Historic Beers for London

Ron Pattinson and Peter Haydon (Head in a Hat/Florence Brewery) are going to collaborate to produce around six historic beers a year, branded as Dapper Ales.

Their first beer will be ‘Doc­tor Brown’, a 4.1% ABV dou­ble brown ale from a 1928 Bar­clay Perkins recipe.

Ron’s knowl­edge of the nuts-and-bolts of his­toric beer is sec­ond to none. We don’t know Peter Hay­don per­son­al­ly but we’ve enjoyed the cou­ple of Head in a Hat beers we’ve tried in the past, and know that he’s also paid his dues dig­ging in the archives.

It’s no sur­prise, that, that their state­ment is refresh­ing­ly and reas­sur­ing­ly free of ‘inspired by his­to­ry’ weasel words:

Peter has attempt­ed to recre­ate the beer as faith­ful­ly as pos­si­ble, going back to orig­i­nal boil times, and par­ti-gyling the wort streams. The orig­i­nal hops used were Pacifics, Bram­ling, Fug­gles and Gold­ing, and care has been tak­en to get as close as pos­si­ble to this orig­i­nal bill. Amer­i­can Clus­ter are what would have been meant by Pacifics, so non-Eng­lish hops make a rare appear­ance in an A Head In A Hat beer. The Bram­ling is no longer grown due to its dis­ease sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty, but it’s daugh­ter, Ear­ly Gold, is, so that has been used instead.

Doc­tor Brown will be on sale in select­ed Fuller’s pubs in March.

The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer

Detail from the Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer by Ron Pattinson.

Forced into the confines of a book less than 200 pages long, Ron Pattinson’s knowledge of historic brewing seems more impressive than ever.

Cover of the Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage BeerBy his own fre­quent admis­sion, Pat­tin­son tends to be digres­sive and expan­sive on his blog: a sin­gle point can spread out across mul­ti­ple blog posts packed with anec­dotes, tables of fig­ures, and rants on the side. It can be tremen­dous­ly inter­est­ing and enter­tain­ing, but also, at times, hard to fol­low if you’re only there for the hard facts.

Either through self-dis­ci­pline or thanks to the guid­ing hand of a stern edi­tor, in The Home­brew­er’s Guide to Vin­tage Beer, he finds a new, clear­er voice. Swathes of brew­ing his­to­ry are summed up almost in bul­let point form, and no worse for it:

Let’s get this straight before we go any fur­ther. I don’t believe the sto­ry that porter was an attempt to re-cre­ate a mix of three dif­fer­ent draft beers called “three threads”. No source for the first half of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry con­firm the tale, and the main piece of evi­dence used to sup­port the the­o­ry was writ­ten the best part of a cen­tu­ry lat­er.

Right, got it!

The his­to­ry of hops in British brew­ing is sum­marised in three crys­tal clear pages; malt, in all its com­plex­i­ty, in four. The var­i­ous types of fer­ment­ing ves­sel, from Bur­ton Union to York­shire Square, in a lit­tle over two. If you need more detail and ref­er­ences, it’s there online, but this will be more than enough for most peo­ple, at least to begin with.

There are also nuggets of triv­ia that, though we’re sure he has men­tioned them before on his blog, have chance to stand out in this more eco­nom­i­cal style. We had­n’t realised that rice was fre­quent­ly used in North Ger­man beer before 1906, for exam­ple.

The recipes, which are the real point of the book, are divid­ed by style (porter, stout, IPA, and so on) and ordered chrono­log­i­cal­ly with­in each sec­tion. Even those who don’t brew at home ought to appre­ci­ate the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the evo­lu­tion of each style, their alco­holic strength and ingre­di­ents chang­ing from year to year as a result of fash­ion, eco­nom­ics and war, as explained in pithy notes. Indi­vid­ual beers, such as Tru­man’s Run­ner, are present in mul­ti­ple ver­sions, decades apart, which ought to make for some fas­ci­nat­ing ‘ver­ti­cal tast­ing’ ses­sions.

They are writ­ten in a sim­ple, clear for­mat, and sim­pli­fied to avoid four-hour boils and com­pli­cat­ed mash­ing, sparg­ing and gyling rou­tines, though the infor­ma­tion is there for those who wish to go ‘all in’.

There is also some guess work. Rely­ing almost entire­ly on orig­i­nal brew­ing records, Pat­tin­son has had to make assump­tions about hop vari­eties, alpha acids, the dark­ness of cer­tain malts, and the iden­ti­ty of pro­pri­etary brew­ing sug­ars. His guess­es, though, are bet­ter than most peo­ple’s facts, and cer­tain­ly bet­ter than noth­ing.

A hand­ful of recipes don’t, frankly, sound very appetis­ing, and are real­ly only of aca­d­e­m­ic inter­est: the final porters from before the style became extinct in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, are weak (less than 3% ABV) and filled with oats and sug­ars. (Or per­haps we’re wrong and the watery-weak porter is a lost clas­sic. We will, of course, have to find out for our­selves at some point.)

Those com­mit­ted to the mod­ern-style of ‘craft’ brew­ing might find these recipes of lim­it­ed use. Not one fea­tures hops added late in the boil for the pur­pos­es of cre­at­ing aro­ma, even though many fea­ture huge amounts of hops in total. Almost all of them use sug­ar, which ‘craft’ brew­ers seem to find a bit of a turn off. Some might make good bases for exper­i­men­tal recipes, though, espe­cial­ly the strong ales.

The spi­ral bind­ing inside a hard fold­er-like cov­er seems an odd choice at first, but actu­al­ly makes com­plete sense in prac­ti­cal terms: it lies per­fect­ly flat, which will be great when we need it open in front of us for ref­er­ence on brew­day.

One small com­plaint: the vin­tage labels that dec­o­rate the pages, while love­ly to look at, rarely cor­re­spond to the recipe below, which can make brows­ing the book some­thing of a pat-your-head-rub-your-tum­my exer­cise.

This is not yet anoth­er begin­ners guide with the same old basic recipes, but a Lev­el 2: Inter­me­di­ate text, and that’s exact­ly what we would like to see more of. For writ­ers and pub­lish­ers, that might be a prob­lem – the mar­ket for gen­er­al guides is poten­tial­ly big­ger, if more com­pet­i­tive – but if beer writ­ing is going to grow up, it needs to get beyond the super­fi­cial.

We were sent a review copy. The RRP is £17.99 and it is avail­able from Ama­zonWater­stones, and as a Kin­dle ebook.

UPDATE 27/02/2014: we did­n’t realise that Quay­side, who pub­lished this book, are a sis­ter com­pa­ny to Aurum, who are pub­lish­ing ours. They are, so we’re dis­clos­ing the rela­tion­ship here.

Hazy Beer in the 1920s

Detail from mild ale label.

Ron Pattinson has recently been sharing tons of data on the quality of mild in the 1920s, including its clarity, as judged by assessors at Whitbread.

As point­ed out by one com­menter on our post about beer clar­i­ty from last week, that can give us an insight into whether hazy beer nec­es­sar­i­ly tast­ed bet­ter, or was thought to taste bet­ter, in the past.

We put Ron’s fig­ures into a spread­sheet (from 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11) and cut them var­i­ous ways. Here’s what we found:

  1. Beers being rat­ed on a scale of ‑3 to 2, of the 84 beers rat­ed 1 and 2, some 22 were described as hazy, cloudy or vari­ants there­on.
  2. Of the 60 beers scor­ing between ‑1 and ‑3, some 23 were described as bright or bril­liant.
  3. Some beers described as hazy or cloudy were record­ed as hav­ing ‘poor’ flavour, while oth­ers tast­ed ‘very fair’ or ‘good’.
  4. Beers described as bril­liant were gen­er­al­ly also found to taste good, though one was ‘poor’ and quite a few oth­ers were ‘fair’ (accept­able, with an over­all score of 1).

UPDATE 13/2/2014: Ron has clar­i­fied in a com­ment below that the numer­i­cal scores are his addi­tion, based on Whit­bread­’s more-or-less stan­dard­ised flavour descrip­tors.

In oth­er words, Whit­bread­’s tasters did­n’t find any par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tion between clar­i­ty and flavour.  Hazy beer was­n’t some­how bet­ter or more vir­tu­ous, but nor was it nec­es­sar­i­ly bad.

What we’d real­ly like to know is whether cus­tomers in the pub would have shown a pref­er­ence for the beer that looked ‘bright’ but had ‘unpleas­ant flavour, going off’.

It’s not only beer

In this arti­cle, amongst many excel­lent points, Pete Brown sug­gests that the fuss over the Oxford Com­pan­ion to Beer high­lights a lack of per­spec­tive on the part of some beer geeks, blog­gers and writ­ers. He says that, some­times, peo­ple’s atti­tudes make him want to say: “Guys, get a grip – it’s only beer.”

But is it only beer?

We’ve writ­ten on a relat­ed sub­ject before, point­ing out that, as hob­by­ists, we know it’s just beer, but that tak­ing it seri­ous­ly is all part of the fun.

Telling real his­to­ri­ans and schol­ars like Mar­tyn Cor­nell and Ron Pat­tin­son, how­ev­er, that it’s only beer is like telling an archae­ol­o­gist that the sub­ject of his study is ‘just a load of mud­dy rub­ble’ and that he should stop being so anal about it. Yes, most spe­cial­ist schol­ars have lost per­spec­tive, and thank God for that.

It’s through the efforts of peo­ple who take appar­ent­ly insignif­i­cant things seri­ous­ly, and spend time doing the kinds of back-break­ing research oth­ers can’t be both­ered with, that we learn more about our world and our his­to­ry.

Beer is wor­thy of seri­ous study and we should applaud those who under­take it, how­ev­er nuts their obses­sion might some­times seem to the rest of us.

P.S. We real­ly don’t like wine very much. No pre­tend­ing here.

Update on the Oxford Companion to Beer

Since we wrote this some­what pos­i­tive but reserved review, there’s been plen­ty going on.

In a stroke of genius, Alan at A Good Beer Blog has set up a wiki so that read­ers of the Com­pan­ion can iden­ti­fy and record errors. What’s par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful, we think, is that he’s asked peo­ple to focus on just the facts, ma’am, and not to make it per­son­al. This need­n’t be narky, sarky nit­pick­ing – it could be some­thing real­ly con­struc­tive and use­ful.

In fact, hip­pies that we are, we were hop­ing this whole dis­cus­sion would turn into a kind of beer com­m­mu­ni­ty col­lab­o­ra­tive love-in.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, what he’s read so far has made Mar­tyn Cor­nell angry (a bit too angry, maybe). Gar­rett Oliv­er, who edit­ed the com­pan­ion, seems to have tak­en it per­son­al­ly (it was­n’t, but then the book is his baby) and has respond­ed with sar­casm and a point-by-point rebut­tal. And Mar­tyn has come back to that in the com­ments here. Yeesh. This could run and run.

Mean­while, all this dis­cus­sion has been met with cries of “pedantry” and “spoil-sports!” on Twit­ter and forums.

And we con­tin­ue to find both bloop­ers and entries which give us hope. Ron Pat­tin­son might not have much time for Horst Dorn­busch, but Herr Dorn­busch and Mr Oliv­er’s arti­cle on porter in the Com­pan­ion cites Ron’s mini-book on the sub­ject and (based on a quick read) gets the basics right. Most impor­tant­ly, it refers to the sto­ry of Ralph Har­wood invent­ing porter as a sub­sti­tute for three threads as a myth, in no uncer­tain terms.

We still think the book is a good read as long as you read crit­i­cal­ly and don’t do any­thing daft like base an aca­d­e­m­ic paper on its con­tents; and we cer­tain­ly still think it’s a big step for­ward in terms of ambi­tion for books about beer.

But our view has hard­ened a bit: it’s not pedantry, nit­pick­ing or spoil-sport behav­iour to expect a book which costs quite a lot of mon­ey to get the his­to­ry right. Yes, maybe some of those point­ing out errors could be a bit more gra­cious and take less obvi­ous glee in find­ing them but, real­ly, no-one should pub­lish a book with some claim to aca­d­e­m­ic rigour and be sur­prised when aca­d­e­mics and his­to­ri­ans chal­lenge it. It’s all in the game.