Beer history

Old Beer Descriptors: ‘Winey’

Ballantine Pale Ale, 1910.

Our post about a 1901 guide to beer styles prompted discussion about what ‘winey’ might have meant in beer descriptions of the Victorian/Edwardian period.

Commenters suggested:

  • “fruity esters”
  • “a pleasant level of acidity”
  • “sharp, but not in a citric way; that sour heaviness that you get in red wine”.

Here are a few more possible clues.

1. Above, from a 1910 sales booklet from Ballantine of New York, is a beer description which specifies that aged bottles have ‘the qualities of fine old wine’.

2. Robert Druitt’s 1873 Report on the Cheap Wines has this:

St. Elie [from Greece] went into disfavour with some of my friends from its great acidity and harshness. Blessed is the young wine which has these characters, if only it can be put by to mature. For I find that the St. Elie, if duly allowed to rest, deposits a small quantity of tartar, becomes darker in colour, and acquires a flavour of the true old winey character, resembling that of old Madeira. I use the word winey to indicate that taste and smell which wine has and which other liquids have not, and which is developed in the intensest form in this wine.

At which point, we turn to a contemporary wine writer, Jamie ‘Wine Anorak’ Goode:

Acetaldehyde is an important molecule in the oxidation of wine. Also known as ethanal, it’s the oxidation product of alcohol. Acetaldehyde has an aroma often likened to that of fresh-cut apples, and it gives wine a flat texture in the mouth. Sherry and Madeira exhibit high levels of acetaldehyde; indeed, one common description of oxidized whites is “sherried.”

4. Ron Pattinson has been looking at chemical analyses for 19th century lager beers. Of 1886-87 Nuremberg beers he says:

I’m shocked at the high lactic acid content of every sample. I’d have expected it to be no higher than 0.1%. Over 0.2% I would have expected to give the beer a detectable tartness.

5. And finally, a possible red herring from Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son, just for fun: “In particular,  there was a butler in a blue coat and bright buttons, who gave quite a winey flavour to the table beer; he poured it out so superbly.” (We think here flavour means ‘feel’, and this is about presentation rather than taste.)

So, in conclusion, what we’re now thinking is that (a) ‘winey’ had 100-150 years ago almost exactly the same meaning as the now more popular ‘vinous’; and that (b) we’ve been mistake in assuming that 19th century lager was much like the crisp, clean stuff we drink today.

9 replies on “Old Beer Descriptors: ‘Winey’”

here’s a comment from 1879’s Brewer’s Exhibition on lager:
‘We have no desire to speak disrespectfully of German beer, but the samples offered to the public were such as we feel sure will never replace home-brewed beer in this country; the thinness on the palate, the absence of all flavour of malt extract, the artificial aeration, the peculiar taste described by most of the public as resembling garlic or onions, are all characteristics which, however agreeable to the German taste, will take a long tome to be acclimatised here’

And, fwiw, I recall Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada telling me he favours Ballantyne’s yeast.

The garlic or onion taste noted by Adrian in the historical text still characterizes much European lager. It is a sulphur-like taste (boiled veg/old egg), some beers have it only lightly, but it is a characteristic flavour. which derives from precursors in the malting barleys. The IOB journals in the post-war period spend a lot of time analyzing the taste and advising how to eliminate it. The Burton snatch was a similar taste however the cause in that case appears to be different than for for lager. Some other English beers have a somewhat similar taste, Old Speckled Hen does, or did, in my opinion.

Winey IMO meant different things, in the context of bottle-conditioned beers, it probably meant brett. There are discussions in early 1900’s IOB journals which also discuss this particular flavour and when you read them closely brett seems an unavoidable conclusion. A tart quite, possibly, too, as some brett has that element.

“The garlic or onion taste noted by Adrian in the historical text still characterizes much European lager. It is a sulphur-like taste (boiled veg/old egg), some beers have it only lightly, but it is a characteristic flavour.”

That seems a bit of a leap — is there something you’ve read which makes that connection explicit? One of those IOB articles, for example? If there’s something that states outright that garlicky is *synonymous* with sulphurous, then that would be pretty convincing.

I can’t say I’d make that connection, though I’ve certainly had beers that tasted garlicky as a result of using particular hop varieties.

But then maybe garlic smelled or tasted different in the 19th century, as apparently bananas did

I don’t think garlic or onion tasted any different then than now. (Some American hops can have a weedy taste, but it’s really not the same thing, all home brewers know the characteristic rotten egg smell..).

I’ll pull out the IOB articles which make it very clear where that lager taste comes from, give us a bit of time.


Re: Garlic, it does occur to me that, until even quite recently, TV chefs would issue warnings about adding more than one clove of garlic to a dish, and I know some people who recoil at the idea even now.

Maybe 19th century British people were *massively* sensitive to garlic aroma and were therefore finding overwhelming something in these beers that would now sit beneath our threshold for detection…?

I doubt it. Just thinking aloud.

You may be right, the sensitivity level may be relatively low for the British, and perhaps I share it too. But it’s quite evident e.g. in fresh Heineken and most Bavarian lagers. When the taste is so familiar locally people don’t see it so to speak.


Ray/Jess, take a gander here:

Look at Table II in particular, where the ale malts analyzed show significantly less DMS and its precursors than for lager malt. The authors explain that, in general, this is because of the lighter kilning lager malt undergoes. The introduction to the article references the cabbagey-sulfury flavours associated to DMS (hydrogen sulphide is also a potential problem in lager brewing, but DMS is probably the main culprit). In my view, this is likely what was called the garlic or onion taste by British observers of European lager beer. I readily confess that some of that lager was dark and presumably – as German dunkel today – didn’t have the taste. But much of it did including the Bohemian and Vienna beers that were becoming popular. I can’t think of another explanation because a pitch flavour – tarry – is not one of cooked vegetable. I believe you could taste the pitch in the Urquell beer before pitched vessels were finally abandoned and it did not taste garlic or of onion, it was a light mustiness or earthy taste (based on long memory but I believe reliable). Of course, all this is inferential but it’s not just a leap into the dark…


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