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.

That’s not to say there were no ales brewed with herbs in Britain. I’ve tracked references to between 40 and 50 different herbs and plants that were added to ale at some time, both before and after the arrival of hops (you can read more in the “Herb beers” chapter of my book Amber, Gold and Black, from which a fair part of this post is nicked.) There are a couple of East Anglian recipes for herb-flavoured ale dating from around 1430, in the collection known as the Paston Letters:

Pur faire holsom drynk of ale, Recipe sauge, auence, rose maryn, tyme, chopped right smal, and put this and a newe leyd hennes ey [egg] in a bage and hange it in the barell. Item, clowys, maces, and spikenard grounden and put in a bagge and hangen in the barell. And nota that the ey of the henne shal kepe the ale fro sour.

In modern English: “For a fair, wholesome drink of ale, chop finely sage, wood avens [or Herb Bennet, Geum urbanum, a common perennial plant with yellow five-petalled flowers, found in woodlands and hedgerows], rosemary and thyme and place in a bag with a newly laid hen’s egg, and hang the bag in a barrel. Second recipe: grind cloves, mace and spikenard (probably ploughman’s-spikenard, Inula conyzae, an English perennial flowering plant found in scrubland whose roots have a strong, spicy aroma] and put in a bag and hang in the barrel. Note that the hen’s egg will keep the ale from going sour.”

I’d love to see either of those recipes reproduced. John Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, printed a similar sort of recipe for sage ale in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597, declaring: “No man needs to doubt of the wholesomeness of sage ale, being brewed as it should be with sage, scabious [probably field scabious, Knautia arvensis], betony [Betonica officinalis, a bitter grassland plant], spikenard [Inula conyzae again], squinanth [squinancywort or squinancy woodruff (Asperula cynanchica), a scented, white or lilac-flowered plant formerly used in the treatment of quinsy, a throat infection] and fennel seeds.”

Scurvy grass

Scurvy grass

Those “multi-ingredient” herb ales are similar to the two new ales bought out by the Pilot and Ilkley breweries, both of which have “foraged” for their ingredients, using herbs and botanicals than can be found near their breweries. The ale from the Pilot brewery, which opened in Leith late last year, has been brewed at the request of the Vintage bar and restaurant in Leith to celebrate the restaurant’s first anniversary. The restaurant has been using foraged food in its seasonal menus, and it supplied the brewery with foraged ingredients for the ale – scurvy grass, Cochlearia officinalis, a relative of horseradish, used historically to brew “scurvy ale”, which was taken aboard ships for its high vitamin C content; laver, a variety of edible seaweed; crab apples; black lovage, Smyrnium olusatrum, a celery-like plant now naturalised in Britain but originally from Macedonia; sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides; and juniper branches. Juniper branches are a traditional part of Norwegian home brewing: while there’s little or no evidence British ale brewers used juniper, I’d be surprised if they didn’t, at least occasionally.

Yarrow

Yarrow: you may recognise it from your lawn

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. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a common grassland weed, small and feathery-leaved. For pre-hop brewers it gave bitterness, a preservative effect and, if the flowering plants were used, strong herby aromas. Its taste is described by one brewer as astringent, and vaguely citrussy. It had a reputation in Scandinavia for making ale more potent, perhaps because it is said to contain thujone, the narcotic ingredient also found in wormwood. Too much yarrow is said to cause dizziness and ringing in the ears, “and even madness”. Bog myrtle/sweet gale has a similar reputation: I wrote about it here. Viking warriors, according to some authorities, consumed large quantities of bog myrtle to bring on hallucinations and, literally, drive themselves berserk before battle. But gale ale, made by adding leafy branches of bog myrtle to the hot wort, is an old Yorkshire tradition. Peyton also used rosemary, sage, heather flowers and heather foraged from Ilkley Moor to flavour an ale made with six malts, Maris Otter extra pale, oats (6%), crystal, chocolate, brown and smoked, and a small amount of Fuggles hops, for preservative purposes, if not total historic accuracy.

Alas, I’ve not had this ale yet, but Luke Raven, sales and marketing manager at Ilkley Brewery, said: “The beer is delicious. The fragrant mixture of gruit herbs and heather from Ilkley Moor really packs a punch and yet it’s a beer you could happily enjoy with a Sunday roast or pheasant.”

Butler's Head

The Dr Butler’s Head near Moorgate in the City of London in the 1960s

I suspect it is called Doctor’s Orders in part as a nod to Dr Butler’s Ale, a medicated or “purging” ale that was the invention of William Butler, the court physician to King James I, who died in 1617. Inns that sold the ale often went under the sign of the Dr Butler’s Head, and there is still a Butler’s Head in the City of London (now owned by Shepherd Neame). Eighteenth-century recipes for the drink used for betony, sage, agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, a wayside plant popular in herbal medicine), scurvy-grass, Roman wormwood (less potent than “regular” wormwood but still bitter), elecampane (Inula helenium, a dandelion-like bitter plant still used in herbal cough mixtures) and horse-radish, to be mixed and put in a bag which should be hung in casks of new ale while they underwent fermentation. It was described in 1680 as “an excellent stomack drink” which “helps digestion, expels wind, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good against colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest, and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.”

It’s my suspicion, however, that when British brewers used herbs in the past, they were much more likely to use them singly than bung in three, four or more different types. There are only a tiny number of actual medieval references to herbs and spices used in ale: in William Langland’s long poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, written in the late 1300s Beton the brewster tempts Glutton away from his journey to church, telling him: “I have good ale.” When Glutton, asks if she has any “hot spices” to hand she replies:

“I have peper and piones [peony seeds] … and a pound of garlice,
A ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fastyng-dayes.”

The “peper” would have been “long pepper”, made from the long rod-like structure made from merged berries that develops on Piper officinarum (from India) or P. retrofractum (from Indonesia). However, it is not until we get to Stuart times that we get more frequent mentions of herb-flavoured ales. One of my favourites is from The Bacchanalian Sessions: or The Contention of Liquors, by Richard Ames (1643-1693), a long paean to drinks of all sorts, which contains a submission to Bacchus from the ales:

Whether Scurvy-grass, Daucus, Gill, Butler, or Broom,
Or from London, or Southwark, or Lambeth we come;
We humbly implore since the Wine in the Nation,
Has of late so much lost its once great Reputation;
That such Liquor as ours which is genuine and true,
And which all our Masters so carefully brew,
Which all men approve of, tho’ many drink Wine,
Yet the good Oyl of Barly there’s none will decline:
That we as a body call’d corp’rate may stand,
And a Patent procure from your Seal and your Hand,
That none without Licence, call’d Special, shall fail,
To drink any thing else, but Strong Nappy Brown Ale.

That’s five herb ales, of which only one, “Butler” (Dr Butler’s) is mixed. Scurvy-grass we have talked about. “Daucus” is wild carrot seed: William Ellis wrote in The London and Country Brewer, which first appeared in 1736, that when hops were dear “many of the poor People in this Country gather and dry in their Houses” daucus or wild carrot seed from the fields, which gave a “fine Peach flavour or relish” to their beer.

Ground-ivy

Ground-ivy or alehoof

Gill ale was made with ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea also known as alehoof (from its hoof-shaped leaves) or Gill-go-over-the-Ground, a creeping plant common in woods and hedgerows all over the British Isles: it can be used as a salad herb, and even cooked and eaten like spinach. The pre-Norman English cultivated ground-ivy, and a recipe in an Anglo-Saxon leechdom, or medical book, distinguishes between the wild and cultivated or garden varieties: another name for the plant, tunhoof, comes from tun meaning enclosure or garden rather than tun meaning cask. It was steeped in the hot liquor before mashing, and it seems to have been a widely used plant in brewing ale, even after the arrival of hops: John Gerard said in 1597 that “the women of our northern parts, especially Wales and Chesire, do turn Herbe-Alehoof into their ale.” It gives a bitter, very strong, tannic flavour to ale (described by Stephen Harrod Buhner as like black tea), but more importantly it helps fine the drink, clearing new ale overnight, according to Culpepper. Gill ale was being advertised on the signboard of the [Red?] Lion pub in Bird-Cage Alley, Southwark in around 1722, “Truly prepared and recommended by famed Doctor Bostock”, Bostock being the pub’s landlord.

The young green tops of broom, Cytisus scoparius (or Sarothamnus scoparius), were used in season to give a bitter flavour to ale. Among the bitter compounds found in broom is sparteine, a narcotic alkaloid which can cause hallucinations in very large doses, and probably gives a buzz even at low levels. Broom was one of the bittering agents specifically banned under the Act of Parliament in 1711 that imposed a penny a pound tax on English hops: the only let-out was that retailers could infuse broom and wormwood in ale or beer “after it is brewed and tunned, to make it broom or wormwood ale or beer.” Wormwood has been used to make bitter wine-based drinks since at least Roman times, and is the origin of the word vermouth. Maude Grieve, author of A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, said that shepherds had long known that sheep who ate broom became excited and then stupefied, “but the intoxicating effects soon pass off”. Broom also contains tannins, which would help to preserve ale, and make it taste more astringent. Broom ale is another one I’d love to see revived.

The hop tax banned other bittering agents purely to try to crush tax-avoidance, despite a claim that it was done because “it had been found by experience that hops used in the making of malt drinks were more wholesome for those that drink the same and of greater advantage to the drink itself than any other bitter ingredient that can be used.” It did not stop home brewers using herbs: William Ellis said when hops were dear, some used “that wholsome Herb Horehound, which indeed is a fine Bitter and grows on several of our Commons.” This was white horehound, Marrubium vulgare, “extremely bitter” according to Stephen Harrod Buhner, rather than the nasty-smelling black horehound or Stinking Roger. Horehound is still used in herbal cough mixtures, and was sometimes used in a “beer for coughs”. The juice of horehound, according to Ellis, was also used to spruce up used hops and sell them to the gullible, when dried, as new.

Just over 20 years before the hop tax was imposed, Thomas Tryon, in his A New Art of Brewing Beer, Ale, and Other Sorts of Liquors, published in 1690, list 13 herbs that could be added to ale, and said there were “a great number of brave Herbes and Vegitations that will do the business of brewing, as well as hops, and for many Constitutions much better, for ’tis custom more than their real virtues that renders Hops of general Use and Esteem.” His two favourites, “noble” herbs, of “excellent” use in beer or ale, were balm, or lemon-balm, Melissa officinalis, an introduced herb from the eastern Mediterranean, and a relative of ground-ivy, and pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, a small-leaved member of the mint family, with a bitter flavour and a pungent odour, which grows wild on the muddy edges of ponds. Tryon said it made “brave, well-tasted Drink”; today, however, it is regarded as dangerously poisonous, not least because it can induce abortion. It is now an endangered species, known from only a dozen or so places. Don’t try (on) this one.

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).

Continue reading

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

Rule Brettannia

I had my first all-Brettanomyces beer earlier this month: Evil Twin’s Femme Fatale, which was on keg at the Cask in Clerkenwell, and is apparently meant to be a “Brett IPA”. It was … “interesting”, but perhaps only if you believe it’s interesting to drink something that tastes like essence of sweaty old leather sandals.

A Brettanomyces yeast cell

All-Brett beers have been popular for several years now in the US, of course. But the point about Brett, I think, is that, rather like hops, it’s meant to be used as a “spice” in beer, not the only audible ingredient. An all-Brett beer is an orchestra where the timpani is so amplified, you can’t hear anything else. If you want to use Brett – and it’s been an influence in brewing for many centuries, albeit a mostly unrecognised one – then it needs to be used judicially, particularly as its effects, the aromas and flavours it gives to beer, vary considerably depending on just how great a role Brettanomyces yeasts have been given. A subtle suggestion of something funky can be fine in a strong, complex ale. Being battered about the nostrils with all the aromas of a rugby team changing-room after a tough match on a hot day – not so much.

(Incidentally, the next person who writes that Brett gives a “horseblanket” aroma to beers will be poked with red-hot branding irons: I doubt more than one in five hundred beer drinkers knows what a horse blanket smells like, and I bet very, very few beer writers who steal that description from Michael Jackson have ever sniffed a horse blanket either.)

My wrestle with Femme Fatale (which I left sitting on the bar after less than a third of a pint) was a good limbering-up, however, for a beer Ed Wray of the Old Dairy brewery in Kent sent me more than a year ago, his “homage” to Colne Spring Ale. CSA is another legendary beer, vanished many years ago yet still talked about. It was made by Benskin’s of Watford, the biggest brewery Hertfordshire produced; named after the River Colne, which flows through Watford on its way to the Thames; and famous for being one of the strongest beers in Britain until it finally vanished in 1970. Continue reading

Endangered beers

Beers, like animals, can be endangered species: some can even go extinct. Nobody’s seen West Country White Ale in the wild for more than 125 years.

Camra, I’m very pleased to say, has recently decided that it could be doing much more than Make May a Mild Month for promoting endangered beers, and has set up a Beer Styles Working Group to look at ways of plugging and encouraging endangered beer styles of all sorts.

I’ve managed to blag my way onto the working group, mostly because I’m keen to point out to Camra members, and beer festival organisers (and brewers) that endangered beer styles in Britain go a long way beyond mild, stout and porter, and to try to get the other half-dozen or more endangered British beer styles recognition and promotion as well: and maybe even get some of the extinct beers remade. (That’s the advantage of beer: it may turn out to be impossible to resurrect the mammoth, but reproducing a vanished beer style generally only requires the will, a recipe and the right ingredients.)

So what ARE Britain’s vulnerable and endangered (and extinct) beer styles? Here’s my personal checklist: Continue reading

In praise of brown beer

If you have a “favourite beer”, you don’t really like beer. Similarly, you don’t really like beer if you have a “favourite beer style”, any more than you can really like music if all you listen to is folk, or rock, or only classical, or only jazz.

That said, I would cope for quite a time if all I could listen to was Bach (there’s a Polish internet radio station, Radio B.A.C.H., that plays nothing but the works of “Jana Sebastiana”) or the sort of “modern” jazz played in New York clubs between 1954 and 1964. And I would be very happy to spend – well, weeks, certainly, maybe months – drinking nothing but bitter, specifically the loose-headed amber-cornelian cask bitters of Southern England, cool, low in CO2, lightly aromatic, just bitter enough to stimulate without overwhelming, hints of toffee, marmalade and apricot, maybe a touch of fruitcake or blackcurrant, and with a strength – not much more than four per cent abv at the most – that means you can swallow pints at a leisurely rate while chatting, relaxing, chilling, eating, watching the world or listening to, say, Miles Davis play Walkin’.

Do I love that style of beer because it was the one I drank growing up? I’m sure sitting at rustic tables in rural pub gardens in Hertfordshire on long, warm, sunny summer evenings, talking with friends, clouds of cow parsley nodding over the car park wall and martins high above swooping through the flying ants like little fighter planes, while dimpled glasses of Rayment’s BBA or Wethered’s (RIP the pair of them) were slowly emptied, fixed in my mind the idea that English bitter equals quiet, unpaced enjoyment. But I never grew up in Elizabethan England and I still adore Thomas Tallis. Nor did I live in St Petersburg in the reign of Catherine the Great, but I rate Imperial Russian Stout as highly as the Empress apparently did.

No, I love English bitter because, while beer can be many things – that’s one of the drink’s strengths – from terrific taste experience to brilliant enhancer of food, and while there’s plenty of room in my beeriverse for everything from souped-up extremobrews to simple refreshers, the subtle joys to be found in a pint of well-looked-after cask “ordinary” are what I would miss the most if I was told: “You can never drink beer again.”

So: surely that makes Southern English bitter my “favourite” beer style? Well, no, it’s the beer I love to drink when I’m socialising, and if I couldn’t drink beer when I’m socialising, then I’d really be suffering. But it’s not the beer I like drinking at the very end of an evening, or the beer I’d generally choose for accompanying food, and it’s not the beer I’d automatically lunge for when eyeing up the choices in a strange bar: I like to try something new, too, when there’s a chance. Then in the winter I love a good Burton, or a porter, in the summer a brisk Czech or North German lager or a golden ale, or a Bavarian wheat beer. Sometimes I listen to Irish traditional music, sometimes to Mozart operas. I don’t like smoked beers much, or artichokes, or Bob Dylan’s singing (some of his songs are good, though). I love a good brown bitter, Thelonious Monk, Richard Thompson, Dr Strangelove, Donatello’s David, blackberries with clotted cream, and roast duck. But I don’t have favourites.

The stout that dare not speak its name

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Very few beer brands survive today that have modern examples to put into a worthwhile four-decade vertical tasting. That’s simply because forty years ago there were hardly any beers being brewed that had the longevity to be still drinkable when even the most junior brewer involved in their production is now at or approaching retirement age.

It wasn’t looking good for Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which was one of less than a handful of strong beers capable of great age being brewed in the 1970s and which stopped being made in the early 1990s despite a history going back more than two centuries.

But Courage IRS, doubtless in considerable part because Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 featured it across two pages, has inspired a huge number of imitators in the US and created an extremely popular beer style in the process.

When the Bedford brewer Wells & Youngs acquired the rights to the Courage beer brands from Scottish & Newcastle in 2007, the first two beers from the old Courage stable Wells produced were the Best Bitter and Directors Bitter. But I am sure it quickly occurred to the company’s marketers that here was a chance to bring back a truly iconic beer, which would surely have an instant appeal in the US as the ur-IRS, the Imperial Russian Stout in honour of which all others are named.

Thus in May last year the Bedford brewery produced the first new brew of Courage Imperial Russian Stout for 18 years, two bottles of which they’ve been kind enough to send to me, to my great delight, as I love a good IRS. And because I’m the sort of sad nerd who stuffs bottles of beers away for decades, I was able to pull out examples of Courage IRS from 1975, 1985 and 1992 to compare against the latest version. Continue reading

The lost art of extreme-aged cask ale

In September 1841 the “magnificent mansion” of Wynnstay, near Wrexham in North Wales, saw four days of celebration to mark the coming-of-age of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. On the last day, 500 people, including Sir Watkin’s uncles the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Powis, sat down to dine in a 7,500-square-feet pavilion, 20 feet high, erected in the garden. The menu included rounds and sirloins of beef, shoulders and legs of lamb, haunches of venison, roast and boiled chickens, grouse, partridges, jugged hare, veal, hams, salmon, carp, tench, lobster salad, tongues, jellies, blancmanges and pastries, “unlimited” wines including claret, hock, champagne and port – and “probably the greatest treat”, according to the local newspaper, the Shropshire Conservative, “an abundant supply of rare old ale, brewed at the birth of the present Sir Watkin Wynn”, that is, 21 years earlier, in 1820, “when 200 bushels of malt were brewed to fill the noble barrel out of which the company were supplied with their invigorating potations.” Sir Watkin, the sixth baronet, and his cellarer, Mr Martin, who had been at Wynnstay for nearly half a century, drank the first jug of 21-year-old ale between them, and were evidently quickly joined by the Duke and Earl: “Those highest in rank in the company appeared to enjoy the noble liquor with the utmost relish,” the Shropshire Conservative said.

Sir Watkin’s extreme-aged ale, which even at a (Shropshire) conservative estimate of 16 bushels to the barrel, giving an enormous 1230 original gravity, and totalling a dozen or so barrels, was far from a one-off: there is evidence from the 18th century to just before the First World War of many similar massive brews being made and laid down for a couple of decades before being broached.

Continue reading