Revival of ancient barley variety thrills fans of old beer styles

Chevallier b arley

Chevallier barley, revived after seven decades

In a move that has thrilled beer style revivalists, a beer has been brewed from what was Victorian Britain’s most popular barley variety for the first time in at least 70 years.

What is most interesting for historians of brewing is the way the revived malt acts when used to make beer, putting a new slant on the interpretation of old beer recipes, suggesting they produced beers using the ingredients available at the time that were both fuller in the mouth and less bitter than the same recipes using modern malts, and also beers that needed longer to mature than those made using modern malts do.

The new-old beer, a nut-brown bitter ale made using Chevallier barley, which once went into the vast majority of pints sold in Britain, will be on sale at the Duke of Wellington pub on Waterloo Road, Norwich this coming weekend in time for Camra’s annual members’ meeting in the city. But hurry: there’s only one firkin available.

Chevallier barley was revived by Dr Chris Ridout of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, an independent grant-aided plant and microbiology research centre, which hold seeds from 10,000 varieties of barley at its genetic resources unit.

Dr Chris Ridout growing Chevalier barley at the John Innes Centre

Dr Chris Ridout growing Chevalier barley at the John Innes Centre

The reason for reviving Chevallier was to look again at its malting quality and yields, both of which were good enough to see the variety dominate British barley growing and spread around the world. Dr Ridout and his team have now discovered that Chevallier also has resistance to Fusarium ear blight, which, if it can be cross-bred into other varieties, could be very valuable in the fight against a fungal disease that can devastate grain crops.

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Pea beer

The jokes write themselves with this one, so I’m going to try to keep it as straight as possible: brewing with peas is an ancient tradition, going back at least 400 years in Britain, and it still takes place in Lithuania, the United States and Japan.

There are no peas, I believe, in Eye Pea Ay

The earliest mention I have found for peas in beer is from Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, published in London in 1615:

Now for the brewing of the best March Beer, you shall allow to a Hogshead thereof a quarter [eight bushels] of the best Malt well ground, then you shall take a Peck [a quarter of a bushel] of Pease, half a peck of Wheat, and half a peck of Oats and grind them all very well together, and then mix them with your Malt …

This, Markham said, would make “a Hogshead of the best and a Hogshead of the second, and half a Hogshead of small beer, without any augmentation of Hops or Malt.” Even though the hop rate was just a pound a barrel, the strong beer, brewed in March or April, “should (if it have right ) have a whole year to ripen in”, Markham said, and “it will last two, three, or four years if it lye cool; and endure the drawing to the last drop.” That is probably more down to the strength of the beer – at some five and a half bushels of fermentables per barrel, the alcohol per volume was quite likely north of 11 per cent – than any magic the peas brought to the brew.

A few words about the word “pea”, incidentally: it began as “pease”, singular, with “peasen” the plural. By the 15th century “pease” was often being used as both the singular and plural, and as a “mass noun”, like rice or malt. Eventually , by the 17th century, “pease” was misanalysed as the plural of a singular “pea”. “Pease” and “peasen” survive today only in “pease pudding” and in place names such as Peasenhall in Suffolk.

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Burton: NOT the first place in the world to brew pale beers

It’s tremendous news that the brewery museum in Burton upon Trent is to reopen, though my joy that Britain, one of the world’s four or five greatest brewing nations, may finally get the celebration of its beery history that it deserves was turned down a notch by a statement from one of the people who deserves maximum praise for campaigning on behalf of the museum’s future.

Burton, he said, and he really really REALLY ought to know better, “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century with India Pale Ale and then Pale Ale for the domestic market,” which were “the first pale beers brewed anywhere in the world.”

No they blahdy weren’t – absolutely, definitely, not not not. Pale beers were being brewed long before IPA: millennia before IPA, probably. The sun-dried malt that was most likely one of the raw materials for Sumerian beer must have been very pale. Odd Nordland, the great Norwegian brewing historian, collected records of beer being made from sun-dried malt in Norway, in places like Rogaland, on the south-west coast, which “produced a very pale ale”. If you can make sun-dried pale malt in Rogaland, you can make it anywhere in Britain, and I find it almost inconceivable that pale ales weren’t being brewed with pale sun-dried malt from the moment the first brewers arrived in these islands, which was around 6,000 or so years ago. Continue reading

The Hunting of the Stout

In February 1961, 47 years ago, Guinness paid the London brewer Watney Combe Reid £28,000 – equivalent to more than £400,000 today – to discontinue brewing its Reid’s Stout. It was part of the Irish firm’s drive to put its newly perfected nitrogen-serve Draught Guinness into as many pubs as possible: Watney’s also had a draught “container stout”, presumably using the keg system that powered Red Barrel, and the Dublin boys were happy to pay to eliminate this potential rival.

Reid’s, whose original brewery was in the aptly named Liquorpond Street, near Hatton Garden, before it merged with Watney and another London firm, Combe’s of Covent Garden, had been one of the great stout brewers of the 19th century, The journalist Alfred Barnard wrote in 1889: “Who has not heard of Reid’s stout? And what better accompaniment to a dozen of oysters could be found?”

With the demise of Reid’s, and all the other once-famous stout brewers of England’s capital, such as Meux, which once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the title of “sole big stout brewer” fell to Guinness.

Effectively, the only sort of stout still brewed in England was the sweet Mackeson-style version that had become popular in the 20th century. London’s formerly enormous role as a centre for brewing the original, 19th century-style, stout became forgotten, so that Michael Jackson could assert, in his first Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1982,

English stouts are sweet … Irish stouts are dry.”

Surviving English stouts were, in 1982, pretty much in the sweet Mackeson-type style only. That certainly hadn’t been true 20 or 30 years earlier.

But if Watney’s had turned down the Irish brewer’s money in 1961, and Reid’s had continued as a rival to Guinness, a living example of the beers once made by all the biggest London brewers, would we, today, be talking about “Irish stout” as the synonym of not-sweet stout? Is there actually such a thing as “Irish stout”? Would Guinness and Reid’s not be known as two examples of “stout”, geography unstated? If a tighter description were needed, to differentiate the Mackesons from those stouts not made with unfermentable lactic sugars, should it not be the retronym “dry stout”, to include all the English versions alas, no longer with us?

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Legal smoking and drinking

What flavour did the first porters have? Empyreumatic, I reckon – a word you can easily work out the meaning of yourself (that “pyre” in the middle is the clue), which basically translates as “the taste or smell of something burnt”.

Henry Stopes, author of Malt and Malting, published in 1885, uses it in his description of the making of “brown, blown, snap or porter malt”, talking about how the porter malthouses of Bishop’s Stortford, on the Hertfordshire-Essex border, and elsewhere burnt faggots of beech-wood or oak under the wet malt to dry it, going slowly at first until almost all the moisture has been driven from the malt, then building up the fire so that the sudden violent heat makes the malt grains pop, growing 25 per cent in volume, and

the nature of the fuel employed communicates, very agreeably, the empyreumatic properties that distinguish this class of malt.”

In other words, it tasted burnt and, probably, smoky as well from the initial drying over wood at a lower heat.

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