Spiced Beef for Christmas


In Britain in past centuries a special dish was reserved for this season: a cured and spiced round, leg, or brisket of beef. It was often prepared in manor houses or prosperous farms. The great culinary writer Elizabeth David devoted almost three pages to it in her classic, Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Penguin, 1970).

She explained that the dish was largely forgotten in postwar London. Intent on restoring the old specialty, in 1958 she informed “Mr. Ducat”, the “master-butcher and creator of the famous French boucherie at Harrod’s”, that she would publish a recipe in the Christmas Vogue.

In response he offered to make the dish available at Christmas in Harrod’s Food Halls. So he did, with her help, and it was an immediate success. By 1970 Harrod’s was selling thousands of pounds of spiced beef each year.

When cooked, spiced beef is scarlet-coloured, similar to corned or salt beef in that respect. It is best prepared in a large “joint”, as the British would say. Not less than 20 bovine lbs were deployed in the old days. Spiced beef was typically a set piece among festive dishes that might include roast goose and chestnut stuffing, roast turkey, sirloin of beef, baked apple, mince pudding or pie, or baked ham.

Elizabeth David’s extended encomium on the dish showed her deep respect for, and interest in the traditional foods of Britain. She specified that the beef must be dry-cured, not brined, and stated the character is vitally affected as a result. She specified too that the meat must lie in dry pickle upwards of one month.

She adds that properly prepared, spiced beef gives some indication of the food eaten by one’s British ancestors centuries ago, at least by those who could afford the best to gladden the season.

Spiced beef can be viewed as a kind of a vintage ham, a dish of the piquant and the salt. Not something for every day, but few things are, really. This is what the cooked result looks like, neatly trimmed as it should be for plating:


When I moved to Toronto 30 years ago a few small butchers still offered it at Christmas. Often a full leg or other joint would be displayed in the window labeled “Christmas beef” or “spiced beef”. When seeing this, I wondered what the taste could possibly be.

I’m from a tradition that takes pride in its corned beef and pastrami – we know from corned beef, you might say. I knew of Irish or London salt silverside, often boiled with cabbage or carrots, but Davidian spiced beef seemed a dish apart.

I mustered the courage to buy it and was intrigued with the taste: spicy, salty, with hints of clove, nutmeg, and other scents of Noël time. The taste was unique in my experience. Good ham is the closest analogy but the beef taste, married to the confectionary spicing, set it apart. It was both similar and dissimilar to Jewish corned beef as served cold.

As the years went by these small butchers mostly disappeared. Of the one or two that continue, or the odd revivalist, I hope they offer still the dish.

But as Elizabeth David explains, anyone up for it can make the dish. She is very specific on instructions. Writes David, “On no account should anyone allow themselves to be persuaded that dry-spiced beef should be boiled or simmered on top of the stove”. Yes Madam.

She advises a simple accompaniment of sliced tomato and cucumber, or an avocado salad. These work perfectly, of course. A couple of years ago when shopping in the larder that is Summerhill Market in Rosedale, Toronto I noticed a sign in the glassed deli counter: “Spiced beef, only at Christmas”.

I thought, that’s what the little stores on upper Yonge Street used to sell, what Elizabeth David memorialized in her book. Summerhill Market has kept it going, perhaps for a few tenacious old customers, or maybe just from sheer habit.

Buying some, I saw the taste was very good, similar to what David described. The ingredients in their recipe are in the label below and the slices shown above, from the same package.


A few slices with good whole-grain bread, mustard, and salad makes a satisfying meal of a late-autumn or early winter evening. With some sparkling wine or a good ale you’re in clover, of a fashion.

Salt advisory: these old foods from the pre-refrigeration era can be fearsomely high in sodium minerals, once prized for their preservative power. Spiced beef is not for those shy of the saline hit, in other words. Still, just a few slices satisfy, and eaten with vegetables and good bread, makes a reasonable meal of occasion, or so we think.


A short except from David’s recipe (which is more a mini-social history):


Heineken Gets Even Better On Its Home Turf


Heineken has released locally (i.e., in the The Netherlands) a version of its famed beer which is kept cold from production until sale from the retail shelf. The beer is also protected from light by a special paper wrapper.

Light can damage beer, particularly when stored in green bottles, although the effect is not invariable and seems in general to be less of a problem than it was. Still, any shielding from light is to be welcomed, an advantage draft beer has by its nature.

Thanks to blog follower Alan in The Netherlands for sending me this and the image.

The last time I had Heineken was in Montreal a few months ago, the standard green bottle. It was very good, no hint of light-struck character or a weedy, skunky taste. It was clean and fresh-tasting with good sweet malt and noticeable hops. Heineken is 100% barley malt. About twenty years ago, the company abandoned the former formula which incorporated some grain adjunct (unmalted corn or another grain). This was a smart move by Heineken, a far-seeing step that has IMO kept the beer front and centre in the quality ranks.

This new version should be even better. It would be interesting to have a comparison from someone in the country, old bottle vs. new. A blind test would be even better.

One question I have is whether the new wrapped one is pasteurized. I would think not, given the end-to-end refrigeration and if so this is all to the good. General readers may not realize that pasteurization is not a necessary procedure for the brewhouse, applying it or not has nothing to do with health issues as it does for certain food products including milk. It is done to ensure greater stability, to extend shelf life by preventing or at least delaying damp paper and other off-flavours from “staling” or oxidation.

Craft brewers generally don’t pasteurize although there are exceptions. I always felt pasteurization does affect beer taste by imparting a slight “cooked” note, although some brewers disagree. Certainly it is nothing most people would notice. I am not against pasteurization as such as the trade-off – better quality for longer –  often is worth it, but all things equal it is better that beer not be pasteurized, IMO.

Postscript: Further checking online confirmed that in English one would call it Heineken Extra Fresh, but little additional background was found, at least in English. To me the only really important question is whether the product is pasteurized. If it is not, a new category indeed has been created…



A Look Back At Newman’s Brewery of Albany, NY – Long Read

That Was Then: The Beer Scene In The Early 80’s

Back in the early 1980’s, there were few options for what is called craft beer today. Anchor Brewing of San Francisco, a quasi-craft brewery, was seminal: its Steam Beer, Porter and Old Foghorn were serving as inspiration for true start-ups. After a spate of openings out west between 1976 and 1980, most of the newbies closed. Sierra Nevada (’80), Redhook (’82), Boulder Brewing (’79) and Hales Ales (’83) represent a slighter later generation and have endured. There were by ’83-’84 a few brewpubs as well on the West Coast both in Canada and the United States, and a handful were starting in the East. Wm. S. Newman Brewing Co. of Albany, New York (’81) was in the second-generation of microbreweries but it was the first in the East and faced the risks the earliest pioneers braved in California.

In Montreal, Quebec, where I lived then, the beers available covered only a narrow range. You could get products of the large national breweries (Molson, Labatt, O’Keefe) and the few imports then carried by the Provincial liquor monopoly such as Tuborg, Heineken, McEwan’s Scotch Ale, Beck’s. For anything more interesting, a visit to a liquor store in New York State was obligatoire. These stores had many beers of good interest, I recall some Belgian ales including one or two Trappists, English beers like Theakston’s and Ruddles, and all the Irish stouts. Guinness Extra Stout was very good then. There were lots of German choices too (Wurzburger!), and the snappy La Belle Strasbourgeoise from Alsace. Plus Aussie imports of quality like the range from Cooper’s of Adelaide and Sheaf Stout.

And so we hopped in to my wife’s “boat”, a blue, square-shape Chrysler gifted by her family in Winnipeg, and pushed it down the autoroute and U.S. thruway system to reach well-stocked shelves in Albany, NY and other large towns. There were smaller towns nearer to Montreal, such as Plattsburgh or Lake George, but beer choice there was fairly restricted too. Only the larger centres had a good range of imports, the decent old-school East Coasters still left (e.g., Yuengling and Stegmaier’s Porter, Ballantine IPA, Maximus Super) and the craft beers from out West starting to penetrate the East.



In those days, a car trip like that was fun. The U.S. Interstate system was a marvel of design and efficiency, and there was the money for upkeep. The relative lack of traffic made it a pleasure to wend down to one’s destination. Add to this the many charms of upstate New York’s hilly and other various terrain.

After a few of these trips and having tried the beers mentioned, I was looking for craft products closer to home and learned of Wm. S. Newman Brewing in Albany, a city I knew anyway as a weekend destination. This was not just for good beer but its restaurants and the general American atmosphere then novel to most Canadians. For example, many of the fast food chains were not established yet in Canada and a trip to McDonald’s was a treat. It was!


My first tastings of the Newman beers were in 1982, when they were draft-only. I bought the beer at the brewery to take home or tried it in the bars. How could a draft beer be available for takeaway? Because it was packaged in square “poly” cubes, pictured here. Of course these were intended for quick consumption but they lasted a week or so if you weren’t picky about a fizzy pint.

Above are pictured Bill and Marie at work in the brewery. What types of beer did Newman’s brew? I recall a pale ale and a winter warmer, the range is well-depicted in the link above from Jess Kidden’s beer pages. The beers were soft and malty with a fresh taste. To my best recollection, they didn’t have the big Cascade-dominated taste of the West Coast. The English beers I tasted on trips to the U.K. later in the 80’s were more estery and with a more developed hop character. Still, Newman’s beers were like nothing else then in the market. They were fresh, local, and handmade: the definition of real ale and as welcome to beer fans here as English real ales were to CAMRA devotees.

Bill, a lanky guy whose shape ran counter to the popular image of the gemütlichkeit brewer, ran the small brewery in a basic, warehouse-like structure. It was in an old part of Albany. Marie helped him. Bill had worked for the state government as a budget analyst, and had been a home brewer and aficionado of English ales and English ways in general. I recall he liked Morris dancing and participated in a local club devoted to this pastime. The name Newman is, or can be, English and I’d guess Bill had the heritage in his background.

In Albany, you could find the beer on draft at various places, one was a tavern at the end of the street the brewery was on, Thacher Street. It was a workingman’s place that had survived in a once busy factory area, now half-derelict. For a time anyway, the beer was pulled on handpump there, and later sold as pressurized draft. Most bars in town that carried the beer offered it in fizzy chilled form only. Cask as a general concept was just a distant dream, then. In a leafy district past The Egg,  a corner bar carried it called the Washington Tavern, pictured below (it looks much the same as I recall it). I remember one thickset bartender who joked, “I prefer Michelob, the additives must agree with me”. (A little unfair to what was then a good draft beer).


Albany, then and surely now, was a dignified town as the seat of state government, and was fairly quiet certainly in the evening. I recall taking in some local theatre, and dining at Jack’s Oyster House, a fine seafood house with an old-fashioned atmosphere, all polished banquettes and big rocks glasses of martinis and Manhattans. (I can remember the Old Gran-dad bourbon ads on billboards in and around the town, and that bourbon was great then!).


During the day we would walk, trying to take in parts of the river, obscured as in many cities by years of industrialization and highway or bridge construction. Jack’s served all manner of seafood including the more or less regional chowders and scrods, but I remember its cherrystone clams best, super-fresh and rubbery in texture but what a taste! They did Clams Casino too, and Oysters Rockefeller, but nothing matched those cherrystones.

Amazingly, Jack’s still exists, and the menu looks very similar to a generation ago although I didn’t see any cherrystones – maybe I missed them.

As I said before, we would visit the local beer stores, Beverage Centers I think they were called, and select beers to take home. I recall on one such trip buying a six of Murphy Stout that had a strong smoky taste, they must have been using, if not brown malt, a black patent that was similar in its effects. In later years, including in England, I would buy this beer on draft and in bottles or cans and it never tasted like that again. A friend in Montreal said it was like licking a charred piece of wood the day after a campfire.

A Brewing Seminar At Newman’s

In the mid-80’s, Bill was running weekend brewing seminars to make some extra coin. I decided to attend one of these, and went down for a couple of days. This was I think the first time I had met him and Marie “proper”. We did a mash, I remember the malt being ground and then dropped into the tun from a hopper to mix with hot water. I think too I helped Bill shovel out the spent grains from the previous mash. Then came the boil with hops and especially the fermentation with the huge rocky head and the heady, sharp fruit smell a good ferment causes. Finally, a beer with Bill, he called it a “beer break”. It was hard work of course, as all brewers know, and the end result was very gratifying. Beer really does go best after physical effort be it factory work, a long walk or some kind of workout.

I liked the pale ale best, the winter warmer was good too but had a strong cereal quality I didn’t quite take to. Both were all-malt beers, very natural, the quintessence of local.

I always felt that hands-on experience helped me a lot after to understand beer, brewing and beer history. It can’t be quite the same for someone who has never done it either commercially or in home-brewing.

The End of Newman’s Brewery 

Unfortunately Newman’s couldn’t make a go of it. Convincing locals to try the beer was a challenge the brewery never really overcome. In a word, it was, as beer authority Michael Jackson had written, ahead of its time. The venture came just a few years too early. It’s strange because Albany was a renowned centre of ale-brewing in the 1800’s and noted for it even into the 1900’s. Bill knew this and had felt this background would incline people to accept a restoration of old tradition. But they didn’t, and it goes to show how fast things can change. Especially in the U.S. when trends are ever-mutating and social change can be so rapid, there weren’t nearly enough people in the 80’s in New York State’s Capital Region to care about good beer and keep Newman’s afloat and growing.

No doubt too, had enough money been available to last another two or three years, success would have come in spades, but under-capitalization is the bugaboo of nascent businesses. I’m not sure how much money Bill started with, but Sierra Nevada started with $50,000 in 1979. That was a fair chunk of change then. Not to take away of course from the vision and enterprise of its founders.

Success finally did attend numerous early East Coast microbrewing pioneers, it happened of course in Boston with Boston Brewing Company. (Jim Koch was a graduate of Bill’s weekend brewing seminars, one might add). Perhaps Albany didn’t have, then, the nexus of interests – in good food, wine, historical revivalism – that was necessary to support a draft-only brewery in a new and untested field. The brewery closed in 1986. After that, Bill had a beer brewed under contract in Utica by F.X. Matt Brewery (now Matt Brewery, well-known for its Saranac line), called Newman’s Albany Amber. This was apparently a lager and was nice enough but didn’t sell big numbers and was taken off the market after a few years.

Bill Newman Today

I caught up with Bill a couple of years ago. He told me he was very gratified to see the surge in interest in craft beer since his day and is (very justly) proud of his role in it. Bill still follows the beer scene with interest. Many people in Albany recall his vision and achievements with respect and admiration.

This Is Now: Bill’s Influence on Me

While I had tasted bottle-conditioned beers before sampling the Newman beers including Sierra Nevada’s beers and Boulder Pale Ale, Bill’s draft, especially the naturally-conditioned beer served on hand pull, first opened my eyes to real ale, as we called it then. The proof is this: My first taste of real ale in England was at the Sun Inn, Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury. I had learned of the pub, a CAMRA hang out, via The Essential Guide To London by David Benedictus, a talented, often comic writer who is still with us and active.  He had a section, “Streets In Which One Has Been Happy”, and Lamb’s Conduit Street was one. The Sun Inn was recommended in his pub section, and so this was a double act I could not pass up.

I can’t recall the first beer I tried in the Sun Inn, but I do remember thinking, “Newman, it’s like his beer”.

Note re images:  The Washington Tavern image was sourced from this travel website (Trip Advisor). The image of the Newmans is from www.examiner.com, in its excellent series on early American craft breweries, here. The picture of rural upstate New York, and Albany from the air, are in the public domain as far as I know.









Beep Beep For a Beer

IMG_20151212_161832I visited Goose Island years ago in Chicago not long after the place was starting to develop legs. I was there twice in fact. I never really liked the beers to be honest. The brewpub was a fun place, large and with a good menu, but the beers seemed so-so to me. In particular, the famous IPA always seemed an odd bird with a “garden greenery” nose and taste that was not that attractive.

In later years, I did try various GI beers when I could get them, and certainly the Bourbon County Stout made an impression although – not to sound ungrateful – I don’t think bourbon barrels suit strong stout or any beer. But that’s aside the point as the beer is a landmark in recent American brewing history, to be sure.

There was one beer I did like though, Honkers Ale, probably because it has an English-oriented palate. There are some English hops in the beer, particularly the aroma, and a good soft fruits quality which evokes a certain tradition in English brewing. It isn’t the best American ale certainly, but a sound choice for a tasty, solid beer or two. Its 4.3% ABV is a nice change from the usual higher gravities of American pale and India pale beers, as well.

When GI’s IPA and Honkers became available here on draft a couple of years ago now, I believe they were imported from Chicago, or an American production locale at any rate. This draft was okay but I always like to try a beer in a can or bottle as one has the best chance to get it in optimal condition and without risk of unclean lines or other bad handling, which is more of a problem than many realize.

As it was time, today I tried the canned version available at The Beer Store, which is brewed now at various Labatt plants in Canada including in London, ON. This arrangement follows the purchase of Goose Island by mega-brewer Anheuser Busch InBev a few years ago.

The nose was fruity, almost like an Extra Special Bitter – well, Fuller’s – in England, but also say like Red Tail Ale of Mendocino Brewing or Red Hook‘s ESB or Audible Ale, which were influenced by English ale styles. There was a modest but welcome note of floral hops, I’d guess Golding, famous for hundreds of years as one of the premier ale hops. The taste was fairly full, bearing in mind too the 4.3% ABV, with a toffee-like note. It’s probably from caramel or crystal malt, a characteristic of the “bitter'” which lorded English town and dale until brewery consolidation reduced choice there and craft brewers started to introduce the American (citric) hop taste. (Good judges of beer in England tell me the old taste is far from history though, which is good to know).

And indeed Honkers does feature an American twang too, both in the flavour and finish, I’d call it a grapefruit/rhubarb taste. Withal it is of transatlantic character, while naturally more fowl than fish. 🙂

The can showed no oxidation whatever – no damp paper smell or acetic development. This is a testament to the skill of big brewery staff and impeccable brewhouse procedures. I’d guess the beer is pasteurized but can’t really tell – all to the good.

The field is still open for a brewer in Canada or the U.S. to make a really English-tasting beer. I am sure a few exist here or there, but nothing widely available as far as I know. If Honkers had a stronger dose of those Goldings and used Fuggles or Target or another English hop as the bitterness backbone, it would be a stand out. But then it wouldn’t be Honkers, and a lot of people like it, so Honkers should stay as it is, and someone should fill this gap.

The true English flavour in top-fermented beer is unbeatable, but it has to be done right. The old Courage beers, e.g., Best Bitter or Directors, or the old Ruddles, would be a great place to start. (Image below is from Charles Wells’ website, here).



From “Oak and Alder” to Porter


seemingly enigmatic statement in 1823 on porter helps illuminate the black drink’s byzantine history. The note appeared on pg. 28 of Volume 7 of The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, Etc., edited by John Jephson and George Fitzclarence. The Gazette was one of those learned compendiums of thought characteristic of the 1800s. The anonymous writer, clearly of a certain age, explained that when young, different strengths of beer were served “in Town”, meaning London. These were, he stated, Single, Two Threads, and Three Threads.

The Gazette contributor also stated porter was introduced to London by Felix Calvert, a leading porter-brewer in the 1700s, to supply the “general palate” of these thread beers. This is saying that porter copied the flavour of the thread drinks, of which three threads was always the best known.

This is a variation of the theory, expressed by John Feltham some twenty years earlier in The Picture Of London, that Ralph Harwood, another London porter-brewer, introduced porter to replace the mix of beers called three threads. Calvert may have been a more plausible source for the new, unmixed porter than the comparatively small operator, Harwood. Whether so or not, the really interesting part of the note in the 1823 Literary Gazette is this: in Norfolk, an agricultural area then noted for barley and malt, the thread beers were called “Oak and Alder”. The entry described this as a beer from “two sorts” and, presumably because Oak and Alder would strike most English readers as delphic, said it was a “mixed Nogg”. A nog was and is an alcoholic drink compounded in various ways: egg nog has survived notably in North America and soon will be consumed across the land as Christmas is almost nigh.

Oak wood and alder wood, both commonly found still in Norfolk, are hardwoods. Hardwoods (various types) were used in English malting practice as a fuel to kiln barley malt to a deep brown hue and crispy consistency. Brown malt was the basis of porter in the 1700’s and a component of all London porter until the drink left the scene in the mid-1900’s. The wood was burned in a way to reduce its smoke output but that some entered the malt and finished beer is undeniable based on numerous well-known sources.

Oak-and-Alder aka mixed Nogg aka Two Threads and Three Threads were brown, porter-like beers – how can we infer this? Because the 1801 Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts contains a discussion on barley cultivation in Norfolk (anonymous contributor) which states sub-standard barley was used locally to make “brown malt” for “Norfolk nog”, a beer suitable for “porters and coal heavers”. So poor in starch yield was this grain that treacle was added to ensure the necessary sugar to make sufficient alcohol. So we know that around 1800, Norfolk nog, or one commonly known type, was a dark brown, somewhat smoky beer due to its brown malt. And movers of goods – porters and other workmen – liked it due to its cheap cost, just as they liked porter in London, the drink supposedly named after them.

A variant name for this Norfolk tipple, the 1823 Literary Gazette tells us, was Oak and Alder. The words oak and alder could only have referred to woods used to make the brown malt in these beers, as opposed, say, to being a kind of rhyming slang or having some other origin. It would be too coincidental for the words not to mean this. One beer in an oak-and-alder may have been brewed from malt kilned only from oak and the other, only from alder. Or, either wood might have been used indifferently at times in two beers of different strengths or ages. The point is, the smoky notes of these woods were noted by local drinkers in their nog, hence the provincialism, Oak and Alder.

The 1823 author likened his mixed nog/Oak and Alder to the London two thread and three thread drinks, which latter – the “admixture” – were finally replaced, he said, by porter. It is obvious all these forms of beer were dark brown and smoky because it is known porter was from its 1720’s inception. The only difference was, porter was brewed “entire”, in keeping with its original brewhouse name of entire or entire butt beer. This meant porter was not mixed with other beers on its journey to the drinker’s glass. It was made from brown malt though, as the mixes had been, and aged to a gravity of about 6% ABV (1700’s), as three threads was since both were sold after porter’s introduction (1720’s) for the same price, 3d.

Any suggestion that three threads is unconnected to porter in palate and hue is simply unsustainable in this light.

What this shows too is, the thread beer terminology wasn’t used in Norfolk, but rather in London, which supports a local (London) origin of the terms for mixed brown beers.

I have argued these last months that this London origin was weaving terminology in Spitalfields, and the thread beers were all porters due to the common origin of these terms in that trade. That theory would suffer damage if a drink the same as three threads, albeit called by another name in Norfolk, was completely different to our understanding of porter from its inception. But no, the thread beers had to be very dark smoky beers since mixed nog, which used cheap brown malt very plausibly kilned by oak and alder wood, was the same thing.

Norfolk nog has been revived as a regional specialty and a beer is marketed under that name by the classic English revivalist brewer, Woodforde of Norwich, Norfolk. Lo, it is a dark, porter-like beer – something rather odd as an old country specialty, since country ale originally was pale and where dark, it was not usually a dark brown approaching to black. Yet, in Norfolk, a malt producing area, it was. Now we know why. To boot, Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog tastes a lot like London porter, see various reviews on Beer Advocate. I don’t know what sources Woodforde used to create its nog, but the taste notes on “BA” remind me a lot of a London-style porter. They tie in nicely, too, to the Annals of Agriculture’s 1801 account of Norfolk nog. To cap it, Woodforde’s own taste notes, remarkably, refer to a treacle flavour…

Perhaps in time porter research will show that London porter and the thread beers derived from mixed beers consumed locally in brown malt-producing areas such as Norfolk. Maybe London got the idea to sell cheap mixed brown beers from country makers who had figured out how to make the most of the leavings of local agriculture. The final refinement, entire butt beer aka porter – no blending – of course was a London innovation.

Even apart from Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog, this isn’t dusty old history: an alder-smoked porter is available today, Alaskan Smoked Porter.


Note re images used: the first image, a rural scene in Norfolk, was sourced on the web here and is believed in the public domain. The second image was obtained from the website of Alaskan Brewing Co.


I Can Go Home Any Time I Want

There are beers I remember from my past, no longer made or in the same form, I try to recreate.

I do that in different ways: summoning sheer memory; buying a brand of today which closely resembles the avatar; buying the same brand of yore where available; blending two or more beers. Sometimes my Proustian efforts falter; more usually I make the grade.

In the memory category, I’d put Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter, sampled in half-pints in the Star Tavern, Belgrave Mews West, London.

I first started going to the Star Tavern in the mid-80’s, and my last visit was 3 or 4 years ago.

It had hardly changed. A tony pub but still a pub, with excellent beer and food and nooks and crannies galore. The best time to go was autumn or winter, and the best drink was Fuller ESB. It had a rich, winy taste, more malty than hoppy, so kind of strong ale that crossed stylistic boundaries. I know Fuller ESB is still made but admirer as I am of house Fuller, it doesn’t taste like it did then. It is less luscious now, more like a strawberry rhubarb pie than a boozy sherry trifle.

Another beer of memory is Labatt Blue – also of course still made. It used to have a lightly malty taste, and mild but fragrant hop character. Now, well, I just don’t see much connection. Good knocked back cold with a plate of wings though.









Then Ind Coope Burton Ale, the plummy-tasting bitter ale which the Coach & Horses, Greek Street, London served in perfect condition. The owner, Norman Balon, looked a lot like the American actor Walter Matthau, the guy who played opposite Tony Randall in the film version of The Odd Couple. He could be a little grumpy at times but it was just his way. When I first went there in the 80’s, the division between saloon and public bar was still observed but this died away in time.  I have an almost tactile memory of how that beer tasted, and how fish at Manzi’s around the corner tasted (that English ground-nut oil and feathery plaice), and the smell of the rain on the pavement. This is a hard one to conjure up today but there is a pale ale from British Columbia that gets close if very fresh, Okanagan Spring Pale Ale.

London, London you haunt me in my dreams..

Of beers that can be recreated by buying a similar one, there is, also from British Colombia, the simple but well-made brown ale, Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale from Parallel 49 brewery.









It uses American hops for the flavouring, and reminds me a lot of Pete’s Wicked Brown Ale in its first years. This was a well-known early craft beer which had the simple honest taste of both England (the caramel malt) and terroir (the loamy soil of the yawning Washington and Oregon valleys). Originally, it was an American’s salute to a northern brown ale, Samuel Smith Brown Ale in fact, but ended by being something different. Today, there are many stronger beers around with more hops in them and cloudier mien, but simple and clear are often best.  This beer reminds me of early trips to San Francisco: North Beach and the Mark Hopkins and the fishy stew, cioppino.

As for blending, and speaking of Samuel Smith of Yorkshire, its inky Imperial Stout, now available again at our LCBO, seems less pruney and sweet than it was. Still pretty good, but not what I remember. I poured some in a pint glass and topped it up with a tar-black American Imperial Stout, Tenfidy. From Colorada. Them Americans learned a thing or two about beer over the years, mostly from the historical and cultural mother land, England.

The result was much closer to Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout as I recall it in years past.

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe wrote in the 1930’s. What did he know from beer?



Wet Hop Rules


I realized the other day, with an urgency which will only make sense to those uncommonly devoted to beer’s highways and byways, that I hadn’t managed a lip-moisten this autumn with wet-hopped beer. I saw a number of beers, here and in New York recently, in this style but always chose something else for some reason.

This was remedied today when I spotted Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing’s Autumn Hop Harvest Ale at LCBO. Glad I tried it as the hop character is very vibrant. The Cascade hop is used, the famous American variety first released in 1972 and which has since become a star of craft brewing worldwide. When grown in Ontario soil, somehow it acquires both American and English characteristics, which is all to the good. There is pine, orange, and flowers.  Whatever the specific compounds Canuck soils imparted to a West Coast classic, the resultant potion of Toronto-brewed ale is just about perfect.

The beer too surely gets us closer to the time hops were first used in brewing (at least systematically), circa 1000 A.D. Initially hops would have been pulled from the vine and tossed into the expressed mashy juice forthwith. The refinements of drying and baling would have come later, when brewing had become an occupation or trade versus an intermittent or haphazard bucolic pursuit.

We hail the fine taste of Amsterdam Beer’s Autumn Hop Harvest Ale, it has the ring of the pale ale that made Albion envy of the brewing world around the time Victoria gained her throne.


The Session Looks at a Holiday or Christmas Tradition in Beer






 Session 106 is hosted by Jay Brooks this month. We are asked to consider the Holiday/Christmas/Kwanza etc. beer tradition, whether it has any specific meaning for us, and give examples of beers enjoyed as the Season approaches or other thoughts on the topic.

In many years of tasting beer, Christmas or holiday beer as a category has never made a real impression, and this is probably because the concept is and always was amorphous. It is true that references to a special beer at this part of the year are scattered in general and poetic literature. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Christmas beer was something to be enjoyed along with other special things of the season: oranges, mince pie, roasted birds (goose), chestnuts roasted, and spiced beef, the delectable, scarlet-coloured round or brisket which is almost forgotten today even in England. (Out of sheer habit I think, a purveyor still makes some in a corner of Toronto, and I’ll write of this soon).

But that beer had no specific form or content other than possibly being stronger than the normal type, and often spiced. Spices were costly in the old days and it makes sense some sugar and spice went into the local ale to give it a festive touch. One old poem specifies that Christmas ale must not only be spiced, but also eaten with toast, the old English idea to immerse crispy bread in beer which made it a kind of gruel or soup.

When bitter beer – beer intended to keep – was laid down in March in Britain, it was considered best to broach it by Christmas of the same year. Some of the Christmas associations with beer in English tradition, at any rate, derive surely from that.

So all these ideas merged in the English conception of a Christmas-time beer: something strong, often spiced, something kept for a while to age and improve until opened with ceremony by paterfamilias at the Christmas table with hearth aglow.

Brewers in North America often put out a Christmas or Holiday beer with a nicely decorated label – more in the U.S. than Canada from what I can see. I used to buy these when I saw them on trips to the Northeast years ago. Most seemed not much different to the standard issue and any that weren’t were just a bit stronger or darker, no style ever emerged of a Xmas beer with its own characteristics. That was true in England too: Christmas ale has literary and social-historical resonance but you won’t find the recipe in the great Victorian brewing texts.

Under craft conditions in Ontario today, Great Lakes Brewing has a Winter Ale which one sees around this time on the shelves. It is on the strong side with a good spice character and exemplifies the English idea of a spiced holiday beer to the extent any firm idea of it exists.

This fine beer from Albion itself, Harvey’s Christmas Ale, also exemplifies a rich, spicy character although no spices are (I believe) actually added, the effect is from the malts and hops used, probably some brewing sugars as well.









It’s good that in a day when beers have been categorized to within an inch of their life, a fairly hazy notion endures about Christmas beer. Hazy suits the idea of a strongish ale sipped indolently at Christmas anyway.


Of Sulphides in Beer and Gastronomy…


Brookston Beer Bulletin has just published a very interesting technical paper from 1970 which describes the problem well of excess hydrogen sulphide in beer. Other sulphides, especially “DMS” (dimethyl sulphide) can add similar objectionable tastes to beer.

The tastes in question are often described as an over-boiled vegetable taste, or a barnyard or sulfur smell and taste – most have tasted water from a country well which has this taste: not very pleasant. The spa waters of some areas offered the same kind of aroma but in time became regarded as healthful, perhaps by analogy to the usefulness of night soil in agriculture or indeed the popular idea that a medicine which tastes bad can be good for you.

The paper is by two scientists who describe a method to eliminate the taste from beer, it involved an electrolytic process to add copper to precipitate out the compounds in question. The applicants obtained a patent, but I don’t know if their process was ever or still is used in commercial brewing.

The problem, especially for pale lager beer, is still very much with us based on many years’ tasting of both mass-production and craft beers. On a trip to Munich and area a few years ago, a good many of the helles beers had the taste in high concentration, I could not finish some glasses due to this.

Some beers there, however, and some here, avoid the taste. Pilsner Urquell has never featured hydrogen sulphide or DMS in my experience. In the past, I found Heineken usually had it but recently the beer seems much cleaner and this is a great improvement, IMO. In a recent U.S. sample of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon), I thought the characteristic whiff quite evident. Many craft lagers have the taste, but certainly not all.

Some would argue the taste has become part of the profile of quality blonde lager. Over a swath of Europe on my last trip, I saw people happily drink beers with the taste, I think they just don’t “see” it – have become accustomed  – and some too may have low sensitivity. From a strictly gastronomic viewpoint though, no beer which offers the flavour can ever be a great drink, in my opinion to be sure. And the fact that scientists recognized the problem, not just in the 1970 paper mentioned, but in many other studies starting from the mid-1900’s, shows breweries have been concerned about it. Even before then, the flavour was noticed and objected to, some English brewers complained of a “garlic” flavour in the European lager starting to reach British shores at the end of the 1800’s.

The reason pale lagers are susceptible is, many pale malts used to brew lager contain a “precursor” which, after mashing and fermentation, produces the compounds in question. It may come from fertilizers used in agriculture. Other brewing materials can contain sulfur, hops too, but generally scientists have ascribed the cause to precursors in pale malting barley, especially varieties used in Continental Europe. Interestingly, some English ales have a similar taste. Many pale ales from Burton-on-Trent, or the Trent Valley generally, had what was called the “Burton snatch”, and some English beer still features the taste. Whatever the specific cause in that case (some have pointed to brewing waters), generally, ales and porter – top-fermented beer, that is – avoid the taste.

Also, the darker the malt, the fewer the precursors because the higher temperature in kilning the moist barley malt inhibits their formation. Brewers have also told me that the caramelized flavours of a darker beer can cover over the taste, whereas in a pale beer “there is nowhere to hide”.

It is hinted at but not expressly stated in the 1970 paper why the problem needed attention. The authors state that in aging or conditioning of beer, the secondary slow fermentation produces further CO2 which carries away the smelly sulfides. This is surely one reason why lager was traditionally cellared for many months before sale. True, the containers were enclosed but one can imagine that porous wood allowed the vapours in the vats or barrels to percolate out. Anyway, the containers once opened would have flushed out their surface vapours to the air. But from later in the 1800’s, traditional cellaring times became shorter and shorter to ensure availability of beer in the market and not lock away capital for too long. The adoption of mechanical refrigeration assisted doing away with long conditioning in naturally cold cellars or caves. The general adoption of closed fermentation systems, later in the 1900’s, compounded the problem, for reasons that will be obvious.

Hence in my view, how the “garlic” problem arose. In the 1970’s, brewers spoke of “7/7” beer: brewed in seven days, aged in seven, then out the door. I can’t speak to aging practice today either in big or small shops but from what I’ve heard, extended aging is not typical for most pale lager. Homebrewers however are familiar with the sulfide issue and some ensure a proper aging time to “clean up” green flavours such as hydrogen sulphide.

A fine lager should feature prominently the flavour of fine malt and hops. Yeast contribution if benign is certainly to the good, yeast always contributes palate-character to beer. But the sulfides mentioned do nothing for it, IMO.


Note re image used: the image shown is in the public domain, and was sourced here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hydrogen-sulfide-2D.png

The Malt and the Grape

Some taste notes:

Rickard’s Red IPA

Quite good, the first Rickard’s brand (Rickards is from Molson Coors) that has a craft beer taste IMO. The hop flavour is genuine Pacific North West. The malt is a little flat and thin, at least by craft standards (if pasteurized that may have some impact too) but still a worthy beer, I’d like to try it on draft. More proof that the megas and micras are slowly merging in character.


Stratus Tollgate (red wine blend).

Tasted at Cork’s Wine and Beer Bar at Longo’s on Laird. This classic Niagara marque is an outstanding, rich wine, blended from 8 grape types grown on the property. I believe it is similar to the Stratus Red at LCBO which goes for about $44.00. (The Tollgate line is limited distribution and not available at LCBO). The varietals blend seamlessly to produce a pinot-type flavour, or perhaps pinot-and-cabernet if that makes any sense. No green veg aftertaste as in most Niagara reds as of yore. Showing the maturity of the Canadian wine industry. (Image sourced from the excellent Vivino website).


Wells Young Courage Imperial Russian Stout 2013 Vintage.

Cocoa-like notes, which show a light oxidation, characterize the beer after two years’ cellaring. I think I still prefer it fresh but this is a fine sensory experience by any definition pertinent to the bibulous world. This is the gran-dad of all imperial stouts, gratefully brought back a few years ago by current label-owner Wells Young in England. I hope they are still making it though.