James Steel on Vatting Beer and Ale

Scots brewer and designer James Steel (1821-1891) addressed the topic of vatting in his Selection of the Practical Points of Brewing and Malting, and Strictures Thereon, for Brewery Proprietors (Glasgow, 1878).

He confirmed what Herbert Edwards Wright wrote somewhat later: vatting – the storing of beer in large containers, the largest, for porter, famously holding thousands of barrels – was going out of style.

As Wright did, Steel referred to a particular quality resulting from holding beer a year or more, he called it “apple and other flavours”. One must bear in mind this was before the era of reliable mechanical cooling – the beers were held basically at ambient temperature. Together with microflora resident in the wood and the brewery environment, this encouraged production of esters and other compounds imparting special flavours to beer.

Flavours resembling Wright’s pineapple and pear, and Steel’s apple, could thus distinguish beers long-stored.

Also of course, Steel’s term “fined” referred to the clarity gained by long keeping, then viewed as highly desirable for beer. The final stage of fermentation, called cleansing, rarely resulted in limpid beers. A lengthy standing would do much to clear them, especially in large vessels, although a last treatment with finings was sometimes necessary.

Steel seemed to accept the decline of vatting more readily than Wright, but did feel it useful for porter due to porter’s inherently stable character which he attributed to its highly cured malt component. He noted however the continuation of long aging at Burton on Trent for its beer, i.e., for IPA vs. Scots and other ales, and that such storage was in normal beer casks or other smaller wood – no huge vats as in London for porter. Still, this long aging did impart the aged flavour.

Bass pale ale in particular has always had an apple note, Worthington White Shield too. However imparted today, it’s still in those beers, in all forms I’ve had.

Finally, Steel approved the practice of using “fillings”, or wort, to enliven long-stored beer. The longer beer was kept, the less likely it would be fizzy on exit from the wood. Adding wort, sometimes in a partial process of fermentation, would cause a new fermentation and result in a satisfactory head when poured. You would also get a mix of fresh and aged characteristics.

Steel states that the practice was used in Dublin – brewing author Frank Faulkner confirmed it in the 1880s – and by “provincial brewers”, which would take in Scots and English brewers outside London. For London itself, Steel said “retailers” performed the work, saving the brewers the trouble.

Presumably he meant publicans, although would publicans be easily able to handle adding the quantities needed to draught porter in cask in the cellar? I am not sure adding such a thing would have been lawful, in fact. Could Steel have meant some intermediate level of trade, acting on behalf of brewers, did the work? This area needs investigation*. But there is no reason to think an experienced brewer and brewing figure (via e.g., the Steel’s masher, still used in some British breweries) would misstate such an important point.


*Re-reading his account, it is possible he was referring to mixing old and new porter, not the part where the fillings are added.  If so, presumably the fillings were already in the old beer. The pages of Steel dealing with vatting and fillings are set out below, via HathiTrust:




What Vatting Was And Why It Was Done

In 1907, Herbert E. Wright issued a new edition of his A Handy Book for Brewers; Being a Practical Guide To the Arts of Brewing and Malting. An earlier edition appeared 15 years earlier, itself the outgrowth of Wright’s manual for young brewers (1877). Wright died the year the last version came out (see preface). He represents a good survey of many practical aspects of brewing in the last quarter of the 1800s.

He had brewed at the Diamond Brewery in Dover, whereof some good history can be read at this Dover-Kent historical site. He wasn’t the owner at any stage, it appears, but a company name, Herbert Wright & Co., appears next to the brewery name when the beers were entered for competition. And his name appeared on some of the labels, as can be seen below. Maybe he leased the brewery from the owner with the right to represent the beers as his output.

His multi-page comments on vatting are interesting on many counts, see here. First, he distinguishes true vatting from the later method, which was to ferment beers at high temperature and rouse them (to permit air to enter the fermenting wort). These practices had the result of producing acidic beers in a relatively short time, perfect for blending, but they lacked the “ethereal” taste of beers stored a year or two as ales and stouts used to be stored. Those flavours were clearly fruity because Wright mentions that ethyl butyrate is produced, which has a pineapple note. He also mentions ethyl acetate, which today is considered to have a pear drop flavour.

Wright confirms that the old beers were consumed, in the charming phrase, “one way” – straight with no admixture, which accords with early porter history. Acetic acid was produced (by acetobacter acting on ethanol), but Wright says the high gravity of the beers “carried” the taste. In other words, the acid notes were not objectionable as the beers had a high final gravity – rich malty taste – notwithstanding their strength, which resulted from a very high original gravity.

Wright argues old-style vatting should be continued, either to sell the beers on their own, or for superior blending especially for stout, where an “amalgamation” of flavours from blending some vatted beer with new sweet porter is desirable. This amalgamation has a “sub-acid” component he finds attractive.

This old blending practice has largely been by-passed in modern craft brewing although some breweries have been known to do it and some Belgian breweries never stopped, Rodenbach is the classic example. Lambic blending is another example although the lambic palate would have been considerably more acid than Wright’s vatted beer even one-way as he says the beer should not be sour as such.

Yesterday I tweeted an older post of mine which analyzed the likely strength of Hodgson India Pale Ale, the beer which launched the India pale genre and whose reverberations live with us to this day. I argued that in 1850, Abbott’s East India Pale Ale, successor to Hodgson’s ditto made in the same brewery, had a gravity designed to deliver 8-9% abv and maybe more. Given the country pale ale origins of the style, this is not surprising albeit the IPA style evolved later to a mean of 6-7% abv.

That mid-1800s strong Hodgson’s/Abbott’s East India Pale Ale fetched about the highest price charged for beer in the 1800s, 60 s per barrel. These were the kind of beers mentioned by Wright as being vatted for one and two years. True, the ales seem not to have been aged in bulk (vs. trade casks or other smaller containers) as porter was, but the principle is the same: development of exotic fruit characters and some acidity from long keeping in wood.

Wright doesn’t distinguish between porter, stout, pale ale, and old ale in his advice to vat the old-fashioned way. Any such beer could be long-aged provided only it had a high starting gravity and was brewed strong. In the Eltham brewing advertisement discussed in that earlier post of mine, and the Chilcott’s one in Bristol also referred to, beers of these different styles all had a top-end, and these were examples of Wright’s long-aged beers which developed this “ethereal” character. We know too sometimes brettanomyces was a result of long wood aging, which would add its own earthy or barnyard notes. A quick development of acidic beer would not have permitted the brett yeasts time to do their work.

How were strong were the old worts to be? Wright recommends as high as possible and at least 30 pounds per barrel, which is 1083 OG (390/360). This is exactly the range I calculated the Hodgson’s India beer c. 1850, producing alcohol of 8-9% abv, maybe more. Of course, the pale ales were attenuated lower than the ordinary ales meant to be aged, but still the general character discussed or implied by Wright would be the same, IMO: fruity, winy, port-like.

Final note: Wright offers no heroic/romantic explanation why vatting had largely dispappeared, nothing that is about changes in public taste. He explained it prosaically as the result of consolidation of the breweries and better financial management, i.e., to turn over the capital faster. Then why was porter long-aged in the 1700s? The brewers were hardly unsophisticated then. Alan Pryor has made a persuasive case in recent issues of the (U.K.) journal Brewery History that 1700s porter-brewers stored beer to maximize gains from favourable grain prices. When the cost of the input went up, they drew on their stocks rather than brew at a greater cost.

If he is right, what was different in the later 1800s? Perhaps grain and malt prices had stabilized by then. Or perhaps if they hadn’t, they became a relatively small part of the cost of brewing.

A good topic for someone’s doctoral study…

Note re image: image above was sourced from the Dover-Kent historical website linked in the text. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Romantic Czechoslovakia, 1930

A Pennsylvania Yankee Explores Bohemia

Western visitors to Bohemia and the Czech lands, from the 1700s until today, rarely omit mention of the region’s breweries and beer. Visitors were remarking on the beer even before lager emerged there (I’ll return to this later).

Especially in the past when there was no Internet, no websites such as that of U Fleku in Prague, visitors’ reports were essential for the would-be tourist. Travel guides there always were, famously Baedeker, later Michelin, later Fodor, Lonely Planet et al. But for a certain, probably upscale or literary-type market, full-length travel books were a necessary preparation for a “grand tour”.

Pennsylvania-born Robert Medill McBride specialized in this market. He was a publisher and author, long-lived (1879-1970). McBride started his career in magazine publishing and was a partner in early years with the legendary Condé Nast.

McBride also published well-known authors such as Frank Buck and James Cabell.

His 1930s travel output took in Czechoslovakia, and the crisply informative Romantic Czechoslovakia is still of interest today. He is a good contrast to an H.L. Mencken, in that he often treats of similar subject matter – the beer, food, music, architecture – but avoids verbal pyrotechnics and grand literary flourishes. As befits a general audience publisher, it’s all about, what the country is like, how to communicate (German is often useful in the western part), the hotels, what things cost. Practical yet with lively writing, perfect for his market.

In the Czech book he covers the Pilsner Urquell brewery and also offers a multi-page assessment of U Fleku. You can read the brewery tour here, a good bird’s eye although marred a bit by McBride’s denigration of the tour guide’s English. The old Anglo superiority, it comes out not infrequently in older texts.

While no beer expert, McBride gets across some good data, and the nub is, not much had changed from the set-up in 1910 which I discussed yesterday. McBride doesn’t talk about the beer itself, no taste notes, but still a good picture is offered.

Looking at the image of McBride pictured, my sense is he was not a beer man, but who knows. He gives the impression of a man about town or society figure, and if he liked alcohol perhaps his taste ran to Champagne or claret. (One shouldn’t assume a liking for any kind of drink though, McBride was a “PK” whose father was President of the American Bible Union).

Below, I include the pages on U Fleku, and the old place certainly sounds enticing. It is today a sophisticated operation, and judging from online reports, some find it too committed to tourist traffic, with related high prices, rushed service, etc. I did speak to a friend not long ago who was there last year, and he loved it.

I’m sure I’d like it too. I always smile when I read the reports of people who find places spoiled because too many tourists go. The writers are usually … tourists, but the irony eludes them. I feel I don’t have any greater right to patronize somewhere than a fellow-visitor. If it’s no fun anymore, the solution is to find somewhere new.

Fleku seems at any rate to arouse passionate opinions. Many online reports are very positive. Others less so, some quite critical. If I visit Prague again, I’ll try it, on my first visit I just didn’t have the time.

All books and reports in the end are, directory, to use a legal term. In other words, go and decide for yourself. Or go somewhere else in town, it’s not as if there isn’t lots of choice. The great thing about beer is, and this is true for a heartland like Prague or almost any burg you know today, if you don’t like what’s in front of you, in situ or on the page, try somewhere else, there is always an option. An IPA, anyway.

So now from debonair Mr. McBride in 1930:

Note re images: the first image above is from the website of U Fleku linked in the text. The second image, of Robert Medill McBride, is from his entry in Wikipedia, whence some of the information above was obtained. The images of text from his book Romantic Czechoslovakia are via HathiTrust at the link given above. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

The Heyday of Pilsner Urquell?

In the period around WW I, Pilsner Urquell still had many 1800s production characteristics.

This article, c.1910 from the American Society of Brewing Technology (extract below via HathiTrust), enumerates a number of these, chosen no doubt to contrast with American practice at large breweries.

The key elements of the palate were Moravian barley malt and Saaz hops. While their high quality were recognized internationally at an early date, many aspects of production contributed to the final palate.

The article mentions:

  • use of open coolers vs. a refrigeration system to chill hot wort
  • fermentation in small vessels in sandstone caverns
  • lagering, also underground, in wood vessels for three to four months
  • re-pitching of lagering casks after each emptying (I discussed the contribution of an incense-like pitch earlier)
  • shipment primarily in “packages”, meaning here wood casks
  • a small bottling output, pasteurized, for export to South America and Asia
  • filtration of product for “Europe”, which I think meant outside Bohemia (almost certainly unpasteurized)
  • beer krausened for “export”, perhaps meaning the U.S., Britain, and certain overseas markets, probably to ensure sufficient carbonation over the longer shipment period.

Numerous elements are not mentioned, notably decoction mashing, the relatively high final gravity of Urquell, influence of the soft Pilsen water, and details of its malting practice.

All these qualities meant for a full-flavoured, creamy, and fairly bitter drink, certainly on draft, the major way Urquell was delivered to market then.

Ever fewer American breweries were to follow such pattern. Rather, shortened lagering, injected carbonation, continued use of grain adjunct, closed fermenters, and use of metal or glass for lagering were to spell the future of American beer.

Urquell today, in contrast to 1910, uses no wood in any part of the process, and no pitch; the draft is pasteurized everywhere except for small amounts of “tank” beer, and some unfiltered beer sold mainly in Pilsen; fermenting is in enclosed cylindricals; and lagering rarely goes past five weeks.

Yet it’s still a very good beer. Was it better in 1910 when it attracted the attention of at least one master of prose style in America?








Beer and Superior Civilization

As I mentioned earlier, the Baltimore-born author and critic Henry L. Mencken participated in a small circle of American writers and intellectuals, mainly based in New York, for whom the best traditions of Europe encompassed the finest beer. Europe meant here strictly Germany and Bohemia. I mentioned how, as late as 1928 with German instability growing and a new war on the horizon, George Jean Nathan was still writing semi-flippant rhapsodies on Europa’s beer, portraying (justly) Czech Pilsner Urquell as an unchanging avatar.

This beer had iconic importance for these men, indeed symbolically. The beer represented style and finesse in an ostensibly unpromising field, the everyman’s beer. Just talking about beer this way was an affront to Anglo-Yankee sensibilities, a provocation that became a lightning rod as Prohibition loomed ever closer.

It would be surprising that Mencken didn’t turn his lyrical gifts to beer, and he didn’t disappoint. He chose his pistol in A Book of Prefaces, written in 1917 with the war in full swing in Europe. America was now involved, of which he disapproved. The book does not address war questions – a critical stance would have been unpublishable anyway – but is rather a work of literary and social criticism.

Prefaces was a series. The first three volumes deal with writers Mencken felt of great importance in Anglo-American letters: Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, and James Huneker. The fourth is more a frontal assault on what Mencken viewed as Puritanical attitudes that hobbled a freer, more original American literature and social environment.

Literary and artistic modernism, which encompassed notions of dissent and social indiscipline (think Picasso, Futurism, Joyce) was a necessary evolution for American culture, in Mencken’s view.

Yet, Mencken typically was contradictory. Despite being a music lover he never developed an appreciation for jazz, for example, and let his moral relativity embrace an abominable flirtation with fascism. Also, his diaries take bourgeois-sounding pains to show why he didn’t abuse alcohol – hardly an edgy stance. He had plenty of social prejudices too, despite being a do-your-own-thing avatar.

His anti-Semitism, very evident in the diaries published long after he died in the 1950s, has permanently damaged his literary reputation.

Writing on the now-forgotten Huneker, he used a travel account Huneker wrote in 1915 (New Cosmopolis) to lyricize on the importance of Pilsner Urquell beer. Huneker had mainly visited European cities but also some American ones. Mencken portrays Huneker as fascinated by the beer to echo his own infatuation. In fact, Huneker made only a few approving references to the topic, consistent with an observant American-in-Europe, but nothing as over-the-top as Mencken implies.

Mencken evidently found an excuse to lyricise on the beer via Huneker’s more or less standard obeisance.

You can read, here, Mencken’s typically supercharged prose on the great brew of Bohemia. Note how he emphasizes in general the allegedly superior values of the Continent. I can’t extract a few lines, read the three pages to get the full Mencken effect (pp. 185-187).

Mencken demonstrates how, in some ways, he was distant from the Anglo-American temperament. It is inconceivable anyone would write about any British, much less American beer, in this way, even today. Michael Jackson tried creditably, but wasn’t at the same level.

It is impossible, probably, because an alcohol drink, no matter how good, always will have a limited cultural value outside (disappeared) old Europe. Mencken’s delirious riffing on Huneker’s approval of Bohemian cooking is the same thing, no one could write this way today. Even accounting for some satirical intent, Mencken clearly believed what he said. He wrote at a specific time recalling a world fast disappearing and certainly now lost. Fortunately, the beer remains, and is as good as ever, apparently.

Given how Mencken ended on the fringes of American letters and public life by 1940 (due to his incoherent Isolationism), clearly he never got his priorities straight. Still, he is remembered today, mainly for the scintillating way he wrote.

Mathäser’s Beer Hall in Munich

In 1928 the American writer and belles lettres editor, George Jean Nathan, reviewed noteworthy beers in Germany using the conceit of a theatre review. It’s a sparkling piece, in more ways than one.

“Mathäserbrau” was one of the beers. I hadn’t been aware of it, and a brief check disclosed the long history of the beerhall that birthed it.

Europe After 8:15 is a 1914 travelogue by H.L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan and Willard Wright. Mathaser’s forms the centrepiece of its florid Munch “beeriad”. The book surely gives the definitive picture (in English) of the Munich beer hall just ahead of World War I.

As the trio reported it, Mathaser’s was the resort mostly of the working and trades classes. It offered sturdy food, and beer of good colour (colour alone being held evidently a mark of quality for good beer), variously “red” and “dark”, served in unpretentious surroundings.

The beer came frothing in earthenware and was held superior to the paler beer at Hofbrauhaus and Augustiner, probably the best known (or reputed) of Munich beer shrines. Mencken et al. give the others their due, but seemed to approve Mathaser’s the most.

The authors liked the bluff nature of the beer halls. This is suggested by (probably) Mencken’s statement that enlisted soldiers in their “coma” of love gave their “Lizzies” a simple hug while monocled officers practiced “diableries” to charm their intended inamorata. Mencken added that “no Munchener ever threw a stone”, which must be one of the great understatements of German social history, but never mind.

Mathaser’s met its demise some twenty years ago when converted to a multiplex theatre, but until then was the city’s largest “Bierstadt” with a capacity approaching an astounding 5000 persons.

This Munich visitors page sketches some of its early history. After the First World War it carried on, and did after the next war, too. Judging by reports from the late 1940s to the end, Mathaser’s kept its essential nature although in the last years it shared ownership with erstwhile rival Lowenbrau.

Some notoriety attached to Mathaser’s after the 1918 Armistice. The Bavarian Free State was proclaimed there by revolutionaries that year. Hitler is reputed to have spoken there once, as well, although the notorious putsch occurred in a different place.

This blog page of Potable Curmudgeon contains excellent notes on Mathaser’s as it was not long before its closing. A number of readers’ comments add additional colour and perspective, particularly from ex-employees.

In all, one gets the feeling that the ethos of beer, the communal experience, traditional foods, and live folk music, represents an era now passed. Of course, classic beer halls endure in Munich. The main resorts are Hofbrauhaus, Paulaner in its modern industrial complex, Lowenbrau, and Augustiner’s smaller hall. Hopefully they will remain prosperous as a new international beer culture powered by American craft ways encroaches on traditional customs.

These halls, and England’s pubs in a somewhat different way, represent a pre-modern form of entertainment. They emerged and long reigned in a time of no television, no or just incipient radio, no or few mass sporting events. Socializing was done outside the home: the pub or church, maybe the circus once a year, the odd concert or play, and the odd sporting event.

Public gatherings of this type became less attractive as “home entertainment centres” emerged, facilitated by inexpensive bottled and canned beer. Finally, the online world permits communal engagement from the home desktop or smartphone. No need to sit in serried ranks with the like-minded. And if you want a drink, it’s in the fridge.

It makes perfect sense that 20 years ago Mathaser’s was converted to a movie emporium, as movies then were at a height of popularity. But maybe soon those movie theatres will morph into something else. An IPA hallen, perhaps. (A certain poetic justice there). Forms already exist in nodes in Berlin and other cities.

In the end everything has its time and place. Its zeit.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from an historical German post card website, here. The second image was sourced from this beer coaster website. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users.  Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.







Interwar German Lager and the Indomitable Urquell

Ile de Staten, Anyone?

George Jean Nathan was a long-time associate of author, critic, and gadfly Henry Louis Mencken. Together they founded the Smart Set, the premier literary journal of the interwar years, and later the American Mercury. Nathan has written that Mencken turned more to politics in the latter journal, and this may explain Nathan’s departure as co-editor not long after the launch. Nonetheless he continued to contribute as drama critic, into the 1940s.

Smart Set was a joint venture with famed New York publisher Alfred Knopf. It is remembered for its witty, sparkling articles and introduction of Jazz Era luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

Nathan was a Cornell graduate who started in general journalism and specialized in theatre coverage. This interest continued through his life, perhaps connected to his reputation as ladies man and boulevardier.

In 1928 in the The Judge, another literary and theatrical-oriented journal, he gave a half-facetious review of the beer and other potables in theatrical locales in various European cities. Such articles were of particular interest to Americans whose thirst for ethanol could be sated only by skulking bootleggers.

Such pieces would have been read longingly by those pining for the return of saloons and beer gardens, and who likely had an idealized notion of the elixirs of the old country.

Nathan didn’t pull punches. A few exceptions apart, he was less than impressed by the marquee brews of Europe, at least as served at the theatre bars. Even Champagne in France struck him as inferior – but not in the West End, London. The British always made it their business to choose the best, didn’t they?

Nathan doesn’t even mention English beer. This is of a piece with the Mittel Europa leanings of the New York-based critics. Many of them were Jewish, German, or of other Continental background. For them the bounds of good beer didn’t reach much beyond central Europe.

I suspect that Nathan, nearing 50 when he wrote the piece (see below), was suffering from the malaise of “it’s not what it used to be”. It’s something that afflicts all of us as we reach a certain age. Beer is just the least of it.

Everything was better back in the day, right? Through history we read this, so it must be true.

On the other hand, Nathan makes clear, as did Mencken and others in their circle such as Carl Van Vechten and James Huneker, that Czech Pilsner Urquell remained the Olympian standard. Some things don’t change.

Even Germany, the cradle of fine lager, has always admitted the special merits of Urquell. It remains the largest selling imported beer in the country. That says a lot for a nation understandably chauvinist in matters of the malt.

The “topaz nonesuch”, Nathan called Urquell. And so it remains.

Anyway, read Nathan’s snappy account. It’s the jazz age in full flourish.


The Real Adolphus Busch


With all the discussion of the Superbowl Budweiser ad 2017 vintage, it may be useful, for those interested in his actual life, to read this obituary which appeared in October, 1913 in The Western Brewer, a brewing trade journal. An extract is included below, via HathiTrust.

As always, reality, even in a brewing context, is sobering: he came from a well-off family; he received a “patrimony”, or inheritance, which permitted his start in business; and he retained significant links to the country of his origin, where he passed away at a castle he owned after years of a debilitating illness.

He had received a solid technical and business education both in Germany and Belgium, which clearly assisted his rise. St. Louis at the time was home to a growing number of German immigrants, and brewing was well-established. Without minimizing the challenges of moving to a new land, he wasn’t in a completely foreign environment, and didn’t arrive penniless and without support from home.

Of course too, the famed Budweiser brand emerged in 1876, when Adolphus was almost 40. Major success didn’t arrive until the 1880s when the brand rapidly expanded due exploitation of technical developments and new advertising techniques.

In the end, his success was unique to himself. Being an immigrant didn’t help it, it didn’t hurt it, in my view. He would have succeeded anywhere due to his obvious talents, energy, and determination.

Further insight on the man can be gleaned from a eulogy delivered at his funeral, printed in the same issue of the Western Brewer. You can read it here.

Note re images: the first image appeared at the eBay listing, here. The second was sourced from the HathiTrust link included in the text. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner. Images used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

An Impetuous Opera Star and Fine Porter

The Rescue of Isoline

Beeretseq has musical interests, but it is fair to say before today “operatic” would have connoted the style of the late Freddy Mercury, The Who’s Tommy, or the singer Meatloaf.

It came to our attention though that a star of the true opera repertoire, Maria Malibran, was fond of porter, and we looked into it anon for an historical tidbit, which was certainly found.

La Malibran was a fiery, Paris-born mezzo-soprano of Spanish blood. Her three ranges of octave and impassioned performances electrified the stages of Europe in the 1830s, a career that soared to ever-new heights before she was badly hurt in a riding accident. She died not long after, in September, 1836, at only 28.

Malibran found, as many have before and since, that London porter has stimulating and reviving qualities. In fact, the brand she favoured has been handed to posterity: Barclay Perkins. London porter was often as black as the raven hair of Malibran, perhaps a reason she liked the drink so.

Two stories illustrate her fondness for the drink. One, in Frederick Crowest’s A Book Of Musical Anecdote, Vol. 2 (1878), reports that a London reviewer of the stage, Henry Berkeley (pronounced so the “Ber” sounds like “her”) was introduced to her at Drury Lane.

Berkeley had mentioned in his notices that she seemed unduly attached to London porter. This boded a chill or fiery meeting between them, not in other words of the air-kissing type common in arts and entertainment. However, as Crowest reports, Malibran both disarmed and countered the starchy writer by running to him arms extended and crying:

“Oh Monsieur Barclay”  – for that is how she pronounced his name – “I shall never drink another glass of Barclay and Perkins without thinking of you”.

One of her star turns before her untimely passing was in Michael Balfe’s and Alfred Bunn’s The Maid of Artois. In Musical Recollections of the Last Half-Century, Vol. 2 (1872), John Edmund Cox gives a detailed report of her being handed a pot of pewter at the beginning of the last act, a stratagem designed to prevent a debâcle caused by extreme fatigue. The account stresses the strenuous nature of the production and that she was taxed to the limit by the first two scenes. Another account states she unwisely performed that morning in another play to earn an extra fee, which caused the fatigue in question.

At intermission she implored for a pot of porter, and it was arranged to be handed her at a point the audience wouldn’t notice as the last act opened. She was given it in a pewter pot, no doubt her favoured Barclay and Perkins, and in short it enabled a bravura finale which brought the house down. For later performances, she arranged that one of the players, who wore a calabash (gourd) around his neck, would proffer her the gourd to refresh herself, and of course it was filled with the same London porter.

One may doubt whether Malibran took the drink simply for its restorative powers; she seems in fact to have been a porter connoisseur, as Cox states she considered the drink never so nice as when conveyed in pewter. A number of reports of the time insist on the special qualities of pewter in this regard. There is, too, her choice of Barclay Perkins, always amongst the most reputed of the London porters.

She was one of the boys, so to speak.

I have a pewter pint, purchased for a few pounds in 1990 from a Davy Wine Bar in London. Tonight, I’ll fill it with London porter – I have some – and listen to this performance of a Balfe cantata written for Malibran in 1836. (The vibrant performance is by Manuela Custer). Maybe it will summon Malibran’s shade, if so we’ll trade notes, both beer and performance. Je tiens à vous, Madame.



Bilder Aus Schöner Zeit


The title is the caption of drinking notes author and critic H.L. Mencken included in one of his Prejudices books. A six-volume series in the 1920s, Prejudices had essays on politics, literature, and society. The German words mean portrait of a charming time, or era.

A selection from the essays was published in 1958 by author James Farrell, reprinted at least once. These pieces are among Mencken’s most remembered.

Short as it is Bilder provides a capsule of memorable outings in pre-Prohibition America. Pabst’s “very dark” Kulmbacher is memorialized. So is musty ale in Washington, or at Keen’s steakhouse in New York. Different American lagers get attention, Chianti in New York, gin-and-vermouth, and much else.

The beer often was “got down”, as Mencken liked to put it, at sessions of the Saturday Night Club. This was a group of friends – doctors, professors, professional musicians, writers – who met to drink beer and play music. An image of the group c. 1914, drinking from lidded steins in Baltimore, was preserved by Maryland Digital Archives. Mencken is at the far left.

Herr Abner mentioned ran the Abner-Drury brewery in Washington. The way Mencken refers to him suggests the pilsner rivalled Mencken’s king of beers, the true pilsner of Bohemia. Abner’s beer was probably Royal Pilsen, which returned after Repeal for a time. Generally, Mencken was lukewarm on American lager. Those he mentioned must have been particularly good.

He doesn’t omit Michelob, a rich, all-malt beer which probably tasted similar to fine Czech lager.

Even in these brief notes Mencken humour shines. He fondly recalls “twenty or thirty” Bass Ale nights but right after, remembers “five or six hundred” pilsner nights. It shows where his brewing sympathies lay, but gives a glimmer too of his well-known anti-“Anglomania”.

Hi “two or three hot scotch” nights is accordingly depreciatory, on two accounts.

In this vein beer is barely mentioned in the London chapter of his book Europe After 8:15. He does give English beer a partial compliment by likening its “acrid grip” to a good Munich bock. George Sala used the same term, acrid, some 60 years earlier to describe London porter in a gin palace.

Perhaps Mencken knew the reference and reprised it. In any case, acrid suggests here very bitter from the hops, not spoiled or sour. It is not a surprise English beer had this character –  some still does.

I wonder what Mencken would think of the restored American beer scene today. He might, first, express surprise that the Republic still exists, as he projected in a 1930 article it will “blow up” within 100 years.

As a fellow admirer of all-malt beers, not least from Bavaria and Bohemia, I think Henry would admire the best of that genre today. As to IPA, well maybe nein.

But everyone’s bilder is relative to time, space, and taste – even the curmudgeon of Baltimore would allow that, perhaps.

Note re image: The image above is from the Washington, D.C. paper beer label pages at www.chosi.org, here.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.