Beer styles

Old ale, strong ale and barley wine for April

Gold Label Barley Wine.

We decided to immerse ourselves in a single beer style for April and asked our Patreon subscribers to choose which one. They, the bastards, went for strong ale, barley wine, or old ale.

What this means in practice is that we’re going to make an effort to go to pubs where we think these styles will be on offer, rather than retreating to the safety of lager and bitter at our usual haunts, and will order them wherever available.

We’ve given ourselves plenty of room for manoeuvre: anything over 5.5% counts as ‘strong’; and if it’s badged as old ale, strong ale or barley wine, regardless of spec, it’s in scope.

But IPAs are out – this is all about the malt.

But its spring! you cry. Well, it’s raining right now, and it usually snows in April, so we’ll see who has the last laugh.

We’ll also be trying to read about these kinds of beers, perhaps putting together one of our virtual anthologies as we go.

What we’re hoping to achieve is:

  • understanding this style, or these styles, a bit better
  • trying some new beers
  • revisiting some old classics
  • finding at least one pub in Bristol that still sells Gold Label
  • resetting our ability to discern hops ready for when May rolls around.

Tips, ideas and suggestions welcome, and do feel free to join in.

Beer history

Bristol Lambic?

Beer maturing in vats.
George’s vats as pictured in the Illustrated London News in 1909.

Here’s a new question for us to chew on: was the ‘Old Beer’ for which George’s Bristol Brewery was famous up until World War II an early example of a wilfully sour British beer?

We’ve been reading bits and pieces about George’s here and there for the last few months, fascinated by the long-gone local giant which built so many of the most interesting pubs in Bristol. It was founded in around 1730, and acquired by Courage in 1961 after which, to all intents and purposes, the brand ceased to exist. For a large chunk of its existence, though, its flagship product was a notable vatted ale:

Georges’ Old Beer, famous throughout the West, is matured in huge vats, some of the largest in the Kingdom, with a total capacity of one million gallons. The beer remains in the vats for at least 12 months before it is allowed to go to the consumer. (One Hundred and Fifty Years of Brewing, 1938)

Other Bristol breweries, notably Rogers’ of Jacob Street, also produced vatted Bristol Old Beer. Martyn Cornell has written about West Country vatted ales on his blog and in his essential 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black (disclosure: he sent us a freebie PDF at the time) and gives a useful summary of the tech spec:

Brewing of these West Country vatted ales always began in the autumn, using a mixture of old and new malts, often a ‘high-dried’ English malt with plenty of colour mixed with a mild ale malt. The Brewers’ Journal in 1936 was advising that such strong stock ales ‘of 30lb gravity and upwards’ (that is, OGs of around 1085 or more) should go through two or three secondary fermentations in cask before being bottled after nine or twelve months not fully worked out, but still ‘in slight “creamy” condition’.

What really grabbed our attention, though, was a description of George’s Old Beer in a 1943 article about the brewery in a technical journal (PDF):

The brewery was famed in early days for Porter, hence its early title ‘The Bristol Porter Brewery’. Afterwards ‘Old beer’ became one of the main products, and many vats of considerably over 1,600 barrels’ capacity were in use for storing the heavy beer for at least 18 months, the competition with cider no doubt influenced the character of this old beer.

This blew our minds a little.

We’ve long been fascinated by the similarity between the wilder Somerset ciders and Belgian lambic beers but this is the first time we’ve seen it suggested that the cider-friendly West Country palate might have influence how the local beer tasted. It’s certainly plausible, though, that drinkers used to the intensity of scrumpy might find fresh, bright, clean-tasting ales just a bit bland.

Now, at this stage, of course we still have a lot of questions to answer:

  1. Did cider in 1943 taste like cider does now? (We can’t see that it tasted less sour or funky.)
  2. When this writer implies Old Beer was equivalent to cider, does he mean that it tasted like cider (actually acidic and wild) or only that it was similar in some other way? E.g. relatively strong, or differently complex as a result of Brettanomyces, or merely very dry. A 1909 article in the London Illustrated News describes it as having ‘depth and mellowness’ which doesn’t sound much like cider.
  3. What happened to the vats; when did Old Beer go out of production; and did drinkers in Bristol suddenly acquire the taste for ‘normal’ beer? (Guess: the Blitz; the war; no. But we’ll see.)

In the meantime, there’s an idea for some more sacrilegious beer mixing here: three parts old ale, one part scrumpy anyone?

Psst! Don’t forget to enter our competition if you want to win copies of 20th Century Pub and Brew Britannia.

Beer history bottled beer

Limited Edition Beer Madness, 1968

In 1968, the Observer‘s wine critic Cyril Ray wrote about an exciting new limited edition beer, Eldridge Pope’s Thomas Hardy Ale.

The headline was A POUND A PINT, with an exclamation mark implied:

[Its] high strength caused loss from excessive frothing during fermentation, and this, together with the extra duty and long maturing in oak, is why it costs £1 a pint. I have bought some myself to put away — it will pay for keeping — and there may still be some left, in pints, half-pints or nips, at pubs and off-licences in the Hardy country…. Supplies, though, are limited, and I do not suppose that this remarkable beer will be brewed again — not yet awhile, anyway.

Along with the Coronation beers we wrote about here, this has to be one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon, and that’s certainly one of the earliest instances we’ve come across of a wince-inducingly high price (about £16 in today’s money) being justified by reference to the costs of manufacturing, the difficulties of a limited run, and so on.

It would be interesting to know whether the board at Eldridge Pope ever considered absorbing the costs and selling at a more reasonable price given that this was essentially a one-off marketing exercise.

In the same article, Mr Ray also made a recommendation for ‘amateurs of strong beer’ with less cash to splash: Tennant’s Gold Label, which he says is ‘lighter in colour and crisper in style’ but

one must not be deceived: the under-taste is rich and full, and the six-ounce nip packs the punch of two and a half whiskies.

The article appeared in the 14 July edition of the Observer if you want to read the whole thing, though it is only short.

Main image adapted from ‘Thomas Hardy’s Ale’ by Bernt Rostad from Flickr under Creative Commons.

Beer history

Sucker juice of 1953

The Queen, 1953.
“One would like to get a round in — who’s having what? And four bags of scratchings, two dry-roasted and a couple of pickled eggs?”

On 25 November 1952, the following story ran in the Guardian:

There is to be a special strong beer for the Coronation, it was announced by Mr F.J. Bearman, chairman of the panel of beer judges at the Brewery and Allied Traders Exhibition… ‘Almost every brewery in the country is brewing a Coronation beer. Its gravity will be about .60 compared with .33 for the average beer to-day,’ he said… The Coronation beer will be bottled and… cost about 2s 6d a nip bottle.

There were outraged responses to this news from both puritans — ‘The brewers are assuming that the British people will need double-strength beer… to celebrate the Queen’s solemn act of dedication to the service of God’ — and presumably from drinkers, as the brewers were accused of profiteering from the Coronation.

The Brewers’ Society stated yesterday: ‘Any suggestion that brewery companies will be making big profits from Coronation ales is completely unwarranted. These special brews are uneconomic to produce. They involve changes in the brewery routine, special labels, and sometimes special bottles… The demand for them is very difficult to predict. The purpose in brewing them is to give people something special in which to drink the Queen’s health.’ (Guardian, 4 December 1952.)

Several months later, the brewers were fully on the back foot, and having to explain why they wouldn’t be giving away free beer in their pubs on Coronation Day: ‘What brewers have to pay in tax alone out of sums for licensed house improvement would pay for seven or eight pints of free beer for every adult in the country’. The same Brewers’ Society spokesman also pointed out how difficult a ‘free beer’ scheme would be to administer: some drinkers might be tempted to claim six free pints in one pub, then move on to another and start afresh, and then another… (Guardian, 21 May 1953.)

Today, brewers are still asked to defend the prices of their limited edition, specially packaged, ‘event’ beers, and they still rely on similar sounding arguments.

Beer history Beer styles

Beer Labels are not History Lessons

We’ve talked before about how certain beer descriptors have more than one equally correct meaning depending on context. Most recently, the issue arose again in a conversation about old ale and barley wine.

Those two styles, says Martyn Cornell, are not all that easily distinguished. One contributor thought he’d cracked it, however, when he pointed out that Adnams Old Ale (dark, 4.1%) bears no resemblance whatsoever to, say, Fuller’s Golden Pride (dark amber, 8.5%).

The problem is that Adnams Old Ale is the exact opposite: a mild.

Brewers can call their beers whatever they like. What’s written on the label or pumpclip of a beer today is rarely any help in understanding a beer bearing the same descriptor a hundred years ago. In fact, they can be downright confusing.

Historical (19th c.) Common understanding (what it’s come to mean) US homebrew judging guidance
Old Ale
The aged version of a beer also sold fresh (mild). Possibly strong, but not necessarily (see above): something a bit special; “warming”. Sherry/port flavours, usually dark, 6-9% abv.