Living Beer and the Rhetoric of Whole Food

Wholefood store scanned from a 1970s cookery book.

We haven’t drawn any firm conclusions on this subject yet, but see what you make of these quotations. (Our emphasis throughout.)

“For this reason ‘whole’ corn meal, which contains the germ, will have a greater life-containing, life-giving quality than the ‘degermed’ cornmeal found in supermarkets. Whole cornmeal is a “live” food — it spoils when the oil in the germ becomes rancid. Degermed cornmeal is a ‘dead’ food, as it lacks the germ (of life). Hence, it can be kept on grocery shelves for months without spoiling, though like all milled grains it does become stale.” Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara Bread Book, 1970.

“…’natural foods’ now threaten to replace ‘gourmet cooking’ as the main topic of food conversations… More than just a revival of old familiar food fads, this is part of the general concern now felt about the deterioration of our environment. Boredom with too much smooth, bland, overprocessed and sweet food has helped to attract not only the expected faddists, hypochondriacs and axe-grinders, but at least a proportion of scientists, especially nutritionists and conservationists.” ‘From Cranks to Nuts’, The Times, 7 August 1971.

“We opted at first for a high strength bitter brewed just from malt, hops, yeast and water. As well as being more wholesome this would also be simpler to produce.” Martin Sykes recalling the founding of the Selby Brewery in 1972, Called to the Bar, 1991.

“…the adulterated sludge that is glorified under the name of keg.” Michael Hardman, CAMRA’s What’s Brewing?, June 1972.

“The first distinction that must be made by the discerning drinker of draught beer is between keg, top-pressure, and traditional (the Real Thing)… traditional beer is alive while keg ber, like most bottled beer, is dead.” Richard Boston, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, The Guardian, 25 August 1973.

“British brewers are practically free to tamper with their beer as much as they want, unlike their colleagues in West Germany, who are forbidden by law to use any ingredient other than malt, hops and water… Fortunately, many brewers in Britain have kept faithful to nature, and beer brewed and served naturally can be found in nearly every corner of the country.” Michael Hardman, Beer Naturally, 1978.

“‘Real ale’ is the popular name for traditional beer brewed for centuries in Britain from malted barley and hops, with hundreds of regional variations in recipe and taste… Many brewers, big and small, use adjuncts in the brewing process. Flaked maize, potato starch, pasta flour, rice grits, malt and hop extracts will probably do you no harm but they are detrimental to the flavour of the beer.” CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1978.

Poor, faithful old sugar, written out of history

The Many Variables That Make a Beer

Packets of hops.

When we asked how Belgian beer could be so cheap, Matthew Curtis suggested on Twitter that their tendency towards relatively conservative hopping could be part of the answer.

This got us thinking. After all, though hop aroma is not something we especially associate with Belgian beer, it is certainly not the case that Belgian beer is bland or homogenous.

Hops are great — we love them — but their amount and variety are far from being the only variables a brewer has to play with.

In fact, two beers made with simple pale malt and ‘boring’ Fuggles could end up tasting and looking completely different, and equally mindblowing, if the following variables were carefully manipulated by a skilled brewer. (Or screwed up by a lazy one.)

Dark or clear? Unrefined? Caramelised?
Long boils to darken/caramelise sugars in the wort.

Strain selection.
Fermentation temperature.
Blending of multiple strains.
Refinement/customisation in the lab.

Mash liquor chemistry/softness.
Boil liquor chemistry/softness.

Custom/homemade malts.
Creative ‘misuse’ of specialty malts.
Belgian/German/British/US version of standard types, e.g. Pilsner malt.
Mash temperature and timing.

Heather (as in Williams Bros. Fraoch).
Salt (as in gose).
Spices (e.g. coriander).
Lactose and other unfermentable sugars.
Soured/stale/aged beer.
M&Ms, otter spittle, Mr Kipling apple pies, and so on.

Carbonation levels.
Wood ageing.

And finally…
Hop freshness/age.
Timings of hop additions.
Extract, pellet or whole leaf?

Yeast Family Tree: Help, Please

Detail from a 1912 brewing log: Burton No 1 Yeast.

We’d like to put together a yeast family tree showing the relationships between the varieties of yeast used by British breweries. We know, for example, of a couple of breweries using yeast originally derived from the Shepherd Neame house strain.

We picked up a few tips in the comments to this post, and will be rooting around for information ourselves, but any information you can give us (especially if supported by links to evidence) would be gratefully received.

Where you know this is commercially sensitive information (i.e. the brewery doesn’t want people to know!) then it’s probably best to respect that.

Alternatively, if someone’s already put such a family tree together, let us know where we can find it.

A Big Shout Out for Yeast

Beer labels with tasting notes rarely mention yeast. They usually say “malty with a hoppy finish” or “hoppy with a malty finish” or some variation thereon. Stella Artois is apparently made without it. Is that because “yeasty” just sounds nasty to most people?

In our experience, though, the impact of yeast on beer is too big to ignore. The extent to which it devours sugars affects the body and mouthfeel of the beer; and the compounds it produces while doing so contribute aroma and flavour. A lot of aroma and flavour. Sometimes most of it, in fact, as in the case of banana-bubblegum Bavarian wheat beer. (The standard learning tool for aspiring beer geeks who want an obvious example of the influence of yeast.)

For a recent homebrewing session, we made a yeast starter using a simple wort of dried malt extract. We couldn’t resist tasting it, even though we suspected that, without hops, it wouldn’t be pleasant. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste terrible, and we were astounded to discover just how many of the flavours and aromas we’d put down to the hops were apparently coming from the yeast. Boring malt extract, no hops and good yeast made something drinkable.

We’ve also found in home brewing that the single biggest factor in giving a beer a specific character is the yeast. British malt and British hops with Czech yeast tastes pretty Czech. German malt and German hops with British yeast tastes British. And so on.

We’re certain disagreeable yeast is behind our antipathy to the entire product range of some breweries who others seem to love.

Now we’re seeing single-hop ranges from big brewers, maybe now it’s time for smaller breweries to move on to something else: ranges which showcase characterful yeasts in the same controlled way, as the only variable in a range of otherwise identical beers.

If you want another example of a big beast of a yeast, check out the one used at Fuller’s: their beers brown/amber beers all taste and smell of orange marmalade, regardless of the hops or malt used, because of their assertive yeast.

UPDATE: oh, and we meant to link to this — New Briggate Beer Blog’s post in praise of malt. UPDATE 2: and here’s Alan on water, the forgotten ingredient. Now, who wants to take on ‘in praise of gypsum’?

Sir, step away from the pint!

Hopus beer from Belgium, served with a shot glass of yeast residue.

Neil at Eating isn’t Cheating has been pondering cloudy beer and generating a bit of a brouhaha in the process. We’re quite interested in this discussion because, recently, we’ve seen just evidence of how terrified people are of cloudy beer.

We were in one of our favourite local pubs a few weeks ago when a new cask of something exciting came on. The landlord couldn’t coax a clear pint from it. We were so keen to taste it, however, that we begged him to serve us a half even if it was cloudy.

“It will make you sick. No, I’m not serving you that,” he said.

“It’s only yeast,” we said. “Honestly, we don’t mind.”

“As long as you’ve got plenty of bog roll at home,” he replied. He let us have it but clearly thought we were insane.

All the chaps round the bar agreed. “I wouldn’t drink that. Cloudy beer gives you a gippy gut.” They watched us drink it with appalled looks on their faces. We felt like we were on Jackass.

Of course, the beer tasted fine (if yeasty…) and, no, it didn’t make us ill. Nor did a shot of yeast sediment from a bottle of Hopus in Bruges for that matter.

So, yes, we think those few brewers who decide that they prefer the flavour of a beer without finings will find it’s an uphill struggle to sell it to most British punters. It’s not just a matter of taste: it’s a taboo.

Postcript: we tried the cloudy beer clear, as the brewer intended, a few days later and it was even better.