Glass Half Full

flask-311421_960_720One of the features of beer flavour, especially in lagers, I have a particular sensitivity to is dimethyl sulfide, which I’ve referred to off and on here, usually in beer reviews.

DMS as it’s termed has a cooked vegetable, sometimes over-boiled egg, taste. The term “smell of the ocean” encapsulates the idea too as seawater often has a high concentration of DMS due to its organic matter. This entry from the Oxford Companion To Beer, by brewing scientist Charles Bamforth, explains well the nature and causes of DMS in brewing.

Ales and porters are largely exempt from it. This is largely because ale malts are kilned at higher temperatures than lager malts. This neutralizes the precursor in the barley corn which creates DMS when wort is boiled. Also, ale and porter ferment at higher temperatures than lager, which tends further to inhibit DMS.

Thus, in much blonde lager, the precursor survives to the boil stage and is converted in the kettle to DMS. Some lifts off – becomes volatile and is lost to the atmosphere – in fermentation. The evolved carbon dioxide removes or flushes the compound out; however, closed fermentation systems can obviously inhibit this. Long aging of bottom-fermentation beer – lagering – used to remove the DMS as well, but less so today due to much shorter aging times and ubiquity again of enclosed tanks.

I believe the modern preoccupation to restrict as far as possible access of processed beer to oxygen, generally salutary to prevent premature oxidation, has this other effect.

DMS, in my experience, is a characteristic of most European lagers, and many craft lagers, but not all. Yeast differences play a role as well but it should be noted all lager yeasts in use around the world derive from two major strains, or so a reputed brewer once told me. This explains that the yeasts such as they are, relatively uniform, don’t impact the issue nearly as much as low temperature kilning and the other factors mentioned earlier.

Think, too, brussel sprouts and cabbage, the boiling … barley is a grain, not vegetable, but the distinction is a technical one from many viewpoints.

The Czech Pilsner Urquell, at least in the forms we get it, never shows the characteristic IMO. Some beers always show it, while for some it’s more off and on, which probably reflects irreducible processing factors caused by seasonal changes in barleys, temperature fluctuations, inconsistency of demand and thus varying storage times, and other factors.

The whole question too, is, “how much?”. In low concentrations, DMS is regarded by many brewers as part of the lager profile. Indeed some view it with favour and feel it contributes a “fresh” note to beer. At first I couldn’t understand this, but think of the seawater analogy…

I tried an experiment recently which was as striking in its simplicity as its results. I took a couple of beers in which I felt I could detect low DMS, one was Anchor Steam Beer, the other Creemore Lager. I left the can or bottle open on the kitchen counter for a couple of days, half-full. When I tried these again, the DMS taste seemed absent, especially in the Steam Beer. I believe escaping carbon dioxide carried off or expelled the DMS. It may be that lagers with higher concentrations of DMS, especially some German ones, wouldn’t react in the same way, or not quickly enough, since the beer would become sour or otherwise undrinkable for other reasons. Still, I thought the experiment noteworthy as a kind of speeded-up lagering.

DMS is detectable by some at the remarkably low concentration of 30 parts per billion. In my view, it’s just too idiosyncratic a taste to gain a mass market in North America, even allowing that the taste of drinks and foods should not be ironed into a characterless uniformity. Although most mass market brands today are rather bland, I remember the U.S. Budweiser, say, when it had a good flavour, 30-40 years ago. It never tasted of DMS, in contrast that was a “European” taste. It was the same for Coors and most of their competitors. True too of Labatt Blue in Canada. As all these beers are very clean today, the absence of DMS is even more apparent.

I’ll have to try Molson Canadian again – in that case I always thought the profile featured a hint of DMS. Perhaps it is the exception, in terms of mass acceptance I mean.

There are plenty of flavour elements to lager, the malt, hops, the yeast, to showcase to the exclusion of DMS or indeed other sulfur compounds that can appear in lager (for simplicity I am limiting discussion here to DMS). Pilsner Urquell, one of the great beers of the world and an odds-against survival of genuine 19th century brewing, shows the way. So do numerous other lagers including some craft beers. I never get DMS in Sam Adams Lager or in Blue Point Toasted Lager, for example. The absence of a sulfur hint doesn’t guarantee one will like the beer of course, but these two are good examples of reasonably widely available craft beers of quality in the general beer sense.

In France, Pelforth Blonde has a rich but exemplary clean taste in this sense, or it did, I haven’t had it lately. (Is the Blonde an ale though? Maybe that explains it). Stella Artois too although one always hopes for more character from the malt and hops. But note the success Stella has had in Canada, it’s not just promotion and marketing, it’s the beer itself.

Note re image shown: the image shown was sourced here and is in the public domain and believed available for any use. All feedback welcomed.




Back To The Future of Porter, via Michael Donovan

Fraserians_MacliseOf the many resources to understand the changes 1800s porter had undergone from the previous century, few are as clear and complete as Michael Donovan’s Domestic Economy, Vol. 1, published in 1830. The book formed part of a series of volumes, The Cabinet Cyclopaedia, a typically protean Victorian effort to compile under one roof knowledge in wide-ranging areas of science, history and culture. An informative entry in Wikipedia explains its genesis and commercial outcome and influence.

These cyclopedias are predecessors of the encyclopedias that were mainstays of family education outside the school for most of the 1900s. Both were great resources for a public hungry for learning and often outside the organized education system. This was a time when few avenues existed to impart higher or technical knowledge outside the university and professional trades organizations. Scotland was a partial exception (it favoured general public education early), as was increasingly North America, but I am speaking of England mainly.

Even highly-reputed University College London had only recently been established as an alternative to Oxford and Cambridge universities.

The series’ editor, The Rev. Dionysius Lardner, lectured at University College. Michael Donovan, 1790-1876, was an apothecary and chemist from Clare, Ireland. He clearly had a good technical background and authored other volumes in the Cyclopaedia, on food or science-related matters. The alcohol writing covered not just beer and brewing but most other kinds of drink as well as etymological and other history pertaining to alcohol. Certain drugs received treatment as well, and tobacco.

Donovan’s writing on intoxicating drinks cannot be said to have gone without criticism. In fact, a rather excoriating review appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, called Donovan the Intoxicator, and can be read here.

800px-Fraser's_Magazine_1833The review, while somewhat entertaining, is more a character assassination than a serious assessment of Donovan’s work. It is replete with quotations in foreign or dead languages, and distended footnotes. One has the sense that a Donovan without classical learning was being reproved for venturing outside his domain. There is a nasty anti-Irish tone to the essay, as well.

But even setting all this aside, it must be noted the reviewer agreed porter was an excellent drink and offered not a murmur of affront to anything Donovan wrote on the subject. If he had disagreed, he wouldn’t have forborne to inveigh, as the essay in toto makes clear. Sample line where the review disagreed with Donovan whether ale is traditional to Ireland: “At the present moment there are not three kinds of tolerable ale in the whole island; and the best of them (which is not very good), that of Fermoy, was introduced by a Scotchman”.

I will summarize Donovan’s comments on porter, which appear on pp. 88, 197-202 but also elsewhere in the volume. You need to read in full the sections on ale and porter, including his comments on storing beer in vats, to really see what he is saying about porter. It seems clear too Donovan liked to drink porter and was familiar with the Irish and London forms. His numerous comments on the palate of porter and ale show this and enhance his other remarks, as not all who wrote about porter necessarily liked or were all that familiar with the drink.

Donovan repeats the familiar statement that 1700s porter was made entirely from high dried, brown malt. He says on more than one occasion that it was near black in colour in its heyday. He states the beer was empyreumatic (smoky and burned), not sweet and full like ale. He insists that current porter (1830) was quite different from the original. While allowing that the new black malt, mixed in a small amount with pale malt, would deliver the old porter colour, he says the palate lacked the empyreumatic taste of the old porter.

The reason a smoky taste appeared in 1700s porter was that hardwood was used to kiln the malt, as I discussed on this blog a few days ago.

Donovan explains, as others have, that as malt became more costly, people looked for ways to reduce brewing costs, and finally the more efficient pale malt became the base of porter. It is more efficient since it has more usable extract from which alcohol can be made. Instead of the acerbic, sometimes sharp or sourish aged or blended porter of old, the porter of 1830 was full, sweetish, and rather like ale, he said. He adds that a mix of pale, amber and black malt can emulate the old taste to a point. Indeed in Ireland then and at least until the late 1800s, some porter used these three elements. Donovan includes his recipe for porter which uses precisely these three for the mash. It clearly was drawn from contemporary practice at Guinness or other porter-brewing in Ireland.

800px-Apothecary15thcenturyOn the surface, Donovan’s suggestion that burned sugar (caramel) would approximate the old taste seems odd. Clearly he was referring to a boiled sugar solution which had a scorched taste, not the modern confectionary caramel which may have butter and other things in it and is a sweet. In one sense though, his suggestion is not so strange, as “blown malt”, frequently used to make porter in London earlier, may well have comprised a similar burned sugar element, as I argued the other day here. English law of the day prevented use of sugar, however, which Donovan duly noted.

Donovan also expresses the view that if porter is to be aged at all, it should be in large volumes in tall vats where the bulk of the beer comes under high natural pressure. This would retard the continuation of fermentation and onset of acidity. One can infer too, I think, that oxidation would be reduced given the lower bulk-to-wood ratio as compared to standard barrels and other small containers. Modern brewers who mature stout and porter in ex-bourbon barrels and other kinds of “small wood” might reflect, unless of course the sourness that often results is wanted.

Donovan also wrote, expressing a frankness you rarely heard from contemporary brewers, that there were different reasons to age beer long in vat, but the main one was that beer brewed in winter had to be stored over summer (when you couldn’t brew stable beer in pre-refrigeration days). Is it any surprise that once refrigeration enabled beer to be brewed year round long aging went out the window?

Writing at the point when the porter of old was in living memory but the new practice had arrived to stay, Donovan’s remarks are a valuable resource to understand whence porter came and where it was going. Indeed today, our modern porter, where it is all-malt at any rate, is more or less what had come to prevail by 1830. I’d think Donovan’s fellow porter drinkers had it better than we do to the extent their porter was higher-hopped than today. Also, no raw grains or sugar was used in commercial brewing in 1830, but it occurs for many brands today. Still, in its broad lines, the new porter Donovan described can be seen as ancestor to our modern porter, particularly in the absence of a marked smoky, dry, and sometimes sourish character.

Were porter fans in 1830 better off than those in 1770? I would say, possibly. Too many sources suggest the “real” porter, at least when aged or blended as much of it was, was an austere, harsh, vinous drink – not everyone’s cup of tea pace modern fans of sour beers. I recently had a farmhouse porter in Toronto that had an appealing lactic taste, albeit nothing smoky. It got close I think to 1700s porter and was a fascinating drink but it’s a specialty within a specialty, not too many today would buy it, I think. To foreign readers, think Liefmans Goudenband with a dash of Imperial Stout added.

There you have it: back to the future of porter in 1830.

Note re images: all images are drawn from Internet sources and believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.








Graham Kerr, Food TV Phenomenon


Graham Kerr is the debonair, self-deprecating charmer of the 1960s and early 70s who changed the face of TV cooking permanently. Now in his mid-80s, Kerr is also a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit on cooking, nutrition and health.

Always dressed well whether casually or formally, his ever-present smile and non-stop quips kept the crowd rapt. It is a sign of his talent and charisma that a Briton who started in broadcasting in remote New Zealand 60 years ago, became an international food celebrity.

His award-winning The Galloping Gourmet was produced in Ottawa, Ontario between 1969 and 1971 after he came to notice as a pitchman on Australian TV. The shows launched his enduring culinary fame. His late wife Trina, a former actress, produced the shows and was a key part of his success.

When the series ended the Kerrs moved to California and Graham seemed poised for a Julia Child-like ascendancy.

Unfortunately, a bad car accident and health issues for Trina set the family back for a while. Eventually they took a new direction and became born-again Christians. Graham continued in the food and nutrition field but henceforth focused on healthy eating, abjuring the wine glass and racy jokes of old.

His later work, including on the PBS network, certainly did well enough. Today, semi-retired at 82 and living near Seattle, he keeps his hand in various culinary endeavours.

But it is the old Graham Kerr most fondly remember. The Galloping Gourmet shows are important enough that the Cooking Channel re-broadcast them, as explained in this blogpost by Sarah Levine.

In this clip from c.1970 we see Kerr at the apogee of his success. He bounds into the kitchen holding a glass of wine, a fixture on the set although he rarely drank on air, despite impressions given. In this performance, he does a stand-up routine worthy of a professional comedian.

The topic was cooking a beef-and-beer dish he encountered at a hotel in Clifton, England. A sample quip, on the commemorative “Investiture Ale” the hotel used in the dish: “They can’t sell it so they use it for cooking”. His U.K. accents are dead on, a recondite skill in North America that did nothing to impede his success.

As far as I know, his original New Zealand programs are not available, at least publicly. That show debuted in 1959 in black and white, “Entertaining With Kerr”. But at least a dozen colour episodes of the Galloping Gourmet can be seen on YouTube. They illustrate well a corner of British-American food and culinary history.

Kerr wasn’t the first chef to cook on television. James Beard may have started it, at least in North America, in 1946. The BBC around 1938 apparently featured the first televised cookery demonstration. And Canadian chef and culinary author Jehane Benoit, whom I’ve discussed earlier, was on CBC TV certainly by 1960.

But Kerr was the best of them all, in the view of many. Like Julia Child, he was well experienced in culinary matters before becoming a tv star. He started by working in the Sussex hotel owned by his family. He grew up in the business, and his deft way with people probably resulted from years of needing to be “on” with guests.

After service in a British Army catering unit (1950s), and further hotel work, he moved to New Zealand to do catering in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. When international fame arrived he would poke fun at himself for a military career in catering. Yet, the field is an interesting one from the standpoint of food history and on its own merits.

Decades before Anthony Bourdain’s acclaimed “Parts Unknown”, Graham Kerr was doing something similar. Decades before Jaime Oliver dished out the charm, Kerr set the pattern.

In fact, as far as I know, Kerr devised the basic idea of taking a film set to foreign locales to identify distinctive dishes to recreate at home.

The recipe in Clifton episode for rump of beef in beer may be seen here. To my mind, it has both an English and Continental character. In the 1960s and ’70s “Continental” eating was in fashion, a hotel and restaurant stand-by across the world.

But what the Clifton episode really shows us is, Kerr had come home.*

Note re image: image above was sourced from the article of Ms. Sarah Levine linked in the text. All intellectual property therein is owned solely by its lawful owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Note added March 22, 2018: this NYT story on Kerr from last year, brings his career to the present.


The Malts In Porter And Stout



[Originally, the content below was the first section of yesterday’s post on historical brown malt. I decided to separate them to reduce the length. Also, this posting will appeal to a more general audience].

The Keynotes of Porter and Stout

The keynotes of porter and stout are, i) their dark brown-to-black colour, and ii) a taste variously described as roasted, toasted, burned, smoky. Today and since the early 1800s, porter and stout are made from a base of pale malt. A small amount of black or other roasted malt, or sometimes roasted barley or wheat (raw), is added for desired colour and flavour.

Blonde lagers, pale ales, and IPAs are made from (broadly) a similar base malt, but generally do not use the roasted malts. Where they do, it’s a very small amount for colour or minor flavour contribution.

Thus, for most beer today, a pale base malt is used. But darkish malts can also form the base, e.g., for Munich dark lager. Still, Munich malt, and the lighter, amber Vienna malt, are different from the roasted malts used for porter. They are more “luscious”, less harsh, and don’t have a bitter, roasty edge. Porters and stouts tend to have a burnt, expresso or other coffee-like signature. Munich dark lagers, as well as many brown ales, can have sweet, caramel, or drier biscuit notes. (For now I’ll leave out the special class of malts known as caramel and crystal malts although these are not unconnected I believe to the earliest brown malt).

What Kilning Does for Porter Malt

Kilning malt at high temperature (over 212 F) tends to lessen or impair enzymes resident in the barleycorn, which are needed to degrade its starch into fermentable sugar. Modern black and brown malts have no enzyme due to their high roasting temperatures – 400 F +. For modern porter, this is of no moment as the pale base malt contains enzyme in abundance. For German dark lager, the dark malt is processed and dried in a way to retain sufficient enzyme to convert itself in the mash to simple sugars and dextrin. Such malt notably can be finished off in the kiln at about 212 F, well under the range today for black malt, say.

In brewers’ parlance, any malt that is about 50 degrees Lintner (50dL) – one source goes as low as 30dL – can self-convert. Some German dunkel malt, albeit dark brown, meets that threshold. But for modern black and brown malts, the temperature of the roasting impairs the diastatic potential. Modern dark brown and black malts contribute, by contrast, their colour and flavour to porter and stout. Any starch which survived the roasting process will be converted by the ample enzyme in the pale malt.

What Mashing Does 

Mashing is the steeping of these malts, after grinding, with hot water. The drained mash is then boiled with hops to form wort, which is fermented into alcohol and CO2 gas with yeast. Mashing is necessary to convert the malt starches into shorter polymers, or simple sugars, which are susceptible of fermentation. With grape juice, you have the sugar straightaway. Same thing with apple juice, for cider. With beer, you must change a starchy mass into sugar before you can make alcohol. Mashing results in other compounds too, notably dextrin which adds body to beer but isn’t fermentable by normal beer yeast.

Malting and Mashing Permit Vital Enzymatic Action

Malting and then mashing thus activate the barley’s resident enzymes, and also contribute positive flavour effects. In malting, the grains are moistened so they partially germinate. Generally today, this takes place in open box-like structures or huge cylinders. Originally, all malt was spread and turned “on the floor”. Some still is and is considered a choice form of barley malt.

Germination starts the rootlet growing much as would occur when grains come alive in the spring in warming, damp soils.  What nature provides as nutrient for a growing plant, the brewer emulates for his own, quite different purpose. After soaking and germination, the grains are dried in a kiln – both to preserve the malt and for positive flavour effects – and can then be used in mashing and brewing.

When the dried malt is hydrated in mashing, the starches are released into solution. The activated enzymes complete the conversion of the starches to cereal sugars. If raw grains are added to the mash such as raw barley (unmalted), corn, or rice, the enzyme power of the barley malt is strong enough that it converts those grains to fermentable sugar too. Brewers use raw grains for various reasons, mainly IMO because of cost factors. There is no preliminary malting, for example, which saves on the cost. And generally, corn is cheaper than barley. Whether the taste results are equal to 100% malt beer is up to the consumer. I think all-malt beer is superior, generally.

Porter and Stout Originally Used 100% Brown Malt

Porter developed in England in the early 1700s. Until late in the 1700s, it used all-brown malt, no pale. This is attested by many sources. Brown malt was cheaper than paler malt because after higher-temperature drying to get the dark and toasted effect, some of the starch was used up, leaving less to turn into fermentable sugar and alcohol. Still, you could make a beer at an acceptable strength and affordable price. In time, people got used to the roasty, burned taste of the brown beers that came finally to be called porter and stout.

After about 1800 when all malt had gone up in price due to increased taxation, and better science gave a good handle on alcohol yields, brewers started to mix brown malt with pale malt. This permitted an overall better return than using brown malt alone. But the beer became paler, a problem ultimately solved by development in 1817 of a super-roasted form of malt, black malt.

The ability of 1700s brewers to mash all-brown malt and brew an acceptable beer was due to two things: those malts were kilned at much lower temperatures than modern roasted malts, and mashing times were very long by modern standards. Any mash, even a raw grain mash, will convert given enough time. It is not economic to do so, however, due to the extra needs for manpower and energy.

I believe the flavour of both 1700s and 1800s brown malt was more or less similar, with the blown malt subset possibly having its own signature. One must allow too that many maltsters had their own proprietary methods or made a bespoke product. In general, these malts had a hint of wood smoke flavour. It was probably stronger in the 1700s porters since the malt was unmixed with pale malt which generally was cured with some form of coal, or straw in some cases.

Beers Made With Today’s Brown Malt

Recently I discussed Black Creek Porter made in Ontario, which I understand uses a measure of brown malt. Indeed the beer tastes different than your typical pale malt + black malt/roasted barley porter. Did the brown malt taste come close to that of 1700s or 1800s brown malt? It’s impossible to say, but I believe the flavour did resemble some of those malts. The taste is woody and arbour-like, not smoky/combusted since no wood is used in the kilning, but it is still different from the expresso edge of black patent malt. Certainly the beer tasted very good and would have been enjoyed I believe by our fellow Georgian beer fanciers.

Here is a listing for a brown malt made today, by Crisp Maltings in England.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from Cork City And County, Ireland, archives, here, and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Brown Malt and 1700s Porter: new Insight


New Source To Understand 1700s Porter

As far as I know, no academic or other histories of porter have canvassed a 1760 book that describes in some detail the kilning of brown malt. It was published that year, in London, by an anonymous writer. The impressive title (yet still abbreviated) is The Compleat Dealer’s Assistant: Or, The Maltster’s and Mealman’s Useful Pocket Companion. The author claimed a 50-year history in the malting trade in England.

Certainly his book shows extensive experience and appears technically and historically credible.

Other 1700s accounts exist of brown malt, by William Ellis, also Thomas Hale, but not in this detail.

In his description of brown malt, which you can read here under “Of drying Brown Malt”, the author states of the “popped” form, which gets most of his attention, that it was one form of brown malt. Two other types are described in more summary form; these received progressively longer drying, at an overall lower heat. One can infer they retained more fermentable extract, as he states brewers prefer brown malt that is closest to amber because, buying at the brown price, they would “run away with the profit”.

A partial quotation:

Some Brewers chuse this very high blown, others in a middling way, but now (for the sake of interest) they will have it dried (if possible) as close as fine amber. I myself have blown as high as any person for chapmen in London (for making porter) in the following manner, which has given great satisfaction. The kilns are to be laid on quite thin, and when the malt has had two stirs, in about three quarters of an hour, make a large fire with good billet, well dried, slit small, and laid upon a strong iron bar across the oast hole. Let one man be employed to make up the fire, whilst two others constantly attend the kiln, to stir and keep it from burning, and relieve each other; and when your kiln has popp’d about half an hour, let the fire grow smaller and smaller till you throw off.

I read this that during the first 45 minutes when the malt is laid on the kiln, two stirrings are done, with no fire underneath. So that when the strong fire starts, the popping or swelling of the malt corns occurs almost right away. Even if that is not right, clearly the popping starts much earlier than was typical of 1800s production of brown malt.

The popping took a half-hour, and then the fire was banked down for approximately two hours more of kilning. After this the malt was taken out and would have been left to cool.

Even if popped brown malt was not the only malt for porter, it was clearly very popular, as he states he sold a lot of it to chapmen (dealers or vendors) for use to make porter.

Well-dried hardwood was the fuel, which produced relatively little smoke. It is obvious some of this smoke would still get in the malt, but as other 1700s accounts make clear, porter was often long-aged then, which would reduce the smoke taste.

This description of brown malt production is basically similar to a number of 1800s accounts, e.g., by William Ford in the 1850s, except for the difference of timing when the popping was done.

See also here, a detailed discussion mid-century in Britannica. The wetting, and blowing, of “brown malt” mentioned are after a prolonged drying on the kiln. The older blown malt is mentioned just after, but numerous accounts later refer to this as old-fashioned, almost out of use. See e.g., maltster Henry Stopes here for a typical account, late 1800s, of contemporary preparation of blown malt where the blowing and blistering take place after a lengthy, thorough drying.

Almost all the writers, at any period, seem agreed the earlier way of blowing malt was less productive, meaning in fermentable extract, but the question is whether it conferred a unique stamp on the original porter; I believe it did.

Hence the difference is important, in our view. When newly placed on the kiln, the malt would be at its moistest. It was either moist from the maltings or in some cases wetted before being placed on the kiln. Various 1800s sources suggest as well that the blowing or popping occurred at between 175-210 F, with the malt starting at about 90F, which is a mashable termperature. I infer the moist malt kernel would have been been caramelized, much as modern caramel malt is, with a quick initial heat, to produce a viscous dark sugar.

Modern caramel malt – which is sometimes made on a kiln, not a roaster – is not diastatic: that is, it has no enzyme content to convert starches to fermentable sugar. But it doesn’t need to be, as caramel malt doesn’t need to be mashed, or not for very long. Brown malt popped in the initial kilning stage, or blown or snapped in other usage, was probably a rough form of caramel malt. This would explain the many references in porter literature to caramel, bitter caramel, or burned caramel giving porter its unique taste. The sugar did that but also provided surely some fermentable material for conversion to alcohol.

In contrast, if you do the super-heating at the end of the kilning as occurred from about 1810 onwards, the barleycorns will be much drier. While the popping may still occur, I doubt you would get any starch conversion. This explains why numerous commentators in the 1800s stated brown malt wasn’t fermentable. You would still get colour contribution and some flavour. But by the 1800s brewers didn’t need fermentability from brown malt as it was mixed with a much larger amount of pale malt that supplied most of the fermentable material. Black malt, newly available from 1817, would have supplied the bitter grain or burned taste, as well.

In the 1700s, porter was still made from all-brown malt. Brown malt was always less efficient in extract than pale and amber malt since its drying at high temperature degraded part of the starch. Under these circumstances, it would make sense to blow or pop the malt when it had the highest moisture, to get some fermentable sugar which contributed also a unique flavour to the beer.

To those who might object that a strong initial fire would ruin the enzyme potential, two things may be noted. Good porter malt would not have needed much enzyme if it didn’t need much mashing. Second, some modern Dunkel malt (German brown lager malt) finishes at 212 F and remains enzymatic to convert all its starches to sugar Same thing with Rauch or smoked malt for Bamberg, Germany beer.

Finally, brewers mashed porter in the 1700s for a lengthy period. William Ellis, in the London and Country Brewer, speaks of three hours in total, albeit some new malt is added, “capping” as it was termed. Still, that’s a long time, today most brewers can mash in one hour or half that time. The prolonged mashing assisted I believe the low enzyme malt to complete its conversion work.

The upshot: the reversal in timing of the popping phase can be explained by the switch from all-brown malt to mixed mashes benefitting from the high extract content of pale malt, and likely as well to shorter mash times after 1800.

Some other points that arise from the text: London used very little straw to kiln porter. Beer and ale in London were kilned from wood, certainly for porter, or some form of smokeless coal, e.g., culm, Welch coal, or coke. Straw was available at an acceptable cost too far from London, in “vales” where agriculture allowed its collection from stubble.

The Compleat Dealer did admire beer made from straw-kilned malt which he called “curious”. It means, here, distinctive and high quality. But little of it was actually used to make London porter, if you believe someone who started in the English malting business in 1810.



A True Flavour of Porter – Black Creek Porter

IMG_20160310_173603Black Creek Historic Brewery is a tiny, draft/growler brewery in Black Creek Village, a local attraction that demonstrates how pioneers lived in Ontario in the 19th century. The brewery contracts out some of its brands for bottling, and the porter is one. For some years, according to all the buzz, it’s been brewed and bottled by Trafalgar Brewery in Oakville, ON.

The current bottling is very good. The beer clearly uses some brown malt  – I was at the brewery once in Black Creek Village and was given some to crunch in my mouth, I recall the taste – and this helps the authenticity. Brown malt was once 100% of the grist for porter, but starting in the early 1800s, pale and other malts were used to supplement the brown. Good porter can be made just with pale malt and a small amount of malt roasted black much like coffee is made. Using some brown malt though always boosts the authenticity of flavour in historical terms, all things equal.

This batch has the perfect balance of woody, lightly smoky taste from the brown malt, and yet good residual sweetness which porter should have IMO. There is good gathering bitterness in the background but of a neutral type – not aromatic and certainly not citric –  as is appropriate for real porter.

The brew also contains a malt darker than brown malt, both for colour and probably some taste contribution. The website refers to “roasted malt” for the porter, which is barley malt kilned black. But the bottle label speaks of roasted barley. Roasted barley usually means raw, unmalted barley. It’s not clear which is in the current recipe, perhaps the brewery alternates one with the other, as some English breweries used to do. I’d bet on roasted malt for the current batch, as roasted raw barley often leaves an unpleasant burned vegetable taste in my experience, and I don’t get that taste in this beer. But the flavour is excellent either way so if blackened raw barley is indeed used, I’m good with it, in this case.

I am drinking mine with just the lightest chill, it’s basically room temperature in fact – all the flavour elements shine most in this form.

I used to think I could detect a Trafalgar house taste in the contract bottlings but I don’t get that in this one. Either the current bottling is not made at Trafalgar, or Trafalgar’s house profile has evolved, or there is some other explanation. Anyway, the porter is nigh on perfect as it is.

One would hope for a similar recipe but made richer and rather stronger: a double or even Imperial porter, that is. That would be outstanding.

Finally, please note I’ve not mentioned coffee, tequila, lemon, peppers, ginger, green herbs, Mars bar or other chocolate, or other exotica. Good porter doesn’t need it and rarely is improved by any of these things, IMO to be sure.

George Martin RIP

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966I don’t think I’ve written about music yet, so now’s the time. The Beatles’ famed producer, George Martin, died yesterday at the age of 90.

I have been a lifelong rock and roll fan, and people who know me know of my special interest in The Who, but before them I was, and have always remained, a Beatles fan. George Martin, the London-born trained musician who produced almost all their recorded work, was a vital part of their sound. Martin studied music formally after departing the Royal Navy where he rose to officer (1943-1947) and made music and studio production his career.

A marker of many Beatles’ hits (I say as a non-musician) was the “quick-step” or marching band sound. As in Can’t Buy Me Love, say, but there are many other examples. I Want To Hold Your Hand is amongst the best known.

I think this came from Martin’s early immersion in piano and oboe studies and in general his familiarity with orchestral instrumentation and arranging. But also too, his years in the military – the parade ground is never far from the Beatles sound.

To this day, Paul McCartney leans on it, as in this single, called New, from only three years ago. Even at 70, he channelled that Beatles-march tempo sound perfectly. Martin played a lot of the keyboards on Beatles records, and other instruments. In the famous opening flourish of A Hard Day’s Night, Martin sounded a strident piano chord with Paul playing bass and other Beatles on guitar. If you listen closely you can hear it. It’s the way many symphonies start, in fact.

Here, the great Randy Bachman, of Guess Who and BTO fame, explains in his engaging way how the chord was constructed. Randy didn’t mention the piano though! But it’s there, listen closely.

The confluence of talent, drive and/or foresight in Martin, the four from Liverpool, manager Brian Epstein, and Dick James to publish the music, all made it happen. One of those rare things. I actually remember playing the music in the early 60s knowing somehow it would be for the ages.


Porridge And Memories, Both Warm

Oatmeal_(1)A few years ago, I recall reading that oats has pronounced nutritive values. Not long after I started to notice it on menus, I think in Portland, Oregon, first.

Anyone reasonably familiar with Scottish traditions knows that oats is iconic in that country’s history. It was boiled and eaten plain, with a wooden stick or spoon. Standing up, too, at least so I’ve read for male adults in the family. (How I know this is unclear even to me, but I do).

The famed English author Samuel Johnson once made the jibe that oats is a food for horses but in Scotland it supports the people, rather unfair considering England had its own dishes off the beaten track: broiled kidney, boiled sheep’s head, simmered tripe…

In Canada in the 1950s and 60s, porridge as we called it was popular. Probably this reflected the strong Scottish element in the Montreal I grew up in. In those days there was no instant oatmeal. It was boiled long in water in the auld Scots way.

In our house, we ate it with milk and some salt. Some families added sugar. We had a surfeit of sucrose in other forms: honey cake, chocolate cake, chocolate bars (Smarties, Cadbury bars, etc.), sugar and raisin pie, soft drinks. So the sugar saved in the porridge was more a blessing than anything else, not that dentists weren’t kept busy for generations from the cake, pop, and chocolate bars we hoovered.

I think it was last year that Libby placed some porridge down for breakfast, and I had a go, the first time in decades. First, the taste hadn’t changed. People say “you can’t go home again”, but I did in this case.

Agronomers and plant breeders haven’t dented the flavour at all, it’s the same earthy, metallic taste I recall from 50 years ago. The salt now may be sel gris from Brittany, or evaporated stuff from the Dead Sea, but porridge tastes like I remember.


Only, where’s my leather breeches? My double-zippered, fleece-lined overshoes, the 161 bus on Van Horne, Mrs. Quackenbush at Coronation School…? Where is the guy who drove his car from New York with Beatles and other 45s and sold them to my cousins and me from the curb?

Where is Morty, who owned the corner shop that sold the chocolates that kept those dentists in clover for generations? Where is Socky, from the charming family next door, or Butchy from down the block?

Where have they all gone?

Note re images. These images were sourced here and here and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Some Reviews: Beer And A Canadian Vodka

Wells Bombardier Glorious English

IMG_20160305_180553This is the export version, 5.2% abv. It’s rich, with a crystal malt signature but also good plummy notes which derive from the yeast and, I’d guess, a higher-than-usual fermentation temperature. There’s a reasonable amount of sugar used in the recipe, I’m sure, but the body is not thin and it all works well.

It’s a good example, except in a can, of English “keg beer”: pasteurized, filtered and carbonated, but made with care and to a reasonable abv. By keg beer, one means the more industrially evolved version of beer as opposed to “cask” or real ale which is unpasteurized, only roughly filtered (and not mechanically), and not charged up with CO2 gas.

The hops, at least after a few months in the tin, are somewhat subdued in aroma but quite evident in the taste. It’s English hops too, which lack the white pith hit of Yank hops from the West Coast. Some people suggest English ales can never have the impact of your typical American “hop bomb” (IPA and such).

This feeling, however, derives (IMO) from tasting current examples of beers made with English hops. On average they are less impactful than American IPA because less hops are used. If Charles Wells stuffed as much Challenger and Goldings in Bombardier as Stone puts American hops in its IPA, it would be six of one half a dozen of the other. The characteristics will still be different of course, but the impact similar. To extend the military metaphor, one’s a Tommy gun, one a Sten: take your pick.

I wonder what style Bombardier ale would have been called in 1800. Maybe an amber beer? It’s too dark for a pale ale and too rich too I think for that description. Maybe the kind of amber the Thames boatmen added gin and bitters to and called a “purl”. I’m all for gin, all for bitters, indeed together in the glass but no ale, aka the old naval drink, Pink Gin. Of that another post soon.

Three Brewers Black IPA

This is by far the best beer from this house I’ve ever had, and was tasted at the Yonge St. and Dundas location in Toronto. It lacks the yeast signature of the other beers in the range, I’d guess a California or other neutral-tasting yeast was used. The rest of the range generally have a strong Belgian/Northern French top-fermentation note.

It was rich and brimming with hop energy. The hops are American, surely, but unlike many Black IPAs the hops worked in the best possible way, strongly but with gastronomic purpose.



Wellington Russian Imperial Stout

IMG_20160303_191700A long-established craft brewery in Guelph, ON, Wellington Brewery makes a range of English-type beers, mostly. The best of them are Iron Duke, a strong ale and kind of a Burton style, and a Russian Stout. The stout’s abv is 8%, not classic 10-12% territory, but strong enough and the beer has the rich character of a classic Impy stout.

There is a particular twist to the current batch, almost a “milky” quality I can’t put my finger on. I doubt lactose would be used for an Imperial, but who knows? Anyway it is the real thing, rich and velvety and bitter a plenty in the way suitable for stout, i.e., not featuring too much aroma.

Georgian beer fanciers may have quaked to see a fine export stout served with the chipotle wings pictured, given too Hades was surely invited to consult on this particular recipe. Then too the English invented “pull’d chicken”, ancestor to the American pulled pork which can be plenty spicy, so it’s safe not to make any grand assumptions here.

Anyway the combination works very well. All combos of beer and food do in my schematic of the culinary, that is, if I like the food and I like the beer, we’ve achieved a pairing.

Polar Ice Vodka

I always have some vodka at home, but only taste it two or three times a year. Tasting for me means, on its own.  Apart from that it is good for a Bloody Mary.

This particular flask was exceptionally good. It had almost no nose but a sweetish, refined palate. I couldn’t place the background taste but I think it may be charcoal, from charcoal filtration. All vodka made in Canada must undergo charcoal filtration before sale. Just for fun, I bought another flask of Polar Ice at a different store. This one had a noticeable alcohol nose and the taste was somewhat different – not radically so, it is vodka after all, but they weren’t identical.

I’m good with this as even a super-refined distilled beverage such as vodka is still a natural product – made from grains or potatoes (in Canada). No matter what treatment they get in processing, these feedstocks change over time, yeasts may change somewhat, the temperature in fermentation or distillation will vary a bit, etc. Such differences are even more pronounced with whisky. Not every cask is the same – the type and source of oak will vary, and the mix of ages – and many other factors play into it including annual climactic variations.

Save some spirit from any distilled drink – pour into a mini bottle and close it up full to prevent air from affecting the residue. Then, compare it, neat, to your next bottle of the same brand. I doubt it will taste exactly the same, even a standard brand vs. a single barrel or small batch type.





The Spice Route

Spice_Market,_Marakech_(2242330035)See note below for image attribution.

Flavoured beers in general are very popular today. The subset with spices, anything from ginger to coriander to cinnamon and much more – is legion.

In a recent discussion of porter for the Session, many of the contributions mention flavoured porters, e.g., those with cocoa or coffee, as of particular interest to the taster. The addition of coffee or chocolate is one of the innovations of the craft brewing renaissance. It is now so well-established that it isn’t felt necessary (often) to mention that porter wasn’t flavoured with anything other than malt and hops for hundreds of years.

True, some old writers suggested to add elderberry juice or more nefariously, “drugs” of various kinds to enhance the effect (if not the taste). At least one writer in the mid-1800s advised that “orange powder” was a good thing to add to porter. But in general, these were not used, partly because the laws in Britain forbade such additions in commercial brewing, partly because, or I’d infer, brewers thought the beer didn’t need it. Ginger was used in one or two English brews until the 1950s it seems, so I’d think the law must have changed to permit this, unless the practice was sub rosa.

In Belgium as many beer fans know, the use of spice and other flavourings did survive commercially. Saison beers as well as wit, the Belgian wheat beer style, are sometimes flavoured with some of the spices mentioned and a wide variety of others. Almost always, hops are used too. This harks back to the early days of brewing, either before hops were used at all, or when hops were used variously with a grab bag of other flavourings.

Rochefort Trappist beer apparently uses coriander although to my mind it doesn’t taste of that really, more cumin I would say or sweet gale, somewhat like those Pictish ales some U.K. brewers make. Perhaps it is the seeds that are used, as there is an earthy, musty-like taste vs. orangey as such. The leaves of coriander do not taste the same as the seeds, it may be noted.

The real question is, are flavoured, including spiced, beers worth drinking? I will say straight off I almost never drink a chocolate or coffee porter. They don’t taste right to me. When porter or any beer is well-made, you don’t need anything other than malt and hops (+ sometimes other grains). I make an exception for some spices if used with discretion. Anything orange seems to work well with porter and stout. Ginger too. But it is too often overdone, and the drink is ruined. (The bane of most pumpkin beers). You need a substratum of hop bitterness and flavour and then just a soupçon of the spice.

An old expression says, good wine needs no bush. More prosaically, good beer needs no spice.

Note re image: Image is by Michael Day (Spice Market, Marakech  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Image was sourced here.