Beers of Empire Implanted in Newark, NJ




[See my following post as well for more thoughts on the brown October ale referred to below].

While lager had made huge inroads in America in the 1800s, ale and porter-brewing continued in parts of the country, especially the northeast where descendants of English settlers predominated. Brewers in that region included John Taylor (Albany, NY), Robert Smith (Philadelphia, PA), Greenway (Syracuse, NY), C.H. Evans (Albany, NY), Arnold & Co. (Ogdensburg, NY), P. Ballantine and Sons (mainly Newark, NJ), Frank Jones (Portsmouth, NH), and many more.

Some brewers made both ale and lager regardless of the tradition they issued from. Christian Feigenspan had German roots (Thuringia) but his Newark ale and lager plants turned out highly reputed beers, especially pale and amber ales under the P.O.N. moniker, or Pride of Newark.

Adam Scheidt in Pennsylvania made the John Bullish Ram’s Head Ale, a stock or IPA-type. Returning the favour so to speak, Henry Bartholomay  in Troy, NY was famous for lager.

P. Ballantine and Sons, founded in Albany, NY in 1840 by a Scots immigrant, was from inception a top-fermentation brewery. It established a separate lager brewery before 1900, when it had long been established in its second home, Newark. Its pre-Pro era Ballantine Export Beer was a lager, likely a Dortmund style.

boston beer companyThere is a pleasing, rather American dissonance in the case of Boston, MA. Norman Miller reports in his Boston Beer:A History of Brewing in The Hub that of some 24 breweries in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain at the end of the 1800s, some made only ale, owned by Germans, some made only lager, owned by Irish. In a Brahmin city, the Yankees appeared outnumbered.

Albeit dealing in lager, the mainstays of P. Ballantine and Sons were various ales, porter, brown stout. The ales included flagship XXX, in the tradition of the cream ales I discussed earlier. An ad below from a 1915 brewers’ journal dealing with brewers’ advertising stresses the American character of this beer.

I believe this a subtle dig at lager, reminding people of its German origins at a time anti-German sentiment was rising during WW I.

The prince of the Ballantine family was Ballantine India Pale Ale. The brand was given carefully-thought out advertising treatment before Prohibition as discussed in the article accompanying the ads below. One may note too the reference to “house organs” as a way to keep in touch with regular customers. The recent blogging controversy whether brewers should curry favour with consumers by personal appearances and “direct” online engagement isn’t anything new.

Many English-inspired breweries often advertised “half and half”. This was ale and porter mixed, or lager and porter (or stout). More rarely one saw an October ale or beer. The old English country specialty which inspired Hodgson’s Pale Ale and modern IPA was still reverberating, to no particular acclaim, in Depression-era America.

HaberleOctoberColorHaberle’s Brown October was introduced not long after Repeal by the Haberle Congress Brewery in Syracuse, NY, whose return in 1933 was discussed in the link just mentioned. Its staff would be agape to see how old styles have come back with elan. “It’s new because it’s old” might well be the mantra of the craft brewing movement. In Haberle’s day (1930s) ales were just hanging on. Lager’s ascendancy was ever-growing and selling something called October Ale must have seemed a quixotic if not semi-lunatic act.

To say Haberle Congress was ahead of its time is an understatement.

Ballantine also offered, after its return in 1933, a very long-aged Burton Ale as a rare customer gift. The Burton was apparently only brewed twice. Small amounts would be removed from the storage vats, blended with some IPA to freshen up, cased, and sent to star customers and friends.

The 1915 ads offered luxury enough but only represented part of Ballantine’s Brittanic specialties over the years. If one didn’t think too hard, it all might seem like “craft redux”, except of course this was 1915, 1933, or 1960. In other words, it’s the other way around.

America and Canada finally lost the essence of the top-fermented tradition, it occurred as the consumer society gathered pace from the late 40s. They also lost, or so I would argue, the best of the lager tradition, certainly by the 1970s. Not coincidentally, craft brewing revived from that period. What existed before finally returned.

And so, Ballantine IPA is again being brewed, by Pabst, current successor to Ballantine which closed in Newark in the early 70s. The new IPA has an updated taste profile, think grapefruit. It’s not that close to what it was, IMO. But it’s good to see the venerable name back. Pabst even brought back the Burton Ale for a time last year, and reviews were most positive. Rumour has it the brown stout may reappear soon, too.

The collection of ads below may look old-fashioned but are a savvy combination of old and new. The writing is informative but nuanced. As the journal writer noted, technical talk is mostly avoided.

Values like reputation and heritage are stressed but also cleanliness (“house cleaning every day”) to show modern science at work. Net net, we make it like gran-dad did but it comes out of a lab-inspected plant too – best of all possible worlds for the consumer.

The ads after 1933 have a more modern tone, but the early genius of Madison Avenue is quite evident below. All the right buttons were pressed. Ballantine understood it had a steak to sell but that people often buy the sizzle. It made sure to offer both. The image and reputation it had for 80 years before Prohibition provided a necessary but not sufficient basis for the restoration of the business. The rest came (on Repeal) courtesy the German Badenhausen brothers and a brewer imported from Scotland, a story unto itself.

You can buy Ballantine XXX today, Ballantine IPA, and the Burton Ale if bottles are still around from last year. It’s good to see them all on the shelves.

(Double-click subjoined ad for good resolution).

(Note re images: The first image above is copyright Tavern Trove and was obtained from its site, here. The second image was from Flickr Boston via this website, here. Third image was obtained from Jess Kidden’s Google Pages, here. The image below was obtained from HathiTrust, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property of or reflected in the images shown belong to their respective lawful owners or authorized user. All feedback welcomed).


Of Madras, Malt and Margins



In my post of two days ago, I considered the likely strength of Hodgson Pale Ale, ancestor of modern pale ale and IPA. I mentioned two sources which alluded to its unusual strength, and here is another, from Chambers Encyclopaedia, published in both the United States and Scotland in 1860. It states exported pale ale was 10% in alcohol, let’s assume by volume. It even suggests that low attenuation could push the strength past 10%.

Its reference to the alcohol level of other beers, as well as the detailed description of brewing, give no reason to question the credibility; on the contrary. And we have seen how some IPA did in fact reach this level in the same era. Salt’s pale ale was one, and one from Allsopp, another.

Yet, this encyclopedia source, more or less contemporaneousstates that the range for export IPA topped out at OG 1070. Not much over 7%, that is. Earlier in the century W.H. Roberts said much the same thing in his Scottish ale-brewing book.

How to reconcile it? The only way is to assume they all were right. Some brewers, e.g., Bass, went for an abv which would not exceed 7% abv. Many indeed followed this plan. But some went higher, either by tradition or for another reason, hard to decipher at this date. No source is complete; they must be read together.

Bass may have been the more astute thinker. In that 1849 ad in Bristol, Bass Pale Ale was 4s. for 12 pints. Hodgson & Abbott’s India Ale, almost certainly a stronger beer, was 4s. 6d.

Bring yourself now to British India. Percival, a Lieutenant in the Madras Army, comes back from a day of language instruction at Fort St. George. He’s in family quarters, with Amelia. Young Ben bounds about. Amelia thinks another may be on the way, probably time to palaver with Percy.

It’s hot, and dusty, too.

Percy, you will have a bottle of Hodgson’s, won’t you, it’s just removed from the provisioner.

Yes, dear, snatched the words from my mouth, I’m rather parched.

Cork comes out, beer goes in. Not sweet, quinine-like, almost like tonic with gin, thinks Percy. Something of the stable there, too. Rather heavy for a beer, eh? Just as well to have only one, Amelia gets cross with too much spirit on the breath. Anyway there’s business to attend to later, Ben’s having trouble with geography, can’t fathom where Canada is, I hear. I must tell him cousin Neville is there with the Militia Rifles in Kingston, that will bring it home to him.

The month before, Percival was on exercises to the south. The staff were billeted for a week in a club nearby. The steward said they only stocked Bass. “And it’s as good a drop as you’ll know, Sir, I hail from Staffordshire, I know about good beer. Cures the mardy in yer!”. (Steward thinking, that stronger brown stuff we used to get was better, but never mind).

Amelia was at home but Percival creditably wants to maintain consistency of habits. He gets down a Red Triangle, one should be enough. But somehow the effect isn’t like the Hodgson. Perhaps a second Bass is in order.

Well, Steward, as the Captain is standing this one, I won’t be horrid and say no. [To Captain] Thank you, Sir. And dear Amelia, what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, I always say.

Happy to oblige, Lieutenant, and by the way I hear you’re doing very well in language studies. That’s important to get ahead here, you know.

Bass sells two bottles to Hodgson’s one. Does Bass’s profit offset the higher price of the Hodgson? I’d think it must have, even with more variable cost. True, Percy takes in more alcohol with a duo of Bass, but he would have been satisfied with the Hodgson alone.

Beeretseq’s parlous knowledge of the old English money, and ignorance of retail prices in the Raj, induce caution with respect to conclusions. But I think Bass may have hit the sweet spot in its day to benefit from multiple unit consumption. Brand management isn’t new you know, and the British invented capitalism by the way.

Some IPA sent to India was 5-6%, tiddlers. Some was 7 or 7.5%. Some was 9 or 10%, and that included Hodgson’s, IMO.

One thing most reading will agree on. British pale ale, any sort, goes very well with Indian cuisines. A local restaurant recommended to us is Madras Masala, and a visit soon is planned. Pale ale, wherever made and whatever abv, will accompany the meal, you can lay odds on it.


Note re image: the first image above, of Fort St. George in the 1700s, is believed in the public domain and was sourced from Wikipedia, here.  As requested therein, attribution is as follows: The painting of Fort St. George is by Jan Van Ryne (1712–60); Publisher: Robert Sayer – Old source New source, Public Domain,


The Lancet Examines IPAs in 1862 – Some Very Strong

626_001Following up on my post of yesterday: thLancet, in 1862, examined the strengths and other attributes of different kinds of beer. See pp. 630-631 and table summarizing the results.

This is roughly the era when the ads of 1849 and 1850 came out that I discussed yesterday.

As I wrote in a comment to the post, I shouldn’t have presumed what Bass and Allsopp were exporting without checking. The Lancet piece (and other Lancet analyses of beer including pale and bitter ales) is useful because it focuses on stars of the India Pale Ale market. By then, the Bow Brewery of London was much reduced in influence. It came under different ownership about the time this Lancet article appeared, as Smith Garrett, and was absorbed finally by a large brewer and disappeared.

The beers reviewed were exhibits at a grand exhibition. This made it easy for the Lancet to secure samples, especially perhaps as some draft beer was analysed. The Bass numbers do tally with my recollection of Victorian Bass Pale Ale as generally a 7% abv beer. The numbers given for Bass, which appear to be by weight, are 5.31-5.59 (different samples). This equates to 6.7-7.03 abv. Today, Bass Ale as available on draft in Toronto is 4% abv. I believe the American-made version (both are licensed production) is 5% abv. Bass was strong then, by that comparison.

It was not strong compared to the next group though, an admittedly small sample, but still.

The single pale ale of Salt was 7.76 abw, or 9.8 abv. The Lancet called it “very strong”. In my view, there is some reason to analogize this language to “rather heavy” and “prodigious strength” that I discussed yesterday in relation to Hodgson Pale Ale. But even if you knock a point off to be conservative, a 9% abv Hodgson Pale Ale was pretty strong stuff. That was stronger than double stout was generally in the 1800s.

Allsopp’s range came in at 6.15-8.46 abw, or 7.70-10.71 by volume.

This is all some 100 years after Hodgson’s started to seek a market in India. Was Hodgson getting the same yields, or extract efficiency, in the 1760s that brewers were getting 100 years later? The assumption of 80 pounds per quarter of malt (see my second comment yesterday), a contemporary rule of thumb, may have been optimistic for the late 1700s. Yet, brewing writers speak of such yields, sometimes 78 pounds per quarter, then. Many factors impact including how the hops were handled. They can absorb a lot of wort and there are a lot of hops in IPA.

Roberts’ average of 1068 OG for export IPAs, a group of 10 beers he analyzed, needs to be considered as well. Maybe a way to look at it is to take a mean between 7% abv and 9% abv, giving 8% which I suggested yesterday was a minimum strength for Hodgson Pale Ale.

We can’t know for certain. But using the reasoning in my last notes, e.g., comparison to an “October” beer in 1849, and factoring the known high abvs of some IPA in the mid-1800s, I think Hodgson’s Pale Ale had to reach at least that 8%. Maybe it was stronger still, and Salt was its successor in this regard, or Allsopp’s top end in the sample above.

The narratives of “very strong” and the “special reputation” surely were connected to high strength, whatever else the India Hodgson’s had going for it. Ancestrally, “good” in beer meant strong. The more alcohol, the better beer was, in taste and value. Many factors worked against selling beer strong, everything from brewers’ margins to concerns about alcohol abuse (leading to Temperance campaigns, finally).

If Hodgson’s was prized you can be fairly certain, or I am, it was no washy stuff.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Delcampe auction site, here, and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All trademarks and other intellectual property therein belong to their owners or duly authorized users. All feedback welcomed.







Victorian IPA: A Lighter Shade of Pale


1850 Advertisement for Abbott’s East India Pale Ale Sheds Light on Strength of Hodgson’s Pale Ale Sent To India

A number of statements from the 19th century suggest that Hodgson’s Pale Ale, an avatar of modern pale ale and IPA, was a strong beer. One appears in this 1890s economic survey of India, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India: Linium to Oyster by Sir George Watt et al, stating the beer was “well-hopped and rather heavy”. In this context, heavy generally meant strong.

A second appears in 1840 in the Magazine Of Domestic Economy which contains an impressive and detailed chapter on porter-brewing. In that account, the uncredited author states Hodgson’s pale ale was “brewed of prodigious strength”. He also referred to its “low fermentation” and great attenuation. I think low fermentation cannot mean bottom-fermentation (lager process) but rather the high attenuation again.

It implies the product had a high original gravity and was fermented out to a low final gravity, lower than was usual for mild ale in particular. The dryness produced by the process assisted keeping the beer to destination: a rich, sweet beer was likely to “fret” or ferment uncontrollably in the days before pasteurization and end-to-end refrigeration.

But how strong in fact was Hodgson’s Pale Ale?

Hodgson’s, founded in Bromley-on-Bow, London, 1752, was exporting to India since the later-1700s. Its pale ale acquired a virtual lock on the India market until being unseated by competition notably from Bass, Allsopp, and Salt in the 1830s.

W.H. Roberts, in The Scottish Ale-Brewer and Practical Maltster, 2nd edition (1846) includes a table of India pale ales, see from p. 170It includes ten leading exports to India. Roberts comes to an average of OG 1068, with domestic pales ales coming in six points under. There is also a group of yet weaker India beers, he says, for which less was charged.

Some researchers have concluded from this and other evidence that India beers were not generally >1070 OG.

For Victorian England, Martyn Cornell identified in 2010 a range of gravities for different beers, see his useful table. 1080-1095 is the range for EIPA, XXXXX, XXXK, and KKKK.  EIPA, or East India Pale Ale (maybe sometimes Export India Pale Ale) was stronger than the pale ale/bitter beer/IPA norm of the 1800s, which was more around 1060 OG.

All IPA was originally a stocked beer in keeping with its October beer origins as explicated by Cornell in the early 2000s. Some continued to be long-stored into c.1900, often a year with the export process resulting in a beer 18 months or older when consumed in Asia or North America. The trip over would have allowed Brettanomyces yeast to consume some of the dextrin, making the beer even drier and a touch stronger. Long aging and shipping could increase a beer by 1% in abv.

Here, from Eltham Brewery in 1874, we see a range of pale ales and other beers. The pales for the purpose of this discussion are PA, IPA, and KIPA. All are indicated as “October”, meaning brewed in that ideal brewing season and aged for varying periods but usually over the winter at least.


The KIPA shown reflected the topmost-quality at 60s per 36-gallon barrel, or 30s for 18 gallons (kilderkin), and strength. That price was about the most expensive for pale ale in England in the 1800s. In OG, the KIPA was probably comparable to the range for EIPA seen elsewhere and variants sold at the same price, East India Pale Ale, that is. That meant an alcohol level of 8-9.5% abv. It would have varied depending on the time of storage, too.

If you look at this ad in the Medical Times from January 1850, not located by other commentators to our knowledge, Edwin Abbott, sole owner of the Bow Brewery founded by the first Hodgson, states that Hodgson Pale Ale is too expensive for daily use. He states that the price, “30s. the 18-gallon cask”, reflects its “body” (high original gravity, clearly) which is meant to keep the beer in conditions of high temperature and changes of climate. Therefore, he introduces to the English market a second pale ale at 18s. the 18-gallon cask, made like the original Pale Ale but lighter and at the price of ordinary family beer:

Abbott and Son, East India Pale Ale Brewery, Bow. – From a peculiar mode of fermentation instituted at the above brewery, it has been celebrated for nearly a century in supplying India with its choicest beer; but, from the necessity of giving it a greater body to bear the changes of climate and high temperature,  its cost, viz., 30s. the 18-gallon cask, has hitherto prevented private families in England from enjoying it  at their daily tables. The objection is now obviated by Messrs. Abbott having succeeded for use of families, clubs and public institutions, a lighter description of their Pale Ale, brewed upon the same principles as for Indian consumption, at the cost of ordinary family beer, viz., 18s. the 18-gallon cask, which they trust, from its being so highly recommended not only as a wholesome luxury to the healthy, but as a most appropriate beverage to the more delicate, will meet the approbation of the public. It is necessary to order a supply in March as, from the lightness of and delicacy of the ale, removal in warm weather injures its qualities.

At 30s. for 18 gallons, Hodgson’s Pale Ale was priced the same as Eltham’s KIPA and numerous other EIPAs and similar beers.

Indeed, Eltham’s XXXX Strong Ale was the same 60s. per barrel, or 30s. for 18 gallons. That XXXX was IMO an “ale” vs. a “beer”, as IPA always was, i.e., hopped much less but probably still aged, an old ale, hence its inclusion on the left side of the ad. Its ABV had to be the same 8-9% range as KIPA.

As Cornell’s chart shows, beers of the gravity range that took in EIPA were OG 1080-1095. That equated to at least 8%-9.5% abv but could go higher with long aging. These are always estimates because the degree of attenuation can affect the final numbers, but in general pale ale was well-fermented on the long voyage out. So if anything one should go higher in strength for the article when consumed, not lower.

A beer 24-27s. per 18-gallons was 5.5%-6-5% ABV in range, more the typical range for Victorian pale ale. Abbott’s 18-shilling beer, meant for summer use, was probably 4-5% abv.

In April 1850 Abbott was offering three descriptions of pale beer as this ad shows. Here, the prices are by the barrel and are 32, 42, and 60s. The 60 is the original (India) pale ale again. The others, if the 18-gallon price was exactly half (it may not have been), were at 16 and 21s., perhaps 4% (for summer) and 5% respectively. It’s three strength ranges which endure to the end of the 1800s for some breweries albeit the strong end took in relatively few beers as a group. Still, they are notable as survivals of the pale October tradition, as Hodgson’s original pale ale was.

Perhaps the two lower beers were 4% and 5% but I believe the 30s. flagstaff was at least 8%.

Consider also this ad from Chilcott’s Descriptive History of Bristol, published in 1849. Hodgson & Abbott’s India Ale was listed – Frederick Hodgson hadn’t retired yet. By the case of 12 pints, it fetched the highest price (4s. 6d.) sharing the honour with, lo, Bloxsome’s Strong October beer. 1700s accounts of October Beer brewing suggest an OG of c. 1100, this has been shown by numerous modern analyses. That Bloxsome October beer could not in my opinion have been 7% ABV, it had to be more, possibly 9% even if not 10-11% by 1849. It may have been a point higher than Hodgson’s because the quart price is higher, but that is not certain.


The cask price equivalent of the Bloxsome’s (the Hodgson’s was not given) is hard to tell because two October beers are offered in cask and the names don’t correspond exactly to the bottled beer. (I’m thinking the bottled may have been a blend of the two October casks). Could the 27s. cask have been 7% beer? It’s possible, and also possible the Hodgson’s was. But I don’t think so. Using the October name suggests to me something closer to the 1700s range for October beer was wanted than 7%. And Hodgson & Abbott’s India Ale was the same price for the case of pints.

And so, I think Hodgson’s Pale Ale, the beer which conquered India, was 8%+ ABV in England, probably reaching 9%+ with final attenuation after shipment. Some accounts from India likened the beer to wine; you find such language used in relation to IPA into the mid-1900s. Ballantine in New York was using it after the brewery re-started in 1933 (see Jess Kidden’s pages). 7% doesn’t do that IMO, it has to go a couple of points more to suggest an analogy to wine. And if it’s one thing the Raj administrators knew, it was wine, all types.

But now it’s 1850, in England. Apart from the high price, without long shipment to India that original Hodgson’s Pale Ale may have been too rich for ordinary drinking, without the body thinning out on the Indiamen ships, that is. Abbott clearly felt in any case it was time to introduce a new pale ale.

Taking all with all, the 1850 Abbott’s ad suggests that the Hodgson Pale Ale sent to India was:

a) brewed strong to help survive the high temperature and journey, and this from the mouth of the brewery itself; and

b) at least 8-9% ABV when brewed, probably higher at final destination.

Based on mid-1800s analyses I’ve seen including from the Lancet, and analyses of many pale ales from original records by Ron Pattinson, what Bass sent to India, Allsopp too, starting in the early 1800s, likely wasn’t as strong, more like 7% maximum on consumption. Perhaps this difference from Hodgson explained, or in part, their appeal, it’s hard to say. There are a number of statements in 1800s literature that beer for India was wanted “light” and not too strong. Hodgson’s Pale Ale, issuing from a country English heritage and suiting well enough the habits and appetites of early colonists in India, perhaps was too heady when something more equable showed up and life in the Raj was more civilized and settled.

Or maybe the Burton brewers convinced the India market their product was “better” when it really wasn’t. This kind of thing happens all the time in the beer world. I am speaking in relative terms here, I have nothing against Bass and had an excellent one the other day, in fact, brewed under license in Toronto and very credibly. This is the fizzy “keg” Bass, not a cask version.

Note re images: The second image above (of Eltham Brewery’s advertisement) was obtained from an online search I did some years ago with a link provided to me by Ron Pattinson. The third image is from Jess Kidden’s beer pages linked in the text. All images, where not in public domain, are the property of their lawful owner or duly authorized licensees. They are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.






How Long Should We Age Lager, Brewers?


Time in A Bottle

This is a follow-up to my post of yesterday discussing Horlacher Brewery’s Perfection Nine Month Old Lager, introduced in the immediate pre-craft brewing era (1976-1978).

Wahl & Henius’s American Handy Book Of The Brewing [etc.] Trades (1902), at pp 758-759, reviews ageing of beer. The authors set no fixed period but refer to the benefits as increased clarity due to settling of yeast and proteins and increased stability especially where beer is to be pasteurized. This last reference means, IMO, that beer is less likely to cloud and spoil after pasteurization if it was permitted to age long enough first.

Early articles in brewing literature attest to pasteurization sometimes making beer cloudy and liable to oxidize (oh irony): I have experienced this myself with at least one well-known American beer although recent bottlings are better and the problem presumably licked.

Wahl & Henius also state that “chips”, e.g., the beechwood chip aging method Budweiser has always used, permit shorter lagering. Other writers have said it too and it is because the chips afford a greater surface area for yeast contact with the beer. This emulates to a degree the effect of the yeast over a longer period, permitting the beer to ferment out and become “cleaner”.

Wahl & Henius also confirm what lager brewers had noticed many years earlier, that long aging reduces hop bitterness. This was also noticed by brewers in England for ales and porter long-stored.

Now let’s go to 2016. In this link, a brewer from AB InBev takes questions from readers. He referred to advances in yeast understanding and materials which 1800s brewers hadn’t known. He states:

When I homebrew a lager, I generally ferment at 52-54F to target gravity, diacetyl rest at 60F (3-5 days typically), and lager at 34F. I’ve been able to make very good lagers in 3.5 weeks with this method.

This absolutely requires that you have good temp. control if you’re homebrewing – repurposing an old fridge to serve as a fermentation and lagering cellar is a good way to do this.

Trying to parse his method, if he fermented in 7 days we allow three for the diacetyl rest, he was lagering only 10-12 days.

One of the posters linked another homebrewers discussion from earlier this year where a detailed description was given of similarly short method. The comments there are very interesting, too.  Basically it was suggested excellent results were obtained although one reader who tried the method said the beer wasn’t as clean as it could be.

Some points which stood out for me: In the early days, to attain “CO2 saturation”, long lagering was necessary. Today this can be achieved through force-carbonation as I said yesterday, and also krausening or bottle-conditioning (not usual for lager but sometimes done).

There is also the importance of yeast strain. Some bottom yeasts will produce clean beer – no off-tastes – at higher temperatures than others. It’s always a question of producing to the limit of a yeast’s ability in this sense. The higher the temperature, the faster the fermentation and more quickly the beer can go from grain to glass.

Higher temperatures are more efficient, but it is important not to pass the point where off-tastes result from stressed yeast. In this regard, starting gravity is important too, too high and a faster fermentation may create off-flavours.

There are trade-offs, but if you can increase temperature and save on storage time and overall energy while preserving good taste, why keep the beer for longer?

The point also came out that lagering for “too long” can produce off-flavours, which Wahl & Henius suggest as well by reference to the danger of bacterial contamination.

The list of bacteria is formidable, lactic and enteric types are just the start of it, and that doesn’t account for wild yeasts. One can see that in a former time with wooden vessels and non-sterile plants, the risk was probably greater than today.

I wrote earlier that Schaefer Brewery in New York tried to re-introduce beer aged 7 months in the 1870s. Drinkers rejected it because it was too sour. This probably is an example of what the brewers of 1902 and today were concerned about.

I took it from the discussions that today, typical lagering time for American adjunct lager is about three weeks, probably less in some cases, with grain to glass in approximately one month. Homebrewers traditionally have gone higher, five-six weeks lagering, but as mentioned above some get good results in a commercial time frame.

Some craft breweries add extra weeks for lagering. An example is Anchor Brewing’s California Lager, aged 28 days in secondary fermentation (see its website). Adding primary fermentation and the racking and packaging phase, total production time is probably about six weeks. Anchor’s Steam Beer, a lager fermented relatively warm, is stored in secondary in 10 days.

Yet even a full month’s aging is much less than for Horlacher Perfection in 1976 and what American and German brewers typically did c. 1850.

I would love to have tasted the Horlacher beer. Produced in the period it was, one can be certain it wasn’t lactic or otherwise off-tasting. How did it compare to a similar beer packaged at four weeks, or two months?  Were the extra 10-11 months a waste of time? Were they actually counter-productive? Only a taste test could tell. Written opinions are great but the final proof is one’s own palate.

Craft brewers: put away a batch of pale lager at 5% abv, perhaps hopped a little more than you normally do, keep it near freezing for 9 months and let’s see. Sam Adams Boston Lager would be a good beer to try this with given its mid-1800s heritage and firm hopping.

Finally, you can lager beer yourself, I once tried this with the Keller version of Creemore Lager given the residual yeast content. I wasn’t sure if the yeast count was high enough, but tried it anyway. Isn’t a small can just like a closed fermenting tank?  I didn’t wait nine months but rather five or six.

The beer was very good I thought, cleaner than regular Creemore. I need to try it again and more methodically, e.g., taste it against a fresh can.

Note re draft: The image shown is from the former Gerke Brewery in Cincinnati, OH, part of the impressive vaulted lagering cellars (later-1800s era). It was obtained from the website of the Master Brewers Association of Americahere.  Image is property of its lawful owner or duly authorized licensees. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


A Real Lager, Aged 9 Months, Appears In The Disco Era

hor5In 1976, on the eve of the craft brewing renaissance, a beer called Perfection 9 Month Old Lager was released by a small regional, Horlacher Brewing, based in Allentown, PA and founded in 1882. It was a revival of a Horlacher brand from before WW I.

Despite the release of Perfection and another new brand, Brew II, Horlacher struggled to stay in business. It was the era of macro beer dominance. Sadly, Horlacher closed in 1978.

I never had the chance to taste Perfection, so to speak. It was mentioned in the beer books which started to proliferate at the end of the 1970s, but as a curio lost to time. One writer did taste it, Jim Robertson. He said the beer was very good and his two or three year old bottle had survived remarkably well, but his notes are not detailed.

The significance of that release would be so different today, when many beer fans understand the history of lager and what it means for a beer to be lagered almost a year, especially one of regular strength.

Today I will salute Perfection beer and the vision of Horlacher, bootless as it proved to be, but first some background.

I’ve discussed a number of times how both in America and finally Europe lager beer changed from a long-aged (six-nine months) “summer” brew to essentially a “winter” beer.

As handed down in Bavaria, there was, i) schenk or winter beer, and ii) summer beer, which was lager properly speaking. Schenk was brewed in cold weather when wild organisms in the atmosphere wouldn’t sour the beer. It was given little aging and consumed as released. Summer beer was the same brew laid down in cold caves or cellars and consumed many months later, in spring or summer when brewing was suspended due to the warm weather.

When I say “same brew”, that was not always technically true, sometimes the summer lager was hopped more or made a little stronger to assist the long keeping. But basically the two forms of beer, and whether light or dark, differed little but for the aging aspect.

PerfectionThe true lager of old Germany was the summer form. What was initially a strategy to ensure beer was available in the non-brewing season became the prized form. People liked the long-aged beer due to its good carbonation, clarity, and matured taste.

Both schenk and summer lager are bottom-fermented, whereas before their emergence, top-fermented ale, porter, and some old European styles (weisse beers, Gose Bier, Broyan) were the norm.

Bottom-fermented beers tended to be more stable and clean-tasting due in part to the nature of bottom yeast but also their long cold sojourn which inhibited souring and other infection.

Also, and this is an insight I gleaned from numerous 19th century American accounts, the long aging would have knocked down the bitterness. And people liked that.*

How bottom-fermenting yeast evolved is a controversial subject. For a long time, many felt it was a derivative of a top-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces Cerevisiae) and developed empirically under unique conditions of cold fermentation and aging.

Recent studies suggest lager yeast is a hybrid of a Cerevisiae yeast and a non-Cerevisiae yeast whose origins have been traced, strangely, to Argentina, Mongolia, and Tibet.

However the new beer yeast emerged, its use over centuries in Bavaria convinced people of its superiority over top-fermented beer especially as I have said in the classic aged form. This style took over finally in the north and east of Germany as well, and in adjoining Bohemia. Finally, lager came to North America (1840s) and in time became the dominant beer style everywhere in the world.

And yet. The lager which became a world-beater was not the long-aged brew cracked open only in the summer. It was really schenk beer which earlier was just one form of lager and not the most reputed. There is no question that in the 1840s and 50s, the true, long-aged summer beer was in the market and captured the public imagination. Schenk was drunk in winter, but that was not what put lager up in lights.

By the 1870s, harvested natural ice and finally refrigeration equipment became routine aids in the brewery. With their help, brewing could occur year round. The old long-aged lager became a memory. The schenk continued to be slow-fermented (8-10 days) vs. half that for top-fermented beer, so that part stayed true to tradition. And it received some storage in the cellar, but nothing near to what it originally received.

Some German and American breweries were still aging lager a couple of months, or more in some cases, in the late 1800s. From that point through to post-WW II the aging got ever shorter, and this accelerated once cylindrical fermenters emerged: they made it easy to collect and dispose of yeast from the base of the tank.

Is lager beer aged two months vs. six or nine as in old times, just as good? What about beer given two weeks storage if that? I’ve asked that question of brewers many times. Most seem convinced long-aging isn’t needed and on the theory (which I’ve bruited myself) that fresh beer is best, aging time can be shortened.

For example, with developments in filtration and carbonation, you could get clear, carbonated beer in a few weeks rather than waiting six to nine months.

A claimed advantage for long age is that “green flavours” including dimethyl sulphide (overcooked vegetable) will dissipate. But brewers say they know how to expel such flavours without long storage.

Indeed, there is some suggestion (I’ve discussed this earlier as well) that not all long-aged lager was exempt from sourness. Can the schenk have been preferred to a lactic tang of age…?

All in all, people liked the young new beer, or at any rate that’s what brewers gave them and they liked it well enough.

This was the environment in which little Horlacher, looking for an angle in a tough market, released a pale beer aged nine months in 1976. This was unheard of then and perhaps more to the point, is unheard of today. I am not aware of any craft lager aged that long. Some strong dark lagers, e.g., Doppelbock, or Eisbock, can receive a few months aging, but no regular strength lager does as far as I know.

Horlacher did this without knowing how the beer landscape would change within a decade, without knowing how New Albion Brewery, which had started up the same year in Sonoma in California, would help work a revolution. Perfection no doubt sold well but nothing to ride a wave on, and the same happened with Brew II, so the brewery continued its downward path.

If you would like more information on Perfection and Horlacher, you need only read Jess Kidden’s pages on the brand, hereKidden has collected a fine range of print artifacts and labels. They point indeed to a high-quality product with a high percentage of malt and hopped for good flavour.

Sadly, Perfection was ahead of its time: being about the best beer in America in 1976 couldn’t save it.

A craft brewer should brew a nine month pale lager today to remember Horlacher’s brave sally in the market. If we can have beer flavoured with tea and oranges – and that’s only the half of it – we can have one flavoured just with malt and hops stored like the old lagers of Bavaria. Advertise it this way: “Beer made in the true Alpine way which made the renown of lager in the 1850s in America. And its yeast is in part all the way from China”.

Note re images: the images above were sourced from Jess Kidden’s web page linked in the text above. They are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All trademarks and other intellectual property shown belong to their lawful owners or authorized licensee(s). All feedback welcomed.


*Earlier, I discussed the c. 1960 ad copy of F.X. Matt for Utica Club, that it was “50 years behind the times”. I said I thought the claim of low bitterness was something tucked into the ad for modern appeal, an incongruity few would notice. Now I think Matt’s knew exactly what it was talking about – it’s often a mistake to second-guess brewers with long experience and, even more important, long memory. The long sojourn in the cellars would tend to take down some of the bitterness, it rounded out the beer in this and other respects as well. A brewer with the heritage of F.X. Matt likely understood that.


The New York Lager Saloon in 1854 – More American Every Day


I have discussed news coverage of the New York  lager beer scene in various periods including in 1891 and 1877. As the decades wore on you can sense lager brewing was becoming bigger and more sophisticated. The same applied to the bar and retail beverage business.

Let’s go back a bit, to October, 1854. The New York Daily Tribune wrote up the subject of lager beer in New York. It has an introduction with broader aims, taking in the history of beer and beer-like beverages in Europe and elsewhere, but the heart of the article is on the Manhattan beer scene.

The article stresses that lager beer was “the” malt liquor by this time and had practically effaced the older ale and common beer. 2000 saloons and drinking places offered beer in town, the bulk lager beer. Over 3,000,000 gallons per year were consumed annually. Many other facts and figures are given in the article, which you can read here, including the fact that about 1.5 lbs hops per barrel were used in brewing. This figure tallies broadly with other sources and held to the end of the century.

The article discusses, if only to dismiss, a bunch of northern and eastern German beers, many with odd-sounding names. How does Murder and Manslaughter sound for size? Or cow’s tail?  Then there is Israel, which is very glad to read about (and has before), but why would a German beer be called Israel? It was a Lubeck speciality.

All these provincial beers outside Bavaria are said to have yielded to the all-conquering lager, which finally hit American shores. The Schaefers in New York, who established a brewery in 1842, were noted early lager-brewers but some accounts state they made ale until 1848.

Any way you look at it, within a tiny number of years an industry went from virtually nothing to some 27 brewers on Manhattan alone making 85,000 barrels per year.*

Britain is one of the great brewing nations of the world. New York was, sociologically, an English town after it was a Dutch one and before it was truly American. How could lager displace the far-famed English ale and porter? The article suggests these beers were too strong and caused fights and commotion while the German saloons were generally peaceful.

It called “ruffians” those who haunted porter-houses. One can infer as well from other sources that the ale and stout were often sour. Lager was not. In 1854, lager still held to the European winter beer-summer beer divide. More was drunk in winter than summer and the summer beer, by being long-stored, was more expensive.

Use of ice and mechanical cooling later effaced this distinction. But whether old-style or new, brown or finally pale, lager captured the American imagination almost from day one.

One of the absorbing parts of the article is the observations on saloons and the typical pub-goer as well as pub landlord. Most were Germans recently arrived and most of the lager made was consumed by Germans. Still, the trade had grown so large the “Trib” took notice. In another 20 years, lager became an American drink, drunk by all comers. Its German associations, while not quite forgotten up to the 1930s, receded into insignificance. But the Trib was talking about a time the drink still had strong ethnic associations.

Acknowledging that a few low-down German places were disorderly or of ill-repute not to mention their sour beer and cheap tobacco, the article said most lager saloons were respectable places. They offered a cool cellar or vault, a repose from the heat or tumult outside. The article noted differences in German and American drinking habits. The Germans sat at their beer and took their time. The Americans took their drink at the bar and left like an “ignited rocket”, not taking time to appreciate the taste.

Again in time these differences evened out. The article points out that many saloon-keepers were formerly men of high standing in middle Europe who had to leave because of the “Revolution”, to escape an “Imperial bullet” or “dungeon”. That’s the 1848 Revolution, if you remember from high school, Kossuth and all that. Lawyers trained in “Roman and German law” found it was not “available” (useable) in New York and most such refugees spoke no English anyway. The same for ex-military men, professors, and other grandees of the old country who bet on the wrong side in 1848.

Many turned to tending bar or hotels in New York, it was the “omnipotence of want“, as the article put it. And for this, they needed a strong stomach, both to endure mouthy loungers who had a “sixpence” but also to drink with the customers. If you couldn’t take the liquor, you had to have a partner who could.

And so, in these trans-atlantic salons, melancholy half-way houses of those “entre deux chaises“, former kahunas of Europe swept the floor and poured ze lager. We had Hungarian restaurants in Montreal like this in the 1950s. The late George Jonas, the Hungarian-born Toronto journalist and author, would have appreciated this earlier recounting of an age-old tale. Although to be fair, success found the uber-talented Jonas not long after his arrival to our shores. He is much missed.

And so, picture yourself a Yankee or Knickerbocker (old Dutch stock), wandering into a peaceable haunt with a German name in 1850s New York. Newspapers in foreign tongues strewn on the tables. The strange odours of sausage and sauerkraut steaming from the scullery. Clouds of pipe-smoke and cigar-effusions making everyone look kind of the same, American. Order your krug of lager, which was probably Munich-style brown beer then. Listen to the piano player, have another krug.

I tell you Willy, this is better than Peterson’s damnable porter-house. That sour stuff he sells is full of “brewer’s drugs” some say, cream of tatar or something. There is always a brawl there sooner or later, and next day I awake with a sore head even if just from the beer. Here, with two or three lagers you feel good and then you’re full and can’t drink any more, time to go home for dinner and you can taste it. Next time I’ll bring John or Patrick from the counting-house, they would like it, too. That ladder seems higher every day at the bank, you know. What kind of turn-over is Herr Mueller doing here, Willy? That much you say? I should escape Wall Street and establish a lager brewery. Willy, didn’t you tell me you worked at a brewery in Munich…?

This way of drinking beer became the American norm for the next 150 years. Our Yankee and finally all New York’s multitudes liked the German beer and atmosphere, in time the foreign quality lessened but the lager was as good as ever – until they started putting lots of corn or rice in it, anyway.


*The true consumption and production numbers appear as reflected in the current version this post, i.e., 3,075,000 gallons consumed in Manhattan with 27 breweries producing 85,000 barrels @ 30 gal. each. The difference was made up by imports from Philadelphia and elsewhere. The article is a little inconsistent with the numbers, probably intentionally to emphasize the huge growth in lager in under 10 years.

Note Re Image: The image above was sourced from Pinterest, here, and is believed available for historical and educational purposes. All trademarks or other intellectual property shown belong to their owner or duly authorized users. All feedback welcomed.



Bradley’s Frothing Powder “Creams” Beer


In 1886 The Brewers’ Guardian, a bi-weekly English journal devoted to all aspects of the brewing trade, contained numerous ads for Bradley’s Patent Dry “Frothing Powder”. The ads read:

Dissolves Bright and Produces a Good Lasting Head on Ale and Porter. Sample by Post 1 1/2 d., to Cream 36 Gallons to the Last Glass. Gives Neither Taste nor Smell.

Earlier in the century, the law was clearly against addition of such foaming agents and books and articles appeared, familiar to those who plumb brewing history, fulminating against additives in beer. Getting a good head on beer, especially porter, was a desideratum of all brewers then. “Beer druggists” ranged the country supplying brewers who needed a little help.

Various nostrums were used for this. They included copperas or green sulphate, and various concoctions which included cream of tartar, an acid derived from wine lees which may lie at the root of the names cream ale, cream porter and cream soda as I argued the other day.

In 1880, the “free mash tun” became law in England. This meant a much larger range of fermentables could be used in mashing than before, things such as corn (maize) and oats. Whether by 1886 the law on adding non-fermentables such as a foaming powder had also changed, I cannot say.

One of the expressed purposes of The Brewers’ Guardian was to deal with legal developments. Given this, I doubt something advertised in its pages would have been unlawful. Even if the use of foaming ads was prohibited for commercial brewers, the ads may have been directed ostensibly to so-called private brewers. They didn’t pay excise tax and weren’t regulated in the same way as the others.

Be that as it may, it shows that some English brewers were using a powder to increase their beer’s foaming. If they were, it is highly likely America’s ale brewers were doing it for their ale and porter. North America’s top-fermentation tradition comes from Britain. Many brewers who founded ale breweries in North America in Victoria’s time came from Britain or were of Anglo-Saxon origin.

These include the founder of Ballantine beer in Albany, NY, Sleeman in Guelph, ON, Greenway in Syracuse, NY, and Lill in Chicago. The last three all made cream ales, and possibly Ballantine did too, I would need to check.

In the full heyday of 1800s Anglo-American brewing, there was much more to unite brewers from the two components than separate them. A separation did finally occur but only after 1900. (In a nutshell, ale here became more lager-like while Britain hewed more closely to its ancestral traditions including in the matter of cask-conditioning).

If anything, the practice of using a foaming aid may have been more prevalent in North America as I believe there were no laws against it in the 1800s.  Cream ale starts to emerge in ads in the 1830s.

Bradley’s nostrum surely was a combination of cream of tartar and a carbonate of some kind. It was a dry powder, as baking powder is, and also, in 1888 Bradley applied to modify the patent by excluding any claim for dextrin. In the application, he referred to the original specifications, and the ingredients included saponin, calcium and magnesium carbonate, and “other salts”. Cream of tartar is a salt in chemistry, of potassium. If a carbonate was there, almost certainly an acid was, too.

Saponin is an extract from the plant world, soap-wort is an example (wort, we can’t avoid the brewing context, eh?…). Saponin is used to manufacture soap and detergents. It makes perfect sense that a mix of saponin and baking powder would make a good head on a beer.

And so there you have the key elements to help those ales foam up and hold the foam. Further proof such things were used by ale and porter brewers lies in another ad a few years earlier for French Cream-Gum Extract, by W.J. Bush. The ad read:

“… for producing a permanent head of creamy richness on all ginger beer, ginger ale, lemonade and other aerated beverages; also on beers, wines, ciders, etc.”.

There you have the link-up with soft drinks; both top-fermenting brewers and soft drink makers used, we can infer, a form of baking powder to ensure good foaming of their beer. It wasn’t just a few lager brewers in the New York area, per the City of Brooklyn investigation and New York State Assembly documents (1880s) I referred to earlier, who were combining an acid and a carbonate to raise a head on their beer.

Nor can it be argued that Every Man His Own Brewer’s advice in 1768 to use (ironically) non-adulterated cream of tartar to make beer brisk was vague or a one-off, as well into the 1880s brewers were buying powders to make beer “creamy” which would have incorporated the very thing.

There is no question that Bradley and Bush were using dairy cream as a metaphor. But this is the 1880s. By then, what I apprehend is the second of the double-associations of the terms cream ale, cream porter, cream soda became the one that resonated with the public, even the average brewer. This doesn’t mean in other words the origins of the name don’t lie in chemistry via the term cream of tartar.

I could be wrong of course but what seems normal to us now, that “creamy” naturally applies to a nice head on a beer, isn’t necessarily how people viewed it when cream of tartar first went into a vat of beer. The association with a viscous thick substance like dairy cream only may have come later, once it was seen as a nice coincidence that cream in its dairy sense applied metaphorically to very fizzy beer and soft drinks.

Indeed the dairy cream analogy was preferable to a sense lying in obscure chemistry, especially as no one wanted to emphasize the chemical meaning due to the always-present public concern adulteration.

By the early 1900s, modern microbiology and biochemistry had commenced. While additives in beer were far from being discarded (au contraire), all that was left in brewers’ and brewing scientists’ minds regarding cream ale was fizziness and the head. This is evident from how Wahl & Henius in their pre-WW I text treat it as I said earlier, and also the way A.L. Nugey discusses cream ale in his 1930s Brewing Formulas Practically Considered, a text I’ve also discussed earlier.

Nugey stated simply that cream ale was “lively” beer and “krausened”. The krausen process is where newly-fermenting beer is added to matured lager to spark a new fermentation to make it foamy and carbonated. Clearly, cream ale’s lively character probably since before WW I has been created through krausening, injected CO2, or some other usual method which eschews additives.

(In other words, while foaming agents certainly are used today by some brewers, I’d doubt they are used any differently for cream ales).

The term krausen and its derivatives are of German origin. While it is tempting to think they suggest a German brewing origin for cream ale, I don’t think that is the case. There are too many associations with English and Anglo-American brewers to suggest that cream ale doesn’t come from an Anglo-Saxon tradition, IMO.

Also, cream ales and cream beers of various styles proliferated in the 1800s and 1900s. See this eBay listing of labels which covers a wide range of breweries and styles for the 1900s. Earlier, I had thought cream ale probably originated in New York State and spread to a couple of adjoining states and Ontario in Canada.

In fact, there were breweries in a much wider part of the States and Canada which had cream ales, cream porters or stouts, and cream pilseners. At least two reputed breweries in Chicago made cream ales before the Civil War.

An old bottle cap for Labatt 50 Ale states, “Labatt 50 Cream Ale”. This tv ad from the 1990s in Quebec’s French market advertised Labatt 50 Cream Ale and the announcer said, “Tout l’arôme d’une ale anglaise“. While this choice of terminology for Labatt 50 came relatively late (the brand only dates too from 1950), it suggests to me a well-carbonated beer of English origin ultimately. “50” was and still is top-fermented, for example.

In the end, I think the tradition behind the cream-denoted beers was neither parochially German nor geographic in the sense mentioned, nor simply the result of a pleasing metaphor involving dairy cream, but rather was characteristic of a wide area where early brewers of English tradition were familiar with powders which ensured a good head on a beer, of which cream of tartar was an essential component.

To me this argues English roots reaching back perhaps to 1768 and Every Man His Own Brewer and to cream of tartar. Still, one can’t exclude the dairy cream metaphor or a German brewing technique, maybe krausening, as explanations, it’s possible.

Note Re Image: The image above was sourced at the Tavern Trove webpage, here, and is believed available for historical and educational purposes. All trademarks or other intellectual property shown belong to their owner or duly authorized users. All feedback welcomed.

“This is How We Make Whisky in Canada”

IMG_20160808_200110The title is a quote from Dr. Don Livermore. He made the statement a couple of times during my memorable visit recently to the Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor.

Having received an invitation to tour the plant in company of Don Livermore, its Master Blender, I wasn’t going to say no. Are you kidding? This was a chance to visit a distillery in operation since 1858 – before Canada became a nation. It produces nationally and internationally-known brands, not just whisky but numerous other spirits, and liqueurs.

Don possesses master’s and doctoral degrees in Brewing and Distilling from the well-known Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. His studies focused on barrel maturation and how different types of barrels interact with alcohol and affect flavour. This background, plus many years at Hiram Walker in different roles, have given him a mastery of the science and practice of distilling and blending.

Hiram Walker was an American who resided in Detroit, he had interests in numerous businesses including a grocery. Interestingly, he crossed the river daily to supervise the business but never resided in Canada.

The Hiram Walker complex runs some 40 acres along the Detroit river and includes the aging warehouses at Pike Creek, about 10 miles away. The Canadian Club Heritage Centre onsite is actually operated by Beam Suntory, a competitor. Hiram Walker makes Canadian Club for Beam Suntory under contract. “CC” was a Hiram Walker brand originally but this changed some years ago when Hiram Walker changed hands. Pernod-Ricard in France acquired the distillery and the Hiram Walker whisky brands except CC, which went to what is now Beam Suntory.

IMG_20160808_093500We started at the general offices where a Wiser’s Brand Centre is in course of planning. An on-premises shop is now in operation as well where different brands can be purchased by the public. A bar is planned, to boot. The Brand Centre will permit public tours and a broader interface with the consumer interest in whisky than has been afforded to date. All to the good, it’s a trend at play for some time at distilleries in Scotland, Ireland, and Kentucky.

The Detroit River and Detroit city skyline across the river will provide a superb backdrop for the Brand Centre.

Tall elevators nearby were built of concrete in the 1950s. They hold the grains that will become whisky. They are held in unmilled form, and ground with a hammer mill before mashing for whisky or other spirits. I met Kristy who checks the grain arrivals to ensure conformance to contract. She looks in particular for geosmin in grain, an earthy off-taste which can show up in the barrels years later.

Also, spent grains sold for animal feed with this defect might be rejected by the animals who instinctively shy from the taste. For this reason, the company is careful to reject all grain with this defect or other non-conformance to contract specifications. Moisture level is another parameter carefully checked.

IMG_20160808_104652The dried, spent grains from the mashing – the residue after the sugars are extracted for fermentation – are stored in an impressive huge pile with different-coloured layers, e.g., rye is darker than corn. Farmers prize the spent grains as feed for livestock. At one time, the area where the grain is received and handled formed part of a separate grain business. Many distillers started as millers or grain dealers and grain trading was once an adjunct to distilling at Hiram Walker.

We went to the rooftop of a silo and apart from the view being pretty impressive – the river glittered far below on a flawless day – we heard a pinging sound. Sonar-type technology is used to monitor the volumes in the elevators. Exact meansurement can be made at any time which assists for financial reporting and other purposes.

IMG_20160808_103745All grains are stored separately by type and are mashed, distilled, and aged separately. This system is generally used at large Canadian distillers. For CC however, separate distillates are combined (when new) for aging. But all the Hiram Walker whiskies including the flagship Wiser brands are aged separately and then blended before bottling.

Mashing occurs for three main types of spirit:

– spirit distilled in a column still and rectified at a high proof, c. 94% abv. This is called Double-distilled by the company. Don said the company has been making spirit at this strength at least since 1906 based on the earliest records


– a spirit called “Star”, distilled once in the column still at 70% abv


– the same Star but finished in a pot still. This is Star Special, which is a few points higher than Star in abv

Backset, the residue of a previous distillation, is used in mashing for Double-distilled but not for the other two. The acidity level in the rye mashes doesn’t require backset to reach the correct level. It is useful for Double-distilled, to adjust the pH which otherwise might climb too high due to nitrogen in the mash which is wanted for its favourable impact on yeast action.

IMG_20160808_104050Most of the Double-distilled is made from corn, which has a relatively mild taste as a grain. Star and Star Special generally are distilled from rye but also sometimes from barley or wheat, and form the keynote flavours in the blends. Star and Star Special are distilled broadly like the American straight whiskies or Scots malts (all under 80% abv), but have their own characteristics. E.g., the pot still used for Star Special is somewhat different than the doubler still used for bourbon since the spirit is condensed first and tanked, after which it is charged into the pot still. In a doubler set-up, the spirit flows directly into it from the column still in one process.

Also, Hiram Walker’s pot still has a notably low lyne arm. Through less reflux (condensing and re-boiling) this makes a more vigorous spirit.

Traditionally in Canada, the idea is to use small amounts of flavoursome whiskies such as Star and Star Special with a larger amount of Double-Distilled to make a balanced blend. One brand, Lot 40, is Star Special not blended, and released on its own. It has a very full, piney/spicy palate. It is our counterpart to a Scots malt or bourbon.

IMG_20160808_114620The fermented mash for Double-Distilled reaches 15-16% abv, a high level by international standards. The more alcohol that can be generated from a mash, the more efficient it is. The distillate’s high proof means no relevant flavour considerations are affected. In contrast, Star and Star Special are mashed to produce about 9% abv, comparable to an American or Scottish distiller’s “beer” for bourbon or malt whisky.

The distillery uses commercial dried distillers yeast for the fermentation. In the past, some malt was used to convert the starches in the raw grains to fermentable sugars but Don indicated the company is moving to all-raw grains mashing with enzyme being added to ensure conversion and fermentation. This ensures better control and reduces the risk of infection which malted grains (due to their processing) can introduce into mashes and the finished whisky. Later in the lab, I tasted a spirit which showed this defect and I thought it was quite familiar from numerous American ryes I’ve had! It was a strong peppermint note, at least that’s how it struck me.

I won’t tarry on bottling and emptying and filling casks except to say the barrel emptying system made an impression. The trucks come in from Pike Creek, barrels enter on their warehouse pallets, a machine takes out the bung,  and the whiskey is vacuumed out in about half a minute. A moment later the barrel is refilled with new distillate and trucked back to the warehouse for aging. The cycle of the business is neatly exemplified in that one operation.

IMG_20160808_135957The labs have the expected high degree of tech sophistication, however employees still nose the products to ensure acceptance to set standards. The human element is still very much part of the picture. Alcohol today is measured, e.g., in a portion of mash, with a densimeter, not a hydrometer.

Don pioneered the use of infrared sensors that can rapidly detect alcohol, sugar, and acid levels in a matter of seconds as to opposed to traditional methods that could take as long as two hours to measure one sample. This technology allows Hiram Walker to have tight controls on fermentation which in Don’s belief is the heart beat of a distillery.

The distilling process is monitored by a sophisticated software program which can report on various parameters especially temperature.

Don showed me an amazing collection of yeast samples gathered by the company over the years from different sources. I saw an “Old Crow” yeast, yeasts from long-disappeared rye distilleries in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and much more. Don hopes to use some of these yeasts to make test batches of products. The company just acquired a smaller still, a hybrid pot and column still, which will facilitate this. Imagine a rye whisky mash fermented as in the 1930s in Baltimore! Maryland was formerly of high repute for rye whiskey.

All the whisky is aged, and some rum and brandy, in large concrete warehouses (1950s, 60s-era) a few miles away at Pike Creek, a suburb of Windsor. The barrels stand end-to-end on wood pallets vs. on their side on racks as in some distilleries. The buildings are ventilated with fans, and large overhead doors are opened and closed to ensure proper air circulation. No artificial heating or cooling is used unlike in some bourbon warehouses. Temperatures in the Windsor areas can be quite extreme, at times the whisky is near freezing but right now can reach 30 C or more.

IMG_20160808_144444Whisky is aged anywhere from three to 18 years or more. Each brand has a set matrix of ages and sources – mix of Double-distilled, Star and/or Star Special. In turn, the whiskies are distilled from different grains and aged in different kinds of barrels.

Red Letter is a relatively recent brand, but based on a historical recipe. Its base is aged in virgin wood, that is, new barrels whose interiors are charred as for bourbon. This gives the whisky a warm, toasted oak topnote compared to the more neutral impact of re-used bourbon barrels.

I tasted at the warehouse Lot 40, a Star Special unblended as mentioned above, at about 55% abv – barrel strength. It had a spicy/piney nose and huge flavour with a good sweetness. This is Canada’s equivalent of a good single malt or bourbon but appropriately, doesn’t taste like either. It would be good to see the cask strength released as a specialty on the market but right now you can buy the very distinctive Lot 40 at 43% abv*.

Back at the main facility, Don took me through an amazing nosing of numerous white and aged spirits, made from different grains and aged in different barrels, to detect differences. He made a presentation on the effect of alcohol on the cellulose and hemi-cellulose of the oak which showed how specific compounds are extracted to lend keynote flavours in the spirit. Lignin is a key source of many of these flavours, it derives from fibre in the oak wood.

Rye also has fibre and the aging of Star and Star Special result in breakdown of its lignin component to provide many of the spicy and other keynote flavours. These include grassy, floral, fruity notes, some of which come from the fermentation, the heart of the process.

A heavy soapy note in Star and Star Special is avoided by discarding most of the “tails” from the pot distillation, these are the high-boiling volatiles. Undesirable low-boiling volatiles including methanol are removed by a “heads” cut at the outset of the run. Still, a touch of these flavours stays in the spirit to lend it character. (Molecules can’t be separated with precision in the fractionating of a grain fermentation, a good thing).

IMG_20160808_134204Although some of the Hiram Walker brands may use relatively little Star and Star Special, so potent is their taste that considerable flavour is imparted to a much larger amount of relatively neutral whisky. It isn’t neutral as such due to aging in wood and being a touch under the distilling-out proof for vodka, but by comparison with the flavouring whiskies, the base is milder and intentionally so.

Don indicated, and I know this from distilling history, that a clean alcohol taste was regarded as highly desirable in the mid-1800s. This was a time when much whisky was made in primitive stills and sold young and raw. The public welcomed a spirit which lacked heavy soapy and oily notes. Indeed readers might reflect how popular vodka is today, the cleanest spirit that can be made.

IMG_20160808_162920When high-proof, clean spirit became available, to give the “whisky” taste people remembered, some whisky made the older way was blended with the newer type. People liked these blends which became the whisky style of Canada. Blended Scotch whisky developed in a very similar manner, the same for most rum. The Americans too had, and still do, their version of blended whiskey.

As a fan of the whisky palate, I must say I incline to the traditionally-distilled products, i.e., made the way Star and Star Special are and long-aged for maximum taste and complexity. I did try one whisky which was long-aged in new charred oak (virgin wood again) to see if it was similar to a U.S. straight rye. It was really quite different, a piney top-note emerged which is not characteristic of U.S. rye. I think our climate partly explains it but also Don pointed out that where the rye is sourced, as well as process differences at the pot still stage, can make for different tastes at the other end.

Consider too that Star and Star Special are typically made from 100% rye. Most American ryes have a considerable amount of corn in them…

It is only appropriate our whiskeys made in a similar manner to other reputed whiskies will not taste identical – it makes them distinctive, both of Hiram Walker in this case and Canada.

IMG_20160808_100245Finally, I did some blending with Don’s help in the room where all the samples were arrayed. I decided to go for a blend of a Double-distilled, Star, and Star Special. The latter two were about 15% by volume of the blend. The taste was very forward and pleasing to me, I think Don agreed. It showed how a relatively small amount of flavouring whiskey can give a defining character to the blend.

Don will be interested, or amused, to hear that when I got home and the level in the flask was 80%, I topped it with Red Letter whisky and just a touch of the barrel-strength Lot 40. I thought this produced a more complex taste and certainly was very good too. The samples left with me by the company were much appreciated.

I recognize the public taste perhaps always will tilt towards the milder, softer taste of the blends, but I hope in the future Hiram Walker will put more emphasis on the single whiskies. It would be good to see a second Star Special, maybe one aged all in new-charred wood. And a cask-strength version of one of these would be nice.

Hiram Walker has the flexibility, resources, and experience to make anything it wants and supply any public need in beverage spirits. The future is theirs, as it has been since 1858.


*An earlier version of this article erroneously stated “40% abv”; thanks to “Megawatt” of for alerting me to this error.




Virginia Black in More Depth

CpnSysGVMAENn3TSome months ago I wrote brief notes on this new whisky which is being rolled out in Ontario in stages this year.

Bottles have been available to taste at the Summerhill LCBO’s tasting counter (small samples).

Customers could pre-order it from the Vintages department ahead of general listing. I ordered a couple of bottles a few months ago and they came in yesterday.

Tasting the whisky in normal-size measures, I am just as impressed as with the teaspoon measures of the sampling. Virginia Black is obviously bourbon whisky, even though not stated on the label, but dollars to donuts some kind of sweetening is added. In this case the effect is pleasant and works perfectly.

Under U.S. regulations for bourbon, it is not possible to flavour bourbon and call the result “bourbon”. Rye whiskey, provided it is not straight, is a different story, as are the various barrel-finished bourbons due to some hairsplitting IMO.

I speculate it was decided to call Virginia Black simply “whisky” to ensure compliance with these rules, but I don’t know for certain. It doesn’t matter, the whisky is a quality product and that’s all that matters.

I should add, Virginia in the name is neither a type nor source, the label states clearly the whiskey is not from Virginia. Virginia is simply a branding or trade mark here.

The back label refers to Lawrenceburg, Indiana which suggests the whiskey is sourced from MGP, an old distillery there – very old, it was started in 1847. The plant used to be owned by Seagram. MGP is a respected bulk producer, it has no brands of its own but supplies bourbon and rye whiskey to many non-distilling producers or others needing whiskey for a brand.

The whiskey hasn’t a hint of immaturity, that rubbery or detergent note two or three year old whisky can have. I’d guess the Virginia Black is four or five years old, but am not sure again. However it is put together, the people who formulated it did a great job.

Music and media star Drake founded the Virginia Black venture together with the creator of DeLeon tequila**, Brent Hocking. They came up with some nice packaging, too, the bottle is a ridged clear glass which evokes the 40s-60s. The VB logo has a 40s design feel as well but the blingy gold-plate of the label and cap offers a modern note.

Both in colour and taste, the whisky reminded me of a bourbon from the 60s-80s, Benchmark. Like Virginia Black, Benchmark was rich but not complex, easy to get down but tasting good. As it happens, that was a Seagram brand*. It all ties in…


* The name Benchmark has appeared on bottles of bourbon in recent years, a product of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY (owned by Sazerac Company of New Orleans). Virginia Black tastes much closer to the original Benchmark than the latter-day one, IMO.

**Apologies to Virginia Black, I just was told that co-founder Brent Hocking developed DeLeon tequila, not another brand as mentioned earlier.  Glad to be able to set record straight.