Bristol Lambic?

Beer maturing in vats.
George’s vats as pic­tured in the Illus­trat­ed Lon­don News in 1909.

Here’s a new question for us to chew on: was the ‘Old Beer’ for which George’s Bristol Brewery was famous up until World War II an early example of a wilfully sour British beer?

We’ve been read­ing bits and pieces about George’s here and there for the last few months, fas­ci­nat­ed by the long-gone local giant which built so many of the most inter­est­ing pubs in Bris­tol. It was found­ed in around 1730, and acquired by Courage in 1961 after which, to all intents and pur­pos­es, the brand ceased to exist. For a large chunk of its exis­tence, though, its flag­ship prod­uct was a notable vat­ted ale:

Georges’ Old Beer, famous through­out the West, is matured in huge vats, some of the largest in the King­dom, with a total capac­i­ty of one mil­lion gal­lons. The beer remains in the vats for at least 12 months before it is allowed to go to the con­sumer. (One Hun­dred and Fifty Years of Brew­ing, 1938)

Oth­er Bris­tol brew­eries, notably Rogers’ of Jacob Street, also pro­duced vat­ted Bris­tol Old Beer. Mar­tyn Cor­nell has writ­ten about West Coun­try vat­ted ales on his blog and in his essen­tial 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black (dis­clo­sure: he sent us a free­bie PDF at the time) and gives a use­ful sum­ma­ry of the tech spec:

Brew­ing of these West Coun­try vat­ted ales always began in the autumn, using a mix­ture of old and new malts, often a ‘high-dried’ Eng­lish malt with plen­ty of colour mixed with a mild ale malt. The Brew­ers’ Jour­nal in 1936 was advis­ing that such strong stock ales ‘of 30lb grav­i­ty and upwards’ (that is, OGs of around 1085 or more) should go through two or three sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tions in cask before being bot­tled after nine or twelve months not ful­ly worked out, but still ‘in slight “creamy” con­di­tion’.

What real­ly grabbed our atten­tion, though, was a descrip­tion of George’s Old Beer in a 1943 arti­cle about the brew­ery in a tech­ni­cal jour­nal (PDF):

The brew­ery was famed in ear­ly days for Porter, hence its ear­ly title ‘The Bris­tol Porter Brew­ery’. After­wards ‘Old beer’ became one of the main prod­ucts, and many vats of con­sid­er­ably over 1,600 bar­rels’ capac­i­ty were in use for stor­ing the heavy beer for at least 18 months, the com­pe­ti­tion with cider no doubt influ­enced the char­ac­ter of this old beer.

This blew our minds a lit­tle.

We’ve long been fas­ci­nat­ed by the sim­i­lar­i­ty between the wilder Som­er­set ciders and Bel­gian lam­bic beers but this is the first time we’ve seen it sug­gest­ed that the cider-friend­ly West Coun­try palate might have influ­ence how the local beer tast­ed. It’s cer­tain­ly plau­si­ble, though, that drinkers used to the inten­si­ty of scrumpy might find fresh, bright, clean-tast­ing ales just a bit bland.

Now, at this stage, of course we still have a lot of ques­tions to answer:

  1. Did cider in 1943 taste like cider does now? (We can’t see that it tast­ed less sour or funky.)
  2. When this writer implies Old Beer was equiv­a­lent to cider, does he mean that it tast­ed like cider (actu­al­ly acidic and wild) or only that it was sim­i­lar in some oth­er way? E.g. rel­a­tive­ly strong, or dif­fer­ent­ly com­plex as a result of Bret­tanomyces, or mere­ly very dry. A 1909 arti­cle in the Lon­don Illus­trat­ed News describes it as hav­ing ‘depth and mel­low­ness’ which doesn’t sound much like cider.
  3. What hap­pened to the vats; when did Old Beer go out of pro­duc­tion; and did drinkers in Bris­tol sud­den­ly acquire the taste for ‘nor­mal’ beer? (Guess: the Blitz; the war; no. But we’ll see.)

In the mean­time, there’s an idea for some more sac­ri­le­gious beer mix­ing here: three parts old ale, one part scrumpy any­one?

Psst! Don’t for­get to enter our com­pe­ti­tion if you want to win copies of 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub and Brew Bri­tan­nia.

5 thoughts on “Bristol Lambic?”

  1. Look­ing at the vats, the long mat­u­ra­tion time, and the grist, they seem like a 19th cen­tu­ry porter brew­ery who kept pro­duc­ing a keep­ing ale when porter fell out of fash­ion. The high-dried malt was prob­a­bly some­thing like amber or brown malt (or some­thing kilned to the brewery’s own spec­i­fi­ca­tion), so the beer would still have been rel­a­tive­ly dark, but with­out any spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion on the colour of the malt or grist com­po­si­tion, this is impos­si­ble to tell, real­ly.

    The vat­ting cer­tain­ly would have added the same acid­i­ty and Brett char­ac­ter like porter used to have it. They may have well been the last major pro­duc­er of stock ale. This is, of course, pure con­jec­ture.

  2. Of cur­rent west coun­try brew­ers, Isle of Purbeck bit­ter always tastes dis­tinct­ly sour and cidery to me

  3. I’d imag­ine a Stock Ale aged for that long would be mel­low­ly vin­ious with a sweet edge, and not all that sour at the rack from a vat .
    About 32–36 lbs og :
    grav­i­ty, (I’ve seen a Stock Ale from 1885@35.25lbs !! ) and about 65–80 IBU .
    Not seen any Georges records yet , but I live in hope !!

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