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 this online edition of French novelist J-K Huysman’s A Rebours, translated as Against the Grain, published in 1884.

This novel was mentioned in beer critic Michael Jackson’s early work, but not in connection with the quotation. Jackson examined the part where Huysmans (pictured) imagined an all-black meal, one featuring black soups, dark game, sauces the colour of “bootblack”, and kvass and porter to drink.

Huysmann was looking to describe extreme experiences of the senses, both in taste and perception, to contrast with the ideals of restraint and the juste moyen sought by bourgeois society.

His all-black meal is periodically reproduced in arcane food circles but has never caught on as a fad. Today’s careening culinary and beverage worlds seem perfect for it, yet simultaneous appearance in trendy restaurants of London, Paris, and New York is elusive.

The quotation though is further support that well-aged 1800s pale ale, often denominated IPA, had the barnyard Brettanomyces smack. Modern brewers sometimes seek to impart it via inoculation, with evident historical justification, were any needed.

Beers of various kinds have always featured “extreme” flavours, probably accidentally initially, that finally grab and retain drinkers’ affections. Hence 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 own sensory value and as metaphor for artistic independence. To borrow a term from another artistic and sensory quester, Jimi Hendrix, he “raised his freak flag high”.

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

A good example of the palate today is the Belgian Trappist beer, Orval. In taste and colour Orval, which has a Brett inoculation, may well 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 title, Against the Grain, is more satisfying to contemplate: the book admires idiosyncratic English beer flavours, it doesn’t deride them.

Huysmans’ comment on porter, noting the dry liquorice taste, is further evidence of his protagonist’s sophisticated, “grown-up” palate.

In contrast, one may infer the sugary form of the flavouring is the province of the undiscriminating or youthful, in line with the judgement of gastronomy. The crown of beverage saccharine was probably Coca-Cola, invented around the time Huysmans’ book was written. (I’m not knocking Coke, I like it myself, but this is a cultural history discussion).

His term à rebours has also been translated as “against nature” or “at loggerheads”. It sounds again a rebounding, a stance of contra. As the Sybarite protagonist evidently had nothing against contemporary English beer this suggests its exotic character, to an 1880s Frenchman at least.

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

Brett generally needs longer to appear in beer as the yeast type awaits the finish of fermentation by conventional brewing yeast 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. We did not do that as there was no intent to produce the character of a pale ale aged 9 or 12 months.

Nonetheless in practice, some pale ale sold in Victorian England had this character, as appears from Huysmans book, as appears from the contemporary term Bass stink per 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 in our opinion given the later identification of a strain of wild yeast in the Bass yeast – see my article again in Brewery History for supporting references.

Huysmans’ reference to a cowshed-tasting “ale” and “pale beer” can only mean an IPA-type beer.

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