigged to this one. Bitter and golden ale have been overdone, it is the native beer of your own region, storied for centuries, which cries out rather for attention from the dusty tomes. As for any concerns that people won’t buy a cloudy style of beer – I anticipate the line about pigs wrastling before someone quotes it! – Hoegaarden does pretty well in England I understand. In North America, even brewery-conditioned craft beer, any style, is increasingly being sold unfiltered (the draft). Even in England judging from a recent visit, people don’t seem as hung up on clarity as in the past. The time is nigh surely for a revival of this storied old style of Western beer…

        Gary

        Gary

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      • It does! It’s helpful to have a reminder of your reading of the differences between the 19th century olds/strongs and Burtons with regard to the grist. Style categorisation is of course a mug’s game but you’re doing a good job of changing the mug from tarnished pewter to transparent glass!

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    • The dividing line between Mild Ale and Old Ale? Pretty hard to define, once they’d mostly stopped long aging. And after WW I, a total mess of confusion.

      Burton as a style in London seems to appear at the end of the 19th century. That’s about when the X and K Ale grists started to diverge.

      The reason for the difference between Past Masters XX (XXK really – the K is important) is time. Young’s Winter Warmer is a 1950′s or 1960′s Burton. The style had changed, as styles always do.XXK was an earlier incarnation. You could pick any beer that’s been brewed for a long period of time and get similar results.

      Pretty Things X Ales, from 1838 and 1945 recipes, demonstrate the point.

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    • I have a bottled Brett Baltic Porter. It was aged for 6 months in an old bourbon barrel so it has the flavors of the toasted wood as well. The brett part was accidental but it is actually quite good if you like brett beers.

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  19. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the beer brewed using sweet gale by Stig Anker Anderson at Stonehenge Brewery. In the mid 90s he was experimenting with a lot of different additives and styles.

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  21. Martyn, I enjoyed (re)reading this article of yours as I finish up my first tour of beer drinking in England. The Red Squirrel Mild image caught my eye — I got to try this in London and it was excellent. Been happy to find a few porters here and there as well. They are more rare over here than I’d imagined (versus the US) but I found some particularly good ones up in Yorkshire. Presently enjoying a Young’s Winter Warmer in Richmond.

    Keep up the quality writing and campaigning! Cheers!

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    • Yes, that would be terrific: please do send it to mcornell AT blueyonder DOT co DOT uk, I’d love to see it. I’m interested in William because, as you probably know, HIS son Percy joined his brother-in-law Edward Pryor (whose family were partners in Truman’s brewery in Brick Lane in the East End) in a brewery in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Pryor Reid lasted until 1920, but was sold and closed in large part because Percy’s son, Geoffrey Reid, had been killed in action near Ypres in 1915 and Percy had no heir to leave the brewery to.

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  22. Am I right in remembering that Gales released a limited amount of Prize Old Ale on draught on the condition that the landlord restricted it to a half pint per customer?

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