India Pale ale – an Amazing Double act

In 1863, an Adelaide, South Australia newspaper had an article on India Pale Ale, a reprint from the Illustrated London News.

The article was a seeming advertorial on Allsopp, the great Burton-on-Trent brewer. Despite the undertone of boosterism considerable technical information is conveyed. There is also an appealing personal quality in that the writer recalls the time IPA was new in London, and describes the odd effect it had on people not used to it.

There is something special about IPA in this regard, as its modern American-inspired iteration continues to show. IPA, unlike mass-market lager, never was commodified into blandness. Even traditional English bitter retains the essence of what made IPA distinctive to begin with.

One might think that with the passing of the great pale ale brewers of the 19th and 20th centuries, IPA is an item of largely historical interest, as say Imperial Stout. Or in other words that, as the saying goes, there can be no double act.

IPA has proved the adage wrong. The reason the phoenix has risen is in many ways, though, the obverse of what the English writer explained in 1863. Then, IPA was viewed as a more temperate drink than brandy-and-water and double stout, tipples it partly displaced. Its strong bitterness was not liked initially but people accustomed to it and viewed the drink finally as a tonic, or quasi-medicine.

Today, IPA, whose average strength is about what it was in 1863, is sought out because it is stronger and more zesty than the default lager or (in UK) cider.

Some impactful extracts from the article follow. Incidentally a “griffin” was a Briton newly arrived in India, what we would call a greenhorn today.

In India, as may presently be shown, this delightful beverage has been known and appreciated since the early part of the century; but in England it was long considered with us a potation fit only for exportation, and had to work its way gradually and laboriously ere it could obtain favour. We well remember the first appearance of pale ale in the metropolis, when our beloved Sovereign was quite a newly-crowned Queen. People made wry faces at it at first, talked about gall and wormwood, and disparaged the new ‘Indian ale’, as it was called, as a nauseous potion, fit only for Indian ‘griffins’ with no palate, and Indian Judges of Sudder Adawiut with no livers.

Speedily, however, it was discovered that the sparkling, brightened decoction of malt, hops, and pure water known as pale ale was in verity the ‘cup that cheers and not inebriates’— that it did not stupefy or lead to congestion and heartburn like double stout— that it did not tend to vertigo and the endangerment of the centre of gravity like Scotch ale taken ‘so early in the morning’ — that it did not lower the system or impair the digestive organs like soda-water— that its alcoholic properties were sufficient for gentle stimulation but not for intoxication— that its medicinal qualities were manifold; and that in many cases its moderate consumption gave health to the invalid, and made healthy persons healthier. In process of time pale or bitter ale became a great fact.

It has been called the champagne of the middle classes; but it is ten times more palatable than bad champagne, and twice as wholesome as the very best. Pale ale, having made its mark, has continued year after year to increase in popularity. That popularity has now attained an amazing pitch. Everybody drinks pale ale, either in bottle or in draught. It refreshes the Royal Duke at his modest Horse Guards lunch — it consoles the subaltern pining in his hut amidst the desolate boredom of Aldershott — it is the solace of the commercial traveller, who is beginning to eschew those potent magnums of brown brandy and water of which the abuse is so pernicious. Pale ale relieves the dulness of a sea voyage. Pale ale is to be had at the refreshment-rooms of every railway station in the kingdom.

British Beer in Boulogne, c. 1850

As in the case of North America, British “beerways” had a marked impact in France in the 19th century. In France, the prestige of British beer continued into the 20th century.

In the mid-1970s when beer author Michael Jackson (1942-2007) began writing, he stated English beer was “chic” in Paris. In truth, it has been so in parts of France for 200 years and more.



In the 1840s in the Channel port of Boulogne-sur-Mer on the northern coast, English and Irish beers were big sellers. This arose partly due to Boulogne being a British resort, frequented by an upper class and other prosperous tourists. Many passed through, to Paris or warmer parts south, but some stayed for “the season”.

Nearby Le Touquet had a similar scene, of even higher social rank, in fact.

A cottage industry sprang up in these parts of British-run businesses to supply Anglophones with home-style needs: inns and pubs, bakeries, florists, beer “depots”,  insurers, bird-stuffers, even undertakers.

An English-owned hotel and bar, the Royal Oak, had a good run in different parts in Boulogne in the mid-1800s. Beers it offered are listed in this 1846 guidebook, a “Tableau” to help visitors. Turn the page and one sees a similar ad from an indubitably English Mr. Stubss (sic), with his beers listed. Further examples are strewn through the volume. The famed Bass East India Pale Ale, from Burton-on-Trent, is mentioned, among other brands of repute.

At least in Boulogne, somewhat distant from “metropole”, stout, porter, and strong ale hadn’t yet been eclipsed by the rising star at home, pale ale. Porter and stout were likely the major draw at Royal Oak since they are listed first.

Lane & Co. of Southgate, Cork supplied such brews, both draught and bottled. Reid’s stout was also offered, and bottled Guinness. Lane, choc-a-bloc to the more famous Beamish & Crawford brewery, was much smaller. When the Victorian beer writer Alfred Barnard was in Cork to tour its breweries he visited Beamish & Crawford only.

Still, Lane’s beers must have been good to fetch top billing over the Channel. They were apparently the highest-priced in the list, in fact.

In 1883, Lane’s beers were exhibited at the Cork Industrial Exhibition. Its porter was described as “full, sweet, clean”, and the stouts, as bitter and durable although one was thought to contain preservative. See details at p. 344, here. The comments on the Beamish beers are also interesting: the notes on its single stout can be applied to many craft stouts today.

(The taste of beer changes much less than we think, but it’s a separate topic).

The barrels’ journey to the French coast from Cork harbour, in those pre-pasteurization days, probably didn’t harm the beer too much. The North Atlantic climate is equable from a beer standpoint, and turnover was likely such that patrons could expect top quality in Boulogne’s British quarter.

Boulogne, which we have visited, was bombed by the Germans and British during WW II, and the Lower Town near its harbour was considerably rebuilt. The Upper Town survived much better, not just due to its heavy stone construction but its lack of military significance.

All in all, a charming place to wander the streets, tour the markets, and sample super-fresh North Atlantic seafood. Fishing is still important and well-represented in the local restaurants.

Boulogne, being in far north of France, has a brewing heritage of its own, connected to that of nearby Belgium. In pre-craft beer days the last local brewery was Facon, lasting into the 1980s. Facon made the peach-coloured Saint Léonard, a Bière de Garde. 

The brewery closed before I got there but the brand was later made elsewhere in France, and carried for years by our LCBO in Toronto. Today, craft brewing has sprouted in Pas-de-Calais and Flandre. And there are lots of imports, British and other, in the larger supermarkets, and wine stores.

The Royal Oak, if it still existed, would have a luxury of choice.

The Canadian Fifth Infantry fought in the area in 1944, a contribution recalled by a local memorial. There is lots to think about when strolling in Boulogne, including the many parallels to Quebec – in architecture, surnames, some food. Mais oui.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the Brewery History Society site, here.  All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Tasting Musty Ale in ’91

That’s 1991, not 1891.

It is against the odds that a decent taste note was written on a defunct Victorian beer type, let alone as late as 1991, but it happened. It was authored, appropriately, by a Briton, given the English origins (in etymology, possibly brewing history) of the beer.

The writer was on a working visit to Washington, D.C. He or she was dining in Harvey’s Restaurant, a Washington institution started in 1858 which had a long run as a high-end resort of the powerful and famous. Unfortunately, it went out of business not long after the report was written.

The record is preserved in a February, 1991 issue of New Scientist magazine. The article is by “Ariadne” and can be read online at the website of New Scientist, here. An extract:


On a trip to Washington DC I was taken to a famous restaurant. It specialised in fish, I think but such was the insistence on hygiene that the prawns tasted strongly of chlorine and not much else. One of the place’s attractions was that it served what it called ‘musty ale’. This turned out to be a thin drink resembling a watered-down English mild. Having said that, and in an effort to ward off the inevitable letters from the US accusing me of being anti-American, I should state that I have memories of splendid meals in the US, including one at a restaurant in which it was Christmas every day of the year.


The writer was let down, but that’s not the first time a beer was tasted with anticipation only to come away disappointed.

How extraordinary that musty ale lasted that long. A couple of restaurants, chophouses and fish houses of the old style, kept it going decades after WW II, but Harvey’s appears to be the last.

Harvey’s history is well-described by John DeFerrari in his (2013) Historic Restaurants in Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, you can read about it here. 

In a 2009 article by Kent Boese on a Washington, D.C. information site, much additional information is related on Harvey’s with evocative period photos. One shows musty ale prominently advertised at its horseshoe-shaped oyster bar before Prohibition. The site collects reminiscences of people who knew Harvey’s or had worked there. I posted a note on the site requesting any further data known on the musty ale.

The venerable Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan had musty ale on the menu too after WW II, as late as 1972. You can view the menus at the invaluable archival menu site, Keens still exists but sans the musty ale, sadly.

In 1989, Fodor, the well-known travel series, also reported that musty ale was sold at Harvey’s. In 1980 the food critic for the Washington Post, Phyllis Richman, had the presence of mind to ask Harvey’s what musty ale was. She wrote it was a mixture of ale and “beer” (i.e., American lager), which is exactly what bartender Tim Daly wrote in 1903 and an 1890s patent for a dispense system had claimed, all as reported here earlier.

The 1989 and 1980 references to Harvey’s musty ale appear from this Google Books search link.

This 1949 Harvey’s menu (from an eBay listing) shows musty ale being sold as a draft beer at Harvey’s along with Michelob and Piel’s (lager). Numerous domestic and imported bottled ales and stouts of quality were sold as well. The musty may have been a mix supplied by Piel’s. The brewery name was Rubsam & Hormann of Stapleton, NY. It also marketed a number of ales, see the list of its products post-Pro at the Tavern Trove website, whence the R&H XXX Ale label image comes. The brewery closed in the early 1950s.

In Cincinnati when musty ale started to get a reputation c. 1860, ale would have been strong, stored long, and bitter if not sometimes acid. It makes sense the city’s Musty Ale House thought to mix it with fresh lager beer, if it did so. Cincinnati certainly had lots of lager by 1859, so that part ties in.

As to the (apparent) reference I’ve cited earlier to musty ale in Vermont in the 1840s and contemporary (more or less) examples in England, they almost surely didn’t use lager in the blend. But they may have blended old ale and new, or enlivened old ale with “heading”, that is, partly-fermented wort. These were occasional practices in English brewing and may have come over the Atlantic. 100 years of Brewing (1902) by John Arnold discusses these techniques at pp 77-78.

One can infer that some who prepared ale in this way used an old term, musty ale, to convey the idea of something old being made new or freshened. Mustum in Latin means new and appears the source for this sense of musty. Moisty and moist are cognates…

What probably started as a way to condition or improve a stock of old ale became in America and isolated parts of the U.K. a thing, in a word a marketing concept, just as some people argue today for craft beer.

After all this, I wasn’t expecting a taste description akin to that for a 1945 Bordeaux, but thin, watered-down mild…? On the other hand, this was 1991, 100 years after musty’s heyday. There is no reason to think it tasted like that back in the day. The lager and ale for Harvey’s musty ale in the early 1990s and 1960s would have been different to ones of 100 years before, for one thing. I still feel my “recreation” reported yesterday conveyed an idea of some of the musty ale of its salad days.

The menu page below is from a stylish Harvey’s menu of the early 1960s, reproduced again courtesy Note the claimed “secret formula”:

Net net, the key American evolution was probably using newly-fermented lager, or “shenk” beer technically, to smarten up old ale, an adapted krausening which Anglo-Saxon brewers borrowed from their German colleagues. Finally, many saloons just mixed ale and lager at the bar.

I look forward to its revival, under gloomy London railway arches and the chic chalets of Vail.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced from Pinterest. The second and third, from the Tavern Trove and sites linked above. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

“Facts for Ale Drinkers”

Consider this ad which appeared in the Ogdensburg Journal, Ogdensburg, NY on February 20, 1894.

The same ad ran from January through September in that year. C.H. Evans, the Hudson, NY brewer I discussed earlier, had placed a similar ad in New York-area newspapers some years earlier. Evans probably helped J.P. Ames place the ads although numerous other brewers were mentioned. If Evans did pay the cost or part, it was commendable as competitive products were not excluded.

In a two-part article in August this year I discussed the 1930s reminiscences of Walter Leonard, an ex-showman.

After the Civil War his father owned a bar and hotel in Morley, near Canton in St. Lawrence County, the northern end of central New York where the St. Lawrence River divides the U.S. from Canada.

Leonard recalled how ales were popular in the region and his father’s bar carried those of Greenway in the not-too-distant city of Syracuse, NY.

Ogdensburg is the main city in St. Lawrence County. Potsdam is nearby and will prompt readers to recall WW II history, when a famous conference took place there at which the U.S. and Canada set their wartime strategy.

The ale and porter heritage of New England and New York State has often been commented on. In recent writings I have reviewed many ads for these products and gleaned the names of many brewers (all now disappeared except for one or two).

I am still struck by how long the tradition lasted. The lager deluge which saturated the Midwest and New York City and boroughs came later to central and northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and the “north country” in general.

Ale and porter outsold lager in parts of the region until the dawn of Prohibition. John Arnold, who had brewed in Ogdensburg, chronicled a good part of this history in his (1901) 100 Years Of Brewing.

In 1894 J.P. Ames brought Evans’s ales from its downriver location on the Hudson, not a hard trip by the later 1800s. But look what else he sold: Bass’s ales, which meant the pale ale and the stronger Bass’ Burton ale, Allsopp’s pale ale, a renowned international pale ale and legend of the India trade, but also Arnold’s beers from Ogdensburg and even Brosomer’s beers from the hinterland’s Oswego, NY.

German-born Brosomer was a relative latecomer, establishing ale brewing in Oswego in 1893 (see 100 Years of Brewing). Ames was probably giving him a boost.

And Guinness was carried by Ames, too, it was everywhere in the 1800s – still is.

That’s a pretty good sampling of British top-fermentation specialities for a small city like Ogdensburg. One can imagine that barroom comments assessed the local ales in relation to the imported. New York brewers often trumpeted that their beers were as good or better than Bass and other imports, but who knows.

In 1878, 16 years before the above ad, J.P. Ames was selling lager too, Bartholomay’s from Rochester, NY, see here.  The Cape Vincent ales mentioned must have been brewed in the locality of that name in the Thousand Islands of the region.

John Ames was an English immigrant who built an enviable wine and liquors importing and wholesale business in Ogdensburg. It was operated from a four storey brick building on Isabella Street. The city’s numbering system has changed and I couldn’t find evidence the building still stands although I’d think it must.

You can read biographical detail on John Ames in this trade directory.

Ogdensburg, originally spelled with a terminal h, was founded by families hailing from Morristown, NJ, where Beeretseq has family as it happens. Some francophone families endured after the French era, but once the Jersey crowd came in the town assumed an old stock American aspect, which was manifest in its foodways no less than other areas of culture. The intervening British period perhaps contributed to the liking for ale and porter too, the British held forts up there until the Jay Treaty in 1794 cleared the path for settlement.

It took a long time until Germanic lager largely ousted the ancestral taste for ale and porter in St. Lawrence County, although in fact lager-brewing started quite early – see once again Arnold’s book. Also, a brewer called Crichton brewed “lager bier” in Ogdensburg in the 1850s, no doubt seeking to offer an option to Arnold’s hegemony. See details on page 6 of this historical article on the city from 1965.

I’d like to think Ames’ English origins inclined him to keep ale and stout going in the town including emblematic English pale ale and Irish stout. But he dealt in lager too as the 1878 ad linked above shows. In the liquor business then as now, playing favourites is a mug’s game.

Note re images: The first image is my photo of the ad from the NYS digitized newspaper linked above. The second was sourced from the historical page of an Ogdensburg newspaper’s website, here. The third was sourced from this map resource site, here. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


The Name’s The Game

The images which follow show the rich variety of trade terms for top-fermentation beers, especially ales, in America before WW I.

Broadly speaking,  there was cream ale, stock ale, half-stock ale, musty ale, old musty ale, India Pale Ale, XXX Ale, Burton ale, and yet further variations on these themes. Some very old ages were advertised for some stock ales and Burton ales, see eg. here and hereAt least one newspaper account referenced a “Bass’s old musty ale”, however the musty moniker was probably an American addition, it seems doubtful Bass of Burton used the term.

The non-retail trade used the term “fresh ale” to mean an ale intended for quick sale and which would sour within a week or so failing sale. See this New York State court decision involving a brewer’s attempt to gain damages from a creditor of a customer who stored stock ale for the brewer due to lack of space at the brewery. The only terms used in this decision are fresh ale and stock ale.

The brewer’s terms “present use”, “lively ale”, “still ale” were largely intra-mural although isolated examples can be found in trade ads. (Of these present use was most frequent but this was from 1860s-1890).

Musty ale may have been made to a specific technique such as mingling stock ale and new production, or stock ale and fresh lager (the kind used for krausen), or stock ale and partially-fermented wort. Maybe some musty ale was made by adding a tart stock ale to an ale fermentation or in some other way during mashing or brewing but I incline against this.

I don’t think musty ale was cream ale as such or lively ale. Some ads show both forms, for example. In the ad linked, Smith Cream Ale, probably Robert Smith’s of Philadelphia, is shown above a “musty ale”. While it’s possible they were from two different makers, it is unlikely especially as Robert Smith produced a musty ale. See the ad in this posting from last year by Jay Brookston where a musty ale is shown, also a Burton ale, and numerous others. While cream ale is not shown, the XXX shown was likely its cream ale. Finally, this news ad from 1910 seems to clinch the matter.

Musty ale seems to have had a fresh character as part of its make-up. This is attested by this 1920 brewing record in Virginia, a home-brewing contrary to the Volstead law. The brewer called his ale, ready in nine days, a “good musty ale”. It’s a normal brewing, using malt extract and sugar in this case. Why would the brewer have likened it to musty ale? Presumably due to its fresh, yeasty character. That could have been achieved in the commercial brews in a number of ways, as indicated above.

However, half-stock ale perhaps was the same as musty ale, or some musty ale, since it was obviously a mix of fresh ale and aged (stock) ale.

The musty ale in the ad below may have been a blend of the brewery’s crystal ale and stock ale.




Note re images: The first image above was sourced from HathiTrust. The second was sourced here. The third, here. The intellectual property in or to these images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Flame War in “The Sun” Over Musty Ale

Between September 29 and October 6, 1911, a brief but intense readers’ exchange occurred in The Sun in New York concerning musty ale. A (satisfyingly named) “G.G.” on the first date replies to an inquiry from Harold Dobbler of Staten Island, NY. Dobbler asked, as I have 105 years later, what is musty ale, and whence its name? I can’t locate that earlier inquiry, but Dobbler pops up – twice – after G.G.’s response.

G.G. sets forth that Jimmy Hartigan’s on Thames Street in New York sold a real musty ale. He offers a description, that it was creamy, and – wait for it – imported from Ireland and black. G.G. recalled longingly the lingering savour, which sounds for all the world like a rich stout.

This is the first reference I’ve read of a connection to Ireland. I’ve referred earlier to the contemporary Irish practice of adding “heading”, or partially-fermented wort, to a blend of new and old stout. It imparted the creamy head and soft carbonation (today nitrogen gas does the trick). I suggested perhaps an Irishman brought the idea to Liverpool where a number of musty ale pubs existed in the 1800s, and thence to America.

While it would be going too far to suggest musty ale was Irish-style porter, the idea that an Irish form of conditioning was at the bottom of musty is not so far-fetched. As I argued earlier, musty ale likely was a conditioning method and (often) the blending of fresh and mature elements, rather than a type of beer as such.

Ironically perhaps, Jimmy Hartigan’s stout had little or no heading in it. Heading was not suitable for exported stout, it would cause the beer to “fret”. See brewing author Frank Faulkner on all this whom I cited earlier. Still, an Irish technique might have been at the origin of musty ale, and perhaps even the unusual name although no Irish source for the name is documented to my knowledge.

To read G.G.’s letter and the replies see the last series of images in this link, G.G.’s is first on the left. Then skip to the last two in that line. Next, turn the page and read James Dewell, Jr.’s letter (October 6).

Dobbler, when re-entering the fray, expresses disappointment no Sun reader really answered his question. He leaves readers with a doggerel poem, “Ode To Musty Ale”.

Here are the last lines:

They drink and love you, musty ale, but de’ll [sic]*a one can tell,

Where you in blazes first did get your name,

What caused you to be “musty” though you look clear as a bell

Well, musty, here is to you just the same.

On October 6, James Dewell, Jr., of New Haven, Conn., wrote in to laud the musty ale of Mory’s Inn in his town, in suitably poetic mode. Mory’s was an old Yalie retreat. In fact, I was delighted to learn it still is.

Per James Dewell, Jr.:

“What is musty ale”? Ah, as you sit supping a mug of musty on an autumn afternoon in the corner of the fireplace with Louis Linder in his gemutlich old Mory’s inn watching the dying day cast her golden shadows through the little window panes, it is music, poetry, art!

Hank, G.G., James, if you have been reading from on high, I’ve tried my darndest to get at the mystery of musty. I think I’ve come close, too. But at the end of the day, especially one limned as nicely as you did, James, I’ll concede your summary, for its higher truth.


*This may be an oblique invitation to his friend Dewell to weigh in. Dewell was a young town lawyer in New Haven, see here. However, the reference may have been a jeu de mots, playing on duel.

Eulogy For an Old Alehouse

The great Billy Park’s chophouse in Boston, the house that waived the flag for old English (?) drink and the honest sheepmeat of Albion and other specialties of the auld land, forever closed its doors in 1895. Even with Prohibition marching relentless upon the nation, a few brave souls rued the passing of an institution. An example appears below from The Sun in New York.

Perhaps as America’s melting pot deepened, there was no room for an Anglophile refuge, one which in its modest way stood as a monument to the culture and foodways of the first (white) settlers of America.

Or maybe Billy’s simply had its run. All things must pass, as George Harrison mournfully sung.

The Sun in New York laid out poetically what was lost.


We print this morning a melancholy bit of news from Boston. Billy Parks is going to close next Monday. Who that knows Boston knows not Billy Park’s? The broiled live lobsters that have been eaten there would make a red cravat of their own width around the world. The musty ale that has kissed pewter there would be an adequate and improving substitute for the Gulf of Mexico. All the fowls of the air and the coop, every aligerent edible from roe to reedbird, was to be had at Billy’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes used to live on the street since made more memorable by Billy’s. In later days the pious pilgrim visited Montgomery place, as it used to be called, then went to Billy’s and sat there reflective, dipping his beard in the musty ale. The traveller came from Bunker Hill full of patriotism and sallied down to Billy’s and put down one or two red-coats. A rather shabby place perhaps but with lobsters too good for the gods – the old heathen! – and musty ale that recalled some jovial October or stout stingo preserved miraculously from English thirsts of the eighteenth century.

It must be that the world is nearing the last of its lobsters, and that hops are to grow no more, otherwise Billy Park wouldn’t be willing to shut up his estimable and ancient establishment.

“Ave”, Gulielme Parce, “dolituri te salutamas”.

The last line translated from Latin is, “Hail, William Park, we in our dolor salute you”. It is a slight alteration of the Roman gladiators’ salute recorded by Suetonius: “Hail, Emperor, we who are about to die salute you”. That was their beau geste, and above you read The Sun‘s in regard to a Boston watering hole valued by some, not least the journalistic fraternity.

The romance extends to likening musty ale to some antique British style miraculously preserved thousands of miles from origin. But I think it is safe to say the writer had no idea what musty ale was, whence it came. We are in the realm of the bardic here, not historic.

Note how skilfully the writer marries fondness for British tradition with a lingering revolutionary pride, especially that use of “red-coat”. It’s called having it both ways, something only possible 100 years after the Colonies rose up.

To the elegant formulations of the 19th century press: I salute you.

The Session: Exploring the Beer Discomfort Zone

The current Session is hosted by Alec Latham whose excellent blog can be read here, don’t miss it including for Alec’s striking use of language.

He has asked us to give an example of a beer or beer style that challenged our comfort zone and describe the outcome, not necessarily a binary of shun or shout-out, but taking in the intermediate.

I’ll give two examples, both illustrative I think of the relative nature of taste and consumer choice. Since my early years drinking beer were prior to the onset of craft brews, my palate was adjusted to 5% abv beer.

That was the commercial norm in Canada including for the few imports we had. The only “strong” beer available in the later 70s in Quebec province, my birthplace, was Brador, at 6.2%. This was something rarely consumed due to its higher strength, it was regarded as something for a special occasion, not a go-to. It was also hard to find, relatively.

The car trips down to Plattsburgh, NY did produce a wider range, but as American adjunct lager was mostly available, we were still in the c. 5% area. The odd Belgian or English import exceeded 5% but it was hard to tell since alcohol percentage was often not stated on the label. Anyway these were occasional, specialty items.

I actually recall having early craft beers higher than 5%, and not liking them in the sense they seemed to have a different effect on me. I didn’t like the more “heady” feel of the stronger beer. It took years for me to broach them regularly especially on a weekday. So I did get to like them although I still always want to know what I’m taking in and how strong.

It shows the relativity of the beer experience, what one is used to is the norm, and it takes time to break the mould.

The other example I’d give, with the result of take-or-leave, is the American hop taste. Starting about 1983 my wife and I travelled regularly to the U.K. and the taste of pale ale and cask bitter became encoded, in part I think because the English hops at the base were so good. The best of these beers were the apotheosis IMO including Old Hooky, Courage Director’s and Best Bitter, Fuller ESB, Young’s Special, Old Peculier, but also many others. Bottled Guinness, too, and Courage Imperial Russian Stout.

When American Cascade hop-based beers became regularly available in the later 80s-90s, it was a shock to the palate, so different was the grapefruit-and-white pith taste. It took me years to come to terms with it and now I like it when it is particularly well done. (I find addition of Amarillo helps a lot with its Seville orange signature). But to this day the first taste, even of a “good” one, is somewhat off-putting: in this sense I never left the comfort zone, defined for me by the top-end of English bitter.

Is the English taste the best, based as it was on the local hop yards, fruity English yeasts, and two-row malts? Or is it just a matter of time, place, and habit? I’d say the former, on purely gastronomic grounds. The fact that so many English have cottoned to the American taste suggests perhaps I’m wrong. Or maybe they are.



Proto-Craft Beer man: E.A. O’Brien

E.A. O’Brien Rang Them Bells

We have seen examples how the press covered American beer and breweries in the latter 1800s. Often they appeared in New York-area papers, especially the New York Times and New York Sun, but occasionally elsewhere.

The big city was more open to such coverage, as were trade directories and commercial histories.

It was less common to find a press account of beer and saloons in the regions – not to mention an admiring one.

Yet a stellar example appeared in Omaha, Nebraska in 1887. Even in large centres editors were usually careful not to offend propriety and have the pulpit come down on them, so the Omaha case is atypical.

E.A. O’Brien wrote an appreciative account of beer and saloons that didn’t defer in any way to rising Prohibition sentiment. His account is quite modern in tone, a frank and appreciative story of drink used rationally.

O’Brien was a proto-craft beer man. The rhythm of his prose reminds me of the great beer writer Michael Jackson’s style. O’Brien signed his piece, too, disclaiming any cover of anonymity.

From his piece:

[Beer] finds patrons where a dealer in the necessaries of life would drop into bankruptcy. It has dethroned ale and weaned from whisky many a victim who had lingered dangerously near its throne. As a consequence, there has arisen all over the land a species of massive structures of peculiar shape and design in which it is brewed, and there have also sprung into existence edifices of less magnitude, but proportionately as valuable, in which, amidst elegant surroundings, this amber fluid is dispensed to thirsty mortals….

The beer saloon is a thing of exceeding life and interest. It is a babel of many tongues. It is a mixture of many races. It is a collection of thirsty souls, fatigued frames, weary minds and convivial spirits. There are sweltering bartenders, rushing waiters and the clinking of glasses together with an eagerness to supply a demand which seems to exist at the same time in all quarters.

The bar is lined with hasty mortals who imbibe the fluid and again rush into the sunshine and the heat. But the tables are surrounded by more leisurely mortals who drink, think, rest, or discuss such subjects as may to them be of interest and importance. The heat without is forgotten, as the temperature of the frame is reduced by the beautiful, milk-white, transparent drink which, though brought only from vaults beneath, is as cool as if conducted from the Arctic seas.

What can be more beautiful than this glowing, delightful beverage, temporarily crested with a creamy, snowy substance, which gradually, and in countless thousands of tiny globules resolves itsclf not into the nectar of the gods but the refreshing, invigorating, motive-inspiring libation of weary mortals! … It circulates through the frame, producing an indescribable feeling as if rejuvenation were being affected by its rational indulgence.

There have been poets who have sung of wine, as there have been and are those who have sung and still sing of beer; but no greater tribute has ever been paid to the latter than the grateful appreciation accorded it by the rational drinkers of this vast country.

How could such a tribute to the work of the devil, as many viewed it then, be published? We need, first, to understand who owned the Omaha Bee.

He was Edward RosewaterRosewater was a Jewish-Bohemian immigrant. Coming from a part of Europe where beer was deeply appreciated, and considering too the spirit of ’48, his license to O’Brien makes sense.

Rosewater is still remembered in Nebraska. He was a Union Army veteran and progressive: anti-slavery; pro-education and school board; anti-Temperance.

His one blind spot was opposing female suffrage, but I suspect the affection of many suffragettes for Temperance soured him on the voting issue.

Indeed in the 1890s Rosewater ended up in court against the nationally-known Temperance campaigner Helen Gougar. She had him charged with disturbing a lecture she gave in Omaha.

During her speech, after remaining silent for 30 minutes he asked if he could pose a question. She called the cops!  Rosewater had the charges thrown out although it took an appellate decision to do so.

See the excellent article by Pat Gaster for further background.

O’Brien, for his part, was a Vermont-born Irishman.This informative account fills in his career. He passed away about 1910 after a second career in California. Rosewater died earlier, in 1906.

Read O’Brien, he offers an early connoisseur’s perspective on American and imported brews, while noting peculiarities of sliders and jerks in the bar – they meant something different then, of course.

On beer, he writes for example that Kulmbacher (from Franconia, Germany) was similar to porter except when fresh, when not “hard”. This shows that porter, at least in Omaha, reached the barfly in sourish condition.

There were people in America then who weren’t intimidated by those who claim a monopoly on what is just and right for society. There still are.


Christmas Ale and All That

While an adherent generally of hopped, all-malt beer, I like some beers that are spiced, or that use rye and barley malt together.

As in cooking, a nuanced touch with these additions often ensures success. One reason many dislike spiced beers is, I’m convinced, a heavy hand is used with spices and it produces the opposite effect. (One can fix these beers by blending them appropriately with similar beers, un-spiced).

As Christmas approaches, one is reminded of the wassail bowl, a custom that is pagan in origins and lost in antiquity. The English way centered on ale (sometimes wine), spices, sugar, heated apples, toast. The burst apples looked fleecy, hence terms such as lambswool sometimes applied to this drink.

The recipe herein is typical of many more, and they vary only by the alcoholic supplements, generally brandy, malaga wine as here, brown sherry, etc. Eggs were sometimes used and an egged version shades into the nogs and cups of festivity.

Those who disdain beers with spice, which pumpkin beer is and Christmas beers often are, are certainly “entitled”. However, the historical use of the types was extensive and is well-documented, that can’t be denied. Try the recipe included as the Season approaches, from The Squire’s Recipes by Kendall Banning (Chicago, 1912). The apple is optional, or if you like another, or a different spice than is specified, use that. A trait of these recipes is a do-it-yourself quality, while keeping to the general formula.

Of the 100 and more similar examples I could offer from the books, I chose this one due to the oddity that the volume it is from was a hoax! The tome purported to be a musty inheritance found by a descendant of a U.S. Revolutionary War period “squire”. In fact it was written as a jape on a public credulous for antiquarian items. See the introduction for the full story.

Still, the various drinks were obviously drawn from genuine sources – to do otherwise would have given away the book’s secret too early, for one thing. So I proffer the “Fairfield Wassail” nonetheless as a way to make a seasonal spiced ale.

(Extract appears courtesy HathiTrust under my usual reserves in that regard).