Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement

I gave a presentation in Denmark to a conference called to discuss “Ny Nordisk Øl” – “New Nordic Beer” – on “Beer and terroir from an international perspective” on Friday November 7. This, slightly tweaked, expanded in a couple of places and cut in a couple more, is that presentation.

The brewers of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are already enthusiastically making beers that reflect the place they are made, using local ingredients: you can read about some of those beers here. But what the Ny Nordisk Øl movement is doing is just part, albeit a tremendous part, of a wider movement to get away from internationally reproducible styles of beer, a movement that is finding expression in North America via campaigns such as “Beers made by walking about” and by brewers such as the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco, the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, the Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois and Plan Bee brewery in New York state, in Italy, in New Zealand, and in Australia, most eloquently by Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall brewery in Tasmania.

As I researched for my presentation, it became clear that the “place-based beer” movement is a growing global phenomenon, albeit as yet those engaged in it often seem unaware that others are fighting a similar crusade. This is a long blog but, I hope you’ll agree, fascinating in its implications for the future of craft beer.

Beer and terroir coverBefore I begin talking about beer terroir, it would be best to say exactly what I mean by the term in the context of brewing, what I think you need in order to be able to say that a beer has characteristics that fall under the name “terroir”, and some of the problems of trying to talk about “beer and terroir”.

There are plenty of complicated ways of defining “terroir”, and what it takes for “terroir” to be reflected in a beer. But the one I like best was said by an American craft brewer who said he was attempting to achieve in his beers “the essence of here”.

How do you achieve “the essence of here”? In beer, there are, I hope you will agree, six major variables that affect the “hereness” of a beer:

● Grain
● Hops and other flavourings
● Water
● Yeast
● Brewing method
● Style – to the extent that style is not dictated by one or more of the other five factors.

Any one of those, I suggest, can be “local”, and capable of variations that can give the brewer a legitimate claim to be reflecting something of his or her region or people. With hops, the effects of terroir are widely accepted, though with grain there are more doubts: Mark Dorber, co-founder of the Beer Academy in the UK and a judge at the Great British Beer festival, said in 2012: “I certainly believe that the delicate citrusy Goldings grown in the East of Kent are markedly different from the more deeply perfumed Goldings of clay lands in Hereford and Worcester. But whether barley has ‘terroir’ as well is unclear. Barley’s plumpness, nitrogen content and general health may be more a function of annual weather patterns than of the soil and microclimate of its area of birth.” However, it seems unlikely that with hops, grapes, apples and other agricultural products reflecting where they are grown, barley grown in different terroirs and soils would not also show variable flavour characteristics.

Finnish-style kuurna

Paul Arney of the Ale Apothecary brewery, Bend, Oregon and his Finnish-style kuurna

Different yeasts have demonstrable effects on the flavours in beers, and the same is true of brewing methods. A decoction mash produces a different beer to an infusion mash. An IPA brewed in a Burton Union set will be a different beer to one brewed using exactly the same ingredients but in Yorkshire squares, and each can be legitimately said to reflect different regional traditions – including how a beer is served, with a “Yorkshire Square” beer suited to a specifically regional type of presentation, with a very tight head, that itself has implications for flavour and aroma – and different definitions of “here”. Each one of those variables can and will feed back into the others, and outside factors also reflecting “hereness”. If, for example, the local cuisine tends towards fatty foods, the local beer is likely to be more carbonated, to help cleanse the palate. If the local culture tends towards lengthy times spent socially in a bar or pub, the local beer is likely to be weaker than places where beer is more an adjunct to meals.

The difficulty we have in maintaining that there is such a thing as “beer terroir”, of course, is that all the factors that directly make a beer what it is can be reproduced, today, anywhere in the world. Grains, hops and other ingredients can be transported, if necessary, around the world. Water can now be demineralised and remineralised to match any location you like. Off-the-shelf yeasts to brew any style of beer you desire can be bought via the internet. And you can install a Yorkshire Square in Adelaide, or a Finnish kuurna in Argentina, or any other piece of kit anywhere you like, to imitate the brewing traditions of a land thousands of miles away.

A rare example of a British ale with place-specific ingredients

A rare example of a British ale with place-specific ingredients

Every brewing style we have inherited started as a local beer somewhere, reflecting local ingredients, local brewing methods, local tastes and local requirements for food matching and the like. Land-race barleys meant every region had malts made from barley varieties that had been bred, consciously or semi-consciously or entirely unconsciously, to suit the soils and environments in which they grew. Beers were made from local ingredients, in local styles that suited the local foods and the tastes and lifestyles of the local people. In some places this is still true. Across the Czech Republic, certainly for the majority of brewers, the barley they get for their Pilsner malts is almost always locally grown, with maltsters being very demanding in the barley cultivars they will accept, helped by the existence of an EU protected geographical indication (PGI) for “Czech Beer”, with the barley varieties allowed for production of beer that can use the “Czech Beer” PGI characterised by, among other things, a lower apparent attenuation limit, causing the presence of residual extract, with all that implies for taste, mouthfeel and so on.

Similarly the hop varieties will be limited to those traditionally used in classic Czech styles, and most be grown in one of the Republic’s three demarcated hop-growing territories, Žatec (or Saaz) and Ústí (or Auscha) in the north and Tršice (or Trschitz) in Moravia to the east, all of which have their own protected appellations. Most of the brewers of at least the “regional” size have their own labs and thus, most likely, their own yeast strains, and most breweries will use their own well-water to make their beer with. All of the beers will be made using variations on the decoction method of mashing the malt, which adds its own flavours and mouthfeels and so on. And Czech beer styles – Pilsen aside – are pretty much restricted to Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, particularly the most popular style, the pale, low-strength lager Světlé Výčepní pivo (literally “light draught beer”), which seems designed to fit into the Czech cultural preference for drinking vast quantities. So here we have an entire country whose beers strongly reflect place in pretty much every possible way: grain type, hop varieties, water, yeast, brewing methods and styles. Yet the idea that Czech beer has a terroir is seldom heard. The Czechs themselves seem not to make very much of the concept of “beer terroir”, and the rest of the world appears to regard Czech beer as just another, if generally superior, example of “global lager”, without recognising how much of it contains “the essence of there”.

Other Old World beer styles that sprang from a very specific place seem to suffer from the same problem: that because they can be reproduced anywhere and everywhere, no one regards them as particularly reflecting the “hereness” of where they sprang from. Dunkel lager may seem – it does to me – to be particularly suited to the pork-based cuisine of Bavaria, but nobody links this to the terroir of Franconia. Kölsch is another beer with PGI protection, and strict restrictions not only on the area within which it can be brewed and the types of barley and hop varieties that can be used to make the beer, but even on the style of glass it can be served in. But nobody seems to talk about how the beer is the essence of Cologne, and dozens of other breweries outside Germany make Kölsch-style beers without anyone calling them out. The same is true of other specifically geography-based German beer styles, such as Weissbier, and is happening with recently rediscovered styles, such as Grodziskie from Poland, or Gose, once very specifically a style of beer from Leipzig. Now American brewers, for example, are making their own versions of Gose, and not asking why and how this sour, salty style of beer grew up, and what it was about the region of Saxony that encouraged the development of that particular beer.

Wyeast Lambic packet

‘Payottenland in a packet’

In Belgium, home of probably more geographically defined beer styles in a small space than anywhere else, the lack of attention paid to any idea of “terroir” is even more remarkable. Lambic has to be made in a very specific area – Payottenland – in a very specific way, allowing fermentation by wild yeasts that are very specific to that geographical area, using very specific ingredients. But nobody talks about Lambic, or its blended version, gueuze, being the “essence” of the countryside west of Brussels. Anyone can buy Wyeast 3278 Lambic blend, with its mixture of Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces yeasts and Lactobacilli, “Payottenland in a packet”, and make a “Lambic-style” beer themselves. And hundreds do, particularly in the United States, where “Belgian-style” ales of all kinds find an enormous and welcoming market. Nobody seems to mind that their “lambic” did not come from anywhere close to the Belgian village of Lambeek.

Britain had its regional beers once, and once again they became internationally reproduced, global styles. Porter originated in London, was made from London well water, excellent for dark beers, with dark malt from neighbouring Hertfordshire and hops from neighbouring Kent, and was for 150 years the beer most associated with London. Having tumbled to vanishing point in the UK for two or three decades in the 20th century, porter is back, but still a minority beer in the UK today, with only one in 20 brewers nationally making one. In London, however, 40 per cent of the capital’s new small brewers, apparently aware of the city’s brewing traditions, make a porter: is a porter brewed in London today, because of the style’s origins in London, a “bière de terroir”, to invent a phrase?

If Britain no longer has specifically regional beer styles, according to Ali Capper, spokeswoman for the British Hop Association and a farmer who grows 40 hectares of hops in the Herefordshire-Worcestershire area, the country’s second most important area for hops, British hops have a unique terroir, with lower levels of myrcene, one of the flavour oils found in hop cones, and more British hops are being exported to the United States and Australasia because they are more delicate and complex in flavour than those grown in places such as Oregon, Tasmania and Nelson. In 2012, she told a meeting of 320 British craft brewers, in an attempt to persuade them to use more local-grown hops, rather than the deeply fashionable American, ones that the country’s hop-growing terroir was found nowhere else: “Every other hop-growing region in the world is continental; hot summers, colder winters, very different to Britain’s uniquely maritime climate. As a result we grow some of the most delicate, complex and complimentary aromas in the world.”

However, while Britain has brewers who can point to their specific water supplies, or their local malts or hops, and brewers such as Shepherd Neame, of Faversham in Kent, who can and do claim to use entirely local ingredients, in this case, Kentish hops and Kent-grown barley, plus its own well water and its own house yeast, very few British brewers seems to have taken on board the word “terroir”, perhaps fearing ridicule. Even though it is noticeable that the London brewer Fuller Smith & Turner, which uses essentially the same ingredients as Shepherd Neame, makes beers with very different flavours, in large part because of the influences of the two breweries’ house yeasts, again there is no claim by Shepherd Neame to any sort of Kentish terroir. It is ironic that Kent is also home to some of England’s best wine growers, who are making some very highly regarded sparkling wines, and who are keen to point to the similarities of their soil to that of the Champagne region, and to claim a similar sort of terroir to the place where the most expensive sparkling wines come from.

One British brewer not afraid to use the ‘T” word is the Lancashire company Moorhouse’s of Burnley, which has persuaded farmers in its home county to start growing Maris Otter, the now traditional “cask ale” barley, and one which, perhaps significantly, has clear genetic links with landrace barleys of the past. In July this year, Moorhouse’s managing director, David Grant, said: “We aim to build a ‘terroir’ similar to that for French wines. We want publicans to know they can have cask ales with real provenance from Burnley – ales brewed in Lancashire from the best Lancashire malt. By ensuring a market we are helping it to survive, for our own sustainable future and for the industry.”

Wild Beer: reflecting the Somerset terroir

Wild Beer: reflecting the Somerset terroir

Another is the Wild Beer Co of Somerset, founded in 2012 by Andrew Cooper and the perhaps aptly named Brett Ellis. Both were working at another brewery, but felt there was an opportunity to present a unique brewery concept in the UK, concentrating on barrel-ageing, wild yeasts and unusual ingredients. Among their beers is one called Somerset Wild, first brewed in October 2013, made with extra pale, wheat and acidulated malts, and yeast harvested from local apple orchards in Somerset, a county known for its ciders. The beer is very pale and hazy, dry, cidery and lemon-sour, and its use of local wild yeasts, Cooper and Ellis say, is “an homage to the Somerset terroir.”

There are a few British brewers using local ingredients, most notably, of course, Williams Brothers, which has ploughed a more or less solitary furrow since first making Fraoch heather ale 20 or so years ago. Williams Brothers has inspired brewers outside the UK to take up using local ingredients, but very few have repeated the company’s efforts back home, apart from occasional special brewings. I was involved in one such effort earlier this year, when the Windsor and Eton Brewery went to the London Amateur Brewers group and asked its members to take part in a competition to find a recipe for a beer to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which was signed (or to be historically accurate, sealed) at Runnymede, a sort distance down the Thames from Windsor. One of the group’s members, Manmohan Birdi, approached me to ask about Berkshire hops, and I suggested that it would be slightly more authentic to use herbs such as yarrow and ground ivy/alehoof in the ale, since these would probably have been used by 13th century brewers and would be found in the Runnymead area growing wild. Manmohan followed my suggestion, and his beer won the competition, with Windsor and Eton brewing a commercial-sized batch of the beer for bottling.

The brewery managed to source commercial quantities of yarrow and ground ivy, but Paddy Johnson, the head brewer, wasn’t happy with the look of the ground ivy – rather dried-up – and went out the evening before brewing was due to take place to see if he could find some growing along the Thames. He was staring at a patch he though was the plant when a man walking his dog came along and asked Paddy what he was doing. The brewer explained that he was after ground ivy, to brew with, but wasn’t sure of the plant in front of him was the right one, and the dog-walker said: “Well, I’m a botanist, and yes, that’s ground ivy all right.” What are the chances? So Paddy filled the plastic bags he had brought with him, and Magna Carta Ale contains ingredients that grew just a short distance from Runnymead.

Like the beers made by the Williams brothers, Grant, Cooper and Ellis, however, this seems to be a rare exception of a beer with the “essence of here” among the ingredients. So is “beer terroir”, the belief that you can reflect the “essence of here” in a beer, a non-idea for commercial brewers, because what makes a beer “from here” is so easily reproducible everywhere? The makers of the many traditional formerly locality-based European beers seem to think so, because even when they attempt to protect themselves with PGIs and the like, the concept of “terroir” is not one they consciously wield.

However, there ARE brewers not afraid to pick up the idea of beer terroir and run with it wherever it might take them, though ironically, it is brewers working outside the older brewing countries who are the enthusiasts for the possibilities of local beer that reflects local environments, local authenticities, local tastes and local uniquenesses. In the Americas, North and South, in Australia and New Zealand, in Japan, and in countries such as France and Italy that are familiar with the concept of terroir as it applies to wine, brewers are experimenting with local ingredients, local yeasts, local flavours and partnerships with other local alcohol traditions to make beers that do indeed contain the ineffable “essence of here”.

Sometimes these efforts seem to be nothing more than an attempt to show that something can be done: for example, the Ontario Beer Company in Canada and its two “all-Ontario beers”, 100 Mile Lager and 100 Mile Ale. Both hops and barley are grown in Ontario, but not in huge quantities, and Ontario brewers would normally get their hops from the United States and their malted barley from Saskatchewan. To make all-Ontario beer (using Lake Ontario water) in commercial quantities, 35,000 litres, brewer Brad Clifford had to buy Chinook and Cascade hops from five different farms in the province to get the 300 pounds – 140kg – he needed, and place a special order with the Canadian Malting Company for sufficient malt, well in advance of brewday. But nothing very much is being claimed for the two beers in the way of Ontarian terroir.

Sierra Nevada Estate AleRather more is made of Estate Ale, made by Sierra Nevada in California. Although it is now a substantial brewer, employing 400 people and producing more than a million barrels a year, Sierra Nevada also has a positively minute operation at its home in Chico, California where two full-time farmers look after 30 acres of organic barley and nine acres of organic hops: Cascade, Chinook and Citra. The barley is harvested and turned into malt every autumn, which is then ground to make wort, the hops are picked and added undried to the brewery kettle (since Sierra Nevada has no kilns to dry them), and a tiny 800 barrels of 6.7 per cent abv Estate Homegrown Ale is made. Unlike in a normal brewing operation, there is no chance for the brewer to blend the malts and hops used to make the beer to try to achieve consistency, and thus, far more than in regular beers, each batch of Estate Ale reflects the weather – rainfall, temperature and humidity – over the time that the barley and hops were growing, and each year’s beer will be subtly different from previous years. This is exactly the sort of “terroir” influence that winemakers talk about, and Sierra Nevada is not afraid to use the word “terroir” when describing the flavours found in Estate Ale, such as grass, green vegetables and cedar. Some of those flavours come from the use of “wet” – undried – hops, and Ken Grossman, founder and now president of Sierra Nevada, was one of the pioneers of “wet hop” beers, in 1996, a process that ties the beer made with wet hops into a very specific time: the hops, if not dried, have to be used within 12 hours or less of being harvested. Wet hop beers are becoming increasingly popular as a sort of “Beaujolais Noveau” of beer, with brewers racing to be the first to get freshly harvested hops into the copper. Few, though, are making anything to the “terroir” aspect of using fresh, undried hops.

In a slightly different take on the same “brewery farm” idea, the Oregon brewer Rogue Ales leases 265 acres from Oregon farmers for growing two varieties of barley, called Risk and Dare, and 42 acres for raising seven strains of hop, which are used to make specifically Oregon brews. The beers made from those hops and that barley go out under the Chatoe Rogue name, and the bottle label goes so far as to give the latitude and longitude of the “micro” hopyard and barley farm. Five different beers have been made so far, including an amber ale called OREgasmic Ale, a wet hop ale, again, and a black lager.

These are, however, expensive beers to make, and perhaps only big, successful brewers like Sierra Nevada and Rogue can afford the luxury of their own hopyards and barley farms. Ken Grossman has said that, including labour, it costs his company $170 to grow a pound of its own Estate hops, against the mere $2 a pound it would pay for hops on the open market. At the same time having the fields where the Estate Ale hops and barley are grown certified organic cost Sierra Nevada tens of thousands of dollars.

For brewers in the right parts of the world, there is no need to have your own farm. The Seven Brides Brewery is in the Willamette area of Oregon, the heart of the Pacific North West hop-growing area, and uses local-grown malted barley and hop varieties grown within three miles of the brewery: Willamette, an American type, but also Hallertau and Perle, originally from Germany, Fuggles from England and others. Jeff DeSantis, owner-brewer at Seven Brides, says that the soils of the Willamette valley produce hops with distinctive flavours and oils compared to their European counterparts, so that even with the same recipes and same varieties, his beers are going to show a definite Oregon terroir.

It can be argued that “terroir” was properly discovered in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when brewers in California first started deliberately using massive amounts of Cascade hops, inventing the “American Pale Ale” style, the continent’s first indigenous style, which quickly revealed a previously untapped desire among drinkers for strongly hop-forward beers. The Cascade hop’s parentage undoubtedly includes some contribution from the wild American hops that were already growing across the continent when European settlers arrived with their own hop varieties. Those European hops interbred with their wild American cousins, which contributed flavours to American varieties such as Cluster that European brewers dismissed with adjectives such as “rank”, “piney”, and “catty”. But from 1980 onwards, with the influence of beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, made with Cascade, the flavours that hops with a contribution from native American varieties gave to beer became increasingly popular. Again, while American Pale Ale reflected its terroir, through the use of hops with an American ancestry, there were and are no barriers to brewers elsewhere making beers with the same hops, not any barriers to hop growers elsewhere growing those same hops, and indeed, Cascade is now grown in Australia, in New Zealand and in England: in Australia and New Zealand, at least, there is a definite “terroir” influence, with New Zealand Cascades, according to one brewer who knows both varieties well, having a more grassy/chlorophyll character.

Neomexicanus hops

Neomexicanus hops: a genuinely American variety

However, brewers are now moving on from “half-breed” Euro-American hops to the full-blooded version: there is increasing interest in brewing with actual wild American varieties, and breeding those wild varieties to find types that can be cultivated by farmers. Of the three varieties of wild hop in North America, the one exciting most interest goes under the botanical name of Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus, which as its name suggests, is found in New Mexico, and right through the Rocky Mountains area, from the Mexico border to Saskatchewan. A man called Todd Bates has been home-brewing with wild neomexicanus hops he finds around his home near Taos, New Mexico since the mid-1990s. The best varieties that Bates has discovered are now being grown on a hop farm in the Yakima Valley in Washington, and the first commercial beers made with neomexicanus appeared this year, one made by Crazy Mountain Brewery of Colorado, Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale, and the other, almost inevitably, by Sierra Nevada, which releases its Neomexicanus Wild Hop IPA next month, December. Sierra Nevada said of the beer: “These bizarre, multi-headed, native US cones have a flavour like nothing we’ve tasted, and for the first time, we’re showcasing their unusual melon, apricot and citrus aromas and flavours in our beer.” Without a doubt, a large part of the appeal of these and what seem certain to be many more neomexicanus hop beers to follow will be customers’ desire to taste a truly American beer made with a truly “essence of here” hop.

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan

Others find terroir in a different way. Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan of the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco say they “aim to create something special and uniquely Northern Californian” with a brewery “dedicated to producing seasonal artisan ales, brewed specifically to complement local cuisine, sourced and prepared with the same great care and craft. Each harvest we partner with a different Northern California farm to supply the fruit used for our next brew. Every beer is a collaboration between us and the local terroir. Before brewing ever begins, we collaborate on ideas for interesting, unusual and seasonal beers. Once we’ve settled on that idea, we carefully select our partner farm – focusing on small, family-run operations, just like us. Then we start with the basics. Water, malt, yeast and hops are combined to create a balanced beer with equal parts sweet and bitter. Then the fruit is added, so that the hungry yeast can eat the sugars in the fruit as well. This creates a beer that has all of the flavours of the fruit, without overbearing sweetness. All of our base recipes are rooted in, but not limited to, classic beer styles and brewed in small batches. When ready, our beers are released to our favourite local restaurants and retailers to be enjoyed with food and friends.” Among the Almanac Beer Company’s beers is one called Golden Gate Gose, at five per cent abv.

A similar line is taken by Kim Kowalski, brewer at the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, who says: “Anything we can harvest locally is what I like to use. Local honey, local vegetables or fruits or herbs is really fun because it says who we are, speaks for the area it comes from.” Some go further than just harvesting herbs, At the Ale Apothecary brewery in Bend, Oregon brewer Paul Arney felled a 200-year-old spruce tree that grew down the hill on the brewery grounds in 2012 and hollowed it out to make a Finnish-style kuurna, the rudimentary, rustic trough-like log that acts as a lauter tun in sahti brewing, though he lined it with a lattice of Oregonian spruce branches rather than the juniper branches used in Finland. About the spruce, Arney says: “There’s a connection with the American colonial brewer and it grows on our brewery property.” After lautering, Arney boils the wort before adding a small amount of hops for bitterness or, in the spring, fresh, herbal spruce tips, and selling it as Sahati.

Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson

Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson

It is, however, the growing farm-brewery movement that is the among the most specifically enthusiastic about beer terroir. Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson, is the only brewery to currently make every one of its beers with all-New York ingredients. The hops and barley are grown in the state, with many of the hops coming from Watson’s back yard, and his current house yeast strain was originally found on Muscadine grapes growing in his back yard as well, and developed through repeated brewing sessions. Watson is currently experimenting with other yeast strains: a peach tree strain, strawberry yeast, and a newly cultured honey yeast. Watson wants to find a larger property, of around 15 to 30 acres, put most of it to over to growing grain, with an acre of hops. With that, he hopes, Plan Bee can source every ingredient from its own property, with a larger apiary, a malthouse, a hop-oast, and a small orchard.

The Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois “focuses on farmhouse beers and other styles brewed with home-grown and locally farmed and foraged ingredients.” The brewers describe what they are doing as “an uncharted frontier in modern brewing, showing the nearly limitless possibilities of brewing and bittering with plants other than hops in combination with modern malts, yeasts, and global beer styles.” It produces more than a dozen different sorts of gruit beer, sparking up traditional beer styles with the addition of local ingredients, including nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion and maple sap. The brewery’s beers include an unhopped burdock sahti, a sour Finnish ale bittered with cedar and roasted burdock root; hickory leaf IPA, an “English-style” IPA made with fresh hickory leaves, which add a dry bitterness to the end of the palate, and in particular 105, a strong saison made with 105 different “previously living organisms”, all herbs, roots, fungi, fruit. The brewers describe it as “an aroma of earth and herbs … complimented by a complex flavour of citrus, pepper and dirt created by the myriad of Southern Illinois’ ingredients: the essence of here.”

Foraged ingredients are one of the important strands in experimental new brewers’ search for a terroir of beer, a strand that looks back to pre-hop brewing traditions, and what was known on the mainland of Europe – although not in Britain – as gruit beer, when flavourings were whatever herbs, plants, roots and leaves could be found in the local woods or on the local moors. One of the forces behind the nascent “place-based beer” movement in the United States is the Beers Made by Walking project, founded by Eric Steen in 2011. Brewers are invited on hikes, and then brew beers inspired by those hikes, using ingredients found and identified on those hikes. To quote Steen, ” Each walk is different, each beer is a portrait of that landscape … Each beer becomes a drinkable look into the specific place that inspired its creation.” Among the plants that have gone into beers from the Beers Made by Walking project, a fair few are well-known pre-hop ale herbs, such as yarrow and spruce tips, but more unusual additions have included rose hips, huckleberries, Melissa mint, vanilla leaf, red cedar tips, Saint John’s wort, wild ginger, sumac, bee balm, pineapple weed and amarinth

In Britain, the Pilot brewery, which opened in Leith, just outside Edinburgh in 2013, linked up with the Vintage bar and restaurant in Leith, which has been using foraged food in its seasonal menus. The restaurant supplied the brewery with foraged ingredients for a gruit ale to be sold to diners – scurvy grass, a relative of horseradish; laver, a variety of edible seaweed; crab apples; black lovage, a celery-like plant now naturalised in Britain but originally from Macedonia; sea buckthorn; and juniper branches. The Ilkley brewery’s 5% gruit ale, called Doctor’s Orders, uses a recipe put together by beer sommelier Jane Peyton containing a couple of very traditional herbs for flavouring pre-hop ale, yarrow and bog myrtle, along with rosemary, sage, heather flowers and heather foraged from Ilkley Moor. In Corsica, Brasserie Pietra makes a wheat beer called Colomba that is flavoured with herbs gathered from the local “maquis”, or shrubland.

Other have been adding ingredients that are simply there, rather than ones that have to be foraged for. In Italy, a country with almost no native brewing traditions, the host of new small brewers have been enthusiastically throwing whatever is at hand into their brews. Several brewers have been combining local grapes with beer: Nicola Perra of Birrificio Barley in Sardinia takes Cannonau grapes right after they have been harvested, boils them for 16 hours, adds wort from mashing six types of British malt and Cascade hops and ferments it all to make a brew called BB10. Similarly LoverBeer in Piedmont brews a tart and citric beer incorporating local Freisa grape must. Many put chestnuts into their brews, in the form of chestnut flour, roast chestnuts, chestnut pieces, as in Birra Amiata Artisinale of Tuscany’s Vecchia Bastarda – “Old Bastard” – chestnut honey and chestnut jam. Chestnut beers have become such a characteristically Italian style that they now have their own category in the country’s annual beer competition. This is terroir – using local produce – almost forcing itself upon brewers.

Draught GoseIn New Zealand, brewers have been reflecting where they are by flavouring their beers with indigenous trees and shrubs. The Good George brewpub in Hamilton made a Lime and Horopito Gose, which included lime zest and juice, leaves from the horopito shrub, native to New Zealand, and also called a pepper tree because its leaves have a hot taste, Marlborough sea salt, and Motueka hops. The Wigram Brewery from Christchurch makes a spruce beer in memory of the 18th century Captain James Cook, who himself made a spruce beer when he landed in New Zealand, and like Cook they use leaves from the native manuka tree, the New Zealand tea tree, which give menthol flavours to the beer.

In Japan, while beer has been taken up enthusiastically since it arrived in the 1870s, there has been no sense of anything that might be recognised as “terroir” about the country’s beers. A few years ago, one man, Shiro Yamada, a financier who had spent time studying in England and had fallen in love with European beers, decided that what his country needed was beers that could pair with Japanese cuisine. When I met him, he told me: “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK, beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.” Yamada picked two typically Japanese flavourings, sanshō, or Japanese pepper, and yuzu, a citrus fruit that looks like marriage between a grapefruit and a mandarin. Yamada says he went to Japanese brewers to try go get his beers made “but in terms of quality and passion” nobody matched Wim Saeyens, the brewer at De Graal in Belgium. Thus to make his beers, Kagua Blonde and Kagua Rouge – Kagua meaning “Japanese aroma” – the sanshō and yuzu that give them their aroma and flavour are grown by “top quality producers who have exceptional reputations”, according to Yamada, harvested, and flown out to Belgium from Japan, 6,000 miles. Once the beer is brewed, then it has to make the journey back again, to go on sale in Japanese restaurants and bars. Kagua is a beer that, through the flavours derived from the Japanese ingredients, certainly reflects “hereness” better than most Japanese beers, but a 12,000-mile round trip may detract from the “localness”.

Yamada’s aim was comparatively simple: to make a Japanese beer that could complement Japanese food. The most radical expression of the search for beer terroir today comes from a few thousand miles south of Japan, in Tasmania, and from a man who was originally not even a brewer, but a wine-maker. Ashley Huntington was born in Australia, trained as a wine maker, worked in the Languedoc in France for six years and came back to Tasmania, where he bought a farm with the intention of making wine. “I soon realised that 60% of Australian hops were grown all around me and yet not a single brewery was located within cooee … odd! It smelt like opportunity and, with the wine industry in meltdown, I jumped in head-first.” Huntington knew so little about brewing, he thought he had to grow his own ingredients, setting up a small hopfield and harvesting his own cereals.

Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Brewery, writer of what could be the place-based beer brewer's manifesto

Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Brewery, writer of what could be the place-based beer brewer’s manifesto

The first brews from his Two Metre Tall brewery were hit by wild yeasts – but Huntington welcomed this, figuring that the esters and acidity the wild yeasts brought made for better, more drinkable beers. He experimented with steeping fruit from neighbouring orchards in barrels with his acidic beer. Today all the brewery’s beers are made from ingredients either grown on the farm or sourced locally. They include a Sour Cherry Ale, made with whole Morello cherries grown locally and oak-barrel fermented for seven months, and a Sour Plum ale, made with wild plums collected from along the river around the farm. Huntington says: “The fruit is thrown into the barrel with its skin on and the indigenous yeast goes to work. Wild beer is a beautiful, natural, risky technique and no result is guaranteed – just the way I like it.” All his beers, he says, reflect “the desire to create expressions of place and time. Beer terroir!” Two years ago, Huntington won a $20,000 Churchill scholarship which enabled him to travel to Europe and America, talking to brewers and maltsters about farmhouse brewing, spontaneous fermentation and the use of fruits in beer. At the end of the trip, Huntington wrote a report summarising his experiences which could serve as a manifesto for those who, like him, believe in the possibility of beer terroir:

” I could envisage in my mind’s eye the very alluring prospect of travelling around the world drinking beers which were not a slavish local mimicry of some internationally ubiquitous “beer style”, but beverages produced by creative and inventive brewers harvesting their local ingredients – cereals, hops or local significant spices and aromatics – and transforming these worts into beers of provenance by harnessing the fermentative powers of the microflora indigenous to the location of the brewery. It recalled the very best of the international wine industry, and evoked the elements common to the most flavoursome, the most sought after and the most revered foods on the planet; time, place and individual. Even more alluring was that such a concept in beer could emerge from the intellectual ruin of the profiteering multi-nationals, who for their own profit, have reduced the imagination of brewers and the expectations of consumers to the very baseline. No, beer is not simply the common beverage of the poor, just as it is a fiction that wine will somehow raise the social standing of those who are knowledgeable about it. Beer deserves its place as one of the oldest, most important, most nutritious and most culturally significant foods offered to humankind and it is very much the remit of the brewing craftsman to deliver against this ambition.”

Many thanks to all those who supplied me with information for this presentation, including Kelly Ryan, Graham Reeks, Gary Gillman, Max Pivero, Eugene Tolstov, Ricardo Aparicio and Stefano Ricci

Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

I have a new “magic beer moment” to savour: drinking 13-year-old Carlsberg Special Brew in the cellars of the Jacobsen brewery in Copenhagen.

den Lille Havfrue

If you’re in Copenhagen you do, really, have to go and pay your respects to den Lille Havfrue

Actually, that was just one of a number of great moments during my trip to Denmark eaelier this month to talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” to a bunch of brewers not just from Denmark, but Norway and Sweden as well, as part of a conference in the town of Korsør organised by the New Nordic Beer movement (Ny Nordisk Øl, pronounced roughly “noo nordisk ohl”).

The men leading the campaign are two brewers, Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of the award-winning Copenhagen brewery Nørrebro Bryghus, and Per Kølster of Kølster Malt og Øl in the appropriately named village of Humlebæk – “Hops Creek” – north of Copenhagen, and PR man Christian Andersen. The idea of Ny Nordisk Øl is to forge a distinctly Nordic take on brewing, using Nordic traditions and, most especially, Nordic ingredients – not just flavourings, such as heather, sweet gale and wormwood, but yeast and other micro-organisms sourced specifically from a Nordic environment, in just exactly the same way as the New Nordic Cuisine movement has fused tradition and modernity to create a style of cooking that is rooted in a place and yet free to experiment (the success of which effort can be judged by the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, short for “Nordisk Mad”, or “Nordic Food”, which is one of the leaders of New Nordic Cuisine, has been voted “best restaurant in the world” by its peers in four out of the past five years). In a world where the craft beer movement seems intent on replacing one kind of ubiquity – bland Big Brewer lager – with another – highly hopped fruit-salad pale ales – it’s a trumpet-call to battle on behalf of individualistic, rooted, idiosyncratic beers, made by brewers intent on arriving at something that could only have been made in one place and at one time, that excites me greatly.

Hærvejs Lyng

Hærvejs Lyng heather beer: the ‘hær’ in Hærvejs is the same as the here in Hereford

Judging by the number of highly enthusiastic Nordic brewers I met in Korsør – I’m guessing, but there must have been 50 or 60 attendees – and the excellent Ny Nordisk Øl-inspired beers I drank there, it’s a movement with a good weight of support behind it, and terrific results to show those wondering if “beer terroir” is just a gimmick.

There have been various names given to the sort of products brewers involved in the Ny Nordisk Øl movement are making, but the one I like best comes from the United States – “place-based beers”. Fortunately I was able to tell the Nordic supporters of “place-based beer” that they are far from alone. In the United States, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Italy and France, there are plenty of others pursuing the same goal, of making beers with what one American called “the essence of here” in them. (I’ll be putting up my presentation on this blog, and naming names, later in the week). The bad news is that in what one might call the “Old World”, there is much less interest in the concept of “beer terroir”.

Hø Øl, or 'Hay Ale',

Mark Hø Øl, or ‘Hay Ale’, once brewed in Britain

One of the ironies of trying to find “beer terroir” today is that once, of course, all beers were local, and reflected their local environment, local ingredients (local hop varieties, “land-race” strains of barley, local water, local yeasts) and local traditions. Porter, the world’s first “industrial” beer, the popularity of which powered the growth of what became the world’s largest breweries at the time, was developed in London as a local beer for local people, satisfying the desire of the city’s working classes for a refreshing calorie-filled beer, brewed using brown malt made in Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 miles to the north, hops from Kent, just to the east, and London well-water, full of calcium carbonate, which helps make good dark beers; matured using giant vats, a technique invented by and originally unique to London brewers; and served using methods of blending old and new beer specifically reflecting customers tastes, while being drunk with foods it was regarded as a particularly fine accompaniment to: boiled beef and carrots, for example, a very traditional old London dish. Even pilsner, the most widely reproduced beer style in the world began as a beer very much reflecting its Bohemian locality: made with Moravian malted barley, local Saaz hops and its home town’s particularly soft water.

Coming from the other direction, brewing traditions that are still deeply rooted in the local landscape – in particular the Belgian brews such as Lambic – now seem to be as reproducable as pilsen became, and almost as global. Every American brewer seems to want to make a Belgian ale laden with Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and they can buy that yeast right off the shelf, rather than having to move to Payottenland. When you see a brewery in Britain making a Gooseberry Gose, a variation on a style of beer from Saxony that was effectively unknown until a few years ago, you know you’re living in a world where “local” appears to mean very little.

Xperimentet No 2, beiitered with sea wormwood ('strandmalurt' in Danish

Xperimentet No 2, bittered with sea wormwood (‘strandmalurt’ in Danish)

Which is what the supporters of Ny Nordisk Øl are fighting against – and although they don’t have many fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, it’s to be hoped that when other brewers start tasting the beers that Ny Nordisk Øl has inspired, it will spur them to produce ales that reflect their own places. Here are my notes on some of the “place-based beers” I tried in Denmark:

An unlabelled (IIRC – although I may just have failed to record the name) ale brewed with sea wormwood (less bitter than the wormwood used in absinthe), camomile and sea buckthorn, three popular flavourings with Nordic brewers seeking to make a hopless ale. This had a lovely, deep, tongue-coating, very up-front bitterness, a pale, slightly cloudy appearance, a mouthfilling rotundity, and finally a sweetness under a full, vegetally/weedy flavour.

Ny Nordisk Hærvejs Lyng from the Vyborg Bryghus: a hop-free heather beer with a massive nose of honey, and liquid honey in the mouth but with a sharp tart lemony undertone, lightly petillant with no head. It’s alcoholic lemon and honey cough sweets. (The ale is named for the Hærvejen, or “Army Way”, a road that runs down the Jutland peninsula from Viborg to, eventually, Hamburg.) Continue reading

Second thoughts on the mysterious origins of AK

There are times when the honest historian has to put his hand up and say: forgive me, for I was wrong. Prompted by a sharp dig from Ron Pattinson, I’ve finally withdrawn a piece I wrote six years ago about the origins of the beer designation AK, in part because research by Ron has made my stance untenable. I suggested that the K in AK came from koyt, the name of a hopped beer found in the Low Countries and Northern Germany in the 15th century and later, and the A was from ankel, the word in Old Flemish for “single”. “Single koyt” certainly existed, and was the name of a lower-strength beer, the stronger version being called “double koyt”. But there’s no actual evidence at all to link “single koyt” with AK, which was a very popular designation for a comparatively light-gravity, lightly hopped (or at least not heavily hopped) pale bitter beer in Victorian England, and which is still around as a (now rare) beer name today. Good historians don’t make evidence-free suggestions.

McMullen's AK posterThere is certainly evidence AK was once a popular name for a beer. In the very early 1970s, you would still have found several beers called AK. Fremlin’s of Faversham, then owned by Whitbread, made one. So did another Whitbread-owned former independent, Strong’s of Romsey, in Hampshire. In Hertfordshire two brewers, McMullen’s of Hertford and Rayment’s of Furneux Pelham, also made beers called AK. These, and the Fremlin’s and Strong’s AKs were sold as light milds. In the Courage empire, the ex-Hole’s brewery at Newark in Nottinghamshire brewed an AK bitter, while the group’s Bristol brewery sold an AK that was a primed version of its George’s bitter, made for customers of the former Phillips brewery in Newport, Monmouthshire, which had closed in 1968. Just before it closed in 1985, Simpkiss of Brierley Hill in the West Midlands started brewing an AK light bitter.

At least three brewers also sold beers called KK: Greene King, which brewed a light mild under that name at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade; Ind Coope, which made KK light mild at its Romford brewery; and Hardys and Hansons of Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, which sold a keg beer called KK.

What all these beers had in common was that they were light, in both colour and gravity, and also lightly hopped. Today only McMullen’s AK survives, and though it has risen in gravity since the early 1970s, from 1033 to 1035, and is now described as a “bitter”, it is still comparatively light and lightly hopped (with WGV, Whitbread Goldings Variety).

However, if you look at Victorian brewers’ advertisements, it becomes clear that AK, was a very widespread name for a beer. More than a dozen other brewers in Hertfordshire besides McMullen’s and Rayment’s once made an AK. A single edition of the Richmond and Twickenham Times, dated July 8 1893, carries advertisements from five different brewers in south and west London, four of whom offered a beer called AK or KK.

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

The noticeable point about these advertisements is that they (almost) all give AK the same price, one shilling a gallon, implying a strength of around 1045-1055 OG. The descriptions of AK are pretty consistent as well: “light bitter ale”, “light sparkling ale”, “family bitter ale”, “light pale ale” and so on. One of the few brewers not to sell AK for one and a half pence wholesale was actually the earliest I’ve found, the Stafford Brewery, which was selling AK Ale, “a delicate bitter ale”, in 1855 at 14 pence a gallon. But, again, the beer was clearly not heavy, albeit bitter. The idea of AK as a low-strength pale ale is confirmed by the few written references to the beer. Professor Charles Graham in his talk to the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881 gave the original gravity of AK as 1045, with an alcohol-by-weight percentage of 4.3, very much as the bottom end of the Victorian beer strength league. The Burton brewer James Herbert said of AK ale in his book The Art of Brewing, published in 1871:

This class of ale has come very much into use, mostly for private families, it being a light tonic ale, and sent out by most brewers at one shilling per gallon. The gravity of this Ale is usually brewed at 20lbs [that is, 1056 OG]

Crowley’s brewery in Croydon High Street in 1900 described its AK in one of its advertisements as “a Bitter Ale of sound quality with a delicate Hop flavour”. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard in 1889 gave almost identical tasting notes to Crowley’s on the “AK shilling ale” brewed by WJ Rogers at the Jacob Street brewery in Bristol: “most pleasant to the palate … a bright sparkling beverage of a rich golden colour and possesses a nice delicate hop flavour.” (Rogers actually used the letters AK as its company trademark.) When he visited Thompson & Son’s brewery in Walmer, Kent, Barnard wrote: ” We were much pleased with the AK light bitter – a delicious drink, clean to the palate and well flavoured with the hop.” The brewing books of Garne & Sons of Burford, Oxfordshire in 1912 show AK being brewed at an OG of 1040 and with a colour of 14, a reddish-brown hue. ( PA for comparison, was brewed to an OG of 1056 and with a colour of 18, a darker medium brown.)

So where did the name AK come from? In the First World War, drinkers joked that AK stood for Asquith’s Knockout. Herbert Asquith was Prime Minister in 1914 when the tax on the standard barrel of beer took off like a Fokker eindekker, from seven shillings and ninepence to 23 shillings, in order to help pay for fighting the Kaiser. Weaker beers paid less tax, of course, and AK was always weaker than standard bitters, leaving it a more affordable “knockout” than regular beers. (“Squiffy” Asquith was also notorious for being fond of his drink.) Unfortunately, AK as a name for a type of beer is found at least as long ago as 1855, when Asquith was only three years old. Another suggestion is that AK was invented by a Victorian brewer called Arthur King, and took his initials, a tale found at both Hole’s of Newark and Courage in Bristol. The problem with this story is that no such brewer has ever been traced – Arthur King seems to be as mythical as King Arthur – and it fails to cover AK’s sister beer, KK. As Roger Protz once said, who invented that one – King Kong?

Rayment’s claimed AK meant Ale for Keeping. Certainly, Ron Pattinson’s research has pretty much proved that, as far as London brewers were concerned, a beer with “K” in its name, or at least multiple Ks, was a well-hopped keeping or stock beer. To quote from his blog:

In the middle of the 19th century, Barclay Perkins brewed two sets of Ales: X Ales that were sold mild and K Ales that were sold matured. X, XX, XXX and XXXX. Then KK, KKK, KKKK. The equivalent beers (XX and KK, XXX and KKK) were exactly the same gravity, but the K Ales had about 50% more hops.

A couple more examples: Mann, Crossman and Paulin in the East End of London brewed a KKKK ale, and Alfred Barnard drank some in 1888: “Two years old, of a rich brown colour and with a Madeira odour, a good generous drink for those who can stand a full-bodied beer.” Barnard also revealed that Mann’s brewed a London stock ale they called KKK. Taylor Walker of Limehouse, East London brewed “KKK Burton”, which again would have been a strong stock ale. Outside London, Adey and White of St Albans made KKK stock ale and the Tadcaster Tower Brewery in Yorkshire sold KKK “Old Tom”, both costing 15s a firkin, meaning they must have been around 1090 OG.


Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that's K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that’s K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

However, the problem is that AK and KK, and the rather rarer K, are always described as light bitters, which would not, surely, have been keeping ales. Yes, Mann’s brewed KKKK and KKK stock ales, but a Mann’s advert from 1898 also shows KK medium bitter ale at 10s 6d a firkin, about 1055 OG, and K light bitter ale at 9s 6d a firkin, about 1045 OG, as well as AKK Family Pale Ale at 1s 2d a gallon, around 1055 OG again, and AK Dinner Ale at, yes, 1s a gallon.

So: the K in KKK, and KKKK, and XXXK, and the other strong beers with K in their name, stands for “keeping” – there can be little doubt about that. But the K in AK and KK? K-for-keeping doesn’t seem to apply here, because they weren’t keeping beers. And what about the K Mild, ten pence a gallon, sold by Lucas, Ledbetter and Bird of High Wycombe in 1894, and the K Mild Ale sold by the Heavitree Brewery of Exeter in 1895 for 1s 2d a gallon? Or the K Light Ale Collier Brothers of Walthamstow were selling for ten pence a gallon in 1890, and the K Tonic Ale A Gordon & Go of Caledonian Road, Islington sold for the same sum in 1889? Cleary K doesn’t stand for “keeping” here. Again in 1889, Lewis & Ridley of Leamington seemed to be using “K” as equal to half an X, with XXXK mild ale following XXXX strong ale, then XXX mild ale, XXK mild ale, XX mild and and X mild ale. Again, these were milds, not keeping beers. Henry Lovibond & Son of the Cannon brewery, Lillie Road, Fulham actually called its shilling-a-gallon AK “mild bitter” in 1885.

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

There is evidence that the K designation was more common in the south than elsewhere in England. Rose’s brewery of Malton, Yorkshire produced an AK, and the Tadcaster Tower brewery had a range that included four K beers. Robinson’s of Stockport sold AK Ale at the beginning of the 20th century. But few other brewers north of Newark, in the East Midlands, seem to have used Ks. In 1898 the Brewers’ Journal said the X mark was “almost universal in provincial towns, the alternative K being equally common in the London district”. But this does not help us much in finding out the origins of AK.

At least the process by which the K beers that survived to near the end of the 20th century became known as milds, when the style started out as a type of bitter ale, is easy to explain. Mild by the 1930s means to drinkers a low-gravity, low-hops, cheaper beer. In the Great Gravity Drop during and after the First World War, AKs fell to around 1030-1033 OG, and cost (in the 1930s) five (old) pence a pint, the same as best mild and less than “standard” bitter. Taylor Walker, the East London brewer, actually advertised its verson as “5d AK” probably because it sold cheaper than London dark mild, at six pence a pint. Being low-gravity, cheap and light on the hops, these AKs and KKs fell within the “modern” definition of milds.  Fordham’s of Ashwell, North Hertfordshire in 1934 sold XX mild and AX bitter at four pence a pint, XXX mild and AK bitter at five pence a pint, stout at six pence, PA bitter and XXXX at seven pence, IPA at eight pence and OO old ale at one shilling. The OG of Fordham’s AK was by now around 1030.

McMullen's AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

McMullen’s AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

All those other AKs eventually vanished with the brewerrs that made them, leaviong only McMullen’s. At one stage, McMullen was describing AK on pump clips as a “mild bitter”, though the beer was sold in polypins in the 1980s as “Trad bitter”. The company dropped the description “mild” for AK only in the early 1990s.

So, although we can still drink AK, since there is no evidence to support the koyt derivation, and little support for the idea that the K in low-gravity, lightly hopped AK could have meant “keeping” the way it does in KKKK and KKK, I’m afraid we still haeeve to solve the mystery of where the K – and indeed the A – in AK come from.

Update: Bailey of Boak and Bailey has been doing some excellent searching through old digitised newspapers and pushed back the earliest mention of AK to 1846, in an advertisement from the Chelmsford Chronicle of October 23 1846 that lists Ind Coope AK. A slightly later ad, from the Ipswich Journal of June 15 1850, lists under “Romford Ales” (Ind Coope again, almost certainly) “AK, a light bitter ale” at 19 shillings for 18 gallons, as well as XK bitter ale and XXK “Ale” at 24 shillings and 31 shillings a kilderkin respectively: only the XXK looks like a “proper” stock ale, at perhaps 1080 to 1090 OG. An even more interesting ad from the same paper three years later, June 18 1853, refers to “The Romford A.K. or Light Bitter Beer, so much in request for Summer beverage”, which can be supplied for one shilling a gallon.

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging

Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

Continue reading

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

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

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

Rising Sun Enfield

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

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

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

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

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India Session Ales – tremendous new trend or oxymoronic category fail?

“All the IBUs, half the ABV” is how the American beer writer Brian Yaeger describes the newest (?) beery trend in the United States: the “India Session Ale”.

10 Barrel ISAAs you’ll have gathered, the ISA is meant to have the flavours of an American-style IPA, but at a more “sessionable” gravity. “Sessionable” is in the eye of the beer holder: I’d curl my lip at any beer over 4.2 per cent describing itself as “sessionable”, but to many Americans the term means anything under 5 per cent. However, what worries me most is the idea that a beer with 50 IBUs, and hopped with at least six different and powerful varieties, including Warrior, Columbus, Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo and Chinook, even if it’s only 3.5 per cent alcohol, like Ballast Point of California’s Even Keel can in any way be regarded as a session beer. Indeed, at least one “India Style Session Ale”, from the 10 Barrel Brewing Co in Oregon, is 5.5 per cent ABV.

As I wrote in this space nearly four years ago, I love session beers, but to me an essential part of what makes a good session beer is its restraint. To quote myself:

A great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention … A good, quaffable session beer should have enough interest for drinkers to want another, but not so much going on that they are distracted from the primary purpose of a session, which is the enjoyment of good company in convivial surroundings.

I’ve not, unfortunately, had the opportunity to try any of the India Session Ales (also known as “American session ales”, “Session IPAs” and “Light IPAs”) Brian Yaeger talks about in his piece, but in April I did get to try something I suspect may be similar, DNA New World IPA, the collaboration beer made by blending concentrated “essence of Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA” shipped over from Delaware with beer brewed at the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford. Continue reading

The REAL 20 most influential beers of all time

A beery audience

‘Guys, you’ll never believe this “20 most influential beers” list’

An American website called First We Feast has just announced what it declares are “The 20 most influential beers of all time”, a list put together by a “panel of beer-industry pros – brewers, distributors, publicans, and importers, as well as a few journalists.”

You’ll have some idea of the validity of this list when I tell you that half the beers on it are brewed in the US. I don’t want to diss the panel that chose these beers, but I only recognise one name on it, apart from him there are none of the commentators I turn to for insight into the North American brewing scene, let alone anyone from outside the US, and there doesn’t appear to be a single brewing historian among any of them. Which is presumably why they came up with such a totally crap list, with far, far more misses than hits.

The First We Feast attempt at naming the 20 most influential beers of all time

Gablinger’s diet beer, Rheingold, New York
Blind Pig IPA
Westmalle Tripel
New Albion Ale
Fuller’s London Pride
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
Pilsner Urquell
Anchor Steam Beer
Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye
Ayinger Celebrator
Generic lager
Cantillon Classic Gueuze
Anchor Old Foghorn
Reissdorf Kölsch
Draught Guinness
Allagash White
Sam Adams Utopias
Saison Dupont
Schneider Aventinus

I mean, Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye is more influential in the history of beer than Bass Pale Ale or Barclay Perkins porter? Don’t make me weep. Allagash White trumps Hoegaarden and Schneider Weisse? (You may not like Hoegaarden or Schneider Weisse, but I hope you won’t try to deny their influence.) Gueuze, Saison and Kölsch are such important styles they deserve a representative each in a “most influential beers of all time” list, while IPA and porter are left out? I don’t think so. And the same goes for Schneider Aventinus: where are the hordes of Weissebockalikes? Sam Adams Utopias has influenced who, exactly? “Generic lager”? I see where you’re coming from, in that much of what has happened over the past 40 years in the beer world is a reaction against generic lager, but still … And I love London Pride, but it’s not even the third most influential beer that Fuller’s brews.

Gablinger’s Diet Beer is about the only smart choice on the FWF list, because although it’s pretty obscure now, it was the inspiration for all the “lite” beers that, through big brands such as Miller Lite and Bud Light, came to dominate the US beer scene. Pilsner Urquell is a must: you could argue (and I will, in a moment) over whether there has been a more influential beer, but no “all-time greats” list could ignore the pale lager from Plzen. Westmalle Tripel: Duvel, surely, is more important. Guinness: I really don’t think Guinness is influential: it’s so sui generis, it’s just carried on being itself, without influencing anybody.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale I’m prepared to consider, as the pioneer of “hop forward” American pale ales, and the same consideration may be due to Blind Pig IPA, the first “double” IPA. Anchor Old Foghorn was itself too influenced by other beers, especially the English old ale/Burton Ale tradition, to be on a “most influential” list itself. If Goose Island Bourbon County Stout was, as it appears, the first “aged in barrels used for something else” beer, then for all the brews that has inspired, it deserves a “most influential” mention. But having both New Albion Ale and Anchor Steam on the list is far too California-centric: indeed, if you’re looking for a beer than inspired the boom in American craft brewing, them I’d put on a steel helmet and announce that it’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager: I bet that inspired far more drinkers to try something other than the mainstream than any other early American “craft” beer.

So: what ARE the real 20 most influential beers of all time? Judged purely on the size of the effect they had on subsequent beer history, I reckon they are: Continue reading