Category Archives: Beer history

Williams Bros: Craft Before It Was A Thing

The quintessentially Scottish brewery Williams Bros began its life in 1988 when an elderly woman walked into a home-brewing supply shop in Glasgow and approached the young man behind the counter with the recipe for a long lost style of beer with a legendary status – heather ale.

Main illustration above by and copyright © 2015 Rachael Smith who blogs about beer at Look at Brew and is on Twitter as @lookatbrew. Other images courtesy of Williams Bros.

A famous poem by Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story of how the Picts, defeated by a Scottish king, took to their graves ‘the secret of the drink’ – a brew ‘sweeter far than honey… stronger far than wine’, with semi-magical properties. It concludes:

But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.

Illustration from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.
Illustration from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.

In a 1903 book The Heather in Lyric, Lore and Lay, Alexander Wallace considered various stories and tales of heather ale – ‘a liquour greatly superior to our common ale’ – dating back to 1526. If it had not died out, he concluded, then it had become hard-to-find, with only a handful of doubtful reports from people who claimed to have tasted it in the latter half of the 19th century, as brewed by ‘shepherds on the moor’. He also cited, for balance, the view of one authority that heather ale might never have existed at all.

And yet, there she was, the wise old woman, with the secret in her hand, and Bruce Williams, the young man behind the shop counter, was intrigued.

Continue reading Williams Bros: Craft Before It Was A Thing

Growing Hops in Cornwall

We had somehow formed the impression that Cornwall isn’t natural beer country, in large part because hops aren’t grown here. Because of an article we are working on, however, we needed to know for sure whether hops were commonly available in the 18th and 19th centuries, and so got digging.

In the stacks at the Cornish Studies Library in Redruth a helpful archivist (herself from Kent and dubious about the idea of hops in Cornwall) directed us to an 1811 book called A General View of the Agriculture of the Country of Cornwall by G.B. Worgan, written on behalf of the Board of Agriculture. And what do you know — it lists hops as a substantial Cornish crop.

HOPS… Have been much grown in Roseland, but the culture is on the decline: the duties increasing, and hops from Kent and Hampshire finding their way here, the Cornish hop-grower is discouraged; for except he can sell at 15d. per lb. it is a losing crop.

The author goes on to observe that growing hops in Cornwall is expensive, uses up a lot of the best manure, that the local soil produces a meagre yield, and that hops grown here are prone to mildew.

An 1839 report by the Statistical Society noted the availability of hops as far West as Penzance based on a clergyman’s accounts books covering the period from 1746 to 1770; they sold at around 1 shilling per pound — a touch more expensive than sugar.

Another helpful book, Lynda Mudle-Small’s What the Ancestors Drank (in Warleggan), compiles various bits of evidence for the cultivation of hops in Cornwall from 1595 onwards, and of the growing of barley for malting from the 15th century.

So, if not exactly natural beer country, Cornwall has certainly been trying its damnedest for a good few centuries.

Historic Beers for London

Ron Pattinson and Peter Haydon (Head in a Hat/Florence Brewery) are going to collaborate to produce around six historic beers a year, branded as Dapper Ales.

Their first beer will be ‘Doctor Brown’, a 4.1% ABV double brown ale from a 1928 Barclay Perkins recipe.

Ron’s knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of historic beer is second to none. We don’t know Peter Haydon personally but we’ve enjoyed the couple of Head in a Hat beers we’ve tried in the past, and know that he’s also paid his dues digging in the archives.

It’s no surprise, that, that their statement is refreshingly and reassuringly free of ‘inspired by history’ weasel words:

Peter has attempted to recreate the beer as faithfully as possible, going back to original boil times, and parti-gyling the wort streams. The original hops used were Pacifics, Bramling, Fuggles and Golding, and care has been taken to get as close as possible to this original bill. American Cluster are what would have been meant by Pacifics, so non-English hops make a rare appearance in an A Head In A Hat beer. The Bramling is no longer grown due to its disease susceptibility, but it’s daughter, Early Gold, is, so that has been used instead.

Doctor Brown will be on sale in selected Fuller’s pubs in March.

The Temperance Spectrum

Triggering tipsiness is one much-valued feature of beer, but not the be-all-and-end-all.

A first, beer and ale were thought preferable to gin because gin made you bad at holding babies, while on beer, you could simultaneously catch up on some reading, spend quality time with your other half, and balance fish on your head:

Details from 'Gin Lane' and 'Beer Street' by William Hogarth.

Then, in the 19th century, people got excited about lager because there was a belief that, unlike British beer, it didn’t really get you drunk, or make you rowdy.

Continue reading The Temperance Spectrum

Devilled Ale

Researching something completely different, we came across this recipe for devilled ale in an 1855 household management guide:

1855 devilled ale recipe.

How could we resist giving that a go?

For our base beer, we used the latest Fuller’s Past Masters 1914 Strong X. We found it very sweet in its own right, so figured it wouldn’t become too acrid when warmed, and it certainly sits squarely in the ale tradition, being more about malt than hops.

Buttered, spiced toast rounds.For the sake of completeness, in case, for some reason, you want to exactly replicate our approach, the bread was 7% rye flour, and the butter was salted. We used ground ginger.

With the ale warmed, and the toast buttered and spiced, we put it all together in Ye Olde Halfe-Pinte Pottes, and got stuck in.

Things we liked: the toast floating on the surface smelled like grains mashing on brew-day; the cayenne gave a really pleasant kick which accentuated the spirituous booziness of the ale; the ritual was fun; and, on a cold night, a mug of warm ale sits nicely in the hands.

Things we didn’t: even this rather sugary beer was too bitter when warm; it got cold quickly, and lukewarm ale is no fun at all.

If we do this again — we probably won’t — it will be with the most sickly sweet ale we can find, and we’ll warm the cups properly first. We’ll also use more ginger, which got rather drowned out by the cayenne, or maybe even use finely chopped fresh ginger, or the stuff that comes preserved and sweetened in jars.

If you try it at home, let us know how you get on.