“Beer and Ale: A Video Guide”

In 1990 a video was produced for the VHS market by two Americans, Timothy Lorang and David Golden. It was an early chronicle of craft beer culture, in fact “craft beer” is explained at one point as synonymous with the more commonly employed “microbrewing”.

Michael Jackson’s video The Beer Hunter preceded it by a year or two, and probably influenced the production. In fact Jackson appears in Lorang-Golden film, to introduce the subject. Characteristically, he speaks clearly and cogently, yet this segment was shot in one take as Lorang explains in a backgrounder linked in the synopsis.

Lorang has generously uploaded the full original programme to YouTube, which you may watch here. As he notes in the accompanying essay, a striking feature is that India Pale Ale aka IPA receives only one or two mentions in the film.

One was by brewing industry legend Teri Fahrendorf, now with Great Western Malting in Vancouver, WA. Her many professional accomplishments include a long-time stint as brewmaster at Steelhead Brewing Co. in Eugene, Oregon. She is also founder of the Pink Boots Society.

A second reference is a visual one, a colour shot of Grant’s India Pale Ale included in a tableau of pale and amber ales. One can see, or rather infer, that IPA then was viewed as a sub-set of the pale ale family, which is entirely correct historically.

In time, the situation would be rather reversed, but the point is, pale ale and IPA have no clear demarcation when viewed historically and for their essential characteristics.

The interviews with Fahrendorf, Bert Grant, Mike Hale, and the other subjects are highly informative and on point. Much of what they say applies no less today, especially the characteristics of different hops and how they are used. In effect one can see the genesis of modern hoppy beers, indeed in their birthplace of the Pacific North West.

Charles Finkel, a pioneering importer of distinctive, often artisan beers (via Merchant du Vin) and craft brewer (Pike Brewing, Seattle, WA), makes an impactful statement about palate. He argues that a taste for assertive drinks is a natural human inclination. I think there is a lot of truth in that.

It’s a great snapshot of an earlier time, one I remember well from U.S. travels and early craft days in Canada, but also most relevant to brewing culture today.





Michael Jackson and Modern Beer Culture

In this second post – and maybe I’ll do more – on “what if” scenarios, I’ll consider what our modern beer scene would look like had the writer Michael Jackson (1942-2007) not existed. Jackson was the Briton who authored the landmark The World Guide to Beer in 1977 and wrote other influential books, including a widely read Belgian beer tome and multi-edition pocket guide.

He considerably shaped the modern beer landscape through his detailed yet literary evocations of beer style, and by devising or popularizing beer terminology (“beer style”, “craft brewery”, “session beer”, “dry Irish stout”, etc). His pioneering travel video The Beer Hunter, countless lectures and appearances, beer dinners, and prolific magazine journalism helped spread the message for decades before his untimely passing.

Of course, before Jackson there were consumer writers on beer: British ones, American ones, notably. There were authors of home brewing manuals. There was even a group in the U.K., the Durden Circle, devoted to historical beer recreations.

Some of the early American beer books – I described them in an article a couple of years ago in the journal Brewery History – were similar in style and language to books on wine then gaining a general audience. Those beer books resembled some of what Jackson wrote and of course he was influenced himself by some of this earlier writing.

Jackson certainly acknowledged indebtedness to a wine writer still active, Hugh Johnson, author of an influential (annual) pocket wine guide.

Craft brewing in the U.S. started before Jackson’s books first appeared, notably at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, in Sonoma, CA by Jack McAuliffe, and by others, some of whom had been home brewers before going commercial. CAMRA of course was in existence in 1971 and doing its good work in Britain to revive interest in real ale, or cask-conditioned beer. New breweries had started to appear in the U.K. in its wake.

An important aspect of the pre-Jackson world was the growing interest in beer imports, a relatively small business before the 1980s if one excepts large-selling, premium brands such as Heineken, Beck’s, Tuborg, and similar.

And so we would have all this today – beer imports, a home-brewing movement, craft breweries, beer writers, historical recreations of past styles. What wouldn’t we have?

We wouldn’t have the emphasis on beer style we have in 2019, a phenomenon so intense it has led to the creation of new beer styles and the amazing taxonomy of beer types catalogued and described by the BJCP, say. And I don’t think we would have as many, and as many literary/philosophical, and historical, beer writers.

Instead, the dominant trope would still be national – thinking of beer as German, British, Belgian, Czech before it was Helles, Bitter, Trappist, Pilsener. Beer menus from the 1800s and mid-1900s, of which I have analyzed many in these pages, show this markedly. As just one example, consider the beer menu from Los Angeles c.1980 discussed in this post.

So dominant was this way of thinking even Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer was organized by nation. Yet, within each chapter he focused intently on style – and even more so in later books.

Certainly, style was discussed in pre-Jackson beer writing, but in a more rudimentary way than exists today. A lot of the information conveyed, at least in sources I’m familiar with, was incomplete or out of date, but it didn’t matter because people rated beer by where it came from before anything else.

The German travelling in his or her country relied on beer being national in origin for its quality and ordered – still often does – “ein Bier”, not a Dunkel, Kolsch, or Alt-Bier. Because the beer was made in his country he assumed it had an inherent quality. So did the Briton, asking for Bitter or Mild wherever he was in Britain. Stout was considered quintessentially Irish (even though of Georgian English origin), and so on.

Consumers followed the pattern for imports – you knew the countries with a reputation for beer made the best. For this reason, a rare classic India Pale Ale still made in America in the 1970s, Ballantine India Pale Ale, languished on the shelves.

Consumers knew local or regional types might vary, but this was less important than the national origin of the beers. Beers had reputation, or less reputation, simply by that fact. Today, due largely to Jackson, for many knowledgeable about beer, type is more important than origin. Something of the old attitude still exists in the general population, but it is turning over.

Technology and logistics have been a powerful aid to what Jackson achieved. A Helles can be made as well and maybe better in Brazil, say, than in Munich. Craft beer has famously become an international citizen and beer types, even those famously associated with place of origin, win awards made far from birthplace.

Ingredients can be shipped and stored easily. Water adjustment, yeast management, fermentation styles – all can be adapted to produce a given beer style anywhere. (Jackson was famously a traveller, but would acknowledge if living today that this is not the first requisite to understanding world beer types).

There are some exceptions to this pattern, for Belgian lambic, say, and perhaps Czech pilsner, but examples are ever fewer.

Wine is a different story, ditto cheese, coffee, tea, since place of production still exercises a powerful influence, as well perhaps as their longer history of epicureanism. A better analogy to beer is bread. Need you travel to France today to taste the true baguette? The answer is no, as I had occasion to confirm recently.

That is, in sum, what Jackson did, an enormous or tectonic shift in a consumer picture that had remained relatively static for a couple of centuries at least.





Alternate Histories, or What if…?

History is the result of a complex interaction of people and events, rarely predictable. The Campaign for Real Ale, the consumer lobby started in the early 1970s in Britain, is dedicated to the promotion of traditional cask-conditioned beer. At the time and still to most, it seemed an heroic attempt to save a high-value part of British brewing heritage.

Of course, to a degree this was so: the beer was unpasteurized, unfiltered except for a rough fining, and consumed very fresh – about as real as then existed. In contrast, breweries ca. 1970 were vaunting chilled, bright-filtered, and heat-pasteurized keg ales and blonde lagers. These seemed to lack the soul of the cask ales, although many drinkers liked them and to this day, such beers enjoy a large sale in Britain.

But cask beer itself seems arguably of late-19th century origin, the outcome of a long process of brewing evolution. By about 1900 use of sugar or another malt substitute was generalized in British brewing. More refrigeration was being used, and less hops. The beer was sent out and consumed “running”, for the most part, versus standing and “maturing” for months or years as porter, pale ale, and much strong ale had been for generations.

Clarity of such running beers was assured, in those days, by finings – kind of a shortcut, from an unlikely source, fish innards – the gelatine attracted minute particles of yeast and other solids to the bottom of the cask. Yet, in 1970 that was typical of cask beer, so its use was felt traditional. Same thing for the general use by then of metal casks, which did not exist when running ales emerged in the late 1800s.

When running beers came into fashion, the long-stored, wild yeast-inflected porter and India Pale Ales largely receded into history. One might have argued that the newer beers were not a patch on Britain’s earlier staple of stock porter, India Pale, and strong old ale. A few voices did, here and there, usually in brewing technical journals read by a tiny, mostly unsympathetic number.

Was there a layman in Britain who, 100 years before CAMRA got rolling, campaigned for a restoration of Britain’s old and true vatted beers? Beers with a soupçon of tartness and other wine-like qualities? Not that I am aware.

People then just accepted change as brought on by actors of the economic system. If anything, change and innovation were openly welcomed vs. today’s more tacit acceptance. In 2019, outside technical circles, who really swoons over the latest, cost-effective, computerised brewing system? But they are snapped up as soon as available. Progress has a logic of its own.

But say there had been an influential person, an independent thinker in Victorian Britain, who adored the old beers, porter in particular, that great old London specialty. (Well, venerable since the early 1700s but set that aside for a moment).

Might he, or she, not have campaigned for a return of the wondrous but disappearing hooped vats built of solid Baltic or English oak? For a return of the staple porter aged at least 18 months? For a return and new appreciation of stock beers akin to a fine old burgundy?

Might such person, perhaps a titled or other monied type, not have founded a Society for the Restoration of Porter, a “SOROP”? If 1870 was too soon for that, maybe the 1930s was not too late, when porter was still sent to pubs in the capital, and even some strong old Russian stout was available.

It didn’t happen – but could have. Say Britain had not been in Depression in the 1930s, or that a special advocate emerged in late Victorian times, or…

I am glad for what CAMRA did. CAMRA helped restore palate to beer, and that meant something and still does. We are fans of cask ale and have supported it from first becoming aware of it. And in part cask ale was responsible for a much greater revolution, craft beer, through CAMRA’s considerable influence on American craft brewing.

But it is interesting to speculate on an alternate history. Had it occurred, perhaps cask ale today would be viewed as many cask beer fans view lager and keg beer (in its original sense), as part of the beer scene but not emblematic of British brewing. (I’ll leave craft out of the matrix, the perms and combs are too innumerable).

The limited return, via the craft beer movement, of wood-aged stouts and other barrel-aged beers, and also beers with a tart edge and/or a Brett influence, shows that these older forms of beer are again being appreciated. We have the best of all possible worlds today, and that is a good thing, but history can often incline to reflect on how things might have been different.

In a next instalment, I will consider what our modern beer world might look like had an influential beer writer, Michael Jackson, not existed.


Whitbread’s Past and Present on British Documentary Film

A half-hour documentary film on Whitbread Brewery resides in the invaluable Huntley Film Archives. As the Archives provides a detailed synopsis, there is no need to summarize the film, but I’ll make these few remarks.

The film was almost certainly issued in 1951, as various internal keys suggest, but also a pamphlet shown, The Brewer’s Art (well-known to beer historians) was published that year and the film appears a visual counterpart.

From location of barley fields to malting to the type of hops used – East Peckham mid-Kents are shown – a great number of details is conveyed, in every phase of brewery operations.

What struck us was the degree of manual labour still employed. Personnel seemed to work largely in groups, whether in mashing, brewing, fermenting, even lab work. The desired clarity of cask ale is demonstrated by a glass being held up to a bare lamp – let’s just say it wasn’t hazy (while not quite brilliant either).

Bottling is greatly stressed in the film’s second half. It is clear in retrospect that bottled beer of perfect clarity was in a sense the predecessor of the lager future envisioned by Ind Coope Group in its 1961 film I discussed a few posts ago. Cask ale is only intermittently alluded to, notably at the end of the film by reference to Whitbread’s public houses.

Domestic and export sales of bottled beer receive far more attention than the tied house draught trade, which shows you where the company wanted to go, nor was it a postwar development. It is explained that expansion of bottling had been encouraged by the company for 50 years, hence its continually growing network of bottling plants that received tanker trucks of beer for bottling and distribution in every corner of Britain and for export.

Many of the venues for sale of bottled beer are portrayed as upscale locales, in tune with aspirational 1930s print advertisements of Whitbread.* The Henley Regatta is one example.

Some of the brands shown are Mackeson Stout, Whitbread Stout, Whitbread Pale Ale, Whitbread Forest Brown Ale. Note the flourish by waiters to the service of bottled beer, clearly there was a certain style to it, all now lost to history.

This film neatly bookends the more sophisticated Ind Coope effort of 10 years later. It is clear from both that some large brewers – and I’d presume finally all of them – held little romance for the tradition of cask-conditioned ale, even in the early postwar period.

One can see the psychology that led to the revival of cask ale in the 1970s through the creation of The Campaign for Real Ale (1971) and emergence of a corps of writers and other enthusiasts dedicated to its promotion.

Here is the film.


*The best known depict well-known actors enjoying a beer in smart surroundings.


Barging Beer to Belgium

I’ve been focusing lately on unexplored riches of newsreel archives. (When I say unexplored, I mean to my knowledge by others who do beer historical research. If I have overlooked any such commentary by others, by all means tell me, so I can cite and link it here).

For millenials: a newsreel was a short film that profiled a news or other event of general interest, popular from the end of WW I until about 1970. Generally these were distributed for public viewing in film theatres, but often industrial and educational or training films were made for a specialised audience.

Movietones and Pathe were perhaps the best known newsreel producers, but there were others, e.g. Associated Press, and many from all these sources can be viewed on YouTube.

Frequently full view is afforded, sometimes only with the producer logo on the clip with HD, video or other higher-quality format available for a fee.

The publicly available material is usually sufficient for our purposes, and here is such a gem from U.K.-based Huntley Film Archives. It is a mid-1950s film, with good detail yet smartly paced, showing how beer is exported to Belgium by Whitbread Brewery in Chiswell Street, London.

The steps are shipment of beer to a Belgian port, probably Antwerp, in hogsheads or other large wood barrels. The destination is a Whitbread depot where casks are brushed clean, emptied into tanks, and filled into bottles for sale in Brussels and elsewhere in the country.

Based on various branding and advertising shown, Whitbread pale ale seems the main type exported, but probably stout was as well. One sign seems to say Export Pale Ale, likely a higher gravity version of Whitbread Pale Ale. We drank a Whitbread Pale Ale with a  blue label in the late 1970s but likely not made at Chiswell Street as brewing operations there ceased in 1976.

Notable in the film are the clarity and foam on the beer when poured invitingly over the Channel. Now that was a good drop of beer, as I remember that 1970s version sent to Montreal: mealy, flowery from hops, a touch caramel sweet.

British or British-style beer in Belgium was a significant subset of the country’s beer scene as first chronicled by the beer authority Michael Jackson in his landmark early books. The photo-essay style of the 1977 The World Guide to Beer was a key stage in understanding this history.

And some British and Irish beer is still sent to Belgium, and some local beer made in styles of those places, although harder to find today with the restoration of Belgian artisan brewing and now the encroaching influence of craft beer.

But in a time when the main beers in Brussels were the decidedly sour lambic family or relatively mild lagers, Whitbread Pale Ale made an impression, as its stout surely did too.

What happened we wonder to the Whitbread Depot shown? To those brushes, to that antique-looking filling equipment? To the very taste of the beer ca. 1955? Gone with the wind, likely. (To the punning mind, not an unsatisfactory fate given the context).

N.B. For more background, see Ron Pattinson’s article on Whitbread Pale Ale in Beer Advocate from 2017, here. It is a useful aid when watching the film, and indeed an export version of Whitbread Pale Ale at 1057 OG is mentioned.

Britain’s Beer Festival, on Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Burton-based Ind Coope Group in 1961

Pump up the Volume

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bouncy jazz pop score provides the perfect period backdrop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


*This version is the remix by Coldcut.

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



A Spiced Porter Made to Order


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




A Toronto Grisette Impresses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Taste of La Choulette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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