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.

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.