How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong. Continue reading

When Brick Lane was home to the biggest brewery in the world

Black Eagle sign

Black Eagle sign, Brick Lane

The huge sign on the outside of the building on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane is clear enough: Truman Black Eagle Brewery. Nobody passing by could have any doubt what used to happen here, even though no beer brewing has taken place on the premises for more than 20 years. But what few people know is that for a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century, this was the biggest brewery in the world.

Today Brick Lane, Spitalfields, in the East End of London is bustling and cosmopolitan, the heart of what is sometimes called “Banglatown”. For hundreds of years Spitalfields – filled with cheap housing, in large part because it was to the east of the City, so that the prevailing westerly winds dump all the soot from the West End over it – has been a place where poor immigrants to England come to try to scrabble a living, generally in trades connected with making clothes: Huguenot silk weavers from France fleeing Catholic oppression,  Irish linen weavers fleeing unemployment in Ireland, Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia, Bangladeshis fleeing poverty, all adding their tales to a place crowded with both people and history. But it wasn’t always thus: the author Daniel Defoe, who was born in 1660, remembered Brick Lane from his childhood in the early years of the Restoration as “a deep, dirty road frequented chiefly by carts fetching bricks into Whitechapel”.

Over the decade after Charles II returned to England, as London expanded, development spread up Brick Lane itself from the south, and new streets were laid out in Spitalfields where previously cows had grazed. Two of these streets, on the west side of Brick Lane, were named Grey Eagle Street and Black Eagle Street. Thomas Bucknall, a London entrepreneur, is said by some to have built the Black Eagle brewhouse in about 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, on land known as Lolsworth Field, Spittlehope belonging to Sir William Wheler. However, it remains unclear whether Bucknall actually was a brewer: the best that can be said is that on the land he leased “in 1681-2 the lay-out of buildings on this part of Brick Lane approximated to the present arrangement of brewery buildings round an entrance yard, and that this lay-out may date back to 1675.”

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Unexpected free beer and other adventures

The occasional free beer is, of course, one of the benefits of writing a blog about hopped alcoholic refreshment: but it doesn’t usually come to me via random interactions in the road.

Strictly, I wasn’t actually on the public highway. I was standing in what used to be Black Eagle Street, a turning off Brick Lane, in the heart of what is now Banglatown in the East End of London. Black Eagle Street was swallowed by the expansion of Truman’s brewery, at one time London’s biggest brewer, which closed more than 20 years ago. It is, now, since the old brewery site began to be converted into (quote) “East London’s revolutionary arts and media quarter”, a slightly scruffy pathway lined with slightly scruffy food outlets, bars, art galleries and the like.

I had just come out of one of those bars, where, in an attempted homage to the brewery’s past, I had drunk an Anchor porter from San Francisco. Anchor porter, inspired, ultimately, by the original 18th century beer style that made Trumans famous, was introduced in 1972 – the year after Trumans lost its independence at the end of a ferocious takeover fight.

Hobsons at Trumans

Alice Churchward, left, and Laure Roux of Hobsons brewery, parked up in the Dray Walk at the former Trumans Brewery off Brick Lane

While pondering that, and other ironies, I spotted a van in the impossible-to-miss livery of Hobsons Brewery, from Cleobury Mortimer, a tiny town on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border some 120 miles from the East End, parked 20 feet away.

Fortunately the two young women with the van were not put off by a grey-bearded loony in a blue hoodie approaching, claiming to be a beer blogger, and demanding to know what they were about. Seems that Hobsons, undeterred by the boom in London’s own brewing scene, has decided there is an opportunity for a brewery whose logo is a bowler hat to sell its beers in the capital. The van, as well as dropping off casks to pubs, was delivering mild ale for the guests at a preview show for an exhibition due to take place at one of the art galleries on the Trumans site.

They, in turn, wanted to know if I knew Hobsons (answer: heard of, never drunk) and would I like to try some, they happened to have a few bottles in the van? There’s probably a bye-law somewhere in the constitution of the International Beerbloggers’ Union that says you’re never allowed to turn down unsolicited free beer. So entirely unexpectedly, thanks to Alice Churchward of Hobsons and her companion Laure Roux, I left the former Truman’s porter brewery with a bottle of British-brewed porter, Hobson’s Postman’s Knock (and also a bottle of Hobson’s Manor Ale). Thank you very much, Alice – tried the Postman’s Knock, a fine medium-strength easy-drinking porter that would be an excellent match, I suggest, with Shropshire Blue cheese.

That very pleasant surprise made up for the unpleasant surprise three minutes later when I turned out of the top of Brick Lane, crossed the road, and discovered that Mason & Taylor, recommended as “one of London’s most ambitious new beer bars” by people I respect, doesn’t open until 5pm. I’m sure the people running the bar have what they believe to be excellent operational reasons for being shut at lunchtimes and in the afternoon, but frankly, I don’t care. If you’re not open to serve me at what I regard as a perfectly reasonable hour to be served, you’re not doing a good enough job.

Instead I went to the Water Poet nearby in Folgate Street. It may be almost a parody of the trendy Spitalfields bar – the wacky artwork on the walls, the second-hand leather sofas with the stuffing bulging out and the faux-ironic Scotch eggs on the menu (I don’t recall spotting any dimpled beermugs, but most other boxes were ticked). However, the Water Poet did manage to serve me a very pleasant pint of Truman’s Runner (from the people who revived the Truman’s name in 2010) at 3.15 in the afternoon, which is very considerably better than bleedin’ Mason & Taylor managed.

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Guinness myths and scandals

Guinness on toast - nom

‘Guinness Marmite’ from the 1930s

Is there a brewery business with more books written about it – is there any business with more books written about it – than Guinness? Effectively a one-product operation, Guinness has inspired tens of millions of words. Without trying hard, I’ve managed to acquire 18 different books about Guinness, the brewery, the people, the product and/or the advertising (four of them written by people called Guinness), and that’s not counting the five editions I have of the lovely little handbook that Guinness used to give to visitors to the brewery at St James’s Gate, dated from 1928 to 1955. There are plenty more books on Guinness I don’t have.

Despite all those volumes of Guinnessiana, however, you can still find a remarkable quantity of Guinness inaccuracy and mythology, constantly added to and recycled, particularly about the brewery’s earliest days. The myths and errors range from Arthur Guinness’s date of birth (the claim that he was born on September 24, 1725 is demonstrably wrong) to the alleged uniqueness of Guinness’s yeast: the idea that the brewery’s success was down to the yeast Arthur Guinness brought with him to Dublin is strangely persistent, though the brewery’s own records show that as early as 1810-12 (and almost certainly earlier) St James’s Gate was borrowing yeast from seven different breweries.

Most accounts of the history of Guinness also miss out on some cracking stories too little known: the homosexual affair that almost brought the end of the brewery partnership in the late 1830s, for example; the still-unexplained attack of insanity that saw Guinness’s managing director, great-great nephew of Arthur Guinness I, carried out of the brewery in a straitjacket in 1895; and the link between the writings of Arthur Guinness I’s grandson Henry Grattan Guinness and the foundation of the state of Israel (which takes in the assassination of Arthur Guinness I’s great-great grandson in Egypt). Continue reading

How Brazil’s favourite beer arrived from Scotland

‘If the man who invented the censorship bar had drunk Skol, it wouldn’t look like this – it would look like this. Skol goes down round’

It is one of the stranger results of global beer marketing that the biggest-selling beer in Brazil, which is also one of the biggest beers in Africa, from Algeria via Guinea to Rwanda, and is sold across large parts of Asia, from India via Malaysia to Hong Kong, began life more than 50 years ago in a small Scottish town on the north side of the Forth estuary.

I doubt too many drinkers of Skol in Rio de Janeiro know that the drink that “goes down round”, according to its advertising, came originally from 6,000 miles away. Today a beer that was one of the pioneers of mass-market lager in Britain is seen in Brazil as so Brazilian that drinking it turns Argentinians into supporters of the Canarinhos.

Skol is also huge across the South Atlantic in the Congo, where it inspires what I suggest may be one of the best music videos in support of a beer ever, by the too-little-known Bill Clinton Kalonji. (Give yourself eight minutes 33 to watch, and if you’re not grinning broadly by two minutes in at the latest, you can have your money back. The Portman group would turn into steam.) In Malaysia (where the beer is brewed by a Carlsberg subsidiary) and the Far East, meanwhile, it has been launched as a “value for money” brew.

In Britain, Skol was the biggest-selling beer in the market 25 years ago. But it had fallen out of the top 10 by 2004 and is now a commodity lager, sold in cans at just 2.8 per cent abv to take advantage of the UK’s new low-alcohol tax band. Skol is currently the fifth best selling beer in the world, thanks to its popularity in places such as Brazil and the Congo. But in the country where it began, Skol is a sad, tired brand.

The other curiosity is that brewery mergers and takeovers mean that Skol-the-brand is owned by Carlsberg in Britain and Asia, A-B InBev in South America, and UniBra, a Belgian company, in Africa. How all did this happen to a beer from Alloa? It’s a long story, and it properly starts in Burton upon Trent more than 110 years ago, where a substantial but struggling pale ale brewer, Samuel Allsopp & Sons, decided in 1898 to get into the lager-brewing business.

Allsopp’s Lager ad, Daily Mirror, 1906. Love that typeface …

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The origins of pils: a reality Czech from Evan Rail

If there is one blessing the Oxford Companion to Beer has brought us, it’s the beginnings of a much better, and myth-free understanding of the origins of the world’s most popular beer style, pale pils lager, and the brewery that first made it, Pilsner Urquell, which is in what is now the Czech Republic. We didn’t get this new understanding from the OCB itself, obviously, but from Evan Rail, who lives in Prague, who writes with insight and erudition about Czech beer, Czech beerstyles and Czech brewing history, and who knows the number one rule about writing history: go back to the original sources – an apt commandment here, since “Urquell” – “Prazdroj” in Czech – means “original source”.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his latest blog post adding, clarifying and correcting the OCB’s Czech-related entries.

Evan has done something few, if any, writers in English about the origins of Pilsner Urquell, the “world’s first pale lager”, have bothered doing. He has uncovered, and read, the document in 1839 which effectively founded the brewery in Pilsen, the “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brewhouse”, made by 12 prominent Pilsen burghers. He has also read the brewery’s own history, written for its 50th anniversary, Měšťanský pivovar v Plzni 1842-1892.

Among the fascinating facts that Evan has revealed so far, the following seem particularly worthy of note:

  • The town of Pilsen was already being “flooded” by bottom-fermented “Bavarian-style” beer in 1839, the 12 would-be founders of the new brewery declared, and it seems one big reason why they wanted to build their own new brewery was to fight back against imports of lager beers from elsewhere, by making their own bottom-fermented brews in Pilsen.
  • The builder of the new brewery, František Filaus “made a trip around the biggest breweries in Bohemia which were then already equipped for brewing bottom-fermented beer,” while in December 1839, the brewery’s architect, Martin Stelzer, “travelled to Bavaria, so that he could tour bigger breweries in Munich and elsewhere and use the experience thus gained for the construction and furnishing of the Burghers’ Brewery.”
  • The yeast for the new brewery was certainly not “smuggled out of Bavaria by a monk”, as far too many sources try to claim (did anybody with their critical faculties engaged ever believe that?), nor even, apparently, brought with him by Josef Groll, the 29-year-old brewer from the town of Vilshofen in Lower Bavaria who was hired to run the new brewery. Instead, “seed yeast for the first batch and fermented wort were purchased from Bavaria,” according to the 1892 book. (The Groll family brewery, incidentally, no longer exists, but another concern in Vilshofen, the Wolferstetter brewery, still produces a Josef Groll Pils in his memory.)
  • The maltings at the new brewery were “dle anglického spůsobu zařízený hvozd”, that is, loosely, “equipped with English-style malt kilns”, according to an account from 1883. That meant indirect heat: the same 1883 account says the kilns were “vytápěný odcházejícím teplem z místnosti ku vaření“, which looks to mean “heated by heat from the boiler-room”. Indirect heat makes it easier to control the heating, and easier to produce pale malt, which is just what the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery did to make its pale lager.

That still leaves THE big mystery: if the burgher brewers of Pilsen wanted to compete against Bavarian-style bottom-fermented lagers, which would still have been quite dark (think “Dunkel”), why did they make a pale beer? Were they attempting to imitate English pale beers? Since pale bitter beers were only just taking off even in Britain in 1842 (although pale mild ales had been around for a couple of centuries), I don’t personally find that particularly likely.

However, Evan has promised “more on the origins of Pilsner Urquell coming up”, and I am hugely looking forward to reading additional revelations. I was delighted to read that Stelzer had toured the big breweries of Munich before the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery was built, because I suggested in an article for Beer Connoisseur magazine in the US two and a half years ago that he must have done. In Munich he surely met Gabriel Sedlmayr II, of the Spaten brewery, who had been round Britain looking at the latest brewing and malting techniques being practised in places such as London, Burton upon Trent and Edinburgh, and Sedlmayr would have been able to tell him about English malting techniques. Munich, at that time, was becoming a magnet for brewers in Continental Europe because of the advances in brewing methods being made by Sedlmayr, as he perfected the techniques of lager brewing.

Sedlmayr wasn’t, at that time, making pale malts: however, the man who accompanied him to Britain on one of his trips, Anton Dreher of the Klein-Schwechat brewery near Vienna, DID come back and start producing paler English-style malts, allied with Bavarian-style lagering, which resulted in a copper-brown beer, the first “Vienna-style” lager. Vienna was then, of course, the capital of the Austrian empire, of which Bohemia (and Pilsen) were still a part: it would not be surprising if Stelzer, a citizen of the Austrian empire, also visited Vienna and met Dreher (whose name, it always amuses me to note, translates as “Tony Turner”), and talked about malting techniques, but there seems to be no evidence as yet that he did so.

I’d also love to know why Josef Groll was hired (apparently by Stelzer) to run the new brewery: Vilshofen, while nearer Pilsen than Munich is, is a comparative backwater, and if Stelzer had been to Munich, why did he not bring a Munich brewer back with him to Bohemia? This site claims (on what authority I know not) that Groll studied under both Sedlmayr and Dreher, but both allegedly complained about his rudeness, obstinacy, stubbornness and lack of self-control. If that’s true (I have no idea), it doesn’t look as it Stelzer bothered checking up on Groll’s references before he hired the young brewer …

London’s brewing, London’s brewing …

The London Brewers Alliance beer festival at Vinopolis, by Borough Market, a couple of Saturdays ago was a terrific event, thoroughly enjoyable. In one room were gathered a dozen or more (I forgot to count) stalls representing breweries from in and around London, with the brewers themselves serving their beers and happy to talk to the punters about them.

It was the kind of “meet the brewer” show common in the US but almost unheard of in the UK that we really should be seeing repeated across this country. And it’s good to see London’s brewers working together in the 21st century to support each other in exactly the same way their ancestors did almost eight centuries ago, when the Brewers’ Guild was founded at All Hallows’ Church, London Wall.

It was also good, for me, to see that the Brewery History Society had a stall there: the LBA clearly has an interest in London’s history as a world-class brewing city, and everybody needs to be reminded of this almost forgotten heritage. I’d argue that, historically, London has an excellent claim to be regarded as the greatest brewing city in the world. Yes, I AM a Londoner, so of course I’m biased, but I dare you to deny that over the centuries London has given the world more new beer styles than any other brewing centre on the planet:
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