Whichever Keg IPA They Have, Please

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

Last Friday in London I went out for a session with one of my oldest friends, someone I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, and was frankly a bit startled when he ordered a pint of BrewDog Punk IPA.

The thing is, as long as we’ve been going to the pub together (about 20 years) I’ve known him as a Guinness drinker. He’d never touch cask-conditioned beer, AKA ‘real ale’ — his fall-back was always lager.

Now, it turns out he’s ditched Guinness and drinks kegged American-style IPA or, at a push, pale ale. (By the pint, by the way — he’s a big lad, my mate, quite capable of drinking ten pints without seeming much the worse for wear, and he likes that these beers are on the strong side, getting him pissed at about the same rate as a little Hobbit like me drinking bitter.)

It’s only one case, of course, but we reckon it says something about (a) the continuing decline in the status of Guinness as The Alternative Beer Brand; (b) the rise of aromatic hoppy beer as a mainstream product and (c) the increasing availability of kegged PA/IPA in non-specialist pubs.

Whether this is good news probably depends on whether you hate Guinness or BrewDog more.

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.

The Mystic Power of Guinness, 1959

There’s been a fair bit of Guinness chat around in the last week what with Ron Pattinson’s series of posts on Park Royal, our filleting of a 1971 article about draught in the UK, and Gary Gilman’s series of posts on various aspects of its flavour and history.

Now we’ve come across a short piece by humourist Paul Jennings published in The Times on 10 November 1959 which provides, first, further evidence of the status of Guinness before it became ubiquitous and (in the view of many or even most beer geeks) bland:Guinness smile advert, 1939.

It seems that Messrs. Guinness are convinced that the most widely remembered of their famous posters is the one with the workman carrying off the girder. Well, that is not the first image that comes to me… I think first of those great big glasses of Guinness with a moony smiling face in the froth… This smile is the nearest they have got to expressing the true mana of Guinness — that great Irish mystery and paradox, the light froth from the unimaginable dark heart of the liquid, the light from darkness, like the laughter and wit that well up from the Irish soul itself… I, like any other non-Irish consumer of Guinness, drink it because it is there… [in] the sense in which Mallory said that Everest was there. I might drink beer automatically, but Guinness is a thing, it has to be reckoned with. Drinking Guinness is a conscious act, like playing the piano or reading poetry, only much easier.

(Note, by the way, what looks almost like an early example of saying ‘a thing’ being a thing…)

In addition, he also provides some observations on packaging and public perception that bring to mind the present-day chat around contract brewing and transparency:

It is a fact that three-fifths of the Guinness drunk in this country is brewed at Park Royal, that great functional-looking place that looked like an atomic power station before atomic power was invented when it was opened in 1936. It is full of vast stainless steel vats and marvellous pipes and machines and science graduates… [and] has had a head brewer a world-famous statistician — but all this was kept very dark because, as everybody knows, or thinks he knows, the special quality of Guinness comes from the waters of the Liffey… Now that they have started selling some Guinness in cans, for instance, it is reported that in pubs in Wales they think the cans have come from Dublin, whereas the bottles contain rotten old English Guinness.

Finally, he goes on to suggest that, even though St James’s Gate brewery was just as hi-tech and sterile as Park Royal, there was some truth in the myth because export brewing (that is, for hot countries) did take place there:

[The] science graduates have worked the amount of ‘x’ you must put into a bottle of Guinness for it to taste as a bottle of Guinness would taste to a man in the Red Lion, to a man in a tin shack in Borneo, after it has been humped and banged half-way round the world. If you can manage to get some of this Export Guinness before they have exported it, you will find that this means quite a lot of ‘x’.

That’s a nice way of putting it and makes us think that Guinness today really could be saved if they turned up the X dial.

Bottled Milds 5: The North Country

This final batch of bottled milds are all from the North — a term which, of course, covers a great deal of territory.

Though the Midlands has a strong claim to mild it is The North with which it is most associated in the popular imagination — part of the stereotypical image of a northerner along with flat caps and whippets, as in this article on the crowd-sourced comedy website NewsBiscuit:

In a move which is sure to be welcomed by ‘hard working families’ and ‘lovable northerners’, the Government has announced that whippets, pipes, pints of mild and dolly tubs are all to be zero-rated for VAT.

As with CAMRA and beards there is some truth in the association: we found a relative abundance of mild on our last trip to Manchester, albeit mostly kegged; and yet as early as the 1970s CAMRA was declaring it all but extinct in London and the Home Counties.

Apart from the question of whether they’re any good — the main point of these posts — there’s a secondary line of enquiry: do they have anything in common with each other? And, if so, can we say northern mild is any way distinct from Midlands mild?

  • Brass Castle Hazelnut Mild (Beers of Europe, £2.89 500ml)
  • Ilkley Black (Beer Ritz, £2.96 500ml)
  • Moorhouse Black Cat (Beers of Europe, £2.05 500ml)
  • Rudgate Ruby Mild (Beer Ritz, £3.00 500ml)
  • Thwaites Dark Mild (Morrisons, £3.96 4 × 440ml)

Continue reading “Bottled Milds 5: The North Country”

Session 106: Holiday Beers

For the 106th edition of the beer blogging jamboree that is ‘The Session’ Jay Brooks has asked us to consider ‘holiday beers’:

Holiday beers are by design no one style, but are a chance for individual breweries to let their talent and imagination run wild. At the holidays, when people stop their busy lives and share some precious time with family and friends, the beer they choose should be equally as special as the time they’re sharing. So a holiday beer should be made to impress, to wow its audience, to stand out. That’s the only criteria that should be met by one of these beers. Will it impress?

We thought this would be an easy topic until we started bashing around ideas for a post over dinner. It turns out that we’ve probably already said everything we’ve got to say about Christmas beer:

Continue reading “Session 106: Holiday Beers”