Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke

Illustration: Victoriana.

When I was a kid we used to go to my uncle’s house in Lon­don… The heat and light crack­ling sound of the fire, mixed with the smell of his oak-pan­elled room, his tobac­co and the whisky by his leather chair, always bring Christ­mas of my child­hood strong­ly to my thoughts… We cre­at­ed a dish… based on the mem­o­ry… We set the frozen apple sor­bet on fire with a whisky blend, while dry ice bel­lows from the leather plate car­ry­ing the smell of leather, wood, fire, tobac­co and whisky. We even have the crack­ling sound of the burn­ing logs com­ing from the dish.”

Hes­ton Blu­men­thal

The very idea of a beer based on a historic recipe – the chance to share a sensory experience with our ancestors – gets us excited.

Pack­ag­ing alone can build expec­ta­tion, sug­gest­ing a swirl of fog, soot in the air, and the dis­tant pip­ing of a bar­rel organ, with a few tricks of typog­ra­phy and the promi­nent place­ment of an evoca­tive date: 1913, 1891, 1884, 1880… (Like the dash­board on Rod Tay­lor’s time Machine.)

How his­toric are some of these recipes? Many are mere­ly ‘inspired by’ some­thing from the archives, while oth­ers are painstak­ing recre­ations. While we pre­fer the lat­ter, we’re also more than will­ing to play along with the for­mer, just as we would be with Hes­ton Blu­men­thal’s sen­so­ry manip­u­la­tions.

Westerham and J.W. Lees historic beers.

Westerham Audit Ale and Double Stout

Robert Wicks has been brew­ing Audit Ale to a 1938 recipe for some time but has only recent­ly start­ed bot­tling it, along with a ‘new’ his­toric beer, Dou­ble Stout. Know­ing of our inter­est, he sent us one of each.

Audit Ale (6.2% ABV) was some­thing of a flag­ship beer from the Black Eagle Brew­ery of West­er­ham – a strong ‘pre­mi­um’ beer sup­plied to Oxford and Cam­bridge col­leges, and to the roy­al fam­i­ly. The bot­tle’s label is based on this one, with authen­ti­cal­ly wonky hand-drawn let­ter­ing; the recipe is from 1938; and the yeast from a sam­ple pre­served in 1959. All in all, the his­to­ry is strong with this one.

Our first reac­tion on tast­ing was to recoil as some­thing veg­e­tal and a lit­tle sweaty waft­ed from the glass, like the stale air of a long-board­ed up room. But it was gone in an instant, and replaced at once by a del­i­cate aro­ma of diges­tive bis­cuits and orange blos­som water. There­after, we found a long, long, com­plex flavour, which var­i­ous­ly sug­gest­ed grains of demer­ara sug­ar, cop­per coins, and can­died orange peel. It remind­ed us of a less exu­ber­ant St Austel­l’s Admi­ral’s Ale, or a more inter­est­ing Vien­na lager or Ger­man fes­t­bier.

It is a deeply sat­is­fy­ing beer, and one that could eas­i­ly usurp the place we cur­rent­ly give to Fuller’s 1845 in our ‘cel­lar’.

Dou­ble Stout (5.5%) makes no claim to being based on a spe­cif­ic his­toric recipe, only ‘to the strength’ of a 1938 draught and bot­tled beer, and using that same archive yeast. It is black, ash-dry and rather thin-bod­ied, with a robust, unre­fined qual­i­ty which brought to mind molasses and strong cof­fee. Some­where in the mix was a very tiny pinch of savoury herbs – sage, oregano or thyme?

If you pre­fer your stout aus­tere rather than resem­bling a choco­late pud­ding, then this might be the beer for you. We liked it, and would like to try anoth­er bot­tle some time, but we pre­fer a lit­tle more opu­lence in our stouts.

Truman’s London Keeper

The revived East Lon­don brew­ery stopped short of hav­ing Sher­lock Holmes deliv­er this sam­ple in a han­som cab, but only just: the 750ml bot­tle has no label, is capped with ‘ivory wax’, and has dan­gling around its neck piece of heavy card stock print­ed using the archa­ic let­ter­press method, signed by the head-brew­er and brew­ery ‘re-founder’.

Lon­don Keep­er (8%) is based as far as pos­si­ble on an 1880 recipe for Tru­man’s dou­ble export stout. It uses Amer­i­can hops, as did the orig­i­nal, though the spe­cif­ic vari­eties have been sub­sti­tut­ed.

It smelled like an old leather jack­et, but also had a heady, spir­i­tu­ous qual­i­ty. You’d need a lot tongues to taste all the flavours, to para­phrase Catarel­la, and we got some­thing dif­fer­ent with each sip, from dry sher­ry to salti­ness, and from wood smoke to milky cof­fee. The flavours did­n’t, per­haps, cohere par­tic­u­lar­ly, but we loved it: for a 133-year-old, it is a lot of fun. (And per­haps it will come togeth­er if left to mature for a few more months or years.)

Would we ever pay £18 for a bot­tle? No. But then we don’t real­ly think that’s the point: this is pure halo effect mar­ket­ing mate­r­i­al.

J.W. Lees Manchester Star

We’ve been foiled at every attempt to try this beer sup­pos­ed­ly based on an 1884 recipe, but the late Simon H. John­son came through for us: in the raf­fle held in his mem­o­ry before Christ­mas, we won a bot­tle from his pri­vate stash, which arrived just in time to be includ­ed in this tast­ing.

Though not described as a stout or porter, it pours absolute­ly black with a bis­cuit-beige head, and divid­ed opin­ion between us. Bai­ley found it lus­cious and waxed lyri­cal about figs and cher­ries and choco­late liqueurs, while Boak shrugged and said, dis­mis­sive­ly, ‘Coca Cola.’ Her inter­est perked up as she noticed a smokey, whisky­ish note, and as the bit­ter­ness built. By the end, we’d agreed that, while it isn’t as good as Fuller’s Past Mas­ters Dou­ble Stout (we drank our penul­ti­mate bot­tle of that to check and it almost made us cry), it is a very good beer indeed.

Fuller’s Past Masters 1966 Strong Ale

Final­ly, bring­ing us very near­ly up to date, is the lat­est in John Keel­ing’s series of his­toric recre­ations from the Fuller’s archive, put togeth­er with advice from Ron Pat­tin­son. In this instance, the Vic­to­ri­an imagery of the label is all wrong: it ought to be mid-60s mod, union jacks and pop art.

We bought a case of this and have been work­ing our way through it for a cou­ple of months. The first bot­tle seemed one-dimen­sion­al and over­whelm­ing­ly sweet, and made us mourn the long-gone first beer in this series, a Vic­to­ri­an XX Strong Ale. Each bot­tle since, how­ev­er, has been more inter­est­ing than the last, and it is now become what we’d hoped for.

This time, we found it fan­tas­ti­cal­ly full-bod­ied, where it had been sticky. It has devel­oped a lay­er of wine-like, oaky, cher­ry liqueur flavours – round and plum­my rather than sug­ary. From some­where, a very sub­tle hint of some­thing like laven­der, rose­mary or vio­lets has appeared.

It is enough to con­vince us to renew our sub­scrip­tion to Past Mas­ters, though we are slow­ly learn­ing that Fuller’s spe­cial edi­tion beers need a lit­tle work on our part: we have to leave them alone for six months. This should­n’t be our prob­lem, but if that’s the price we have to pay, then so be it.


Dis­clo­sure: we were sent sam­ples of West­er­ham’s Audit Ale and Dou­ble Stout, and Tru­man’s Lon­don Keep­er. We bought 12 bot­tles of Fuller’s 1966 Strong Ale for £38 plus deliv­ery.

6 thoughts on “Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke”

  1. In that case, will you guys be flex­ing your home­brew mus­cles to brew whichev­er his­toric porter tops the Inter­na­tion­al Home­brew Project poll?

    1. We’d be up for it in the­o­ry, although, in prac­tice, we’re pret­ty ter­ri­ble at get­ting our act togeth­er to take part in group activ­i­ties like that.

  2. Would we ever pay £18 for a bot­tle? No. But then you did­n’t need to.

    Snark direct­ed at the brew­er, not you two (what else were you going to do – send it back in protest?). But I do hate brew­ers who pull stunts like that – adding insult to the injury of sil­ly-priced beer by punt­ing free­bies to review­ers to ramp up the demand. I hate it even more when the beer is actu­al­ly real­ly good – you feel that a good brew­ery should be above that kind of thing. (Bear with me, I had my heart bro­ken by Brew­Dog at a for­ma­tive age.)

    I might need to buy you anoth­er bot­tle of Man­ches­ter Star (it’s in all the Sains­bury’s round here) – if you drank it expect­ing a stout or a porter I’m not sur­prised you weren’t blown away. It’s absolute­ly pos­i­tive­ly def­i­nite­ly a Bur­ton, I think, prob­a­bly. It’s the same style as Old Peculi­er, Moon­rak­er, Owd Roger, McE­wan’s Cham­pi­on and Old Tom, any­way, and for my mon­ey it’s bet­ter than any of those except the last one. See also here.

    1. Phil – we did­n’t know what to expect from Man­ches­ter Star, espe­cial­ly after Mitch Steele sug­gest­ed it as a good sub­sti­tute for ‘Octo­ber Beer’, the his­toric ances­tor of IPA.

      We’re not imag­in­ing that it is very dark in colour, are we?

      1. No indeed – so are all the oth­ers in that list (Old Tom is prob­a­bly the light­est in colour). As I (hes­i­tant­ly) under­stand it, Bur­tons were dark, sweet­ish and strong. (Source: dis­cus­sion on Mar­tyn’s blog. Must check what he says in the book.)

        Don’t know about Octo­ber Beer. The only com­par­i­son with IPA I can think of is that they’re both liq­uids.

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