Lunch on the Humber

The Old Mill in Toronto is a long-established restaurant and banquet centre, what is now called an event space. It has long been been associated with sporting clubs nearby including a golf course, and added a hotel almost 20 years ago.

The site is the banks of the Humber River, flowing to Lake Ontario through the western part of the city. The Old Mill is nestled in the leafy, somewhat hilly (for Toronto) Kingsway section. A series of mills of various kinds was built there starting in pioneer days. They all burned ultimately.

As far as I can tell, no distillery was ever associated with that particular milling centre.

The restaurant was established in 1914 by a developer who took charge of the derelict site as part of laying out much of the Kingsway. I don’t live near there but get out there sometimes on walks and on my bike.

The Kingsway combines Ontario white bread ambience with a dose of downtown-style diversity. The latter is exhibited in the restaurant scene on the main drag (Bloor Street West) but probably too now in the residential population.

The Kingsway has its own feel anyway, and The Old Mill is a nerve centre.

The Old Mill has generously made available on its website a series of menus from the mid-1930s, mid-1940s, and mid-60s. One of them is pictured, from 1970. The other images herein are also taken from The Old Mill’s informative website.

This menu, while to some degree reflecting the approach of contemporary country clubs in North America, also demonstrated prevailing culinary values in Canada.

The word conservative comes to mind, although in truth it’s a value-laden term that doesn’t really mean anything at bottom.

If you compare the lunch menus of The Old Mill from the 30s and 40s, they are very similar: not much changed over that long period. The same is true of the dinner menus, which are more elaborate versions of the lunch menus.

Since 1970 Toronto has undergone many food revolutions, both ethnic and mainstream, increasingly too in synch with what is going in any large North American city and indeed beyond.

Today, a vegetarian option or more than one is obligatory almost everywhere. In 1970, not a single main course offering was vegetarian.

In the 1960s the fare at a solid place like The Old Mill was based on beef, chicken, ham, lamb, and a fish or two. The fish was usually either halibut, salmon or trout (none really associated with our Great Lakes, which provided many species for the table then and still does).

The food was probably excellent, as all these dishes will shine if made with good ingredients carefully. The Old Mill always had a good reputation and retains it to this day.

Ham steak and pineapple … it was a staple of restaurants all over North America at one time, and not just cafes and diners. The genius who thought to place a pineapple ring, usually canned (in fact the dish tastes best that way) on a ham slice, probably kicked off the craze.

Probably it started in the early 1950s although earlier origins would not surprise. Chicken-in-the-basket with honey pot nearby was a dish of this class – I’m sure some Old Mill lunch menus featured it.

Calves liver is a rare, um, gutsy move for a restaurant in Canada then. I know some people who still won’t eat liver in any form, except a skosh of pate, perhaps. Even then they need to get down one or two of my best Martinis to go for the … gutso, sorry gusto.

I remember roast beef houses serving calves liver with bacon in the 1970s, so perhaps there was always an active subculture rooting for it. British incomers would have helped given they knew faggots at home and other old-fashioned dishes based on liver. (Faggots probably is Roman in origin in England, think of the Italian fegato...).

The Victorians anyway were much less squeamish about innards than the post-Second war generations, and Toronto had distinct Victorian vestiges in the 1960s, not just in architecture. (Heck, we still have a Hotel Victoria, I tweeted an image of it the other day).

Halibut steak is a solid performer – still as good as ever although harder to find now. And the sauce Meunière if well-made would have done it no harm.

Scrambled eggs with sausage seems a little odd perhaps as a lunch dish, but really it was a brunch-style offering, it makes sense to offer it in a country club atmosphere.

And so all-day breakfast, quite the rage today – McDonald’s finally got with the parade – is not really new, like a lot of things in the culinary field.

Cold cuts sounds a bit pedestrian, but people must have liked it and it’s the most expensive dish on the menu! The short ribs is classic mid-century North American cooking, a fine dish in fact but again hard to find today.

Look at the Old Mill’s 1930s wine menus, Chilean white and red wines are well-represented. It’s not a phenomenon of the last 20 years.

Now the curried lamb sounds a little exotic, but not really, curried dishes have been solidly English and British Empire/Commonwealth since the mid-1800s at least. Still, it offered some spicy variety. It was probably popular among travelled businessmen and ex-army officers.

The creamed chicken, a staple of 1950s menus and a once-popular club dish, has gone the way of the dodo.

The desserts are classic North American. The spumoni – oh where did you go I used to love that! – was probably somewhat daring, the Italian population was starting to burgeon here and this was a nod in an establishment context.

Maybe the cold cuts showed Italian influence too, it isn’t a British or old stock American thing, or was a bow to the German crowd out in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON, settled by the Pennsylvania Dutch from the 1780s.

The cheeses hit the main bases then: good local cheddar – Ontario makes some of the world’s best; Quebec Trappist Oka, the Port Salut-type I wrote about a while back; and “blue”, probably Roquefort.

It’s all good Anglo-American food, and made right most palatable although not very fashionable (most of it) today. Almost all the starters too are non-starters on today’s menus, the oysters and maybe smoked salmon apart. All the soups are out of style today, jellied consommé?

The herring was probably great. It was a “Continental” standby for decades after WW II, perhaps encouraged by the many German and Swiss chefs in hoteling and catering then. You almost never see it now except at German or Scandinavian restaurants and Jewish delis.

I wonder what The Old Mill serves for lunch now… maybe I’ll hie out there soon and find out.

But good for them not to forget their past, I like that.

 

 

 

 

 

A Chat About American Rye Including Jim Beam’s

[Friendly caution to our beer and historical-anything readers: contemporary technical rye whiskey discussion ahead].

Pictured is the rebadged rye of Beam Suntory, now 90 proof vs. the former 80 proof Yellow Label (Jim Beam Straight Rye). It’s called Pre-Prohibition Style vs. simply straight rye for the old Yellow Label (now discontinued). The new one is straight too though, the label states this as well, in effect at least four years old.

Beam still produces (RI)1 Straight Rye, at 92 proof seemingly a ratchet-up, and maybe different batching, of 80 proof Old Overholt rye, in turn also seemingly the same recipe as Knob Creek Straight Rye. AFAIK, all these are the same mashbill but different proofs, selections, and/or ages.

Truth to tell, having tasted them for years except the relatively new Prohibition one, they were very similar in palate. They all had a pungent, not all-that-appealing flavour which to me was the Beam signature, also seen in its various bourbons.

When I was active with www.straightbourbon.com, some of us called it the yeast taste, a potent background flavour common to the bourbon and rye. Hence thinking it was one Beam yeast used for fermenting rye and bourbon mashes that imparted the taste, although perhaps there was another explanation.

It’s still in Beam’s bourbons, e.g. I noticed it in a recent Knob Creek, but is almost completely absent in the Pre-Prohibition rye.

If one mixes any of these, the effect won’t be noticed, but drunk neat, the Beam “smack” was always very distinctive.

This taste must have evolved at the Clermont and Boston distilleries of Beam in the last 20 years or so, as I’ve tasted 1970s Beam bourbons at Kentucky gatherings and they don’t have it. Those bourbons were richer and more caramel-like than today’s, “carmul” as my good American friends would say (we say, car-a-mel, long “a” vs. their short “a”).

Old Gran-dad bourbon had a similar taste although as made at National Distillers in the 1970s was different again, more fruity and rich. Yet apparently the yeast for Gran-dad used at Beam came from National Distillers and is different than Beam’s yeast for its own brands, so who knows.

I wonder if the type of rye traditionally used at Beam may impart the taste in question since the bourbons use some rye too of course.

Since I like these whiskeys neat, small differences mean lot, and I was very happy to note that Pre-Prohibition rye doesn’t have the taste. It is rich, very drinkable neat, silky-sweet, and if it has any of the yeast smack it’s just a hair. Personally I think a different yeast is used to mash this formula.

It’s excellent value given where bourbon and American rye prices are these days.

A few large distilleries today mash rye, Beam does, Heaven Hill (Pikesville, Rittenhouse), of course MGPI in Indiana. Jack Daniel does a rye now too, rather bland IMO – I don’t know why since the white dog had a strong new-whiskey taste, but aged it seems a different animal.

There is also Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve Rye, all pot-distilled, I believe, in the small Versailles, KY plant. It reminds me of Woodford Reserve bourbon for years after its original release, fairly congeneric albeit my last WR bourbon seemed older in taste, quite an improvement. But I’d guess the rye hasn’t had time to age more than four years.

The pot-distilling, while salutary historically, requires years of aging to bring around.

There is also Sazerac’s Barton 1792 Distillery’s Fleischmann Rye, still made in Bardstown for a limited market and hard to find. Excellent product for the price.

Finally, Wild Turkey has a rye, in 101 and regular proof iterations. I’ve never been a fan of the profile, certainly good for cocktails though.

Diageo’s George Dickel rye is from MGPI except for the maple charcoal leaching. I’m not really a fan of the MGPI profile for rye, I find it rather harsh (“Blue Tide”) but maybe I haven’t tried it old enough.

There are countless craft distillers doing rye of course, but the products I’ve tried are quite young and don’t get at the aged side of the taste spectrum, which is the traditional one at least for 100 years or so. I.e., aging starts at four years old and often climbs much higher.

I had a Sazerac 18-year-old rye dram courtesy my friend Gary Hodder recently that was outstanding. The taste you get in old rye is quite different to old bourbon, kind of gingerbread-like or – again a term I used to use on the straightbourbon.com board – old damask curtains.

The Sazerac 18-year-old rye was either made years ago in Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY, formerly Ancient Age Distillery, or possibly in Louisville at “Old Bernheim”, now Heaven Hill’s distillery in Louisville, rebuilt 1992 as New Bernheim by UDV/Guinness (predecessor of Diageo) and tanked.

Beam Suntory has a Canadian rye too, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye made at Alberta Distillers. It’s very good when well-batched and selected*, all aged in new charred oak, but quite different to the Kentucky ryes in the stable.

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*Just as an example, currently if you buy some CC brands in Ontario you get a free mini, so I got a mini of the CC 100% rye that way. It was light-coloured and lean in taste, not as good as the full bottles currently on the shelf which are rich and malty. Hence maybe the freebie? Of course we don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. It made a good addition to a brandy-based Sazerac cocktail. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Time Has Come Today

This late-1800s brewing entry in Chambers’ Encyclopedia states that pale ales received two-to-four months storage, mild ales, one week, export pale ales (IPAs), 10-15 months. See bottom-left hand corner, pg. 36.

Unlike today, you needed time to ensure pale ale was in the right condition for drinking. Time gave it a clearer appearance and took out some of the yeasty notes. A slow continued fermentation slightly raised the alcohol level and generated some CO2 as well.

The Scottish Chambers brothers, founders of a famed encyclopedia, had a high reputation for conveying scholarly expertise but in a way the intelligent layman could understand. (Indeed there are similar data in contemporary brewing and scientific journals).

In a time when yeast management, brewing sanitation and refrigerated storage were nowhere near today’s standards, two-to-four months was not a derisory period. Beer had to last sometimes as well over a warm spell and other uncertain weather.

Dry-hopping in part was designed to protect pale ale from the risks, we we saw in the discussion by “Aroma” yesterday.

It is tempting to think Aroma was brewing author and authority William Loftus, as in another part of the volume I linked he recommends the latter’s book The Brewer which went through numerous editions 1850s-1870s. I don’t think Aroma was Loftus though, in part because his IPA directions differ somewhat from Loftus’.

E.g. Loftus likes a mix of German and English hops; Aroma is an all-English hop man. Aroma speaks of blending aged and fresh hops; Loftus does not refer to aged hops.

It is hard to remember in our day of pasteurization, crash-cooling, filtration, and reliable refrigeration how perishable beer is. It will turn sour fast if not “kept” properly, sometimes in a day or two…

While over time storage time steadily narrowed as I mentioned for all beer, not least lager, to think AK was not stored, or kept, for much of the 1800s would not be correct. AK was an ale for keeping, certainly but the keeping period varied with the intended market.

The designation “K” for beer on its own or in doubled or greater number, KK and the like, surely meant keeping as well. Mild ales if long stored were sometimes designated XK or just K with multiples for stronger beers, which often were kept longer.

While brewery ads were sometimes inconsistent, I believe the K meant the same for bitter beer as other classes long aged: stored.

We don’t really have, today, the kind of beer Aroma referred to. Few beers use all-English hops in North America. Beers that do, including in England, rarely are stored long enough, and not in uncoated wood, to approximate to the Chambers’ description. Even where wood barrels are used, American oak barrels almost always are enlisted.

American wood was not used by English pale ale brewers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however. They thought it gave the wrong flavour to beer – it’s the vanillin, “chardonnay” taste familiar also in bourbon whiskey.

The wood used was sourced in the Baltic generally, so-called Memel wood from Lithuania and adjoining areas. You can still get it. Memel tended to impart a neutral quality to beer. Brewers liked that, they wanted the beers’ inherent qualities to shine.

Apart from all this, the hops used then were all-flower (no pellets) – and a great amount was used, much more than for the bitter offered in England today.

What would Aroma’s AK taste like? I think it would be great, probably like Martin’s Special Pale Ale was (in Belgium) 20 years ago (maybe still, I don’t know). Clean sweet malt taste, lovely flowery scent from the hops, good bitterness but the hop aroma predominating. I am referring to a special, stronger pale ale Martin’s had: there were two in the range, at least then.

For AK, 2-4 months probably wasn’t long enough for Brettanomyces to develop. This is why there was practical recognition IMO of a distinction between pale ale and IPA. They are the same in origin but the very long storage of the latter gave it additional qualities, the “Bass stink”, often, as it was called by Americans circa-1900.

It’s an acquired taste as so many tastes are in the area of beers, wines, and other drinks. However, the general market did not I think favour it, hence the replacement of those beers ultimately by the AK or “running” type.

The bitter today of the English pub, where it has not been replaced by the American-tasting form of IPA, is really the descendant of that AK.

 

 

 

 

 

The Meaning of AK in English Beer Terminology (Part II)

This is simply a follow-up to my Part I on this topic, in that I notice HathiTrust has the volume in question, here. Therefore, I can scan in the page and a double-click shows excellent resolution. See the second part of paragraph 4991, by “Aroma”:

Note re images: the image above and in Part I of this post were sourced from the links given in the texts. All intellectual property in or to the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

The Meaning of AK in English Beer Terminology (Part I)

From time to time the question of the origins and meaning of “AK” or A.K. in English beer usage has arisen, for example by Boak and Bailey (@boakandbailey) in a chat with David Turner (@thebeerbiz) on Twitter today, see the exchange here.

A certain amount of ink has been spilled by writers on beer history trying to get to the bottom, with Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson weighing in, as I have. Some interesting thoughts are expressed in this article by Cornell from July, 2014, and in reader comments.

Some years ago, I located a reference from November 25, 1870 which stated AK means “keeping ale”, and I mentioned it in those comments. I mention it here now, as I haven’t before in these pages, and include an image from the article.

It was published in the “English Mechanic and World of Science”, a practical journal intended for various technical trades including brewing. The full page may be viewed here.

One may bear in mind that brewing had not yet entered its sophisticated science stage. It was a practical business and brewers sought help in journals such as this one for daily problems, often writing in for advice.

In this case, the anonymous “Aroma”, almost surely a brewer, stated that A.K. means “keeping ale”.

It is the only suggested definition in the heyday of AK, and is therefore important as period evidence especially given Aroma’s obvious detailed knowledge of beer and brewing.

Anyone is entitled of course not to treat it as definitive, but Aroma’s statement should be factored in any inquiry.

Personally, I believe AK did mean keeping ale, as even though storage times for pale ales were increasingly abbreviated in the 19th century, AK was clearly a form of bitter beer.

One of the originating characteristics of bitter beer was seasonal brewing and storage and later shipping for the India part or other export.

It’s true that for practical purposes AK was not a stock beer or stock ale for that matter. On the other hand, IPA and pale ale themselves altered to a point where storage was much abbreviated, or eliminated for all practical purposes as today.

What remained as leitmotifs were the heavy hopping, relatively pale colour, and relatively lower final gravity in relation to mild ales (drier).

IPA and pale ale were still bitter beer, as AK was. The stock or keeping quality was a characteristic of their ancestor which lingered in the name of one of the types.

Why it stayed in the name of the lower gravity version vs. the others (e.g. why wasn’t IPA called AK-IPA?) is a valid point to raise, however, IPA was a stored beer for much of its history and everyone connected with the beer business knew that.

Whereas, to describe a lower gravity beer but of similar type, what will you call it?

Today we say Session IPA. They said, I conclude, AK which reflected sufficiently the bitter beer idea to readers. Boak and Bailey stated in the Twitter discussion that the first reference to AK is 1846. This makes sense as beer gravities were getting lighter and storage times less and less for all beer types as the 19th century wore on.

Once a lighter pale ale became an item of commerce, a convenient term was needed, and AK makes sense as a convenient type-description.

N.B. See Part II of this post for a clear scan of the 1870 article and further discussion.

 

 

 

I’ll Sing a Song About Some People

In his dirge-like, theatrical song Where Are They Now? (1973), The Kinks’ Ray Davies memorialized various social and literary phenomena of the last 20 years.

In the song he writes (my ellipsis):

I’ll sing a song about some people you might know
They made front pages in the news not long ago ….

Where are all the Teddy Boys now?
The Brill Cream boys with D.A.s,
Drainpipes and blue suedes,
Beatniks with long pullovers on ….

I hope that Arthur Seaton is alright.
I hope that Charlie Bubbles had a very pleasant flight,
And Jimmy Porter’s learned to laugh and smile,
And Joe Lampton’s learned to live a life of style.

Where are all the angry young men now?
Where are all the angry young men now?
Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe…

The song’s final line is that rock and roll still lives on, which is to say rock and roll is not just reflective of social changes, or a trend itself, but has a validity of its own.

In 1973 the first generation of The Kinks’ English fans (generally also Beatles, Stones, Who, Bluesbreakers, Clapton, etc. fans) were in their mid-20s, getting married, getting on at work, or getting out of school finally.

How many knew who the named figures were? Even fewer would have known in America, save the reference to the beatniks. If they knew at all, it was through the successful films of Alan Sillitoe’s first two books.

John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe were charter members of the Kitchen Sink writing school, an unkind term that probably hurt as much as helped, which is why the emblematic writers generally shied away from the title.

Another sobriquet, more romantic, was the Angry Young Men.

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham with a plastic spoon in his mouth, and had a difficult childhood. After a spate of factory work and a goodish stint in the RAFVR he made an impressive career as a writer, this despite leaving school at 14.

He was autodidact, and his books are well- but closely-written, you need to pay them good attention with commensurate rewards.

His novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and the story cycle The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer were acclaimed on release and made into well-loved films. See the opening scene of the former, here.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was directed by Karel Reisz, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia whose lawyer-father and other family were killed by Nazis. The British had given him refuge in 1938.

After RAF service and a Cambridge education Reisz became a pioneer social realism filmmaker. He is remembered in particular as well for his work on The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Via his heroes Sillitoe channelled the working man’s dissatisfactions with his lot in the postwar era, the aggressions and odd paths that lead to. The sentiments evoked were at bottom in the popular music that hit from Liverpool to Los Angeles, finally.

Early Sillitoe finds its counterpart in many ways in, say, The Beatles’ song Help, or The Who’s My Generation. It is no surprise Ray Davies returned the favour in the song mentioned.

Arthur Seaton was the protagonist in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a Raleigh bicycle machinist in Nottingham. He was a potent symbol of the kitchen sink, the antithesis, as his creator, of the genteel analogues of mainstream postwar British literature.

The actor Albert Finney’s smash success portraying Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning launched his career and helped bring Sillitoe to international notice. Broadly, the Kitchen Sink, the Beatles, the new wave of artists and filmmakers, were part of the opening of the arts to parts of British society previously foreclosed.

Probably few of the Kinks’ declining fan base in the 1970s – their Tommy-style rock operas didn’t sell well – knew who Seaton and Sillitoe (the sibilance no accident, surely) were. Ray Davies, the London-born tunesmith of The Kinks and thinking man’s rocker par excellence, did his part to make sure they wouldn’t be forgotten.

Sillitoe later wrote the well-received novel The Death of William Posters (1965), the opener of a trilogy. It continued the themes introduced by his first two books.

I mention it here because it offers an interesting two-page reflection on beer from the angle of early 1960s English estates and their pubs.

In the book the antihero Frank Dawley, 27, gives up his factory job and leaves his family for the uncertain future of a wanderer. Among his plaints for the sterile life as a wage-earner and young father was that he had to cope with the “same brands of ales”.

This is an interesting statement, as of the many things an everyman might be preoccupied with, exercising taste and discrimination in beer would not seem top 5 in the list.

Yet Sillitoe was surely aware how the aura of wine and wine-merchant attached to genteel life. Wine and Bacchus too are symbols of poetry, the highest literary calling.

In his way, Sillitoe was making the case for beer, for the right of the man of the estates and dingy pubs, or a writer who drinks beer, to exercise discrimination and not have one of life’s pleasures pre-determined for him.

This becomes more clear in a later two-page episode in the book. In his final stages of departing Nottingham for the open road Dawley parks his car in a strange part of the city – the car is later sold to fund the travels and help the family while he is absent.

He searches for a pub for a valedictory drink to his native town, but has trouble finding one. He is in an area of crumbling structures being torn down for redevelopment. Some of what is still standing are outdoor privies, another symbol.

Dawley finally finds a pub not shuttered and orders a pint of mild. The older regulars in the place stare at him, not for the order but for being a stranger in the pub. The theme of outsider is omnipresent in Sillitoe.

In preface to the dramatic conflict to come Sillitoe explains that Dawley had very definite ideas about beer. He knew when something “wasn’t right” in a pint and wouldn’t finish it but would leave it on the counter and walk out. This was the problem of inconsistency of cask-conditioned beer, still with us.

In the strange pub the pint comes “warm”, which of all the beer faults was the most serious for Dawley. Despite hoary jokes about warm English beer, cask ale of course should never be warm but rather cellar temperature, pleasantly cool.

Dawley knows this, in his connoisseur way. He asks the landlord to change it and the latter’s hackles rise. Dawley is not on his own turf where the change, says Sillitoe, is always accommodated silently.

The landlord announces that the beer is always fine in his pub and he won’t change it. Voices rise, finally the landlord slams the money on the counter and tells Dawley to “clear out”.

Dawley knows he should take the money and run but can’t hold the genie of rebel in him. He lifts the pint and theatrically upturns it on the tiled floor.

The landlord demands that he clean it up and the oldsters in the corner intone, “that’s just, that’s just” (one of the many phrases and turns in the book always understood but probably obsolete even in Britain now, only 50 years later. They call Dawley a “bleeder” for example, or loser, whiner we would say).

The stand-off leads to an epic fight in which Dawley gets away just by the skin of his teeth, leaving his tormentors in the literal dust.

Alan Sillitoe was no leftist identikit man. While at one time feted in the Soviet Union for his working class solidarity, he was an individualist above all and declared on one occasion that he believed in meritocracy. He was a classic humanist and British democrat.

In the short but excellent Wikipedia entry on him, he is quoted that even a modestly successful writer could sort of liken himself to having achieved a gentleman’s life.

He meant that writing made you free, not in the same way a gentleman is, but in the sense both could live without conforming to preset expectations. And in that sense too, both were in an elite class.

Sillitoe died seven years ago. I’ll always wonder what he thought of Britain’s revived beer scene, as he lived long enough to witness it. Although he was not Pollyanna about modern British society – the last financial crisis soured him a bit – he must have regarded the modern beer revival as a good thing.

Finally, to Davies’ question “where are all the angry young men now?” I’ll answer: the best of their generation, like Davies, Lennon, Osborne and Sillitoe made it and refashioned themselves. As John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten once said, you can’t be angry forever.

Speaking of English beer and especially pubs, the English beer writing duo of “Boak and Bailey”, Ray Newman and Jessica Boak, have just released their 20th Century Pub. We haven’t read it yet but knowing much of their published input to date are confident of its great merits. Not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand how the English pub evolved and changed in all its guises in the last century.

Note re image: the image above, a still from the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was sourced from this online film guide. All intellectual property in or to image belongs to British Lion or other lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Baying for Bass

In my last two posts I mentioned that lager captured the imagination of the technical fraternity of British brewing in the late 1800s. The change percolated into the breweries, assisted by energetic efforts of Germans or Anglo-Germans getting into brewing in England.

Native brewers followed soon enough so that by the 1920s lager was on trade lists, an exotica favoured by foreigners, Bohemian circles, and officers, diplomats and others of the (enforced) travelled classes.

The great culinary writer Elizabeth David advised to bring lager, among other drinks, on a picnic. While she was writing well after WW II no doubt she was recalling picnics of her youth in the late 1930s.

After all wrinklies don’t go on picnics – I’m not sure anyone does with the frequency described in the glossy food volumes, but those who do it tend to be nimble in the knees.

But what of circa-1850 Britain? A very different time. Britain was proud of its beer. Sydney Smith famously encapsulated the feeling when he wrote that no two ideas were more inseparable than beer and Britannia.

One way this manifested was the use of verse to laud British beer, often in gaudy and intentionally exaggerated terms, to make a point of course.

One frequently cited poem – Michael Jackson recounts it in an early book – orated that the beer of old Burton if “right” will inspire you to “fight”, versus that is (un-literally) frothy Continental drinks that inspire you to dance.

Jackson termed it a dubious tribute – one thing Jackson wasn’t was a Mr. Blimp. His politics tended to the left and he didn’t like that kind of swagger.

On the other hand, in his diplomatic way, Jackson made very clear his belief that beer had high epicurean value especially the great range of bitter and mild his native land offered.

The subsequent birth of a renewed world-wide beer culture is a tribute largely to his dogged faith in the special merits of good beer, British beer not least.

Ironically, part of that British heritage, much of it exemplified by old regional companies making beer of English materials, has gone with the, um, wind.

But in its place another form of ale has arisen to carry the flag. Punk IPA is an avatar, brewed by Scotland’s Brewdog. Punk IPA is the successor, via American craft pale ale and IPA, to disappeared regional bitters from Ruddles, the original Young’s, Eldridge Pope, the great Scottish breweries, etc.

Of course too there are hundreds of new regional brewers in England still making bitter and mild in the old way, or one hopes in the old way. And a clutch of the old ones remain, too, to show the way where they don’t re-invent themselves.

In 1855 a mock ode to Bass pale ale appeared in the superbly-named The Welshman, and General Advertiser, for the Principality of Wales, Carmarthen.

Although humorous and exaggerated in tone – it is unlikely for example any bloods visiting the Continent found nothing good to drink – it upheld British pride in their own productions, and by extension, in being British tout court.

A poem like this was only possible in a context where a contemporary writer noted that you could tell a Briton had passed through by the litter of Guinness and Bass bottles left behind.

In 1855, confidence in Empire and its mission was probably at its zenith even though the Empire lasted for another 100 years. The British weren’t embarrassed to send their products, industrial, cultural, comestible, around the world and trumpet them as superior.

What is saying the same thing almost, they weren’t in a mood to take lessons from foreigners, on gastronomy or much else.

A seeming irony is pale ale was barely 30 years old in England. But already it is spoken of as a deathless symbol of John Bull. The beer type is less important though than the deeper impulse behind the poem.

Before pale ale attracted attention of mock versifiers it was Burton ale. Before that porter, the revered Georgian black Champagne. Before that nut brown ale.

There is always a brew, or was, to serve as symbol of Albion.

And you can bet your life British beer at its best fully justified this. A well-brewed lager is very good to have but by its nature doesn’t reveal the ineffable notes of pale ale, porter, old ale.

This Anglo-Saxon gastronomic zenith was something felt more than expressed, the English were good at many things, but expressing pride in food and drink was not one, until lately if at all.

When they did try to vaunt the merits of their liquid best, the results often fell to bathos, as the poem being considered, although the effect is softened by this being the author’s intent. As the editor put it in his preface, no one was setting Parnassus on fire.

Still, the inveterate beer person likes this history, we take validation where we find it.

It remains true that if a culture fails to uphold its worthy institutions they risk fading away, and beer is only the least of it, in truth.

People start to travel, discover new things, encounter new cultures. Suddenly the pint in the corner pub seems old hat, and it’s a misty pale ale with grapefruit tones and Buffalo chicken wings you want in Bristol.

Jane Grigson said it best, if English towns had signs on the outskirts equivalent to what French towns do, à la (I paraphrase) “York, Its Cathedral, Its Medieval Centre, Its Unrivalled Hams and Puddings” then Britons would value their culinary legacy much more.

To be fair, York’s food culture is in good nick these days. The big county of Yorkshire, probably not incidentally the birthplace of Michael Jackson, never succumbed completely to the cultural inferiority that would rate an Italian or French ham over a local specialty perhaps introduced by the Romans.

They do an annual food and drink festival there, one with a strictly regional focus, that is on our radar to attend.

Returning to 1855, did you notice that the Bass declamation takes a good knock at the medical and legal professions, inter alia? But then that is not exclusive to verse, doggerel or other.

In fact the same broadsheet contains another zinger on we legal drudges, see if you can find it. Pretty funny it is too (ha ha).

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the 1855 newspaper mentioned and linked in the text (via Welsh Newspapers Online) and the second and third from the Wales Online website. The interior depicted is the No Sign Wine Bar, in Swansea. All intellectual property in or to the sources mentioned belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Tasting Britain’s First Lager

Wrexham is a sizeable small city in north Wales. While less known internationally than Cardiff or Swansea, it is a busy regional town based on administrative, business, educational, and health services.

A famous lager brewery was built there, no, not quite the first in Britain, that seems to have been the Austro-Bavarian lager brewery in Tottenham, London whose ad I included yesterday.

A cluster of lager breweries started up in the U.K. between 1880 and 1885, the latter year was the founding of famous Tennent’s in Scotland. There were trials with lager in Britain earlier in the 19th century, but Austro-Bavarian is considered the first purpose-built, commercial-scale lager plant.

Still, Wrexham’s beer was famous because it lasted so long, all the way to 2000. One way or another it inspired similar beers in the 1900s, by then many from English ale and porter brewers.

Our interest in beer and distilled spirits history is multi-facteted. We like the social and business side, the wider contexts, the technical side, all of it. But primarily we are interested in palate. What did beer and spirits taste like in the 1800s?

To get at that, and it is most worthwhile to try even if the results are never a certainty, there are two ways, sometimes connected. One way is to study everything about how a drink was made and then make reasoned inferences.

For example, new white whiskey was often mixed with fruit juices or sugar, herbs and spices. One can infer the strong chemical taste of new spirit was being masked.

A second way is to find descriptive notes similar to those of a modern drinks writer. Many of these exist, scattered in a wide variety of sources. For example, Alfred Barnard, who toured Britain’s breweries and distilleries in the late 1800s and wrote numerous volumes to chronicle them, stated that one beer had a “Madeira odour”.

A mid-1800s article once described a rye whiskey as smelling like “fresh-mown hay” – we get it.

Often the formulae were quite general, e.g., “light”, the Victorians’ equivalent of “smooth” today and still a biggie in the coffee table books.

In a home-town newspaper in 1890, the Wrexham Advertiser (via Welsh Online Newspapers), a journalist described Wrexham’s lager well: lovely pale colour, absorbed carbonation like a Champagne, light and “pleasant”. While not as detailed as one would wish it gives a good idea what the beer was like.

Pleasant probably meant much less hoppy than pale or mild ales and clearly less alcoholic. The “depression” reference can be discounted as iffy Victorian medicine but the writer was trying to say the beer wasn’t strong, hoppy, and soporific as ales can be and suited therefore the dinner hour.

Clearly he knew the way lager was drunk in its homelands and thought the style and temper including with food would suit the British more than the sturdy ales and stouts posterity had bequeathed.

No off-flavours are mentioned, which in part may be deference to an important local industry, but reflects more I think the three-month maturation. Long aging probably removed the rough tastes of new fermentation, e.g., from dimethyl sulphide.

Indeed long cellaring was good practice in Europe, but practice and reality were, and are, often two different things. Hence the use of garlic, onion, and similar adjectives to describe many early lagers in British beer annals.

The piece is well-written in general. Obviously the brewery was a local hero and being boosted in the local paper was expected, but still the story gives a good short account of lager’s history in England. It foresaw too the importance lager would ultimately assume to British brewing.

The writer lyricised that the beer was known from “flowery Japan” to the coasts of South America and not to omit, the finest of “Eastern steamers”. Lager was an early prized offering on the cartes of English and American steamships. Pale ales and Guinness were not omitted, but the pride of Munich and, evidently, Wrexham, often graced the menus of the stylish lines.

Note the rhythms of his geographical references, that was a stock device then and he used it well. We see it (in general culture) until about 1970, rocker Ray Davies used it once, quite appropriately in the song Victoria.*

Now, is today Wrexham Lager the toast from, as Davies sang:

Can-a-da to Indi-a,

Austral-ia to Corn-wall

Sing-a-pore to Hong Kong

From the West to the East?

No it is not. Wrexham lager endured all the way to 2000 in Wrexham though, when Carlsberg closed the brewery. And the beer did come back, made on a small scale in Wrexham for draft service. I’m sure it is excellent.

But other, not dissimilar beers, are known on those Kinksian latitudes, Heineken, Carlsberg, Beck’s, maybe Stella Artois now.

It could have been Wrexham lager though, or Anglo-Bavarian’s, or Barclay Perkins’. But British brewers didn’t twig, didn’t move fast enough.

That’s alright mama. I’ll never complain about what the British did do for beer. Incalculable, put it that way.

………………………………………………………………………………..

*American analogues to Ray Davies’ song include Route 66 and Back In The U.S.A.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Welsh Online Newspapers, linked in the text. All intellectual property in the source article belongs solely to the lawful owner who retains all rights thereto, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

It’s Lager’s World…

… and We Just Live in It

In the last 20 years of the 1800s many reasons were advanced for the desirability of the British accustoming to lager, meaning the blonde pilsener style then expanding over Europe and the various German and Austrian types.

One reason was lager was not as strong as ale and porter and was more suitable as a healthful and refreshing drink.

The encroaching temperance movement, while it never attained victory in Britain, had an influence IMO in the promotion by brewing technologists, people like Charles Graham, of lager’s merits. It made it easier for them to do their work, as these were trained and often highly educated people moving in circles of influence in the country.

Those were not the places to rhapsodize over the merits of strong bitter beers, or XX mild ales: it wasn’t going to happen. Whereas lager was at best a quasi-beer by virtue of having three key attributes, it was: 1) foreign, 2) mild in alcohol, and 3) by its very nature non-turbid.

Perhaps a fourth should be added: a chilled serving temperature and well-carbonated in draft form.

To promote such novel malt beverage meant you were almost introducing a new product to the country. Something the parson at tea might find nonplussing.

I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I’ve mentioned before how it is striking in the period mentioned that so many in Britain’s emerging field of brewing science were enthusiasts of lager.

It is an impression I formed over extensive reading in early trade and professional literature, e.g., the Brewers Guardian and Journal of the Institute of Brewing, as well as early brewing textbooks.

It is as if the brewing experts lost faith in Britain’s traditional styles of beer. Of course they helped keep them going too, largely through developing reliable techniques of filtration, cold-aging, and force-carbonation to produce bottled ales and other beers that had some of the characteristics of lager.

Those beers did hold off the lager tide for quite a while, and the taste remained for traditional bitter and mild ales in the pub, but finally by the 1970s lager’s rise was unstoppable and it has long been the mainstay of the British beer trade.

Cask-conditioned ale and now craft beer have been well-promoted through the efforts of lobby groups and consumer beer writers, but it is unlikely they will unseat the Carlings, Heinekens, etc. any time soon.

This 1893 article in the English business press, on Wrexham lager, a successful early lager in the U.K., encapsulates many of the reasons lager was seen as a saviour. The condescending attitude to the working man aside, the article focused on a signal advantage of lager: its clarity, one of the four desiderata above.

Offering a beer crystal-clear to the last drop meant, not just that (in Victorian eyes) it tasted and looked better than cloudy pale ale, but there was no wastage: always of interest to anyone without a deep purse, which is most people.

The desirable features of lager did not come without a price of their own: a garlic or onion taste, noted by many early observers and through the 20th century to this day. The 1893 writer felt the British middle classes, then bitter beer devotees, would hold back from embracing lager on this account.

(He credited the working classes with interest in getting drunk, mainly, and having no gastronomic discernment – unfairly in our view, but there you have it).

Still, the garlic taste, as well as the early pitch taste (barrels lined with brewers’ pitch to minimize infection from the wood), formed no barrier to early acceptance of lager elsewhere, notably the U.S., Canada in parts, Australia, New Zealand. And it didn’t stop lager’s ultimate rise in the U.K. either.

I recall myself detecting this taste in Britain’s mass-market lager into the 2000s.

And so the ale category, all the types in total, steadily fell back for 30 years after lager got its legs in the 1970s, assisted in part by a passel of hot summers.

What really explains the lager domination then? After all it took a long time, much longer than most other places in the world. It couldn’t be just the clarity and non-wastage factor since British ale offered that too in time.

I think factor no. 1 listed above has a great deal to do with it, the foreign. Once people started to travel widely – even Britain’s classes of influence were not great travellers until the 1970s and 80s – they saw lager’s popularity elsewhere. It became magnetic, different from the pint and bottle at home.

The thinness, the onion taste, even the arguable lack of “freshness” by virtue of being pasteurized (most draft lager is too, now) mattered little in the end. Lager was different, and people today want to try something different, the consumer society encourages it.

The proof of it, and quite ironic it is, is that cloudy, thick, and strong beers are once again popular in Britain – American-style craft beer. It is the novelty of the beers that appeals to people, just as the New World hop taste, once dismissed as coarse by English brewers, now becomes strangely appealing.

But it seems unlikely Beavertown, Kernel, Brewdog, I&G, and the hundreds of growing craft ale producers will dislodge blonde lager as ruler of the beer roost. The reason I think lager’s place is assured, by which I mean mass market lager, is the international nature of the business.

The big brewers, with expert helmsmen in the Netherlands, Brussels, Brazil, Copenhagen, know how to keep their market share and grow it too. In this regard, the big British brewers, with an equal opportunity out of the gate, dropped the ball.

Whether it was insularity, lack of confidence, or less skill in the international business arena, they lost the international markets largely they had built up before the 1880s. And therefore all that potential future growth was forestalled.

Guinness was a partial exception, due to the particular features of that beer. Hey, if there was one black beer to be an outlier in international brewing, why not Guinness? Its recent fortunes appear less robust though, and the beer has changed a lot too (IMO) to accommodate modern realities.

Although it took much longer than he thought, the 1893 writer saw the future. He wrote of lager, “… this class of beer will be the beer of the future in the United Kingdom…”. Remarkable prescience.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the British Library’s online catalogue of brewery advertisements, here. The image belongs solely to its lawful owner who retains all rights therein. Image is used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

Brewery Tours in the Age of Acquarius

Let’s Get Back, Pard

The brewery tour has been a standby of the brewing business for a long time. Large breweries perfected it but most breweries accommodated visitors in some form, and today no less.

It makes sense for breweries to “make friends”, as the inimitable American business lingo puts it,  but I don’t care what the cynics say: there’s something special about beer and brewing that encourages the camaraderie.

Perhaps the altered state beer induces encourages amity and welcome.

Back in 1967, Iroquois Brewing Corp. was a rare surviving large brewery in Buffalo, NY (located in the northwestern section of the state, only a couple of hours from Toronto). It had gone through a long period of independence following founding by German-Americans in the 19th century.

In the 1950s it joined one of those regional alliances still with us in an altered form today, and then became independent again.

It was doing well enough by 1967 that it expanded its “hospitality centre”, an event chronicled by the Lackawanna Leader.

The visitor facility was doubled in size by providing a “new” Indian Head Saloon and a Rathskeller.

The word new in the story is ambiguous, suggesting the Indian Head Saloon existed earlier. The images above seem to be from circa 1960 and show many of the features described in the 1967 story.

I’d guess the saloon was enlarged and spruced up in 1967 and perhaps the Rathskeller was added.

The story shows both the future and past of beer in America. The past, in the sense that beer qua beverage and its palate was subsidiary to the general entertainment value of the tour: nothing is mentioned in the story what kind of beer was brewed, or any details of the brewing process or equipment used.

The future appears though, in the sense there was growing public interest to visit breweries: people were interested where their beer came from and to learn more about it.

Almost no one in the beer business though, except a few importers and brewers making characterful products (Fritz Maytag in San Francisco, Ballantine for its IPA), was catering to this marketing opportunity.

Beer was still beer, generic, at most “fresh”, “zesty”, “dry”, “mellow” – the lapidary formulae still popular with the big brewers today.

Iroquois’ growth in the 1960s was fueled largely by a successful tv ad campaign, you can see it here. The genial bartender, Norm Dobmeier, was not an actor, but he was so good in the role he might have been.

He was a Buffalo local who worked in his family’s liquor store. The good-looking patron sampling Iroquois beer both on draft and in bottled form was a professional actor, Phil Scheeler, also a Buffalo resident.

The engaging commercial and the still-potent appeal of the local brewery gave the brand that extra push to last until 1970, but after that the end came fast.

By 1972 the massive Iroquois Brewing plant in central Buffalo had closed, a victim of the unceasing price-cutting and consolidation that affected brewing almost everywhere in North America.

Phil Scheeler is now in his 80s and recently re-appeared to discuss what had been a famous ad in its day in Buffalo. You can see the tv news story here, and it is quite affecting as Norm Dobmeier’s son was interviewed as well and met the tv patron his father had served 50 years earlier.

The commercial was filmed both in the Indian Head Saloon and a restaurant in town that still exists, where Phil Scheeler and Norm’s son had their reunion. Local history at its best.

The tone of the commercial is of course is quite different than today: cheerful, positive, optimistic, vs. the irony-laden content of current advertising.

Is the beer better today though? On the whole, definitely, but I’d like to have tried an “Iri” on draft (unpasteurized) in that neat faux western saloon. I’ll bet it was pretty good, pardner.