The Ineffable Quality of Good Vodka

I know various Slavic countries vie for the honour of devising vodka. Russia and Poland are perennial contenders. But at least we can say, the drink has a deep spiritual connection to both.

With shifting borders too, the idea of appartenance is less important. Lvov, birthplace of J.A. Bazcewski pictured below, is in Ukraine now. The vodka is made in Vienna due to a complex business history, but follows the ancestral, proprietary method.

A well-written article by Natalia Metrak appeared in January this year setting out all you need to know about House of Bazcewski.

By way of enticing introduction, she states, with ample justice:

If you’re unfamiliar with Baczewski, get ready for a tale of innovative marketing, geopolitics, tragedy and defiance.

Founded by a Jewish family before 1800, the brand became the toast of Europe’s bon ton, quite literally.

Zytnia, in contrast, is rye-based, with its own distinguished history, and still made in Poland. See this account of Polmos, the state enterprise that owned the distillery making the brand since the 1920s.

Possibly Zytnia predates the creation of Polmos, but anyway was well-established before WW II. The website explains that it retains an old-fashioned image, from the Communist era, but is also enjoyed by younger consumers.

Certainly Zytnia is highly respected in export markets especially as the high quality comes at a reasonable price. Super-premium vodka today can fetch prices hitherto associated with rare bourbon or long-aged malt. It is questionable whether quality is in proportion past a certain price point.

Baczewski’s Monopolowa, in the median price class, was bought in London. It can’t be found in Ontario at present but the other was sourced at LCBO.

I sampled an ounce of each iced.

They are rather different despite sharing a grain neutral spirits base. Zytnia is more spicy, you hear the balalaika singing out. The other is creamy and flowing, a guitar gently weeping, or it will after four drinks, say.

It may sound odd especially to those schooled on strong-tasting craft beer or whiskey, but vodka of this quality was once an elect choice of spirits connoisseurs.

In post-1918 Paris, Russian or Polish vodka was novel and had cachet, along the lines of modern art. It was sought by emigrés, artists, salon habitués, scenesters in general. Vodka is still popular in all social circles not excluding the elite, but before 1939 had special resonance, in particular for the avant-garde and “society”.

Apart the exotic aspect for urban France, why was this? Because contrary to today’s conventional wisdom the drink can be very good, and distinctive. It somehow turns a neutral quality into a complex, inviting taste.

How it does that, I’m not exactly sure, but the best vodka brings it off. Putting it a different way, the best of it is not actually tasteless, and has ineffable qualities.

But it must be good. The cheap stuff evokes antiseptic clinics and indelicate treatments, a foreign country to the airy chatter of the salon.

But do limit to one drink, will you, alright, two. Slavic (or other) vodka-fanciers might firmly disagree. Perhaps I’d concur if 30 years younger.

 

 

 

 

 

“Anomaly Island”

From a food history standpoint Ireland has presented a puzzle in that certain foods which intuition would suggest are of long, continuous usage, are not.

Cheese is an example. For decades I’ve read in popular and other studies that cheese-making was revived only in the last generation, from a dead letter. See e.g. this article from the blog British Food in America, “The Fall and Rise of Irish Cheese”, and her references.

Cheese, hard and soft, had enjoyed ascendancy with other cream-based products at a much earlier period including when Ireland was a multiplicity of kingdoms. But from the 1700s the cheese tradition declined precipitously. Apparently, no one really knows why.

Butter remained popular, so the materials to make cheese, even at artisan level, were available. For some reason the taste died out. Today Irish cheeses are lauded and I had two very good ones the other day at a stout-tasting. They were most complementary. It’s not as if an antimony is at work in the vitals of both foods that made Ireland choose, so to speak!

Another example is fish. Here, I quote journalist Hugh Butler writing in an American newspaper who visited the Free State in 1930:

Of one thing there can be no doubt. Ireland should be called Anomaly Is­land. Can you imagine an island surrounded by waters abounding in edible fish, where the islanders do not fish or eat fish that others catch? With rivers full of salmon and trout caught only for sport by visitors from abroad?

The lingering disinclination is recorded in this Irish Times story of a few years ago. Certainly in coastal regions fish was consumed, the proposition is meant, as all such, in a relative sense.

Many reasons have been suggested for the fish aversion. One is the idea linking fish with Friday and penance. Another is that the British never encouraged development of fishing, preferring to concentrate resources in England and Scotland. (As to Ulster? I don’t know).

The difficulty of internal transportation and cooling was perhaps another factor.

Sometimes there are complex cultural reasons for these developments, not easy to deconstruct. One thing is certain: all cultures decide what to eat, and what not to eat, or eat much of.

The journalist’s overall point was that Ireland was modernizing in ways unheard of in previous decades. He cites the rise of a sugar industry and Ford tractor-manufacture, and of course Guinness brewery as the oldest-established large industry in Ireland.

The title of this post, Anomaly Island, is a quote from his article.

The article has much else of interest. Butler hears a citizen named Murphy muse with clenched pipe that Ulster is the detached fourth leaf on the Irish clover. Writes the journalist:

One day I was leaning over the bridge which spans the Shannon just below the new hydro-electric works at Ardnacrusha, Limerick. “Ireland never had any luck. She’s got only three leaves on her clover—Leinster, Munster and Connaught — but there’s no making a four-leaf clover out for her by attachin’ Ulster.” I could just catch the words in broad Irish brogue from between his teeth, clenching the inevitable, short-stemmed clay pipe. Patrick Murphy was his name, of course.

“Whether it’s a case of luck or not I can’t make sure.” I thought as we looked over the lazy scene together.

Despite Guinness’s “wealth”, Butler claimed that prior to its recent introduction of commercial advertising “production and exports” from St. James Gate were falling. After modern advertising came in, a spurt in both occurred. Butler clearly liked the beer, although somewhat churlishly he found it expensive.

(Clearly, a Buffalo, NY newspaperman’s expense account went only so far).

Thus, modernity saved the day, as he hoped the sugar and vehicle industries would, “dropp[ing] like falling meteors out of the blue” on the ancient small-holding country.

Today, as any visitor records, it’s all changed. The Irish Tiger may have mellowed a bit, but despite periodic slumps – Canada enjoyed an influx of Irish carpenters and other craftsmen a few years ago – the place goes from strength to strength.

Remember the old line from newly enfranchised Mad Men in interwar Dublin? “Guinness for strength”.

Maybe there was something in that beyond the fevers of marketing brains.

 

 

Billy’s Bar in New York – Part III

Seek and ye Shall Find

In two earlier posts I discussed aspects of Billy’s, a pre-Prohibition saloon in New York that revived with Repeal in 1933. It endured as a venerated bar and steakhouse until about a dozen years ago.

See this post for Part I, and this one for Part II.

This new post is Part III, as additional information was uncovered that answers a couple of questions I posed earlier.

Archer Winsten was a syndicated columnist from the 30s-80s, specializing in film and entertainment.

His work often had a “city” quality given that New York and other big cities were nerve-centres for film and theatrical production and exhibition. Actors and other professionals of the field frequented bars and parties whose fashionable or other particular qualities got the attention of arts beagles like Archer Winsten.

In a column in the New York Post on March 20, 1935* he profiled Billy’s. The owner, Billy Condron, Jr., a descendant of the founder (the surname is spelled Condren in some accounts) insisted on retaining gas lamps from the gilded age, even at an outsize cost.

This is the only gas-lighted saloon in the city and is well worth the trip over if you don’t live nearby in Sutton or Beekman Place. Lots of peo­ple coming in don’t know enough about gas light­ing to be sure they’re looking at gas mantles. Billy Condron, Jr., on duty at night, obligingly turns them up and down and waits for the “I’ll be darned.”

Electricity had rendered the necessary “gas mantles” rare and expensive. My earlier work suggests that Condron, Jr. finally dispensed with the old lighting kit a few years later. But clearly in mid-1935 it was still in place, as the above image shows.

Winsten also had interesting things to say about the English-style beer pumps still on the bar, and the beer that once flowed through them:

Another feature, always mentioned in stories about the place (John Chapman, O. O. Mclntyre, the New Yorker, etc.), is the old-fashioned hand-pumped beer spigots, now in disuse but brightly polished. They used to pour forth new ale, musty ale, old ale, cream ale, stock ale, still ale, porter and stout from huge hogsheads at cellar tempera­ture. They don’t make hogsheads that big any more; they don’t make the ales, and people don’t ask for them.

It’s of interest that numerous writers, and no less than New Yorker magazine, took notice of now antique-looking handpumps and their curved housing. They of course dispensed cask ale and stout in the day, as famously they do still (ahem) in the U.K., and many places in North America again due to the Beer Revolution.

Yet by 1935 in New York the pumps were démodé, decoration: no beer was served from them, it is now clear. I think they may have dispensed ice water due to the pitchers pictured, but Winsten doesn’t state that.

His comments about old beer types being passé including musty ale, subject of a lengthy article of mine in Brewery History, here, are somewhat perfunctory. 

Some pre-lager beer styles did survive Prohibition, so he was not quite accurate, but it’s true that the refinements of “still ale” or “old ale”, say, had gone with the wind, so to speak.

Certainly, most or all of the ale and porter re-introduced post-Repeal was served cold and carbonated. This included apparently the famed Ballantine India Pale Ale, although we think it possible stray barrels were made available “on cask” into the 1940s.

Be that as it may, musty ale certainly had disappeared for practical purposes after Repeal.

Winsten’s statement that no one calls for the ales anymore is also disingenuous. It is an old gambit of the licensed trade to state no one asks for things they don’t offer. Frequently they don’t offer them because brewers decided to stop making them. If something isn’t offered and promoted, no one will ask for it, it stands to reason.

Of course the producers blame the public, who doesn’t ask for it, and it’s a vicious circle.

The circle was broken by intrepid craft brewers about 40 years ago. They stopped taking pat knowledge and the old commonplaces for granted.

IPA as reinvented by them found many people “… asking for the ales…”, finally.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the digital collection of the New York Public Library, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Via the Fulton Historical newspaper collection, here.

 

Union College and the Time of Schaefer

Union College is a long-established, non-denominational, liberal arts school in Schenectady, NY, an old Dutch settlement far up the Hudson Valley watershed.

In 1948 its students organized a social centre and bar they called Dutchmens’ Rathskeller.

The information on the establishment and operation of the bar set out below was gleaned from numerous articles in back issues of the college’s newspaper, Concordiensis, collected in the New York State Historic Newspapers’ digital archive.

The Rathskeller was in part financed and built by the students themselves, eg. numerous Greek societies made contributions. Interestingly, the plan to create a licensed bar was first bruited in 1918.

The Board of Trustees concurred with the plan then, as it did in 1948, but the onset of National Prohibition in 1920 likely made the idea moot. In any case, it became a reality in 1948.

In the 1950s the bar was noted for its weekend jazz concerts. For years it ran under student management but by the 1970s the food service was contracted out.

Still, the cellar bar continued successfully, selling the popular draft beers of the day and region, including Schaefer, made in Manhattan and a modern new plant, from 1972, in Allentown, PA.

This 1995 article in Concordiensis chronicled the history of the Rathskeller, including the cessation of alcohol service in 1985.

This seems an odd reversal, as one tends to think of social and moral change as continual, ever-liberal, and irreversible. It’s not true, as contrasted with science and technology, from whose progressive, inexorable truths one can’t turn back.

10 years before the article appeared, the drinking age to purchase alcohol in New York was raised from 19 to 21. It had been 18 since 1933, and was raised to 19 a couple of years before the change in 1985, the last to date.

It meant most of the student body couldn’t drink in a bar set up with that purpose in mind, among others. And so the licence to serve alcohol was surrendered.

A school that in Truman’s era let 18 to 20-year-olds, some with military service connected to WW II, enjoy a beer henceforth had to chart a new course. Dura lex sed lex.

Happily, the Rathskeller of Union College continues to this day, but alcohol-free. A flood destroyed much of the original interior and furnishings some years ago but restoration took place and the vaulted ceiling and some of the furnishings are original.

In the Rathskeller’s bibulous past, beer companies took the opportunity to advertise to the student body. Schaefer brewery in 1959 was particularly imaginative, as we see from an issue of the school newspaper that year, in this ad:

The wacky parody of author Ernest Hemingway, his 1930s protagonist kitted out like a 50s beatnik (or beatnik-cum-Che Guevara, we might say now), must have amused the more literate charges of the school.

I find it funny, anyway, and it shows too that even 60 years ago Papa was far advanced in the pantheon of immortal American writers.

Indeed this is barely less true today. Every time I ask an undergrad in modern academe studying American Lit what they’re reading, sure as shootin’ Champ Hemingway is there.

Some non-tech, cultural phenomena aren’t mutable, you see. So sing the conquistadores of American letters, if you can hear them.

Below is an image, from Union College’s website, of the Dutchmens’ Rathskeller today.

We fondly recall similar resorts at our alma mater, McGill University in Montreal. They provided welcome respite from the hard hours of courses and harder chairs in the library.

We wish the Rathskeller of Union College another successful 70 years’ operation, and beyond, whatever drinks it serves.

Note re images: The first image shown is drawn from the 1959 advertisement linked in the text, via New York State Historical Newspapers. The second image appears on the website of Union College also linked above. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Whence Taurus Cider?

We try to keep up on brand lines and trends, including internationally, for drinks other than beer and whisky.  Cider is one, a drink we enjoy but very occasionally.

We have a fine selection of craft cider now in Ontario. I could get into ciders more, but after all there is only so much time and budget, not to mention the need to rein in alcohol to (what we consider) a reasonable limit.

One brand that caught our attention in Britain recently is Taurus Original Cider. It is a store brand of Aldi, the German-owned discount supermarket empire. Aldi, an acronym for Albrecht Discount, is a saga unto itself, maybe for another time.

I looked for an Aldi near Hammersmith/Shepherd’s Bush but couldn’t find one on my recent trip to London. I must have seen an ad in a newspaper or flyer, possibly on my earlier trip this year.

It becomes second nature coming across new brands to check their origin – but I couldn’t find the answer for Taurus, and still can’t. The Aldi listings state that a blend of apples is used, which doesn’t say much. To be sure, the labels state “Made in Devon”, but this doesn’t mean the apples in the drink are grown there, necessarily.

This list of Devon cider producers states that some use local Devon varieties, but clearly not all do, or for all the apples in the blends.

Some listings and reviews describe the origin as “unknown”, or “provenance unknown“. The labels seem to have a styling reminiscent of Strongbow, so one wonders if that brand might supply juice or concentrate for fermentation in Devon into Taurus cider, partly anyway.

Strongbow is produced by Bulmer, an old concern in Heredfordshire in west-central England, another cider region. Heineken has owned the company for some years now. Apparently most of the apples in Strongbow are sourced from local orchards.

Some reviews of Taurus, which includes pear and “dark fruit” iterations, liken it to Strongbow but note it is drier or more tart. In general the reviews are quite positive and consider the drink excellent value, in keeping with Aldi’s reputation as a quality, discount supplier.

Cider in Britain today must be composed of at least 35% apples, juice or concentrated form. A lot, especially at the lower end, uses juice or concentrate from various European countries, so Taurus might be made from those apples, in whole or part again.

Thinking about the name Taurus though, I wonder if it offers a clue to possible origins. Everyone knows the name is a zodiac sign from astrology, and the bull, shown on the label, is the symbol. So perhaps it’s nothing more than that, the idea of the bull suggesting a sturdy or potent drink.

Yet Taurus is not particularly strong, 5.3% abv. It’s not akin to the cheaper, so-called white ciders, White Ace and that sort said to appeal to those wanting blotto fast for the least money. The “whites” are usually stronger, around 7% abv and often sold in PET for bulk imbibing.

Could Taurus be a slight re-working of the name Taunus? Taunus is a mountain area in Hesse in Germany, a state with a noted cider tradition. Aldi is a German business, after all. Maybe the apples or a defining part come from there. Possibly the cider is German-made and shipped in although this might be inconsistent with “Made in Devon”.

What else? Taurus is also the name of a mountain region in southern Turkey. In that area, the Gömbe valley has famous and prolific apple orchards.

But Turkey is not known as a sizeable apple exporter and I doubt produces cider commercially. I checked lists of world apple products exporters, and Turkey does not figure even in the top 15. Still, I don’t rule out a Turkish connection.

Are these other connotations just coincidence? Quite possibly, but I’m still not sure.

I leave you with this culturally-rich rumination on European ciders from New York’s The Sun in 1907. One hesitates to correct such a source, but I think they got their German geography wrong. The Taunus hills are in Hesse, central Germany, not in old Prussia.

Sachsenhausen, also mentioned in the account for cider quality, has more than one situs in Germany. There is one in Hesse (the Frankfurt district) but also Oranienburg in Brandenburg, north of Berlin, part of historic Prussia, see here.

Oranienburg was noted for apples too. I’ve tracked down at least one surviving drink, a cider mulled with cream. So I think Prussia was involved in the cider tradition, but not via the Taunus hills.

 

The Bitter Test

Bitter or Burton, old boy?

Off and on almost since beginning my work here I’ve written of brewers’ fairs and similar events where beers are exhibited and sometimes judged. The last one discussed an 1877 lager exhibition and contest in New York.

The sources for that one came from keyword searches using terms such as “beer testing”, “beer tasting”, and analogs. Those searches also produced a series of stories in the U.S. press I saved for discussion when I got back from my recent London/Great British Beer Festival trip.

They dealt with a body called called The Brewers Exhibition, in London, and its beer awards. They date mostly from the interwar period which partly coincided of course with American Prohibition.

Coincidentally, on my London trip I learned that award-winning English beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones wrote a book on the history of these awards, called today the International Brewing Awards. ATJ, as he is known, appeared at GBBF and I intended to see him anyway to obtain a signed copy of his The Seven Moods of Craft Beer: 350 Great Craft Beers From Around the World.

In the event I also came home with his (2015) Brewing Champions: a History of The International Brewing Awards.

The book is a lively and complete account of the origins and history of these long-standing beer awards. With rare exceptions only professional brewers are called on to appraise their colleagues’ work, through blind judging. It is a process that by its nature encourages excellence.

Many brews have and continue to advertise having won an International Brewing Award, in Canada our late, lamented Labatt India Pale Ale regularly touted this in the 1950s.

The book therefore saves one the trouble of looking for further information on The Brewers Exhibition and its awards. ATJ has provided the complete story and benefitted clearly from the organization’s private archive. He also includes the full span of awards results which are of great interest especially from a brewing history standpoint.

As for any industry, awards systems vary in their ownership, organization, composition of judging panels, and terms of entry. In total they provide a vital role in the brewing business and the beer market at large. Awards systems create a certain amount of excitement, of buzz. This is necessary to maintaining consumer interest and helps sustain business and professional morale.

The International Brewing Awards has proved its especial worth by its great longevity, as it started in 1888, a decade after the Brewers’ Exhibition inaugurated. The happily-named brewing supplies firm, Gillman & Spencer, sponsored the first, 1888 competition. The awards went from strength to strength, and were suspended only during wartime or for other unusual circumstance.

(I will review in time The Seven Moods book, a superb effort that charts a new and imaginative direction. This is quite apart from the sparkling prose, noteworthy unto itself).

So, what further do I have to say about these awards? Not much, but I’ll leave you with just one item from the interwar press. It bears the provocative title, “These Brewers Don’t Enjoy Work”. The story was published in a Schenectady, NY paper in 1922, and also appeared in other newspapers in New York State, in 1921.

It offered a tantalizing look at a normal beer environment to newly-parched Americans, with the twist that despite the wealth of beer around them the judges didn’t drink a drop!

Most U.S. press coverage on the Exhibition’s beer competitions in the period stress the point: We can’t find beer for love or money yet these experts in London, surrounded by fine beer, recoil from a single swallow!

It was the perfect story for Prohibition America and it resonated into the Depression, up to 1939.

Not all beer-judging operates this way, as I know from my involvement in another award system, The World Beer Awards. But that was how The Brewers Exhibition did it, at least then.

The detached, professional approach was enhanced by the judges wearing black coat and tie, as photos and a 1938 Pathe newsreel make evident. Yet, a popular dimension was not lacking. The Schenectady story notes the judges sipped at the table from the same glass beaker on the basis this was “matey”. Men looking like Fleet Street bankers were still matey…

Food in the nature of a relish was served including blue cheese, to keep the palates fresh. This seems a little odd as such eatables can put off the palate especially when combined with certain beers. (The practice often in the wine world is to serve plain bread or crackers, for example).

For this reason, and the inevitable palate fatigue that occurred even if beer was not swallowed, the palate was said to “come and go”. The story added that sometimes the judges don’t know if they’re tasting “bitter or Burton”.

In sum, beers were judged with evident purpose, colleagues met and socialized, and (no doubt) the men sunk a few pints post-judging – they inhaled, we might put it.

Obs. Some things have changed since 1920. Even with the time lag to draw and distribute filled beakers, they are described as carrying a large head. The lead judge then blows off the foam with ceremony before sipping and passing the beaker. That doesn’t sound like cask ale today, even when well-served. Even the best billowing, loose head only lasts a minute or so. But there you have it.

Note re image: The image shown is drawn from a 1922 Buffalo newspaper, the Courier, in the Fulton Historical historical newspaper archive. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

Brewers’ Marks Explained

From the unlikely source of a newspaper in San Francisco, in 1901, comes an explanation of the usual English brewers’ marks used in British commerce (XXX, AK, etc.).

In fact, two explanations appear, same city, same newspaper, but separated by nine years. Each is similar but not quite the same.

The source is unusual to say the least, as the information is imparted, not just in the United States where such beers did not trade, but in the form of a reply to readers’ queries. Moreover California by then was lager country with steam beer still hanging on: unlike the east ale was virtually unknown.

Yet the correspondents were based in California, according to the replies given.

This was not a reprint from a U.K. newspaper, in other words, as frequently occurred at the time.

So why would readers in sunny California seek such exotica? Maybe the feature, at least in some cases, was an editors’ resort, to fill up space. The fact that a similar question was answered twice in 10 years, in the same paper, suggests this I think.

Still, perhaps Britons in the city, maybe retired with time on their hands, sent in the questions, it’s possible.

I’ve look at brewers’ designations before, and in this post discussed a hitherto obscure pamphlet from c.1850 that described the different qualities of Swan Brewery’s beers, and by implication other beers carrying similar designations.

The pamphlet is most useful but not an attempt to “decode” designations as such. Rather, it describes the general sorts of beer available and the proper occasions for their use.

I also found the only suggestion so far, in the period of its ascendancy, on the meaning of AK. It’s “keeping ale”, or by reasonable implication, ale for keeping. See here.

19th-century brewing literature sometimes considers where the X’s came from in X, XX, and XXX ales, as well-known by beer historians.

So the 1901 and 1910 material is novel and, as far as it goes, helpful. Where it came from, no one knows. Maybe the newspapers cabled sources in London, or just put together something from their libraries or research departments.

The “40 as compared with 30”, omitted in the second reply for obvious reasons, probably refers to brewers’ pounds gravity. 30 brewers pounds gravity is 1083 OG, see this 19th-century drinks writer for how the conversion works.

So, from the San Francisco Call on August 16, 1901:

BREWERS’ MARKS— A. O. S., City. The marks on casks containing beer or ale signifies the degree of strength. X stands for the Latin word simplex or single, XX for duplex or double and XXX for triplex or triple strength. AK means light bitter beer; AKK, lighter still, P. A., pale ale, and XL, extra strong, being 40 as compared with 30, XXX.

And from the same newspaper in October 1910, a similar answer appears here:

MARKS ON BARRELS— F. T. W., City. What is the meaning of marks on brewers’ barrels such at X, XX, PA, AK. etc.? It is a method of intimating the original Latin names for various degrees of strength and quality of the contents of the barrel so marked. X means simplex. XX means duplex. XXX means triplex. This was the method used at first, but in time other qualities of beers and ales were introduced and it became necessary to add new distinctive marks, such as XL, PA, AK, AKK, etc. AK means that the contents of the barrel is light, bitter beer; AKK, lighter still; PA, pale ale; XL, extra strong.

AK is called “light bitter beer”, which of course it was. And so on.

Not earth-shattering but good to know that someone turned to their mind to this question back in the day, if only a Yankee editor on a slow day in the newsroom. As far as I know, it’s the only time (x 2) an explanation was sought/offered as to the main brewers’ marks then in use or in memory of those writing.

One would expect to see something like this in a Victorian mercantile glossary or brewers’ or public house trade publication. If that exists, no one has found it yet to my knowledge.

Stratford-upon-Avon, 1946: a Summer’s Night Dream

I am standing today at a gravestone in Trinity church. Sixteen feet below me lies the greatest writing man that ever lived. If this story is better than usual, you can thank William Shakespeare. The odor of apple blossoms is wafting through the door. White swans are gliding on the River Avon. Kegs of India Pale Ale are rumbling into the cellar of the Dirty Duck tavern. Actors down the street are rehearsing “Love’s Labor Lost.” The Shakespeare industry under the leadership of Sir Archibald Flower, purveyor of culture and light bitter beer, is about to resume for the 1946 season. I do not know which is more important to Stratford: Shakespeare or Sir Archie but between them they have brought to life a summer night’s dream. Let us first consider the gravestone of Will Shakespeare, Gent….

Thus began, in semi-supercilious tone reflecting period and source country, an American journalist’s record of his visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1946. He was there for the opening of the Repertory season.

The writer was a staff correspondent for United Press, and his story appeared that year in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in California.

The season evidently was off to a grand start. Local guides were stationed strategically in Shakespeare’s home and haunts to tout visitors, English and other. Rehearsals were underway, including for Love’s Labour Lost.

Beer flowed (this is England), and food in restaurants was decent while still under “austerity”. In a word the war was over, or mostly.

Sir Archibald Dennis Flower was of the noted Flower family and its local brewery, later absorbed by Whitbread. He comes in for multiple mentions albeit by an insouciant diminutive, Sir Archie. The writer, Frederick Othman (1905-1958), didn’t think ill of the beer though. He supped it without complaint in local pubs. These included notably the Black Swan, better known, presumably derisively at least originally, as The Dirty Duck.

Othman mentions the beer under two names – India Pale Ale and light bitter. Perhaps two sorts were offered, or they were considered synonyms. A scribbler out of L.A. could be forgiven for not knowing what India Pale Ale was before setting foot in Blighty. Presumably he was told the name, or saw it on a sign or rumbling barrel.

Sir Archie is lauded as “purveyor of culture and light bitter beer”. In truth the Flower family was a great supporter of Shakespeare’s art and had funded construction of the first Shakespeare theatre.

The people of Stratford, though, the locals, are typed as careless of the Bard’s deathless legacy except as it supports the town. One, a Mrs. Tetley, confesses to Othman that she has never seen a Shakespeare performance. Seeking a book of the sonnets from a local publisher, Othman notes the business is locked and a sign directs inquiries to a nearby “garage”.

Othman’s spin was a little unfair, and his assertion of parity by not having climbed Washington Monument, a little hollow, but there you have it.

Ultimately he finds his visit worthwhile, sort of. This was the way many Americans used to travel and observe. It was their way, without apology as is legion today. (I heard it myself many times in hotel breakfast rooms and lounges in multiple visits to Europe this year, proferred needlessly).

In 2018 the Dirty Duck quacks along, big time. In fact it is a kind of auxiliary to the Royal Shakespeare Company, see the informative account hyperlinked in the pub’s name above. Greene King runs it now, which is fine by me.

Othman took care to note that in Flowers pubs other brands of beers were also available. These could have been within Sir Archie’s stable, which Othman wouldn’t have known, but still it is interesting that he noted apparent variances to the main brewery affiliation. Why would an American journalist notice this…?

Note re images: the first image was sourced from the webpage, Our Warwickshire, here, the second image from the website of the Dirty Duck in Stratford-Upon-Avon linked in the text, and the last from this eBay listing. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 

Pale Ale, Goldhawk Road, Memories

One of the things I noticed on my two trips to London this year, including a week-long “residency” at GBBF 2018 (!), was the prevalence of “pale ale” in the market. Pale ale today in the U.K. performs the office of IPA here, a hoppy, dryish beer driven by New World hops.

I think the reason for this, versus IPA as the staple non-lager, non-bitter, is the 4% ABV norm. It suits the British consumption pattern and tax rules. To be sure there is IPA in Britain, but the price and lower alcohol of pale ale make it more suited to the market.

In contrast, in North America you don’t see the pale ale appellation all that often on blackboard menus. Our session IPA kind of fills that function, but the English pale ales are better because the aggressive hopping and light body of session IPA don’t really match, imo of course.

The U.K. pales have lotsa hops but they do the two-step neatly with the light body rather than squash on its toes.

These pale beers are a modern take on the gran-dads Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Stone Pale Ale (still deservedly big sellers), with the indigenous Camden Pale Ale and Meantime London Pale Ale more recent inspirations. White pith citrus remains a signature but today often with traces of dank or mango.

A typical example is Gun Brewery’s Scaramanga Extra Pale Ale. With the multi-syllabic name ending in a vowel I thought an Australian vibe might be intended. The explanation is quite other, as you can read here, a well-written précis of beer and brewery by BeerBods, the online beer club and growing media presence.

The brewery sounds as cool and contemporary as the prose which brings it to life.

I drank a pint in a Draft House in Hammersmith after a three-hour perambulation in the Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush and its market, and Brook Green. A better restorative, to dip into Michael Jackson’s mock Victorian idiom, could hardly be imagined.

I had meant to pass by the former Goldhawk Social Club, a famous 1960s incubator for R&B and mod bands, not least The Who. I never got there, I knew where it was, further to Dalling Road coming from the east, but I had to turn back just short of there, not enough time.

Speaking of Mr. Jackson, earlier on the trip we did visit his old Young’s local, The Thatched House, just off Dalling Road again but nearer to the high street in Hammersmith. It was a bittersweet experience.

The Young’s Special Bitter was pretty good although not quite what I remember, and the décor seemed different.

Things have changed since his day and the times I had met him there, but this is inevitable over a period of 20-30 years.

Today in London there is English pale ale, the modern type, to concentrate the mind. He made it all happen, anyway. Enough said.

 

 

 

 

 

Ontario’s Buck a Beer Plan

Ontario’s new Buck a Beer plan is an invitation to brewers in Ontario to lower prices to that level, as the new Ontario government announced a reduction of the beer floor price to $1.00 per bottle or small can. It had been 25% higher, or $1.25. A floor was enacted in 2008 with the stated object of minimizing alcohol abuse, see this story in Toronto’s The Star that year for background.

The current change fulfilled a campaign promise by Conservative party leader and Ontario Premier, Doug Ford.

Buck a Beer applies to maximum 5.6% ABV beer. It doesn’t include a refundable deposit on the container, or apply to draft beer.

Part of the plan involves LCBO stores giving discounts or other preferences on floor displays or prime shelf locations for the new cheap beer. As explained in an August 7 story in Toronto’s The Globe & Mail:

To encourage for [sic] brewers to lower their prices, the government is creating what it calls the buck-a-beer challenge, which will provide participating breweries with incentives at the provincially owned LCBO stores. Beers lowered to $1 could receive promotional and advertising support, short-term discounts and more prominent displays in the stores.

Encouraging brewers to sell at their preferred price point above $0.99 per bottle is, in our view, not objectionable (see below). But giving government support for buck a beer via the incentives mentioned seems unwarranted when brewers must pay normal charges for other beer. We need to see the details, but I hope this aspect is short-lived. In this regard, therefore, I agree with the concerns expressed by many beer commenters.

But many in the craft beer community are also opposed to brewers selling beer for a dollar a bottle, or feel the plan is illusory, and there I have another view.

It’s often pointed out that before Ford’s announcement no brewer sold beer at the previous floor price, or $30 a case, so why now?

I think the new floor price, an even dollar, has assumed a symbolic importance for the new government and those who voted for it based on this plank. It recalls the time, about 12 years ago, of low-price beer in Ontario.

As beer is perceived to be expensive here – even if it’s relatively low-cost compared to many other provinces – the government hopes the floor price drop will work a larger change in beer pricing. For some beer.

You can buy a 24-pack for 16 or 17 dollars (U.S.) in New York State – about a buck a beer Canadian. It’s not the best beer by a long shot, but it’s beer. And a case can be bought in Quebec today, I’ve read, for around $28.00. While taxation differences in different places, and other factors, explain some of this, many people just feel that standard beer should cost less in Ontario.

Ford’s plan can be viewed too as in practise encouraging pricing over the minimum but well below current pricing/discounting.

Even if buck a beer is not a regular offering it could be a special, or “kicker” from time to time, even a loss leader, a common business technique.

Some craft brewers state they would be forced to lessen quality in order to compete, that $1.00 per bottle is not feasible when costs of production and taxes (taxes are not being reduced) are factored.

But from a public interest standpoint, lower prices (on some product) are desirable, as for any consumable. Those who can’t afford beer at present should have a better option. They may even graduate to better beer once their economic prospects improve, which is good for the beer business.

In fact, two small brewers have just announced they will sell beer for a buck a bottle once the new rules take effect from August 27.

Of course, no one has to buy this beer, just as they didn’t in 2007, the choice is the consumer’s. But beer is not always or even typically for highly developed tastes. It is for everyone and everyone decides for himself or herself what to buy. The fact that neither I nor, perhaps, you is likely to buy cheap beer is neither here nor there.

Over and above other considerations though, the craft market really stands apart from all this. Buck a beer isn’t its competition. A lot of craft beer exceeds 5.6% ABV. Right there a chunk of the craft market is exempt from the new plan.

Beyond that, those who appreciate the fine products of craft brewers will pay more for them as they always have. Consider how various qualities of cheese, bread, many other comestibles, cars, and of course wine are priced.

If some mass market beer drops in price, current craft prices arguably make even more sense. The reason is that craft and mass market beer can be so different as to be separate products.

I think Ford’s plan was designed mainly to make large brewers drop their prices, through greater efficiencies or whatever it takes, so some mass market lager could be priced more cheaply. This doesn’t mean some craft brewers can’t take advantage of the new plan, as evidently some intend. I don’t think it will be the norm, but some may find a niche for reasons that relate to their type of marketing, or location, or some other specific factor.

Two Buck Chuck, the famously low-priced wine, didn’t kill the Napa Valley. Read some interesting history in Jessica Tyler’s story this year in Business Insider. The category is called extreme value. We need that for beer in Ontario.

So why all the fuss over Buck a Beer?