Category Archives: Beer history

Innocuous Fluid, 1856

“The respectable man of the lower order is a clerk undoubtedly… He lives in a small, eight-roomed house, in a terrace with a high-sounding name, ‘Adeliza’ or ‘Navarino’, in Camden-town or Dalston. He lets the drawing-room floor to a single gentleman… Pewter pots are never seen hanging on the area rails; for, in his respectability, he looks upon public-houses as the favourite baits of the devil, and has a four and a half-gallon cask of the mildest and cheapest bitter beer from the Romford brewery always on tap in his coal-cellar. It is with this innocuous fluid that the single gentleman and his friends are occasionally supplied, and charged at the rate of fourpence per pint.”

From ‘Respectable People’ by Edmund H Yates, The Train magazine, 1856.

(We think he’s describing what we’re beginning to suspect was the original AK, brewed by Ind Coope in the mid-1840s.)

Coals to Newcastle?

global_beer

There has been an interesting reaction to the news that influential American brewery Stone are opening a brewery in Berlin.

‘Craft beer’ cheerleaders are whooping; cynics are… well, cynical.

Instinctively, it does seem arrogant (though ‘on brand’) to attempt to evangelise about beer in Germany, of all places.

But we can’t help thinking of the mid-19th century when Germans* were taking their newly-perfected and fashionable ‘lager beer’ around the world, investing in breweries everywhere from Budapest to Boston.

Stone aren’t doing anything Anton Dreher wouldn’t, are they?

German was then a ‘concept’ rather than a nationality, and included Austria.

Vienna Beer Today

Piccadilly Johnnies, 1904.

As the 1860s turned into the 1870s, absolutely the trendiest thing to drink in London was Vienna beer, aka Vienna lager — the pricey imported ‘craft beer’ of its day.

It seems to us that it was not so much a ‘style’ as the product of a single brewery — Dreher, of Klein-Schwechat, Vienna — with a few imitators trying to muscle in on the market it had created.

It appealed to Piccadilly Johnny — the hipster of his day –because:

  • It was served cold.
  • It had higher levels of carbonation.
  • It was paler than Munich Dunkel. (Though not as pale as Pilsner.)
  • He believed it wasn’t ‘intoxicating’. (We think this was psychological.)
  • ‘German’ stuff was fashionable, while English stuff was considered inherently naff.

Now, almost 150 years later, though there aren’t many descendants of Dreher’s Vienna beer, they are at least relatively easy to find, and not just in the West End of London.

Even near us, in deepest Cornwall, there are several pubs selling kegged Brooklyn Lager (5.2%), while bottles can be found in your local Wetherspoon, and most supermarkets. It’s one of the first self-declared ‘craft beers’ many people drink — it certainly was for us. Is it a convincing Vienna beer? Without going back to 1870, we can’t be sure, but we can’t believe its flowery hop aroma is remotely authentic. It is Dreher’s beer, via the 19th century New York beer hall, via the ‘real ale revolution’, via US ‘craft beer’.

Another widely available example is Negra Modelo (5.4%) from Mexico. In production since the 1920s, it is a lingering reminder of the country’s historic connections with Austria. It’s been a while since we drank one but our recollection is of a lager already lacking bitterness into which someone had then stirred a teaspoon of refined brown sugar. The brewery themselves sometimes call it a ‘Munich Dunkel’ — it is certainly darker than amber.

Finally, there’s Thornbridge’s Kill Your Darlings (5%), a case of which we have been working on for a couple of months. Smooth and clean almost to the point of blandness, it certainly tastes authentically Continental, and makes a change from pale lager while offering a similar kind of straightforward refreshment. It, too, is perhaps rather too Munich-dark to be quite authentic. Still, we’d like to drink a pint or two of this at the Craft Beer Co in Covent Garden, which isn’t far from the Strand – epicentre of the original Vienna beer craze.

On balance, the least authentic of the three, Brooklyn Lager, with its distinctly English dry-hopping regime, is probably the tastiest.

One of the projects we’re working on now is about lager in London in the 19th century — probably for a short e-book. In the meantime, we wholeheartedly recommend Ron Pattinson’s book Lager.

Utopians vs. Sentimentalists

In 1925, Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, proposed that the historic centre of Paris be flattened and replaced with a set of identical tower blocks set in a grid.

All those old buildings, narrow winding roads and quaint features were, in his view, ‘rustic bric-a-brac’ and needed to be swept away so that order could be achieved. With order, he argued, would come true human happiness, if only people would look inside themselves and realise that’s what they really wanted. (Which sounds slightly scary to modern ears.)

His extreme philosophy, abstracted from practical concerns, sits on one side of an ideological battle still being played out across all fields of human activity: Logic or sentiment? Machines or men? Straight lines or wonky ones? Industry or craft?

At about the same time as his ideas had filtered through to inform the planning and design of post-war British cities (see Plymouth, for example) another expression of the logic/machines/straight-lines way of thinking was also underway: the Big Six project in British brewing.

Whitbread, Watney’s, et al, became seduced by a Utopian vision of pure efficiency. They rejected the idea of lots of little breweries all over the place in favour of big ones in central locations, connected by motorway.

They decided computer-control was the way forward, reducing the opportunities for human interference to introduce inconsistency into the product.

Tradition was a nuisance — something to be ‘got over’.

It is with tinges of regret that we witness the disappearance of the traditional brewer wandering around the brewery with only his sensitive nose, keen palate and a few basic scientific instruments to guide him… [as] we move to a new generation of white-coated technicians bristling with scientific qualifications, guided in their work by panels of flickering lights…

H.A. Monckton, A History of English Ale & Beer, 1966

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the pub preservation movement, and ‘micro brewing’, all stood, and still stand, on the side of sentimentality and ‘the human touch’. Greenleaf over Ironsides.

And in marketing terms, the sentimentalists have won — we don’t think many breweries these days would invite the press to see their computers, as did Whitbread at Luton in May 1969, or use an image like this one from Boddington’s, c.1978, in promotional materials:

Boddington's computer controlled brewery, c.1978.

But most people don’t feel that strongly either way – they’re turned off by automation, but expect a certain level of consistency; they appreciate the fruits of efficiency, but don’t want to see old pubs or breweries knocked down to achieve it. They are, in short, pragmatic.

But pragmatism, as far as people like Le Corbusier are concerned, is synonymous with compromise — the worst of both worlds.

Excuse us thinking aloud. We’re working on something — a longer article, or maybe a video — about flat-roofed, cube-like post-war ‘modern’ pubs, which is why we happen to be reading outside our usual territory.