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?

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Watch the 1989 Beer Hunter TV Series at Leeds Beer Week

Michael Jackson’s influential TV series about beer isn’t available commercially in the UK but several episodes are going to be shown next week in his native Yorkshire.

It’s being shown as part of Leeds Beer Week which runs from Sunday 28 August to Tuesday 6 September. We saw a Tweet about the Beer Hunter episodes from Sam Congdon (@greenarmysam) and asked him for a bit of background. Here’s what he sent us with a couple of small edits:

Like many others, I watched the Beer Hunter series when it was freely available on YouTube or Vimeo, with Dutch subtitles, about six years ago, and I loved it. It fitted in perfectly with where I was on my ‘beer journey’, after moving to Leeds from Plymouth and finding North Bar. I think I found it online after watching all the available Zak Avery video blogs about classic beers.

It’s probably best I don’t go into where I finally sourced copies of the six Beer Hunter episodes, but since then I can’t fault Channel Four for being so open and willing to let us use these episodes for the events. I needed the expertise of the Leeds Bicycle Film Club (who put on cinema events at The Reliance) to contact the right people and ask the right questions but all Channel Four want is a credit for them and the production company (Hawkshead Ltd) to be visible at the events.

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Talking About Beer Writing

Last Thursday, Bailey delivered a talk on beer writing from 1960 to the present to an audience made up of members of the Brewery History Society and the British Guild of Beer Writers.

A version of the slides will be appearing on the BHS/BGBW websites in the next few days, once we’ve had chance to make them presentable, but, in the meantime, here’s a précis.

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St Michael’s Canon #2: Ebulum

Ebulum: cap and book page.

It’s listed in our bible, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide (2000), so why have we never tried Williams Bros elderberry ale, Ebulum?

For one thing, their beers were rarely seen in London when we lived there. They would occasionally turn up in supermarkets, but we can’t remember ever seeing this particular brew in Sainsbury’s or elsewhere.

Then, not long after we started blogging in 2007, Williams Bros was one of the first breweries to attempt to send us some samples, but the postman apparently ‘misplaced’ them and they never arrived.

Perhaps it also got lost in the post-c.2005 ‘craft’ mania: it had the misfortune to be something other than an IPA.

In his GBG, Jackson promises it will be ‘slatey-black’, with ‘winey, rooty, licorice-like, slightly medicinal flavours’. That description brought to mind Riga black balsam, a potent, tar-like cough cure that Latvians drink for fun. That, perhaps, set us up to expect something more intense than we got.

We can confirm that, 15 years on, Ebulum remains black. Our first impressions on tasting, however, were of oily water. As it warmed up, the wine-like flavours promised by Jackson began to appear, but… it tasted like watered wine. We did start to detect a hint of Ribena, but perhaps that was the power of suggestion at work? A bit more concentration highlighted a sort of fruit leather character and some black treacle. Finally, in the last sips, something like juniper berry began to pop out.

Ultimately, we wanted something more from a strong elderberry ale — more obvious exoticism. It’s a perfectly acceptable porter-like beer, but could do with its fruitiness amping up, and perhaps some trickery to give it more body. As it is, we wouldn’t rush to drink it again.

Disclosure: we got our bottle of Ebulum in a case of samples sent by Williams Bros.

St Michael’s Canon #1: Mackeson

Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide (2000) was our bible when we first started to take an interest in beer, but, despite our best efforts, we didn’t get anywhere near tasting all 500 beers on his list.

Some had gone out of production by the time we got our hands on the book, while others were from far-flung corners of the world and unavailable in the UK. There were a handful, however, that we just skipped over out of snootiness, and in our haste to get to those big shouty IPAs and imperial stouts.

Now seems like a good time to go back and fill in a few embarrassing gaps in our knowledge, starting with a beer which played an important part in British beer history, and whose packaging is utterly iconic: Mackeson Stout.

It was one of the earliest ‘national brands’ in the 1950s and was the trojan horse with which Whitbread began the takeover of at least one smaller regional brewery. “Why bother brewing your own stout,” Whitbread seem to have suggested, “when you can stock this one which has the weight of national ad campaigns behind it?”

It was also one of the handful of beers from which American home brewers, via Jackson, spun out an entire ‘style’, and from which, therefore, almost every ‘craft beer’ calling itself a milk stout is descended.

In his GBG, Mr Jackson described it as ‘The world’s most widely known sweet stout’, and it was an assumption that it would be sickly that put us off trying it, despite an extremely enticing photograph and tasting notes which mention evaporated milk and coffee.

Mackeson Stout can.He enjoyed it at 3% ABV from a humble 275ml bottle and suggested that ‘with glitzier packaging it could be the beer world’s answer to Bailey’s’. It is now only available in cans at 2.8%; we got hold of a four-pack of 330ml cans for £3.97 from Tesco.

(A side note: canning was probably seen as taking the package further down market, and yet, with the current vogue for ‘craft beer’ in tins, it actually looks rather cool, especially with that bold, retro black and white design.)

In a suitably posh glass (we wanted to give it fighting chance) it was oil-black, but with yellow-brown highlights at the edges. The head looked paler than in the picture accompanying MJ’s notes but was still a pleasing shade of off-white. The aroma had an unfortunate hint of buttered popcorn and not much else.

We were, therefore, extremely pleasantly surprised by the taste — a sort of dry fireplace ashiness, wrapped up in a body that, while not ‘creamy’, did suggest a 4% beer rather than one flirting with low alcohol territory.

It didn’t seem remotely sweet, and certainly wasn’t sickly. The buttery note persisted, and we could have done without it, but it didn’t prevent us concluding that Mackeson remains a decent beer; that not many ‘craft beers’ at 2.8% are as enjoyable as this; and that we should have listened to Uncle Mike a decade ago.

We’ll certainly make a point of keeping some in the store cupboard from now on for school-night sipping, and mixing with other beers.