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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So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?

I see Wikipedia reckons that “According to Martyn Cornell, ‘no historically meaningful difference exists between barley wines and old ales’.” Do I think that? You’ll be unshocked to learn that my beliefs are actually considerably more complex.

One problem is that in the real world, beer styles such as Burton Ale that have been called “barley wines” have also been called “old ales”. And milds. Another is that, as Michael Jackson pointed out in the 1970s, “barley wine” seems to be a name given to some very different beers. If Thomas Hardy’s Ale and Gold Label can both be called “barley wine” despite being utterly different beers, then we have a serious problem in defining “barley wine” as a style.

In fact I don’t believe there is actually any such meaningful style as “barley wine”, despite the BJCP attempting to draw up rules. Indeed, just to show how arsey such attempts at categories are, if you click on that link you’ll see the BJCP calls Fuller’s Golden Pride a barley wine and Fuller’s Vintage Ale an old ale, although they’re actually the same blahdy beer, the latter version being bottle-conditioned, the former not. And while Ratebeer and the BJCP says Thomas Hardy’s is a barley wine, Beer Advocate calls it an old ale. So: make your minds up, Yanks.

While you’re deciding on categories, however, I have to tell you – I’ve come to the conclusion that, as well as barley wine being effectively meaningless (it doesn’t even mean “any strong beer”, since no one seems to categorise Imperial stout as barley wine), there’s no such style as “old ale”, either. Not historically, anyway. From which it follows that (and this really will kick the hornet’s nest) there’s no such style as “mild”*.

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IPA: much later than you think part 2

king-barnes-ipaClick to read part 1
From 1823 the Burton brewers began to brew pale ales for the Indian market. I’m not going to go into the development of Burton pale ale here, but between them the big Burton brewers and Hodgson of Bow certainly never had a monopoly of the Indian pale ale trade. In November 1831, for example, when the Hope brewery, “near the Friend at Hand”, Hammersmith (in what is now West London) was put up for auction, its stocks, according to the advertisement in The Times, included “150 barrels of pale ale for the Indian market”.

But this was still not being called “India Pale Ale”. Even Hodgson’s product, even when it was being advertised directly at “Families from India”, as it was in an advertisement in The Times in July 1833 (clearly the brewer was hoping for custom from people now back in England who had enjoyed its beers out East), was still only referred to as “Hodgson and Co’s Bottled Pale Ale”. No mention of India in the name of the beer, no indication that this was special or different from anybody else’s pale ale, except for the brief hint in the note that “The Nobility, Gentry and others (especially Families from India”) could be supplied with the product.

In October 1834 a London wine and spirit merchant, WG Field and Co, of Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, was advertising in The Times “Burton, Edinburgh and Prestonpans Ales, Pale Ale as prepared for India [my emphasis], Dorchester Beer and London and Dublin Brown Stout”. Earlier in the century Thomas Field of London had been a big customer of Bass in Burton upon Trent, and it seems quite likely this was the same firm, probably selling Bass’s “Pale Ale as prepared for India”, carried down from Burton by canal or wagon. In the 1840s Field was certainly selling Bass pale ale. What was “Pale Ale as prepared for India”? William Loftus explains, under the heading “India Pale Bitter Ale”, in his book The Brewer: A Familiar Treatise on the Art of Brewing,, published in 1856. The book says about “Bitter Ale” that “that prepared for the home market is less bitter and spirituous than that which is prepared for exportation to India.”

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Celebrity Big Brewer

What do the following people have in common: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef and TV presenter; Helena Bonham Carter, Oscar-nominated film actress; Lord Brocket, failed insurance fraudster and I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here contestant; and Kirstie Allsopp, presenter of the television programme Location, Location, Location?

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