A short history of water

Christie;s of Hoddesdon artesian well

An artesian well dug at Christie & Co's brewery, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire around 1926

In November 1799 a brief paragraph appear in the Times newspaper:

“A Porter Brewery is about to be established at Portsmouth, by a number of opulent Gentlemen, who have subscribed £5000 each. The Thames water for this undertaking is to be conveyed by shipping.”

The reason for the appearance of the second sentence is that many drinkers, at the time, were convinced that good porter, then easily the best-selling beer in London, and perhaps the most popular style in the British Isles, could only be brewed with water from the Thames. The “opulent Gentlemen” behind the proposed Portsmouth venture clearly felt that if they could say their porter was made with Thames water, it would give them instant credibility.

In fact, although several of the big London porter breweries stood by the banks of the Thames, including Barclay Perkins in Southwark, Calvert’s Hour Glass brewery almost directly opposite Barclay Parkins on Upper Thames Street in the City, and Hoare’s by St Katharine’s dock, even the Thames-side ones took their water from wells, or, like Whitbread in Chiswell Street, on the northern edge of the City, from reservoirs supplied by the New River, constructed in the 17th century to bring water to London from near Amwell in Hertfordshire.

In the “pre-scientific” era, writers on brewing knew that different waters had different effects on the final brew, and regularly recorded myths about which waters were best. A brewing book from 1719, A Guide to Gentlemen and Farmers for Brewing the Finest Malt Liquors insisted that “Upon the whole, the best Liquor to Brew with, is that which is taken from a small clear Rivulet or Brook, undisturb’d by Navigation or Fording,” though

“Possibly much the best Water in England is that at Castleton in Derbyshire, commonly called, The Devils Arss, Which Owzes from a great Rock, covered over with a shallow Earth … I have seen the Ale made of Castleton-Water as clear in three days after it was Barrelled, as the Spring-Water it self, and impossible to be known by the Eye in a Glass from the finest Canary Wine.”

Some had preferences that seem frankly bizarre today. A book called A Treatise on the Brewing of Beer, self-published in 1796 by one E Hughes of Uxbridge, declared that when it came to brewing liquor: Continue reading

Argh no! Otley and Protz in Burton Ale fail!

This is not going to make me popular in Pontypridd, and it will go down very badly in St Albans. But Otley Brewing Company, the widely admired Welsh brewery, and Roger Protz, doyen of British beer writers, have got together to revive a vanished classic and brewed entirely and utterly the wrong sort of beer.

Yes, I must tell you that the “Burton Ale” the Colonel and Otley have just created under the name O-Roger, and which Roger describes in detail here, isn’t a Burton Ale at all, but an IPA.

This is NOT a Burton Ale

They’ve reproduced a beer that has certainly been called “Burton Ale”, from the mid-1970s, when it was first made under that name at the former Ind Coope brewery in Burton upon Trent. And they went to the trouble of asking two former Ind Coope brewers to tell them about that beer, so they could make their reproduction as accurate as possible. Unfortunately the beer called Burton Ale that those guys brewed at Ind Coope in Burton, which was Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival in 1990, was NOT a Burton Ale in the sense of being in the Burton Ale style, the slightly sweet, not-too-bitter, darkish ale popular right across Britain until the 1950s, but something utterly other.

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Stupid scaremongering at the Burton Mail

Really, the Burton Mail should be ashamed of itself. This is the local newspaper in what is, historically, at least, the beer capital of Britain, Burton upon Trent, still the home to two major brewing companies, Coors and Marstons, and it’s running factoid alcohol scare stories designed to pander to the latest moral panic, that we’re all going to hell in a booze-powered handcart.

“Hospital alcohol incidents soar” is the headline in the Burton Mail this week, and the intro declares: “Alcohol-related admissions at Burton’s Queen’s Hospital have rocketed by 808 per cent over the last five years, the Mail can reveal.”

Now, ignoring for a moment the distorting effect of giving us percentages, not actual numbers, we have an important lesson here: if some fact seems, on the face of it, unlikely, that’s probably because we’re not being given the whole picture. Hospital admissions put down to drink rising nine times in just five years? That scarcely seems credible.

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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