Pimlico Ale

UPDATE 15/12/2013: we wrote this post not long after we started blogging and it has at least one embarrassing historical error (re: Henry VIII). We’ll have to revisit the topic now we’re older and wiser.

Did you know that Pimlico, a district of London, is named after a beer that was the Special Brew of its day?

The official history of Watney’s brewery, published in 1963, talks briefly about “Pimlico ale”. It tells us that Pimlico was brewed from the middle-ages to the tudor period, but doesn’t give much of an idea how it would have tasted. So, we consulted a couple of other books (listed below).

We found out a few interesting things.

1. Pimlico ale was strong – strong enough that it was considered “wicked”. It was associated with real drunkards – the hardcore, if you like. The poem “Pimlyco, or runne Rec-cap” from 1609 is the most famous mention of the beer:

Strong Pimlyco, the nourishing foode
To make men fat, and breed pure blood;
Deepe Pymlyco, the Well of Glee,
That drawes up merry company.

It was served at a pub in “Hogsdon” (now Hoxton, in east London), run by Elinour Rummin, “the Ale-wife of England”. A pub in Westminster, in south west London, borrowed the name to cash in on Mrs Rummin’s fame. And the area where the pub stood came to be known as Pimlico – it’s actually named after the beer!

2. The beer itself was probably very lightly hopped, if at all, and had lots of unfermented sugar. It would have been sickly sweet. It would also have been dark and probably slightly smoked, given the primitive methods of malting at the time.

3. The Watney’s book suggests (probably erroneously) that it was “brewed by the monks of Westminster [Abbey]”. So, it might have been a British abbey beer!

If a historically minded brewer wanted to recreate it, I’d advise them to throw authenticity aside and add some hops. Henry VIII hated them and banned them from beer, but their addition could be justified, as they were growing in Britain from 1428, and were a recognised ingredient in continental beers from the 9th century. And it would certainly make the stuff more drinkable…

Sources:
P. Mathias, The brewing industry in England, 1700 1830 (1959)
A. Stout, Deep Well of Glee (1997)
H. Janes, The Red Barrel: A History of Watney Mann (1963)

Links

Medieval/Renaissance Brewing page

Half-and-half

In Charles Dickens’ 1850 piece “Three Detective Anecdotes”, the policeman Inspector Wield reports this attempt to get information from a witness:

When the play was over, we came out together, and I said, “We’ve been very companionable and agreeable, and perhaps you wouldn’t object to a drain?” “Well, you’re very good,” says he; “I SHOULDN’T object to a drain.” Accordingly, we went to a public-house, near the Theatre, sat ourselves down in a quiet room up-stairs on the first floor, and called for a pint of half-and-half, apiece, and a pipe.

What’s half-and-half? I asked myself.

Modern references (Beer Advocate, amongst others) say that half-and-half is a cousin or a variant of “black-and-tan”, and that it’s made by mixing pale ale and and stout. In fact, they specify a mix of Guinness and a “mild or bitter beer”. Dickens’ characters probably weren’t drinking Guinness, though.

An even earlier source – an 1820 treatise against the adulteration of food (Project Gutenberg e-text) – covers half-and-half in more detail. The author says that “every publican has two sorts of beer sent to him from the brewer… ‘mild’, which is beer sent out fresh as it is brewed; the other is called ‘old'”.

Half-and-half is a mixture of the two. So, instead of paying for a full pint of the “good stuff”, the consumer could shave a little off the cost by voluntary adulterating their beer. Presumably, they might also choose to do so because the aged beer was sour, and so a bit much to take on its own.

And it was in trying to come up with a quicker and easier way to serve mixed beer that London landlords invented “entire butt” (beer pre-mixed in the barrel, and coming from one tap) which in turn became the famous London Porter. Roger Protz and Graham Wheeler, in their excellent if eccentrically typeset Brew Your Own British Real Ale at Home argue that “the original London Porters were simply brown ales that were deliberately soured”.

So, how to simulate a pint of Victorian half-and-half? I’d guess that getting two similar beers (brown ales), souring one, and keeping the other fresh, is the best way to start. Failing that, a dash of something lambic in a brown ale might do the job.

I came across “Three Detective Anecdotes” in A Treasury of Victorian Detective Stories edited by Everett F Bleiler (Harvest Press, 1980), but it’s also available at Project Gutenberg for free.

Polish beer – why isn’t it good? (Polish beer history part 1)

I’ve got a great fondness for Poland and the Poles, and starting this blog has finally motivated me to try and answer a long-standing question – Why isn’t Polish beer very good? Why are brewing traditions so strong in the Czech Republic and Germany but not (it seems) in Poland?

Zywiec

Zywiec – ubiquitous in Poland, now available in Wetherspoon’s pubs in the UK

Don’t get me wrong – Polish beer isn’t bad, it’s just that the big brands are not particularly impressive or original. I’ve tried most of the major Polish brews in my time (Zywiec, Lech, EB, Okocim, Tyskie to name a few) and have barely been able to tell the difference.

I thought this might have been my unsophisticated tastebuds, but a quick bit of internet research confirms that the vast majority of Polish brands are owned by 3 breweries, who are in turn owned by foreign multinationals who tend to specialise in bland lager;

  • SABMiller own Kompania Piwowarska, who make Lech and Tyskie (also Zubr and Debowe Mocne, which seem ubiquitous in London cornershops)
  • The Zywiec group is owned by Heineken, who also own Elbrewery (EB) and Warka
  • Carlsberg produce Okocim

Following the fall of communism, state-owned breweries were rapidly privatised and were a good target for merger activity, a process which is described in an academic paper by Michal Gorzynski – which accounts for the current position.

But were the breweries any good before this? I would love to find out more about this, but it would seem that the old state-owned breweries were even worse. Michal Gorzynski states that breweries in the early 90s started to produce beer of better quality. There has certainly been a huge growth in the beer market in Poland since privatisation (according to Rafal Tarnowski, “Industrial Relations in the Brewing Industry” beer sales rose 135% in the 1990s. Is this down to a triumph of marketing (check out the Zywiec link to see their award winning campaigns) or a better product?

Beer is certainly a young person’s drink in Poland – the over 30s tend to prefer vodka. Is the lack of excellent Polish brews down to the fantastic range and quality of the vodka?

An even more interesting question – given that a lot of modern day Poland was part of Germany, what happened to all the breweries?

More research to come on this (if anyone has some good sources of information, please let me know!).

In the meantime, here’s a link to a very informative site (in English) about the types of Polish beer, including a fascinating piece on the one “native” Polish beer, “grodziskie” or “Gratzer”, a top-fermented smoked wheatbeer. It also includes a list of Polish breweries, including some of the new exciting brew pubs. European beer guide – Polish breweries

Boak

1918 anti-brewing tract

I can’t find out much about Adolph Keitel, but in 1918, he wrote “Government by the Brewers?”. It was published in Chicago, and is an anti-brewery/anti-beer tract. It’s available from Project Gutenberg, the free etext archive.

His argument is a bit odd – he’s not anti-prohibition, but he’s annoyed that brewers were trying to convince people beer was less harmful than whisky. He says that beer is a habit forming drug (“It’s not a drug – it’s a drink” – Chris Morris) and not fit to be in the home. Brewers, he argues, are a sinister force for evil.

This point re: the quality of American beer is particularly amusing:

WHAT IS BEER?

In the well known European beer drinking countries nothing but hops and malt are permitted in brewing.

Here beer is a concoction of corn, rice, hops, malt, glucose,preservatives and other drugs–and, in most cases, it has nothing in common with real beer other than its artificial foam and color.

A leader of public opinion made the statement in the United States Senate that “Beer that is brewed in this country is slop. They say it is ‘good for the health.’ I never saw a man who drank it who was not a candidate for Bright’s disease or paralysis.”