Britain’s Beer Festival, on Film

Among the near-inexhaustible riches of British Movietones archives is a curio on YouTube called Britain’s Beer Festival. The black and white newsreel covers a sizeable festival held in 1972* at the historic Alexandra Palace, Muswell Hill, London. The narrator calls it Ally-Pally, as many Britons still do.

Looking at it today, one could be forgiven for thinking the festival was an eccentric version of early CAMRA – The Campaign for Real Ale – festivals. People are seated in long ranks versus CAMRA’s mostly standing format, the demographic is older than at early CAMRA fests, and pressurized draft beer was served vs. CAMRA’s insistence on naturally-conditioned, or “cask” ale.

Still, commonalties suggest themselves: the large hall format (vs. pub, hotel, or club), the large number of people, the live musical entertainment, the dancing. And course draught beer being the focus.

CAMRA is Britain’s premier consumer beer lobby. Around 1972 regional CAMRA branches started holding small-scale festivals but CAMRA’s large-scale, annual festival in London, including a few years stand at the All Pally itself, started some years after Britain’s Beer Festival.

As in the case of a 1960s-70s beer festival held in Kilkenny, Ireland – see my description here – the 1972 Ally Pally festival had to influence later CAMRA festivals, especially the big annual one held for some years now at Olympia in Hammersmith. Ally Pally’s event had the benefit of Movietones newsreel publicity and anyhow, such events have a way of entering beer industry and consumer consciousness.

The allusion in the newsreel to a British Oktoberfest shows the influence, as well, of the iconic German event on CAMRA’s festival format. Many Movietone and Pathe reels document German beer festivals starting as early as, for practical purposes here, 1952, so that is part of the precedent mix here as well. It all entered the national beer psyche, with CAMRA’s festival style ending as a long-lasting, much-loved feature of the British beer scene.

Returning to the 1972 Movietones reel, it seems Truman’s, then sizeable in London brewing, was sponsor, or one of them. The reference to “free beer” is curious as unless the hundreds seated were hosted by the brewery, presumably they had to pay something. Perhaps a first evening was reserved for non-paying guests of the brewery, with the remaining sessions accessible by paid entry.

A “Ben Truman Export” was drawn, a pale ale, the full name was Ben Truman Export Draught. A careful eye will note that Tuborg draft (lager) was also served. Danish Tuborg was a good beer then, we remember! Indeed it may still be, we must revisit.

It would interesting to know if only Truman’s and Tuborg lager were served. Perhaps the Ally-Pally’s museum has a file on Britain’s Beer Festival of 1972. I’ve never been to Ally Pally, but hope to remedy this on a visit to London next summer.

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*For the precise dates, see my comment added below.

 

 

 

Burton-based Ind Coope Group in 1961

Pump up the Volume

In 1961 Ind Coope Group in Burton-on-Trent sponsored a British Movietones documentary of its history. The group was already in process of merger with two other large concerns, Ansells (Birmingham) and Tetley’s (Leeds), to become mighty Allied Breweries.

The narrator noted the new development but stated the film would be a history of Ind Coope – hence intentionally or not it serves as an elegy to an important patch in the brewing landscape of ca. 1960. The term British is particularly apt as its units in Alloa, Scotland, and Wrexham, Wales are prominently featured in the film, which features warm colour tones and the even warmer voice of narrator Geoffrey Sumner.

Sumner was a Devon-born actor who had a long side career narrating for Movietones. The film is a visual counterpart to the lush written corporate histories of breweries and distillers I chronicled in an earlier phase here some years ago. (Today yet similar are done via websites, podcasts, Facebook, etc. Corporate salesmanship – vital to our economy – never ends).

To our knowledge this film has not been listed or commented on by others who delve in similar subjects. We offer it here to enhance the record but also for its many points of interest.

First, the drum beat of lager beer is ever-present – yet this is 1961, when lager as a whole was minuscule in sales in Britain. Clearly the major domos at Ind Coope saw it as their future, hence the heavy emphasis on the Wrexham and Alloa breweries and constant re-building and improvement there.

The emphasis too on the Victoria Wines and Spirits unit (retailing) and bottling of sherry and other wines shows Ind Coope was betting on wine becoming big in Britain, and it did, just as lager did finally. Skol and Long Life brands are pictured regularly, as well as Double Diamond, the star bottled ale and emerging keg beer of the group.

A bouncy jazz pop score provides the perfect period backdrop.

Speaking of drops, where is cask ale mentioned, the source of the fortunes of the early founders of the group? Hardly at all. Only at the very end are hand pumps shown, in an older pub adorned with polished brass and burnished oak. Cask ale is “there” but in a way to show the company thought it was on its way out, at least that is how I read it. And so it proved to be, in the sense of the heart and soul of British brewing.

When corporate and marketing titans set their minds on what is to be, often as not it happens. It is not to say trends can’t be introduced by others – the early history of craft beer is an example – but sooner or later, the big picture is drawn by those who have the infrastructure and resources to work change on a large scale.

A short bit on pub modernization picks up themes advanced by prewar pub improvement advocates, not least Rev. Father Basil Jellicoe whom I chronicled recently. The film depicts pleasing and civilized Ind Coope pubs, an apt counterpart to the model pub Jellicoe bruited in ringing tones in a striking 1930 Movietones reel, see my Part II. The circle was now complete, with religious subtext foregone.

In the Ind Coope film, Sumner tells viewers that lemonade or coffee is available in the company’s pubs – alcohol is an option now, not a requirement for entry. A gleaming food bar is shown, with a pink gammon displayed under a spic and span glass dome.

Pub premises, regardless of original architectural style, are shown as inviting and comfortable – a true second home, intones the narrator in dulcet tones – he sounds almost like Jellicoe.

Had Jellicoe lived to 1961 – he’d have been only 62 – he would have been suffused with happiness at how Ind Coope presented its pubs and popular hotels. His vision was now complete, except with a secular-corporate benevolence substituting for that of Anglican Communion.

Some reading may find the narrator’s voice oddly familiar. If you do, and happen to like hip-hop, maybe it’s because Sumner speaks in a landmark 1986 rap song, Paid in Full, by Eric B. & Rakim. The tune samples part of his narration from a 1950s LP introducing stereophonic sound. See the official video, here.*

With the breathy yet assured voice of Sumner in aid, Eric B. and Rakim were announcing a new era in music and beats. Sumner in 1961, as a few years earlier for stereo music, was announcing a new future for British brewing – one that largely came to be.**

N.B. Today Ind Coope’s Burton brewery is owned by Molson-Coors, a contemporary version of the 1960s brewing empire that was, at end of 1961, Allied Breweries.

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*This version is the remix by Coldcut.

**Indeed all these futures came to be. The undeniable and beneficent rise of craft brewing has not changed the big picture, in our view.

 

 

A Spiced Porter Made to Order

 

I have discussed blending of beers off and on for years, on this site since starting it July 2015, and before that on discussion boards and others’ blogs.

By blending, I mean the home blending of beers. The tradition of blending at the bar is old and well-established: the light-and-bitter, the bitter tops, the half and half, the Snakebite (has a cider element), the Black and Tan, list goes on.

The Calgary Red-Eye, which contains tomato juice, is a type of blend that Canada invented or at least popularized a long time ago, certainly in the pre-craft days. It is referred to in The Great Canadian Beer Book, a Toronto publication from c. 1975 I have discussed before.

The tomato is technically a fruit, yet few brewers to my knowledge have produced a Red-Eye among their range of fruit-flavoured beers. Time for a revival surely. I can foresee Red-Eyes that blend, say a tomato juice and two different forms of ale. Only the imagination limits the variations, and flavour-palette, possible.

At one time beer blends were popular at the bar but one encounters them less often today, here or in the U.K. It is a result of fashion more than anything else, but for this reason probably, doing similar at home has fallen out. Yet, the logic is as good as ever.

Many still consider it somehow wrong or a makeshift practice. It is not, in our view, as the main elements of beer are similar enough – malt, hops, yeast –  that combining different products simply “re-orders” the elements into a new and often pleasing combination.

Brewers have blended commercially for ages, it is too well established to document for the scope of these notes. For example, three threads and other numbered thread beers (two, four, etc.), on which we have written extensively, were at the basis of porter. (Some disagree with that, but we are firmly convinced of the link for many reasons, as discussed here and in other forums over the years).

Blending beers in this way can be likened to brewing itself, where different malt and hops are combined to obtain a pleasing unity of flavours. Brewing is a form of cooking, and blending finished beers at home is a form of kitchen art, just as making a smoothie is from fruit, milk, yogurt, spices, etc.

Some consider that beers of one brewery only should be blended but extensive trial shows us that beers from any source can be combined, provided only the final result is pleasing. For one thing, beers from one brewery may differ in yeast type used or other aspects so much that combining products from different sources achieves like with like more, were that the object.

Recently we combined Imperial and export stouts from Ontario and a London Porter with a (local) pumpkin ale, to excellent effect. Each contributed a valuable element in the mix even as each was pleasing on its own.

It made a kind of spiced porter, which has an independent history anyway if validation was needed (but it isn’t). If such a drink was presented as a usual finished beer to any drinker familiar with the style, a pumpkin or spiced porter, say, few would consider it wrong-tasting; au contraire. But anyone can do this, it is not rocket science.

I do it sometimes to use up ends of bottles and cans, but often to get a specific result from freshly opened containers. The carbonation in stored, partly filled containers is usually more than satisfactory as I close the bottles with temporary closures. The cans, left on their own, hold enough residual carbonation to make a good contribution to the result, even after standing a few days.

This avoids, too, wasting beer by discarding it, which saves resources and money, a preoccupation of our times.

It’s all malt, it’s all hops, and the other usual things that go in beer. One can re-arrange them to please one’s palate but apart professional or home brewers, few try it in my experience, even old hands at the beer glass. It really bears more exploration.

Here is an early Victorian reference to a spiced porter, part of a medical account. The context suggests an intention for the mixture to be a specific, or home remedy – the indication was to cure a head-ache. The drink may well have been heated, or in winter.

Spiced porter evidently could be based on a single type of porter, or, as porter was often mixed at the bar of young and old types, on a blend. “Purl”, a mix of gin and porter, and perhaps sugar, was probably also the base of some spiced beer.

These compounds broadly derive from the Wassail-bowls of early times along with cups, flips, and other mixtures in which beer figured. The professionalisation of brewing has resulted in practices seeming makeshift or amateur that at one time were widespread in most beer lands.

My drink was in effect a spiced porter, as the pumpkin beer used, Highballer Pumpkin Ale from Cambridge, Ontario, had a good dose of fragrant spices (as well as including some actual pumpkin). I hadn’t thought of heating the blend, but may try it next time, with the winter drawing ever near.

 

 

 

A Toronto Grisette Impresses

What is the beer known as grisette? I could write pages, I could a few lines; the latter will suffice. The term in French means greyish, it can also mean, or rather did in the 19th century, a young woman of modest background.

There were young and well-matured grisette beers, so a metaphorical meaning seems doubtful unless one accepts the theory that young women known by that name, or wearing a grey serving costume, typically served the beer in the Hainaut of Belgium, reputed birthplace of the style. Tournai was one centre, in French-speaking Wallonia.

Miners were said to favour the drink. It seems a subset of the saison family, itself rather misty in definition the further you go back.

One more thing: some say malted wheat is a signature. Many Belgian and northern French beers are known for an addition of unmalted wheat, but grisette seems often to use the malted form, similar in this respect to the Polish Grodziskie (aka Gratzer) style.

Seemingly in essence grisette is a low-gravity refresher with a wheaty character, one which at least today avoids the lactic or Brettanomyces character.

The sizeable Toronto restaurant with brewery attached called Northern Maverick makes a grisette, currently available at the bar and in the bottle shop. What does it taste like?

It tastes great: the best kind of light drink, dryish, yet with pleasing residual malt in the finish – it has character. The yeast note is prominent – a dry starchy taste like in some breads – but without the chalky taste typically associated with the saison and tripel styles. (That taste is not a bad thing in itself but has had wide application in brewing whether in Belgium, France, or craft brewing worldwide; it’s nice to try a variation).

The extra hops promised by the label add good savour too. They are bitter-neutral in type, not New World citric, which suits the style in our view.

Classic artisan brewing in the very non-farmhouse setting of downtown Toronto.

A Taste of La Choulette

One of the old school family breweries in France is La Choulette, in Hordain, a small village in the Nord region. It is in the Valenciennes district, some 40 kilometres from Lille and only 20 kilometers from Belgium.

Founded in 1895 by an ancestor of current owner and head brewer Alain Dhaussy, the brewery acquired its current name in 1986. Such was the success of the Choulette brand, launched in 1981, that the brewery took the name of its star product for its own.

The brewery makes a sizeable number of beers (see its website) in numerous styles. The Choulette line of bières de garde includes blonde, brown, and amber versions. The beers are top-fermented and given (see website) a period of at least one month’s aging, the “keeping” referred to in the name. Some brewers today make the garde style using bottom fermentation and the style in general is quite flexible and hard to pin down, but unquestionably La Choulette’s is among the most authentic.

Numerous small brewers in Nord-Pas-de-Calais have issued bières de garde since the 1970s and 80s. It was a way to recall the ancestral, top-fermentation tradition in the region that was finally displaced by lager, a process that occurred in many parts of the world but was delayed in the French North until the mid-1900s. Putting it differently, it allowed small producers to compete more effectively against mass market lager breweries.

In about 1992 I visited La Choulette with the late beer author Michael Jackson (1942-2007). The brewery was, and remains, a sturdy red-brick complex with a courtyard as its centre. One of the buildings was the home of the proprietors. We were greeted by Alain Dhaussy and he is still in charge today. The brewery remains relatively small with under 15 in total staff. It stands mid-way between the new wave of craft brewers and large industrialized brewers who dominate sales in France, as in most places.

There were almost 3000 village breweries in Nord-Pas-de-Calais when La Choulette was founded. By the 1990s, only about a dozen family independents had survived, of which about half remain today including La Choulette, yet the survivors formed a bridge to the region’s currently vibrant craft era. They are in a word an essential part of the history.

According to a special publication, Bières et Brasseurs du Nord et du Pas-de-Calais published by the media group La Voix du Nord, in 2018 some 65 breweries in Nord-Pas-de-Calais were in operation, out of 1,200 in France as a whole. Those 65, now surely a higher number, made at least 350 brands, more if one accounts for line extensions and special releases.

La Choulette takes its place justly among those 65 + as a senior member and its products reflect high standards, a result of the brewing tradition it inherited and also new ideas inaugurated by Alain Dhaussy or influenced by the new craft sensibility. It is the best of all possible worlds, the line-up of La Choulette in Hordain.

We especially liked the Amber Choulette, pictured here. I found the beer again recently in Montreal, tasting exactly as in France.

It has a full, complex flavour, quite different from the standard conception at least in North America of a “Belgian ale”. The beer is somewhat earthy, dark fruit estery, with malty/caramel tones, and an interesting tonic or “camphor” edge, almost gin-like to my taste. It has no tart notes, and is quite different from a Flanders brown style, East or West.

The yeast seems highly distinctive and I believe the flavours comes from that and the malts and hops. No spices or herbs are utilized, as far as I could tell. The beer seems closer to some English ale styles than contemporary non-sour Belgian ales, or perhaps mid-way between the two if that makes sense. To my mind La Choulette Amber typifies locality, especially as it tastes exactly as I recall from 30 years ago.

A perfect beer with a meal or flavoursome cheese, it is, what’s more, an analogue to a robust red wine. Quebeckers are fortunate to be able to buy the beer from the SAQ, the government liquor and wine retailer. Americans can buy it too who have access to the Shelton Brothers’ impressive importation range. It seems likely some UK importers offer the Amber as well or another of the Choulette gardes.

N.B. According to the label description, a choulette was the ball in one of the numerous mallet-and-ball games handed down through the ages in the French north country.