Tilting at Windmills

A Cowshed and Pale ale

… he ate some roast beef and drank two pints of ale, stimulated by the flavor of a cow-shed which this fine, pale beer exhaled.

His hunger persisted. He lingered over a piece of blue Stilton cheese, made quick work of a rhubarb tart, and to vary his drinking, quenched his thirst with porter, that dark beer which smells of Spanish licorice but which does not have its sugary taste…

The above words are from an online edition of French novelist J-K Huysman’s A Rebours, translated as Against the Grain, published in 1884.

It was mentioned by early beer writer Michael Jackson, but not in connection with the quotation. Jackson discussed where Huysmans, pictured above, imagined an all-black meal featuring black soups, dark game, sauces the colour of “bootblack”, and kvass and porter to drink.

Huysmann was aiming to describe extreme experiences of the senses, both in taste and perception, in contrast to bourgeois ideals of restraint and the juste moyen.

His all-black meal is periodically reproduced by historical food enthusiasts but the idea never really caught on. Today’s careening culinary and beverage worlds seem perfect for it, yet trendy appearance in London, Paris, and New York is elusive.

The quotation though is further support that 1800s pale ale, often denominated India Pale Ale, had the barnyard, Brettanomyces smack. Modern brewers sometimes impart the effect via inoculation.

Some beers have always featured “extreme” flavours, probably accidentally initially, that end by grabbing drinkers’ affections. Ergo the development of regional and local tastes. Bitterness itself, from hops, is the best example.

Musk features in perfumes, soaps, and other things: why not eatables? It becomes a whet, a stimulant. Huysmans focused on the extreme for its outre sensory value and as metaphor for artistic and personal independence. To borrow a term from a more modern artistic and sensory quester, Jimi Hendrix, the French writer “raised his freak flag high” – despite his staid look, in this case.

I argued in my American “musty ale” study that the signature of 1800s U.S. musty ale may have been the barnyard Brett tang, analogous to the contemporary “Bass stink” also documented in my article.

A good example of the palate today albeit subtly is the Belgian Trappist ale Orval. In taste and colour Orval, which has a Brett inoculation, may be close to Huysman’s Gothic-tasting English pale ale. Countless craft “Brett” IPAs and other styles deliver a similar experience.

There is some irony here in the monastic context. The further irony of the translated book title, Against the Grain, is more satisfying to contemplate as idiosyncratic English beer flavours are upheld, not derided.

Huysmans’ comment on porter, which notes the dry, liquorice taste, is further evidence of his protagonist’s sophisticated or grown-up palate.

The term à rebours has also been translated as “against nature” or “at loggerheads”. It evokes again a rebounding, or stance of contra. Counter-cultural. That a Sybarite protagonist cottoned to a louche-tasting English beer underlines its exotic character, for us at quite a distance, certainly.

Now, my recent collaboration with Amsterdam Brewery to produce an 1870 AK bitter, a lower-gravity, “domestic” India Pale Ale, sought intentionally to avoid such Brett character. The reason was that storage of pale ale for a few weeks, even in the 19th century in uncoated wood, probably didn’t encourage Brett, or not invariably.

Brett generally needs longer to appear in beer as the yeast type awaits the normal end of fermentation to attack the more complex sugars and dextrin in the beer, unless of course the beer is inoculated with Brett to gain the intended character early. We did not do that as there was no intention to produce the character of a well-aged pale.

But some pale ale sold in Victorian England had such character, as appears from Huysmans book, as appears again also from the more or less contemporary term Bass stink. See this discussion in a U.S. Congressional hearing in 1900.

The Bass funk may have had multiple causes, as discussed in my musty ale article, but the impact of Brettanomyces on Bass, a classic form of India Pale Ale, is undeniable given the later identification of a strain of wild yeast in the Bass yeast – see my article for the supporting references.

Huysmans’ reference to a cowshed taste in beer probably resulted from the impact of Brett.

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