Beef Carbonnades 1895 Brussels-style

4142The Belle Epoque Does Carbonnades

I am going to summarize the carbonnades de boeuf à la Flamande recipe (beef cooked with beer) from pg. 148 of Jean de Gouy’s 1895 La cuisine et la patisserie bourgeoises en Belgique et à l’étranger. De Gouy was a notable chef in Brussels who co-founded a culinary review and cooked for Belgian aristocracy.

The recipe is rather different than most current carbonnades recipes, mainly because there is no sweetening element in it. Most modern recipes call for brown sugar or a syrup of some kind.

Also, de Gouy advises to use “faro ou lambic” for the beer, both of which, especially the lambic, are rather sour. On top of all this, he advises a good spoonful of vinegar! The Brussels taste then, as evident from its famous beer styles, was definitely inclined to the sour side. If the meat used was rather fat, one could see why such a strong sour taste might be wanted, but we have read in North America that grass-fed European beef was always very lean.

The recipe says, take a kilogram, or 2.2 lbs., of chuck steak (basse côtes découvertes), i.e., in one piece. Cut it in two centimetre slices, then cut each slice two or three times, sideways that is to make smaller pieces. Flatten each lightly. Sauté “three or four” finely sliced onions so they are blonde or translucent (not brown). Remove them, then in the fat – type not specified, I would use lard, saindoux –  sauté meat slices. Of course, add more fat if needed for this purpose. Remove meat. Add two “c. à b.” (tablespoons?) flour to pan and cook gently for five minutes, then add a half-litre of water to make a sauce. Simmer this a bit, not too much but until you have a thin consistent sauce. Pass it through a chinois, this is called here also a China cap or ricer, on the onions and then place the beef in. The liquid should just cover the mixture.

(One thing I find unclear in the recipe is if you place the onions through the strainer with the sauce. You can do this if you want a smooth sauce without fibrous bits, it would be onion-flavoured but without the tissues of the onion in it.  I think this is probably what was meant. You could try it either way, I find in the cooking the onion tends to disintegrate anyway).

Next, add a “strong” bouquet garni, a fresh herb mixture of course (but use good dried herbs if necessary, that’s fine), then add a “spoonful” of vinegar.  I’d say two or three ounces. As always salt and pepper to your taste. Cover, cook one hour, degrease carefully, remove the bouquet, then add a quarter litre of “faro or lambic”, and cook “until finished”. This would, here, take normally another half hour or an hour, but it depends on the meat, just let it cook slowly until tender. Either do it on top of the oven or inside at a low setting, the recipe doesn’t specify. I like to do it in the oven, the result always seems better.

As for any carbonnades, it is good to let it cool and slowly reheat it when needed. It tends to concentrate the flavour that way too.

The classic accompaniment is french fries, which seems odd to us in North America, but the Belgians are masters of frites cookery and somehow the combination works well. I like Brussels sprouts, lightly cooked cabbage, or endive – chicons in Belgium – with it. There is a great recipe from Lille for chopped red cabbage and beer which is easy to find on the Internet, or I’ll give it if anyone asks.

That’s it, very simple.

Note re image above: The image, of c. 1900 Brussels, is believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical purposes, it was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.


Beer Cookery in Belgium: age-old?


Most who are reasonably familiar with beer have heard of the Belgian carbonnades à la flamande, a dish of beef cooked with beer. It is usually made with sliced or cubed beef, but a single piece of rump or shoulder can be used, or brisket, not immersed fully in beer that is. This is really a braise, but the stewed version is more common.

Some recipes use beer only, some combine beer and stock, or beer diluted with water, and so on. Onions are invariably used, and usually vinegar, mustard, sugar and herbs or spices. Dried fruit is occasionally added, e.g., prunes. You can substitute other meats, and some recipes offer a carbonnades of pork, say. The dish seems best with beef, in my experience.

How old is this dish? Very. It appears in 19th century repertories, which means it has to be much older. Indeed recipe collections dating to medieval times show meat was cooked with ale, vinegar, spices, and a sweetening element. If you look at modern recipes for the North African tagines, they are not that different. Salted (sour) lemon substitutes for ale or vinegar, but otherwise the elements are similar: meat, something sweet, maybe dried fruit, spices.

The Spanish used to rule in Flanders and that plus the trading boats would have brought the Moorish elements to marry with beer and beef to make carbonnades.

How old is Belgian beer cookery in general?  Not that old, I think.

A gambol through 19th century sources shows relatively few dishes cooked with beer, even where one would expect to find them, e.g., books published in Brussels. As I’ve mentioned, beef carbonnades does appear although sometimes beer is not used at all – stock or vinegar suffices. (I exclude here the lamb-based carbonnades of southwestern France, which seems rather distant from the Flemish specialty of the same name).

What does one find in the way of “beer cuisine” in those 1800s collections of bourgeois fare for housewives and culinary dictionaries? Beer soup. One book devotes a full page to it, to all the variations known from Norway to Russia. The dish is known in Flanders, both Belgian and French, to this day, so clearly this is a survival of an old heritage. Beer soup was a way to use up bread, grated bread is the basis of it. Heated beer is used to make the dried bread palatable and add more flavour. Other additions were sugar, bits of cheese, eggs, fish (herring in Scandinavia), cream, nuts: almost anything.


What else? The English Welsh Rabbit, melted cheese with beer, appears in 19th century French and Belgian recipe books. So do various doughs raised with beer or its yeast, for fritters and other pastry-making. I found one recipe for young carp braised in beer, and for ham “washed” in beer, with red wine or cider specified as an alternative. And that is about it.

I could not find a recipe for rabbit with beer, although today one can read of the beery lapin à la flamande dotted with its prunes in charmingly illustrated books of Belgian and northern French cuisine. An 1890s Belgian book advises to marinate rabbit in vinegar though. Given much Belgian beer then had a sourish edge, it isn’t too much to think rabbit with beer was an ancestral dish. The fact that prunes are often used in the modern recipe underscores this, as dried fruit was another early trading commodity which ended in the pots of northern cooks.

But in terms of how one thinks of Belgium’s cuisine today, this is not all that much, really. In modern books on Belgian cuisine, even those published before the beer revival started in earnest everywhere, there is much more. Marcel Gocar’s book above (1985) has over 40 fish and crustacean dishes cooked with beer; four egg dishes; 18 beef dishes and almost as many each with veal, pork, and lamb; poultry and game dishes of all kinds; 15 vegetable dishes (e.g., with lentils, artichoke, eggplant, asparagus); and 11 desserts including a sorbet, rice pudding, ice cream, and “peaches Gambrinus”.


One of the specialties of modern Flemish cooking is chicken with beer. M. Gocar includes a recipe for it on pg. 162 which he credits to the Hotel Bernard in Béthune, which is in northern France (but part of the same cultural tradition we are discussing). In another book from the 1980s, French culinary writer Ninette Lyon refers to the same recipe and states that the hotel invented the dish in the 1930s. Could chicken never have been cooked with beer in the region before? Rabbit was, probably, so it isn’t really a stretch to think chicken was, sometimes. Still, I could not find a single recipe from the 1800s using chicken and beer. In this 1825 French book on “economical cooking” – thus, not drawing from the haute cuisine – some 35 recipes are listed for chicken. Not one uses beer. Beer is not mentioned once in the entire volume, in fact.

What do people from Belgium, in particular, say about how Belgian beer cuisine started? The introduction to M. Gocar’s La Cuisine A La Bière states that traditionally, beer was part of “family” cuisine and included notably beer soup and carbonnades flamande. No other such family dish is mentioned, although one can infer from various recipes in the book that others did exist. For example, of the Brussels choesels, a dish of offal cooked with the sour lambic, Gocar states the recipe is from a Brussels museum, which implies a genuine heritage.

The introduction states further that, the few family dishes apart, beer cuisine in Belgium was created in the last 25 years. This means, it began about 1960, when chefs started consciously to create the cuisine which the book says is now “the renown of Belgium”. What was perhaps five or six dishes – and even if it was 10 – is now 200, and then some.


Clearly, “beer cuisine” in Belgium, by which I mean dishes cooked with beer, not dishes which are well-accompanied by beer as such, is a fairly recent invention. I would say the same of the beer cuisines of French Flanders and Alsace-Lorraine. This doesn’t make them suspect in any way. Cookery evolves continually and also, things go in and out of fashion. I suspect beer was used more in medieval cookery than in Belle Epoque households because by the 1800s, most beer was purchased from commercial breweries, not made at home.  When you have to buy beer, probably the first priority is to drink it…

All this to say, things often aren’t as old as we think. There is no textual reference to Ontario butter tarts before 1909. Bundt cake seems to have started as late as c. 1960. The Quebec poutine apparently took root in Drummondville, Quebec in the 1950s. Buffalo chicken wings date from the 1960s. Et ainsi de suite. But if you like them, that is all the matters. And if you don’t, historical pedigree is neither here nor there. I found one 1811 recipe for chicken with carp (yes), its roes, white wine, anchovy and capers. Best left in history’s wastebasket, if you ask me. Then too, who knows what will be fashionable next year in New York and London…?

Note re images: The first image above is from the page for the book shown, sourced here. The second image was sourced from this Rickard’s beer website of Molson Coors. The third image, of Ghent, was sourced from Wikipedia, here. The last image, of Béthune, France, was sourced from site of Nordmag, the French magazine, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Mash-up Time

1280px-Sri_Lankan_OP_Tea_CaseLast August I wrote about blending beers at home, and said I would revisit the subject. In that post, I gave an example of blending a beer with a slightly sour element. This was to emulate beers of the pre-industrial era when top-fermented beer, the simplest and original way to ferment a mash, often had a sourish edge. Lactic or acetic flavours entered beer from a variety of sources: organisms resident in wooden processing vessels; multi-strain yeasts which had a wild yeast component; inoculation of the wort solely from airborne yeasts; and lack of consistent or reliable cooling mechanisms.

In time, people got the taste for such drinks, which explains the survival, albeit vestigially, of styles such as Berlin wheat beer and saison or lambic from Belgium.

However, in general people didn’t like sour beer. Lager-brewing offered a way out, in that the long cold-conditioning of beer, originally in Alpine caves in Bavaria, kept the beer from souring. Top-fermentation did survive, but with the benefit of refrigeration, and finally pasteurization, to prevent souring.

Sour beer has returned as a fashion of the craft brewing revival. This is salutary as it adds palate and historical interest, but I doubt a sour beer will ever become a big seller – the withering of all sour styles in Europe seems to show this. Berlin wheat beer barely survives in its home city, for example.

But is it “wrong” to blend different beers? Not at all. First, blending has always been done by brewers in-house, either for consistency, or to remedy defects in particular batches, or to present a pleasing balance of palate (sour and sweet, say, or bitter and mild). Customers in England in particular frequently mixed beers in the bar. Three threads was a mixture of stronger and weaker beers. A “half and half”, for any mixture of beers, goes back at least to the 1700s and probably earlier.

But more fundamentally, is this a “desirable” way to drink beer? Certainly. What is beer but malt, hops, water, yeast (sometimes other grains or flavourings)? A brewer often combines pale malt and a darker, sweeter malt to get a certain taste. You can combine a pale and darker beer to similar result. A lager and a black stout, say. The yeast background of each may be different, but this doesn’t matter. Yeasts used to be mixed strains anyway, as I’ve said above. Brewers combine different hops. You are doing the same by blending different beers. It can be two or five, although in practice you will want to keep to two or three for this purpose.

Any beer is a blend to begin with, and by using such a beer as a component of your bespoke blend, you are just furthering the process. Many consumers like to blend commercially available teas and coffees to make their own version. Just the other day, John behind the coffee counter at Longo’s food store in Leaside, Toronto told me numerous customers specify combinations they want from his excellent (and well-priced) selection of estate and blended coffees. Although I don’t feel the need to try this myself – John’s Guatemala coffee is perfect for me as is! – I fully get the concept because of my experience with beer blending.

I needn’t, I’m sure, refer to the history of blending in the whisky area other than to say it is a mainstay of the business and something, again, anyone can do once a basic understanding of the different types is achieved.

I wouldn’t blend a beer that was strongly damp paper-oxidised or infected, but you can even out tastes in blending that aren’t “off” technically but don’t please you on their own. Sometimes you can just get a better, more complex flavour. Yesterday, I combined two half-filled cans, left in the fridge from the day before, of Cameron’s Ambear Red Ale and Cameron’s Cream Ale. The combination was better than each on its own, IMO. One can do this with as much logic with beers from different breweries and different countries. It’s just a further combining, or re-combining, of basic elements that are similar: malt, hops, yeast. All that matters is the final taste.

I am not a fan of the dry, Irish stout style where the roasted barley is overbearing and you get a raw, burnt grain taste with little malt sweetness. Blending this 1:2 with a rich, all-malt porter or stout, a 7-8% stout, say, produces a c. 6% stout that is usually extremely good. The other day, I blended just with seltzer water. I added it to a Duggan No. 9 IPA to drop the bitterness a bit and set the abv to 5% (from 6.2%). The result was a fine and very balanced (for me) American pale ale style.

Blending beer – or wine, all same logic – is really like a form of cooking, just as brewing is more directly. Try it, the world won’t come to an end. A not inconsiderable advantage: you avoid forcing down beer you don’t really like, not to say having to discard it.

Note re image: the image of fine teas from Sri Lanka, typically used in blending tea, is in the public domain and was sourced here.







Transpontine Pale Ales

It’s A Family Affair…

whitesPaul Bailey has an excellent article on the famous English beer, Worthington White Shield, a bottle-conditioned (unfiltered) pale ale with roots in the earliest days of Burton-on-Trent pale ale brewing. Shout-out to Boak and Bailey for drawing attention to it.

White Shield was imported here in the last couple of years and I agree with Paul’s take on the beer. It’s a good taste, but not that emphatic in flavour. I never had the pre-’82 version, which sounds more authentic. I started buying White Shield in the 90s, when it was fairly bland, had minimal sediment, and a light banana note. I think it is actually better today.  It could use more hops I think, but the basic flavour is good.

The best White Shield I ever had was on cask in Soho, London about 5 years ago. Almost a different beer, everything “bigger”, maybe this one was closest to bottled White Shield pre-1982.

As Paul noted, Worthington White Shield is a property of Molson Coors. Molson Coors in Canada recently issued a recreation of a pale ale made in 1908 by the Molson Brewery in Montreal. The beer is John H.R. Molson & Bros. 1908 Historic Pale Ale.  I reviewed it some weeks ago and gave it a thumbs up. I am wondering now if Molson brewers in Canada tapped expertise of colleagues in Burton given the latters’ experience brewing an unfiltered pale ale for bottling. I’d think it likely given the high quality of the 1908 and the fact that Molson brewers here hadn’t brewed unfiltered beers for generations.

The two beers are not that dissimilar: the Canadian one is stronger and has more of a citric element from a North American hop (I’d guess), but otherwise they are in the same ballpark.

IMG_20160326_161433After letting a bottle of the 1908 sit for six weeks in the fridge, it poured almost completely clear as the yeast has dropped mostly to the base. Even less than two months out from purchase, I noted a difference in flavour. The citric element was stronger, and the floral English element reduced. It wasn’t that different from a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale actually, except lighter-tasting. If you put a small shot of vodka in a SNPA and poured in some seltzer, that would equate pretty closely to the 1908. The 1908 is evidently an India-style pale ale and the leaner, more alcohol flavour makes perfect sense.

Most IPA today is probably more what was called mild ale in the 1800s. The true IPAs of history were well-fermented out, and in contrast were dry drinks. Canadian brewers until before WW I followed this tradition for beers in that style. White Shield is similar in authenticity – a dry, restrained palate – but its hop rate needs boosting IMO and in this sense the 1908 is the superior beer.





A Tasting Miscellany

Some beverage reviews, to break up the historical discussions.








Cool Lager Draft

This was out in West Toronto, at a fine Greek restaurant. Sometimes a fresh, well-made adjunct draft is what you want. Its weight and flavour go perfectly with the foods and this was the case with this brew. It has good brewing attributes as well, e.g., the Hallertau hop character is evident, mineral-like, clean and sharp.








Captivator DoppelBock

A letter-perfect strong bock beer, made out in B.C. by Tree. The Perle hops underpin a rich malty character that spells Bavaria. Proof, were it needed, that terroir is mostly a charming conceit.








Cameron’s Ambear Red Ale

Another well-made beer but with a light character, as for Cool Lager. In this case, a mild caramel malt note is evident with a good flavour of American hops, but it’s all ratcheted down.  If the Doppelbock above is 10 on the intensity scale and a Rickard’s Red (Molson Coors product) is three, the Ambear Red is five.

The point is, the taste is good, which a lot of people don’t understand in this context. They think anything with powerful flavour is good, anything with light flavour bad. This is a misapprehension which, apart from possible business consequences, strays from gastronomic logic. Many foods have a light taste or a complex but subtle one but are prized in gastronomy. So it should be with beer.








Gillman’s Blended Scotch-style Whiskies

This is a personal blend which is the result probably of 50-60 whiskies, possibly even hundreds as small amounts of older minglings, going back years, are part of the matrix. It isn’t done willy-nilly (more or less), but to get a certain character. The various elements interlock and re-combine in a way that often presents a surprising unity of palate. Remember, it’s all from grains, all alcohol, all mostly Scotch whiskies: you can’t really go wrong here, and an occasional nudge of the helm puts it into the deluxe range.

Scotch-style means, most of the whiskies are Scottish malts or blends, but some are not. There is some Irish whisky in there, Powers was a recent addition. There is a bit of rye and bourbon as well, but the mash bill for Irish whisky used to use very small amounts of non-barley grains, typically, rye, maize and/or oats (less than 5% of the mash). In effect I’ve duplicated that part of auld country whisky-making.

I did, too, some time back, add a skosh of Amontillado sherry, to emulate sherry cask aging.

Let’s just say no whisky fan would turn it away. Nae danger, laddies.












Variations on The Established Ways to Dispense Beer


In recent postings I discussed the history of compressed air dispense, and referred frequently to pressurized dispense via CO2 or mixed gas (CO2 + nitrogen), as well as pulling beer by suction handpump, a system which started around 1800.

There have always been variations on these systems. For compressed air, equipment improved in the early 1900s permitting different pressure settings for different types of beer. CO2 dispense has been used to tap beer filtered and carbonated at the brewery, but also unfiltered beer, beer that would be “real ale” but for the addition of CO2 to force it through the lines to the glass.

In the 1970s, “top-pressure” was often used to describe the last method. Where the pressure was held to about 5 psi, although still not meeting CAMRA’s definition of real ale, the beer was felt to offer excellent quality by many drinkers. This is made clear in the short but learned Beers of Britain, a mid-70s booklet describing pubs in different regions, by Conal Gregory and Warren Knock. But as the authors noted in practice pressure often exceeded five psi, with the result too much gas got into the beer and “altered its character” – the baseline being that of well-pulled cask ale.

In time (in England), this mix of real ale and Continental methods to dispense beer went by the boards in favour of keg beer full stop. This was beer that was filtered at the brewery and often force-carbonated and pasteurized. So that you had either that form of beer, Guinness, say, or one of the many ales dispensed in that way (John Smith, Kilkenny, Tetley, etc.), or, hand-pulled cask ale which remained unfiltered unless by the permissible finings and to which no CO2 or other gas was added.

IMG_20160320_165438Then the American trend to dispense keg beer in unfiltered form came in. This is a return, in English terms, to the “mixed” form of 1970s top-pressure, but sans the finings.

A handpump can be used to draw brewery-conditioned beer too, a practice disliked by real ale fans as it disguises the nature of the beer drawn.

Even real ale pure laine hasn’t remained static. Some is “decanted”, poured off its lees into another vessel, so as to be clear or almost, which saves on wastage and avoids the step of waiting for the beer to clear in the cellar. It’s like normal cask beer poured into your pint glass, except in a larger container. The shelf-life is short, but this suits some serving conditions.

Some cask ale is centrifuged at the brewery and sent out almost clear with a small amount of yeast, which ensures it is real ale, probably. I understand Fuller in London is a proponent of this system.

Then there is real ale  – except CAMRA doesn’t agree – where, instead of air being vented in the cask to replace beer going up to the bar, CO2 gas is drawn in from a cylinder. This gas is intended as a light blanket to sit on the beer and protect it from premature oxidation or souring. This is the aspirator system. The gas doesn’t push the beer out from the cask – the vacuum of the handpull does that – it simply has the protective function mentioned. Some drinkers don’t like the effect on the beer, but the cask breather system as it’s also known has many adherents. I understand the C’est What bar on Front Street in Toronto uses it for its bank of real ale handpumps. I can’t say I ever noticed a particular effect of the aspiration, but I haven’t done comparative side-by-side tastings. Also, beer not sold quickly enough will sour ultimately too with cask breather, at most it buys some time.

Most real ale fans know too of the “sparkler”, a perforated small metal ball through which the beer is forced after leaving the swan neck of the handpump. Its purpose is to agitate and aerate the beer and create a foaming head. The sparkler goes back to the 1940s at least, it was mentioned in the 1949 article on compressed air dispense to which I referred a couple of posts ago. I don’t like the texture it gives to beer, it alters it in some way, just as I think nitro-dispense does. Still, with a very hoppy beer, current IPA, say, the dampening might not hurt, or even assist somewhat, the taste.

How much can the customer do to affect what goes in his glass, apart from the brand? Not that much. You need to ask questions of the pub and experience will show which ones get it right the most often. One thing a customer can control, though, is excess carbonation in the glass. Just shake it out, by swirling the glass after the first two swallows or using a swizzle stick. Or just pour back and forth with another glass until the level is what you like. I constantly read reviews where people say: it’s too fizzy. Few think to adjust the carbonation level to their particular preference.

Finally, gravity dispense – drawing beer by a hand-turned valve on the cask – is still seen. Some bars put a small cask on the counter on a Friday night, say. Some English pubs, especially rural ones, still follow an ancestral practice of serving beer this way. When well-kept, this is an excellent way to serve beer, but in practice, it is too easy to abuse gravity-dispense – either it is too flat, too cloudy, or not the right temperature.

Also, bar staff often simply tip the keg up to drain the last leavings into the hapless drinker’s glass, a practice deeply objectionable, yet I see it frequently.

Day in day out, most beer seems to get served in a way acceptable to the patrons. But in practice, there is still lots of room for improvement.

Note re first image above: it was sourced at this pub guide site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


How Best To Serve Draught Beer – A 1926 Perspective


A rich resource to understand the pros and cons of not just compressed air, but also CO2 and the simple handpull to dispense beer, is a 1926 article by James Auld entitled Raising Beer by Air Pressure. It appeared that year in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing.

Some may wonder why such hyper-technical matters should interest. James Auld in, his very first paragraph:

When we consider the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent … to achieve perfection in brewing beer, it is surprising how little attention or care is given to the beer after it has left the brewery, and in introducing this subject for your consideration I hope to suggest a more efficient system of serving the beer to the customer than has generally been adopted.

Plus ça change

A brewer can make the best beer in the world but if it is half-sour (unintentionally) when you get it, or too flat, or dirty-tasting, all is for nought. The way beer is served, and how it is handled before the glass is handed you, can vitally affect its taste –  and whether you will buy it again. U.K. brewers and others interested gave anxious thought to these questions before WW II and they are no less pertinent today.

The three methods of drawing beer mentioned above, compressed air, carbon dioxide dispense, and vacuum handpump, were the principal ones in Britain during the 1900s. For this purpose I exclude drawing beer straight from the barrel by a simple tap, as doing so was a rarity, relatively, even 100 years ago.

But even in the 1920s charging a cask with CO2 gas from a cylinder to impart what is called top-pressure had been tried. It was more common on the Continent (for lager), but Britain was starting to use the method, too. The beer was generally filtered and carbonated at the brewery and perhaps pasteurized, what is called keg beer today.

Naturally-conditioned beer was drawn either by handpull, a system originated around 1800 in England, or by compressed air dispense from tall fonts as I’ve discussed earlier. Each method delivered a different texture to the beer and different carbonation level. Each method was viewed as having pros and cons for both quality and cost. In the 1920s and even the late 1940s, it was still an open question which method would prevail.

Today, the question has long since been resolved. My reading suggests 90% of all draft beer in Britain is sold by pressurized CO2 or mixed gas, the rest is by handpump for naturally-conditioned (cask) beer.

Mr. Auld, like his counterpart Mr. Scott who wrote on a similar subject in 1949, was an enthusiast of compressed air dispense. Unlike Scott Auld gave a much closer look to the subject. One can summarize his opinions as follows. Compressed air produced a beer with excellent condition – good retained carbonation and freshness, even when the beer was tapped at irregular intervals, and unlike the case for handpulled beer.

The compressed air forced the beer down toward the tube which fed the bar counter and did not get into the beer. Air pressure, the argument ran, does not easily dissolve in liquid but tends to form a layer. With recent improvements in air compression, Auld said different air pressure levels could be sought to suit different beer types.

He stated pale ale needed pressure of c. 10 ppsi, stout 2-4 ppsi, and mild ale about 7. This sounds rather strange today, as any type of beer served on cask is viewed with favour provided it has some bubble and isn’t sour or off in some other way. In the 1920s, probably as a survival of the luxury of 19th century beer brands and types, drinkers expected different levels of carbonation for different types of beer, or at least, best practice so dictated.

Auld also felt that while extra cost was involved to source the equipment needed to produce compressed air and to strengthen casks where necessary to hold the extra pressure, the cost was offset by savings in other areas of the business. He felt wastage – beer gushing outside the glass and needing to be recycled in the cask – could be minimized with properly regulated equipment.

He also wrote, although stating no source, that compressed air was used in a primitive way in Scotland back in 1814. This would predate by 12 years Michael Donovan’s 1826 article I mentioned recently which advocated compressed air dispense. In fact, looking again at Donovan’s Domestic Economy volume I linked in the earlier discussion, I see he states that porter in London was dispensed by some bars using “hydraulic engines”.

This may have meant that water pressure was used to create compressed air introduced in closed casks to send porter to the bar. Possibly Donovan meant the handpulls that were new anyway in the early years of the 1800s, but one would not ordinarily call them hydraulic. The discussion is here.

As so often, few can claim to originate an idea, more often it results from the efforts, sometimes isolated, of numerous people. But Donovan, a respected brewing scientist, unquestionably gave an aura of respectability to compressed air dispense when his article was published in 1826.

In questions taken after the presentation Auld was presented with some stiff opposition. One person said compressed air created a lot of foam and quality problems when excess fob or run-off had to be recycled into the cask. Another stated that it wasn’t true air did not dissolve in or was shielded by a CO2 layer generated by the beer. He said there was a mix of CO2 and air in the beer as a result of compressed air being injected in the barrel, and this could cause a quality problem, an unplanned fermentation.

We would be more concerned about oxidation, or damp paper staling, but either way introducing air in the cask seems problematic, just as when too much air gets into a cask pulled by handpump due to slow turnover.

As always, quick turnover is the key to preserving quality – for that matter, for CO2-charged beer, too. All things equal though, I support the return of tall font dispense, as argued earlier.

Mr. Scott’s 1949 argument for compressed air service of beer was no more effective than James Auld’s 23 years earlier. Even in its Scottish stronghold, the tall font was retired (mostly) from serving real beer. Few if any new ones were introduced after 1960.

Today it’s all pressurized dispense, with a bit of beer still being served unpressurised by handpump the old way. But not the auld way…

Note re image above. The image of an antique air pressure gauge was sourced here and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


A 1949 (English) Voice Addresses Compressed Air Beer Dispense

1024px-Beach_Pneumatic_planIn my post yesterday I discussed some details of Scottish tall font dispense of naturally-conditioned beer. I noted the prescience of the Irish brewing scientist, Michael Donovan, in forecasting (1826) the use of compressed air and finally metal containers to dispense the beer.

Compressed air dispense became popular in Scotland but in the rest of England, it had much less acceptance. England stayed with the old suction handpull system, indeed to this day the equipment is essentially the same as devised in about 1800 by Bramah and other pioneers.

In a detailed 1949 article by J.W. Scott for the Journal of the Institute of Brewing called “From Cask to Consumer”, Scott reviewed the many challenges real ale offered to brewers and publicans. The sophistication of Scott’s discussion shows that he was an engineer of some kind, possibly in hydraulics. He goes over everything from the ideal angle of the handpump to the width and composition of tubing lines, cellar temperature and ventilation, flooring materials, and much else.

He states frankly that if these challenges were not addressed including the requisite training and surveillance of publicans, the indifferent cellaring of real ale would lead ultimately to adoption of brewery-conditioned beer. Beer, that is, which was filtered and carbonated at the brewery. Beer that was clean and consistent but could never offer the subtleties of naturally-conditioned draft.

Scott stated that while post-war difficulties were such that people drank any beer wherever they got it, the time would come when they would avoid pubs that served real beer in bad condition. Bad condition means, too flat, sour, with damp cardboard smells, infection or all of the above. Not pretty, is it?

He devotes some discussion to compressed air dispense and commences with this sobering remark: “The prejudice against compressed air is tremendous”.

Expecting to read that introducing oxygen to the cask was an ignorant 19th century nostrum which modern science should summarily dismiss, I was surprised to find no reference to oxidation at all. Rather, Scott focused on cost and related issues: compressed air equipment for the cellar was trouble to install and maintain, and was an extra expense. Where the cask needed to be bleeded of pressure before the air could be charged in, you needed a special valve to do that work. If the electricity went out, you would need a back up system to hand-pump the air in from the reservoir. And so on in this vein.

Yet, this was his conclusion:

“If the components comprising a compressed air system are carefully and intelligently chosen, this method of beer-raising will be found to be simple and trouble-free, with the great advantage of maintaining condition [a lively, fresh quality] longer than any other method”.

He thus validated Michael Donovan’s advice of 1826 in regard to the advantages of compressed air dispense. Critically, though, everything had to be right for the system to work perfectly, and in practise, this was often not the case.

Indeed, through the 50s and 60s, real ale was steadily replaced in Scottish pubs by brewery-conditioned beer, or by lager. Scott’s concern that the technical and financial challenges posed by real ale would be too great to overcome was amply justified. And the same thing happened in England, the hand pumps came out and were replaced by equipment delivering brewery-conditioned beer.

Scott, who worked in the Midlands, died in 1981, long enough for him to see the revival of cask ale in the post-CAMRA era, at least in England. Cask ale too did make renewed progress in Scotland finally, but thus far, without re-adoption of the tall font system to serve the beer. A few pubs still use the old equipment, in Edinburgh and here and there elsewhere, but generally where real ale is available, it is served by the “English” handpump system. (And in truth, at least where handpumps are used, the quality issue remains, but that is a discussion for another time).

The wildly successful Scottish craft brewery, Brewdog, should promote the tall fonts as a uniquely Scottish way to serve its beer in cask form. I am not saying all its beer, and its policy to sell brewery-conditioned beer is well-known and understood. But this other avenue offers commercial and socio-cultural opportunities, as it were, that should be investigated.

There would be no better place to install new tall fonts than in a Brewdog bar in Scotland, and then elsewhere.



“Donovan’s Apothecary Porter”

Irish Brewing Expert M. Donovan’s Remarkable Foresight in 1826


We have encountered Michael Donovan before. He was a Dublin-based chemist, and one of the last apothecaries, those licensed to sell drugs. Apothecaries lost identity when the colleges of physicians and surgeons, and pharmacy (druggist or chemist) professions, took modern shape from the early 1800s.

I mentioned him earlier for his masterful summing up of porter’s origins and where it was going after better science modernized the mashbill, notably by ensuring pale malt carried most of the load to make the alcohol.

Donovan should be remembered as much if not more so for an article he wrote in the Dublin Philosophical Journal and Scientific Review, Volume 2, in the very early year of 1826. In this article, he proposed that wood casks be replaced by barrels similarly shaped, but made from tin. In this, he forecasted the adoption by brewers finally of metal casks, albeit it would not occur for another 130 years.

He explains in the article a problem which has bedevilled lovers of cask ale to this day: continual tapping of the cask permits the carbon dioxide in the cask to take the space left by the evacuated beer; the beer soon becomes flat or will spoil. He sought to emulate bottle-conditioned beer. This is beer bottled with its residual yeast to continue a slow conditioning. Such beer lasted much longer than cask ale, he noted. He said the pressure of the evolving CO2, which could not escape the bottle, precluded at a certain point the formation of further CO2, i.e., arrested fermentation and the beer stayed fresh.

He may not have understood that air entering the cask from the vent-hole oxidizes the beer. But he was right, I think, that maintaining sufficient pressure in a sealed cask would keep the beer stable for longer. Perhaps he realized that a small amount of oxygen in the cask won’t harm the beer. In fact, it is beneficial, brewers speak of the yeast “scavenging” oxygen in bottle-conditioned beer.

For cask beer, all depends of course on rapidity of the dispense – speed of turnover – and how carefully the cask is handled in the cellar. But anyone familiar with cask or real ale knows the problem. Ingress of air may be benign or possibly even assist taste or texture, but only for a short time. The Waterloo of flat and vinegary beer is always nigh.

Donovan’s solution? Build a sealed cask made of tin. He proposed a condensing syringe be used to force air into the cask to send the beer to the bar. In effect, he was advising that compressed air be used, which later became the standard way to dispense naturally-conditioned beer in Scotland. The Scottish system, now abandoned except for a few traditional bars, is called tall font (or fount) dispense. Fonts are tall metal housings with a manual tap. In the cellar, a machine operated by hydraulic pressure or electricity creates compressed air, the so-called fourth utility. It is injected into the cask. Once the tap at the bar is opened, the air pressure pushes out the beer which gushes in the glass to produce a creamy head liked by Scots drinkers.

Some readers may know the party pump for a small keg of draught brought to a party – same idea.

028_2Using air in this fashion does not go contrary to traditionalist, real ale “rules” for beer dispense, since just air is used. No gases such as CO2 or nitrogen are injected.

The earliest compressed air dispense started in Scotland in the 1870s. The “Albany” system was the first – no apparent connection to the American city or its beer tradition. The beer itself was still in wood casks. Either compressed air was put in and the cask permanently closed (hard-pegged) to exclude external air, or, some beer was dispensed by its natural pressure and then the cask was pegged and the compressed air added to raise the remainder to the bar.

Wood continued for all draft beer packaging, in fact, anywhere, into the 1950s but since then has been mostly replaced by aluminum or other metal barrels.

The Scots compressed air system was a partial adoption of what Donovan proposed. A more complete one arrived with the adoption of metal barrels, which had a further advantage over wood: no porosity in the frame. Whether Donovan was involved in or benefitted from the first use of compressed air beer dispense in the U.K., I cannot say. The English stuck with their hand-pulled, and for a time, electric metered dispense, until the 1970’s when pressurized, filtered ale and fizzy lager whittled away at that tradition.

Scottish tall font dispense withered too, under the same, er, pressures, until the craft revival partly reversed this in both places. Still, when real ale came back in Scotland, it was usually in hand pump form, the form that is England always favoured. This was because the tall brass fonts could be mistaken by some to dispense filtered, CO2-pressurized beer. Bar owners reverting to or adopting real ale installed the English paraphernalia as it looked more authentic.

It should be said too, pushing air into beer is felt by modern brewing scientists to be contrary to good brewing practice, in that oxidation risk is increased. In fact though, reports I’ve read of Scots compressed air dispense, where it endures, do not mention undue issues with oxidation. I wonder if the oxygen coursing through the closed cask is scavenged by the active yeast in the beer – either that or the beer is sold fast enough that it doesn’t matter – or both.

The Bow Bar, EdinburghBack to porter in Ireland: some bars in Dublin in the 1950s were also using a form of compressed air dispense, apparently a jerry-rig. In a 1996 article on Guinness history, it was said (see the section entitled Nitrogen. It’s A Gas, Man) the scientists who developed the famous nitrogen dispense system were inspired by this field expedient. Why? Because air is partly composed of nitrogen and that assisted the beer to be soft and creamy, as indeed the “nitro” system pioneered by Guinness does.

Michael Donovan couldn’t solve every problem especially at the dawn of modern brewing science, but his article is remarkably prescient. It may be the first to propose the use of metal for beer casks.

Which Irish brewer, and it should be an Irish brewer – but if a Scottish one wants at it, or a North American one, that’s good too – will:

i) brew Donovan’s recipe for porter (see pg. 202 in particular), and

ii) dispense it by compressed air as he proposed?

Call it Donovan’s Apothecary Porter, will you? Let me know.

Note re images above: The first image, of late-1800s Dublin, was sourced here. The second image shown was sourced from the Scottish Licensed Trade News, here. Both are believed in public domain. The third image, from the Bow Bar, Edinburgh, was sourced from The Guardian, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Corned Beef – Ersatz Irish?


Where’s the Beef? 

An article by Liam Stack in the New York Times investigated whether corned beef is really Irish. Conclusion, more Irish-American, especially as associated with St. Patrick’s Day. The article interviewed specialists on Irish-American, and Irish, history who thought Ireland was really inclined to cured meat from a different animal, the pig. One thought the popularity of corned beef among Irish-Americans derived from early exposure to Jewish pickled brisket in New York.

Yet another further theory (quite unlikely, imo): American comics of the early 1900s jibed that Irish-Americans were too fond of pork, so the latter turned to corned beef to project a resolute, all-American image.

As to a Jewish connection, Jews traditionally do not eat pickled brisket with cabbage and potatoes. Sometimes it is baked whole, sliced and served hot, but not with cabbage and boiled potatoes, as far as I know.

More typically Jewish corned beef is served, hot or cold, in sandwiches, not as a set dinner dish.

Of course, corned beef in its wet-pickled, dry-cured, spiced, etc. forms is an old dish in Britain, as I discussed in an earlier postSurely, an established dish of manor houses and prosperous farms would be known  a hop and skip over the Irish Sea, particularly when Britain governed all of Ireland.

A look in Google Books produced these references viz. Victorian Ireland and corned beef:

  1. Fraser’s Magazine (1863), “A Fortnight in Ireland in the Lent of 1863“. Fraser’s was a reputed magazine of the Victorian era. Authored by a collective, the articles were not individually credited. An extract:

Both corned beef and cabbage are undoubtedly good things in their way … and I am happy to know that corned beef and cabbage are still of the first institutes of Irish cookery. You find the Irish cold corned beef in 1863, as in 1827 and 1830, on the side table of a morning, with cold chickens and tongue, grouse-pie, and those admirably cured Bath chaps which in Ireland are called pig’s faces. You also find corned beef piping hot at dinner…

Bath chap is a cured pig’s cheek, then well-known in different parts of Britain. Hence, a cured pork product was also mentioned, but after the corned beef. The 1820s was early days for the Irish Catholic influx to America. It is unlikely the newly-arrived Irish in America quickly took to a previously unknown dish, corned beef, and introduced it on visits back home.

Unquestionably, the bulk of the Irish suffered famine in the mid-century which led to the exodus well-known. Nonetheless, the populace who stayed and still ate well knew corned beef throughout the century, per Fraser’s Magazine. This being so, there had to be an earlier history of corned beef usage in Ireland, with cabbage to boot. This is supported by these further references:

2. In Ainsworth’s Magazine (1854), Matthew Lynch stated in “Dublin Street-Cries“:

A corned rump of beef and cabbage is a favourite dish with all persons in Ireland – either peers or peasants. Corned beef is styled beef by the Irish people; and beef and  cabbage are looked upon as forming a splendid dish by our people.

Lynch added the poorest people ate bacon when they could have it, not beef. The bulk of people who left Ireland may not have regularly, or ever, eaten corned beef at home, although this is far from clear, but once they arrived in America certainly many could buy a prized dish of home they could now afford.

3. In a “A Walking Tour Round Ireland 1865…” W.W. Barry stated:

I may observe that corned beef, mutton, and fish are rather common at the inns in Ireland, as having frequently few guests the …

He adds that the inns he frequented usually had a slow business, hence had to rely on salted provisions as a staple. Since he indicates commercial travellers used the inns, corned beef in Ireland could not have been a luxury reserved to the Anglo-Irish elite or other prosperous residents, as some have argued.

References #2 and #3 post-date the start of Irish emigration to America, but neither refers to America.

Even this brief canvass suggests to me Ireland had the dish for a long time and sent the taste to America.

This doesn’t mean everyone in historical Ireland ate corned beef, but that is different from saying it is not an Irish dish. Many Canadians rarely or never eat back, or peameal, bacon, but to state it is not Canadian would be peremptory.

Finally, the contemporary eating pattern in Ireland, including for St. Patrick’s Day, is really neither here nor there. Eating habits evolve, everywhere, especially over a long period.

But if some Irish families stopped eating corned beef on the idea it lacks Hibernian lineage, they might think twice about it.

Part II continues the discussion.

Note re image: The image above is believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical use. It was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.