The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer

Detail from the Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer by Ron Pattinson.

Forced into the confines of a book less than 200 pages long, Ron Pattinson’s knowledge of historic brewing seems more impressive than ever.

Cover of the Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage BeerBy his own frequent admission, Pattinson tends to be digressive and expansive on his blog: a single point can spread out across multiple blog posts packed with anecdotes, tables of figures, and rants on the side. It can be tremendously interesting and entertaining, but also, at times, hard to follow if you’re only there for the hard facts.

Either through self-discipline or thanks to the guiding hand of a stern editor, in The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer, he finds a new, clearer voice. Swathes of brewing history are summed up almost in bullet point form, and no worse for it:

Let’s get this straight before we go any further. I don’t believe the story that porter was an attempt to re-create a mix of three different draft beers called “three threads”. No source for the first half of the eighteenth century confirm the tale, and the main piece of evidence used to support the theory was written the best part of a century later.

Right, got it!

The history of hops in British brewing is summarised in three crystal clear pages; malt, in all its complexity, in four. The various types of fermenting vessel, from Burton Union to Yorkshire Square, in a little over two. If you need more detail and references, it’s there online, but this will be more than enough for most people, at least to begin with.

There are also nuggets of trivia that, though we’re sure he has mentioned them before on his blog, have chance to stand out in this more economical style. We hadn’t realised that rice was frequently used in North German beer before 1906, for example.

The recipes, which are the real point of the book, are divided by style (porter, stout, IPA, and so on) and ordered chronologically within each section. Even those who don’t brew at home ought to appreciate the opportunity to see the evolution of each style, their alcoholic strength and ingredients changing from year to year as a result of fashion, economics and war, as explained in pithy notes. Individual beers, such as Truman’s Runner, are present in multiple versions, decades apart, which ought to make for some fascinating ‘vertical tasting’ sessions.

They are written in a simple, clear format, and simplified to avoid four-hour boils and complicated mashing, sparging and gyling routines, though the information is there for those who wish to go ‘all in’.

There is also some guess work. Relying almost entirely on original brewing records, Pattinson has had to make assumptions about hop varieties, alpha acids, the darkness of certain malts, and the identity of proprietary brewing sugars. His guesses, though, are better than most people’s facts, and certainly better than nothing.

A handful of recipes don’t, frankly, sound very appetising, and are really only of academic interest: the final porters from before the style became extinct in the mid-20th century, for example, are weak (less than 3% ABV) and filled with oats and sugars. (Or perhaps we’re wrong and the watery-weak porter is a lost classic. We will, of course, have to find out for ourselves at some point.)

Those committed to the modern-style of ‘craft’ brewing might find these recipes of limited use. Not one features hops added late in the boil for the purposes of creating aroma, even though many feature huge amounts of hops in total. Almost all of them use sugar, which ‘craft’ brewers seem to find a bit of a turn off. Some might make good bases for experimental recipes, though, especially the strong ales.

The spiral binding inside a hard folder-like cover seems an odd choice at first, but actually makes complete sense in practical terms: it lies perfectly flat, which will be great when we need it open in front of us for reference on brewday.

One small complaint: the vintage labels that decorate the pages, while lovely to look at, rarely correspond to the recipe below, which can make browsing the book something of a pat-your-head-rub-your-tummy exercise.

This is not yet another beginners guide with the same old basic recipes, but a Level 2: Intermediate text, and that’s exactly what we would like to see more of. For writers and publishers, that might be a problem — the market for general guides is potentially bigger, if more competitive — but if beer writing is going to grow up, it needs to get beyond the superficial.

We were sent a review copy. The RRP is £17.99 and it is available from AmazonWaterstones, and as a Kindle ebook.

UPDATE 27/02/2014: we didn’t realise that Quayside, who published this book, are a sister company to Aurum, who are publishing ours. They are, so we’re disclosing the relationship here.

16 thoughts on “The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer”

  1. I don’t know if it’s just me being blind, but I can’t find anywhere in my copy that specifies a brew length for the recipes. That’s and the labels at the top of each recipe thing that you’ve mentioned, are about my only gripes with it…

    1. Bob — we can’t see it either, but assumed the standard 23l/5 gallon. Perhaps something to fix in the, we suspect inevitable, second edition.

      1. I did end up thinking it was 23L, but as everything was given in Lbs and Oz for the US market, it did cross my mind that it might be 5 US gallons (19L), but the weights don’t really support that…

  2. Another interesting read.

    Any chance you know the source for the information about Colne Spring Ale being fermented with Brettanomyces? Ron Pattinson quotes Martyn Cornell but when I asked Martyn He couldn’t remember who told him. I’ve only got the Kindle version of Amber Black & Gold and there isn’t a list of references in it. Outside of Ron and Martyn’s books I haven’t come across another mention of it and Benskins records indicate the same yeast cake was used for all beers.

    Benskins used to fill the oak barrels destined for CSA with cold water, insert a steam coil, and bring the water inside to a vigorous boil. This was in addition to their normal barrel cleaning procedures for other beers including SO2 additions, and would have heated the full thickness of the oak to 100°C. Not even Brett could survive that.

    I would love to find that CSA did have Brett in it, but am unconvinced so far. The yeast pitching rates used by Benskins have been tested with a clone CSA recipe (based on Benskins production records) and attenuated enough to give a 10.5% beer from a OG of 1.095 without Brett, due to the amount of sugar used.

    Hopefully,
    Geoff

    1. Geoff — no, sorry. Not like Martyn Cornell to state something without being able to point to the source, but if he says he heard it from someone reliable, even if he can’t recall it, we’re inclined to believe him.

      Ron doesn’t state here that it was *pitched* with Brett, only that it was aged long after other beers ceased to be; and, as a separate statement, that aged beers gained character from Brett in secondary fermentation.

    2. Blimey where did you find the Benskin’s records? I tried tracking them down a while back and couldn’t find anything. I brewed a version of CSA based on the recollections of an ex-Benskin’s brewer. I did add Brett (as that’s what got me interested in the beer in the first place!) but he said they only used the Benskin’s three strain yeast.

      1. Hi Ed,

        I saw your adventures with CSA before I managed to track down some of the records. In the 50s Benskins updated their brewing manual. Listing the entire process from water treatment through to casking. I was fortunate enough to be able to read through a copy that had somehow left the brewery shortly after Ind Coope took over. Being born in Watford and having speant most of my life as a plumber meant I had a huge network of elderly customers only too happy to talk about Benskins and it’s history and ask around.

        I’ve got a very early Ind Coope CSA that I’m going to get analysed for yeast strains as it appears bottle conditioned and may provide some answers. It’s possible for Brett to survive that long, the Saccromyces will be long dead but genetic analysis may be possible. Even intact dead cells may help. I’ve also got a bottle of the 1984 re-brew that I believe may have been fermented with the same yeast strain/blend.

        I’ll keep you updated when I know more.

        I’d love to be able to confirm the presance of Brett and the strain, as the 14-month old S.cervisiea/B.claussini recreation Porter I’m drinking as I write this is amazing.

        1. Excellent stuff, it’s great you’ve got local connections.

          I must admit it seems Brett probably wasn’t deliberately added but I still think it’s a strong possibility it was there all the same. There could have been something lurking in the pitching yeast that only emerged after long maturation (see Harveys) or something took hold after long maturation from the wood or was present at low levels in the beer already. No matter how they’re treated I think it’s highly unlikely any wooden cask would still be bug free after a year.

          A brewery I used to work at had a keystone pop on me from a steel cask containing year old barley wine when I brushed against it. I got soaked and the beer definitely had the taste of infection about it (well I had to try it!). In a beer that strong the infection was not entirely unpleasant.

          It had been inoculated with nothing other than the pitching yeast but had still ‘gone wild’.

    3. when I asked Martyn He couldn’t remember who told him. I’ve only got the Kindle version of Amber Black & Gold and there isn’t a list of references in it.

      Martyn does say Colne Spring Ale was infected with Brett (p. 162), but doesn’t attribute this statement to any source; he’s got Alfred Barnard and Maurice Gorham raving (60 years apart!) over the quality of the beer and Wahl & Henius talking about English stock ales in general being Brett-ed, but nobody actually talking about Colne Spring Ale and Brett.

      Barnard’s _Noted Breweries_ (all four volumes of it) is downloadable here, bizarrely enough. He certainly doesn’t say anything about Brett in the chapters on Benskin’s (which are in volume 4 if you’re interested); he’s rather keen on modern scientific methods which keep everything clean, so it would spoil his narrative a bit if he had to say that Colne Spring Ale relied on infection for its flavour.

  3. Phil, thanks for the link I’ll read the Benskins section tomorrow. I would have thought that being keen on modern scientific methods he would certainly have made note of Brett being used on purpose as it’s existance was well documented by then.

      1. Though it had been isolated before Clausen. A chemist St. Petersburg and another at Guinness found Brettanomyces in the late 19th century but didn’t publish, presumably for commercial reasons.

        1. Hi Ron,

          That might explain why I thought brettanomyces had been documented earlier.

          I’ve recently uncovered a yeast cake analysis record from the late 60s that seems to show allowable limits for acetobactor, lactobaccilus and wild yeast in Benskins stock yeast. The numbers don’t seem to make sense and the record looks incomplete so I’ll try to get someone with in depth yeast knowledge of old yeast testing to have a look. I also don’t know if it was an analysis of pitching yeast or yeast cake to be sold on to bakers.

          Whichever it is, it indicates a whole ecosystem of microorganisms were in with the skimmed yeast even if most of them were at very low levels and would have been disabled by the sulphur dioxide additions that were made in the barrels, so played no part in ageing.

          I have produced year-old Brett beers and beers aged for a year in oak barrels, so my next trial will be a CSA strength beer with bacterial, wild and brettanomyces infection at rates similar to Benskins yeast. I’ll add the same dosage of SO2 and see it supresses the brett development for a year,

          I’m still searching everywhere I can think of for more information about Benskins and the other Watford brewers. Last week I spent a Several hours going through rolls of microfilm for information only to come up with four lines of text that I already new about.

          I’ll be widening my net soon.

          1. Geoff,

            interesting stuff. Let me know how your experiment with the yeast mix works.

            My guess would be that at least one of the wild yeasts would have played some role in the ageing. The only point in having extended ageing in wood is if you get a true secondary fermentation.

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