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.

Bits of Yolk From the Pickled Egg Jar

Detail of the cover of 'More About Inn Signs'.
Detail of the cover of ‘More About Inn Signs’, kindly scanned for us by Mark Landells.

Here are a few things we’ve spotted around and about that prompted a thought or two.

1. This interview with James Watt from the Daily Mail contains the most concise summary yet of the contradiction at the heart of Brewdog: ‘behind all the anarchy there’s a very stable profitable company’, he says. They’re KER-azy, but also very sensible; anti-corporate, but also… really corporate. What a balancing act.

2. Has anyone ever published a book of Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s columns for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing? If not, they should. Here he is talking ‘big picture’ in May 1985:

For consumers who wanted a beer of some character, real ale was shown to be more satisfactory than keg bitter. On the other hand, keg was also unsatisfactory to drinkers who wanted a bright, refreshing beer. They eventually defected to bland lagers… The real ale movement may, in fact, have encouraged a polarisation of public taste in beer… [At one end of the market] there is a growth in interest in products of quality, character and tradition, and at the other end… a demand for bland, light flavours; the middle ground is vanishing.

3. There’s been a flare-up in attempts to define ‘craft beer’. Here’s ‘Hardknott’ Dave Bailey’s take on the efforts of one drinks industry consultancy firm to pin down a working definition; and here’s Max Pivni Filosof Bahnson (via Lars Marius Garshol) with a very hard-line approach. CGA’s effort would benefit from the expertise of, say, Pete Brown; and Max’s reminds us of something David ‘Firkin’ Bruce said:

[At H.G. Simonds in Reading] it was… real ‘craft brewing, not in the current American sense. I was a wooden spoon brewer. I’d never get a job as a ‘proper’ brewer, in a ‘proper brewery, because they only wanted Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt microbiologists, but I could certainly brew. 

4. Beyond the blog, we’ve posted a few new things on Facebook, such as this small gallery of images of Dirty Dick’s on Bishopsgate in London (apostrophe important…); and, on Twitter, people seemed to find this interesting.

The Myth of the Authentic IPA

From an advertisement for Whitbread IPA, 1935.
From an advertisement for Whitbread IPA, 1935.PA

Modern beer historians have done some wonderful work challenging myths about India Pale Ale. The one we’re interested right now is this, as expressed by Martyn Cornell in a post which then demolishes it:

North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.

How did that belief arise? What was going on in the world of beer to convince everyone (including us) that, if a beer wasn’t strong and aromatic, it wasn’t a ‘real’ IPA? Here are four possible contributions to the development of that myth.

1. The Durden Park Beer Circle published, Old British Beers and How to Make Them, an influential collection of historic recipes, in 1976. We haven’t got our hands on an original edition but our 2003 reprint contains this on Hodgson’s India Pale Ale

…had an OG over 70, a hop rate of 2.5 oz per gallon… [and was] carefully primed and dry hopped before despatch to India. Fully matured by the tropical heat, India ale had a hop nose, full flavour and the luscious taste that only comes with an initially over-hopped ale that has fully matured.

2. Anchor Liberty, first brewed in 1975 using tons of the then new Cascade hop, was ‘inspired’ by the British practice of dry hopping, and its strength was similar to that of early nineteenth-century British IPAs. The brewery was old; their Steam Beer was a survivor of an earlier age; the beer had a faux-vintage label; and was brewed to commemorate American independence. All of that, perhaps, added up to a sense of historical authenticity it didn’t exactly deserve.

3. Though he barely mentioned IPA in his 1977 World Guide to Beer, Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s 1982 Pocket Guide (the one most people we’ve spoken to actually owned, because it was smaller and cheaper) describes the intensely bitter, hop-aromatic Ballantine’s IPA as a survivor of an earlier age of American brewing, descended from nineteenth-century British beers. It’s easy to see how this might have developed into the myth of the ‘more authentic American IPA’.

4. In 1993, at the request of Mark Dorber of the White Horse in West London, Bass brewed an IPA to a historic recipe. It was c.6.5% ABV with 84 units of bitterness, according to a contemporary Guardian article by Roger Protz (4/9/1993): ‘it’s like putting your head inside a sack of hops fresh from Kent. The aroma is pungent, spicy, peppery and resiny, and the hops dominate the palate and the finish as well.’

5. The excitement around the recreated Bass IPA, and the White Horse festival it was brewed for, triggered a brief historical IPA mania. Robin Young of The Times described IPAs brewed to nineteenth-century recipes as ‘the special fad’ of the 1994 Great British Beer Festival; and the 1995 Good Beer Guide reports on the preceding year’s ‘IPA fever’. The emphasis in most reports was on the authenticity and hop ‘oomph’ of these brews compared to supposedly ‘Bowdlerized’ modern IPAs.

Anyone else have any suggestions? Is there a c.1980 US home brewing text, perhaps, that makes the claim?

UPDATE: we have an answer, we think. Roger Protz’s 2001 book India Pale Ale (written with Clive Le Pensée) includes a detailed account of how IPA was ‘revived’ in the nineties, beginning with a seminar at the White Horse in 1990, followed up in 1994. There is much talk of Bowdlerizing and ‘true IPA’, and reports of a trans-Atlantic agreement on the bare minimum spec for an IPA: 5.5% ABV, 40 units of bitterness.

The Meaning of Ale

Sign for zum Uerige, Duesseldorf, Germany.

In 1977, beer writer Michael Jackson, choosing his words carefully, said this in his World Guide to Beer:

Although its palate is emphatically German, Altbier is not dissimilar in style from the British and North American ales, and it even more clearly resembles Belgian top-fermented beers like the Antwerp De Koninck brew.

Not dissimilar, resembles… what he doesn’t say is that Alt or Belgian top-fermented beers are ales — only that some top-fermentated beers share certain characteristics. He doesn’t use the word ‘ale’ at all when discussing Kölsch in the same book. It’s a way of helping people who’ve never been to Düsseldorf or tasted Alt to understand what to expect, and also perhaps to make a point about the influence of yeast.

A year later, however, Michael Dunn, in his Penguin Guide to Real Draught Beer, which lists Jackson’s book in its very short bibliography, presented this over-simplification of the same idea:

Even though we do not have real lager in Britain, excellent real draught beer is obtainable on the continent — there are, for example, the alt beers of Düsseldorf, the Belgian trappiste beers, and kölsch [sic] beers from Cologne — but these are top-fermented ales and not lagers.

Dunn, elected to CAMRA’s national executive in 1976, had an axe to grind: if the best beer is ale, in the sense applied by CAMRA after 1971, then foreign beers which could be described as such were more easily accepted into the fold.

But how many others at this time misread and/or misrepresented Jackson in the same way? Are people cribbing from him, but lacking his subtlety, to blame for the irritating tendency to call anything top-fermented, from whatever culture, ‘ale’? As German beer blogger Felix vom Endt put it in a recent discussion on Twitter: ‘Altbier = Altbier and Kölsch = Kölsch .. You don’t translate it’.