A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s

Younger's Tartan beer mat.

In the early 1970s no-one was buying Younger’s Tartan keg bitter which meant it kept sitting around in pubs until it went bad. The brewery’s response? Mix it it back in and send it out again.

Good Company by Berry Ritchie.This story leapt out at us from the pages of a new acquisition for our library, Good Company: the story of Scottish & Newcastle, written by Berry Ritchie and published in 1999. As is the case with many brewery official histories the most interesting stuff isn’t the wigs and genealogy in the opening chapters, it’s the material on the post-WWII period. That’s because there were people around who remembered the events well but at the same time were no longer obliged to toe a corporate line because they were retired; and plenty of surviving paperwork, too. This passage, covering a vague period from around 1970 until the middle of the decade, seems remarkably frank:

Unfortunately, the popularity of Tartan turned out to be less than robust. Compared to English bitters, it was on the sweet side; the post-war baby-boomers to whom [board member Tim] Lewis had appealed so successfully liked this to begin with, but as their palates matured, they switched back to more traditional southern bitters. The big swallowers in the Midlands were never keen; Scottish & Newcastle’s salesmen made huge efforts to get its kegs into the large working-men’s clubs  in and around Birmingham, only to see them thrown out again after a month or so.

Worse than that, falling sales resulted in many tapped kegs being left on sale for too long, so their contents went off. That meant returns, which had to be sent all the way back to Edinburgh, because that was where Customs and Excise checked they were were bad enough to warrant a refund of duty. If not, the rejected beer had to be reblended, which did nothing for the flavour of the new brews. So much returned Tartan had to be recycled that it began to affect the reputation of the group’s premium beers.

Isn’t it amazing that this, which reads like CAMRA propaganda, is from a brewery sponsored publication? It’s funny to think, too, that ‘it’s all slops’ was for so long a standard criticism of cask ale, and mild in particular, when in fact the supposedly clean, space-age keg bitter was subject to just the same commercial pressures.

When people talk about the dangerous influence of ‘accountants’ on the quality of beer it’s just this kind of thing they have in mind. Why ‘had’?  They could presumably have just written off the duty payments and thrown the bad beer away. The decision to do otherwise seems remarkably short-termist but perhaps — very likely, in fact — at these volumes, on tight margins, the choice was between this or going immediately bust, or being taken over.

We’d like to think this kind of thing doesn’t go on so much today but with beer duty being yet higher than the 1970s we wouldn’t be surprised to find some 21st Century variant in play.

Funnily enough, Ron Pattinson has just posted about the use of ‘reprocessed beer’ at Younger’s in this period with reference to some archive paperwork. That makes us wonder if perhaps, rather than being mixed with itself, the comparatively light, bland Tartan was hidden in the folds of dark, even sweeter stout and brown ale where it would be harder to spot.

It’s also interesting, by the way, to see further confirmation of the idea that Midlands drinkers in particular were considered to have different tastes, as did young and older drinkers. We can’t help but think again of those soft, sweet New England IPAs.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 09 April 2016: Sheep Dung, Italy, Scotland

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that’s made us sit up and take notice in the last week, from sheep dung beer to brewery takeovers.

→ It’s easy to scoff at the silly things silly craft beer sillies but in their silly beer but what if the novelty ingredients have a connection to regional traditional, like salted cod or malt smoked with sheep droppings? Knut Albert reports from Iceland and (spoiler alert) says, ‘the shit does not give any pronounced flavor’.

Food 52 has an interview with Rome-based food and drinks writer Katie Parla in which she reflects on why Italian craft beer is so expensive, and so exciting: ‘It’s one of the few facets of food or drinks culture here that is, by definition, creative.’ (And there’s a brief companion piece by Parla herself here.)

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 09 April 2016: Sheep Dung, Italy, Scotland”

Heather Ale, 1900: ‘…the brewery caught fire…’

Digging through copies of Brewing Trade Review looking for information on pubs last week we couldn’t help but get distracted by, for example, a 1900 article that offers an intriguing footnote to our long piece on Williams Bros from last year.

It’s entitled ‘Heather Ale’, the author isn’t named, and it almost has about it the bones of an H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Machen story — why did the brewery catch fire? To conceal the diabolical secrets unearthed by Dr. Maclagan who has since gone quite mad? (No.)

And, 116 years on, the practical information might even still be useful to anyone keen to brewer heather ale themselves this summer.

Here’s the article in full:


As there are many legends about the abnormal virtues of heather ale, Dr. Maclagan has been at great pains to investigate the whole subject, and his results quite fail to support the wonderful reputation which centuries have woven around this beverage. So far as documents go it appears to have been brewed with great success by the Picts, who, however, refused at all times to tell the Scots how to brew it, and the secret was supposed to have died with them. There are one or two recipes in existence, but all require a good deal of malt or sugar. Dr. Maclagan had some heather bloom analysed, and found that it yielded 17 per cent of a substance which reduced Fehling’s solution and appeared to be a sugar, but every attempt to ferment it was was unsuccessful. Recourse was then had to a practical brewer, Mr A. Melvin of Edinburgh, who made an extract from 4 lbs of pure heather bloom with 6 gallons of water in a steam jacketed copper. Yeast was added to extract (Sp. Gr. 1001.5) in a cask which was kept well-rolled, but no fermentation took place. Wort and heather flowers alone when mouldy in a short time, so the following experiment was tried: Four gallons of wort, Sp. Gr. 1100, with four gallons of water, were boiled with heather flowers, the total quantity used being 2½ lbs. The mixture was strained and the filtrate boiled for another half-hour. The fluid smelt strongly of heather and had an agreeable taste. It was next rapidly cooled, and, when at a temperature of 69º F, was poured into a six gallon cask, topped up with boiled wort, and a pint of yeast well roused in. As it fermented the cask was kept topped up and the beer properly cleansed. The beer thus produced was bottled, and the result was a fairly palatable liquid with a rough woody flavour. A further experiment was made with more heather, and a highly satisfactory sample was obtained, but unfortunately the brewery caught fire, and the heather ale was destroyed. The result of the inquiry, however, was precised, though disappointing; heather may be all right as a flavouring for those who like it, but it is useless for producing beer by itself. As two ounces of bloom measures about a pint and a-half, and take over an hour to collect, it would be an expensive ingredient, and its loss is therefore not to be regretted.

We forgot to note in which month this article appeared (probably April) but it’s certainly on p.373 of the collected volume for this year if you want to look it up.

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.

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The Pub at the Edge of the World

Dramatic Sky! (in St Kilda) by Gajtalbot From Flickr Creative Commons.

We’ve developed the bad habit of annotating films as we watch them, both of us with mobile devices in front of the TV reading different bits of Wikipedia. (“Huh, fancy that — Basil Rathbone was an intelligence agent in World War I and once disguised himself as a tree to get near to the enemy lines.”)

Last week, Film 4 showed Michael Powell’s first real feature film, The Edge of the World (1937), set on a fictional archipelago beyond the Outer Hebrides. That led us to look up St Kilda and the story of its evacuation in 1930. Of course what leapt out to us was the mention of ‘the Puff Inn’, which must be the most remote licensed premises in Britain.

The Puff Inn isn’t really called the Puff Inn. In fact, it’s not really a pub and that’s official. It’s a stormproof shed where the military personnel who are now the islands’ only residents can go to drink and eat. Someone ought to write a book about the influence of the British armed forces on beer culture. Where they go, beer goes, it seems.

Its decor hints at ‘pubbiness’, and there is beer, but tourists who’ve made the journey across the open sea to visit the National Trust-owned islands shouldn’t expect a ploughmans and a pint of mild.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, near us, there are several pubs on the far less remote and much balmier Isles of Scilly, the residents of which seem to relish their reputation as “2000 alcoholics clinging to a rock”.

The film was great, by the way, despite the typical 1930s all-purpose RADA Irish/Scottish/Welsh lilting accents.

Picture by Gajtalbot, via Flickr Creative Commons.