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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Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

Hong Kong Beer Awards logoSome British beer bloggers get invited to be judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Well, poot to them: I’ve just had a much more exclusive gig. Only 12 people are invited to judge in the Hong Kong International Beer Awards, and this year I was one of them.

If you’re thinking: “Yeah, man, tough job”, I can assure you it was no picnic: not unless your picnics involve sipping and sniffing 145 or so different lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales, and 21 ciders, over two three-hours sessions, with nowt to eat except crackers, there to take away the taste of the more egregiously bad examples of the brewer’s art. After about the 25th almost identical pale and generally undistinguished euro-style lager, some of the judges at the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong where the drinks had been lined up for scrutiny, appeared to be eyeing the exit and wondering if they could sprint fast enough to be out the door before they were tackled to the ground and brought back to the table. By the time the 39th and last entry in the lager section had been dismissed, it was a relief to move on to the ciders, a drink I don’t normally find much kind of relief in at all.

The judging was simple: up to 20 points for appearance, aroma, clarity and colour, up to 80 points for taste, body and mouthfeel. Most of the lagers were getting just 40 to 50 points from me, and the highest I gave was a rare 71. None was as vile as the “flavoured” ciders, mind: cheese on top of strawberry is not what I want in a glass. However, a couple of the ciders were authentically very “English” (tart, plenty of character) and, grateful, I awarded them good marks.

Pale and uninteresting

Spot the interesting lager … no? Me neither.

The “ordinary” (ie non-IPA) pale ales were almost as hard to tell one from the other as the lagers, with only one truly memorable  afterwards, thanks to a strong aroma of cedary pencil shavings (not that pencil shavings earned it more marks, at least from me). I was even more underimpressed with the brown ale category. None of the five was what I would describe as a brown ale (that is to say, dark at the least, and preferably veering towards very dark indeed), and only one had any real roasty flavour, of which I like to see a hint. The hazelnut one was easy to spot, though: it would make a good ice-cream float, but as a beer, I dunno. (Knowing what beers are available in Hong Kong, I’m guessing that was Rogue’s hazlenut brown ale. I like many of Rogue’s beers, but not this time.)

The “Belgian” ales went past in a blur of golden Duvel-alikes and browner nods towards what were presumably meant to be more “abbey” types. The “British-style” ales (my personal favourite category, I own up) contained one of the rare instantly recognisable beers in the judging, from Hong Kong’s own Typhoon brewery, which is “British” in the sense that it’s a proper cask-conditioned ale (and the only one in Asia, I believe) but sits firmly in the American Pale Ale category as far as its hop usage and character are concerned: whatever, it’s an excellent brew.

I’d love to find out the name of the really orangey wheat beer we were given: of the 26, most, again were hard to distinguish, and I was disappointed that there were not more Dunkels among the wheat beers: it’s a style I am growing increasingly fond of. One style I’m not so fond of is fruit beer, and the 16 up for judging at the Globe confirmed my prejudice: mostly unidentifiable fruit, nearly all pretty meh. The 11stouts, too, contained none among them that truly conquered. The 14 organic ales were, inevitably, a mixed bunch in terms of style, and none, I’m afraid, you would want to take home and introduce to mother.  The IPAs, by contrast, had a couple or four stand-out entries: that, I suspect, will be the hardest category to win.

So, then: thus was the Hong Kong International Beer Awards judging 2012. While the bulk of entries were ordinary (a reflection of the mostly unadventurous nature of Hong Kong’s beer importers, although there are now several honourable exceptions to that), there still were, I think, enough fine brews to make a respectable winners’ enclosure, all the same. The top beers will be announced at the 10th Hong Kong Restaurant and Bar Show, from September 11 to 13 in the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Centre and I’ll be listing them here as well.

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

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.

Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:

“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”

Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.

Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading

The 1900 Pub – the biggest surprise

If a 21st century time tripper stepped through the door into the public bar of a London pub in 1900, what would be the biggest surprise? Probably not the sawdust on the floor, or the lack of seating: most likely, I’d guess, the draught ginger beer on handpump.

The existence – and importance – of draught ginger beer in London pubs in the past is one of those uncountable little details of social history that slip past generally unrecorded because they seem so everyday and ordinary to contemporary observers, nobody bothers writing about them. Today’s equivalent would be the bar gun – ubiquitous, observed by everybody who has ever stood at a bar to be served, and mentioned, I’ll bet, in no account of the modern pub, anywhere.

Fortunately, back in the summer of Queen Victoria’s last full year on the throne, one anonymous worker in the brewing industry spotted a reference in the Daily Express to “half-and-half” as a beer mixture, a term not then used for several decades (it referred, in the early years of Victoria’s reign and before, to ale-and-porter), seized the nearest available umbrage at this anachronistic solecism and ran with it for 1,300 words of invaluable exposition on the drinks available from the pumps in a public bar in London, and how they were mixed together, which the Express printed for the education of future generations on page seven of its issue of Thursday August 2, 1900. And hurrah, digitisation and the web means that for a small subscription, 111 years later we can read about what beer mixtures our great-grandfathers drank without having to travel out to the British Newspaper Library in deepest Colindale and whirr through miles of microfilm.

It’s an absolutely fascinating piece, studded with gems – who knew (not me), for example, that in a London “boiled beef house” (a restaurant specialising in serving “a most delicious ‘portion’ of stewed beef done up in a sticky, coagulated, glutinous gravy of surpassing richness”, Google reveals), the accompanying drink of choice was porter? Slow-stewed beef and porter: I’m channelling Harry Champion just thinking about it. Please contact me if you’re now planning this as a FABPOW, I’ll be over to try it out.

It also confirms information from other sources, such as the availability of draught lager in at least some outlets in Victorian Britain, the identification of “ale” and “mild” as the same drink, and the higher status given to bitter, compared to ale and porter.

Below is the article in its entirety, with asides and footnotes in square brackets by me. The picture above is of the public bar of the Dover Castle, 172 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, taken the year after it was rebuilt in 1895, and just the sort of bar being talked about: note the sawdust, the brass footrail (seats were found only in the saloon bar) the ten handpumps (the saloon bar only had one), and the rows of casks on the back bar filled with spirits from Old Tom (sweet gin) to brandy. No pumpclips: these never started appearing until the 1950s. I believe this pub was destroyed in the Second World War, since the site is now occupied by a building of typical late-1940s neo-Georgian style, though it’s still a bar, called the Walrus. Continue reading

Order the definitive book on British beer styles now

It’s now less than one month to go to the official publication of Amber, Gold and Black, The History of Britain’s Great Beers, the first book devoted solely to the development of beer styles in Britain, from bitter to porter, covering every aspect of their history, what they were when they started , how they developed and what they are today. Pre-order it today here and put a few pennies more in my pocket at the same time that you learn new facts to stun your beer drinking friends.

Amber, Gold and Black was previously only available as an ebook, but is now, thanks to the lovely people at The History Press, coming out in hardback, revised and, where needed, updated.

Whether you’re a beer beginner or a buff, I guarantee you’ll learn things you never knew about both beers you’re familiar with, and beers you’ve never heard of.

This is the book for beer lovers, for brewers, for people who work in pubs, bars and drink stores, for anybody interested in beer, the most complete and comprehensive study of British beer styles ever written. Its 16 chapters looking at the roots of the styles we enjoy today, as well as those ales and beers we have lost, and a study into how the liquids that fill our beer glasses, amber gold and black, developed over the years.

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The ‘beeriodic table’: beautifully executed, fatally flawed

I feel bad about this, really bad. Pete Brown’s having a “let’s be nice” month over on his blog, and all I can do is be mean, nasty, negative and carping. (And it’s not because I didn’t win anything in the BGBW awards, ’cos I didn’t enter this year, so there.)

Someone has produced a beautiful “periodic table of beer styles” you can see here, it’s a lovely piece of graphics, based on the familiar periodic table in chemistry, but grouping beers into families of styles, rather than chemical elements. It’s obvious that a huge amount of care and craftspersonship went into the creation of the “beeriodic table”. It looks lovely, and I’ve no doubt many, many beer geeks will print it off and pin it up on their walls. It’s obviously been put together by somebody who loves beer very much. I admire enormously their dedication, and their skill: it must have taken hours, days to do. It’s a great piece of design. And it’s wrong, totally wrong, in so many ways.

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So what IS the difference between porter and stout?

One of the top 10 questions people who end up at this site put into search engines such as Google is a query about how to distinguish between porter and stout, something I’ve not actually tackled head-on yet. So – what difference is there between the two beers?

Er …

None.

Not now, anyway, not in any meaningful way. I’m not sure that there was ever a point, even when porter was at its most debased, when you could point to any truly distinctive difference between porter and stout except to say that “stout” meant a stronger version of porter. Indeed, for much of the past 300 years, to ask “what’s the difference between porter and stout?” would have been like asking “what’s the difference between dogs and Rottweilers?”

Since the revival of porter brewing, or to be more accurate, “the revival of beers being called porter”, even the “different strength” division has vanished, with several brewers making “stouts” that are weaker than their “porters”, I don’t believe it’s at all possible to draw a line and state categorically about dark beers being brewed today: “Everything over here is a stout and everything over there is a porter.” You can’t even draw a couple of meaningful Venn diagram circles and label one stout and the other porter: in terms of strength, ingredients, flavour and appearance, modern-day stouts and porters, I suggest, with the exception of “milk stouts”, occupy effectively identical spaces.

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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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