Illustration: Victoriana.

Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke

“When I was a kid we used to go to my uncle’s house in London… The heat and light crackling sound of the fire, mixed with the smell of his oak-panelled room, his tobacco and the whisky by his leather chair, always bring Christmas of my childhood strongly to my thoughts… We created a dish… based on the memory… We set the frozen apple sorbet on fire with a whisky blend, while dry ice bellows from the leather plate carrying the smell of leather, wood, fire, tobacco and whisky. We even have the crackling sound of the burning logs coming from the dish.”

Heston Blumenthal

The very idea of a beer based on a historic recipe — the chance to share a sensory experience with our ancestors — gets us excited.

Packaging alone can build expectation, suggesting a swirl of fog, soot in the air, and the distant piping of a barrel organ, with a few tricks of typography and the prominent placement of an evocative date: 1913, 1891, 1884, 1880… (Like the dashboard on Rod Taylor’s time Machine.)

How historic are some of these recipes? Many are merely ‘inspired by’ something from the archives, while others are painstaking recreations. While we prefer the latter, we’re also more than willing to play along with the former, just as we would be with Heston Blumenthal’s sensory manipulations.

Westerham and J.W. Lees historic beers.

Westerham Audit Ale and Double Stout

Robert Wicks has been brewing Audit Ale to a 1938 recipe for some time but has only recently started bottling it, along with a ‘new’ historic beer, Double Stout. Knowing of our interest, he sent us one of each.

Audit Ale (6.2% ABV) was something of a flagship beer from the Black Eagle Brewery of Westerham — a strong ‘premium’ beer supplied to Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and to the royal family. The bottle’s label is based on this one, with authentically wonky hand-drawn lettering; the recipe is from 1938; and the yeast from a sample preserved in 1959. All in all, the history is strong with this one.

Our first reaction on tasting was to recoil as something vegetal and a little sweaty wafted from the glass, like the stale air of a long-boarded up room. But it was gone in an instant, and replaced at once by a delicate aroma of digestive biscuits and orange blossom water. Thereafter, we found a long, long, complex flavour, which variously suggested grains of demerara sugar, copper coins, and candied orange peel. It reminded us of a less exuberant St Austell’s Admiral’s Ale, or a more interesting Vienna lager or German festbier.

It is a deeply satisfying beer, and one that could easily usurp the place we currently give to Fuller’s 1845 in our ‘cellar’.

Double Stout (5.5%) makes no claim to being based on a specific historic recipe, only ‘to the strength’ of a 1938 draught and bottled beer, and using that same archive yeast. It is black, ash-dry and rather thin-bodied, with a robust, unrefined quality which brought to mind molasses and strong coffee. Somewhere in the mix was a very tiny pinch of savoury herbs — sage, oregano or thyme?

If you prefer your stout austere rather than resembling a chocolate pudding, then this might be the beer for you. We liked it, and would like to try another bottle some time, but we prefer a little more opulence in our stouts.

Truman’s London Keeper

The revived East London brewery stopped short of having Sherlock Holmes deliver this sample in a hansom cab, but only just: the 750ml bottle has no label, is capped with ‘ivory wax’, and has dangling around its neck piece of heavy card stock printed using the archaic letterpress method, signed by the head-brewer and brewery ‘re-founder’.

London Keeper (8%) is based as far as possible on an 1880 recipe for Truman’s double export stout. It uses American hops, as did the original, though the specific varieties have been substituted.

It smelled like an old leather jacket, but also had a heady, spirituous quality. You’d need a lot tongues to taste all the flavours, to paraphrase Catarella, and we got something different with each sip, from dry sherry to saltiness, and from wood smoke to milky coffee. The flavours didn’t, perhaps, cohere particularly, but we loved it: for a 133-year-old, it is a lot of fun. (And perhaps it will come together if left to mature for a few more months or years.)

Would we ever pay £18 for a bottle? No. But then we don’t really think that’s the point: this is pure halo effect marketing material.

J.W. Lees Manchester Star

We’ve been foiled at every attempt to try this beer supposedly based on an 1884 recipe, but the late Simon H. Johnson came through for us: in the raffle held in his memory before Christmas, we won a bottle from his private stash, which arrived just in time to be included in this tasting.

Though not described as a stout or porter, it pours absolutely black with a biscuit-beige head, and divided opinion between us. Bailey found it luscious and waxed lyrical about figs and cherries and chocolate liqueurs, while Boak shrugged and said, dismissively, ‘Coca Cola.’ Her interest perked up as she noticed a smokey, whiskyish note, and as the bitterness built. By the end, we’d agreed that, while it isn’t as good as Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout (we drank our penultimate bottle of that to check and it almost made us cry), it is a very good beer indeed.

Fuller’s Past Masters 1966 Strong Ale

Finally, bringing us very nearly up to date, is the latest in John Keeling’s series of historic recreations from the Fuller’s archive, put together with advice from Ron Pattinson. In this instance, the Victorian imagery of the label is all wrong: it ought to be mid-60s mod, union jacks and pop art.

We bought a case of this and have been working our way through it for a couple of months. The first bottle seemed one-dimensional and overwhelmingly sweet, and made us mourn the long-gone first beer in this series, a Victorian XX Strong Ale. Each bottle since, however, has been more interesting than the last, and it is now become what we’d hoped for.

This time, we found it fantastically full-bodied, where it had been sticky. It has developed a layer of wine-like, oaky, cherry liqueur flavours — round and plummy rather than sugary. From somewhere, a very subtle hint of something like lavender, rosemary or violets has appeared.

It is enough to convince us to renew our subscription to Past Masters, though we are slowly learning that Fuller’s special edition beers need a little work on our part: we have to leave them alone for six months. This shouldn’t be our problem, but if that’s the price we have to pay, then so be it.

 

Disclosure: we were sent samples of Westerham’s Audit Ale and Double Stout, and Truman’s London Keeper. We bought 12 bottles of Fuller’s 1966 Strong Ale for £38 plus delivery.

6 thoughts on “Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke”

  1. In that case, will you guys be flexing your homebrew muscles to brew whichever historic porter tops the International Homebrew Project poll?

    1. We’d be up for it in theory, although, in practice, we’re pretty terrible at getting our act together to take part in group activities like that.

  2. Would we ever pay £18 for a bottle? No. But then you didn’t need to.

    Snark directed at the brewer, not you two (what else were you going to do – send it back in protest?). But I do hate brewers who pull stunts like that – adding insult to the injury of silly-priced beer by punting freebies to reviewers to ramp up the demand. I hate it even more when the beer is actually really good – you feel that a good brewery should be above that kind of thing. (Bear with me, I had my heart broken by BrewDog at a formative age.)

    I might need to buy you another bottle of Manchester Star (it’s in all the Sainsbury’s round here) – if you drank it expecting a stout or a porter I’m not surprised you weren’t blown away. It’s absolutely positively definitely a Burton, I think, probably. It’s the same style as Old Peculier, Moonraker, Owd Roger, McEwan’s Champion and Old Tom, anyway, and for my money it’s better than any of those except the last one. See also here.

    1. Phil — we didn’t know what to expect from Manchester Star, especially after Mitch Steele suggested it as a good substitute for ‘October Beer’, the historic ancestor of IPA.

      We’re not imagining that it is very dark in colour, are we?

      1. No indeed – so are all the others in that list (Old Tom is probably the lightest in colour). As I (hesitantly) understand it, Burtons were dark, sweetish and strong. (Source: discussion on Martyn’s blog. Must check what he says in the book.)

        Don’t know about October Beer. The only comparison with IPA I can think of is that they’re both liquids.

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