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