Back to the Future (Part I)

A Belgo-French Beer Expert Predicts the Future; “Running Beer” Explained

Among the “Brewing Library” series sponsored by the 19th century trade journal, Le Moniteur de la Brasserie, was La Bière de L’Avenir, or The Beer of the Future. It was authored by Auguste Laurent, clearly of the Brussels Laurent family behind the Moniteur. Perhaps he wrote the uncredited volume on blending also published by the Moniteur two years earlier, which I discussed here two days ago.

Just as today when a few years – or a few days, as in 2020 – can make a large difference to an industry, this appears from the 1873 book, compared that is to 1871.

Laurent in 1873 stated there was almost no aged beer in the market except for some old lambic and Faro in Belgium. The ancestral bière de garde (keeping beer) of France, he states, and presumably the analogous bière de saison of Belgium, had disappeared in favour of low-gravity, young beers, the bières courantes. The term literally means in English, everyday or ordinary beers.

Parenthesis. A previously unnoticed (or unpublicized, to my knowledge) connection may be noted between the term bières courantes and the “running beers” or “runners” of late-1800s British brewing, words that have caused no little puzzlement to today’s beer writers. This is not for the meaning, which has always been clear – beers with little no aging sent out for quick consumption – but the etymology. Why “running”?

I and others have speculated it was a borrowing from a sprinting human or conveyance (cart, car, train). In other words, a metaphor for moving fast to point of consumption, to ensure deal condition. One thing you can’t do with cask ale – the running beer of our time – is keep it very long. It runs, not walks, to reverse the axiom.

But I think now this is all wrong. Courir, the French verb, means to run. “Running beer” was probably simply a hasty or mistranslation of “courante“. “Courante” itself, for beer, perhaps was a rendering of the English “ordinary” – a pint of Young’s Ordinary, eh? In fact ordinary equates to running in English brewing, and likely preceded the latter in usage.

It seems less likely that courante was borrowed from “running”, as courante in its usual French meaning describes well a non-aged, or vintage if you will, beer. There is no reason to look to British brewing usage to explain the term. Vins courants is a standard term in French wine terminology, for example.

Returning to Laurent’s thesis, he argues that taxes on beer in France and Belgium were too high and, especially for France, complicated to administer. He advocated the English tax-on-malt system, even thought it would be replaced in a few years by a tax on beer gravity.

He also states there were too many brewers – 6,000 between the two countries. This, with the tax load, lead to excessive competition and a lessening of beer quality. Specifically, since it cost money to age beer, it was cheaper to make beer for everyday consumption, and cut corners on materials. Laurent states these beers were “table” quality or not much higher.  Contemporary analyses of late-1800s beer strength for France and Belgium bear this out, apart a few local specialties (lambic and some beer in Lille then on the strong side, 6% ABV territory).

Laurent states originally, most beer was stronger and aged – the bières de garde. This beer he notes, could have a vinous edge, but this contributed to its digestibility in his view. Between the two books, it is clear he includes in this class the beer of Strasbourg, whose aged form, the bière de mars, was made between January and March and meant for drinking in summer but often was kept longer, a year or two.

(This March beer differed from that of Brussels which was young beer often blended with lambic to form faro. The Strasbourg beer was notable as well, this from other sources, for a lightly smoked quality and use of German hops. The smoke taste came from using wood to kiln the malt. Clearly, Rauch [smoked] Bier in Germany is a descendant of this tradition).

However, Laurent states this Strasbourg beer, while still ostensibly available, resembled an aged château whose bricks were shedding – a charming image of 19th century beer commentary. So again, the idea that taxation and competition were affecting quality.

His remedy, and I simplify as any who can read the book, should, was to restore the older, stronger, aged beer. He advises to take inspiration from England, specifically Burton-on-Trent where pale ale was stocked to maturity before being sent to market including in bottled form. He was writing at a high point of the British beer trade and noted with envy how British beer had a large part – more than half he states – of the world export beer market.

The strength of this pale ale, at 6%-7%+, clearly trumped the Franco-Belgian norm, and the high quality of the malt and hops was noted as well.

There are comments in the book that a defect of English pale ale was excessive dryness. Likely this was noticed in beer imported to France and Belgium whose attenuation ran close to FG 1000 (zero, in effect) due to a prolonged secondary fermentation in cask or bottle. That said, English brewing was still felt the ideal, with double stout being mentioned as a particular type to emulate.

Now, why not German brewing as a model? Laurent hardly ignores the subject, but dismisses Bavarian lager, as well as the Vienna form, as too rich in taste and hard to digest. Indeed at that time, lager was generally high in final gravity and fairly low in alcohol. Laurent states it was consumed for its food value in its home lands but in Britain, France, and Belgium, people did not drink beer for sustenance, and needed something less filling.

He also is dismissive for another, interesting reason. He views lager as an artificial beer due to its reliance on chilling in many stages of its production and consumption. In this sense, I think he appreciated the gastronomic superiority of the best top-fermented beer, a form of brewing that long predated bottom-fermented lager and its industrial refinements.

The net is, he vaunted English-style beer as the future, which he felt again would simply reinstate the ancestral keeping beers of France and Belgium.

He also argued for a greatly diminished number of breweries. He looked again to Burton, where he said 20 breweries did the lion’s share of production.  It was better, he said, to have fewer but larger, well-equipped and financed breweries than thousands of village breweries. In another striking image, he states some French and Belgian beers didn’t even make the rounds of their own village whereas Burton beer was known around the world.*

In this respect the predictions rang true.

It looks like he was radically wrong about top-fermenting British beer trumping lager as beer of the future, given how lager has swept the world since the 1870s. Yet, looking beneath the surface, Laurent was not far wrong. Look at the kind of lager that conquered the globe. It wasn’t the dark, heavy, sweet, beer of 1870s Bavaria. That beer has changed. It became much lighter in colour (not too far in fact from pale ale in its English heyday), drier, and also rose in strength to its present c. 5% ABV.

That is the Heineken, Stella, Carlsberg, Peroni, Budweiser, etc. of today.

True, long aging was finally dispensed for this beer. Not too long after Laurent wrote, industrial refrigeration was perfected. Further, other means, notably cylindro-conical fermentation, were adopted that precluded the need for lengthy conditioning.

But the type of beer broadly that Laurent wanted – a beer not too weak, and not too dry or sweet – is essentially what good quality, modern lager is. Modern lager is certainly not sour, and it must be said that much bière de garde/saison was tart, judging at least from the historical record.** But as I noted in my earlier post, the Moniteur stated that the best aged beer should not taste of vinegar. Some British beer observers held the same in the 1800s. A term used to describe this was “sound old”.

(The decline of ale and porter vs. lager historically may be due, in good part anyway, to the fact that rarely were the former at their best).

Today, with a renewed fashion for barrel-aged and keeping styles of beer, a range attends the market. They run (sorry) from the frankly sour to a piquant type that I think Laurent would have admired.

For a continuation of this post, see Part II.

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*Of course today, craft culture, under impetus of the landmark beer author Michael Jackson (1942-2007), reversed the calculus. Jackson lauded and created a world sensation for precisely the type of breweries, and many of the beers, Laurent felt were retrograde.

**See pp. 245 et seq. as an illustration, here, in the manual of Lacambre, a pioneering, mid-1800s French beer author. Laurent refers to him numerous times in his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Back to the Future (Part I)”

  1. What about ‘courante’ meaning (or sounding like) ‘current’, as in contemporary styles? Lighter, paler etc. since the introduction of indirect firing of malt kilns, 1850 on.

    • Good thinking Michael (I’d expect no less), but he states specifically that courante means “jeune”, so unaged… See pg. 43.

      Gary

      • Also, vins courants was a standard term in commerce meaning everyday table wine, often blended, and not aged at any rate in the fashion of estate wines, see e.g., here, from 1837.

        So it looks to me like a term usual in French wine and beer commerce, to mean the everyday, bulk, or table wine, call it what you will, low-cost and therefore not long kept or in a way at any rate comparable to the vintages of the estates.

        Of course in these matters rarely is there a “smoking gun” but I think I’ve gotten closer than anyone else to the true explanation.

  2. Hi Gary ,
    Nice article , But I also think Laurent would probably been quite happy with a Pale Strong (Ish) Mild Ale ,
    Best Regards ,
    Edd

    • Hi Edd:

      Thanks for this, and of course I am summarising a lengthy study.

      In fact, Laurent does state that non-aged beers have a place and in another striking phrase, he states they have his respect while biere de garde has his “esteem”. I think he may have disagreed though on strength, as he regarded the ordinary beers as worthy for being refreshing and for table use.

      But general point taken, and in fact the book does reflect the worth of the running beers.

      Gary

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