News, nuggets and longreads 19 February 2022: Justified and ancient

Here’s our pick of writing about brewing, beer and pubs from the past week, including the usual mix of psychology, history, opinion and tradition.

For the past week, all the chat has been about a strange resurgence of mild. Now Adrian Tierney-Jones has got us thinking about barley wine and old ale with a substantial piece about J.W. Lees Harvest Ale for Good Beer Hunting:

In the course of researching this story, I came across an article by beer writer Tim Webb in the 1987 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)’s Good Beer Guide about how bottled Strong Ales, and Barley Wines in particular, were being brewed less and less in the British Isles. Many of the beers mentioned were later laid to rest during the 1990s, or even earlier. This makes it all the more remarkable that Harvest Ale has managed to hang on during decades of transformation, including the rise of craft beer and other paradigm-altering changes in British beer. Even more striking is the fact that the beer was a happy accident, developed on a whim after a discussion during a black-tie dinner in 1986.


UK craft beer industry veteran Stephanie Shuttleworth is now doing a PhD in the psychology of beer. She’s sharing her work in progress via a Substack newsletter and this week reflected on the health costs/benefits of beer. We’re instinctively wary of claims that beer is good for you – we don’t think it is, but we like it anyway, and that’s half the fun – but this is thoughtful stuff:

How does science decipher what is good or bad for you?  This usually involves a lengthy and protracted process, but in reality, it comes down to one big question: will it kill you? Or more specifically: will it cause your untimely death? When it comes to alcohol, the lowest levels of death and serious illness are usually found in those who drink moderately, and not, as you may expect, with those who abstain from alcohol altogether.

A forest in Estonia.
SOURCE: Maksim Shutov on Unsplash.

For Ferment, the promo mag of a beer subscription service, brewer Charlotte Cook has written about craft beer in Estonia, where she worked for some time:

Estonian beer hasn’t always been lager-driven; koduõlu (literally home-beer) is the traditional farmhouse beer that has been produced in the country for generations. This is a mixture of malted and un-malted barley and rye, un-boiled and flavoured with juniper bark and local herbs. Roadside shops and bars will always have a jug to sell to passers-by, and while it won’t be to everyone’s taste, it is an undeniably charming relict of a forgotten past… Taking a walk around any of the traditional covered markets will reveal stalls bursting with home-pickled wild mushrooms, foraged berries, and bunches of wild garlic sold by headscarf-bedecked Babushkas.

SOURCE: Sonuma.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Eoghan Walsh is writing a book one blog post at a time and somebody ought to snap it up for publication. His latest piece focuses on a short news film from the early 1960s which captures the moment when traditional methods became a historic novelty:

Albert Vossen was a second-generation brewery owner, his father Theophile having started Brasserie Vossen on Brussels’ Rue des Capucins in the early 1900s. Despite its name Vossens didn’t brew, instead sourcing Lambic from other breweries, including the De Keersmaeker brewery in nearby Kobbegem. In 1927 Théophile bought the Mort Subite café, which subsequently lent its name to Vossen’s Gueuze… By the time Radio-Télévision Belge broadcast his interview, Albert had been fighting a long rearguard action in defence of traditional Lambic. In 1954 he’d given a lecture that, while ostensibly about similarities between Champagne and Gueuze, was ultimately a plea for the protection of Lambic culture against industrialisation… By 1959 Albert had closed Brasserie Vossen, handing over its 3,000 Lambic-filled pijpen (old Porto barrels) to the Union des Marchands des Bières, a Lambic blenders’ cooperative of which he was the secretary… It was in this role that he appeared on Belgian television avuncularly explaining Lambic.

Detail from an old brewing log.

Liam at BeerFoodTravel has been thinking about historical brewing and specifically the commercial appeal, or otherwise, of authentic recreations of old beers:

[In] reality the commercial appeal of these beers is probably a bridge too far outside of the odd once-off special brew, but at the very least independent microbreweries should be looking at actual historic records – or talking to those who have – when they decide to brew a historic beer and not just go down the easy root of creating – not recreating – a red ale or porter plastered with words such as traditional, heritage or whatever sounds good… And still on that point perhaps there is a different marketing angle, as surely there is something appealing about these beers to tourists who look for something more interesting and different drink-wise? A minority of them perhaps but there must still be plenty of visitors to this country who might hanker for genuine historic Irish beers from real Irish breweries, served in real Irish pubs – not just the red-washing at the beer tap that we typically see.

A perfect pint of Fuller's London Pride.

Tandleman has been out and about in London and noticed an improvement in the quality of cask ale:

[Fuller’s Parcel Yard was] rammed and disappointingly, only London Pride was available – even more so when the lads mentioned it was exactly the same the previous Sunday when they had lunch with John Keeling. Surely they can do better than this? Nonetheless, the Pride was good, and they did put ESB on in time for my second and final pint… What conclusions do I draw? Well, cask beer seems to be making a post Covid renaissance in London, with the possibility that the reduction in the number of beers offered has resulted in better quality.

This chimes with our experience before Christmas when we had one excellent pint after another. There’s another theory – was it Martin ‘Retired Martin’ Taylor’s? – that various shutdowns and quiet stretches have given pubs time to deep clean and replace old pipes.

Finally, from Twitter, a thread worth pulling on…

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday – especially as it actually includes a pretty substantial look at the question of rice in beer and cultural appropriation.

2 replies on “News, nuggets and longreads 19 February 2022: Justified and ancient”

Thanks for the mention! It started as a newsy response like any other but grew and grew.

In other news, i was really disappointed to see the revival of J-Curve legitimacy fibbing. It’s been entirely disproven. The statistical dip for moderate drinkers is a reflection of those who are ill who don’t drink for other reasons: religious, already ill and personal abstainers have sicknesses which are unrelated to alcohol. That block of more seriously ill are sicker than the slightly sick within moderate drinkers but not because they don’t drink. They are just people who get really ill regardless. A few years ago a poor beer trade writer was put on a public TV news show here with a panel of medical types and was laughed out of the studio.

Maybe as Stephanie gets further into her doctoral studies she’ll revise her opinion back to where it was when she started. FWIW, the J-curve has been (implicitly) endorsed by the BMA, whose spokesperson replied to a question about the potential adverse effects of cutting out alcohol by saying that people could always cut out alcohol *and* get more exercise.

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