Obadiah Poundage: instructive, refreshingly accessible

American brewery Goose Island has collaborated with beer historian Ron Pattinson, veteran London brewer Derek Prentice and the Wimbledon Brewery to produce what it reckons is the most accurate recreation of a 19th century London porter yet.

We’ve known this beer was in the pipeline for a while, not least because Goose Island’s Mike Siegel emailed us back in February asking for help finding an illustration of porter vats to be used in the promo video.

As with the stock ale produced by the same team a few years back, we were excited to try it and kept a close eye on the news. When Mike emailed last week to say it was on sale via Beer Hawk, we snapped up three 500ml bottles at £8 each, plus postage.

A quick note: Goose Island is owned by AB-InBev; so is Beer Hawk. That, along with the price, might give some principled beer geeks reason to hold off. And, further disclosure: we’ve corresponded with Mike Siegel on and off for years, we know Ron Pattinson fairly well, and someone from Beer Hawk subscribes to our Patreon.

For our part, we don’t draw a hard line re: AB and would point to this as an example of where the resources big beer is able to bring to the table pays off for curious consumers. That’s a thought echoed by Ron Pattinson in an email responding to a question from us – why work with Goose Island?

A totally honest assessment is: because they pay me cash money and pay for a load of travel. Financially, it’s one of the few collaborations that make any sense for me. It’s also a case of them being able to afford what are very expensive projects with little chance of making much of a profit on the beer. I’m pretty sure they lost money on Brewery Yard. We’ve been collaborating for about five years and have only managed two beers so far. Most small breweries couldn’t justify the effort and time for pretty much no financial return… In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air working with a large brewery. They expect to have to pay for my services. Something smaller brewers often neglect… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very good experiences with some very small breweries. Pretty Things and Zebulon, for example. Others really take the piss.

In this case, those resources paid for authentic brown malt kilned over hornbeam wood by Valley Malt of Massachusetts, and the wherewithal to age for a year one of the two beers blended to create the final product.

After all that effort, it only seemed fair to drink it from the oldest beer glass in the cupboard, c.1930s, and to give it our full attention.

It had fairly high carbonation but certainly not any ‘fizz’ and gave off a musty, leathery stink immediately on opening. It was deep red rather than black.

First gulps, dominated by the funky aroma of Brettanomyces, revealed a lighter body than many modern porters, despite the 6.3% alcohol by volume, and a distinct dryness.

First reactions: Ray liked it, Jess didn’t.

“Tastes like Bretted water,” was her gut response.

Ray found more to enjoy, picking up on a sort of nutmeg spiciness and more tobacco and leather.

The key takeaway, if we accept the authenticity of this recreation, is that 19th century porter wasn’t as madly challenging as we might sometimes imagine. It was an everyday drink, not an ‘extreme beer’.

As long as you’re somewhat used to Brettanomyces, it’s a refreshing, lively, fairly easy-drinking beer – not sour, heavy or sickly.

If you’re interested in historic beer, you will want to try it if you can. Having said that, we reckon you could get about 90% of the way there by blending your favourite strong porter with Orval.

What we’d really like is for other brewers to taste this and think, oh, easy – I can do that. We’d be delighted to come across more dark beers with Brettanomyces, historically accurate or not, especially if they were presented without hoo-ha, by the pint, in normal pubs.

Kenton’s Secret Preparation for Export Porter

“The Crown and Magpie Tavern had, besides its wine trade, been long noted for the exportation of beer to the East and West Indies; the principal being in the possession of a secret preparation, which prevented the too great fermentation of malt liquor in warm climates, consequently it rendered the liquor more palatable and estimable.”

This passage comes from a reference book called the Biographia Curiosa published in London in 1827 and refers to a noted publican, Benjamin Kenton.

We came across it in A Scrapbook of Inns, a compilation of pub-related snippets from 1949, but the full original text is here.

The story is that Kenton, born 1719, grew up in Whitechapel in the East End of London and at 14 became an apprentice at the Old Angel and Crown near Goulston Street. Excelling as an apprentice, he became a barman-waiter, before defecting to another nearby pub, the Crown and Magpie.

Here’s the Curiosa bit, we suppose: the landlord of the C&M, Kenton’s boss, had taken the magpie off the sign, after which point the export beer suddenly lost its magic quality. Only when he died and Kenton, taking over the pub, put the magpie back on the sign did it return to its former excellence.

Kenton ran the C&M until around 1780 when he retired from the trade, though he kept up the wholesale business from a premises in the Minories. He outlived his children, and all other relations, and died in 1800, worth £300,000 – about £25m in today’s money.

The good news is, we don’t need to rely on this one after-the-fact source for information on Benjamin Kenton and his excellent export beer because Alan McLeod has already compiled a slew of contemporary references from an American colonial perspective. Kenton’s name was apparently a valued brand – a mark of quality worth mentioning in advertisements for imported British beer that appeared in newspapers in New York City in the late 18th century. Here’s a passing mention from a 1787 book, as quoted by Alan:

On taking leave he invited me to dine with him the following day, at his plantation, where I was regaled in a most luxurious manner; the turtle was superior to any ever served on a lord mayor’s table; the’oranges and pine-apples were of the highest flavour; Ben Kenton’s porter sparkled like champaign, and excellent claret and Madeira crowned the feast.

Which brings us back to the main question: what was the trick to the superior quality of the export beer from the Magpie and Crown, which Ben Kenton inherited and made his name from?

In his 1959 academic masterwork The Brewing Industry in Britain 1700-1830 Peter Matthias gives a straightforward explanation:

Benjamin Wilson and Samuel Allsopp often advised customers to bottle the ale which they wanted to survive into the summer, leaving the bottles uncorked for a time to allow the ale to get flat. This was exactly the procedure adopted by a London wine merchant, Kenton, who is said to have first shipped porter successfully to the East Indies. Once ‘flat’, it was corked and sealed so that the secondary and tertiary fermentation on the voyage brought it up to the necessary state of ‘briskness’ by the time it reached India.

We bet that beer was pretty funky by the time it reached its final destination.

Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900-1959 — The Rise of Mild

While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub (please buy a copy) is beer.

It’s absence was the result of having only 80,000 words to play with, and having already written an entire book focusing on beer and brewing covering a big chunk of the same period.

Also, we rather defer to Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson in this territory. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be surprised if one or both of them don’t pop up with corrections in the comments below.)

Still, there’s something fun about the idea of mapping one project against the other, especially if it’s an opportunity to try something creative.


At this point we’d like to thank  Patreon supporters like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tucker for giving us the impetus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entirely sensible working on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!


This piece generalises by necessity: of course there were regional variations, and individual pubs which didn’t follow the pattern, and breweries that bucked trends. Having said that, by the turn of the century, regional differences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of standard-setting national brands such as Bass and Guinness, Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson have argued, so generalising about this period isn’t entirely inappropriate.

So, here it is: a timeline of beer in English pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quotations, facts and numbers along the way.

Continue reading “Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900-1959 — The Rise of Mild”

Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles

Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.

In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…

A graph showing beers clustered around the same bitterness and colour.

… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:

Style No. Brands Colour Min-Max Bitterness Min-Max
Light Mild 5 43
(44)
15-29
(39-47)
23
(21)
15-29
(21-23)
Dark Mild 12 117
(94)
64-223
(39-223)
22
(21)
13-28
(12-28)
Bitter 27 25
(27)
15-66
(16-38)
25
(25)
18-39
(9-48)
Best Bitter 19 28
(27)
13-71
(13-65)
28
(30)
22-43
(16-52)
Strong Bitter 16 33
(33)
16-49
(10-109)
33
(30)
21-37
(20-52)
Porter 6 150
(157)
69-305
(97-249)
30
(36)
21-37
(18-45)
Old Ale 4 64
(95)
48-75
(27-114)
28
(28)
25-31
(18-45)

These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995-96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.

They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…

[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006.  However, when considered overall some differences are evident.  Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average.  This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker.  More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness.  While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%.  This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts.  In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter…. It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving.  The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.

It also comes with a useful infographic (believe it or not such things do exist) from which we’ve snipped these details:

There’s lots of interesting stuff to chew on there:

  • What’s the difference between porter and stout? Nothing, says history. About 15 points in colour and 7 points of bitterness, say these real world observations.
  • Dark mild has got more bitter since 1995-96… or is it just that the more bitter, characterful examples have proven resilient during the ongoing extinction event?
  • What’s the difference between old ale and barley wine? Not much, says history. About 65 points in colour and six or seven points of bitterness, sez this.

The Great Porter Flood of 2017

At some point in the last year a memo must have gone round all the traditional-regional-family brewers: let’s brew porter!

So far this year we’ve noticed new ones from:

And that’s before we get into debatable cases such as the revived Truman’s which has a vanilla porter in development.

Have we missed any others?

We’d guess this has been enabled by the trend for small pilot plants which enable large breweries, otherwise equipped to turn out tankerloads of one or two flagship beers, to produce styles with less mainstream appeal on the side. For a long time this was often cited as the reason for the lack of dark beers — they don’t sell enough to warrant a full brew — so this might also bode well for other marginal styles such as mild.

We’re also firmly of the view that porter is a more dignified way of meeting the current demand for novelty and variety than disappointing cod-American IPAs, or beers that are supposed to taste of Tequila.

Whatever the reasons and motives we’d be quite happy if October-December became a sort of semi-official porter season across the country. Imagine knowing that you could walk into almost any halfway decent pub and find porter on draught — imagine!

Plum Porter: Dividing Opinion

A plum.

We were a bit excited to come across Titanic Plum Porter in the pub last night, a beer many people worship and others despise.

We can’t say we’ve drunk it often enough to form a really solid view on how it is meant to be but have always enjoyed it. The first time we recall encountering it (that is, when we were paying attention) was at the Castle Hotel in Manchester where it struck us a heavy, rich porter with a fruity twist. At the Wellington in Bristol it seemed lighter in both colour and body and more like a British answer to a Belgian kriek or framboise — tart, and dominated by the hot crumble flavours of bruised fruit. Even at five quid a pint (yikes!) we had to stop for a second round.

When we Tweeted about it, acknowledging what we understood to be its mixed reputation, here’s some of what people said in response:

  • “When it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Consistency seems dubious.” — @olliedearn
  • “WHAT?! In what world is it divide opinion? Everyone I know loves it.” — @Jon_BOA
  • “My bete noire, was always dubious about it (even though I love other Titanic brews) – perhaps I need to revisit…” — @beertoday
  • “Having lived in Stoke + covered the Potteries beer scene I’d say it’s a good advert (flagship, I dare say!) for local beers, despite flaws.” — @LiamapBarnes

So, pretty balanced, from Ugh! to Wow!

Over the years we’ve seen yet harsher comments, though, some of which struck us as more about Titanic’s place on the scene than about this beer in particular. In general, we find Titanic’s beer rather middling — not bad, not great — but it is nonetheless a major presence in the Midlands and North West, and on supermarket shelves nationwide, and ubiquity breeds contempt. For some time, too, its owner Keith Bott was chairman of increasingly controversial industry body SIBA, so perhaps the beer tastes a bit of politics, the nastiest off-flavour of all.

This made us think about other beers that strike us as fundamentally decent but whose reputations might be similarly weighed down. Copper Dragon Golden Pippin, for example, is a beer we’ve always enjoyed — good value, straightforward, but with a bit more peachy zing than some others in the same category. When we expressed this enthusiasm a while ago, though, there seemed to be a suggestion that we shouldn’t enjoy it because the brewery has engaged in some complicated and newsworthy business practices.

And St Austell Tribute is a beer we’ll always stick up for. At the Nags Head in Walthamstow c.2009 we drank tons of it and found it every bit as good as, almost interchangeable with, the exemplary Timothy Taylor Landlord sold in the same pub. (Further reading: ‘The Landlord Test’.) But these days, even though Tribute is probably  better than its ever been in technical terms, it elicits groans from many enthusiasts. That’s because it’s become one of those beers you find in pubs that aren’t very interested in beer, pushed into the wrong bits of the country by keen sales teams and big distribution deals; and on trains, in hotel bars, under random rocks you pick up deep in the woods, and so on. That in-your-face national presence is not only annoying in its own right but also makes it harder to find a pint that has truly been cared for. But, as a beer, on its own terms… It can still taste great, and interesting with it.

The flipside of all this, of course, is that some mediocre or even bad beers get a free pass because the people that make them are good eggs, or underdogs, or have a good story to tell; or because they’re scarce, so that nobody ever really gets to know them, and is too excited when they do find them in the wild to be objectively critical.

It’s impossible to be objective, obviously, but it’s good to try — to attempt to blank out everything else and have a moment where it’s just you and the beer.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 September 2017: Pasteur, Porter, Pubcos

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in writing about beer and pubs in the last week, from ladylike behaviour to label design.

First up, something funny, in the form of a post from Kirst Walker who explains the limits within which she, a delicate lady, likes beer:

In all honesty, I have never been tempted to try any beer which strays past the golden and into the brown. I feel that a beer in one of the more masculine shades, for example a coal black stout or a cigarillo coloured bitter, would really be a step too far for a lady. I find that many hostelries now supply a tiny mason jar in front of the pump which displays the colour of the beer, which has been a tremendous help to me. I carry with me in my handbag a Dulux paint chart, which I hold against these tiny jars to make my selection. Once a beer passes Lemon Punch and heads towards Hazelnut Truffle, it’s off the menu!


Louis Pasteur
Detail from a public domain image restored by Nadar, via Wikimedia Commons.

Your history lesson for today: Lars Marius Garshol has unpicked exactly what Louis Pasteur contributed to brewing which is, actually, not much:

Pasteur’s work was of tremendous theoretical importance, but had limited practical use. It showed the importance of hygiene, of course, but brewers were already aware of that. Using acid to clean the yeast of bacteria was useful, but often when the yeast turned bad the problem was not bacteria, and Pasteur had no solution to this problem… The main thing Pasteur did for breweries was to show them how they could use the tools and methods of microbiologists to get better control over and understanding of their own brewing. In the years after the publication of ‘Studies on beer’ a number of breweries invested in laboratories with microscopes, swan-neck bottles, and all the other equipment Pasteur used.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 9 September 2017: Pasteur, Porter, Pubcos”

Magical Mystery Pour #26: Colchester Brewery Brazilian

The second Essex beer from a set chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer is a coffee and vanilla porter at 4.6% ABV.

We got it from Essex Food at £3.00 per 330ml bottle. Justin says:

Colchester Brewery use the ‘double drop’ method, where primary fermentation takes place in one vessel before being ‘dropped’ under gravity to a secondary fermentation vessel below, in the brewing of all their beers. Their Brazilian, with its label resembling that of a high street coffee chain (pure coincidence) is brewed using Brazilian coffee and fresh vanilla pods and is a beer that I’d quite happily end a meal with, having done so on numerous occasions.

We have mixed feelings about coffee beers. Too often they end up tasting sickly and fake — more like coffee cream chocolates, or coffee cake, than the real thing. Or, when they avoid that fate, they can instead end up too serious, harsh and headache-inducing. And of course there’s the novelty factor — is it a stunt, or a proper beer? Our gut feeling is that proper beers suggest coffee without just adding it to the brew.

In this case, too, the Starbucks-inspired branding didn’t fill us with hope. It’s such an obvious joke, a cheap shot, that it made us think somewhat ill of the beer from the off.

Colchester Brazilian porter in a beer glass.

On opening we felt yet more concerned. We’ve popped the caps on enough bottles over the years to almost be able to feel the character of the beer from the way it feels and sounds at that point. This felt flat and dead. It looked lifeless as it went into the glass, too, although as it settled a thin tan head did emerge like some kind of magic trick. It also kicked out a substantial drifting aroma of bottled baking essences.

And yet, for all those danger signs, we really liked this beer. The coffee character was fun rather than tacky and well balanced by the underlying beer — a bitter, light-bodied, uncompromising porter that we’d like to try neat by the pint sometime. It wasn’t at all sickly — it suggested sweetness without actually having much sugar left in it — the suggestive powers of vanilla, we suppose. What it reminded us of in spirit was those fancily-packaged single-estate chocolate bars with, say, baobab, that they sell in the Eden Project gift shop. It was intense without being po-faced about it.

What really sealed the deal was when we thought to check the ABV. We’d been assuming it was something like 6% — suggested by the bottle size, perhaps? — and were delighted to discover that so much flavour was being dished up in such a moderately alcoholic package.

We’d definitely buy this again and (based on this one encounter) would recommend it over some much trendier, more trendily packaged coffee stouts/porters we’ve encountered.

The brewery has a large range of special beers including lots of historically-inspired recipes — we’ll be looking out for them on our travels.

The A-Team

Illustration: the A-Team.

Without quite meaning to we’ve acquired some habits — a line-up of bottled beers that we always have in the cupboard or fridge.

What follows is probably as near as you’ll ever get from us to an X Beers Before You Y list.

Bitter (pale ale) or pale and hoppy session beers we tend to drink in the pub. We’re spoiled for choice, really, even in Penzance, and even more so if we take the bus out to the Star at Crowlas. Still, it’s worth saying that St Austell Proper Job is our default pub drink these days. It’s for the more unusual styles that we resort to bottles.

Anchor Porter from the US which goes at around £2-3 per 355ml bottle in the UK is our go-to beer in the stout family. We arrived at this decision after proper testing. When the urge for a dark beer that really tastes dark overcomes us, this is the one we reach for, knowing it will be great every time.

There are lots of great Belgian beers but one that never gets boring, because it’s the best beer in the world, is Westmalle Tripel. There are always a couple of bottles of this in every order we place.

Orval is our favourite example of… Orval. We went from being sceptical to puzzled to devotees over the course of a couple of years. We love it in its own right — it’s always different, yet somehow the same — but we also like to play with it. It’s our house stock ale if you like.

We don’t often need a stout more robust than Anchor Porter but when we do it’s Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout. It tastes its strength, coats the tongue, and comes with a tractor-trailer of funky weirdness that really does ensure a single glass can last all evening. One case every other year seems to do the job, though.

This is both our most boring choice and likely to be most controversial: we’ve yet to find a flowery, aromatic American-style IPA that is better value or more reliably enjoyable than BrewDog Punk. Every time we open a bottle or can we say, ‘Wow!’ which is exactly what we want from this kind of beer. Nine times out of ten Proper Job at the Yacht Inn is all the hops we need but this is the one we keep at home when our blood-humulone levels drop to dangerously low levels.

When we want something sour and refreshing we consistently turn to Magic Rock Salty Kiss. It’s not overly strong, not overly acidic, and is just the right kind of acidic for us, too. (But we won’t say too much — it’s coming up in the current round of Magical Mystery Pour.)

But there are still vacancies — styles where we play the field. When it comes to lager, we currently cycle through St Austell Korev (great value, easy to find), Thornbridge Tzara (yes, we know, not technically a lager, but technically brilliant) and Schlenkerla Helles (the smoke is just enough of a twist to keep us excited). Even though we tasted a load of them we still don’t have a bottled mild we feel the need to have permanently at hand — it’s a pub beer, really. We tend to buy Saison Dupont or BrewDog Electric India but that’s not a lock — we’re still actively auditioning others and saison isn’t something we drink every week. When we get the urge to drink wheat beer, we’re still happy with Hoegaarden, and most German brands do what they need to do, so we just pop to the shops.

So, that’s us. A tendency to conservatism, to the safe option, and to the familiar. (Which is, of course, what Magical Mystery Pour is intended to counter.)

But what about you — do you have any go-to beers? What are they? Or does the whole idea of drinking the same beers over and again just bore you to death?

Magical Mystery Pour #18: Wold Top Marmalade Porter

This is the last of the beers chosen for us by David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer/@beerdoodles) and it’s another from Yorkshire, this time Driffield, out east near the North Sea coast.

It’s not really a part of the world we know at all, dimly remembered childhood holidays in Scarborough and Whitby aside, but if you fancy a treat, spend a few minutes looking at the map: Nafferton, Wetwang, Fridaythorpe, Thwing! It’s a never-ending pleasure.

We’ve had a few beers from Wold Top and always been impressed, and marmalade porter is a wonderfully mouthwatering phrase. Can the beer live up to it? David says:

A wild card choice.  I had a bottle of this a while back and based on the description of the beer I must have enjoyed it? Right?

We got our 500ml bottle from Beer Ritz at £3.36. Its ABV is 5% and some will be interested to know that it is also gluten free.

As part of his list of suggestions David also included Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, our favourite UK version of the style, which we decided to use as a benchmark for judging Wold Top Marmalade, with a view to working out retrospectively how might have fared in our big porter taste-off back in 2014.

Marmalade Porter in the glass.In the glass it’s one of those beers that looks almost black and until you let a light through it when it reveals itself as a rich, clear red-brown. It didn’t seem to smell of much apart from a whiff of metal. The taste was quite overwhelming, however — like the dying embers of a bonfire. As we got used to the smoke a bit of butter came through, probably a bit more than some would enjoy, but tolerable to us. We didn’t really pick up any hint of marmalade or orange flavour, though the copy on the label and its evocative colouring almost fooled our senses.

It’s an earthy beer, not smooth or luxurious, the bitterness badly wanting some dried fruit character to balance it out. It feels as if it was hacked from raw wood with an axe rather than being the result of delicate craftsmanship. It’s like drinking a garden shed. This is not necessarily a bad thing (rustic would be the positive spin) but it’s not quite what we look for in a porter. Our gut instinct — just a guess — is that the problem is the result of a heavy hand with the dark crystal and black malts.

Let’s bring in Sam Smith here: Taddy Porter is wine-like, almost creamy, defined by its sugars, with every hard edge rounded away. In every way, it’s a better beer, as far as we’re concerned. At £3.18 for 550ml from Beer Ritz it’s also a (slightly) better value option.

In the end, though the words above might not quite convey it, we did enjoy the Wold Top beer and would certainly drink it again, but only passively, if it drifted in front of us. Would it have made the final in our porter taste off? Probably not. But it certainly confirms our impression of Wold Top as an interesting brewery whose beers are worth exploring further.