Beer Reviews

With my current journal writing and book reviewing, I have little time to blog. There is also a conference I’m preparing for in May.

But I’ll do the odd one, read on for some disparate product reviews.

I mentioned some on Twitter but will offer a different twist, or to emphasize another point. I’ll keep the historical and business background to a minimum.

Beck’s Bier

The famous brew of Bremen, Germany, still an import in Canada. A recent can had the best taste I recall for years: well-matured, clean, but still “German pils”, as the brand always was (I discussed this in an earlier blogpost).




The Italian import. As compared say to a Beck’s, or Heineken (the parent company), not in the same league, IMO. The taste of adjunct – a grain to supplement the barley malt – seemed evident, I’d think maize or some derivative. The light and snappy taste would suit many foods, though.

Crank Lite Lager

Saw some press recently and checked around, it’s a contract brew, marketed by two young business grads in London, Ontario. The  website indicates the beer is low-cal and low carb, and intended for a 20s demographic.



It’s very light, with some corn content, but well-made. Likely designed for those familiar with hard seltzer, vodka and soda, the light mass-market beers, that kind of market. The finish notably has a refreshing taste. It has its place. We wish the promoters well.

Weatherhead Pilsener

From Perth in eastern Ontario, a top-quality beer. Full-flavoured, good body, pronounced bitterness, German-styled but still accessible for a general craft audience. Reminded me of the Frisian Jever to a degree, recent tastings of which confirm its own top quality.

St-Feuillien Cuvee Noel

9% abv. Mild-flavoured but good natural beer taste. Does not feature the full-on Belgian yeast signature of phenols and clove which is fine by me. I drank half and mixed half with a craft porter for a superb beer blend.

Whitewater Midnight Stout 

Also from eastern Ontario, a tangy oatmeal stout with lactose. Excellent cocoa-like flavours, good extract, perfectly balanced.













Lager: Success Story in Metropole and 1950s Iraq (Part II)

In my Part I, I noted that hard data proved elusive to substantiate my tentative conclusion that lager trumped ale and stout in popularity in 1950s Iraq.

It was not for want of looking, but lack of access currently to a real library makes it harder to find data.

Nonetheless, I did find a couple of interesting statistics, and may add to it here if more can be found. The (1953) Iraq: Economic and Commercial Conditions, a publication of H.M. Stationary office, stated that a brewery of British design went into production in August 1948. Further, in 1950-1951 it produced 2,200 thousand L (or 2,200,000 L).

I calculate that this produces 13,443 bbl (Imp). This brewery was of course The Iraq Brewery as I explained earlier. Its output at the time was ale and stout only, as lager was not produced until 1962.

The Annual Statement of Trade of the United Kingdom for 1951 states that the U.K. exported to Iraq in 1951 3,763 bulk barrels of beer. Of course this did not include Ireland, and we know Guinness was shipping stout to Iraq, as seen earlier.

Still, even with Ireland, the total from the British Isles probably did not exceed 5,000 bulk barrels. Interestingly, a bulk barrel is not an Imperial barrel. The term is a freight term, and denotes five cubic feet.

The Imperial barrelage sent to Iraq by the U.K. equates to a lower figure by my conversion, 3,255 bbl Imperial. Again, even with Irish stout nothing that would approximate local production.

Part of that U.K. export figure, unlike for Ireland, was lager, perhaps the majority but we don’t know the percentage.

We don’t know of course either how much beer came in from Europe. We have seen that European lager was increasingly available through the 1950s. Belgian Pilsor, from Lamot, was imported as early as 1948 and a Dutch lager, Antelope, in 1949.

If European lager imports equalled in 1951 the U.K./Irish exports, perhaps the total was 10,000 bbl (Imp). That is still under the domestic production represented by The Iraq Brewery.

I believe the tide must have turned later in lager’s favour. First, we have seen that the second brewery to start production in Iraq, The Eastern Brewery, debuted its Ferida lager in 1956.

That beer was heavily advertised (it is still made).* Eastern Brewery probably did at least as well if not better than The Iraq Brewery by the time of the July 1958 Revolution. Further, we have seen how numerous Dutch, German, and UK lagers were imported through the 1950s with ale and stout seemingly in decline, or so I judged by the tenor of adverts in the expatriate press.

On top of this, as I documented earlier, an emigre Iraqi brewer discussed brewery history with an Irish Times journalist in 2006. He stated The Iraq Brewery’s stout did poorly and this caused the brewery to make lager, which it first released (by my verification) in 1962.**

The brewer did not say “ale” but I suspect ale was not going great guns either by the later 1950s. If anything, lager is the putative replacement for ale, not stout.

Additional data, of course, might prove me wrong in some of these suppositions. Based, however, also on my earlier work examining beer markets in other parts of the world where Britain had a presence, I would think lager had the majority of the Iraq market by the late 1950s.

True, by then imports were banned so it was two domestic companies sharing the market, a new set of circumstances. But still, I think it likely The Eastern Brewery was outpacing The Iraq Brewery, hence presumably why the latter decided to make a lager.

The departure of almost all British military personnel in the country by the mid-1950s likely also boosted the fortunes of lager. Britons, especially H.M. Forces, were good consumers of the traditional ale and stout. Once they left…***

The fact that Amstel of Holland arranged licensed production with The Eastern Brewery in 1962, for lager of course, seems to validate all this. Amstel, not Bass or Guinness, did that.

However one looks at it, it seems fair to conclude that as Iraq acceded to full independence in the late 1950s, not just constitutionally but de facto, lager beer achieved critical mass both there and in erstwhile metropole.

It would take longer to capture a majority of the U.K. market than in former colonies and demesnes, but Sally Vincent’s sparkling feature of 1960 foretold the future.


*The beer is currently styled Farida in English, see website.

**Taken literally it may seem the brewery started with stout. My study suggests Diana Ale (or Diana Beer) came first. Diana Stout followed a couple of years later.

***The last Forces departed from RAF Habbaniya in 1959. See in Military Wiki.




Lager: Success Story in Metropole and 1950s Iraq (Part I)

Lager Catches a Wave in Postwar Britain 

In 1960 23-year-old English journalist Sally Vincent (1937-2013) offered a sharp portrayal of a new phenomenon in the British drinks industry: the young female drinker.

Sample line: “The hand that rocks the cradle has a firm hold on the bottle”. Eye-catching.

She outlined in particular the drinks they favoured, drinks not new on the scene but garnering fresh attention due to this new audience.

First and foremost there was lager. Women lager drinkers would henceforth supplement an “intensely masculine personification” of the beer drinker modelled on the British workman.

Then came Champagne perry, then wine, finally vodka. Sales of each had grown considerably, she said, largely due to a new female audience.

The “well-bred, suede-coated, county-type young lady” might favour a half-lager in a pub car park. But she added it went beyond that. Young women of many backgrounds liked lager for its “dry” characteristic and tendency not to intoxicate.

(In truth the alcohol level was similar to – if not often stronger than – bitter and mild ale. No matter, perception was everything in branding, then and now).

All these drinks, except I think the sparkling perry,* have burgeoned in use since this period, not just among this social group, but among all genders and classes almost everywhere where alcohol is consumed. The young female drinker of c. 1960 proved an enduring trend-setter.

Lager’s Increasing Appeal in Expatriate Iraq

Vincent’s story as I found it was reprinted far from metropole, in the Iraq Times, in Baghdad. The paper was read, one presumes from the content, mostly by a small contingent of U.K. expatriates and other international types then resident in Iraq.

Business and diplomatic attachments, also those pertaining to education and the church, would have represented the bulk of it. It was a period when British influence was notable in the country, as I discussed earlier.

In terms of beers available in Iraq, a mix of British-origin ales and lagers was advertised regularly by a trading corporation in 1921.

For the older style of drink, the world-ranging Guinness was, not surprisingly, present then. A 1922 notice in the Baghdad Times attests to it, an auction for seven cases at Ordnance Citadel, Baghdad. Apparently this was part of surplus military goods being liquidated.

In the same period (Australian) Foster’s Crown lager is in the country.

1922, a “Muniche lager” makes its appearance. So did the Scottish Tennent’s lager, repeatedly advertised in the Times of Mesopotamia that year along with the brewery’s stout.

Lager is present from the earliest days of European intervention, in other words. It often shared billing with ales and stouts in the first ads we found (1920s). But the pattern of advertising in the later expatriate press suggests a decline of the fortunes of ale and stout in favour of lager, although hard data has proved elusive.

Post-World War II

Jumping to post-WW II, in 1948 when The Iraq Brewery is just finding its legs Pilsor Lager is advertised, a Belgian label from Lamot. Branded items on eBay suggest some attention was given to widespread promotion of the brand.

The same year, London’s Barclay Perkins vaunts its lager – no other type mentioned.

A series of repeating ads in 1949 touted Thompson & Son’s bottled beers including its Dover Pale Ale. The Kent, England brewery was absorbed by Charrington’s two years later, the Brewery Wiki tells us. 

Likely that foreclosed any progress from that source, a small brewery to begin with. (Image below is courtesy this source).



Also 1949, a Dutch-made Antelope-brand pilsener.

Bernard Wicksteed did a chatty 1950 profile of the British brewing industry reprinted in the Iraq Times. He did not fail to mention the importance to Continental breweries of their lager yeast. Lager could not be ignored even in a strictly British context, that is, as the market itself reflected locally.

In 1950 we see Tennent’s lager, “Brewed and Bottled in Bonnie Scotland”. If McEwan’s Scotch or Pale Ale was still available in 1950s Iraq, I could not find a sample advert. Lagers were, it seems, of more interest to the market by then.

Launch of New Lager by The Eastern Brewery

The lager trend was exemplified by Ferida beer, released by the Eastern Brewery on opening in Baghdad in 1956. Of the many Ferida ads in the Iraq Times, some full-page in size, this one offers particular interest due to the additional context disclosed.

The Embassy Gardens was apparently a club or dinner-dance venue. Operated by “old Gregor”, it advertised “ice-cold draft” Ferida in gardens overlooking the Tigris River.

The Eastern Brewery was the second brewery established in Iraq in modern times. The first as I discussed earlier was The Iraq Brewery. Its Diana Ale and Diana Stout, pictured in this 1951 ad, were produced from the late 1940s through the 1960s. The brewery however finally released a lager in 1962.

Pattern of Imports, 1954-1959

Still, in the 1950s tenacious Guinness invested in sizeable box ads in the Iraq Times, as an advert shows in 1954. The brand was the weighty Foreign Extra Stout. The market targeted here seemed manual workers.

The advert is suggestive of a “heavy” drink, a winter drink as sometimes called then, via the image of a 1950s auto upraised by a human jack. Even in 1966 Diana Stout was still billed as a winter drink, see here.

Guinness was playing too on the idea of strength, a popular association with porter since the 1700s.

Allsopp’s lager, which found its way around a good part of the British colonial and post-colonial worlds, duly appeared in Iraq. See for 1954 this advert (“The best English lager is again on the market”).



(Image source: Kings Own Royal Regiment Museum).

In 1955 a full page of adverts touted Guinness, Worthington (pale ale), Bass (pale ale), Carlsberg, and Heineken lager. In the same year, a distributor’s supplier list included as the calling card for Barclay Perkins only lager, once again.

Bass and Worthington, in that period among the biggest names in British ale, were still hanging on in Iraq. Not many beers of that sort had, judging by our ad survey in the press noted.

A factor here, perhaps, was production of ale and stout locally, by The Iraq Brewery. At the same time, an Iraqi familiar with brewing in Iraq in that period told the Irish Times some years ago that The Iraq Brewery did not make money making “stout” and turned to lager, which I know happened in 1962. (See again my earlier post linked above, on The Iraq Brewery).

In 1955 Beck’s beer from Bremen returns, not seen in Iraq since before the war, per the advert. Also appearing in 1955, St. Pauli Girl and Holsten lager, both German.

In 1959 again St. Paul Girl appears (a Beck’s stablemate), one of many such notices in the period. 1959 seems late for such importation as a 1958 study of Iraq, The reconstruction of Iraq, 1950-1957, states beer imports were then prohibited.

We think it likely this resulted from the 1958 Revolution, an object of which was to enhance national control of the economy.

Maybe the St. Pauli Girl advertised in 1959 was imported before the prohibition took effect, or some kind of exemption was obtained.

1962, it’s Amstel of Holland, but now Eastern Brewery will brew it under license, which ties in to the idea of a bar on imports.

Some Conclusions

By the late 1980s lager would finally triumph definitively over ale in the U.K. – overtake it in sales.** It had done so in fact in most parts of the world earlier, including by our canvass Iraq from the 1960s at least, but the pattern was set long before, of which we see some markers here.

In this regard, the pattern seems similar to other places where Britain once exercised influence by virtue of colonial or other power projected. Australia, India, Sudan, and Mandate Palestine are all instances, as discussed earlier here.

Note re images: Images above were sourced as identified and linked in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

For Part II, see here.


*In a sense though, cider did the job, ultimately.

**See supporting data gathered by beer historian Ron Pattinson in his blog, here.







Ameringer on Andechs

Oscar Ameringer (1870-1943), how to introduce this American one-of-a-kind? He was a socialist organizer, publisher-and-journalist, and humorist following early spells as artist, musician, and factory worker.

The humorist part seemed an indelible part of his personality but came in handy for his labour work. He would wind up crowds before a speech by Eugene Debs, say.

German-born (Achstetten), the son of a furniture-maker, he was an early iconoclast, earning the suspicion of his teachers for his outré opinions.

His 1940 autobiography, If You Don’t Weaken: the Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer, explains that a reading group he joined with his mother had an important influence on his development.

She might read Lessing, for example. In part this explained, unusually for his milieu and time, Ameringer’s sympathy with the Jews, among whom he counted boyhood friends.

After schooling to age 15, he left the hearth to travel to America, initially Cincinnati. There, he engaged in a self-study programme administered by a kindly librarian.

Later, he returned to Germany study art in Munich, before sailing again for America, this time permanently.

Ameringer was one of those spirits, one concludes, who had to leave his birthplace to find himself. After wending experiences in different parts of the U.S. he settled finally in Oklahoma, after WW I.

The University of Oklahoma’s Stephen H. Norwood has penned a good outline of his career. See also the Wikipedia entry, whence the image below is drawn.



Ameringer’s memoir has many references to beer. The context is usually labour-related, a brewery strike, say. But Ameringer clearly always retained the predilection of his homeland for a good glass of beer.

I stress good, as he comments numerous times on the relative quality beer both in America and Germany. In the U.S., Ameringer was convinced union shops made better beer, that the owner was less motivated to cheapen the formula under union control.

This seems questionable to me, but anyway the best beer passages in the book have a comic undertone, reflecting this part of Ameringer’s personality.

He describes in a completely offbeat way his admiration for the beer of Kloster Andechs (which the self-taught man insists to spell Andex). He explains that the high quality can be laid down to water, but not in the sense one normally thinks.

In Ameringer’s scheme, due to the time and cost the Benedictines incurred to draw their water from a deep well, they ennobled Andechs beer with extra malt and hops.

Whereas in America, by “tragic coincidence” the great breweries of St. Louis, New York, Milwaukee, etc. were surrounded by vast expanses of cheap water. This led to blasé American brewing that added “cornmeal, saccharine, and liquorice” according to Ameringer.

While this humour can’t be improved upon, at the same time the distinction, to borrow the title of Van Halen’s final album, may hold “a different kind of truth”.

I have tasted Kloster Andechs, from fresh bottles in Florida last year, and on draft earlier in New York. Unquestionably it is among the world’s great beers, in my top five certainly.




Corn, Casks, and Can-do

For much of the 20th century, the American way with brewing was derided conventionally by consumers, although professional opinion was more nuanced, even in Europe. Yet, American methods had undoubted early influence in western Europe.

This influence, although more in prospect, is already perceptible in distant 1894, in Belgium. In that year, one of the protean 19th century industrial expositions was held in Antwerp. Among the many categories of products, brewing and distilling were not omitted.

A report that year in the Indianapolis Journal contained some wry language about American beer making a play in an already well-populated field. While taking a swipe, quite literally, at Belgian beer, the implication was clear: selling Yankee beer in Europe’s beer-drinking lands was a mug’s game, at least short-term. (Or not a mug’s game, I suppose).

From the report:

In spite of the seeming incongruity of giving drink to those whose thirst is already so well provided for, there may be here the germs of a successful commercial venture. The taste and strength of American beer are as different from what traveling Englishmen are apt to call irreverently Belgian swipes as is the soda water itself. English porter and pale ale have had no difficulty in making their way into these beer-drinking countries, as may be seen from the quaint names of the imitations in the Belgian section – gold ale, sport ale, stout national, barley wine and Anglo-Bavarian pale beer.

The modern-sounding sport ale was probably a poor rendering of export ale. The Anglo-Bavarian beers, as we saw in a recent series, were made by an English brewery, not Belgian. I suspect the writer was confusing beer made in Belgium with English beers handled by Belgian importers.

An official catalogue for the Exhibition in part confirms the account – for example Bergner & Engel are listed, well-known Philadelphia lager brewers of the time. It is likely the catalogue was not complete though. I could not locate a Belgian (or other) “barley wine” among beers exhibited, for example.

Where the Indianapolis story shines is the perception that American beer held the germ of a successful commercial venture. This proved to be completely true. Not in the sense that American brands would enjoy a large export business to Europe – they never did – but in the sense that Belgium ultimately embraced the American way to brew lager.

As the story noted, Belgium was still a top-fermentation country then. By the mid-20th century that had changed, lager was the bulk of production, as today. And not just that, it was adjunct brewing. Germany, Austria and Bohemia were of course always a notable influence on Belgian brewing but their keynote was all-malt lager.

The Americans used corn, rice, or other adjunct to bulk out the malt base of their beer, a technique later usual in Belgium and far beyond. Of course, the respective beers did not taste “the same”, in part due to differing base malts and percentage of adjuncts used.

But American innovation clearly influenced Belgian brewing in this regard. Yes, the British were using sugar in brewing by then (and some grain), and might be viewed as also influential, but Belgian lager has relied mainly on grains, not sugar, to supplement the malt.

Therein the Americans excelled, motored by supportive brewing scientists such as Anton Schwarz.

In the (1996) Belgium by Beer: Beer by Belgium, authors Annie Perrier-Robert and Charles Fontaine include (p. 110) a table for six years between 1970 and 1989. In 1989 rice and maize, about equal quantities, and small amounts of wheat and “other farinaceous substances” together represented about 36,000 tonnes in Belgian brewing.

Against that about 11,100 tonnes of sugar were employed. Total barley malt used (1989) was 181,962 tonnes, which gives an idea of the relative position of adjuncts in that country then. The breakdown for all sample years was broadly comparable.

These numbers included all forms of brewing, top-fermentation as well, but the bulk was clearly lager by then.

I have not checked lately, but would think adjuncts in brewing are least as high today.

The percentage used is less than is generally taken as the American average (i.e., for the mass market), but the pattern is the same. The authors explain that cost was a major factor, and that after the American Civil War America promoted actively sales of maize to Belgian brewers.

For its part, the 1894 Catalogue does not seem to stress sales of maize by American growers. A milling company in Buffalo did advertise various starch-based products (amidon) including nourriture de maïs.

But maize was exhibited from sources closer to home by 1894, especially Bulgaria which listed multiple producers. While a process was necessary to reduce the oil content to make corn suitable for brewing, Perrier-Robert and Fontaine state that in 1892 Keulemans & Windelinckx Maltings in Mechelen took a licence from Gillman & Spencer in London to de-germ maize.

The result, wrote the authors, was “the stunning growth of this raw material, from its debut” (see in general at 93-94).

After WW II the taste for English-style porter and ale, already popular in Belgium before 1900 as we see above, was mostly supplanted by this newer adjunct lager. That style of beer was pioneered in practical, commercial terms by Americans.

Similarly, the American style had writ finally in France, many other parts of Europe, and Britain itself.

The Catalogue has some good points of interest, e.g. this page (p. 514) in the British section. One brewery had no issue stating its beers were made with “25% grain”, probably corn in some form. The breweries in the main were smaller ones, except for Ind Coope in Burton.

The American section* (p. 258) included Bieckert of Buenos Aires. A contemporary portrait of Bieckert (1899) appeared in the The Brewers’ Journal. The founder was an emigrant Alsatian, looking for new pastures even before the 1870 war that saw Germany snatch his native province from France.

Bieckert-labeled beer is still available. The company endured into the 1990s, but was picked up by the well-known Quilmes nearby. It was spun-off to an investors group in the mid-2000s, and is now part of CCU, a Chilean-based public company partly owned by Heineken.

Bieckert’s beer was all-malt, as the 1899 description was careful to explain. I would think it is not, today, but don’t know for certain.


*Interestingly, Bergner & Engel also listed ale and stout, presumably top-fermented in this case. Indeed eBay lists a handsome label for its brown stout in about the same period.






R.D. Blumenfeld on Drinking Ways. Part II.

Lager Takes a bow

It seems likely, as I forecast in Part I, that R.D. Blumenfeld appreciated good beer. R.D.B.’s Diary: 1887-1914, a memoir published by William Heinemann in 1930, bears this out.

R.D.B. is in Paris, it’s 1890. He happens upon a restaurant where Munich beer is consumed, noting this as unusual. He explains that 20 years after the ignominious defeat of 1870, Parisians generally sidestepped anything German, so this was exceptional.

Cultural manifestations such as Wagnerian opera were especially shunned. Still, he reveals that a contact in the city, evidently on request, informed him of a restaurant where true German beer could be had, although it was described as Viennese.

This suggests Blumenfeld had a predilection for “the real thing”. Having German-Jewish roots must have helped, seems a safe conclusion.

However, the best anecdote on beer in the book involves a story told him in New York in 1900 by Oscar Hammerstein I. Hammerstein was relating the successive uses of his (first) Manhattan Opera House, built 1893.*

Hammerstein told me yesterday of his Manhattan Opera House venture in 34th Street, New York, which began with opera, changed over to drama with Mrs. Bernard Beere in “As in a Looking Glass,” and ended as a music hall and drinking place. “First,” he said, “it was Meyerbeer. No good. Then it was Bernard Beere. Also no good. Now it is Lager Beer. Great success!”


*Hammerstein I built many theatres in New York, but only two were named Manhattan Opera House.

R.D. Blumenfeld on Drinking Ways. Part I.

Countering the American Sumptuary, 1930

A concise biography of Ralph David Blumenfeld appears in

Fairly long-lived, 1864-1948, his active career ended in 1936 when serious illness supervened. Much of his adult life was spent in the U.K. where he became a naturalized citizen. He was an influential Fleet Street editor, rising to editor-in-chief of the Daily Express, a post he held until 1932.

His father was a German-Jewish immigrant in the American Midwest who founded a German-language newspaper. R.D.B., as he became known, worked as a compositor for his father. He later worked as a telegrapher, and in journalism in Chicago and New York. He was already an editor in New York before 30.

He settled in the U.K. in 1894, initially to pursue a venture selling linotype equipment to British newspapers.* This proved most successful but he could not resist journalism’s embrace. In 1900 he left the business to re-join newspapers, this time in his adopted country (he was naturalized in 1907).

The association of R.D.B., as he became known, with Canadian-born Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and another Canadian, Beverly Baxter, helped introduce an “American” element to British journalism. The Daily Express was partly refashioned on American lines via its large type and human interest stories.

I discussed Baxter, without knowing this further background, in an earlier post, “When the Americans Arrived”. Baxter’s smooth interviews and Yankee-style journalism now make more sense to me. In fact R.D.B. was mentor to him, according to other biographical accounts I consulted.

In 1930, towards the end of his active career, R.D.B. wrote a portrait of wine and drinking at this time of year, “Seeing old Year out in wet England”.

Printed in a Washington, D.C. newspaper, it offered a tantalizing view of foreign drinking habits to a society sapped by years of bluenose-inspired National Prohibition. Reading the opening paragraphs, I was reminded of Jack Kerouac’s portrait of a well-stocked cafeteria in wintry New York in his novel Visions of Cody.

Kerouac described luscious foods as perceived by a straightened Beat wanderer of the streets. The misty showcase disclosed technicolor delights of glazed cakes and pastries, all beyond the means of the artist forever estranged from society’s regular ranks.

America surely reacted in a similar way to R.D.B.’s rich portrait of the U.K. wine business and what he claimed was a continual but non-abusive relationship to alcohol among the people.

Beer is not discussed per se although one photo portrays a server drawing beer in a pub. Another, more telling, shows savants kitted out a la City judging beer at a competition. I discussed one such tasting in this post“The Bitter Test”.

A snippet from R.D.B.’s article gives the flavour, describing a merchant’s glittering bazaar:

His window is a blaze of electric lamps, shining on imitation snow and ice. Lying on the snow are sledges piled high with every drink you can imagine. There are bottles of very old brandy which you may buy for the price of a bottle of inferior bootleg gin, graceful Hock bottles with their long stems, jolly, fat Hollands [a gin], clarets, Burgundys, Bordeaux, bottles of Scotch and bottles of Irish, and in a sledge all to themselves the succulent, insidious French liqueurs so dear to women and so cheap to buy.

On and on went R.D.B., readers’ eyes opening apace:

… at one end of the display Santa Claus is loaded to the white and bushy eyebrows with kummel, white port, Gordon’s gin—the real, not the synthetic—Rhine wine, vodka, and a sack over his shoulder from the neck of which peep the golden tops of bottles of champagne by such firms as Heidsick, Pol Roger, Pommeroy, Lemoine …

R.D.B.’s outline of the wine vaults at London Docks, built by the great engineer Rennie in the early 1800s, evokes an era that endured for much of the last two centuries but is now passed.

An invitation to taste wines in the cellars was a mark of social distinction. Such connoisseurship is now more broadly disseminated, in wine or almost any drink you can think of. Democracy and capitalism have made it so.

R.D.B. foresaw modern beer appreciation via the photo of London ale experts in 1930. Still, he might be surprised how a drink then viewed as commonplace has acquired trappings of tomes, critics, and “taste notes”.

Or maybe not. As a son of the Midwest and indirectly Mitteleuropa, he was schooled probably in lager ways by their breweries and later those of New York – the latter still brewing the ales he would make definitive acquaintance with in England.

Only such a background could explain, or so we think in bar-closed Toronto of late 2020, why his article included that beer-judging photo.

The good journalists, writers in general, are like that, heralds whose vision needs passing of a generation, or two, for validation.

The National Portrait Gallery harbours today a painting of R.D. Blumenfeld. He looks like a man of discernment, and judgement.

For Part II, see here.


*On this point see this death notice printed in Australia.

A Beer Feast

Nita Brewing in Ottawa has innovated with its mixed packs, meaning here beers both from Nita and other Ottawa breweries, or within hailing distance let’s say.

Last year Bridget Carey explained the rationale on their website. The current pack, pictured, is available by different delivery methods (see website).  Some Ontario Beer Stores carry it as well.

That’s where I found it, the Leaside outlet in Toronto.

This pack hits all the bases for me. None of the beers are flavoured with coffee, chocolate, spices, etc. Most are classic English styles. The can description shown is for the Pitch Stout.

As Nita has two selections, five south-eastern Ontario breweries are represented, which is pretty cool. I’ve noticed, as I used to get to Ottawa a few times a year, that Ottawa breweries seem more interested than Toronto’s to render classic UK styles. Most I’ve tasted are very nice.

Of course the breweries make everything, but the UK niche seems larger than I see around Toronto. This is great for devotees of the British way with beer – the pre-craft way, I mean although craft – done right – only improves it.

As I can go on nineteen to a dozen about the English beer palate, I’ll leave you to enjoy the Holiday season.*



*There’s a new expression for me, courtesy matchless UK food writer Elizabeth David. No better context to use it than the present.

Christmas Ale O’er the Sea

As we saw the other day, in 1857-1860 Hallett & Abbey advertised in Brighton, England their Christmas Ale.

Just a few years later, an American saloon did the same, the Hole-in-the-Wall (HITW) in Sprague’s Alley near Fulton Street in Brooklyn, New York. Ads in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1865 and 1867 trumpeted that “Thomas” would “broach” his Christmas Ale.

A string of ads may be seen here, of which this example was typical (via the Daily Eagle archive linked):



A park, Cadman Plaza, now covers the street where saloon-keeper Thomas ministered to his faithful. See the Forgotten New York site for useful background.

The photo below (via Wikipedia) recorded the land assembly for the park in 1936. It seems likely one of the crosswise roads or paths traced the old alley where HITW had been.



The earthy name was almost certainly inspired by English example, perhaps the one under a railway arch next to Waterloo Station, London.

The ads state that HITW offered patrons “the London papers”, a further clue to its character.

As in Britain, it wasn’t common in the U.S., then or later, to brand a beer Christmas Ale. The occasional example made express the old connection between ale and the Yule period, however.

Before 1980, a few American breweries did advertise a Christmas Beer here and there. In 2016 Judy Steffes of the Washington County Insider recalled the mid-century Lithia Christmas Beer, from Wisconsin.

But paging through James Robertson’s (1978) The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer I could not find a single example of a Christmas ale or beer, American or other.

He did include a Holiday Beer from Potosi, WI, but the brewery name was Holiday Brewing.

The few Christmas beers of that era were probably a standard item in inventory, maybe made a little stronger or darker. Lithia in fact came in a special dark version, as Steffes recorded.

Of course breweries might advertise their regular line at Christmas, linking them to festivity, just as ale in Britain was always linked to Yuletime, in a general way.

Our Thomas of 1860s Brooklyn seemed quite the man, judging by the monikers “Immortal Thomas” and “presiding genius”.

As ancestrally for the bar trade, his no doubt ebullient character defined the house atmosphere, drew the crowds. He may well have been of British origin as many 1800s American barkeeps were, or Irish.

The Jones Brewery in New York advertised its English-style beers just below some of the HITW ads. The brewery was located on Sixth Street in Manhattan. I think probably it supplied Thomas’ Christmas Ale.

Indeed Jones probably paid for both ads to appear. A hand-in-glove arrangement, of course.

The Christmas Ale was advertised in December and January mainly, occasionally in February and sometimes (skipping March) in April. Why April is hard to say, maybe Thomas held back a keg to be opened later for an unexpected treat.

It is within the realm of possibility that he did this to parry the growing appeal of springtime German bock beer.

Christmas Ale was brewed traditionally in England on December 21 and typically consumed in December and January, as we saw earlier. As the bulk of Thomas’ ads appeared in December and January, that part ties in, too.

I discussed earlier that December 21 was St. Thomas Day in the old Catholic calendar.

How strange that a namesake over the sea, in Walt Whitman’s America, served a specialty of Christmas Ale.

Was it an in-joke, possibly? “Dang it Johnnie, why did the Eagle call ya Thomas, got a silent partner by that name, mebbe?”.

Mebbe, mebbe not.

Note re images: Images above were sourced from the links identified and stated in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Ale, Christmas, St. Thomas, December 21

The question of Yule, its origins, pre- and post-Christian forms, festivity and drink, are far beyond our scope here.

Nonetheless I have now reviewed dozens of 19th century references in general literature to Christmas and ale. I thought there had to be a proximate cause, at least, for the association.

There is, or so I conclude, it is St. Thomas’ Feast Day. St. Thomas of course is one of the 12 apostles. December 21 was originally his day, one devoted to Christmas preparations. The date was later changed in the Catholic calendar to July 3, but some Anglicans still remember the earlier date.

December 21 (this Monday) is the Solstice, the shortest day of the year in our part of the hemisphere. On that day in England and many parts of northern Europe, Christmas preparations began: preserving, baking, mending garments or tools, etc.

John Harland, in a journal of archeological and religious history in 1865, explained the old practice of recording the days by pictograms on sticks or staves. In a chronology drawn from one of these, December 21 is the day the “Christmas ale” was brewed. Often, a barrel was engraved to convey the significance to a pre-literate society.

A modern (2017) blog account of St. Thomas’ Day references the tradition especially in a Norwegian context, but it existed in many northern places. The different names for the stick have recognizable variants in the different places.

Messedag stick was one term known in England (Mass Day). The blog account includes an image of a stick (portion) showing a barrel with drinker for 21 December. A second stick appears to depict a tub of some kind, for mashing or fermenting on that date.

Other accounts suggest that in Norway, the beer was actually tasted on December 21 and hopefully pronounced good, with brewing taking place earlier in the month. Some explanations suggest the beer was subjected to fermentation on December 21, so broadly brewing again.

One way or another the day was connected to the beer to be enjoyed at Christmas and through Yule-time.

Of course such beer would be “mild” by Christmas, meaning newly brewed. This does not mean all Christmas beer was new beer.

But the fact that freshly-brewed (mild) beer was often associated with Noel, probably in many cases made from carefully husbanded ingredients, shows a connection to St. Thomas Day, in our view.

According to the Harland account the Winterside of the stick reflects that for January 13, the 20th day after Christmas, “the Christmas ale is then finished”. The pictogram is an upturned horn or barrel. Points for clarity to the craftsmen of these devices.

So this gives some idea how deep is the taproot of Christmas and ale, in those parts of the world. Is there a straight line to Hallett & Abbey’s Christmas Mild Ale of 1857-1860? No, but it’s all connected.

Unlike much that concerns brewing history, beer style is not the point here. The type of beer would have varied depending where and by whom it was made.

The keynotes are brewing as such, the Yule period, and Christianity.