In Defence of the German Pure Beer Law

IMG_20151114_143827

In 1988, Michael Jackson wrote in his The New World Guide To Beer:

“The law itself could not insure that all brewers would have skill, flair and sensitivity, but in no corner of the world has as much good beer been made as in Bavaria. No beer routinely tastes as clean and malty as that made in Bavaria. If the law prevented the Bavarians from making Belgian Kriek or British Sweet Stout, for example, no one seemed to mind. Now, if the Germans want these specialities, they can import them”.

Beer fans are aware, many of them, that since the 1500’s Germany has had a form of “pure beer law”, the ReinheitsgebotThe law has a long and complex history which, in the context of a quotidian blog, I will summarize as follows: in 1516 two dukes in Bavaria enacted a law that required for brewing only three things: water, barley and hops. Yeast was not mentioned, probably because beer was often fermented by wild yeast, or if yeast was regularly harvested from ferments and reused, it was taken for granted as necessary to produce alcohol. Also, barley is specified, not barley malt, but one can infer barley malt was meant as this has been the interpretation of the law for hundreds of years. Also, it is extremely difficult in practice to brew from 100% raw (unmalted) barley.

Bavaria was smaller then than now, and the law initially did not apply in other German lands in the south, and in the north. In brief, the law was extended to these other parts progressively as Germany unified, becoming a national measure only in 1906. In 1918 after WW I, the reconstituted Germany agreed to accept the pure beer law when Bavaria insisted on it as a condition of entry.

Northern Germany had its own beer traditions. Many of its beers used herbs, fruits or other ingredients not allowed by the pure beer law. Eg a beer called Lubeck used, in addition to conventional ingredients, oatmeal, beans and a variety of herbs, possibly attesting to the pre-hop era when, as in Britain and elsewhere, a wide variety of flavourings were used. Some beers used unmalted grains as a fermentables source, as Belgian wheat beer (wit) still does. Once the pure beer law became writ in these areas, these beers disappeared, as did the use of rice in some German lager in the north.

Before 1918, the law was referred to as the “surrogates law”, that is, a law banning substitutes in brewing. Only when Germany re-federated in the wake of WW I was the law referred to as the purity law, which is the meaning of the term Reinheitsgebot.

It has been stated by some writers that the original law was passed partly or wholly to protect the bread market from competition with brewing, in effect to protect a staple of the people. In general, barley is better suited for brewing than baking. Wheat contains a large amount of gluten and other proteins. Gluten is not generally desirable in brewing but suitable for bread and other baking.  Thus, the “allocation” theory has a surface attraction, as does a trade protection theory which has been bruited. These are theories and inferences, not clearly established by period sources as far as I know. One can as easily infer, or I do, that the first pure beer law was a quality measure. Possibly the law had multiple justifications, this does not of itself remove the basis for its continuation in Germany.

The law evolved over time to take account of a number of factors, primarily the existence of a wheat beer tradition (reliant partly on malted wheat) which took root in the royal court in the 1600’s. Also, top-fermentation brewing survives as a vestige in German brewing, notably the alt and kolsch beer traditions. Top-fermentation brewing, reflecting its artisan roots, always used a broader range of ingredients than bottom-fermentation (lager) brewing. The modern pure beer law, last changed in 1993, permits for such beers certain sugars and malted grains other than barley malt. In summary though, for lager brewing, only barley malt may be used, no other source of starches, e.g., corn, rice, unmalted barley or rye, and no sugars. Even in top-fermentation brewing, no raw grains can be used, they must be malted.

In the early days of North American craft brewing, the pure beer law had a huge influence. Most craft beer was and still is made from all-malt. The Brewers Association, the national group which represents U.S. independent small brewers, until 2014 required that member breweries have an all-malt “flagship” beer. This requirement was changed in that year to permit old-established regional breweries to join the BA which had always used a measure of corn in their main brands. Nonetheless for 35 years until then, the growth of the American craft beer movement was built mostly on all-malt beer, a momentum which carries on to this day and has provided a boost to quality brewing in England and elsewhere around the world. England also required beer to be all-malt until 1845 when sugar was first allowed in brewing. Later in the century, a “free mash tun” law permitted grains other than barley to be used in brewing as well.

In 1987, the European Court of Justice decided that the pure beer law, while still valid for Germany, could not be used to prevent import and sale of beer which didn’t meet the law’s requirements. To do so would be to countenance a trade barrier inconsistent with Germany’s free trade obligations under the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Nonetheless, Germany’s beer market, reflecting in part probably cultural and historical factors, is still largely a domestic one, which hews to the law loyally except for some exports. It is my perception that the exports typically encountered in our area comply with the law. I had a Holsten Premium last night which so advertised on the label and had the full clean taste I associate with an all-malt beer.

Many argue the German pure beer law is no longer necessary if it ever was, that it restricts unduly the range of beers that German brewers can make, and in any case doesn’t ensure of itself that beer will be well-brewed.

I would argue that the law is well-founded because all-malt beer is a gastronomically superior flavour and the long continuation of the law in Germany reflects that understanding, one that may (often) be tacit but is no less real for that. People do not have to know a lot about beer to appreciate its quality – it is only when confronted with a beer reliant on, say, 40% corn adjunct that they see the difference. Corn and rice contribute a high degree of fermentability to beer in contrast to barley malt, therefore primarily contribute alcohol, as does sugar. This is not to say various forms of these adjuncts don’t leave traces of their flavours  – they can in some cases – but all-malt beer in my own experience has a richness and full quality no adjunct beer has. True, if you use adjunct in very small amounts, or in very strong beers, the difference may be hard to detect, but adjunct use is a slippery slope as the history of American lager shows. What was 10-20% in the late 1800’s became 30% and today can be 40% or even higher.

People say some famous Belgian beers use sugar, as most British beer did even before adjunct lager became the main type consumed in Britain from the 1970’s. British ale however never used adjunct in the same quantity as American mass market beer. This assisted to preserve its character especially as it remained reasonably hopped to the present day. Anyway, what is suitable for Britain and Belgium should not necessarily apply to Germany. It has its own traditions and its beers, while certainly not all of high quality, in general have a roundness and drinkability which unquestionably in my view is linked to their all-malt construction. Even alt and kolsch beers are all-malt, and for good reason. Drink a German bock or dopplebock, most brands, and you may see why, but the quality is evident in all German beer IMO albeit specific formulas and house tastes won’t appeal to everyone.

Why did Heineken move to all-malt – returning to its 1800’s roots – 20 years ago? Because it knew this assisted beer quality and improved consumer acceptance. Would even Beck’s, which I like when very fresh, be better with 30% adjunct? I don’t think so. Adjunct beers have a characteristic dryness, a “starchy” quality that detracts IMO from their beer nature. One can argue adjunct doesn’t have to have this effect but I think it does, generally speaking.

There is no way craft brewing would have achieved the growth and world acceptance it had without being based on all-malt. American all-malt ales of the 1980’s, which simply restored the kind of beer typically encountered for most of the 1800’s in Britain, had a savour and richness of high gastronomic standard. It made people take notice. A good example is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Anchor Celebration Ale, or (in lager brewing) Sam Adams Boston Lager. But there are countless others which show why such high quality beer immediately made an impression – all-malt was a major part of this.

Pilsner Urquell is the classic all-malt pilsner, the biggest selling import in – Germany. If Germans didn’t recognize the superiority of all-malt on palate grounds, why would the Czech Urquell have such an honoured presence in its market? And this is nothing recent, the recognition of Bavarian beer as superior in Germany was attested by an article in the 1850’s in United States Magazine, called “History of Beer”. The author described how the “conquering Bavarian hogsheads” were replacing northern beers deemed suspect by their high strength or use of unconventional ingredients.

One can say today this was a naive inference from what the author was told or gleaned on a German tour, but he is clearly reporting common knowledge of the time. This is many decades before the pure beer law was applied nationally. The writer knew that northern beers were “beer”, but was of the opinion the German market was quickly abandoning them, once again well in advance of the beer law extending to all German provinces. The argument that a scheming law (so to speak) pushed out firm local favourites doesn’t hold, er, water.

All things equal, all-malt brewing sets a high standard for quality. It doesn’t mean good beer can’t be made from different ingredients, and I am all for such variety, but brewers who want to grow their market can never go wrong IMO by sticking to all-malt as their “flagship”. When beer becomes too reliant on adjunct, people may stop buying it – look at what is happening to mass market North American lager and light beer, it is a declining category. The Germans will be wise not to let that happen. I know that beer consumption had fallen in Germany in recent years (now somewhat recovered), but would the situation be better if brewers were allowed to use corn and rice in their helles and pils? I don’t think so.

I am all for introduction domestically of anything brewers want to make. Nuanced labelling can surely address the difference appropriately. Perhaps an amendment to the current law is advisable to permit such products to be called, say, “Non-German Tradition Beer”, or “Historical Tradition Beer”. If that is too close to the mark, the term “Specialty Beer” might work. E.g., “Specialty Beer (Non-German Tradition)”, “Specialty Beer (Historical Category)”.

Brewers can work with legislators, I’m sure, to come up with a solution. But that “beer” tout court in Germany should remain malt-based and using barley malt for lagers, I have no doubt.

 

A Century-Old Canadian Beer Gets a Road Test

 

IMG_9356

The National Post reports today on a beer found recently in Halifax harbour after a sojourn of, oh, 100 years or so.

The sensory and technical results are very interesting. The reference to sulphur and burned barrel may refer to a taste imparted by the wood barrels of the day. At the time, barrels were often burned black on the inside to sanitize them – ergo the bourbon whiskey barrel as we know it today. Also, sulphur “candles” were inserted whose fumes masked off-flavours from organisms lurking the wood or items previously stored in the barrel.

It is not out of the realm of imagination for example that barrels used on the seaside had once held whale oil, herring or salt pork…

The “meaty” taste is probably yeast autolysis, as the expert in the article suggested. (The yeast in the bottle fed on itself due to the contents not being consumed in the intended time).

15 IBUs (international bitterness units) isn’t that much, however all the years resident on the seabed, despite a tight cork seal, may have altered the original hop taste. Even today a beer kept long seems to lose hop flavour and aroma albeit again all seems sealed up in a bottle with nowhere to go.

The panel seems to have concluded the beer was an India Pale Ale, very appropriate for the time and place it was brewed. An IPA called Alexander Keith is well-known in the area to this day albeit it is a sparkling ale of the modern type, probably rather lighter than the beer in the old bottle (but who knows).

All hail to Canada’s doughty scientists and tasters for trying a beer with a few years on it. I’d be game, too.

 

The image shown is a stock photo, sourced at www.novascotia.com.

 

 

Will Hard Soda Create Good Feelings?

 

henrys-hard-soda-300

What’s Hard Soda?

There has been some buzz lately about hard sodas being the next big thing. Last year, hard root beer took off. This survey of two popular hard root beers by Ethan Lascity explains the idea. While made from a brewed malt base, by the reports I’ve read, they don’t really taste like beer, more like a traditional (non-alcohol) root beer with a punch. Clearly, this has stimulated the idea in some that any soda pop might undergo “hard” treatment.

MillerCoors announced recently a line of hard sodas under the Henry name, and the Jed’s line of ditto from the venerable F.X. Matt Brewing of Utica, NY was recently introduced.

The category looks to burgeon.

Ginger and orange are flavours out of the gate for MillerCoors: there is Henry’s Hard Orange and Henry’s Hard Ginger Ale. Henry Weinhard is a famed name in brewing on the west coast. Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co. was a regional independent in Oregon, but descendants of the founder sold the company to Pabst Brewing Company in 1979. It went through a number of corporate ownerships, and the labels are now part of giant MillerCoors.

Some people think hard soda will reinforce the soft drink market in the sense that people who might have balked at mixing vodka and lemon soda, say, due to the calorie load of the pop, won’t cavil at choosing a hard soda with a similar taste.

Origins of Hard Sodas

20 years ago, the Canadian-originated Mike’s Hard Lemonade created a sensation that has never stopped and you can get the brand today in numerous flavours. Mike’s provides a link to brewing in that the U.S. version gets its alcohol from a malt base (vs. vodka for Canada), but this is really incidental. It is done for labeling or tax reasons, and flavour is not added by the malt. The hard root beers and now hard soda category use grains as a base to produce the alcohol, indeed fast-rising Not Your Father’s Root Beer appears simply to be a spiced beer.

Still, the taste of the flavourings – spices, juice, sugar, etc. – seems the prime focus of these drinks, not malt and hops as such. Hard sodas are “flavored malt beverages” in the U.S., sometimes dubbed malternatives.  A malternative has to derive at least 51% of its alcohol from fermentation of brewing ingredients such as barley malt. The alcohol can be 100% from this source but not necessarily, in other words.

The labeling issue can get complex depending how the producer wants to identify the drink on the label. Where the product is clearly shown as a beer, I’d guess all the alcohol comes from a fermented cereal mash.

I tried Mike’s Hard Lemonade a couple of times (in Canada), and it tasted quite naturally like lemonade with a shot of vodka in it. Vodka coolers, which come in a riot of flavours today, are a similar idea. Wine coolers may have started the alcopop/cooler trend over generation ago. They in turn seemed to emerge from the “pop wine” era of which legendary Boone’s Farm was a pioneer. Gallo today makes Boone’s Farm beverages, generally from a malt base (vs. wine), which kind of brings things full circle.

Use of Henry Weinhard Name for MillerCoors’ new Hard Sodas

I’ve read a couple of articles which suggested the Henry Weinhard label shouldn’t have been used to brand this new line of drinks, given that is the importance of the Weinhard name and legacy to brewing history. Certainly, Henry Weinhard Private Reserve, first released in 1976, had a definite influence on modern beer culture. That beer, which still exists, advertised the then-new Cascade hop, an unheard of innovation at the time. (The brand was part of an early group of influential beers which helped kick-start the craft era, including Anchor Liberty Ale, New Albion Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale).

On the other hand, Blitz-Weinhard was never a craft brewery and the company actually made soft drinks earlier in the 1900’s. In addition to that, it featured ad campaigns and certain products in its heyday which to my mind fit the spirit of the new Henry’s Hard Soda line.

Therefore, and as the design and graphic work were well done, using the Henry Weinhard name for the new products made good sense, IMO.

Future of Hard Sodas

People have predicted big times before for different kinds of alcopops, or for cider of course. Cider has done well in recent years but seems unlikely to unseat beer’s dominance any time soon.

Brewers know that beer inevitably comes up against the wall in reaching a good part of the mass market. Some people, perhaps the majority of alcohol drinkers, will never get the taste for it and seek other options.  While tea, ciders and apple-flavoured drinks of various kinds, and now hard root beer have proved popular, MillerCoors is betting the public will take to what is essentially a “spiked” soda.

Who could have foretold the massive and sustained success of Grey Goose vodka or Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur, say? Jagermeister is kind of similar. One never knows what will catch the fancy, sometimes for a generation or more, of the public…

Mike’s Hard Lemonade of course is a premier example. Maybe Henry’s Hard Soda is the next Mike’s.

 

Note re image above: it was sourced from this newswire story.

 

 

 

A Tale Of Two Pubs

THE DIVERSITY OF PUB CULTURE

As for restaurants in general or practically any product, there is old school, new school and middle school so to speak. Two bar establishments in Toronto illustrate well the old and the new.

Bar Volo has been in business about 30 years, but its craft beer focus is more recent. Initially it was an Italian restaurant, but about 12 years ago it started to focus on quality beer, in the process becoming both standard-bearer and bellwether for a recherché beer scene. Its bar is strictly craft, Ontario-focused but with the odd, well-chosen selection from Quebec, B.C., or elsewhere. Yesterday I noticed Cantillon Vigneronne on draft and had a go, well worth it, it was. It’s not every day you can sample artisan Belgian brewing so far away, en très bon état, il faut signaler.

image-2

The rhubarb, winy and lactic notes of lambic have a strange attraction after the initial “sour shock”. As the offering is special even by Volo’s standards, the serving was just five ounces but well-worth the experience. I got down a Sawdust City pale lager after – good of its kind, typical German helles-style.

Two different European styles, one a rare historical survival, the other a crafted interpretation of the international beer vernacular.

Bar Volo has the hottest and coolest beer selection going including a creative, import-focused bottled list.

Sour/wild, farmhouse and flavoured beers are much of the moment, many singular and of gastronomic interest. These are frequently featured on Volo’s lists, but far from exclusively. To boot, Volo’s in-house nanobrewery, House Ales, always has offerings on the board, often a cask ale or three. The generally younger crowd are wowed by all this and so they should be.

Walking south on Yonge Street after, just before entering the subway at Dundas, I happened to see Imperial Pub’s sign. This is an old Toronto watering hole, and I realized I’d never gone in. Why not, eh?

IMG_20160103_172619

The interior is paneled in medium-brown wood planks, with a large circular bar in the centre. I’d guess the wood is a 60’s-70’s re-modelling as the bar was established in 1944.

Booths and other seating, utilitarian as suits the beer aesthetic, ring the room. The outside is an anonymous kind of brick, whether the original construction I can’t say. The Imperial offers beers from Moosehead, the industrial brewing stalwart from the Maritimes, but also carries beer from craft brewer Ste. Ambroise in Montreal, in which Moosehead has a stake. There are a couple of imports too, Grolsch of Holland is one.

I had a pint of Ste. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. The friendly server offered free house popcorn, which went well with the fresh and creamy black beer. The Imperial represents a disappearing genre of tavern, but is still going strong and has resisted the tide of redevelopment.

The beers are served, incongruously to my mind, in dimpled English pint glasses. I’d guess in the 70’s the bar took on an English pub image, maybe the glassware was part of it. These mugs were once quite common in Toronto but are rarely seen here now. Despite the English touch of the glasses, the Imperial today has a strictly Canadian atmosphere. And one too that recalls an older Canada. When, say, the Toronto folk scene was going strong via Joni Mitchell and Ian and Sylvia in the mid-60’s, most of the beer bars – beverage rooms in the old parlance – looked like the Imperial. It is one of the few still remaining.

I was thinking of all the soldiers and airmen who must have made their way through here in the last years of the war. On a late afternoon of a wan winter Sunday, 2015, the patrons were generally older, and no hipsters that I saw, but Ryerson University is kitty-corner, so I’d guess at other times a different crew come in.

From Bar Volo to Imperial Pub … opposite in many ways, but they share things too. They both refresh and offer a respite from the fretful and sometimes parlous days that characterize life in the early 2000’s. And old and new can be deceiving in some ways, e.g., Volo’s building is actually older than the Imperial’s location by a generation or two.

But one thing I know: we have it better than the soldiery who drank lager and ale at the Imperial in ’44 and ’45, many of them never came back or ended in hospitals. I drained the leavings in my dimpled mug in silent salute to them and their like today who hold us harmless from the inevitable malignities of all eras. After that I entered the subway and came home.

 

Note re blackboard image: drawn from Bar Volo’s website.

It’s All About the Malt, ’bout the Malt

SOME BEERS IN WHICH THE MALT MAKES A TELLING APPEARANCE

IMG_20160102_191241Upper Canada Dark Ale

This was one of the early Ontario craft beers, appearing in the mid-80’s from Upper Canada Brewery, a pioneering venture purchased after some years by Sleeman, a mid-size independent, now itself part of Sapporo. The beers were offered in numerous styles – light lager, regular blonde, dark ale, the strong lager Rebellion, and others.  IMO there was a house flavour, kind of butterscotch-like.

The Dark Ale then had a spicy, banana estery quality and Michael Jackson termed it partly Belgian in taste. It was and remains all-malt, always a plus.

After Sleeman bought Upper Canada, the dark ale became cleaner and IMO much better, more like an English brown ale should be. It is clean but well-flavoured with turbinado sugar and earthy tones and has a suitable level of non-citric hops (Challenger) on the finish. It is the kind of brew suited to large glasses, the standard 330 ml bottle hardly does it justice.

It is still one of the best “darks” in Ontario despite flying under the radar for some years now. Beers similar to it in style locally include Wellington Brewery’s County Dark Ale, Amsterdam’s Downtown Brown and Black Oak Nut Brown Ale, all made by long-established craft brewers. They represent a Canadian take on English brown ales such as Newcastle Brown, Samuel Smith Brown Ale, Mann’s Brown.

While less exotic (today) than many of the weird and wonderful styles now favoured by Ontario and world breweries, a well-made brown beer is still one of the best experiences to have on the malty way.

Bavaria 8.6

IMG_20160101_163555

This Dutch brewer has a line of different brews, I’ve only tried them occasionally over the years. It still does its own malting, a point in its favour.

The beer shown is its “red” and 7.9% ABV, strong in the beer world as that would be Double IPA territory and a patch on most bock.

It is very sweet, to the point I wonder if sugar is added to enhance the malty character. Very grapey too, like a blush or labrusca wine. Yet still there is a “Belgian” character to it underneath. An unusual beer, it probably appeals to those who like flavoured coolers and that type of drink, sweet and fruity and between wine and ordinary beer in strength.

I found its best use in blending, a dryish acerbic stout mixed very well with it, 2:1 respectively.

Einbecker Winter-Bock Beer

IMG_20151117_192218

I may have had an Einbecker bock only once before despite decades of experience on the beer routes. The company makes a number of different bock beers (in general a malty, strong lager). I found the bottle pictured in a loose bin in New York.

Everything ostensibly looked to contrive a bad experience despite that Einbecker is in a town which reputedly invented bock beer 700 years ago.

There was the green bottle; the form of display (suggesting the bottle had hung around for a while); the marked-down price.

But the beer was surpassingly good, with a particular malty-molasses character only the Germans seem to get at. It’s pictured next to a port bottle because its character is akin to that wine style in some ways.

A lot of German beer, at least as we get it in export form, is so-so but occasionally you can find a classic that shows easily why the country was (is) synonymous with great beer for so long. Dark brews and wheat beer styles often fit the bill, which is appropriate in that blonde lager is a relative interloper in German brewing tradition.

 

 

The Session Topic #107 – Breweries and Friends

session_logo-thumb-150x182-126The Session is a monthly round-up of beer blogging opinion on a topic assigned by a rotating host. The host is generally a blogger but this month it’s a brewery, Community Beer Works of nearby Buffalo, NY, a nice change.

The topic is explained here and requests opinion whether a brewery should have a conversation with customers and consumers, in a word if they should be “friends”.

My view is emphatically yes. The only way for customers to learn about a company’s specific products, but also about beer in general, is to ask questions of the people who make it. The more you find out, the more you know. Originally this process took the form of asking questions in letters, or during a brewery tour. Later, you could send an e-mail request through a company’s website.

In recent years, Facebook and Twitter help a lot to get advertising messages across but also facilitate two-way conversation: consumers can learn about production methods, new product releases and other information.

Some breweries make themselves more available to the public than others. The beer writer Michael Jackson in his first major book in 1978 acknowledged the cooperation of most breweries yet lamented the few who were “reticent to the point of discourtesy”. So it always was and always will be.

I have found brewers (almost all) remarkably willing to share information, and want to hear whatever they have to say. All information is good, even fairly non-specific advertising content, you can learn from everything.

Most brewers, too, are interested to hear what consumers say, it’s good business but also there is a special kinship between brewers and consumers. Good drink of any kind inspires fellowship and solidarity, a drink with friends helps bring people together. Who better to form part of the conversation than the person who made what’s in your glass?

I follow a number of breweries on Twitter, I like to see the content they put across and occasionally respond to make a comment or suggestion. At a brewpub, or bar where a brewer I know is present, we always talk about brewing ingredients, recipes, what’s good, what’s next, what’s better.

Breweries certainly are friends to those interested in how beer is made, its palate, its history. For those not interested to talk to producers, it’s easy to avoid the process by not following them on Twitter or Facebook, or chatting with a brewpub owner about the weather or politics, say. That’s not me. If I met the people from Community Beer Works, I’d ask, hey guys, which hop in your single hop releases did you really like, what beer got the best consumer reaction, have you ever tried Sterling for ales, any chance to get your beer in Toronto, maybe call X whom I know in town, etc. etc.

Canadian Beer Is Stronger Than American, Not.

A_member_of_the_RCMP_poses_in_front_of_the_Parliament_Buildings_for_snapshooting_tourists._Ottawa,_Ontario,_Canada

A stock notion, firmly held by most people in the 1970’s-90’s whatever their interest in beer, was that Canadian beer was stronger, or better, than American. Or both. Indeed Americans, famously proud of their country and its multiform achievements, shared the opinion. It was one of the few areas they were willing to concede superiority to their Canuck neighbours.

How did it break down? The idea was that the typical Canadian beer, at 5% alcohol by volume, was stronger than the American beer norm. This was true, but the American standard was actually 4.7 or 4.8% ABV, a negligible difference. The real reason American beer was thought weaker was that its strength, when expressed not by volume of alcohol but by weight, came to 4%. (Alcohol is lighter than water). Even though beer strength wasn’t generally shown on the label stateside, somehow the idea formed that Canadian beer was a point stronger than American.

Also, at the time Canadian beer was thought to have a heavier body and more pronounced taste than American brews. The difference was real and due partly to the fact that a lot Canadian beer then was still ale while most American beer was lager. Second, Canadian ale probably on average used less starch adjunct than American lager. This was certainly so in the period leading up to WW I when much Canadian ale was still all-malt and most American beer, of any style, had 25-30% adjunct. Generally, adjunct beers are lighter in taste than all-malt beers. Canadian beer may have used more hops on average than American beers, another factor.

In a 1976 American book on beer can-collecting the theory was offered that after Prohibition U.S. consumers wanted beer that tasted like the pop they got used to in the 20’s, but Canadians still made good beer because many U.S. brewers left their homeland during Prohibition to take up the mashing fork in Canada! Now there’s an ingenious acknowledgement of Canadian brewing savvy –  the Yanks still come out on top. 🙂

Be that as it may, all were agreed in the old days that Canuck brews had the edge, e.g., 1970’s beer books, American or Canadian, concur on this one way or another.

Until as late as last year, I still heard an expression of the old idea. It was on a radio show, someone being interviewed mentioned it incidentally. The interviewer, if he/she knew any different, let it pass.

Let’s be clear: the meme is as dead as the dodo in this era of strong and tasty craft brews. Indeed the Americans inaugurated the change in the 70’s via the path-breaking New Albion Brewing Co. and Anchor Brewingas well as through the considerable achievements of the American Homebrewers Association. Even in the 1980’s and 90’s, Canadian mainstream beer had turned stylistically to lager, or light (in alcohol) beer, and adjunct use wasn’t getting any smaller; the beer traditions of both countries were in fact merging even before craft beer took hold in North America.

Cultural product units, as the sociologists call them, are essential to civilized living. The Canadian beer-is-stronger thing was one of them, a detail, even a standby, of the old North American beer culture. But its time is long past. This post can serve as its memorial.

For those to whom this comes as news, meet the new boss, and it’s not the same as the old boss.

 

Note re image used: the image is in the public domain, sourced here.

 

We Put A Scotch Beer To The Test

Having scoped earlier (see also the Addendum) the smoky side of Scotch beer, let’s drink some, shall we? Well I will.

If Ontario isn’t a Scottified outpost, I don’t know what is, so Beau’s 80 Shilling is a good place to start.

IMG_20151229_183649

There is a fruity yeast background, a biscuit malt taste I recognize from somewhere but can’t place, and a touch of the advertised organic roasted barley. Earthy, slightly drying, not smoky in this case.

A good beer that would be outstanding on cask.

Aye, laddie, ’tis a bonny beer – where’s the whisky?

Scottish Beer And The Smoke Question

1024px-Feu_de_tourbe

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR BEER…

There has been some controversy in recent years whether Scottish ales should have a smoky or prominent roasty note. Some people insist they should not. The current edition of the American style guideline BJCP (see p. 25), is an example, repeating for the various categories that a roasty or peat smoke note is inauthentic. It acknowledges (how could it not?) that roasted barley or brown malt can figure in the mashbill but states this is a matter of colour adjustment, and peated malt is excluded from the suggested ingredients. BJCP states if you want to make a smoky Scottish ale, it should be classified in the Classic Styles Smoked Beer section.

The BJCP reflects the current thinking of some that peated or roasted tastes came into Scottish-style beer through an error of thinking Scots brewers must have used peated malt just as Scottish distillers did for their classic malt whiskies.

This is a revisionism gone too far. In my own taste experience with numerous classic Scottish ales since the late 1970s, they sometimes taste of cured malt or a tinge of smoky fire. The early American beer writer James Robertson, in 1978 in The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, wrote that McEwan’s Edinburgh Ale had a “roast bacon” taste.

Why would he say that? He had no ax to grind on this issue. He said it because the beer tasted like that. The re-introduced McEwan’s Scotch Ale, which I’ve tasted numerous times, has a similar taste. See for example the reference to “smokey malt” (twice) and “a little bit whisky” in the March 19, 2015 review on Beer Advocate, here.  Of course, not all reviews read the same but not all tasters can identify specific traits in beer due to varying experience and different sensitivity levels. If one reads all the reviews since the beer was brought back by current label-owner Wells Young, I think it is quite clear it has the taste in question. Wells Young researched the taste history of the brand before bringing it back. I doubt is in error as to the taste as it’s been at least from the 1970s.

Belhaven’s St. Andrew’s Ale, about 15 years ago, had a similar tangy cured barley note. Earlier reviews on Beer Advocate show this clearly. This review from December 13, 2010 in Britain states: “mildly dirty and peaty note that nears mild elements of smoke”.  The May 28, 2010 review says “peaty smoke”.  Other reviews use the words “touch of smoke”, “peaty”, “earthy”. Belhaven was not a craft brewery but old-established, as the McEwan’s brand is, and wouldn’t have mistaken the taste of Scottish beer.

My own readings in early Scots literature suggest that beer made on the crofts or in similar artisan surroundings had a smoky taste, one admired locally. An example from the later 1600’s  is here, authored by Sir Robert Murray. He wrote in a discussion of Scottish malting that “the best fuel is peat”. Murray was clearly referring to material for ale-brewing in the discussion.

Another example is here, from a book published in 1822 in London but containing letters written in the 1720s ascribed to Edward Burt. He says plain as day that Scottish common ale was smoky from use of peat, turf, or furze to prepare the malt. The way he writes, it is clear that by then English ale did not have the taste – he notes the Scottish taste as something unusual and acquired due to custom.

With the industrialization of brewing in Scotland through the later 1800s, styles more similar to English mild and pale ales emerged, and these beers did not generally exhibit smoky tastes. Earlier, at an artisan stage, they must have, when wood, turf, straw, or fern was used to cure all malts. With the development of coke or smokeless coal, a smoky note in beer would have subsided except partially in the black porter, where the taste was still wanted. I believe that Scots brewers knew or continued the ancestral use of peaty or smoky malt in brewing and some Scottish beer always showed the taste. Michael Jackson in his 1993 Beer Companion noted a “peaty” note in McEwan’s beers from roasted barley and suggested, or I read him that way, it was a traditional taste; this was the same brewery Jim Robertson wrote about in 1978.

As traditional and craft brewers like to highlight older practices, it is no surprise that since the late 70s, both craft and some traditional Scotch ales have a smoky or cured edge. By cured I mean lightly phenolic or earthy/smoky versus the clean, dark caramel taste of a German dunkel, say.

Addendum: In this 1828 text on malting and distilling by a Scot, John McDonald, he describes in Chapter 99 (see pp 119-120) the procedure to prepare malt. While his focus is spirits, he addresses ale as well and describes under the term “beer” the mash extract for both ale and spirit. He specifically mentions “peats” or “peets” as the fuel to make his malt. Particularly for small-scale ale brewing, I think it is evident that in about 1830 some ale had a peaty reek in Scotland.  In 1867, in Charles Dickens’ All The Year Round, reported that in New York Scotch ale tasted “disagreeably sweet and smoky”. This brings matters to the last quarter of the 1800s.

All this being the case, that some Scottish ale was always given a peaty or smoky snap, probably the most traditional type resistant to English influence, seems easy to conclude. It might have been done by ensuring some malt was kilned with peat or wood or in some other way. Even some pale malt might easily have been prepared for this purpose. And we know that in 1978 – and after – some Scottish ale conveyed to tasters smoky, earthy, peaty and whisky flavours. This spells a clear pattern.

Note: The image above is in the public domain, as indicated here.

 

 

 

Some Classic Lagers Revisited

A fine beer, i) is made from traditional ingredients and not heavily processed, and ii) has an excellent flavour. Craft productions do not occupy all the space here. Blonde lager made by old-established companies can be superlative too. European lagers in particular have set the pace for quality since pale lager took root in Pilsen, Czech Republic in 1842. But you have to get the right beers, and at their best.

In the early days of the craft brewing era, some names in Europe were highly reputed for lager. The most famous was and still is Pilsner Urquell. Another was Grolsch from Holland, which had a top reputation for its all-malt recipe and lack of any form of pasteurization.

Another beer well-reputed was Stiegl Gold of Salzburg, Austria.

Recently I had these in a flight – a serving of about 4 oz each – at the Loose Moose downtown in Toronto.  Unlike on most previous occasions when tasting these anywhere, each was nigh on perfect. This means: the beer was well-brewed, it was very fresh, and served in very clean glassware.  It may sound odd to say that brands such as these made for generations can be brewed differently or taste different but I’m convinced this can occur. Brewing processes change, sometimes subtly but they do, ingredients certainly change especially the availability of some hops, and of course the age of a particular barrel and how it was treated before beer hits your glass can vary quite a bit.

Sometimes conditions contrive to make the perfect taste though, as the other day at Loose Moose.

The Grolsch had no grassy skunky notes. I’ve often noticed this taste before, and I don’t think it comes (usually) from the green bottle as I’ve noticed it in the canned version too. I believe it is a dimethyl sulfide note (DMS), that typical boiled onion taste so many Euro lagers have, and which many people like evidently. I am hoping either that the draft is made a little differently than the bottled stuff or the lab people at SAB Miller are seeking to rub out the taste.  (If they are, keep going team, you’re on the right track). The result was a dryish, clean malty taste with some good neutral-type hops underneath in support. Not a strong taste but a good one. I’d rather have a fine but restrained taste than bags of flavours which don’t cohere or taste right.

Stiegl was more hoppy and a little heavier in body with a fine apple note from the yeast surely. It was spicy in the best German way but with no DMS, no chemical/chlorine taste as numerous other German imports seem to have, perhaps from overage or deterioration to heat.

The Urquell was winy-like, with an insistent hop presence and the slight rye bread note the beer usually has. But the balance and freshness were better than I’ve had from cans or bottles recently, and well, it’s just the right taste. It reminded me of very fresh Urquell in NYC where the turnover is high and after all NYC is the first landing in from the Atlantic. (Still, it can be indifferent in New York too).

When European lager is as good as these, it easily matches the best top-fermentation beers of England or Belgium, and now too North America which does a good turn in pale ale and India pales.

But rare is the opportunity, in my experience, to taste each of these at their very best. It’s nice when it all comes together. For the student of the beer palate, small differences can make all the difference…