Of “Jesus” old and new

This is about a modern beer with an old history that includes a variant called Jesus. First, some background.

A while back I discussed drinking at college in, “Alcohol and the Academy”, see here. It included my reminiscences (some aspects) of supping at McGill University and environs, 1968-1974. In a more recent posting, “Union College and the Time of Schaefer“, I discussed a now-defunct bar at Union College, NY.

I also addressed aspects of U.S. college drinking before WW I in my article on musty ale printed in the journal Brewery History not long ago.

In “Alcohol and the Academy” I mentioned in passing this 2008 article in Brewery History, “Audit Ale – a Short History”, by John A.R. Compton-Davey. It describes the lengthy and honourable tradition of audit ale at (mostly) Cambridge University colleges.

Compton-Davey more than touched on Lacons Brewery in Great Yarmouth, U.K. as it produced audit ale for numerous colleges in the interwar years. Taste descriptions were included, including by Lloyd Hind, a noted brewing scientist of the era. Hind found his sample somewhat acid but the feature “buffered” by “colloids”. (We open comments to our learned readers to explain colloids for hipster brewing 2019).

The taste descriptions generally concur in colour, richness, and savour. Think full body, potent, sweetish, dark-coloured, that’s the picture and it sounds alluring. These ales were a form of the strong ales spread through the U.K., the Scotch ales, the Burtons, Old Peculier, the stingos, barley wines, the old ales.*

Here we are in 2019, eons away from cranky regional 1930s brewing with its non-sterile plant, wood vessels, and mixed ale cultures. However much Neville Chamberlain-era breweries had advanced from hundreds of years earlier, it is a safe bet modern brewing technically is further ahead by miles.

And if we recreate such an audit or other strong ale from past times, what does it taste like? Does it bear a connection to the 1930s impressions garnered by Compton-Davey?

Actually, it does. The U.K.-based Campaign for Real Ale’s Champion Winter Beer of Britain for 2019 was just announced, Lacons Audit Ale, from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Not quite the same Lacons as the one discussed by Compton-Davey as the new Lacons started up in 2013. But the new shop found old Lacons recipes, and its yeast culture, and includes numerous such heritage brews in its range.

Media reports concur in their description of CAMRA’s champion winter brew of 2019, and I’ll use Lacon’s own formulation since it is similar:

Lacons Audit Ale is a dark copper barley wine with flavours of berry fruit and spice. The finish is smooth and sweet. A unique style of beer.

Available on limited release.

No fruit or spices are added, these are metaphors to get at the flavour. The alcohol range is 8% ABV, not as strong as some audit ale of old times, but strong enough to convey the essential character. Anyhow, some college ale of yore was probably in the same alcohol range, you can depend on it given the variety of brewing procedures then, and vagaries of targeting gravity.

A couple of years after Compton-Davey’s article Terry Foster, a well-known brewing scientist and author of numerous books on brewing and beer styles, wrote an article for the same journal on his recreation of Oxford’s Chancellor Ale. Historical brewing recreations are nothing new and go back to the 1970s at least.

Foster took great pains to reproduce essential features of old recipes, following in particular statements by Lloyd Hind and others. The venerable country brewer Elgood was enlisted to help make the brew. Foster writes of the results:

At this point the unfiltered and unfined beer had aged on the yeast for one year in a stainless steel keg with no artificial carbonation. It poured with just a little head, and a deep black-brown colour, though still slightly translucent in the glass. Since I do not like the use of grandiose and fanciful terms to describe beers, I can only say that it was luscious, full-bodied with some caramel present, and well-balanced; neither the high hop bitterness, nor the high alcohol content stood out. In short, it was voted an excellent beer by the assembled company.

Foster states he expressly decided against including a lactic character, the acidity noted by Hind, while today the fashion for “sours” makes that decision perhaps stand out. Still, the beers in the old days would have varied in acidity anyway. Beers consumed relatively soon after brewing would have had little or none, and even some well-aged beers probably didn’t suffer from it.

Then as today, a brewer’s reputation meant something and many knew how to please the public taste. There are plenty of references in 19th century brewing literature that make clear an aversion to sour beer or at any rate, frankly tart beer.

If further proof is needed on the essential character of audit ale, let’s go back to 1902 and a long article in the American press on collegiate drinking customs in England and Germany.** An audit ale produced for Jesus College Oxford was described as follows:

[The Oxford student] … drinks beer at lunch and at dinner, and he has some famous beers too. There is an audit ale at Queen’s of great age and potency. When the Queen’s man wants to give his friends of this weird beverage he has to make formal application, state how many guests he expects, and then get a written order for an exact and somewhat small amount of it [due to strength], to be served to him. At Jesus, too, they have a well-known beer, called “Jesus old”, a rich, soft, mahogany-colored liquor of considerable body. Once it was brewed in the college brewery, but in more modern times, when colleges and private houses gave up brewing their own beer and thus made possible the growth of that part of the British peerage which has been christened the “Beerage,” the recipe was handed over to one of the great brewing houses to manufacture for the delectation of Jesus men and their friends.

And so, we have a continuity of 120 years in the essentials of the sensory impact of these beers. Despite all the changes in materials (presumably) and technologies over that period, audit ale seems to retain its character of a rich lusciousness. (That’s lusciousness, not lushness, although some might say, not much to choose…).

As a brewer at Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery observed to me when we first brewed 1870 AK Bitter, “for us it’s the ingredients”. He meant that the brewery was seeking to express the character of traditional ingredients from the country that produced that beer in 1870. I could only concur. Our methods differ from the 1870s, the hops and malts can’t be exactly the same even if varieties known to exist at the time are used, and brewing technology is considerably different, but an enduring national and in this case period character hopefully came though.

I think it did, and we see by the rapt reception of Lacons Audit Ale in 2019 that the beer seems very similar to the audit ale known to many generations before Hitler’s war. This is primarily due to the ingredients used in brewing and especially the quantity, the malt, hops, yeast, water. The equipment manipulating them changes over time, but the essence of malting, brewing, and fermentation, when well-conducted – ah there lies the rub – does not.

In considering that the beers of past times can be recreated with good fidelity, we enter a qualification where they are stored in barrels made from American oak. This wood is now virtually the norm where wood vessels are used in craft brewing, but was not liked in former times in British brewing, as we have amply documented earlier. Its use imparts a characteristic coconut or “bourbon” note that, in short, Britons didn’t like in beer.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with current artisan use of American white oak barrels or tuns, if people like the results. If the beers fetch a good sale, that is good for today’s brewers and I’m for it. But this is a modern innovation, a step too far in historical British brewing, in my opinion.

It may sound odd to suggest that today’s ubiquitous metal plant, typically of stainless steel, produces a more authentic result. But I think it does, as the old learning had it that Memel oak, the favoured wood for British breweries except Guinness and a few others, was notably neutral on the beer, as metal is today. See here for evidence of this view.

I believe Lacons Audit Ale is not fermented or stored in American oak, see for example this article on the beer a few years ago, a bottled version, by the eminent beer writers Roger Protz and Jeff Evans, writing in the magazine All About Beer. They make no reference to wood vessels of any kind. Evans, in his taste note, does state “slightly woody” but I believe this a metaphor.

Still, if some Lacons Audit Ale is, or will be, stored or fermented in Stateside oak, all power to those who like the variation, and of course the brewery.

In a word, congratulations to the revived Lacons of Great Yarmouth, U.K. – for winning 2019 Champion Winter Beer of Britain, for continuing quite literally and credibly an age-old tradition.


*Included in the Compton-Davey article is a period advertising leaflet used in New York where an enterprising Cambridge graduate was trying to market the beer, in 1937. Unfortunately the type cannot be read in the reproduction, at least online. Despite Compton-Davey’s comment that the bumph was typically American in its exaggeration, elements of it would be useful to understand better the palate of Lacons Audit Ale in the 1930s. I might observe as well that the pitch couldn’t have been all typically American if a Cambridge man was behind it. Perhaps he was an American Cambridge man, or woman for that matter, but neither possibility seems likely for the time.

**The source, Fulton Historical Newspapers, does not in this case reveal the name of the publication, and it was cut off from the top of the page. It was probably a newspaper in New York, since that is a focus of Fulton, or one of the New England states, given, too, the Ivy League references.





The Enchanted Forest

The Brewery and the Boudoir

I must, I will, revert to the subject of Memel oak. This is wood from forests of Russia and Poland that had ideal properties for British brewers, especially for “cask plant”, the barrels in which beer was shipped to public houses, clubs, and hotels.

Memel, the Baltic port from which the eponymous oak was sent to world markets, is now Klaipėda, in Lithuania. I’ve written seven or eight postings on this subject, this one brings many of the points together.

In brief, until World War I Memel had near-universal use in British ale brewing. In London this applied to porter as well. Guinness was one of the few breweries that adopted the tight-grained American oak, but most others used Memel for casks and other vessels, uncoated.

American brewers used barrels made from the native white oak but the interiors were invariably coated with brewers’ pitch, a subject I also covered earlier. It’s an interesting question what wood Canadian brewers used, I can’t recall seeing any references. I’d assume it was North American oak.

As a vestige of a once-standard industry practice, the historic Traquair brewery in Scotland still uses antique Memel vats to ferment its beer. See images here from the company’s website under “How the Beer is Brewed”.

In a blog posting at Pat’s Pints, the vats can be seen more clearly including their russet tinge, which also appears in some of the logs (freshly harvested) shown in my post linked above.

So important were the Memel stands that the Czars sought to bring them under their control, according to a 1936 story in the New York Post. The Post‘s report had nothing to do with beer as such. It had to do with something many would regard as incongruous or antithetical in a beer context, perfume. (I set aside the reveries of the beer connoisseur here).

A Miss Terry was employed by a perfume and apothecary company on Lexington Avenue. She devised a perfume for a Russian singer, Tamara. Her full name was Tamara Drasin Swann, a Russian-born singer who appeared on the New York stage in the 1930s. Some accounts have her origins as Ukrainian.

She often played an exotic or vamp of old Europe. She was killed in a plane crash near Lisbon in 1943 while on USO service. For more details see her Wikipedia entry, here.

The perfumer’s object was to personalize a scent that conjured associations with Tamara’s birth land. I know little about perfumes but do know that their complex formulas seek often to evoke the scents of forest, glade, grotto. To achieve this, oakmoss was used to lend the keynote effect.

The reporter noted: “Miss Terry uses it as being redolent of the Memel Oak for which Russia has been famed for centuries”.

In fact, oakmoss, which grows on oaks and shrubs, is a venerable ingredient in perfume-making. It is sourced indeed in Europe, not America from what I can tell, and currently at any rate the Balkans exports the crop to the perfumeries of the globe, as this online resource, Fragantica.com, states. Its French name is poudre de Chypre.

Some years ago, in its wisdom the European Commission limited the permissible quantity in perfume. The lichen can irritate the skin, it seems, but perfumers still use it, in a modified way.

In many countries the dark forest has an enduring cultural resonance, often with magical or mystical connotations. We can’t rule out certainly a romance/marketing factor in making a “Russian forests” perfume for an alluring Slavic songstress.

Still, truth can reside in interstices, in implications. The perfumer knew about the Memel forests, probably from her client. She drew on this to create an ideal scent for a Broadway femme fatale.

In this light, can we infer Memel oak added an ineffable quality to English beer? Certainly, no amount of caustics coursing through a new barrel would leach out all the taste, that is impossible. Some taste had to remain, at a subtle, appealing level, we infer.

A special quality is implied in numerous accounts of Memel oak usage by the breweries. The smell and taste were evidently mild, “neutral” William Lindsay called it in 1939, see my posting linked above. He meant this, of course, to contrast with the vanillin twang of American oak.

Perhaps the taste complemented English hops, which can be arbour-like and, in the current cant for British bitter, “twiggy”. It all connects in an odd kind of way, doesn’t it? To the Gillmanesque mind it does.

Traquair has persisted with its old Memel vats because it thinks it gives the beer something. The vats may impart a lightly earthy note – see the discussion in Pat’s Pints again. Other reviews of Traquair’s beers refer to a similar earthy or even oaky note but nothing approaching American wood, the John Phillips Souza of the oaken race.

Of all the brewing fads under the sun, I cannot recall any where someone obtained Memel oak from Klaipeda, made a cask, cleansed it the old way, and filled it with good British bitter.

Who will do this? A wood that inspired a perfume for a Russian diva was a stand-by in the hard, un-perfumed business of brewing beer.

From Courrèges to Courage. We need to see why.

N.B. It always amazes me how, contrary to intuition, many businesses in the news 80 or 100 years ago still exist. Miss Terry’s employer was Caswell-Massey, which still sells fragrances and soaps in New York. See details from its website.  It remains American-owned and is one of the oldest businesses in the country. Surely it has a file, perhaps the colour of ochre and dusty, that lists the specs for a perfume that breathes the bowers and glades of the Czar’s forests.

Note re image: the image above, of Tamara in 1933, was sourced from this Pinterest page. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.










First use of Term Craft Brewery

Obeisance to St. Mike

Off and on over the years the question comes up, who first used the term craft brewery, craft beer, craft brewer, etc.

Until recently, the earliest citation I was aware of is from Paul Gatza on Stan Hieronymous’ Appellation Beer site in 2010, in response to his post inquiring who first used the term “craft beer”.

Gatza responded in part:

The earliest publication of the term “Craft Brewing” here at the Brewers Association that I know about is The New Brewer magazine, Vol. 1, No. 5, September-October 1984, pages 3-4 in Vince Cottone’s article “Craft Brewing Comes of Age.” The term is [sic] “craft beer” is not used in the article, but Vince used the phrases “craft-brewing scene,” “craft brewery” and “craft brewing” in the piece. I have a scan of the article available upon request…

Just the other day I was reading The Pocket Guide to Beer by the late Michael Jackson, published in 1982 by Frederick Muller Limited, London. This is the first appearance of a guide that ran to six or seven editions. They bore varying titles due to differing publication arrangements, but each was an update of the previous one. Each was sold on release in both the U.K. and North America.

On pg. 81, in the entry for “Timothy Taylor, Keighley”, Michael Jackson writes:

TIMOTHY TAYLOR, Keighley. A craft brewery down to the last detail. Very small, producing a wide range of all-malt beers on the edge of the moorland Brontë country. All the draught is cask-conditioned, and the bottled ale is unpasteurized…

In effect, with striking concision he defined keynotes of the beer renaissance for the next 30 years and coined its trademark phrase “craft brewery” (and by extension the derivatives craft beer, craft brewing, etc.).

He also made it clear the phrase applied in Britain to notable examples of the cask tradition, hence not limiting the term geographically, much less to the United States, as is often supposed in British beer circles today.

His next edition, The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, was issued in 1986. In that book, Jackson praises Timothy Taylor no less but in different terms and the word craft is omitted. The 6th edition, entitled Pocket Guide to Beer, was published in 1997. It again confers praise on Timothy Taylor but also omits the word craft. I have seven editions of Jackson’s guide. Only the first one, from 1982, uses the term craft brewery in connection with Timothy Taylor.

There are two other uses of the term “craft” in that first edition, once in connection with top-fermentation at the Belgian brewery Dupont, and once to characterize brewing by his selection of top-ranked breweries. While not on point as such, these reinforce the Timothy Taylor reference and show the term was on Jackson’s mind as a signifier of quality and (often) small-scale brewing.

See here, in Google Books, where you may view all these usages by inserting “craft” in the snippet box.*

Therefore, the earliest use of the term craft brewery – or that I am now aware of – is by Michael Jackson. Jackson is acknowledged by many as the greatest beer writer of all time and certainly was a huge influence on today’s craft brewing. It is entirely apposite that he first used the term.

The reason it was overlooked is probably that the first edition of his pocket guide is relatively rare. To the extent the guide is consulted today, many would examine a later edition, unless a specific historical question posed itself.

I found it by accident, I just wanted to read a compact statement from Jackson on Timothy Taylor’s. I happened to pull the first edition out first.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Wikipedia entry for beer writer Michael Jackson, here, and is believed in the public domain. If not in the public domain, the intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Jackson in the same book also uses the terms “craftsman breweries” and “craftsman brewing”, the former in connection with small northern French breweries, the latter viz. the survival in Belgium of old brewing methods. Thus far, no evidence has appeared that Michael Jackson or anyone else used the specific term craft brewery before his 1982 usage in regard to Timothy Taylor or set out product characteristics for the genre, but see also my last Comment added below viz. earlier use by him of related expressions in the context of surviving small breweries in French Flanders and Belgium.







Bay Street’s Beer Bonanza

The proliferation of fashionable beer bars continues in the Toronto business “core”. I define it as the area between Yonge, Queen, University, and Front Streets, but it takes in some streets beyond. Fashionable = “upscale but relaxed” to adapt an expression  Reds, a veteran restaurant in the core, uses to describe its ambience.

The latest beer destination is the Wvrst satellite in York Concourse Hall, a revamped section of Union Station. Surrounding are a number of trendy food shops, so far of the snack or pastry variety but more substantial ones are planned. Just opposite Wvrst is Union Chicken, a restaurant that bills itself as free-range for free range people. Hence, two sit-down restaurants in a busy station that formerly offered few amenities.*

A few paces away is a splashy new food court of contemporary design, and behind that the departure lounge of Go light rail.

Wvrst started out west of the core on King Street a few years ago and was immediately popular. The focus is its high quality sausage kitchen and gourmet french fries. Ad-ons in later years – salad was a good one – broadened the appeal and the York Concourse branch offers even more choices. From Day 1 Wvrst was a beer haven too, focusing on the local craft scene and quality imports.

The decor of both locations is a stylized blend of Bier Hallen, English pub, and industrial chic. Stylish touches in the new location include a winking display panel listing the draft beers which mimics a rail timetables board.

The beer list consists of rotating drafts, at least a dozen, and well-chosen bottled and canned offerings. There are some great choices from Belgium in particular, with many lambic-based rarities.

Ciders are a sub-specialty of Wvrst with French, Spanish, and Estonian (!) selections while not ignoring Ontario – or Los Angeles, CA (who knew from L.A. cider?). The U.K., of Olympian importance in cider, seems oddly missing, but they will get to it in time I’m sure.

I ate at the bar, bratwurst on a bun with fries – same quality as the King Street parent, which means very high. The meat had the right touch of mace, so un-North American or English really unless you reach for heritage recipes. The sausages, of which there must be a dozen types again, include good vegan options.

A commuter next to me grabbed a quick Major Small Best Bitter, from Muddy York in Toronto, and left within 10 minutes. Most people were eating as it was lunch-hour. Not a few ordered one of the exotic bottled beers or ciders to accompany.

Wvrst at Union Station was preceded by the Mill St Pub, the craft brewery now owned by AB InBev. It’s in a relatively remote part of the station, adjacent to the train which links to Pearson Airport. With Wvrst, and Union Chicken’s local (bottled) beers, the beer stakes for the rail traveller or interloper are raised at a stroke.

The draft beer choice at Wvrst is careful calibrated. Three imports are currently offered, Weihenstephaner (wheat), Pilsner Urquell (lager), and Paulaner (lager). Each represents high quality, especially the first two. A more sedate choice would be, say, Heineken, Erdinger, and Stella Artois.

The Ontario drafts currently include a half dozen of the wildly popular sour category – a sour stout, anyone? – with good representation of cornerstone styles. Wvrst was never pro forma about beer, which may sound a contradiction in terms but beer bars can “let go” after a while; it never has.

There must have been good competition for its spot, but the re-development managers chose well.

With the pioneering beerbistro at King and Yonge Streets, there are now in the core: Walrus Pub and Beer Hall, the sizeable Taps in First Canadian Place, the huge Craft Beer Market, and the more intimate Boxcar Social, on Temperance Street (yes that’s the name). Goose Island’s brewpub (AB-InBev) and Batch (Molson-Coors), albeit a touch outside the core, count as well. So does the Biermarkt (a small chain) next to Goose Island. Let’s add the Loose Moose, a 10 minutes walk west of the station. All offer an inviting beer variety, or together they certainly do.

There is yet more if we add the older English or Irish pubs in the core as well as Reds and other general restaurants, a Three Brewers, and the new food halls strewn through the canyons. The core can now add brewing riches to the monetary kind tended by the wizards in the towers.

In this area downtown, beer has come a long way in the last 5-10 years. In a word, it has arrived. One of the early flagships for craft beer downtown, the boho-flavoured C’est What, still thrives next to St. Lawrence Market to the east. In business a generation now, C’est What can gaze proudly on the beer ferment in the core today, as it was an indirect influence.

Today good beer is not just hipster, not just suburbia, not just college/intellectual. Craft beer is for everyone. No one owns it, no one can define it.

It’s taken 40 years of trying, and nothing will reverse it, neither takeovers, nor slowdowns in the boom, nor blandishments like alco-pops, cider, and wine. I doubt legal cannabis will have much effect either.

This should not be a surprise really as craft beer is simply, or it aspires to be, fine beer. And great beer is an age-old heritage. It belongs to everyone with the imagination to taste with discernment and curiosity.

A not inconsiderable bonus: the wider the audience for it, the greater the market for our craft brewers.


*A member of the Toronto beer community subsequently told me there was a bar before Wvrst in the same space, to his recollection curtained and quite basic. Wvrst has an open scheme and looks pleasant and inviting, not to mention its diverse and creative wares as described above. With Union Chicken added to the picture, the situation regarding licensed premises seems clearly improved, certainly in the north-central part of the station.


Message in a Bottle

The jolting news last Friday that Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick, U.K. (not the pubs and hotels) was sold to Asahi, the large Japanese brewery, is still reverberating through the international beer community.

Asahi has expanded impressively in recent years through strategic acquisition. It holds Dutch Grolsch, Czech Pilsner Urquell, Italian Peroni, Hungarian Dreher, and now the historic Fuller brands among other international names. (Fuller’s pubs and hotels will retain full rights to various trade names of Griffin Brewery at Chiswick in a unique, dual-usage arrangement, but outside the pubs and hotels the brands have been sold).

During my recent extended sojourn in Florida I saw first-hand how Asahi is actively promoting premium brands in its stable, Peroni in this case. The image below is an example, at an Italian restaurant outside Delray Beach. The beer in the glass is not Peroni, but you see the counter “talker” or tent, and there were other, more prominent point of sale notices for Peroni in the eatery.

To my best recollection, there was also a related promotion to pair Peroni with different Italian dishes.

Similar treatment will follow for Fuller’s brands, the official Fuller announcement (see its website) said as much. This is good as far as it goes, but I have less confidence that the real ale traditions at Griffin Brewery in Chiswick will continue as before.

First, given the apparent value of the land purchased with the brewery, pressure to sell it for development seems inevitable and with that a move, in time, to another location. Perhaps to Meantime, an Asahi craft beer unit further to the east in London, or elsewhere.

It may be a matter of time too before the marquee ales will be filtered and served under top pressure, 5 lbs PSI or more to reduce premature oxidation. Such beers can still be pulled through a handpump, giving them a cask ale mien. It may start with non-tied houses and other pubs outside the Fuller pub and hotel network and migrate finally to the Fuller pubs and bars.

This is speculation: maybe none of this will happen, but it is speculation I would not have made before the deal. I have other reasons to think off-shore ownership – any country’s, not just Japan’s – is less than favourable to the cask tradition at the heart of Griffin Brewery.

The increasing market share of craft beer in Britain, most of which is chilled and fizzy, will increase pressure in that direction, quite literally.

Why didn’t part of the family sever links with the pubs and hotels and buy the brewery? Why didn’t another British business, venture capital or a new flotation say (so not a major ale competitor) buy the brewery? We can’t know the answers, and the families must have canvassed the alternatives.

What the saga shows so far – of this we can be certain if nothing else – is that the romance breweries create through advertising and promotion, to a willing audience to be sure, has limits. Yes, brewing can be handed down through the generations. Yes, the descendants care about tradition. Yes, they probably believe it when they say, sometimes in a product ad, they will never “sell up”, in the clipped British phrase. (Somehow, “sell up” has a jaunty ring. Contrast with the blunt American “sell out”).

But at the end of the day, or century, or what have you, business has an iron logic. The occasional, rude manifestation comes as a shock for many.

Of course, nothing is ever 100% predictable. Maybe someone in the families controlling Fuller, with an uncommon love for traditional brewing, might have made the difference. One thinks of the late George G. Bateman’s inspiring struggle years before to keep his regional brewery alive and independent. Read in his own words how he did it, from the brewery’s website.

Sometimes, it works out, from the beer enthusiast’s point of view, that is. More often, it doesn’t.



Ontario Brown Ale

Fade to Brown

Ontario brown ale is a species of what the BJCP calls British Brown Ale. The term “species” is justified I think. Brown ale continues to be brewed in the province since inception of modern craft brewing and various examples show a family resemblance.

I haven’t encountered a group of craft browns elsewhere with quite the same characteristics. It’s an Ontario thing, it seems.

The beer shown, Barley Days Wind and Sail from Picton, ON in Prince Edward County, exemplifies the type: lightly malty with cocoa and chocolate tones. It has good but not pronounced hopping, of the neutral, old world type. (No “citrus”, that term beloved of 10,000 beer labels).

Ontario brown ale achieves the profile simply with a blend of barley malts: no chocolate or coffee added, a good thing for our taste.

Other examples are Amsterdam Downtown Brown, Upper Canada Dark Ale, Wellington County Ale, Black Oak Nut Brown Ale,  and Waterloo Dark*. They are about 5% ABV, good for drinking a couple, good with food. Each has its merits, with a different accent on the cocoa or chocolate, acidity level, hopping, etc.

The beers by current standards are not greatly impactful but in truth offer excellent drinking. There is a time and place for each style, or each taste. Put another way, this one is a lover not a fighter. Tall dark and handsome.

It helps to drink them at not much cooler than room temp, and not too gassy – easy to adjust with a debonair stir of the swizzle.

These beers are like keg mild in Britain but stronger, or like Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, Double Maxim Brown Ale, and Mann’s Brown Ale, influencers in the early days of craft. Regretfully I must exclude Newcastle Brown Ale since recent tastings disclose little flavour, imo.

BJCP, a judging certification group, takes pains to explain that British Brown Ale is not a historical type or intended, when grouped with porters and mild ales, to suggest any common origins. I get that, but the beers can in practice resemble each other, and the grouping makes sense.

Barley Days’ brown could be taken for a light porter, in fact. Conversely, some beers labelled porter or stout in Canada are similar to Ontario brown, Moosehead’s new Export Stout, say, or Mad and Noisy Coconut Porter from Creemore.

Barley Days has pleased (me) more than disappointed lately. As I reported earlier its buck a beer entrant to our Premier’s plea for cheaper beer, Loon Lager, is an excellent light Munich blonde, or Helles. The LCBO listings have it now at $1.65 a can so I guess the special has ended, but I’ll still buy it.

A canned Loyalist Lager and Harvest Gold Pale Ale pleased much less, not enough taste. I won’t repeat.

But if I can find one or two beers in any brewery’s range I like, I’m laughin’. Starting with Wind and Sail from Barley Days.**


*Described as a lager on the website of Waterloo Brewing but partakes of the general character I’ve described for Ontario brown ale, imo. Other Ontario dark lagers are more frankly in the classic Munich Dunkel mode.

**Picton is a charming resort town some two hours drive east of Toronto, on Lake Ontario. There are many notable features there redolent of its geography or history, from countless sunken wrecks off the shore, to the famous sand dunes just outside of town, to the RAF presence in WW II to teach flying and gunnery. It’s well-known for a growing winery scene, more than breweries in fact, but many farms continue in operation and supply both activities. Picton was settled by United Empire Loyalists, Americans who elected to stay with the Crown during the American Revolution. They came starting in the 1780s. Canadians have justly evolved a distinct character but Americans formed the corpus of settlement in Ontario. This has had an obvious influence on our life and mores. There is much more that unites us than separates, in that while settlement was superintended by the British, enduring social and cultural norms arrived with people who had lived in America for 100 years or more before decamping to Upper Canada. More information on Picton here.





Bass Ale in Toronto: Coda

One of the great ironies of the rise of I.P.A. (India Pale Ale) in U.S. craft and international brewing is an inverse decline of Bass Ale, originally Bass India Pale Ale. I refer here to Bass in North America and probably the U.K. It does enjoy strong sales in a few select markets, notably Japan, but where craft culture is strong the brand has languished.

Bass was de-anchored from its heritage when the Belga-Brazil international brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired the business in Burton-on-Trent, U.K. about 20 years ago. In a series of corporate manoeuvres related to anti-trust compliance, AB In Bev contracted the brand out to North American-based Molson-Coors, which now owns the historic Burton brewery. Other brewers have made Bass too for the label-owner.

Marston’s, a surviving old Burton firm, currently makes the draught (real ale). Bottled and probably kegged beer (non-real ale) are made elsewhere in Britain for shipment overseas except to the U.S. and Belgium where AB InBev makes Bass locally, and latterly Canada.

By latterly, I mean that until quite recently small quantities of draft-only Bass Ale were produced at AB InBev/Labatt Brewery in Toronto. The city’s Elephant and Castle pub chain was one outlet for it, perhaps the only one. But on my last visit to a E & C – no Bass, and it was off the menu.

The website of Ontario’s The Beer Store, in good part owned by AB InBev, listed it for some years in kegs, but no longer. It therefore appears it is no longer available.

The beer, shown above last year at a E&C downtown, was very nice. It was similar to the imported Bass we used to get but fresher and better, even though only 4% ABV for some reason. It probably simply followed the current U.K. practice in this regard. The standard Canadian strength is 5% ABV.

Bass was at that level as an import, and even higher historically. Craft IPA is usually around 7% ABV, but Bass has stayed behind, like a once-thoroughbred racer whose pace is now a trot.

Few know or care today that this very Bass is a cornerstone of modern IPA. There would be no IPA today but for Bass and other early avatars: Hodgson, Salt, Allsopp, all popular in India in the early 1800s.

Bass until the craft era was well-reputed. It has a characteristic nutty, fruity taste. Apple-like, I always thought.

Many of the Burton beers were well-known for a tang of sulphur. I discussed it here a while back, and showed from original research that American beer mavens once savoured a “Bass Stink”. This was likely related either to the gypsum content of Burton well waters, a secondary fermentation from wild yeast, or both.

Latter-day Bass in bottles and cans, as well as kegged Bass such as the Canadian one mentioned, eschew the effect, an acquired taste for many. The draught Bass brewed at Marston’s still has it, a good thing for traditionalists.

I prefer the cleaner, brewery-conditioned Bass. But it seems the Toronto supply is used up. Will it come back? We’ll see. But there is little point to offering such an old specialty if you don’t tell people – accurately – what it is and what it means. I hope AB InBev will put the accent on educating the Ontario consumer, if the beer re-appears in the future.

If modern craft brewing is a party and Bass is crying, who can blame her? It’s her party, she can cry if she wants to. At least, she was on the committee.



Fuller’s Brewery – Meet the new boss

I will keep this short as I’m writing from the road. The sale of Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick, West London arouses deep emotion in the heart of all true beer lovers of any generation or (today) nationality.

With roots in the 1800s and links to yet more distant brewing onsite, Fuller was the last family-controlled firm in London of the pre-craft/pre-CAMRA generation of English brewers. Moreover they were specialists in cask ales, a category under pressure again in Britain – quite literally as it happens.

Times and the business climate change, we all know it. And brewing will continue onsite at least for the forseeable future, but in the hands of a Japanese lager business with unceasing international ambitions whose perspective will inevitably differ from the descendants of the British founders who have sold their controlling shares.

I will always recall best Fuller’s of 30 years ago. The houses (pubs) seemed more natural then, less professional, more in keeping with their origins as independantly founded, hence more diverse in character and interesting.

The beer was better too, especially the famous Extra Special Bitter. Its hop taste seemed to change in recent decades, and the beer is less winy and sweet now, IMO.

Still, the porter is good as are some of the vintage and one off brews. And London Pride bitter, for its part, still deserves the name when well-served.

All things must pass, as another British legend, Beatle George Harrison, once set in song.

As the London-born Pete Townshend wrote too, the song is over, or in a manner of speaking it is.

It’s not all behind me though, the music lives on, in the form of a contemporary brewing tradition of symphonic complexity that is audible through the world.

To a not inconsiderable degree, the inspiration for that can be traced to the vatted lyres of Chiswick.


The NYT Gets the Story and then Some

In my last post, I showed that Watney’s Red Barrel enjoyed a quality image in the American market from approximately 1964-1994. I dealt with critical and consumer reaction, not sales, to be sure. Heineken and other import market leaders – Becks, Molson for a long time, later Corona  – never had any worries Red Barrel would challenge their hegemony, but it did enjoy a good reputation.

In Britain, as the 1970s wore on Watney’s Red, successor to Red Barrel in the U.K., increasingly attracted the ire of the advised beer drinker. Quickly-growing CAMRA, the beer lobby founded in 1971 whose raison d’être is traditional (cask) ale, had Red in its sights. Watney’s did introduce or expand availability of cask ale, but its defence of Red was destined for failure.

Did Americans continue to view Red Barrel with blithe equanimity? For the most part, yes. Only a handful of people here knew the story of the maladroit Red Revolution ad campaign. A few homebrewers knew, as well as the few beer writers who had spent time in Britain such as Stephen Morris, author of the The Great Beer Trek, published in 1984.

Michael Jackson, the influential British beer writer was travelling extensively in North America from the late 70s so he would have discussed the issue with the new generation of American beer journalists and emerging craft brewers. Of course, too, his 1978 The World Guide to Beer chronicled the story graphically, so those who bought the book, who read that part of it, or that part of it carefully, knew as well.

But in relative terms most buyers of imported beer had no clue, even after 1978 but certainly before. To them, Red Barrel was just another interesting-looking bottle or draft tap with a big price tag.

An exception to the general pattern is a 1975 New York Times story that explained CAMRA’s origins and exactly what was happening with Watney’s Red. The focus was Britain but it was noted Watney’s was making a push to sell more Red Barrel in the U.S. The story at the time had few or no ripples in the American beer market. If Watney’s Red Barrel did not become what Corona did, it was nothing to do with the Red debacle in Britain.

The beer simply did not appeal to enough people. Being an ale told against it too, as the big imports were all lagers or ales similar to lager such as Molson Export or Molson Golden Ale.

But the New York Times was on to something, and taking a man-in-the-street approach questioned patrons in an English pub about beer preferences. It chose the Elephant & Castle in St. Albans, the small city serving as a bedroom suburb (or it would increasingly) for London. Not coincidentally St. Albans was, and is, host to CAMRA’s headquarters.

Famously the Times is read by a relatively small part of the reading public, the chattering class, based in the northeast, well-off in comparison to the rest of the country, liberal, and upscale in habits and attitudes. Readers of the article who drank alcohol for the most part had no interest in beer – no serious interest I mean. It hasn’t changed that much, beer coverage in the Times seems to oscillate between the pro forma and the non-existent, and surely this reflects the interests and habits of the audience it serves (the bulk of it).

Times readers drink wine or spirits, with a focus on the foreign at least until the American wine and Kentucky bourbon booms became fashionable. At least that is my take having read the paper for decades.

But the Times did get the CAMRA and Watney’s story right, and fairly early too. The writer did not perceive the implications for a potential beer revolution in the States, but given the year in question, when the first true craft brewery, New Albion Brewing in California, was still a year from opening, that is certainly understandable.

As to Watney, it  wasn’t going down without a fight. The journalist reported:

The Watney’s people do not enjoy [the] … criticism, in part because they are making a strong effort to tap the lucrative American market by selling Watney’s “Red Barrel” beer as the real thing.

“Who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t.” said a Watney’s spokesman the other day. “People like our beer, and therefore it’s real to us. We make some of the stuff Camra likes, but we make more of the stuff most people like.”


I admire Watney’s cojones, but the posture did not help its fortunes in the U.K., it might have been better to cozy up faster to CAMRA. If you can’t beat them join them, as the adage goes.

The article ends, in retrospect, on an interesting note. The St. Albans publican tells the Times that customers like the real ales he serves, the CAMRA-approved stuff, but sometimes people complain the beer has no head. He offered them a glib answer: you are here to drink the beer, not look at it.

But even real ale should have a head, this wasn’t just ignorant sputtering by those schooled on frothy keg beer or bottled beer (always quite fizzy). Either way, and while cask beer did enjoy a renaissance for many years, we see the underbelly of cask, even in its first flush of rebirth. The belly has swelled in recent years, with annual sales of cask ale falling steadily.

Say what you will about craft beer, but most of it comes equipped with a big creamy head. And craft beer is taking up the market share cask ale is losing, not industrial lager whose sales are also dropping. True, craft beer can be dispensed as real ale, but the classic, lodestar Yankee IPA comes cold and capped with a shaving cream-like head.

The customers who didn’t like the flattish real ales characteristic of the prosperous and trend-setting south and centre were heralds of the current real ale doldrums, a trend possibly now irreversible.

Ale will be saved, but the rescue may come finally courtesy American-style craft beer, not the kind of beer CAMRA has worked doggedly to save for almost 50 years.

Note re quotation:The quotation above is from the news story described and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the story belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Material is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Watney’s Red Barrel: Star in America

When we was fab

In a post two years ago, on the English pub at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, I noted that Watney’s Red Barrel Beer was on the menu. It was perhaps the first appearance in the U.S., unless small amounts were imported earlier. For the beer to be showcased by the U.K. at its pavilion at a prestigious international exposition was an imprimatur par excellence.

The brand originated in England in 1931, as numerous beer histories attest. Watney Combe Reid had conducted research to devise a beer whose stability would permit reliable export to India. Stability for this purpose meant heat-pasteurized, filtered, and force-carbonated.

In essence, it was a modern bottled ale in a large sealed can, later known as a “keg”. This beer was quite different from traditional, draught “real ale” which was live, unfiltered, and unpasteurized.

The 1930s seem late for a focus on the India market, and we don’t know if Red Barrel ever irrigated the last days of the Raj. It did appear in Australia in the 1950s, as a Christmas advertisement shows in Sydney’s The Sun in 1952.

From 1964 (at least) in the United States, Red Barrel was on the market for approximately 30 years in bottle and draft. This 1966 ad in East Hampton, NY proudly advertises draft Red Barrel and gilds it as England’s oldest draught beer.

Red Barrel was always regarded here as prime quality beer. One index is its price. According to this 1984 article in the Washington Post vaunting the virtues of imported beers Red Barrel was priced the same as Fuller’s London Pride and Charles Wells Bombardier Ale, both still going strong of course. Only Samuel Smith Brown Ale and Orval Trappist Ale, both new-generation imports with a craft-like cachet, fetched more money.

In 1980, an ad in Ithaca, NY had Red Barrel at $5.99/6 pack, a dollar more than (imported) Bass Pale Ale. In 1988 a case of Red Barrel, among a group of nine beers offered including imports such as Molson and St. Pauli Girl, was $16.49 a case in the summer season, the most expensive of all beers listed.

American beer needless to say was much cheaper.

The Post in the 1984 article was complimentary but perhaps nuanced, calling Red Barrel “smoother” than London Pride and, oddly enough, somewhat “American” in character. This was probably due to its malt adjunct or sugar component, which lessens malt sweetness and body.

James Robertson in his The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer (1978, 1982) noted a “sour” element in Red Barrel – the same adjunct at work, likely. Robertson regularly used the term sour to describe inexpensive American brews. While nonplussed by the bottle, which scored relatively low in his taste score tallies for imported beers, he considered the draft “a much better product”.

For his part, Michael Weiner in his 1978 The Taster’s Guide to Beer gave the bottled beer “six mugs”, or “almost perfect” in his scheme. Only seven mugs (“the world’s best”) ranked higher. Most beers he rated fell in one of the first five ranks.*

John Porter, in the 1975 book All About Beer, included Red Barrel among his four picks for best imported English brews. The others were Watney’s Stingo Ale, Mackeson Stout, and Whitbread Ale.

As a reasonable sampling of contemporary U.S. critical opinion, the beer was obviously in general well-regarded.

As to general consumer reaction, Red Barrel was certainly a star performer. In 1971, a non-blind beer tasting conducted by New York Magazine placed it third out of 57 brews. First place went to a dark version of German Wurzburger, and fourth to Dutch Heineken. Second was an obscure French brand.

In 1982 Frederick Carpenter of Bethel, Connecticut, of Anglo-American ancestry and a dedicated Anglophile, threw a party to honour the traditions of St. George. What beer did he lay in? A keg of Watney’s Red Barrel. The story is interesting on numerous accounts, you can read it here.

Consumers were encouraged in this perception by commercial practices such as Red Barrel being flagship beer at the English-themed Lord Hardwicke pubs. This c.1970 venture was sponsored in part by a British lord. See my posting the other day on Hardwicke’s pubs..

By the early 1990s Sleeman Brewery in Ontario, an early craft brewer, acquired rights to Watney’s Red Barrel, presumably for export to the U.S. as it was never sold in Ontario. Perhaps a plan to sell it here had fallen through.

Commentary in recent years suggests the Sleeman version was a lager, which is plausible. I was given a bottle on a visit to Sleeman’s and recall it being bland. The English-made bottles and draft, brewed (at least) at Stag Brewery, Mortlake and later Usher’s, a Watney’s-Grand Met unit, were ale and superior in taste. But they weren’t real ale.

Anyway, by 1994 Watney’s was ending its presence on U.S. beer shelves.

Now, how strong was this once sought-after import? It was surprisingly hard to find out as bottle labels did not state it. Boak and Bailey’s recent article on U.K. Red Barrel history suggests the domestic brew was c.3.8% ABV, and somewhat higher for earlier bottlings.

To put this in context, 4% ABV was and is the norm for mass-market North American light beer.

Still, sedulous research has pulled up the number for imported Red Barrel in 1987: 3.92% ABV. It is from an analysis of beers and ales conducted by the Excise Tax Division of the Department of Revenue Services of Connecticut. I was rather shocked to see how low. It is 4% ABV for practical purposes, but still.

Tusker Malt Lager
Bia Ni Bora (Kenya)              5.24     …
Utica Club Pilsener Lager Beer
West End (USA)                   4.82     …
Watney’s Red Barrel Beer
Stag (England)                     3.92     …
Wurzburger Hofbrau Pilsner Beer
Wurtzburger Hofbrau          5.42     …

Whether this was the revised 1971 “Red” recipe or the earlier, c.90% malt recipe, I can’t say. I’d guess the former since, as stated above, the Post (1984) called it “smooth” in comparison to London Pride, oddly (or not) the very term used by Watney to describe the revised 1971 recipe (see Boak and Bailey again), and thenceforth to be known simply as Watney’s Red.

I’d think the new Red version was used for export too but the old name, Red Barrel, was still printed on bottles and tap clips.

Now, 4% ABV can produce fine beer – after all Pilsner Urquell, a legend in brewing, is 4.4%. Still, in terms of best English traditions, it seems a bit low. But there you have it.

My guess is the beer was probably somewhat like today’s Smithwick’s Irish Red, sweetish, with little hop aftertaste and a flattened note from adjunct. Or maybe like Rickard’s Red in Canada, a Molson-Coors product.

Rebrewings of Red Barrel in Britain seem to have produced satisfactory impressions but nothing over the moon.

Red Barrel was always what it was: an alleged but withal dubious improvement on traditional cask ale. It was designed by technologists who did not have the interests of beer purists in mind but rather, an overall goal to minimize product deterioration.

Red seems to have been less bitter than Red Barrel to appeal to an expanded franchise who could not abide a beer with hop character. Abetted by some ill-advised advertising choices after 1970, the beer finally caught up with its contradictions.

But it was a quality product in pre-craft America. There is no inconsistency here. Weiner, Porter, Robertson, the Post writer, the New Yorker magazine panel, etc. were not Pollyanna in their estimates. It is just that the standards of the day were quite different to today’s.

A fair-to-middling performer at best in Britain – or FTM among the cognoscenti – Red Barrel had star quality here due to the U.S. competition being so much lesser.

All that has been turned around due to the grit and doggedness of CAMRA and the North American craft trailblazers who took inspiration from its example.

Note re images and quotation: image above was sourced from this online vending site, item is c.1935 and offered by the vendor of heritage furniture and decor mentioned in the listing. The quotation is from an online discussion forum that reproduced the 1987 Connecticut government study, as mentioned and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources used belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Material is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*For Jim Roberston’s fuller remarks on Watney’s Red Barrel, see my comment printed under Boak and Bailey’s recent article on Red Barrel history, linked below. In the comment as well I link to a colour film from the 1960s showing Red Barrel in action at the bar.