How 1874 Envisioned Beer’s Future
Periodically in the history of brewing one sees a call or recognition, they are sometimes hard to tell apart, of a new kind of beer.
In the history of British beer, this probably starts early 19th century, when brewers and observers are starting to say, people want a new kind of porter, less aged than before, less “hard” than previous generations liked.
This meant, less acidic, in general, but probably too less smoky as the wood-kilned brown malt of porter became a lesser component of the mash in time.
From then on a succession of statements regularly appear in informed circles calling for a new beer. First pale ale gets the treatment, due to its astringent, non-satiating character by comparison to rich mild and strong ales.
Then one reads that English ales of any kind are too strong, too “soporific”. Notice is taken of German and Bohemian lagers, their comparative low alcohol and pleasant taste – despite some concern with “garlic” flavours or the pitch used to line the casks!
This focus on lager, while it did not immediately change the mainstays of British brewing (mild, pale, strong ales, porter), had an effect nonetheless by lightening and clarifying British beer. Less hops were used than formerly, as attested, say, by Parliamentary hearings in the 1890s.
After 1900 a focus on “non-deposit” beer commences, and the long slide (ascent?) begins by a replacement of bottle-conditioned ales with filtered, force-carbonated beer, useable to the last drop as often advertised in Edwardian times.
In the 1920s and 30s, calls are made, e.g., by the Swiss-based inventor of the cylindro-conical fermenter, Leopold Nathan, for abandonment by U.K. brewers of mixed yeast cultures, which in fact happened finally. Earlier, lager brewers achieved this under similar scientific influence, both on the Continent and in North America.
This, and the fact that few beers were long-aged by this time, meant a Brettanomyces signature ceased to characterize most beers of any class. Guinness continued to offer a trace of it via continued use of a small amount of wood-vatted stout, but this is now ended.
This technological progress continued in North America from the 1970s – at the industrial brewing level – through periodic campaigns for light beer, dry beer, ice beer. All these were seen as improving the basic palate of beer, or what might be termed the beer experience, even though in many cases the net effect was arguably to reduce beer’s sensory impact and character.
Then the beer revolt started: The Campaign For Real Ale (early 1970s), the Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood (1960s), the American craft brewing phenomenon which is now world-wide (from mid-1970s), the seismic impact of Michael Jackson’s beer writing and journalism (from 1977), not to mention the sizeable impact of home brewing in the U.K. and North America on public tastes and perceptions of what beer could be.
Hence, from the 1970s and despite more than 100 years of ceaseless promotion of the new and improved, a turning back occurred. This was due simply to the fact of recognizing that beer’s palate as handed down for centuries was in danger of disappearing more or less. It was perhaps too a sign of a maturing society, a “greening” of a kind seen in many other areas of society from fashion to music to politics.
Yet, the scientific impetus toward an improved beer or brewing techniques has never stopped. Today one reads of innovations patented by a large international brewer, AB InBev, which may eliminate boiling the wort to make beer, a process designed to save energy and money. Advanced software makes the process of brewing more predictable and reliable. Materials and equipment are ever refined and improved.
Continued research on hops is aimed at developing further cultivated varieties with a high bittering potential resistant to various pests, as industrial-style lager utilizes hops primarily for bittering, not aroma. Research also produces ever-newer and different-tasting aroma hops for the growing craft segment.
The difference between today and earlier times is, both in the U.K. and here until the 1970s, a more or less cohesive, identifiable scientific establishment drove the changes. Their recommendations were regularly published in their brewing journals and at professional conferences.
When the “word” went out, things finally changed, whether with regard to pasteurization, no-deposit beer, or anything else industrial science deemed necessary for the future.
It’s different now because the industry is more international than ever, there are many more types of beer sold than before, and the market has demonstrated in part an intention to return to earlier practices. This is a cultural trait science has to contend with. Indeed it is more than happy to do so, an example is the production of an intentionally-cloudy beer, the Belgian-style Blue Moon, say, that is pasteurized and shelf-stable.
Science ensures that the Goose Island IPA you get in Toronto tastes like the one made at the original Chicago craft brewery, or close enough, and so on.
So, while the advances of technology continue with no less impetus than in the past, they aren’t as easy to glean or keep up with as previously. Much research now is conducted in-house, and is protected by an increasingly flexible patent system. The system is more opaque, it’s not a question of subscribing to a few journals in Britain, America, and Germany to know what is going on.
In the 1870s, Britain was just starting to develop brewing science expertise. Dr. Charles Graham among numerous others was a key figure, as I explained earlier. As a highly-trained scientist, he saw an opportunity to educate “practical brewers”, which was almost all the brewers in the U.K. As he pointed out in the extract below (via HathiTrust) he had never seen a thermometer used in British brewing.
He developed a large consulting practice and through that influenced his generation of brewers to adopt new methods and even envision a new beer or beers.
Below, in his last lecture from the Royal Society of Arts’ Cantor Lectures re-printed in a journal devoted to the practical needs of British industry, he called for new types of beer, and a new type of taxation to accommodate them.
In a word, he wanted the freedom to use non-malted materials including “British gum”, a starch derivative that was used as a thickener in various industrial applications. It is probably similar to today’s dextrin malt and similar products.
In fact, the tax changes he wanted occurred, the Free Mash Tun Act of 10 years later gave the right to use any cereal adjunct in brewing. Graham hoped to see two new forms of beer emerge, not to replace all existing forms, of which he was a proponent in some cases – he said he liked a glass of “Burton” – but to enlarge the range.
One form was a carbonated, dry, strong beer he said would resemble Champagne. This hasn’t really happened though. Lager did emerge for the U.K. market that was similar, but staying within an average gravity range, 5% abv or so.
Modern U.S. malt liquor – one form was marketed as Champale from the late 1930s – may be an echo of his Victorian desire.
The second form he proposed was something similar to contemporary German lager, relatively low in alcohol and rich-tasting, he meant a beer that would resemble Bohemian lager or Vienna lager, say. He stated this form would continue to be top-fermented – ale in English terms – but resemble these lagers otherwise.
Modern Kolsch and some Alt Bier are examples perhaps, or early Molson Export Ale in Canada, developed in the first years of the 1900s.
Broadly speaking the triumph of lager and, to a degree, 1970s keg ales and stout validated his predictions although these forms were a kind of blending of the two he proposed: dry and fizzy like his strong Champagne-type beer, but not much stronger than the typical Bohemian and German lager in his time.