News, Nuggets & Longreads 6 October 2018: Cask, Cans, Classics

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer in the past week, from cask anxiety to Berlin boozers.

The latest Cask Report was published (PDF, via Cask Marque) but for the first time in a few years we couldn’t summon the energy to read it, hence no mention in last Saturday’s round-up. But there has been plenty of commentary in the past week and a bit which we thought it might be worth rounding up:

Martyn Cornell – “Why is finding a properly kept pint of cask ale such an appalling lottery in Britain’s pubs”?

Ben Nunn – “[Are] we… heading for a world where real ale is, like vinyl, a niche product – not really for the mainstream, sold only in specialist outlets and usually restricted only to certain styles or genres?”

Pub Curmudgeon – “Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help.”

Steph Shuttleworth (Twitter) – “[We] don’t currently have any reports that are nuanced or in-depth enough for the industry to rely on… Cask is a significant part of many craft breweries e.g. Marble, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, but we can’t draw lines as to who is in which market…”

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The Magic Guinness Blend c.1939

Cover of the Guinness brewing manual.

When a colleague of mine told me that her father had been head brewer at Guinness’s London brewery and wondered if I might be interested in seeing his papers, I got a bit excited.

Finally, months later, we got round to visiting to check out what was in her collection. Based on a quick audit the answer is: everything.

We’ve agreed to take possession of the whole lot, catalogue it, copy bits we might be able to use for our own research, and then help with arrangements to have the important bits taken into appropriate archives.

For now, though, here’s a nugget from the handful of documents we brought away with us on Wednesday night: insider info on how Guinness gained its once legendary complexity at the blending stage.

This comes from a typed document in a plain brown wrapper written in 1939 and updated to take account of wartime brewing restriction. The copy we have seems to come from around 1943 but was in apparently still in circulation in the 1950s.

The first page bears the title ‘The Process of Brewing Guinness’ and the 46 pages that follow offer detailed notes on the basics of beer making (how hops are dried, for example) as well as specifics about Guinness.

Section header: "making up".

Here’s the section on ‘Making Up’:

Beer in storage vats [after fermentation] is quite flat and is cloudy and bitter and uninteresting to taste. Before it is ready for sale it must be ‘Made up’… Beer from say six different brews forms the basis. These are chosen in such proportions that when mixed with unfermented beer (i.e. wort that has been pitched but not allowed to ferment) known as gyle, their residues added to the fermentable matter of the gyle will give a suitable ‘Prime’. ‘Prime’ is the fermentable matter in beer after making up just as ‘Residue’ is the fermentable matter as the beer enters the storage vat. It is measured as the difference between the present gravity of the beer and its perfect primary.

In addition to these beers there are added:–

  1. Barm beer: this is the beer which is skimmed off from the skimmers with the yeast and is separated from the yeast in a filter press. It is intensely bitter but adds very materially to the flavour of the flat, uninteresting storage vat beer.
  2. O.B.S.: old beer storage is old acid beer that, like barm beer, improves the flavour of the finished beer although it is itself very unpleasant.
  3. Drawing: these are residues of made up beer which was not bright enough to put into the trade without further treatment. It is exactly similar in composition to made up beer.
  4. Finings: this is a solution of isinglass in storage vat beer. Only minute traces of isinglass are required but it brings about the very rapid sedimentation of all the floating particles which make the beer cloudy.

All the constituents of the make up are pumped into a ‘Racking Vat’ together and there allowed to stand for 24-48 hours.

So, there you have it. We sort of knew the gist of this but this is the most explicit explanation of the process we’ve seen in writing from a primary source, we think.

Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing — Cheap, Fast, Fresh

This month’s host is Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter and he has asked us to tackle, in any way we like, the subject of farmhouse brewing.

We’ll begin this bit of pondering with an extract from an article in the Brewing Trade Review for June 1955 reporting on the collection of the Museum of English Rural Life of ‘absolute unit’ social media fame.

In the home brewing section a particularly interesting exhibit is the equipment from a Suffolk farmhouse where this once domestic art was practised as recently as 1934. Included is a mash tub, vat, stillions and a heavy old copper, the removal of which almost necessitated dismantling that part of the building in which it was houses. Other items allied to home brewing include examples of malt scoops from Suffolk and Berkshire, a Suffolk mash stirrer, a Berkshire horn mug and kegs of various size from Somerset, Essex and Worcestershire once used by farm labourers to carry their beer and cider into the fields, particularly at harvest time.

Insofar as we’ve given British farmhouse beer — or let’s say rural beer — a great deal of thought there’s a point hinted at here that rings true for us: we reckon it ought to be quickly, cheaply, easily made, and probably drunk very fresh, if not, indeed, while still fermenting.

That is, like ‘Cornish swanky’ which we wrote about for Beer Advocate a couple of years ago:

One particular set of instructions is repeated in various corners of the internet, usually verbatim, without any original source. The earliest version, posted on RootsWeb by someone called Jan Gluyas in May 1997, calls for boiling four pounds of brown sugar in five gallons of water for 45 minutes with hops, ground ginger, raisins and salt. It is to be fermented for around two days and then bottled with a single raisin in each bottle for priming.

Or, if you prefer pictures to words, along the lines of this ginger beer recipe from a strangely compelling YouTube channel which is part exploration of 18th century American cooking techniques, part advertising for a firm that sells historic kitchen equipment:

The Brewing Trade Review article gives details of the slightly larger scale, more elaborate communal brewing method of one Suffolk village via the testimony of an 81-year-old woman interviewed in 1950. Even that, though, was fermented for a maximum of a week before being drunk, although…

those who liked “young beer”, it seems — or who perhaps found seven days too long a wait to quench their impatient thirsts — often tapped the casks before the lapse of this period.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone making this kind of beer commercially viable in 2018 so these days farmhouse, as a label, must mean something else. Lars Marius Garshol may have it when he suggests that most commercial beers commonly labelled as ‘farmhouse’ are actually “farmhouse ales that have been imported into the world of commercial brewing, undergoing some changes on the way”.

Session #132: Home Brewing Conversations

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

This is our contribution to the monthly exercise in collective beer blogging which this time is hosted by Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site who asks us to reflect on home brewing.

We winced a bit at this one. Over the years we’ve written about why we love home brewing, why we stopped home brewing, and why we started again. But we haven’t brewed in ages, or felt the urgent drive to do so. Jon has prompted us to interrogate ourselves.

Question One: Why is the home brewing kit still in the attic six months after we moved to Bristol?

There are positive reasons. We’re in a new part of the world with limited time off work which we want to spend exploring, not watching a pot that never boils. We’ve been busy ticking pubs and getting to know the local breweries. And (this may or may not be positive depending on whether you believe it is the job of beer bloggers to sacrifice their health in the War on Prohibition) we don’t drink as much as we used to — we only need so much beer!

But there’s at least one poor excuse: we’re still sulking because the last few beers we made were duds. We read the books, we bought the apps, we procured the fanciest ingredients from the Malt Miller, and we sanitised everything within half a mile of our house. Twice. After all that, the beer was still basically crap — a bit rough, a bit acidic, a waste of time and money.

Homebrewing yeast, book, notes and bottle.

Question Two: So why bring the brewing kit at all?

We had limited space in the removals van and got rid of lots of stuff, including about 150 books, but for some reason we kept the boiler, the mash tun, and the thousand bits of easily lost copper and plastic. Clearly there is unfinished business. The itch lingers.

It might never get used again — there’s hardly a house in Britain that doesn’t have a load of dusty home-brew kit in the back of a cupboard — but it’s good to know it’s there.

If we find a particularly interesting recipe in the archives we can at least make a stab at brewing some version of it. (Our last really successful beer was a 19th century Whitbread pale ale from Ron Pattinson’s marvellous book which turned out funky and fascinating.) If we wake up one Saturday morning with the urge to brew we could be filling a fermenting vessel by teatime. (Bristol has actual bricks-and-mortar home-brewing shops.) And we sometimes daydream about using it to make some mad, strong, beastie-riddled keeping beer for mixing with stuff from the supermarket as we’ve done with Orval in the past.

Or maybe it’s just sentiment. You’d be surprised how many memories a plastic bucket can hold.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 30 December 2017: Helensburgh, Hammers, Home-brewing

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in this final week of 2017.

It’s been slim pickings with the Christmas break and the ubiquity of Golden Pints (check out the hashtag on Twitter) but we found a few things to chew on. First, there’s this stream of recollection by Peter McKerry at Brew Geekery which amounts to a tour of pubs that have meant the most to him over the years:

Then it was the Clyde Bar in Helensburgh, a well-healed town on the Clyde coast, during a prolonged period of unemployment in my early 20s. I’d drop in for a few Tennent’s on ‘Giro Day’, and it was here that I witnessed taxi driver and regular, Dermot, rescue eight pence from the trough WHILE I WAS URINATING IN IT. While that event is imprinted onto my mind (it was a 5p, 2p and a 1p), it gives a false impression of the pub. It was a great live music venue, and featured in a video from purveyors of beige jock rock, Travis, if such trivia interests you.

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