The Lively Current Interest in Beer – Roots and Analogies

The current consumer interest in beer is becoming a world-wide phenomenon. Ask for “IPA” in the bars of any major Western city, chances are it elicits no special reaction. Parts of the world remain resistant of course, many tourist areas in particular, or in some countries with deep-rooted wine traditions.  Still, anyone who persists can usually find good imports even in these places, or a brewpub or two, to sate the desire for full-flavoured, natural brew. A friend reported recently that with only a little effort he was able to find excellent IPA and other craft beer in Barcelona and Madrid, for example.

Within my own memory, the appreciation of flavours and different beer styles was completely unknown in the larger culture. Not just that, it did not exist as a sub-culture. In England, CAMRA (the Campaign For Real Ale) and earlier, the Society For The Preservation Of Beers From The Wood, started a ferment which had broad repercussions in the U.K. and finally, indirectly at least, North America. But here around 1970, say, there was virtually no interest in beer apart from an understanding that the major brands differed somewhat. The consumer was expected to find one to his taste and stick to that – end of story. Advertising then, and still of course for much of the mass-market, was focused on various aspirational and other values: leisure, fraternity, tradition in a vague sense – the consumer was left to figure out the taste.  A former sales executive for a national brewer in the 1980’s once told me the attitude prevalent then in the business was, “you’ll sell what we make”. I asked him, how did they know what to make? He said, they just knew.

I think in part this was due to the fact that alcohol was understood as existing primarily to relax or even to intoxicate. Brewers and distillers knew that was what people sought primarily.  The means to facilitate that – a sweetish cereal drink with the bitter tang of what was originally a preservative, hops – was a secondary feature, not requiring justification or explication. Also, the temperance history of North America surely inclined alcohol makers away from flowery encomiums in their advertising. I’d think ad agencies were given a brief to be restrained in how they created appeal for the products, so as not to attract unduly dour government inquiry.

The vocation so to speak for beer and other alcohol to alter mood will always be so, yet a cult of appreciation had existed for centuries in the wine world – it was small and Anglo-centric, but the critical appreciation of wine has been accepted for hundreds of years and probably longer. I am sure classical studies disclose examples of a wine culture in this sense in Ancient Rome and Greece. Epicurean thinking has involved the twain of food and wine since at least its Greek avatar, but probably started earlier.

Whence then the origin of the modern critical reception of beer? A similar recent change attended the development of whisky. Re-reading the superb Scots on Scotch, ed. by Phillip Hills (1991, reissued in a new edition 2002), the answer was brought home to mind. Hills explains that in the 1970’s, a small group in Scotland, diverse in social origins, promoted interest in malt whisky and grew steadily.  Until then, malt whisky was little understood by consumers vs. the ubiquitous Scotch blends in which the “real stuff” makes a minority and qualified appearance. There is a fascinating cultural side to this, in that Hills compellingly argues the rebirth of Scottish nationalist sentiment and cultural pride from the mid-1900’s assisted the recognition of single malt whisky as a classic product and symbol of Scotland. The distillers picked up on this interest and saw the potential for good margins in a niche category. To get people to twig to malt whisky, which by definition was not a “brand” (it was craft-like – sound familiar?), advertisers sought to trumpet hitherto occult qualities: peatiness, sherry notes, a waft of briny sea, and so on.

Wine producers were doing this earlier but not for all that long. Initially, high end producers in Europe and California had a base among those who had learned about their quality, there was no lauding of terroir and grape varieties in consumer wine magazines – there were almost no consumer wine magazines. Bulk producers satisfied the broader market in various commodity classifications and that was that, this was especially so in France where people accepted wine as a birthright. It was Anglo-American and Antipodean connoisseurs via their wine clubs, gastronomy societies, small publications and other tentative means who helped establish wine as a bourgeois consumer interest. Finally, this approach transplanted to France, Italy and the other great wine-producing areas.

Where does beer fit in? It fits in very well in that CAMRA, the consumer writer Michael Jackson, the developing craft brewing industry in California and the home brewing movement created the broader interest in good beer which had taken root in the last generation for wine. Both malt whisky and beer developed a similar critical appreciation in this period. And just as for whisky and wine, beer advertising too, certainly that of the craft producers but increasingly for some products of the national brewers, started to focus on product attributes.  These covered e.g., notable ingredients, a unique taste, an interesting history (Belgian white, you say…?). In the end, what appealed to small and disparate groups initially became much bigger and the producers borrowed their language and enlarged on it. The history of so many things is similar, whether food products like cheese, olive oil or bread, or cultural phenomena such as blues music, visual arts, fashion.  It goes on.

Date Codes Are Your Friend

I’ve always found that with imported beers but also domestic craft beers, whether pasteurized or not (craft beers generally are not), bottled or canned, beers within 3 months of packaging offer a surer route to a good experience than an older beer especially one over 6 months old. There are always exceptions, and any beer drunk cold and without much attention to palate will be okay no matter (within reason) how old it is. But those seeking the optimal beer experience are advised in my experience to seek out beers as new as possible off the line, even strong, well-hopped and bottle-conditioned beers.

I am setting aside in these notes the experience of buying beers to lay down, or store. They are separate category but for beers intended for current consumption, it is advisable in my experience to buy and drink them as new as possible.

Some beers that are recently packaged may still offer an unsatisfactory experience. Damp paper oxidation is still a problem occasionally, for craft beers in particular. Other factors can explain this though, too much residual oxygen in the container, poor handling of the beer in bulk before packaging, poor storage or handling at the wholesale level, etc.

In general, craft beers, especially local ones but even from far afield, are more reliable than in the past.  This may be because more today are bottle- or can-conditioned.  A yeast presence in the beer can scavenge stray oxygen in the container, so can a substance in the interior lining of crown caps frequently used today.  Filtered beers are, IMO again, subject to faster degradation than unfiltered ones unless pasteurized. Perhaps too beers with a lot of hops or other flavours can disguise the damp paper or other faults lurking underneath so to speak. A retired brewer from a national brewer once told me that certain kinds of “soft” faults in dark beers are less apparent than in pale beers because dark malts “hide” them better.

It is a mantra that brown glass is more protective than green. Still, even brown glass will let in light over time. Cans of course are exempt from this but they conduct heat (and chill) much more effectively than glass, with commensurate risk for degradation. This is why even pasteurized imports seem superior, or IMO they are, when 2-3 months vs. say, 6-9 months from packaging. Jever cans in our market seem by by the date system currently to be about 10 weeks from canning date, Kovel too. They are drinking very well, with a full natural taste a lot of imported beers seem to lose after a few months in the can or bottle. Pilsner Urquell is the gold standard in Ontario of a very fresh beer showing its stuff. For years now, you can find these – I buy the cans only – at about 10-12 weeks from packaging and they always taste really good.

Most imported beers use a best-by system and a one year freshness window.  Urquell cans use a 9 month system: so, factoring out the year, add three months to the date appearing on the base and that is packaging date. Some bottles and cans have more delphic systems, or none at all, and in such cases it is can be harder to know how old the product is. Sometimes you can tell by a change in label design or simply by a spruce appearance of the label.

Finally, some beers of course will never satisfy no matter how new, simply because they aren’t your preferred taste. But all beers should ideally have a level playing field in the market. It offers the surest way to taste them as the brewer intended, and to make comparisons and judgments from there. The market isn’t perfect and never will be, but careful attention to the best-by or other freshness codes on bottles and cans in general will offer a better experience than simply buying willy-nilly.

 

 

A True Pint of Plain…

Any discussion of great beer seems to come around sooner or later to Guinness. In my case, it’s sooner, given the youthful status of this blog – less than one month old!

Guinness is a great name in beer history, certainly. Is it a great beer, today? This is a claim too far, in my view. At its freshest and kept well, it is a reliable and goodish quaff. That is praise enough in a time when beer can vary wildly from brand to brand and even from glass to glass for the same brand.

Was it better in the past? Well, I am old enough to remember the bottle-conditioned version, phased out about 20 years ago in the U.K. and finally Ireland. It was an excellent beer, it had a definite estery note, an earthy quality and seemed slightly tart. It is hard to say if the tartness came from the measure of old vatted beer still supposedly used in the blend or from the percentage of unmalted barley in the brew – in my experience adjunct can sometimes impart a kind of sharp or sour note.

I am not old enough to remember naturally-conditioned stout in its heyday. Until the mid-1960’s, Guinness draught stout was a naturally-conditioned product.  Reading different sources in beer historical literature, it seems it was composed of three elements: freshly brewed stout, aged (vatted) stout which picked up some brett notes, and partially fermented wort. Only a few percentage points of the second was included, perhaps 5% but the figure was probably larger in the 1800’s. As to the third, a half-fermented wort would offer rich extract to condition the beer in the cask. This is a kind of krausen. English brewing writer Frank Faulkner in an 1888 brewing text claimed that adding wort at the right stage of fermentation gave Irish stout – he was undoubtedly talking about Guinness, at a minimum – its special qualities including the famous creamy head. The old romance about the ‘wine of Ireland’ has to have some basis in fact.

“Low cask, high cask”, used at least in the mid-1900’s in Ireland to mix an older (flatter) and younger (brisker) stout in the bar, seems a variation on the tripartite blend mentioned.   Each of the low and high casks was probably composed of the same stout, presumably the tripartite mix, but at different stages of development which assisted getting the head exactly right and perhaps the palate. In any case, these refinements were gone after the mid-1960’s in Ireland – stout dispensed by a mixture of nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide became the norm. This dispense, common now not just for Irish-style stout but some other types of beer,  did copy the creamy head of yore but probably didn’t deliver the old palate. Perhaps not many noticed since draught stout at least in Ireland was still unpasteurized after nitro-dispense came in until that was done away with too. All Guinness today, bottled or draft, is pasteurized as far as I know.

There must be craft brewers, hopefully in Ireland too, who have sold a cask or keg of stout or porter comprised of older and newer stock, but has any sought in addition to use half-fermented wort to condition the beer? The combination of these processes surely would give a distinctive stamp, one which would give an Irish Victorian character. I believe this would be so even if the typical modern mash template was used of pale malt + black (roasted) malt. Authenticity would be enhanced of course if 1800’s-levels of hopping and an authentic grist-type were also used, say, pale malt, amber malt and black – lots of directions in the old books how to achieve that part.

Who will take this on, gentle brewers? Old Erin calls out for a restoration of the venerable staple of Dublin, town and country. If anyone is game I’ll post some guidance from old tomes.

A Beer Note Miscellany

Pilsner Urquell Still On Top

Pilsner Urquell is just out in our market in attractive new packaging, the bottle is now brown with retro-looking labelling, a change implemented some time ago in the U.S. The can design is new too.  Judging by the best-by dates, and factoring a 9 month freshness window which I understand the brewery uses,  both forms at LCBO seem hardly more than two months from packaging.  Each is excellent although I still feel the can is superior.  Urquell is an unlikely survivor from the 19th century and its current owner (SAB Miller) deserves much credit for maintaining its integrity.  In this particular case, terroir really means something as the malt and hop characteristics lend a unique stamp to the product.  I’m sure the yeast does too, but the special qualities of Czech barley malt and Saaz hops shine through and give it its defining character, in my view.

Labatt Porter Carries On

This is an old favourite I first encountered in the 70’s.  I had one in Montreal recently. The flavour was mild but good, not really roasty but more a dark chocolate-licorice taste, rather sweet though, almost like Coca-Cola.  It tasted possibly all-malt, or all-malt plus a sugar addition.   One always hopes for more character in the mass-market products but this is a good beer from a large powerhouse, and idiosyncratic in nature, which fits into the current ethos perfectly.

Labatt Porter 2015 image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain Lager

Side Launch Brewing Company in Collingwood, ON has just released Mountain Lager, I’ve seen it so far draft-only at Bar Volo in Toronto.  5% ABV and apparently a keller-style although the one I had looked perfectly clear.   This is one of the brewery’s best beers right out of the gate: rich, flavourful, tasty, Bavarian helles in style (vs. Germanic pils, IMO) but without the “sulphur springs” DMS taste so many of these (there and here) have.  A real winner courtesy the company’s master brewer Michael Hancock – and if anyone ever deserved that moniker Michael Hancock does, he is a legend in Ontario brewing circles and did much to install a quality beer culture here decades ago when at the helm of Denison’s brewpub in Toronto.

Dora Keogh Irish Pub and Gary Gillman to Recreate Upscale 1944 Beer Tasting August 5, 2015

In September, 1944 The Wine and Food Society, Inc. of New York held a “Tasting of Beers, Ales & Stouts” at the famed Waldorf Astoria hotel on Park Avenue in New York City.  As accompaniment to the beer, a variety of foods was offered: smoked fish, marinated herring, smoked hams,  brandy-flavoured blue cheese, authentic Swiss cheese, “Devonsheer” (a type of dried bread or cracker), and popcorn and nuts.  The provenance and quality of the foods were carefully noted, as one would expect of a gastronomic society.

I found the menu while perusing the historic menu archive of the New York Public Library recently.

The Society’s main focus, as indicated by its name, was wine, but occasionally beers and other drinks were explored. And so it was on September 28, 1944 that Society members with an interest or curiosity about beer entered a Waldorf salon to sample the “malt”. The organizing committee, composed of three ladies, did excellent work. They selected 18 beers, both draft and bottled. Some were the same brand, no doubt so the guests could appraise any differences.  Almost all beer styles then usual were represented. The menu contains modern-sounding taste notes such as “sparkling old-time”, “all-malt”, “full-bodied”.

On August 5 Dora Keogh Irish Pub and I will present a recreation of that event. The Program can be seen here: Beer Tasting – August 5, 2015

The 1944 tasting is nothing less than fascinating. First, it was held during the war. This may explain the all-domestic beer choice except for Guinness, which was probably pre-war stock. This Guinness was almost surely the”Foreign Extra Stout” brand, unpasteurized and with residual yeast, so any extra time in the cellar was benign or a boon.

The vibrant, post-Prohibition New York-New Jersey beer scene afforded numerous lagers, ales, and stouts for the tasting, famous names such as Ruppert, Rheingold, Trommer. The Committee also reached further afield, to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, for beers clearly regarded as having cachet. The reputed Prior Light, a pilsner-style, and Prior Double Dark, a pre-craft Czech or Bavarian dunkel-type, were on the roster.

The tasting, if one allows for some period language, could easily be given today. Such was the foresight and creative thinking of those who organized something around 40 years before it became common to do so. Independence of mind they certainly had because not only would some Society members have objected to “tasting” beer, society in general tended to view beer as not worthy of prolonged musing. It’s an attitude that endures to this day. But the Society cast aside all such irrelevancies and forged ahead to take on beer as a gastronomic subject.

The event at Dora Keogh Irish Pub on August 5 is intended to recreate and imagine how the original guests enjoyed a gastronomic adventure of a different kind, and to honour an early foray into reflective beer appreciation. Mostly Ontario  beers will be selected, and the food similar in type or spirit to what was served at the original event. Beers will be offered from breweries of different sizes although the preponderance are craft beers. As different-size breweries were represented at the Waldorf tasting, we wanted to follow suit.

I will write in the future on other aspects of the 1944 tasting, such as the influence of the wartime context, and a more elaborate beer event the Society held a few years earlier – one whose taste notes read like an extract from a top beer or wine writer of today.

Meanwhile, beer or wine fans in the Toronto area should consider buying a ticket for August 5 – it is expected to sell out.

Cask Beer Over The Summer in Perfect Surroundings – Evergreen Brick Works, Toronto

Sipping at Bar Volo tonight the new Mountain Lager from Sidelaunch Brewery in Collingwood, ON (a real winner, soft and rich), I learned that Cask Days, the Morana family’s long-established and essential, annual Toronto cask beer festival, has partnered with Evergreen Brick Works to present cask ales, and some cider, at the Sunday farmers’ market.

The feature will run from July 12-September 13 of this year, each Sunday from 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.

More details here and note the stunning art work!  http://www.caskdays.com/blog/2015/7/6/cask-conditioned-beer-at-evergreen-brick-works-sunday-farmers-market

All beers and ciders will be served by gravity as at the wonderful Cask Days festivals.  I can’t attend the opener this Sunday but will be there the Sunday following.  It’s a great notion, fitting in perfectly to the ethos of the farmers market.

 

Thomas Hardy’s Ale – Hale and Hearty In Its Mid-30’s

John Maxwell, restaurateur par excellence in Toronto (Allen’s, Dora Keogh Irish Pub), rang me up and said I’m intent on opening a Thomas Hardy’s Ale brewed 34 years ago. We met posthaste and the bottle indeed showed it was brewed on July 1, 1981.   We met on July 1 just past: it was exactly 34 years.

photo
Image Provided by John W. Maxwell

The beer poured very dark, darker than I remember it when new (oxidation?).  It had a rich coffee and Madeira odour, and tasted very much in this vein, with a slight lactic note.  No (acetic) sourness, no damp paper oxidation.   John noted some vegetal notes, which I thought might be autolysis.   But the palate was very “logical” in its way, it all made sense…

A lovely drink of beer, “sound old” by my lights, i.e., what the devotees in the 1800’s of old ale would have regarded as right proper old beer.

A rare experience and a grateful one for me.  Beer is funny, six months can go by and render a 6% ABV beer undrinkable from damp paper oxidation or vinegar spoilage – here a 34 year old beer, albeit much stronger, was like those bands which go out 25 years after their bloom of youth and prime – older, wiser, still good but in different ways than of yore, withal delivering top value.

Welcome to My Beer Blog

I began studying beer as a hobby back in the 70’s.  (Yes, in one of H.L. Mencken’s memorable formulations, I even “got some down”, and still do).   By studying, I mean I bought a lot of magazine and books, both consumer books describing tastes and styles as well as tomes on how to brew beer in a commercial setting.  I’ve never brewed at home, while having great respect for those who do.  I did a weekend, hands-on brewing seminar in the 1980’s with William (Bill) Newman in Albany, NY.  Bill founded one of the early craft breweries.  This enhanced the book knowledge I was acquiring, as did countless tours of production breweries.

I’ve also travelled quite a bit with my wife Libby, mostly in Canada, the U.S. (most regions), England (extensively), France, Belgium, and once in Germany, Austria, and Czech Republic. On my travels,  I had the chance to try a lot of beers and develop a good understanding of beer styles and the related culture, extending to the cuisines which accompany beer in its heartlands.  For a time I concentrated on cooking dishes using beer as an ingredient, dishes scattered in books from North America, the U.K., France and Belgium, and one day may write a book collecting these recipes.  Chicken with beer sauce spiked with genever gin, anyone?

A key point in my beer education was meeting the late beer authority Michael Jackson on many occasions.  Indeed Libby and I travelled with him for a week once, in the early 1990’s, to explore the brews and beer culture of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in France.  I am privileged to say he mentioned me a couple of times in his writing.  He was a key influence on me and I never would have developed the kind of interest I did in beer but for him.  One of the things I learned from him is that beer doesn’t stand alone, it exists in a social, economic and cultural context and understanding beer well means exploring many facets of this larger world.

Of course, I followed craft brewing closely from its earliest days in California.  In addition, I have always had a deep interest in beer history.  I have contributed a lot of comments over the years on blogs of people I admire greatly who focus on that area, but also on the blogs of many other beer, and food, writers.  Many of them, with others, encouraged me to set up my own blog, and finally I have done this.

I intend to explore every facet of beer as I have come to know it but also stretch beyond that occasionally into other drinks, and food.  For some years I learned about bourbon and Canadian whiskey, and travelled extensively to Kentucky where the bourbon industry is centered.  I was named Bourbonian of the Year a few years ago by www.straightbourbon.com, the leading consumer bourbon site in the world.

I hope you enjoy my particular take on what beer and “et seq.” are all about.