A.K., H.K., Hock ale – Birds of a Feather? (Part I)

AK was and is a light bitter style, sometimes confused with being a mild ale but generally accepted now as a lower gravity version of the pale ale family (around 1045-1055 OG). The 1800s was its heyday but some is still made. I recreated a 1870 recipe with Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto earlier this year.

The initials AK, or A.K., have been a puzzle. I’ve uncovered the only contemporary explanation so far to appear, that it means keeping ale, as discussed last year in this post.

The first appearance of AK appears to be in 1846 from Ind Coope as writers Boak and Bailey have found. See this 2014 article of beer writer Martyn Cornell on A.K. where he mentions their find and other thoughts on A.K. origin.

The 1840s is the time the events summarized below occurred, from an account on the London brewer Fuller’s website:

In 1839, John Fuller died and passed control to his son, John Bird Fuller. The younger Fuller moved quickly to make his mark, and by 1845 he’d severed ties with the Thompsons to take the reins by himself.

He sought investment and expertise from third parties though, and John Smith – already helping to run a successful brewery elsewhere – was invited aboard. He invested on behalf of his son, Henry Smith, and his son-in-law, John Turner.

So it was that Fuller, Smith & Turner came into being.

A new era

Smith and Turner brought with them a welcome bonus: an extensive list of private customers for whom the brewery went on to make a special kind of beer. It was known as HK (hopped and keepable) and a milder version went into production too.

Until that point, the brewery had brewed only ‘ale’ and ‘hock’. Even porter, which had been popular since the mid-1700s, wasn’t adopted at Griffin Brewery until the 1840s.

I cannot recall reading any discussion of HK by beer historians, or finding evidence it existed myself, versus the designations AK, XK, K, KA, AKK, etc. If anyone has found a brewery ad for HK or offered a discussion on same I invite comment, certainly.

I’m starting to think there is a connection between A.K., H.K., and modern hock ale. Fuller is famous in beer circles for its arched brick Hock Cellar.

Hock traditionally has been explained as a country ale connected to the harvest, perhaps deriving from hoch in German. It means high, for holiday or other festivity. See e.g. here, Charles H. Cook (aka John Bickerdyke) writing in 1889 in Curiosities of Ale and Beer.*

At pg. 256 he discusses “horkey-beer”, and likens horkey to hoch, so while he does not use the term hock ale specifically, he is linking hock ale to the hock festival tradition. Numerous other sources are to similar effect. (The addition of the “r” in this fashion is common in some English speech. “I sawr the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade…”).

But if it’s true that H.K. meant “hopped and keepable” – and Fuller should know – this provides a clue to what its hock ale meant. Try to pronounce H.K. as a word – it sounds like hock doesn’t it?

Especially unlettered people might make that inference, workers at a brewery or drinkers (not the founders of Fuller, whose business dates from the 1820s. They have gentry origin).

Think further, about h-dropping in many English dialects (from Wikipedia):

H-dropping occurs (variably) in most of the dialects of the English language in England and Welsh English, including Cockney, West Country English, West Midlands English (including Brummie), most of northern England(including Yorkshire and Lancashire), and Cardiff English.[5] It is not generally found in Scottish English. It is also typically absent in certain regions of England, including Northumberland and East Anglia, although it is frequent in the city of Norwich.

Fuller is in Chiswick, an area between Heathrow and London that seems propitious for one of the H-dropping areas, or let’s assume it was.

If you pronounced H.K. in this fashion, you might render it, because it sounds, as A.K.  I think it may well be that these three terms have a common origin and the country harvest drink hock ale, which is documented as much older, is not connected.

It’s true that brewing onsite preceded the entry of the first John Fuller into the business, by some 300 years in fact. The term hock cellar may have been used by a previous owner(s) and been continued by the Fullers, but so too might have been the designation H.K.

After all, why would you need a hock cellar for an evanescent (harvest) drink? Harvest ales were low-gravity beers meant to refresh and be taken in quantity. Would you build all that for a business lasting a month or so?

You cellar hopped beer, to keep it for sale through a much larger part of the year. The St. Pancras cellars were used to store Burton pale ale, for example.

This idea of keepable too answers an interrogation made by some, including Martyn Cornell, that a keeping ale sits ill with A.K. since the style wasn’t stored really, it was sent out fairly soon after fermentation.

There is evidence it was stored longer than mild ale, but not much longer, nothing like the traditional storage associated with India pale ale as Cornell documented in his early writings, the stock or October tradition of IPA (his great contribution to beer scholarship IMO).

But hark: if something is keepable, that implies it can be kept for some months, but can also be appreciated rather new. This is exactly what A.K. is, a bitter ale drunk fairly new but that can last longer if wanted. The nuance of keepable vs. keeping changes the whole picture, arguably.

I know from my own experience AK can last a good while. I have two cans left of Amsterdam AK, brewed about seven months ago, and they drink great. They are in the fridge but were stored for about half the time in our hot spring and summer at room temperature in the room I write. The beer is not pasteurized, just centrifuged.

I won’t say this is a “theory” because if you use that word some people get all a-furrow of brow and pursed of lip, you haven’t enough evidence, you see, don’t presume, etc.

I’ll say it’s a working hypothesis, and I want to record it before I move on to other things.

Finally, if H.K. and A.K. have the same origin, the 1870 explanation that A.K. means keeping ale is proven, via the variant keepable. The fact that Fuller made a mild version of its H.K. may explain too why at times A.K. has been typed as a mild ale.

A Part II follows.

Note re image: The image of the griffin pictured is from this site and believed in the public domain. By Johann Vogel, 1649.


*N.B. Another line of origin for hock ale is represented by a few early-1800s recipes under this name, such as here. It is termed there a white porter, and made like porter except no dark malts. So a kind of pale ale, hence apt for cellaring (vs. a weak harvest ale). But again: whence the name? If Fuller made white porter/pale ale early 1800s, did an acronym result from hopped and keepable, or simply how H.K. sounded as a word? Hock in the sense of strong beer goes back at least to 1771, see this dictionary source. I incline that prosaic trade terms did inspire a more fanciful, erratically used term, hock.

Alternatively, maybe white porter was viewed as akin to hock (white) wine while regular porter, to red. If that is true, then, as in the case where hock ale might have the old festive origin, HK and even AK may be derivations that only retrospectively seem related to the keepable/keeping notion. However, I doubt the wine sense is behind the hock name for beer, the markets for beer and wine seem too separate due to class and price. And, as noted above and in the Comments, a distant festive origin for Fuller’s hock seems increasingly unlikely to me as well. Looking at it the other way, that the name hock derives from HK, with AK being a variant, seems more likely. This is in tune also with how the term K is used in the beer designations mentioned such as K, AKK, XK where it generally notes an ascending of strength and quality related to greater keeping.







Results to Date: World Beer Awards 2018

I was a Canadian judge in June for the World Beer Awards 2018. A comprehensive press release will be issued September 20 with final award results. Style and country winner results are available now, see below. Soon we will know the “world’s best” in each of nine categories, Dark, IPA, Lager, Pale Beer, etc.

Over 2,300 beers were submitted, from almost 500 producers, from some 50 nations. Of course, judging was based on the beers submitted, as in any awards system. It’s a valuable barometer nonetheless, and the winners should feel great pride. All contestants should be proud, in fact. The standard of the beers I tasted was uniformly high and not everyone can win.


Style Winner results

Canada had an excellent showing in styles with e.g. Muskoka Brewery winning for Specialty IPA (Berry Springer), and Cameron’s for Hoppy Pilsener, the 12 Mile India Pale Lager. Quebec breweries gained a number of the awards including for lambic-type (Trou de Diable’s Le Hérisson Brassin Spécial), and gose (La Tuque’s La Pécheresse, Miss Ghost).

Cameron’s in Oakville, Ontario won country award for Black IPA (Dark & Sticky), a fine beer of which I had bought a growler at LCBO.

I can multiply examples, from Canada and beyond, but scan the lists to see for yourself.

The international nature of today’s beer business is amply shown, as awards don’t typically relate to place of origin for the style. Style winner for English Style Brown Ale went to Taiwan’s Alchemist (for Chang Jung Brown Sugar), for example. For Imperial Stout, Germany took the palm (Riegele BierManufaktur for Noctus 100).

Still, German breweries won for the weizen categories except dark wheat, that went to Fujizaura Heights of Japan for its Schwarz Weizen. Some things don’t change, which is nice to know too.

Stay tuned for September 20.



At the Confluence of the Trent and Genesee Rivers

The Trent Joins the Genesee River – of Beer

In 1938 Genesee Brewery in Rochester, NY placed a series of ads (two shown here via NYS Historic newspapers) in upstate New York for a new Genesee ale.

The ads stated the beer was light in colour, fermented in America’s only Burton Union fermenter, and dry-hopped in English oak vessels. The ads implied that the cleansed beer was stored for months in large casks that were rolled, or agitated in some way, to complete maturation, a process once widespread in English breweries.

[See in the Comments below an explanation of Burton Union fermentation].

Genesee touted the results as “different” but “famous”, and sure to delight area beer drinkers.

Beer historians know that ales and porter were brewed in the U.S. before Prohibition by traditional methods. It is less common to see hyper-British processes used after Repeal in 1933, much less advertised to bright young things being weaned on soft drinks, fizzy lager, and Hollywood pap.

It is even more unusual in the case of Rochester, NY, a city with a substantial German element where lager was well-established since the 1800s.

Genesee Brewery had been bought by the energetic and canny Louis Wehle (1889-1964) upon Prohibition’s close in 1933. Wehle, then in his 40s, was a trained brewer and indeed of German ancestry. His father and other family had worked before Prohibition in Bartholomay Brewery in the city, as I discussed here.

Before 1919 Wehle himself worked at Bartholomay and Genesee breweries (since 1889 consolidated in ownership), as well as the Lang brewery in Buffalo, NY. See this compact, informative career outline.

Wehle became wealthy through running a home-delivery bakery during Prohibition. Sale of the bakery enabled him to take over Genesee in 1933, combining it with parts of Bartholomay.

(Wehle descendants ran the brewery until 1999 when it was sold to management. Later, a Manhattan investment firm created North American Breweries to buy the business, which also owned Pyramid and Magic Hat, early craft breweries.

NAB continues today, owned by Florida Ice and Farm, a Costa Rica beverage and food firm. The net: “Genny” carries on bigger and better than ever in Rochester).

Why would Wehle, coming from a German-American brewing context, be interested in Burton pale ale and its processes? One can only speculate. Maybe as a professional brewer he just admired that type of beer.

It is difficult at this juncture to appreciate how significant Burton-on-Trent was in world brewing c.1900, when Wehle came to maturity and acquired his knowledge. This 2012 article by Malcolm James in Brewery History gives some indication. James wrote:

During the ‘zenith’ years of 1880 through 1895, Burton was the undisputed brewing capital of the Victorian age, with 32 brewing companies operating a total of 36 breweries and several independent maltsters. Bass and Allsopp continued to dominate the industry and Bass’ annual output of almost 1,000,000 barrels justifiably made it the largest brewing concern in the world. The average production of a Burton brewery (i.e. 100,000 barrels per annum) was more than double that of the London brewers, yielding a cumulative annual production valued in excess of £8.6 million (equivalent to £4.5 billion using Retail Price Index analysis to 2009).

As important and controlling as German brewing ideology was in America in 1900, Burton prestige was always in the background, and reaching its peak as James explains.

Possibly Wehle retained an admiration for Burton pale ale and its methods, and was intent to make this kind of beer toast of America. Indeed he brought to America from Burton, not just a full Union set, but a brewer with it, Arthur E. Vaughan.

Vaughan sailed to America with his English fiancée and was married with a celebration hosted by Wehle that made the society pages.

There is evidence Wehle’s newly-acquired Burton Unions was installed at Syracuse Brewery, the former Zett’s Brewery in Syracuse, NY which Wehle also controlled, in 1936. That brewery foundered in 1937 – a second failure, the first was in 1934.

Either Wehle moved the Burton kit to Genesee to work some magic there, or possibly a double set was purchased from Burton and both Genesee and Syracuse Breweries used the processes under direction of Vaughan.

I’ll document the Syracuse connection soon, as well as Wehle’s reliance on Francis Moritz, a British brewing scientist, for advice on making English pale ale in Franklin Roosevelt’s America.

Since Genesee grew from strength to strength from the 1930s until today, Wehle’s persistence with authentic ale methods can only be commended. At the same time, I doubt the Burton Unions were still in use after WW II. Genesee’s post-WW II ads I’ve been able to review don’t mention them.

Since the early 1970s when I first drank Genesee ales, they are rather light and lager-like, even beers impressively named such as 12 Horse Ale. (Of course today the Genesee Brewhouse, a pilot brewery built a few years ago, makes some interesting beers that have a fuller flavour).

But Genesee’s ales were clearly quite different in 1938, or at least this specific brand, Genesee Light Ale was. In effect it was an IPA, akin to Ballantine India Pale Ale and other IPAs that continued into the 1950s in America.

By 1977 when the American brewing renaissance was born, only Ballantine’s was left standing. But it lasted long enough to influence the new ales and, finally, the IPA of today.

N.B. America had a lot of white oak in the late 1930s, as today. Yet Louis Wehle insisted on importing British oak vessels to dry hop and mature his beer after cleansing in the Union set. The reason is known to beer historians: at the time it was felt pale ale could not be successfully made using American oak in any part of the processing. Its tannins imparted particular flavours, vanilla- and coconut-like, that were felt to spoil the taste of British and Irish ale.

All beer fans know those tastes from the barrel-aged beers of today. Times change.

Note re images: the original advertisements may be viewed in this group of newspapers from the NYS Historic newspaper archive as stated in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Porter Ponderings

Pictured is the bottled stout of Maverick, the brewpub downtown in Toronto. A big, ambitious place, it brews contemporary styles with quality and fidelity, based on a number of visits since it opened almost one year ago.

This stout has an oatmeal addition. It is not dissimilar to numerous Ontario porters and stouts at around the same gravity. I had a number of similar beers in England at the recent Great British Beer Festival.

The profile is dryish, roasty, with only a light malty quality if any.  It’s the “international” way currently with beer of this type and gravity.

The hops were good although I could always use more.

Historically, some porter must have tasted like this. I think the proof is Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter or its Oatmeal Stout, which are similar to this beer. They emerged from an old-established regional brewer about 30 years ago, and surely reflect brewery archival recipes, at least in part.

London’s Fuller Porter too tends to the non-rich side, although less so than the last two mentioned.

Modern porter/stout of normal strength often lacks IMO, i) a rich character, ii) the subtle kind of roast that complements no. i). You do encounter that often in Imperial Stout but historically there wasn’t a division that Imperial had the rich palate and the rest, dryish and lean.

Some lower-gravity porter was always of the rich, malty sort. How do I know it? Because of a long tasting history that includes beers like Sinebrychoff Stout (Finland) or Carnegie Porter (Sweden), Anchor Porter (San Francisco), Sierra Nevada Porter, Cooper’s Stout in Australia, Champlain Porter in Canada, and many others.

Most of these were pre-craft and reflected more accurately (IMO) the original porter tradition than today’s group. And the craft ones mentioned emerged early, therefore were influenced by the original tradition.

I also know it from historical sensory descriptions of mild porter, e.g., a “balmy” character. Contemporary laboratory analyses also show much of the beer had a rich character, see e.g. this 1870 table of porter and stout data from The British Medical Journal.*

Many of the porters, all averaging about 5% ABV, start at 1014 FG and just go up from there…

As well, I’ve tasted a number of recreations of 1800s porter or stout that taste much more like this group than most current beers with the name. Fuller did a recreation a few years ago that was superb, a double stout type.

So why has this turn in the road occurred? I think it’s due to the long hand of modern Guinness with its sizeable proportion of unmalted barley and well-attenuated taste. Brewers still, mostly unconsciously today, make a standard stout in that image.

Of course, most craft stout and porter taste better than Guinness, but I can see its DNA in these beers.

Michael Jackson contributed to this by identifying a style of “dry stout”, one said to be Irish. But historically Irish stout, certainly when mild or new, had a good body and indeed was all-malt into the early 1930s (no raw grains). Of course he based himself on what was in the market when he started writing in 1977.

Guinness at the time pretty much defined stout, at least visibly it did. So he used that as the barometer of modern stout, vs. say how Guinness was brewed in the 1800s.

I don’t brew at home but if I did, I’d make a beer with the same roast intensity as the Maverick, or less, and attenuate it higher. Perhaps too I’d omit the oatmeal although I don’t mind it necessarily.

Porter in its 1700s-1800s heyday did not use oatmeal, not commercially-produced ones. I’m not sure the addition really helps the taste. Fuller’s porter doesn’t use it and may be all-malt although it could have more character.

Putting it a different way, I’d like to see more regular-strength porter or stout with the kind of richness encountered in Imperial stout, milk stout, or Baltic porter. The last two are part of the porter family but due to their respective lactose and bottom-fermentation, they differ from the standard porter palate.

Therefore, they can’t substitute for the kind of palate I’m talking about.


*Pilsener Urquell is about 1014 FG, which most would consider full-bodied. This gives an idea of the relative richness of “robust porter” in the 1800s (see the Comments).




IPA: a Pretty Romance (Part II)

In Part I, I discussed a rather prescient marketing campaign by Paterson Brewing & Malting Co. in Paterson, NJ in 1916-1917. The company was part of an 1890s consolidation of five local breweries bought out by an English syndicate, a common “exit” technique for brewery owners then.

The adjacent Hinchliffe and Katz Bros. breweries, the main elements in the consolidated group, continued to make top-fermented beers. The syndicate ran sophisticated ads (source: Fulton Historical newspapers) touting the “romance” of Hinchliffe’s East India Pale Ale, modern beer writer-style.

This was two generations before anyone looked at India Pale Ale, or other beer styles, in quite the same way.

While Hinchliffe had brewed both ales and lagers before joining the syndicate, I’d infer a push was made for product lines familiar to the new owners.

The campaign was different than earlier promotions I’ve seen for IPA or pale ale including by Peter Ballantine in Newark, NJ. It relied, not just on vague appeals to old-time standards or special taste, but on an evocative illustration of a male server wearing Indian dress to help sell the beer.

This is analogous to Indianmen (fast trading ships) and related imagery such as the Taj Mahal appearing on IPA labels many decades later, by Ballantine and then a new generation of small brewers. It was all to the end of creating a mystique around IPA, but Paterson Brewing & Malting sought to devise one 60 years earlier.

One wonders if Falstaff’s designer for the 1980s “clipper” label had a file of early-1900s IPA ads from Hinchliffe before him. It’s not fanciful. Ballantine had New Jersey roots…

Beer writer Michael Jackson, who created plenty of mystery and allure for Imperial stout, lambic, and other styles, missed the boat, shall we say, for IPA. (We’ll forgive him, he did enough!).

Since his day, authors and bloggers have been alert to sort out the implications of IPA’s India pedigree – historical, marketing/commercial, technical – one that intertwines two land masses and cultures. These include Pete Brown, Martyn Cornell, and Roger Protz.

Considerable information is available online on Paterson Brewing & Malting, so I’ll say only that all brewing apparently ended forever with the Volstead law’s full application in 1920.

Malting continued for decades after 1933, however, at the maltings attached to the closed Hinchliffe brewery, a story unto itself.

Here, I’ll focus on a second Indian server ad in the 1916-1917 “romance” campaign, worded differently than the first I’ve discussed, but it has the same illustration of a head-scarved, robed server.

It is notable due to the features of IPA production detailed. Two years’ aging was asserted, longer than Ballantine ever advertised, and dry-hopping at different intervals. The nutty flavour and “tang” mentioned may be (it’s hard to say) a touch of oxidation and Brettanomyces influence.

A secondary fermentation seems implied certainly from the wording, which suggests the development of special flavours of maturity, to use the old terminology.

Broadly, both ads attest to one company’s determined effort to preserve its legacy of making stock ale, the best quality of many types of ale still made at the start of WW I by many brewers, especially in the Northeast.

It was all for nought, not necessarily due to ever-increasing lager demand, but the iron curtain on beer manufacture dropped by National Prohibition a couple of years later.

And so, this brave ad appeared in 1916 in the Paterson Evening News, see issue here (via again Fulton Historical Newspapers).




IPA: a Pretty Romance (Part I)

The Old Romantics

This is the kind of post (although aren’t they all) where I could write a paragraph or 10 pages, nay a book.

Let’s keep it short and I’ll omit most of the references for convenience but did fact-check the best I could, in a wide range of sources. As always we are interested to receive feedback and glad to post corrections, clarifications, or other comment.

Modern India Pale Ale, or IPA, is characterized by relatively high ABV, 6-7%, and a frank expression of the New World hop tastes inaugurated by Cascade starting from 1972.

Modern IPA began in formal terms with Grant’s India Pale Ale which dates from 1983, some sources state 1982. Other influences on the style include early craft beers similar to IPA but called simply ale or pale ale.  Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Celebration Ale are frequently cited in this regard.

Prior to that and since the 1800s, Ballantine India Pale Ale, in the 1980s made by Falstaff Brewing which had purchased Ballantine Brewery in 1972, waived the flag for IPA in America. It derived ultimately from British models, and in its classic era used a mix of European aroma hops and pre-Cascade bittering hops, Cluster or something similar (there were changes over time, however).

From 1972, when P. Ballantine & Sons closed in Newark, NJ, until 1981, Ballantine India Pale Ale was brewed in Cranston, Rhode Island, at the former Narragansett plant. In that year* it moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, a Falstaff satellite and formerly the historic Berghoff plant.

Before the move, the Ballantine label made no particular reference to the origin-story of IPA. It didn’t show a Taj Mahal or clipper ship or any imagery that would link the beer to India, other of course than India being part of the name. It showed the “three rings” associated with the Ballantine brand since early days, as other Ballantine beers did.

But from 1981 and the move mentioned, the label changed. It showed a clipper ship with text referencing the rocking of the beer on the long journey, wood aging, and a new taste.

This was noticed by beer writers, and early craft brewers, who started to ponder this interesting, romantic-sounding history. What was a prosaic trade term through the 1800s – India Pale Ale or East India Pale Ale – became something magical, even talismanic.

Soon craft IPAs emerged that used similar imagery on their labels. Grant’s India Pale Ale was the first, but many followed. Even beers that didn’t use the imagery were discussed in this new context, an exotica derived from East of Eden.

Michael Jackson is credited with many achievements in beer-writing but creating the lore and myth of IPA is not one. In his 1977 The World Guide to Beer, he devoted some lines to India Pale Ale and its history but essentially viewed it as a sub-set of pale ale/bitter. He appeared to consider that pale ale was the modern form, and erratic survivals of the type associated with the old India trade had no more significance than that.

It appears, therefore, that c.1980 an industrial brewer’s ad agency or in-house packaging designer created the mystique of IPA in a way both unprecedented and irresistible to beer fans: everyone wanted to try a beer with that history.

India Pale Ale thenceforth meant, not just a particular form of beer, designed to last a long journey under adverse conditions, but something we could relate to pith hats, old Calcutta, old politics and empires, and the riot of colours and sensations that are India today and formerly.

Yet, was this marketing potential never realized before? Not, as far as I can tell, in British labels and advertisements for India Pale Ale or pale ale of the 1800s. Sometimes the idea of ubiquity is suggested via Empire, Bass did this specifically in colourful advertising, but nothing suggesting India specifically, except for that single world in the beer’s name.

One must be cautious saying “never” but I’ve examined scores of labels and ads and couldn’t find anything comparable to the post-Cranston Ballantine label. (Rather than the face launching 1000 ships, it was the ship launching 1000 faces: of modern craft beer).

But stop. There was a precedent for very similar marketing, and appropriately in the United States. Look at this ad, from Paterson, NJ’s Evening News in October 1917 (via the Fulton History newspaper archive, as the news article mentioned below).

Paterson Brewing Company, a merger of five breweries of which Hinchliffe was a key component, worked out the romance angle long before Falstaff in 1980-81.

Not only that, an advertorial appeared the same year, in the same newspaper, expressing the theme in straight narrative. You can see the early Mad Men brain at work, burning the midnight oil with gin and tonic, perhaps, as Michael Jackson liked to say.

With a few changes of language the tale would fit well in a modern beer book. Here is the link.

A pretty tale it is, and romantic, to be sure.

Part II of this post can be read, here.

Note re images: the first two images were sourced from Jess Kidden’s Ballantine google pages, here. The Grant’s India Pale Ale label was sourced from the Beeryard site, here. The sources for the last two images are linked in the text. All intellectual property in the said sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See our note added in the Comments section.





Beer and Summer

“I Like a Beer in the Summer”

We’ve had a hot summer, as many places in the world. Beer sales must be good this season. If it’s one thing craft and mass market brewers agree on, it’s that hot weather is good for business.

Yet it’s something of an anomaly that this remains so in a time when air conditioning (A/C) is so pervasive. True, not every home has it, but many do today, and almost all restaurants and bars, or autos.

When you walk into a A/C environment from 30ºC + the effect is shocking, an icy blanket. It’s how people must feel who do those cold-country swims in January.

How refreshing is a chilled beer after that? Is the association just traditional by now?

True, the patio offers the real thing, but in very hot weather most people seek the indoors, if artificially cooled.

Cold beer and Hades retain their companionship at the country cottage (A/C is mostly still lacking), at the beach, or for picnics.

But again: How many people do an out an out picnic these days? Open question. Judging by perennial food books one would think hill and dale are festooned with picnickers, as an American writer noted tartly a generation ago.

Then too, craft brewing, while it likely moves lots of blonde lager July-August, doesn’t hold back from the styles formerly associated with cold weather. In the 19th-century in the U.S., different forms of ale were thought mostly suitable for winter.*

Even in England, hardly a broiling nation despite the spikes in June-August of recent years, some beer was styled a “winter drink”, old ale, say, or Imperial stout.

All this old learning is upturned in the new era and rightly so. I saw an Imperial porter, 10% ABV, in the non-A/C cooled bar at Henderson Brewing the other day, and while tempted didn’t try it. I had done a two-hour walk in strong heat, and so went with their 3.5% ABV Czech-style lager, with nachos and guacamole alongside.

But I’d have had the other if a car dropped me off or I wasn’t unusually hot.

Last evening an iced Muskoka lager was just the ticket in the patio at the Wallace on Yonge Street. A good beer, not seeking epicurean heights but sometimes you don’t want that. The light lemony notes added to its refreshment, especially in that environment.

But most customers chose to sit inside where A/C had the temperature down to about 20ºC.

Putting all this a different way, would brewers sell more beer had A/C never been invented?

Or does craft beer move more “winter beer” now because of A/C? Maybe it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. So to speak.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from this stock photos website and is indicated as released to the public domain by its author, without restriction. The second image was sourced from the news advertisement linked in the asterisked note below, via Fulton History newspapers. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*This ad for Burke’s Ale, touted as a winter drink, dates from the 1930s but reflects lore accepted in New York and elsewhere in the Northeast since the later 1800s. As an older example, see this ad for Ballantine’s ale pre-WW I.




“The Seven Moods of Craft Beer, 350 Great Craft Beers From Around the World”: an Appreciation

In a blog entry this past May, U.K.-based, beer- and travel-writer Adrian Tierney-Jones (ATJ) wrote this:

With beer writing, it feels as if on one hand there is the old traditional campaigning side of beer writing on one side of the border, nurtured in the once scared halls of CAMRA and now mutated to writing about diversity, brewery sellouts, why this beer festival is a game changer etc; on the other side of the border there’s the fanciful notions of beer, the poetic side of things, the sensory writing, the people watching, the personal experiences within the context of beer. Both have their validity and maybe someone somewhere will inevitably argue that beer writing is more of a federal state with a variety of identities. That might be true but for the moment my thoughts are in the borders.

I think it’s more a North American thing, although nurtured by an English writer, the late Michael Jackson, but I’d argue that there is a fourth form of beer writing. It is the one that focuses mainly on a description of brands and tastes, often organized by country, as Jackson did in the template The World Guide to Beer (1977) and his Pocket Guides, or style, as he did in Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (1993). Variations abound on these approaches including what amounts to straightforward travel writing.

Many writers still approach beer that way. It’s an outgrowth in my view of early beer journalism and before that, wine and other forms of consumer product writing. In this post, I discussed the influence I felt Consumer Reports had on subsequent American beer writing including by people like James D. (“Jim”) Robertson. He wrote The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer in 1978.

These books still provide a useful function, even in the global e-village where a keystroke or two will clue you in to a local bar scene, anyone’s from Turin to Timbuktu, or its range of breweries.

At this stage in my appreciation of beer and writing about it, I buy very few of those. I bought them all years ago and acquired my bedrock then, not to mention my own extensive tastings and early travels. I get top-ups from the Internet where needed, and keep up through an active participation in social media. But many younger people, or older sans the requisite knowledge, will benefit from buying this fourth type of book, or the glossy U.S. beer magazines that still continue.

There are numerous social media versions of this activity, e.g. the beercast including the “bro” fashion, all to the good.

A book on beer that charts a new direction, that explores precisely “the fanciful notions of beer, the poetic side of things, the sensory writing, the people watching, the personal experiences” was written by ATJ himself. It’s The Seven Moods of Craft Beer, 350 Great Craft Beers From Around the World, published in Britain last year by Eightbooks (see www.8books.co.uk).

ATJ won Beer Writer of the Year 2017 from British Guild of Beer Writers, not surprising when you take time with The Seven Moods of Craft Beer.

As the book came out that year and was widely reviewed and commented on, these remarks constitute not a formal review as such but an appreciation.

There are two major differences I see in this writing versus other approaches to beer writing including the influential, Jacksonian style-and-country method.

First, the thematic approach is completely different. It uses an imaginative exploring of “Seven Moods” as a framework to appreciate different beers from a wide range of places. The moods include “the Social”, which looks at interesting beer bars in the U.S. and Britain; the “Adventurous”, ranging on to bars and pubs, new type and older, in the likes of Germany, Belgium, and Antipodes; the Gastronomic, which spotlights a given beer that complements a dish or is used in the cooking (e.g., the Breton Telenn Du buckwheat beer for a local pot-au-feu); or the Imaginative, which looks at ostensibly workaday modern beer competitions and award systems and limns the kinds of beers that have done well in these or respond well to their ever-siren calls for the new and exotic.

The other themes explored are the Poetic, treating beer celebrations in the forms of fests or beer weeks and beers emotive of the literary; Bucolic, a lyrical evocation of classic country pubs; and Contemplative, outlining a small selection of beer writing ATJ has found useful or stimulating in some way and worthy of the reader’s attention.

Despite its new direction the book includes a style glossary, mercifully not long, with a chart explaining compactly what each beer treated signifies by way of Mood as well as style, place of brewing, ABV, and other practical information.

This novel way to explore modern beer is complemented by ATJ’s writing skill, in a word he is a writer. Many examples can be cited from the book, take this one, a propos a Norwegian Imperial Brown Ale:

You have to feel sorry for the colour brown. It’s not regarded as the most lustrous of colours, when you consider the fieriness and passion that red can invoke, or the mystery of black.

Quite so, or at least, now that I’ve read it courtesy ATJ, it is. It’s things like this that set the book off from most of the rest.

While not a work of brewing history, the book doesn’t misstep in that field, not that I noticed. In fact, you can learn from formulations such as this one that manage to be both learned and literary (lapidary, too, the book is well-edited):

IPA is an urban beer. It was born in London, brought up in Burton-on-Trent, and has more city berths than Airbnb.

That’s very true, especially as the beer was sent to sate governors, merchants, and officers in India, all with an urban sensibility.

The book is well-designed with spare yet artistic black-and-white renderings of bottles and cans and a restrained use of colour in the sidebars or for contrast. While the design is modern, reflecting urban cool to the max, something in the images harkens back to a more simple time in craft beer history. It reminded me of the down-home renderings you see in some 1970s-80s U.S. beer books.

The illustration on pg. 127 for Everett, Vermont’s Hill Farmstead’s “silky porter languid with chocolate, coffee, and vanilla both on the nose and in the taste”, brought the matter full circle for me. Vermont is one of the birthplaces of modern craft beer via its fearless, hippie-style 1970s homebrewers.

Intended or not, I found this link with early craft brewing history pleasing.

Finally, the beer palate itself is addressed often in poetic/literary form that makes you look at taste and enjoyment in a different way. I’ve enjoyed Hercule Stout from Ellezelles, Belgium (at beerbistro in Toronto, IIRC), but never thought of it this way:

This rich and creamy self-styled ‘Belgian stout’ is perfect for contemplating the creation of crime fiction’s greatest detectives. In the glass, the beer is as dark as a murderer’s motive, a silent, inscrutable motive that hides beneath a rocky crema-colored head of foam.

One can go on.

I said this wasn’t a review as such, but if it is anyway, maybe I should add what I don’t like. The page numbers are placed on the right margin mid-page rather than bottom- or top-margin as traditionally, which took some getting used to. Apart from that, I can’t think of anything else.



Carlsberg Special Brew

Carlsberg Special Brew, 8% abv, is in a sea of brands that beer writers and publicists skip over as a stone skimming water: it barely has their attention.

After all, it predates the craft era, is from an industrial brewer, and is a super-strength lager, or “tramp juice” to many. This unpleasant term denotes a beer that’s cheap in relation to the amount of alcohol delivered, and is said to encourage abuse by the abject and disfavoured in society.

Yet when you look at the beer itself, it has trendy or craft-like values, to wit

  • a super-strong pilsener, so a style turned inside out
  • Cognac-flavoured
  • a cult beer in its first thirty years, from 1950 to c.1980.

Special Brew thus exhibits the contradictions and relative values of craft brewing. You can see the arc within a single writer’s career, the late beer maven Michael Jackson. In his first The Pocket Beer Guide, in 1982, he gave it four stars, meaning in his system “highly distinctive”.

In his first full-length book, The World Guide to Beer (1977), he called the beer “famous”.

By the 6th edition of the Pocket Guide, in 1997, under his somewhat revised star system, the four stars were trimmed to two, meaning “above average”.

In the full-length The New World Guide to Beer, published in the intervening 1988, he offered a more nuanced if not revised view:

… some poise and balance… seem lacking in Carlsberg Special Brew, 19.2 Plato (1077; 7.1; 8.9). This extra-strong pale lager, the most potent of Carlsberg beers, has plenty of alcohol but not much character. It seems to be all brawn and no brains. Carlsberg Special Brew is made in Denmark but not marketed there. In Britain, where Carlsberg has its own brewery and produces Special locally, the product has been such a success that it has inspired many imitators, some even stronger.

Jackson seemed to look at the beer differently once the brewing revival was seriously underway and new interesting beers became available. The old school seemed less attractive in this light.

Yet, in its connoisseur phase the beer was sought after, especially in arts circles. Noted devotees included politician Winston Churchill, the writer Kingsley Amis, and rock guitarist Eric Clapton. Amis mentioned the beer more than once in Everyday Drinking: the Distilled Kingsley Amis.

Describing his preferred second drink after a period of abstinence (the first was gin and water), he wrote:

My second drink was a Carlsberg Special Brew, very cold, which I think is better than just cold. The effect was electrifying. As I drank the whole of my head was flooded with the taste and smell of beer.

For everyday tippling Amis liked to blend Special Brew with regular Carlsberg. A proto-Beer et Seq in the blending department, he was. Good man! (Actually, I got the idea from people like Amis, experts in the drinking arts).

Eric Clapton was another blender but chose to add vodka! A kind of beery Maximum R & B, or Maximum R & R, we should put it. The two-tone band Bad Manners had a hit with the song “Special Brew” in 1980, as well.

Apart from now being 8% abv instead of the original 9%, this to placate (?) health authorities, there is no reason to think the beer is much changed from 1977, when Jackson first started writing about beer. For that matter given the unusual specialty it is, I’d think the Churchillian 1950 version was similar.

What changed are the times and the context. The beer gets an average reading on current rating sites but you can’t go by that as these are affected by the evolving values and standards I’m talking about.

Had Jackson not lyricised, say, the golden Duvel in his writing, would we look at it much differently than Special Brew? I don’t think so.

The fact of being brandy-flavoured has never to my knowledge been discussed by craft beer writers, even Michael Jackson, who may simply have been unaware of it. Perhaps the brewery never told him, and it seems only in recent years the can advertises a brandy taste.

Yet the practice certainly dates from the brand’s debut in 1950. In that year, Carlsberg brewed a special version of its famous lager to honour Sir Winston Churchill’s visit to Denmark, his first since the end of WW II.

Churchill was a noted brandy drinker. The story goes the brewery imparted a touch of his favourite tipple to its beer. Making it stronger would appeal of course to one enamoured of good drink, as Churchill was known to be.

Is there brandy in Carlsberg Special Brew? If so, it’s not in the listed ingredients, “water, malted barley, glucose syrup, hops”. Maybe a synthetic or natural flavour of some kind is added, and needn’t be disclosed, that is possible.

Maybe the beer was always aged or finished in a barrel that held brandy, if so how contemporary, again.

Finally, maybe nothing is added and the brandy is really a metaphor for fruity esters created by a special fermentation to get the beer to a non-trad ABV for pilsener.

We tasted a can brought back from England recently. The drink was a strong malty lager with good hops and a fruity undertone of some kind. Very worthy.

Note re sources: the following news and blog sources were also consulted for this essay.












The Ineffable Quality of Good Vodka

I know various Slavic countries vie for the honour of devising vodka. Russia and Poland are perennial contenders. But at least we can say, the drink has a deep spiritual connection to both.

With shifting borders too, the idea of appartenance is less important. Lvov, birthplace of J.A. Bazcewski pictured below, is in Ukraine now. The vodka is made in Vienna due to a complex business history, but follows the ancestral, proprietary method.

A well-written article by Natalia Metrak appeared in January this year setting out all you need to know about House of Bazcewski.

By way of enticing introduction, she states, with ample justice:

If you’re unfamiliar with Baczewski, get ready for a tale of innovative marketing, geopolitics, tragedy and defiance.

Founded by a Jewish family before 1800, the brand became the toast of Europe’s bon ton, quite literally.

Zytnia, in contrast, is rye-based, with its own distinguished history, and still made in Poland. See this account of Polmos, the state enterprise that owned the distillery making the brand since the 1920s.

Possibly Zytnia predates the creation of Polmos, but anyway was well-established before WW II. The website explains that it retains an old-fashioned image, from the Communist era, but is also enjoyed by younger consumers.

Certainly Zytnia is highly respected in export markets especially as the high quality comes at a reasonable price. Super-premium vodka today can fetch prices hitherto associated with rare bourbon or long-aged malt. It is questionable whether quality is in proportion past a certain price point.

Baczewski’s Monopolowa, in the median price class, was bought in London. It can’t be found in Ontario at present but the other was sourced at LCBO.

I sampled an ounce of each iced.

They are rather different despite sharing a grain neutral spirits base. Zytnia is more spicy, you hear the balalaika singing out. The other is creamy and flowing, a guitar gently weeping, or it will after four drinks, say.

It may sound odd especially to those schooled on strong-tasting craft beer or whiskey, but vodka of this quality was once an elect choice of spirits connoisseurs.

In post-1918 Paris, Russian or Polish vodka was novel and had cachet, along the lines of modern art. It was sought by emigrés, artists, salon habitués, scenesters in general. Vodka is still popular in all social circles not excluding the elite, but before 1939 had special resonance, in particular for the avant-garde and “society”.

Apart the exotic aspect for urban France, why was this? Because contrary to today’s conventional wisdom the drink can be very good, and distinctive. It somehow turns a neutral quality into a complex, inviting taste.

How it does that, I’m not exactly sure, but the best vodka brings it off. Putting it a different way, the best of it is not actually tasteless, and has ineffable qualities.

But it must be good. The cheap stuff evokes antiseptic clinics and indelicate treatments, a foreign country to the airy chatter of the salon.

But do limit to one drink, will you, alright, two. Slavic (or other) vodka-fanciers might firmly disagree. Perhaps I’d concur if 30 years younger.