How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

Václav Berka explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

Václav Berka, senior trade brewmaster, explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

I’ve taken part in many beer-related events in the upstairs room at the White Horse in Parsons Green, from tasting porter rescued from a 19th-century shipwreck to making a presentation on my historical beer heroes, but I never thought I would one day be helping to brew a lager there. Even more unlikely, this lager was made with genuine Plzeň well water – and it stood a fair chance of going into large-scale production.

The event was organised by Pilsner Urquell, the invitation came from Mark Dredge, to whom I am extremely grateful for such a fun day, it was called the London Brew-Off, and it involved three teams of beer enthusiasts, each put in charge of a 20-litre Speidel Braumeister brewing kit, handed four kilos of ground Czech malt, pointed to bags containing a selection of other speciality malts and eight or ten different hop varieties, and told to think up a recipe for a pilsner that would be good enough to go on public sale, using those ingredients, and then brew it. Our raw, hopped wort would be cooled, then have proper Pilsner Urquell yeast added, and be taken away for fermenting and lagering and, finally, bottling. On Tuesday July 15, that is, just over six weeks later, all the lagers the teams had made will be test-tasted, and the best one will be put into full-scale production – 30 hectolitres, 5,270 pints by Windsor & Eton Brewery, ready for the White Horse’s Euro Beer Fest in September. Continue reading

Colonel Williams knocks ’em out

My apologies to the cask ale drinkers of South Wales. I may have inadvertently set free a beast among you.

I learnt today that Colonel Williams East India Pale Ale, the collaboration beer I brewed at Brain’s brewery last month, sold out in less than 16 hours when it went on sale in the Goat Major in Cardiff last week, the fastest-selling craft beer the pub has seen.

That’s good – it very much suggests that people were coming back for more than one pint after the first. But what is particularly surprising about that is that Colonel Williams is six per cent alcohol by volume. American readers may say: “So what?” But British draught beer drinkers simply don’t normally drink beers that strong in quantity. It appears that, completely inadvertently, I may have designed a beer that goes down like a session bitter, despite having almost a third half as much more alcohol than session bitters normally do. Dangerous.

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How I brewed my own IPA at Brain’s

Big Brains

‘People who know beer have 14-foot brains’ – I’ll drink to that

You can’t be a credible beer blogger in Britain today, it seems, if you haven’t been invited to do a “collaboration brew” with a commercial brewery. Dredge and Avery have done one. Cole has done one. Brown has done several, as has Pattinson. So when the South Wales brewery Brain’s emailed to ask if I would like to come down and brew a beer of my own design on the 10-barrel “microbrewery” plant they’ve just had installed, my first question was: “What time is the train to Cardiff?”

Actually, it wasn’t, of course. My real first question was: “What stab at a historic recreation with at least some vague pretence of authenticity can I inflict on the drinkers of Wales?” Fortunately, Brain’s had narrowed down the choices by specifying that they wanted an India Pale Ale, as part of a series that would be following on from Barry Island IPA, designed by Simon Martin of Real Ale Guide and named in imitation of Goose Island IPA from Chicago. The follow-up question, therefore, was: “Is there any historic link at all to be found between India Pale Ale and Cardiff?” One troll through the byways of Google later and the answer was: yes, a little convoluted and obscure, but one with some lovely resonances.

One of Brain’s best-known pubs in Cardiff is called the Goat Major. This was the title of the man who looked after the goat that was the regimental mascot of the Royal Regiment of Wales. That regiment was an amalgamation of several other regiments, one of which (the one that began the tradition of a regimental goat) was the 41st Regiment of Foot. The 41st Foot was in Madras in 1831, in the middle of a 20-year posting to India, when it was granted a territorial affiliation, becoming the 41st (Welch) Regiment of Foot (sic – the regiment always preferred the old-fashioned spelling of “Welsh”). Undoubtedly the “Welch” affiliation came at the request of the regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Edmund Keynton Williams, whose family were from Maesrhyddid, Bedwellty.

I have no evidence for saying that Colonel Williams and his fellow officers drank India Pale Ale while they were in Madras (the troops would have preferred porter), but as Pete Brown has said, sometimes a historian has to declare: “Garn! They must’ve.” It would be far more surprising to discover that they didn’t drink the beer that was the popular refresher of middle and upper class Britons in India at the time.

In 1843 the 41st (Welch) returned home after taking part in the 1st Afghan War, and was garrisoned for a brief while in South Wales. It would be fun, I decided, to try to imagine for the 21st century the kind of beer the officers and men of the regiment might have been given if, when they were back in South Wales, they had gone along to their local brewer and said: “We drank this great beer out in India – can you reproduce it for us?” I even had the name for it, in honour of the man who linked the regiment with Wales: Colonel Williams’ East India Pale Ale.

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So what IS the difference between porter and stout?

One of the top 10 questions people who end up at this site put into search engines such as Google is a query about how to distinguish between porter and stout, something I’ve not actually tackled head-on yet. So – what difference is there between the two beers?

Er …

None.

Not now, anyway, not in any meaningful way. I’m not sure that there was ever a point, even when porter was at its most debased, when you could point to any truly distinctive difference between porter and stout except to say that “stout” meant a stronger version of porter. Indeed, for much of the past 300 years, to ask “what’s the difference between porter and stout?” would have been like asking “what’s the difference between dogs and Rottweilers?”

Since the revival of porter brewing, or to be more accurate, “the revival of beers being called porter”, even the “different strength” division has vanished, with several brewers making “stouts” that are weaker than their “porters”, I don’t believe it’s at all possible to draw a line and state categorically about dark beers being brewed today: “Everything over here is a stout and everything over there is a porter.” You can’t even draw a couple of meaningful Venn diagram circles and label one stout and the other porter: in terms of strength, ingredients, flavour and appearance, modern-day stouts and porters, I suggest, with the exception of “milk stouts”, occupy effectively identical spaces.

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Gale warning

gageleerYou know you’re a historic beer geek when … well, certainly when you immediately recognise a drawing of the plant bog myrtle on a bottle among the crammed shelves at Utobeer in Borough Market.

The name of the beer, Gageleer, from the Flemish word for the bog myrtle or sweet gale bush, gagel, confirmed what I had guessed from my initial glimpse: this was a Belgian brew flavoured with what was probably the most important plant used in pre-hop ales, Myrica gale, the heavily-scented heathland shrub that grows in wetlands throughout the British Isles, called gagellan in Old English, and also known as piment royale in French, Porst in German and pors in the Scandinavian languages.

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Bracia: great beer, shame about the dodgy history

Ping! It’s an email from the chaps at Thornbridge with details of their Bracia chestnut honey beer, the one raved over by more than just me at the Guild of Beer Writers dinner last week. The press release details exactly what goes into the beer, and also reveals where they got the name from: Bracia is, they say, “the Celtic name for a beverage brewed in Iron Age Europe with reference found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire … [made] with cereals and, most probably, honey”

Aargh, ooh, er, cripes, well, no, actually, very sorry, guys, you’re wrong. Bracia isn’t the name of a type of Celtic beer.

There is a word, bracis, which was known from Pliny’s Natural History, written around AD 77, and which he says is the Gallic name for a “ genus farris“, or type of grain.

Thornbridge's Bracia

Thornbridge's Bracia

The word was largely unknown apart from that one reference until the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, wooden writing boards dating to the last years of the first century and early years of the second century AD found at a Roman fort a few miles south of the later Hadrian’s Wall, close to the modern English/Scottish border.

These tablets reveal, among many other fascinating facts about the lives of Roman soldiers in Britain around AD 100-120 (such as they wore socks with their sandals – very British), that they were supplied with locally brewed beer, which was made from bracis.

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The history of yeast: breaking news

UPDATE

Ha! As I wrote yesterday, researchers in yeast genetics are changing the story on the history of yeast all the time, and the day I put that post up, new findings on the genetics of lager yeast came out which, as New Scientist reported, take the hybridisation narrative further down the road to a fascinating destination.

To quote New Scientist, Gavin Sherlock and Barbara Dunn of Stanford University, California, compared the genes of 17 lager and ale yeast strains across the world, with origins dating from between 1883 and 1976, and derived from breweries as diverse as Carlsberg and Labatt, Rainier and Heineken:

It has long been thought that Saccharomyces pastorianus, the yeast used in lager production, formed only once from the hybridisation of S. cerevisiae and S. bayanus. Instead, the team discovered that it happened at least twice in two separate locations in Europe, giving rise to the two different lager families … The hybrid, which makes lager instead of ale, probably evolved in Bavarian beer-brewing cellars during the 16th century.

The team also found that Saaz yeasts have a single copy of each parent yeast’s genome, whereas the Frohberg yeasts have an extra copy from S. cerevisiae. They believe this difference affects the flavour of the lager, as well as how quickly the yeasts can ferment the hops

[my emphasis, and sic, fer gawd's sake. Bloody journalists ... do they know nothing?]

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A short history of yeast

A fine yeasty head on a fermentation vessel at the former Whitbread brewery in London about 1948

A fine yeasty head on a fermentation vessel at the former Whitbread brewery in Chiswell Street, London about 1948

Around 80 million years ago, when Triceratops still browsed the plains of what wasn’t yet North America, some flowering plant species developed a new strategy to spread their seeds, encasing them in a soft, fleshy cover – fruit – that became sweet and tasty as everything ripened. The fruit was then eaten by animals, which would subsequently deposit the seeds far away from the mother plant, and with the addition of some useful fertiliser as well.

It did not take long, however, for enterprising funguses to start exploiting the sugar in the ripe fruits for their own growth and development, using oxygen to break the sugar down into carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy at the same time. If there was no oxygen about they would turn the sugar, via acetaldehyde, into alcohol, and make energy that way, although they very much preferred not to: alcohol was poisonous.

These funguses mostly reproduced by budding – dividing into two, and giving each daughter cell a complete copy of her mother’s genes. However, on one occasion, at least, a daughter received two copies of her mother’s genome instead of one. The daughter’s descendants evolved this spare set of genes so that, unlike their ancestors, they could make alcohol all the time, not just in the absence of oxygen. The spare copy of the gene that created the enzyme that turned acetaldehyde into alcohol also evolved so that it could do this trick in reverse – turn alcohol into acetaldehyde.

What these changes enabled the clever little fungus – the ancestor of brewing yeast – to do when it landed on sugary fruit was to quickly flood its environment with alcohol, which was toxic to most of its microbial rivals (our double-genome yeast had, of course, also evolved greater tolerance to alcohol, to cope with the extra alcohol it now created). Once it had swamped the area with alcohol, and thus seen off rival funguses, it could then win even more energy by turning the alcohol into acetaldehyde.

The alcohol content of over-ripe fruit attacked by yeast has been tested at as high as 4.5 per cent, and there is a theory that humans like alcohol in part because our early primate ancestors learned to associate its smell with the presence of ripe, sugary fruit – a sort of ancient alcopop. Appreciating alcohol, therefore, looks to be something deep in humanity’s genes, going back to when we lived in trees and were still covered in fur.

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