This is about a modern beer with an old history that includes a variant called Jesus. First, some background.
A little while back I discussed drinking at college in, “Alcohol and the Academy”, see here. It included my reminiscences (some aspects) of college supping at McGill University and environs, 1968-1974. In a more recent posting, “Union College and the Time of Schaefer“, I discussed a now-defunct bar at Union College, NY.
I also addressed aspects of U.S. college drinking before WW I in my article on musty ale printed in the journal Brewery History a couple of years ago.
In “Alcohol and the Academy” I mentioned in passing this article from 2008 in Brewery History, “Audit Ale – a Short History”, by John A.R. Compton-Davey. It describes the lengthy and honourable tradition of audit ale at (mostly) Cambridge University colleges.
Compton-Davey more than touched on Lacons Brewery in Great Yarmouth, U.K. as it produced audit ale for numerous colleges in the interwar years. Taste descriptions were included, including by Lloyd Hind, a noted brewing scientist of the era. Hind found his sample somewhat acid but the feature “buffered” by “colloids”. (We open comments to our learned readers to explain colloids in 2019 brewers’ speak).
The taste descriptions generally concur in colour, richness, and savour. Think full body, potent, sweetish, dark-coloured, that’s the picture and it sounds alluring. These ales were a form of the strong ales spread through the U.K., the Scotch ales, the Burtons, Old Peculier, the stingos, barley wines, the old ales.*
Here we are in 2019, eons away from cranky regional 1930s brewing with its non-sterile plant, wood vessels, and mixed ale cultures. However much Neville Chamberlain-era breweries had advanced from hundreds of years earlier, it is a safe bet modern brewing technically is further ahead by miles.
And if we recreate such an audit or other strong ale from past times, what does it taste like? Does it bear a connection to the 1930s impressions garnered by Compton-Davey?
Actually, it does. The U.K.-based Campaign for Real Ale’s Champion Winter Beer of Britain for 2019 was just announced, Lacons Audit Ale, from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Not quite the same Lacons as the one discussed by Compton-Davey as the new Lacons started up in 2013. But the new shop found old Lacons recipes, and its yeast culture, and includes numerous such heritage brews in its range.
Media reports concur in their description of CAMRA’s champion winter brew of 2019, and I’ll use Lacon’s own formulation since it is similar:
Lacons Audit Ale is a dark copper barley wine with flavours of berry fruit and spice. The finish is smooth and sweet. A unique style of beer.
Available on limited release.
No fruit or spices are added, these are metaphors to get at the flavour. The alcohol range is 8% ABV, not as strong as some audit ale of old times, but strong enough to convey the essential character. Anyhow, some college ale of yore was probably in the same alcohol range, you can depend on it given the variety of brewing procedures then, and vagaries of targeting gravity.
A couple of years after Compton-Davey’s article Terry Foster, a well-known brewing scientist and author of numerous books on brewing and beer styles, wrote an article for the same journal on his recreation of Oxford’s Chancellor Ale. Historical brewing recreations are nothing new and go back to the 1970s at least.
Foster took great pains to reproduce essential features of old recipes, following in particular statements by Lloyd Hind and others. The venerable country brewer Elgood was enlisted to help make the brew. Foster writes of the results:
At this point the unfiltered and unfined beer had aged on the yeast for one year in a stainless steel keg with no artificial carbonation. It poured with just a little head, and a deep black-brown colour, though still slightly translucent in the glass. Since I do not like the use of grandiose and fanciful terms to describe beers, I can only say that it was luscious, full-bodied with some caramel present, and well-balanced; neither the high hop bitterness, nor the high alcohol content stood out. In short, it was voted an excellent beer by the assembled company.
Foster states he expressly decided against including a lactic character, the acidity noted by Hind, while today the fashion for “sours” makes that decision perhaps stand out. Still, the beers in the old days would have varied in acidity anyway. Beers consumed relatively soon after brewing would have had little or none, and even some well-aged beers probably didn’t suffer from it.
Then as today, a brewer’s reputation meant something and many knew how to please the public taste. There are plenty of references in 19th century brewing literature that make clear an aversion to sour beer or at any rate, frankly tart beer.
If further proof is needed on the essential character of audit ale, let’s go back to 1902 and a long article in the American press on collegiate drinking customs in England and Germany.** An audit ale produced for Jesus College Oxford was described as follows:
[The Oxford student] … drinks beer at lunch and at dinner, and he has some famous beers too. There is an audit ale at Queen’s of great age and potency. When the Queen’s man wants to give his friends of this weird beverage he has to make formal application, state how many guests he expects, and then get a written order for an exact and somewhat small amount of it [due to strength], to be served to him. At Jesus, too, they have a well-known beer, called “Jesus old”, a rich, soft, mahogany-colored liquor of considerable body. Once it was brewed in the college brewery, but in more modern times, when colleges and private houses gave up brewing their own beer and thus made possible the growth of that part of the British peerage which has been christened the “Beerage,” the recipe was handed over to one of the great brewing houses to manufacture for the delectation of Jesus men and their friends.
And so, we have a continuity of 120 years in the essentials of the sensory impact of these beers. Despite all the changes in materials (presumably) and technologies over that period, audit ale seems to retain its character of a rich lusciousness. (That’s lusciousness, not lushness, although some might say, six of one, half a dozen of the other).
As a brewer at Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery observed to me when we first brewed 1870 AK Bitter, “for us it’s the ingredients”. He meant that the brewery was seeking to express the character of traditional ingredients from the country that produced that beer in 1870. I could only concur. Our methods differ from the 1870s, the hops and malts can’t be exactly the same even if varieties known to exist at the time are used, and brewing technology is considerably different, but an enduring national and in this case period character hopefully came though.
I think it did, and we see by the rapt reception of Lacons Audit Ale in 2019 that the beer seems very similar to the audit ale known to many generations before Hitler’s war. This is primarily due to the ingredients used in brewing and especially the quantity, the malt, hops, yeast, water. The equipment manipulating them changes over time, but the essence of malting, brewing, and fermentation, when well-conducted – ah there lies the rub – does not.
In considering that the beers of past times can be recreated with good fidelity, we enter a qualification where they are stored in barrels made from American oak. This wood is now prevalent in artisan brewing but was not liked in former times in British brewing, as we have amply documented in these pages. Its use imparts a characteristic coconut or “bourbon” note felt out of place in U.K. brewing. In short, drinkers didn’t like it.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with processing beers in American white oak barrels or tuns, if people like them. If they fetch a good sale, that is good for today’s brewers and I’m for it. But their use is a modern innovation, a step too far for historical British brewing, in my opinion.
It may sound odd to suggest that today’s ubiquitous metal in breweries, typically stainless steel, produces a more authentic result. But I think it does, as the old learning had it that Memel oak, the favoured wood for British breweries except Guinness and a few others, was notably neutral on the beer, as metal is today.
I believe Lacons Audit Ale is not fermented or stored in American oak, see for example this article on the beer a few years ago, a bottled version, by the eminent beer writers Roger Protz and Jeff Evans, writing in the magazine All About Beer. They make no reference to wood vessels of any kind. Evans, in his taste note, does state “slight wood” but I believe this a metaphor.
Still, if some Lacons Audit Ale is, or will be, stored or fermented in Stateside oak, all power to those who like the variation, and of course the brewery.
In a word, congratulations to the revived Lacons of Great Yarmouth, U.K. – for winning 2019 Champion Winter Beer of Britain, for continuing quite literally and credibly an age-old tradition.
*Included in the Compton-Davey article is a period advertising leaflet used in New York where an enterprising Cambridge graduate was trying to market the beer, in 1937. Unfortunately the type cannot be read in the reproduction, at least online. Despite Compton-Davey’s comment that the bumph was typically American in its exaggeration, elements of it would be useful to understand better the palate of Lacons Audit Ale in the 1930s. I might observe as well that the pitch couldn’t have been all typically American if a Cambridge man was behind it. Perhaps he was an American Cambridge man, or woman for that matter, but neither possibility seems likely for the time.
**The source, Fulton Historical Newspapers, does not in this case reveal the name of the publication, and it was cut off from the top of the page. It was probably a newspaper in New York, since that is a focus of Fulton, or one of the New England states, given, too, the Ivy League references.