Artyfacts from the Nyneties #6: Beers of ’94

Sainsbury's Biere de Garde.
SOURCE: JS Journal Online (PDF).

Yesterday we stumbled upon a 2006 ‘top ten bottled British ales’ listicle by Pete Brown which we shared on Twitter, and which reminded us of something we found during research on Brew Britannia: a list of 101 bottled reviewed by Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s for an article in British tabloid the People in 1994.

It appeared in the Sunday edition for 21 August that year and offers an excellent snapshot of what was then readily available in British shops.

It’s from just the moment when Premium Bottled Ales were coming into existence in their almost-a-pint bottles and at around pub strength, shoving aside traditional half-pint brown and light ales.

There are some surprises but, generally, we think, it brings home how far things have come.

Jackson subscribed to the view that it was a waste of time to write bad reviews when you could focus on things you’d enjoyed but in this exercise was essentially forced to give a short note for each beer, some of which were uncharacteristically stinging.  Carlsberg Special Brew, for example, he found “sweet and yucky” and Scorpion Dry prompted him to ask: “Where’s the sting? More like cabbage water.”

On the whole, though, he remained quite gentle, even finding diplomatic words to say about some fairly bland lagers such as Rolling Rock with its touch of “new-mown hay”.

The asterisked beers are those he particularly recommended — quite a high bar, evidently.

Continue reading “Artyfacts from the Nyneties #6: Beers of ’94”

Two Jacksonian Scholars Debate NEIPA

In the imposing Inner Temple of Beer Writers’ Hall in the City of London two scholars sit beneath a vast portrait of the Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson, who died in 2007. They wear Guild robes and are surrounded by leather-bound volumes. A small group of acolytes sits nearby, waiting for the debate to begin. On her throne the Grand Imbiber, who everybody had thought asleep, clears her throat: “What might the Master–” She salutes the portrait of MBHJ, dipping her eyes respectfully. “–have made of this ‘NEIPA’, one wonders?” The scholars reflect for a moment and then open their books, scanning the pages with their fingers.

SCHOLAR #1
The NEIPA, or New England India Pale Ale, is defined by its haziness, is it not? And Jackson wrote, “The possibility of hazy beer is only one of the difficulties encountered when working with newly harvested barley and hops.” [1] If haze is characterised as a difficulty, we can conclude with certainty that NEIPA would displease him.

SCHOLAR #2
No. It is clear that his suggestion here was that haze would be a difficulty for those particular brewers, brewing that particular beer. Did he not also write of Cooper’s, the bottle-conditioned Australian pale ale, “Sparkling or opaque, It would enliven the most Boycottian innings”? And did he not also call it “a ‘wholefood’ of the beer world”? [2]

SCHOLAR #1
When reading the sacred texts we must always remember the Master’s love of irony. The passage you quote quietly mocks faddish young drinkers and their “more clumsy” pouring technique; it by no means marks approval of their preference. “Generally speaking, sedimented beers…. should be poured without the sediment”, he wrote on another occasion, when asked directly whether yeast should be mixed with beer. [3]

SCHOLAR #2
Again, you treat His words as a blunt tool. Who was more aware of the variations between beer styles, and beer cultures, than Jackson? He did not use the word “generally” carelessly — this was no commandment! He had no objection to cloudy or hazy beer in the right context — approving comments of German and Belgian wheat beers appears abound — but I will concede that a concern is evident in His words when describing the mingling of distinct beer cultures.

SCHOLAR #1
You refer, of course, to his comments on English cask wheat beers? [4]

SCHOLAR #2
Quite so. But he does not condemn or deny, only observes: “Doubt about the willingness of British drinkers to accept cloudy beer remains the biggest worry of brewers making this style.” He does not say that British-style beers ought to be clear, only that they generally are. This might be interpreted as a criticism, especially of older people, set in their ways — “the young, prefer the hazy versions of wheat beer”.

Illustration: Micheal Jackson peers from behind his glasses.

SCHOLAR #1
Or not. He was himself old when this was written and, as I have already pointed out, viewed the crazes of the young with scepticism. I detect nothing in his writing on Young’s Wheat Beer to suggest wholehearted delight and, indeed, detect between-the-lines a lack of faith in the very idea.

SCHOLAR #2
Ah, as so often he presents us with a mirror reflecting our own prejudices. We know, at least, that he believed it was possible for “yeast… to add a little texture, but no bite”. [5]

SCHOLAR #1
Though we are told the haze of an NEIPA is not generally the product of suspended yeast, but hop matter, aren’t we? Appearance aside, what of the flavour? He insisted, always, that India Pale Ale should be “above average in… hop bitterness”, but NEIPAs are characterised by low bitterness. This would have been a black mark against them in his eyes.

SCHOLAR #2
But NEIPA is not IPA. Perhaps he might have questioned the terminology, but that does not mean he would have disputed the right of the style to exist, or disliked the beers that fall within it. He preferred mango lassi to beer with curry, I mention as an aside [6], and once lauded a beer with elderflower essence. [7]

SCHOLAR #1
I contend that he was essentially conservative, nonetheless. When asked to choose his top ten American beers he picked pilsner, dortmunder, imperial stout, Belgian-style beers, steam beer… [8] He pleaded for authenticity in IPA and porter, not reinvention. When what might have been seen as new styles emerged, such as golden ale, he was able to embrace them only by connecting them to the traditions of the past. [9]

SCHOLAR #2
And yet he was among the first to notice and laud the extreme beers of Sam Calagione! [10]

SCHOLAR #1
Laud? Again I detect more interest then admiration in his words — the attitude of an observer at a circus freakshow.

The Grand Imbiber rises from the throne, staff aloft, and the scholars fall silent.

GRAND IMBIBER
I believe we have heard enough. Here is my judgement: there is nothing in his teachings to suggest that NEIPA would displease the Master, and much to suggest that it would have intrigued him. Whether it, or any individual example therein, would have delighted him, we cannot presume to say. Certainly the Master would never have publicly denounced NEIPA, even had he felt it in his heart, for first among his teachings was this: “If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do… If I despise a beer, why find room for it?” [11]

Exhibit 1: Winemaker magazine, December 1971

Amateur Winemaker, December 1971 -- bright orange cover design.

All of the memorialising last week on the tenth anniversary of the death of Michael ‘the Beer Hunter’ Jackson gave Alan McLeod an opportunity to revisit one of his favourite challenges to the consensus: was Jackson really more influential than, say, Dave Line?

We heard Alan when he made this point a few years ago which is partly why we spent time tracking down Mr Line’s widow, Sheila, and interviewing her for Brew Britannia, where we devoted several pages to profiling him. In a later article for CAMRA’s BEER magazine we reflected in more detail on his influence:

While Dave Line was making a name for himself as arguably the world’s foremost home brewing writer, elsewhere, what we now know as micro-breweries were popping up all across Britain. Most were founded by professionals who had previously worked for large companies such as Watney’s or Courage but a handful came from a home-brewing background and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have had what were then the definitive texts, Dave’s two books, at hand. Certainly Brendan Dobbin, who started home brewing as a student in Belfast in the late 1970s, began his career by working through the recipes in The Big Book of Brewing.

In America, where the ‘craft beer revolution’ was very much more driven by home brewers, Dave’s books were even more important. Jack McAuliffe, who founded New Albion Brewing in California in 1976, learned to brew from kits purchased at Boots in Glasgow while on naval service and has frequently cited Dave’s Big Book of Brewing as a key text. Other famous names from the first wave of American craft beer such as Greg Noonan, Dave Miller and Ken Grossman, the founder of Sierra Nevada, also mention The Big Book as a key text in their early development – worth remembering next time you hear an overly-simplified account of the influence of modern US brewing on the British scene.

One concrete example of Dave Line’s influence can be found in Scottish brewery Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, a ‘black ale’ at 4.5% ABV in cask. The brewery’s founder, Ken Brooker, conceived the beer using a Dave Line recipe as his starting point, as he told Michael Jackson in 2000.

So we certainly acknowledge Dave Line’s impact on a generation of home-brewers and, by extension, microbrewers, but maintain that Michael Jackson was (a) a better writer (a matter of opinion, of course) and (b) more influential in the broad sense in that he inspired brewers to look beyond basic domestic styles and to explore ‘world beer’. He also (c) basically invented the pattern for modern beer writing.

Last week, though, Alan clarified his argument helpfully:

No. As I said above, my question is the influence of AW group on early micro brewers, not about ‘modern beer writing style’

For some time he has been urging someone, anyone, to dig up the archives of Amateur Winemaker magazine (for which Line and other early home-brewing gurus wrote) and renewed his call. We asked (not snarkily, only to clarify the mission) what he expected or hoped to be found there:

Subscribers lists? Reading the columns to see what was discussed in the ecosystem before key dates? Who wrote letters to the editor?

All of this (as Alan’s hectoring often does) got us thinking — perhaps, even acknowledging Dave Line as we did, we’d still not given him and his colleagues their due. We tested the water by emailing another pioneering UK brewer, Sean Franklin. When we spoke to him back in 2013 he talked glowingly of Michael Jackson, at length, but didn’t mention Dave Line at all. But perhaps (as Alan suggested in another Tweet) that’s because we failed to prompt him. So we prompted him. He replied (this lightly edited):

Like all home-brewers, I looked at those books but for the main part my days at Bordeaux University put me further ahead. It was mostly malt extract in those days. I did a recipe from Dave Line’s book as one of my first beers – the first one was horrible (my fault for using an old can of extract) but the second was much better. Fuller’s ESB, as I remember. I’d worked in London so I knew what that tasted like. After that I switched to full mash.

We can’t make it to the British Library just now but we were prompted to order a couple of copies of Amateur Winemaker from the 1970s by way of test-drilling. One order fell through but the other worked out and a copy of Winemaker (the magazine’s actual title, it turns out) came through the door yesterday.

Ted Wade.

Here’s what it contains that strikes us as being of relevance to Alan’s argument:

  1. Some surprisingly sophisticated brewing kit advertisements listing specific varieties of hops, various types of malt and even odd additives such as licquorice sticks for livening up stout.
  2. Some debate over a then topical news story about a Glasgow home-brewer who may or may not have contracted ‘erosive gastritis’ from contaminated beer.
  3. A feature article by Ted Wade called ‘Designing a Beer’. This is a fairly sophisticated piece suggesting that, by 1971, home-brewers had already moved beyond plastic dustbins and gravy browning. Having said that, hops (he says) should smell hoppy, and that’s it. The accompanying recipe is for a Newcastle Brown Ale clone.
  4. A recipe for Wassail Bowl that includes three pints of brown ale.
  5. An article with another recipe for Wassail Bowl and several other seasonal beer punches.
  6. An article about the various risks of home beer- and wine-making (fines, children drinking your stash, etc.).
  7. A photograph of D. Haynes receiving a trophy for best bitter (light or dark) from the Romsey Winemakers Circle.
  8. Branch reports: mostly wine but a couple of mentions of beer, and of a trip to the Belgian beer festival at Wieze from the Basingstoke crew.
  9. An Index for 1971, reproduced in part below.
  10. An advert for Northern Brewer hops from ‘Wine and the People’, a firm based in Oakland, California.

The rest of the magazine (about 60 out of 84 pages) are about wine, as are all the readers letters.

Index for December 1971, beer section.

You’ll see from the index above that there’s not much that seems to herald the coming of the age of craft beer, but of course it’s hard to tell from only two or three words per article.

But 1971 is still early and there’s enough here to make us think it might at least be worth looking at issues from, say, 1974 (when CAMRA was making serious waves) and 1976 when Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer was still a work in progress.

It goes without saying that if you or any elderly relatives have copies of this magazine knocking around in the attic, we’d love to see scans or photos — do get in touch.

PS. The magazine also contains a letter from someone apologising for an anti-Semitic joke in a previous issue, but pointing out that he has many Jewish friends, and, anyway, as a Scot he has to put up with worse. Yikes!

Michael Jackson’s Writing for CAMRA 1977-1988

Like 80 per cent of those who write about beer in anything like a professional capacity, we’ve been commissioned to write a substantial piece about Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson as the tenth anniversary of his death approaches.

As part of that, we’ve been exchanging emails with Alan ‘A Good Beer Blog’ McLeod who is a noted Jackson sceptic. He habitually questions whether Mr Jackson’s influence was as great as the consensus would have it, and whether other influential writers (Richard Boston, Dave Line) aren’t being short-changed by Jackson’s elevation.

One specific question he put to us was this: what exactly was Jackson writing between the World Guide to Beer in 1977 and the next item on his Wikipedia bibliography, a 1986 pocket guide to beer? How could he be so influential with one book every ten years?

One answer is that that really is only a selected bibliography — we have a copy, for example, of the 1982 Pocket Guide to Beer, which is the one veteran brewers we have spoken to carried with them as they explored Europe and the US in the 1980s, and there were paperback reprints/revisions of the World Guide too.

But, as is often the case, Alan’s niggling has highlighted a real issue: the lack of a comprehensive list of Michael Jackson’s writing for magazines and newspapers which, of course, is ephemeral by nature.

For the sake of the collective brain, and also because it’s useful for our article, we agreed to make a start on a list of material published in the UK. We’ve started with the monthly column he wrote for CAMRA, a filleting of which is reproduced below with notes on the content of each article.

If you see anything there that might help with your research drop us an email (contact@boakandbailey.com) and we’ll be happy to provide more information.

The harder job, now, is tracking down the material he wrote for the national press in the same period. We have searched The Times and Guardian archives but if you have clippings, or perhaps have access to the Sunday Times archive online through your local library service, we’d welcome any tips.

Continue reading “Michael Jackson’s Writing for CAMRA 1977-1988”

Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

Continue reading “Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?”