Beer In Cooking in Alsace, France


Aperçu On The Beer Cookery Of Alsace

I’ll continue my discussion of cooking with beer by examining some of the traditional dishes in Alsace in France. This tradition should be regarded as quasi-German since Alsace has changed sovereignty several times over the centuries, albeit it has never quite lost its original German character. I will deal with beer cookery in the adjoining province, Lorraine, later.

In a popular but detailed study of Alsatian brewing, La Bière En Alsace by Jean-Claude Colin and Jean-Dany Potel-Jehl (Coprur, 1989), the authors state that traditionally beer-and-gastronomy have no history in Alsace, apart from pretzels and “charcuterie“, or delicatessen. They indicate a group of chefs decided to remedy this situation and books were recently published showing beer could be used creatively in local cooking.

Colin and Potel-Jehl list about 20 dishes of this type. Some are clearly creations of a new cuisine, such as lobster with beer and parsley sauce as amongst other things, lobster is hardly native to the region. Another example is a composed butter using chopped lettuce and hop flowers, intended as a spread. Yet another is surely escargots cooked with beer, chanterelle mushrooms and crème fraiche. Escargots are typically Alsatian, and so is cream with beer – the combination is used in the region’s chicken-and-beer dish – but using the sauce with escargots is a more recent idea.

On the other hand, a number of the recipes evoke the battered old farmhouse more than the gleaming kitchens of multi-starred restaurants. A beer soup, for example, whose French name tells the tale: “Soupe paysanne à la bière“. Or, fried carp where the batter incorporates beer.  Rabbit with beer, and fresh ham hock cooked in a cherry-beer, are further examples. In the last one, cherry vs. ordinary beer seems the only new element but really that is not so novel. One can imagine the housewives of old Alsace threw in surplus cherries or plums in a dish like this, after all the region is famous for orchard fruits.

On a visit to a beer museum in adjoining Lorraine in the late 1980s I had this same dish cooked with Jenlain beer or La Choulette (not the cherry version!). It was in Stenay, a former garrison town. The dish was very similar to one in La Bière En Alsace, and similar dishes exist in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and indeed in Quebec in Canada. The rabbit with beer is a standby in Lille and surrounding areas and into Belgium. Versions exist also in England and other countries.

I think it likely the chefs who provided the recipes for La Bière En Alsace drew on ancestral or local knowledge of beer in cooking, but also devised new recipes with novel ingredients to present a wider range of dishes.

Copyrighted between 1977 and 1985, three slim volumes appeared entitled Gastronomie Alsacienne, published by Editions S.A.E.P. Despite the grand-sounding term gastronomy – at least to English ears it is – these books, according to the introduction, feature dishes from “a long family tradition”. In the third volume, it is explained the recipes were taken from old manuscripts in the back of a drawer or supplied from the memories of older relations of the authors. The books therefore stress that authentic regional dishes are offered, not new creations, and everything in their composition suggests this is so. The same applies to the photography of the dishes, all presented in a rustic setting with appropriate tableware.

Beer figures in a few recipes in these books. Apart from the expected beer soup, there is also a dish of veal, beer and juniper, coq à la bière, which is somewhat different than the one from French Flanders, and “beignets” – doughnuts – prepared with beer yeast. (One can imagine too that unprocessed local beer was often used as such in these fritters). In another Alsatian cookery book, it is mentioned that the skin of a turkey was rubbed with dark beer to assist the browning and caramelization of the bird when roasting.  (Try it – it’s a brilliant idea). In yet further sources, recipes are offered for perch cooked in an aromatized “steam of beer”, and for stuffed cabbage braised in beer.

One or two of these may be the more recent creations of inspired chefs but most have the ring of old regional food.

Net net, while one would not claim beer is a star performer in the traditional cookery of Alsace, it has a definite place in the region’s culinary history, in my opinion. And to that heritage, trained chefs in the last generation have added further dishes, inspired both by local tradition and their own imagination.


Note re image used: The image above is believed in the public domain, and was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.



Beer Cookery With a Look At A French Version


Beer Cookery Considered, With an Aperçu on French Flanders

A feature of the beer scene in recent decades is “beer cuisine”. This term is ambiguous as it can mean:

  • food which matches beer choices but doesn’t use beer in cooking
  • food which does use beer in the cooking and is typically eaten with beer as an accompaniment
  • food which uses beer in cooking and has no specific reference to beer as an accompaniment.

Examples of the first are pretzels, sausages, sauerkraut, potato chips, hamburgers, some kinds of cheese.

Examples of the second include the Flemish beef carbonnade, Guinness-and-beef stew, and certain Czech preparations including with pork or carp.

In the third category, Welsh Rabbit (melted cheese and beer), beer batters for fish-and-chips or apple fritters, beer soups such as the American beer-and-cheddar soup or Alsatian and other northern European beer soups.

None of these are airtight, a beer can go well with Welsh Rabbit to be sure, you can use beer in dishes which don’t typically call for it, often to substitute for wine.

Every year one sees new books on all or various aspects of this total area. It’s a creative field where, as in any cooking, both historical precedent and novelty can be employed with good effect. Ultimately there are no rules, and what works for one person may work for another, or not.

In my own case, I am interested mostly in historical collections of regional dishes which use beer in the cooking. I have a fairly substantial list of these by now, from books collected over some decades. It is surprising how many beer dishes (in this sense) exist. You can’t necessarily go by “official” sources as many of the dishes are regional and were collected in books which never had a large sale and are obscure. For example, I believe in Julia Child’s first great French cookery book, there was only one recipe which used beer, for beef carbonnade.

In fact though, there are probably a hundred or more different French beer cookery dishes, most from corners of France where the dishes were part of a folk tradition. There are recipes for fish carbonnade from the seacoast of French Flanders, with veal or turkey in Alsace-Lorraine, for various soups from both these regions, with cheese e.g., to mature Maroilles, with pork hock (jambonneau) or game, and on it goes.

England has a surprisingly large number of dishes which use beer – Welsh Rabbit is probably still best known but there were dishes with game, ham, beef, seafood. America has many dishes using beer with seafood, soups, ice cream (the beer float), cakes and batters.

In the beer cookery books which have burgeoned since the 1950s, sometimes it can be hard to distinguish traditional dishes from ones which the author devised by substituting beer for wine or simply adding it where it typically wouldn’t be used. In a sense it doesn’t matter, what’s good is good, and today anyway in a wired world, regional traditions in the older sense are almost obsolete. It is usually still possible though to distinguish a dish of the older type from a newer, more innovative one.

One of the incontestably authentic Franco-Belgian beer dishes is chicken with beer sauce. There are versions from the Flemish-influenced far north of Francefrom Alsace-Lorraine, from Champagne and the French Ardennes, and over the border in the Belgian territories which correspond culturally to these other. A book by the French food writer Ninette Lyon gives a recipe for chicken with beer which originates in the 1930’s in Béthune in the north. The book is called Le Tour De France (Gourmand) Des Spécialités Régionales (Marabout, 1985). It’s a superb collection of dishes from France’s huge regional culinary inventory. She gives a sample menu for each region, from soup to nuts.

Mme Lyon’s droll way of writing is not the least pleasure of this book. She writes of coq à la bière (chicken with beer): “Dans le région de Béthune, où se déroule des combats de coqs, on met à la casserole ceux qui ne se sont pas montrés assez agressifs“. (“In the Béthune area, where people hold cock fights, they put into the pot the birds which didn’t prove themselves sufficiently aggressive”). She adds, this being said if you order the dish in Béthune it doesn’t mean you are assured of getting an “animal de combat”. It will be enough that you get a rooster, not a chicken whose weight disqualifies it being called a rooster or cock!

Mme Lyon was the type of writer one doesn’t encounter often today… I corresponded with her over 30 years ago on a couple of topics and she responded with great charm and in perfect English, I might add.

Her recipe for chicken with beer originated in a hotel in Béthune, she says, in the 1930s. Why a period as ostensibly late as that? It may simply be that that is the time the hotel decided to add the dish to their menu, or perhaps it was a new hotel. Another reason may be, that rabbit with beer sauce is another well-known country recipe in the Flemish lands and at some relatively later point the dish was adapted to chicken.

The Béthune recipe involves flouring the bird, browning it in butter and oil, and braising it in a mixture of beer – any kind from the region, she says – and veal stock or other lean bouillon. Mushrooms figure in it, herbs, and a dash of cream is added to a reduction of the sauce to give a texture and further taste. It’s a typical French braising dish such as you find all over the country except people use what is local for the alcohol element. Cider is used in Normandy, Champagne in Champagne, Riesling in Alsace (beer too sometimes), and so on.

Mme Lyon’s suggested menu of le Nord starts with a shot of Dutch-style gin – local also to the French far north, small goyères, the cheese tart made classically with the area’s pungent Maroilles, herring with mustard “en papillote“, a salad of beets, hard-cooked eggs and chicory (the salad leaves), and to finish, a pie of red plums. She advises as accompaniment, a dark beer (bière brune). It sounds good, eh? And it is, and this is from an area not even noted for cuisine amongst the pantheon of the French culinary regions.

Something with beer from Mme Lyon’s northern inventory somewhat more “gourmet” is her “compote” of guinea fowl cooked with dark beer. I think this may be a braise of the bird in beer, served with an apple or fig preserve on the side, I am not exactly sure. She also mentions, pork roasted with beer and onions, which is generally served cold. She records too that Maroilles cheese is often “washed” in its maturation, and beer is frequently used for this purpose, as mentioned earlier.

And there you go, a richness of beer cuisine, from one tiny corner of France.


Note re images: The first image above is in the public domain, and was sourced here.  Second image above, of Béthune, France, is believed in public domain and was sourced from this travel site. All feedback welcomed.








Guinness, Bottles, An Addendum

Another Form of Bottled Guinness Needs Discussion

After writing my notes on Guinness in bottles and cans, I was mindful that another version of the black brew, Guinness Special Export Stout, may still be – and clearly was at one time – brewed from a 100% barley malt mash. Probably the components were/are pale malt and black malt or, pale malt, caramel malt and black malt (which would be better).

This online discussion from 2012 about different forms of Guinness seems to confirm that Special Export Stout was all-malt then. Whether it is today, I can’t say. I had it last in Paris about 5 years ago, and found it rather thin and very similar to Guinness Extra Stout except stronger. However, from 20 years ago, I recall Special Export Stout being very good, rich and fruity. Older reviews on Beer Advocate and Ratebeer, the online rating forums, confirm that recollection.

What I had in Paris 5 years ago, bought in a discount food store chain, conceivably might have been different from what is sent to Belgium as Special Export Stout. Belgium is important because the John Martin importation agency of that country recites a history on its website that a different form of Guinness was wanted for that market than was being exported, this during WW II, unlikely as it sounds. Guinness sent them what is called now Special Export Stout. I should add my own reading suggests it wasn’t really new but had roots in an older form of Guinness sent to the Continent, but that is neither here nor there.

Guinness’s own website calls Special Export Stout “sweeter”, which suggests more malt is used than the other brews get, and maybe 100% malt again. This link from the Guinness website shows a picture of the current bottle and a description of the taste.

Therefore, Special Export Stout, if still all-malt, is – like the adjunct Foreign Extra Stout which is soured with a dash of matured beer – a vestige of 19th century brewing practices at St. James’s Gate, Dublin. The mashbill of Special Export Stout could therefore be the basis of a restored, pre-adjunct draft Guinness Porter and Stout. The hop rate is apparently fairly low, but if the rate was kept as is and the original gravity dropped to 1055 or so, you could get probably a very credible version of 1800’s Guinness Porter. Keep the gravity as is and boost the hops, and you will get closer to Guinness Extra Stout (aka Double Stout, Double Porter, etc.) in its classic era.

Once again, addition of unfermented wort – the extract of the mash boiled with hops but not yet fermented into alcohol – to a blend of fresh stout and some matured would enhance the credibility of the restoration.

But anyway, the point being, Guinness Special Export Stout in Belgium at any rate may still be all-malt. If anyone reading knows for sure, pray tell us.

Guinness in its history made beers under many names, which often were synonymous, for example, single stout and porter were used at different times to mean the same beer. Indeed, Guinness over the years has continued to make a surprisingly large number of beers. Most don’t last long in the market and seem variations on the theme of the main types (extra stout, widget stout, draft Guinness, Foreign Extra Stout).

From the standpoint of the advised or craft-oriented consumer, I’d suggest the key questions for both top quality and historical authenticity are: is the beer pasteurized (and if so, how); is the beer filtered; is the beer an adjunct beer; is the beer as highly hopped as possible; and does the beer exceed about 70% attenuation. The closer one gets to answering the first three of these, “no” and the last two, “yes”, the more the chance is the beer will hew close to its 1800s roots.

One might add, use of wooden vessels and unfermented wort for conditioning are requisites too. But there is a limit to how far any restoration project is likely to go. I’d give up on the latter two if I could get the others.

Bottle (Or Can) Of Guinness? Daresay I Will.


In recent postings I gave my thoughts on the famous beer of Ireland as they relate to draft Guinness.

Here are some ponderings on the various bottled and canned forms available in the market today. Historically, it was necessary to distinguish reaction to draft and bottled. The bottled beer called Extra Stout was, until the 90’s in England and about 2000 in Ireland, unfiltered and unpasteurized beer. In this sense, it harked back to an earlier time in the brewery’s history, when all its beer was sold this way. As explained earlier, the company turned what had been a cask beer into a pasteurized and gas-charged keg draft. Guinness fans thus looked increasingly to the bottled Extra Stout for the “real thing”.

An interesting feature of Guinness is that all bottling until quite late in the company’s history was in effect contracted out. Guinness sent the beer out in bulk form and it was bottled by local companies in the different regions of England, say. In Ireland, bottling was often done by the pubs themselves, in the cellar. Inevitably, inconsistency resulted and finally the brewery took all bottling in, preserving for a time the tradition of natural-conditioning in bottle.

I remember the beer on trips to the U.K. in the 80’s and 90’s. It was very good with a characteristic earthy (yeasty) note and a definite touch of bramble-like fruit. The dark fruit, or estery, note is very old in porter-brewing. As far back as the 1700s and 1800s beer manuals noted the characteristic in matured porter or advised to add elderberry wine to young beer emulate it. George Watkins advised the wine route in his brewing text of 1760, for example. I’ve tried it and it does produce something like a winy old beer, the characteristic a 1921 taste report on Guinness likened to a rare old vintage wine.

Even in 1990 say in London and probably Dublin, only bottled Extra Stout still received this historical deference. The canned stuff and any bottled too sold in off-license retail (vs. pubs) carried filtered and pasteurized Extra Stout. Finally, all bottled forms became pasteurized, sold in the pub or not.

Guinness gave as a reason for pasteurizing the bottled Extra Stout that with warmer central heating, the beer would mature too fast (spoil) before sale and it needed to be stabilized by pasteurization and filtration to be saleable within a 9 month window. The background is explained here in a detailed study of the history of bottled Guinness by ex-Guinness brewer David Hughes. Personally I find the explanation unpersuasive, as many modern craft beers are unfiltered and easily last 9 months and more. However, a factor may have been that this Extra Stout was under 5% abv. Modern craft beers are generally higher so the extra alcohol may preserve them for longer – and they probably on average are hopped more than Guinness. Hops preserve beer from souring at least for a time. Be that as it may, the last vestige of “real ale” Guinness disappeared when the brewery ceased to offer naturally-conditioned Guinness in the bottle.

The later-introduced “widget” or nitro system canned and bottled Guinness (shaped bottle), an emulation of the nitro-draft dispense, is all pasteurized. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the well-known strong Guinness which has some features of 1800s Guinness, has been pasteurized since the late 1940s. It’s a decent beer, I just had some in New York, but doesn’t attain to the complexity and wine-like characteristic of the best matured porter and stout, IMO. This version of the beer is not available for some reason in Canada.

Canadians have a special connection to the bottled stout in that yet a different version of Extra Stout is brewed under license in Ontario and New Brunswick by Labatt (AB-InBev-owned). The first time I had Guinness was in the 1970s in Montreal and it was this version. In Ontario, it is sold in the Beer Store system and you can find it occasionally in a LCBO. This version is IMO not that great, it has something of the Guinness taste but is not as good as the standard imported draft and widget Guinness. Apparently, Dublin sends a flavour extract to distant breweries and when added to a pale base beer, it becomes Guinness. The Labatt Guinness has a slight acerbic note and a burnt-cork taste. I’m told it is popular amongst the Caribbean expatriate community in the Greater Toronto Area.

The legend that is Guinness carries on but no doubt for valid commercial reasons as it saw them at the time, the company resolutely modernized its production and packaging processes. To put the change as tersely as possible, it converted to “sterile brewing”, as used in the sense of strict technical and microbiological control. Use of wood, which is hard to clean, is banished in production. As Hughes explains all this was a trade-off. Was the best naturally-conditioned Extra Stout better than pasteurized, stable Extra Stout? Undoubtedly. But the clean modern version was a heck of a lot better than a sour or funky bottle of unfiltered stout kept too long in a London pub…

In a world where craft beer, almost always unpasteurized but sometimes filtered, is making increasing gains, offering no beer in naturally-conditioned form or at least filtered but unpasteurized form, seems like odd man out. Guinness should return to the market some beer in a more traditional form, not just because that is what many fans who wish the beer well want, but for its own business reasons. We shall see if St. James Gate has the vision to do this. If it doesn’t, I wouldn’t rule out that Guinness might start to see a precipitous decline in sales along the lines of Budweiser, say. Bud Light is still a big seller but regular, full-strength Bud is hardly the ten league strider it once was.

The company should consider in particular, i) returning some Extra Stout to naturally-conditioned form, ii) ditto for all Foreign Extra Stout at least Dublin-brewed, and iii) abandoning pasteurization for draft Guinness sold in Ireland and the U.K., at least in high-turnover locations. At its new experimental brewery in Dublin, it should make draft Guinness to 1800s methods. This means: all-malt, use of unfermented wort to naturally condition the beer, and 1800s-level hop rates.

Despite this, I like all Guinness in any form provided it is very fresh. It is still a good beer. I simply feel it could once again become a great beer.














Note re first image above: the charming old Guinness ad is from 1931 and was sourced here. Believed in public domain, but all feedback welcomed.

The Classic Taste of Guinness Stout


Getting At The Character Of Guinness 100 Years Ago And More

In my previous post on the character of draft Guinness in its classic era, I speculated on the palate as malty sweet with a winy edge from wood vatting. One must figure into that a decided bitterness, as Guinness was well-hopped, and also a charred edge from roasted malt – the stuff that makes the drink almost black. That character, drawn inferentially from technical data, is more than matched by a rare and articulate “taste note” on Guinness which survives from 1921. The account which follows is an extract from a fuller piece quoted by beer author Ron Pattinson in his book, Peace!:

There is something unspeakably seductive and evasive of true description about a first-class Irish stout, it is extraordinarily full and round, mellow and succulent. Yet is it bitter – but that somehow you don’t notice. Behind it and enriching the whole lies that soupcon of strange lactic-like sub-acidity. This infinitely charming beverage compounded of so many different flavours, is most fascinating and wholly characteristic and unapproachable in type.

Head and shoulders, so far as universal popularity is concerned, above other brands, stands out Guinness. Some of the other Dublin brands come remarkably near a prototype; but none has, or, at all events in pre-war days had quite full measure of the Guinness touch. Cork stouts have a delightful soft palatability and a distinction of their own.

To the mind of the writer it is the will-o’-the-wisp sub-acidity that does the trick in Irish stout. Take it away and you’ve little left but a black, heavy, dry, but very soft and full mild ale with a lot of hops in it — nothing very characteristic or outstanding. Curious that no one has succeeded in fathoming and grasping that extraordinary suggestion of a rare old vintage wine — something lactic it exposes to us — hidden away in the chocolate-coloured depths….. [T]he home consumption product has a veritable perfection of nicety of balance in this respect: it is indeed a wonderful work of the Art of Brewing.

When this was written, Guinness was richer in palate than today. Its attenuation, about 70% in 1861 (70% of the fermentable extract consumed in fermentation), climbed to 85% after 1950, where it is presumably today – you can’t go much higher.

In addition, Guinness was 100% barley malt until the mid-1900s – no raw grains.

Thus, the Guinness of this lyrical description would have been full-bodied and fairly sweet yet with a vinous élan. The Bacchic touch was attributable to lactic acid produced by extended aging of a portion of the beer in large wood vats. So balanced and perfect in palate was it that the heavy hop bitterness stout was known for was barely noticed.

The description gives some indication why Guinness became renowned, not just for beer quality around the globe, but for almost creating its own beer type. Indeed to this day, Guinness connotes not just a brand name but almost a style unto itself.

Guinness has released a couple of beers recently which claim an historical heritage, a Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter, but I understand they are not period recreations as such. I haven’t had the chance to try them, but taste notes I’ve read suggest to me these beers, while worthy, don’t aspire to the kind of superstar palate lauded in the 1921 account.

If anyone wants to try an experiment to re-create the pre-WW I palate, take any 7-8% abv rich but well-bittered stout provided it has no chocolate, coffee or other flavourings. The English Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, at about 8% abv, is a good choice, but countless craft choices qualify as well, or better.  In Ontario, I’d choose Grand River Brewing’s Russian Gun. Then, add a couple of teaspoons of wine vinegar to it.  You will notice a nervous acid tone, something you mightn’t even pick up on unless you knew it was there.

It may sound odd to some, but “sours” and wild brews are all the rage in beer circles today. Adding a touch of that character to an otherwise standard beer is eminently historical, and pleasing to many in palate. Numerous fine drinks have this type of effect, certain sherries and the Sauternes, for example.

Presumably, Diageo, owner of Guinness, has all the information in its archives to recreate a Guinness Stout of circa-1900. It’s got the spanking new experimental mini-brewery set up. Go to it, team.


Some Thoughts On Guinness


We recently had good discussions on Twitter and in the blogosphere, with knowledgable people, regarding Guinness stout. We discussed the last days before it became what is technically called a keg beer, meaning a chilled, carbonated, and pasteurized draft. These processes are part of modern beer technology, and meant to ensure consistency and stability.

Guinness’ draft and bottled beers were really in many ways two separate products, although their history is similar regarding having a “real”, and then a modern, more processed stage. This post will talk about the draft beer, and later I’ll address bottled Guinness.

It will interest many to know that Guinness was once a “real ale”, or cask beer in modern parlance. This is a beer that is not artificially carbonated or filtered and is dispensed from the barrel with no added pressure. It has a limited shelf life. Cask beers are either served slightly turbid with their natural yeast and proteins, or haze is removed by finings at some point in production or sale. Finings is an agent made from different natural products which clarifies the beer.

Even where finings is used, cask beer has a “live”, natural taste which a filtered and gas-charged beer doesn’t have.

Until the 1960s in Ireland, draught Guinness was a real ale. It was served either by hand pump, or a compressed air system, or straight from the barrel placed on the bar. In some cases, at least earlier in the history, two casks were used. One contained older, flatter beer, and the other newer, more lively beer. The barman poured from the one cask about two-thirds the way, let it rest, and finished the pour with the other. This achieved a balance of fresh and matured notes, the right degree of bubble, and a creamy head. These casks were called “low” and “high” casks, either because that was their position behind the bar – one was atop the back bar, the other below it – or because one had “high” (lively) condition and the other a flatter, lower condition.

These age-old methods harked back finally to Georgian London, where stout and porter find their roots. The problem was that the beer was often inconsistent. Some people got a pint that was too flat, too sour, or too yeasty and fresh. Guinness, a legend in international brewing and a large concern by the 1950s, determined to modernize its business and increase profits further.

Thus, in 1958 Guinness technical staff perfected a method of serving the beer using a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Beer bloggers and writers Boak and Bailey have explained recently that this followed a long history of technical innovation and experimentation by Guinness. The new version of Guinness was filtered of its yeast to preclude further biological activity in the barrel, was somewhat cooled, and surged from a special tap assisted by the nitrogen gas, which also lent a creamy note to the beer. Barmen were instructed to do a two-stage pour, familiar to many today who know Guinness. This was apparently intended to replicate the old double pour from the high and low casks. The new system was introduced in stages in the 1960s in Ireland. It appears an earlier “kegged” version of Guinness was supplied to markets in England, at least since WW II.

People still argue whether the modern double pour really does anything for the beer or was an inspired marketing blarney.

Originally in Ireland, the new form of Guinness was not pasteurized. Heat-treating the beer to render it stable was not thought necessary due to its brisk sales in the Republic and Northern Ireland. Today however, all forms of Guinness are pasteurized in Ireland, and of course everywhere else. The lack of pasteurization and high turnover of Guinness between the 60s and 90s in Ireland may explain its special reputation there versus when consumed in Boston or Paris, say.

While most Guinness in England and Ulster, speaking again of the draft, was the modern keg type  as early as 1945, some “real ale” Guinness may have been available in London and Belfast, possibly as late as the early 70s.

Beer obsessives still talk about these details. Why?

Because the palate of the drink had to be different when it still contained residual yeast and proteins and wasn’t charged with gases mechanically. And quite naturally, people wonder how that pre-“nitro” Guinness tasted. At its best it was surely very good, the famous “black wine” of Eire. It apparently had a complex, somewhat sour (winy) palate with dashes of sweet and sour.

How did the keg version change the taste? When very fresh the drink is still good, roasty and on the dry side, but not a great beer in our opinion. Any well-made cask stout or porter from a craft brewer usually exceeds it. Yet, the post-1960 form is certainly consistent, whereas the former was not, by all evidence we are aware of.

Surely a price was paid to be able to drink the beer in reliably good condition in Ireland or almost anywhere in the world, versus the artisan,  sometimes unpredictable product it once was.

Finally, we should note that since the 1970s at least, Guinness uses a fair amount of unmalted barley in the beer. Originally and until some point in the 1900s it was all-barley malt. All-malt beer tends to have a richer, fuller taste than one using some non-malted grain, if not attenuated (fermented) to within an inch of its life at any rate.

What would Guinness be like if made to an all-malt, 1800s recipe, and served in “cask” form? Probably superlative. I always wonder why the Guinness brewery doesn’t make some beer available in this form. It would be a salute to history, and please many connoisseurs of the black stuff. Guinness has recently set up a small experimental brewery in Dublin where different styles of brews have been made, a Belgian tripel for example. But so far no “original” version of Guinness stout or porter has issued, to my knowledge, nor a cask version of its current brew.

One hopes this will change and a true, 19th century-style porter and stout will once again issue from the famous St. James’s Gate brewery. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to obtain the reminiscences of people in Dublin who remember the beer before it went nitro.


Note: the images above are in the public domain to my knowledge, all feedback welcome.

Quebec Spruce Beer (Biere d’Epinette).


A beverage I didn’t mention in my discussion of poutine yesterday, which is a fine accompaniment to french fries and that genre, is zesty Quebec spruce beer – la bière d’épinette.

This is an old Quebec drink which can come in soda form (no alcohol) or with alcohol. Maclean’s magazine recently surveyed the drink and some classic Montreal forms of it, here.

It seems clear that early colons from France and possibly indigenous populations were making a drink flavoured with a spruce extract or essence. Maclean’s describes well the taste, sweet soda-and-Christmas tree – thus, lots of fresh pine and resin. This 1880’s entry on spruce beer in an English dictionary has the advantage of explaining what spruce essence is – an extract of the shoots of the black fir tree. It clearly shows too that drinks and beers with this flavour, or one derived from other types of fir, were known across Europe, from England to the Baltic at least.

In the early 1970s when searching out steamed hot dogs on the “Main” in Montreal – boul. St-Laurent – I noticed spruce beer offered and one place, the Montreal Pool Room (MPR), offered a home-made version. The MPR still exists, further up the street from the original location, but I’m not sure if the spruce beer is still sold. To my best recollection, the piney stuff came from a pot-stopper bottle, was usually cloudy, and had a strong, natural taste – the perfect complement to a rich dish of chips and “all-dressed” hot dogs (tout garnis mais voyons donc).

In Lorraine Boisvenue’s 1979 book on Quebec cuisine I mentioned yesterday, she gives a recipe for a home-made bière d’épinette which involves molasses, yeast and ginger. This would seem an alcoholic version although probably some were quite weak in the ethanol, as for a Russian kvass.

There were commercial versions too, from soft-drink companies. Maclean’s mentions a version from Crush, better known for its orange soda – or orange ginger ale as we called it in Montreal.  (All pop was “ginger ale” in Montreal then whether ginger appeared in the recipe or not). If I am not mistaken, the Hire’s company, famous for root beer, made a spruce beer too for the Quebec market.


I’ve tasted the artisan-style spruce beer shown in Maclean’s piece, at a restaurant similar to the one shown. It was very good although sweeter than I remember the MPR’s version back in the 70’s.

Some of the craft brewers are using spruce in beer, entirely logical given that the sticky substance gave its name to a beer proper centuries ago. If you can’t find any but can find, or make, the soft drink version, pour a few ounces into a good pale ale or IPA. You will get something quite akin to one of the old spruce beers.



Note re images used. All are in public domain to my knowledge, all feedback welcome.




Poutine – Unlikely International Star

I’ve wanted for a while to set down some thoughts on the Quebec dish, poutine. Rather than approach it from the standpoint of the history of the dish including the (controversial) origins of the word poutine (poutine in Quebec French), I’d like to give my own experience with the dish, given I was born and raised in Montreal and only moved away in my mid-30’s.

Need I say poutine is a mixture of french fries, a meat-based gravy, generally from chicken or beef, and white cheddar cheese curds, the kind that are slightly salty and squeak on your teeth when very fresh.

For those interested in the general history and etymology, the Wikipedia entry is an excellent place to start. The information there is accurate based on what I have read for many years elsewhere. I’ll only add here that I believe the term poutine, meaning a group of (often different) things combined, was inherited from one or more regional French expressions. For example, in parts of the south of France, a poutine is a school of small fish. This usage could not have come from Quebec; the contrary is more persuasive. In turn, I believe the French word is probably a venerable gallicised version of the English pudding.

The Quebec poutine, before the term became associated with a French fry dish, was used in different parts of Quebec to mean different foods including “poutine à la poche“, described in Lorraine Boisvenue’s Le Guide De La Cuisine Traditionnelle Québécoise” (1979, Alain Stanké Limitée). This dish is included in her “Les Poudings” section and seems a boiled pudding on English lines. English cooking did influence a certain section of Quebec cuisine; still, this does not mean IMO that the word poutine in Quebec is of direct English derivation. If it was, the regional French (in France) usages of the term to mean, in different contexts, a stew, or mess of things (in a technical sense), wouldn’t make sense.

All that said, here is my own history with the dish. In a word, when I left Quebec in 1983, I had never heard of it! As one familiar with the fast foods beloved by all sections of Quebec society such as Michigan and steamed hot dogs, but also real Quebec food such as fèves au lard, la cipaille and les cretons, I had never seen anyone eat poutine and never heard the word. Not in Montreal, not in the Laurentian Mountains, not elsewhere in the Province in my travels. This does not mean of course it didn’t exist in Quebec – it did, from the late 50’s, starting possibly in Drummondville, a town within an hour’s drive of Montreal. But Montreal didn’t know the dish including the inexpensive restaurants known as “chip wagons” or the steamed hot dog places on St Laurent Blvd. The modest “tavernes” of Quebec didn’t sell poutine either. They did offer french fries with gravy though – clearly a progenitor of poutine.

At some point, the dish migrated from country to town, but how and when exactly is still the subject of ardent discussion and even contention.

Before that migration sometime in the 80’s, I am fairly certain that even in staunchly francophone districts in Montreal, no one knew a dish called poutine. If someone did serve it, it would have been a specialty of the house, offered in one or two places only, probably borrowed from something someone saw en province. I first heard of it later in the 1980’s as something you could buy from chip wagons in Ottawa. Ottawa is close to Quebec and counts many francophones amongst its resident and working population, so many typical Quebec foods can be found there or in the Ottawa market. Finally, on returning to Montreal for visits, I noticed the dish on the menus of modest restaurants.

Only later – the last dozen years or so – did the dish vault from Quebec and Canada into the international sphere and even into la haute cuisine. This is a most unlikely fate for any Canadian food but especially one as humble as poutine. Still, there is no accounting for these things. The rise of poutine is somewhat like the ascension of Buffalo chicken wings or much earlier, the Caesar salad, the hamburger. Etc.  Some things go around the world and become culinary fixtures. Others fizzle out – chicken in the basket with honey, say. But poutine and “wings” seem destined to endure.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve had poutine. The best time was the first, from an Ottawa chip wagon – it was very good of its kind. I had it once from Harvey’s, the Canadian hamburger chain – pas si bonne, in my opinion. I may have it had twice more. It’s very caloric and sinfully rich – but then so is foie gras, I guess some would say.

Originally, Quebec cuisine was a fascinating inventory of old French dishes, e.g., the wonderful tourtière, a seasoned meat pie in a crust, and old English dishes, e.g. cipaille, which I wrote about years ago in Petits Propos Culinaires, an English food journal despite the French name. Cipaille – there are different spellings – derives IMO from the English seafaring dish, “sea pie”. Later, Italian, Greek and Jewish traditions contributed other elements: pizza, bagels, smoked meat, souvlaki. And so on in a wider arc today given the multi-cultural nature of Quebec society. Poutine cannot – in my view again – be counted on a par with any of these. But it put Quebec on the map so to speak, and who can quarrel with that.

N.B.  As a blog generally devoted to the study of beer and sometimes other drinks, one might wonder what I think pairs with poutine. Admitting again my relative unfamiliarity with the dish, I think soda pop is best. The dish originally was just french fries, and then fries and gravy (or fries and just the cheese curds in one account), and finally poutine as we know it. The chip wagons sold no alcohol, all the classic pops were the choice for french fries, les frites. And pop goes well with the derivative version of fries, poutine. Beer of course does too – here I’d hazard that a mainstream brew is best, not a richly hopped or malted craft beer. Quebec cider certainly goes well with fries, and possibly is best of all drinks with poutine. I suppose some would bruit sparkling wine or some kind of still wine, particularly with the kind of poutine that four star chefs work up. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t really matter what quaff goes with poutine, as long as it is wet and cold.


More On Billy’s Bar, New York City

Billy’s Bar – a New York Institution

Sleuthing has unearthed further information on Billy’s (the correct spelling it seems), a long-established Manhattan bar and restaurant.  I discussed the bar yesterday, including that a 1936 photo of Billy’s shows 1800s-era handpumps on the back bar.

Billy’s was founded in 1870. Initially it was on 1st Avenue approaching 56th Street, then on the southeast corner of that intersection, and finally it moved three blocks south, near 52nd Street. Unfortunately it closed in 2004, a run of 134 years.

The restaurant was noted for its American menu and was a haunt of families, major domos, celebrities. My earlier s[eculation that in 1936 the bar’s furnishings dated from pre-Prohibition times is undoubtedly correct, given that its founding year is 1870.

The food and restaurant writer, Ruth Reichl, reviewed Billy’s 21 years ago for the New York Times, see here. This is likely how it was until closing in 2004.

In the Victorian image below we see the same kind of hand pumps still in place at Billy’s in busy 1936 Manhattan, which probably were installed in 1870. Nothing in Western culture suggested greater modernity than George Gershwin’s Manhattan, yet as always, past and present are interwoven. The past isn’t even past, as William Faulkner said.

Hand pumps can be seen to this day in pubs across the British Isles and are used exactly as in Victoria’s time. Many American and Canadian bars have brought the equipment back as part of the craft brewing revival



Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Internet and believed in the public domain. All feedback solicited.








Handpumps (Decorate?) The Bar In 1930’s Manhattan

Billies Bar 1936

Hand Pulls in Billie’s Bar, New York City in the Mid-1930’s

I’ve mentioned hand pumps for beer in 1930s New York earlier, but would like to discuss the topic in more detail. The above image was taken in 1936 in New York, and is sourced from the New York Public Library’s historical digital collection, here.* It shows a gleaming oak bar softly lit by old-fashioned globe lamps overhead. The equipment was probably pre-Prohibition era, fetched up from a warehouse and dusted off after liquor became legal again in 1933. Perhaps the location was an old saloon boarded up during the ban, or turned to another use and then back to a bar after Repeal.

In many pictures of bars in operation not long after Repeal one sees greying, older bartenders, called back to duty for their experience in the saloon era. Above, a younger man is shown in charge. This was New York. Although the furnishings recall an older time, the personnel were probably chosen to appeal to an aspirational, younger demographic. Billie’s was midtown, then as now not exactly a sedate area, it’s always been a happening part of New York.

Amongst the older equipment one is taken aback to see beer hand pulls on the back bar – the kind of thing that pulls unpasteurized, naturally-conditioned ale or stout, darling of the craft beer renaissance then and still.

One tends to think of England as cask-central in this respect. It was originally but English practice had inspired an American emulation in the mid-1800’s. Ales brewed in New York and environs then were served by hand pump just as they had been in England. However, by the early 1900s ales in the U.S. had become more similar to lagers: cold, fizzy, and clear. The hand pumps in New York and other American cities were mostly taken out of service even before WW I. Certainly it was very rare to see them as late as the 1930s.

I suspect the hand pumps in Billie’s of the 1930s may not have been used to pull beer. Under most of the spouts one sees a pitcher. It is possible beer was served by the pitcher, but I think the pitchers may have contained cold water. Kegs of ice water may have been placed where the beer casks used to reside. America always had an appetite for ice water in restaurants – still does. The beer taps may have found a new vocation in an era when pressurized beer service was virtually universal. In fact, at the far left of the image one can make out three faucets which look like beer taps, particularly for their ball-like shape at the top.

But who knows… Maybe Billie’s hung on to serving some of its beers the old-fashioned way. In 1930’s America, there was still a surprising amount of ale, porter and stout being sold of English inspiration. This page of brewery historian Jess Kidden shows a large range of these. A few certainly were available in the New York area and Ballantine IPA, say (now restored to the American market after a 20 year gap) may have been pulled in one of those taps.

The curved housing for the handles is an old English design, lithos from the early 1800’s show the identical equipment.

One can still see the same dispensing unit to this day in McSorley’s, the old Irish bar on East 7th Street, NYC, albeit it hasn’t been used for generations.

What’s old is new again, as cask ale has a definite (albeit always minority) presence amongst the ale and stout taps of modern bars that are beer-aware. The style never stopped flowing in England, but it did in North America between about 1914 and the 1980’s. The idea that beer should be fizzy and ice-cold is probably too ingrained in modern society to disappear ever, but some people know that ale at a cellar temperature, with a slight carbonation, and not excessively filtered, is the best way to appreciate beer.

I’ll be in New York soon, and will see what’s standing on the location Billie’s used to inhabit. If it was a hostelry that would be nice, but stay tuned in any event.

*Note re image: All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.