Lunch on the Humber

The Old Mill. Everyone knows it here, the mock-Tudor restaurant and banquet centre in West Toronto, an event space in modern parlance. The hotel was added about 20 years ago.

The site is a charmer, on the banks of the Humber River as it flows its leafy route to Lake Ontario. The place is nestled in the posh, somewhat hilly (for Toronto) Kingsway section. Country clubs feature in the area, including for golf.

The Kingsway is an urban agglomeration that blends riverside recreation, trendy shopping and restaurants on the main artery, Bloor Street, and gracious homes of aforesaid Tudor, plaster, and stone block.

A series of mills dotted the Humber in pioneer days. These burned one by one, and later uses obscured the bucolic origins.

Taking its name from this heritage the Old Mill was originally a restaurant, started in 1914 by a developer seeking a use for a derelict stretch.

The 1960s lunch and dinner menus collected in the Old Mill website* are of good interest. The food is a “club” approach, as one would expect, and while not adventuresome by today’s standards was probably excellent, as the Old Mill always had a good reputation.

Dinner was a slightly more elaborate version of the lunch plan.

The mains were based on beef, chicken, ham, lamb, and a fish or two. No veg options. The fish was usually halibut, salmon or trout, none particularly associated with our Great Lakes. Perhaps this was due to the pollution then endemic in the Lakes, although commercial fishing has rebounded due to cleaner waters.

Hence, whitefish and yellow perch can be found in markets today but are absent, at any rate, from these 60s menus.

Among the lunch dishes were ham steak with pineapple, a rare offering anywhere today. It was a staple of menus in North America back then, and not just for cafes or diners. The genius who thought to place a pineapple ring on a ham slice kicked off a commercial craze, now defunct except perhaps via Canada’s famous Hawaiian pizza.

Calf’s liver was offered, perhaps offbeat for the time although I remember it at then-famous Winston’s downtown, a business hang out, and in roast beef emporiums here.

The Victorians were less squeamish about innards than the postwar generation, and offal has come around again.

Halibut steak – there’s a solid 1960s performer – and as good as ever. The accompanying sauce Meunière surely did it no harm. I can’t recall the last time I saw that combo on a menu.

Scrambled eggs with sausage for lunch makes sense in a club-like setting. All-day breakfast is now the rage, so this was a kind of precursor.

Cold cuts for lunch? Sounds pedestrian, but people must have liked it – and it’s the priciest dish on the menu! The short ribs is classic mid-century eating, also hard to find today.

Curried lamb sounds a touch exotic for then, in Toronto anyway, but curried food has been a niche of British/Commonwealth eating since the 1800s. At The Old Mill it probably appealed to travelled businessmen and ex-army types.

Creamed chicken? Emblematic 1950s dining, gone the way of the dodo for public eating. Yet it, too, was excellent when well-prepared.

The desserts were classic North American but there was also spumoni – oh where did that go, I loved that! A little daring for then I think, the Italian population was burgeoning here and establishment venues were starting to take notice.

Cheese offerings hit the main bases: local cheddar – Ontario makes top quality – Quebec’s Oka Trappist (so Port Salut-type), and “Blue”, probably Roquefort or Stilton.

The starters are not much seen on Toronto menus today: herring, smoked salmon, oysters. The soups ditto, such as jellied consommé.

I wonder what The Old Mill serves for lunch today … maybe I’ll go out and see.


*The menus are no longer on the website (that I can see), but my discussion of the dishes may interest readers nonetheless.






A Chat About American Rye Including Jim Beam’s

[Friendly caution to our beer and historical-anything readers: contemporary technical rye whiskey discussion ahead].

Pictured is the rebadged rye of Beam Suntory, now 90 proof vs. the former 80 proof Yellow Label (Jim Beam Straight Rye). It’s called Pre-Prohibition Style vs. simply straight rye for the old Yellow Label (now discontinued). The new one is straight too though, the label states this as well, in effect at least four years old.

Beam still produces (RI)1 Straight Rye, at 92 proof seemingly a ratchet-up, and maybe different batching, of 80 proof Old Overholt rye, in turn also seemingly the same recipe as Knob Creek Straight Rye. AFAIK, all these are the same mashbill but different proofs, selections, and/or ages.

Truth to tell, having tasted them for years except the relatively new Prohibition one, they were very similar in palate. They all had a pungent, not all-that-appealing flavour which to me was the Beam signature, also seen in its various bourbons.

When I was active with, some of us called it the yeast taste, a potent background flavour common to the bourbon and rye. Hence thinking it was one Beam yeast used for fermenting rye and bourbon mashes that imparted the taste, although perhaps there was another explanation.

It’s still in Beam’s bourbons, e.g. I noticed it in a recent Knob Creek, but is almost completely absent in the Pre-Prohibition rye.

If one mixes any of these, the effect won’t be noticed, but drunk neat, the Beam “smack” was always very distinctive.

This taste must have evolved at the Clermont and Boston distilleries of Beam in the last 20 years or so, as I’ve tasted 1970s Beam bourbons at Kentucky gatherings and they don’t have it. Those bourbons were richer and more caramel-like than today’s, “carmul” as my good American friends would say (we say, car-a-mel, long “a” vs. their short “a”).

Old Gran-dad bourbon had a similar taste although as made at National Distillers in the 1970s was different again, more fruity and rich. Yet apparently the yeast for Gran-dad used at Beam came from National Distillers and is different than Beam’s yeast for its own brands, so who knows.

I wonder if the type of rye traditionally used at Beam may impart the taste in question since the bourbons use some rye too of course.

Since I like these whiskeys neat, small differences mean lot, and I was very happy to note that Pre-Prohibition rye doesn’t have the taste. It is rich, very drinkable neat, silky-sweet, and if it has any of the yeast smack it’s just a hair. Personally I think a different yeast is used to mash this formula.

It’s excellent value given where bourbon and American rye prices are these days.

A few large distilleries today mash rye, Beam does, Heaven Hill (Pikesville, Rittenhouse), of course MGPI in Indiana. Jack Daniel does a rye now too, rather bland IMO – I don’t know why since the white dog had a strong new-whiskey taste, but aged it seems a different animal.

There is also Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve Rye, all pot-distilled, I believe, in the small Versailles, KY plant. It reminds me of Woodford Reserve bourbon for years after its original release, fairly congeneric albeit my last WR bourbon seemed older in taste, quite an improvement. But I’d guess the rye hasn’t had time to age more than four years.

The pot-distilling, while salutary historically, requires years of aging to bring around.

There is also Sazerac’s Barton 1792 Distillery’s Fleischmann Rye, still made in Bardstown for a limited market and hard to find. Excellent product for the price.

Finally, Wild Turkey has a rye, in 101 and regular proof iterations. I’ve never been a fan of the profile, certainly good for cocktails though.

Diageo’s George Dickel rye is from MGPI except for the maple charcoal leaching. I’m not really a fan of the MGPI profile for rye, I find it rather harsh (“Blue Tide”) but maybe I haven’t tried it old enough.

There are countless craft distillers doing rye of course, but the products I’ve tried are quite young and don’t get at the aged side of the taste spectrum, which is the traditional one at least for 100 years or so. I.e., aging starts at four years old and often climbs much higher.

I had a Sazerac 18-year-old rye dram courtesy my friend Gary Hodder recently that was outstanding. The taste you get in old rye is quite different to old bourbon, kind of gingerbread-like or – again a term I used to use on the board – old damask curtains.

The Sazerac 18-year-old rye was either made years ago in Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY, formerly Ancient Age Distillery, or possibly in Louisville at “Old Bernheim”, now Heaven Hill’s distillery in Louisville, rebuilt 1992 as New Bernheim by UDV/Guinness (predecessor of Diageo) and tanked.

Beam Suntory has a Canadian rye too, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye made at Alberta Distillers. It’s very good when well-batched and selected*, all aged in new charred oak, but quite different to the Kentucky ryes in the stable.


*Just as an example, currently if you buy some CC brands in Ontario you get a free mini, so I got a mini of the CC 100% rye that way. It was light-coloured and lean in taste, not as good as the full bottles currently on the shelf which are rich and malty. Hence maybe the freebie? Of course we don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. It made a good addition to a brandy-based Sazerac cocktail. 🙂






Time Has Come Today

This late-1800s brewing entry in Chambers’ Encyclopedia states that pale ales received two-to-four months storage, mild ales, one week, export pale ales (IPAs), 10-15 months. See bottom-left hand corner, pg. 36.

Unlike today, you needed time to ensure pale ale was in the right condition for drinking. Time gave it a clearer appearance and took out some of the yeasty notes. A slow continued fermentation slightly raised the alcohol level and generated some CO2 as well.

The Scottish Chambers brothers, founders of a famed encyclopedia, had a high reputation for conveying scholarly expertise but in a way the intelligent layman could understand. (Indeed there are similar data in contemporary brewing and scientific journals).

In a time when yeast management, brewing sanitation and refrigerated storage were nowhere near today’s standards, two-to-four months was not a derisory period. Beer had to last sometimes as well over a warm spell and other uncertain weather.

Dry-hopping in part was designed to protect pale ale from the risks, we we saw in the discussion by “Aroma” yesterday.

It is tempting to think Aroma was brewing author and authority William Loftus, as in another part of the volume I linked he recommends the latter’s book The Brewer which went through numerous editions 1850s-1870s. I don’t think Aroma was Loftus though, in part because his IPA directions differ somewhat from Loftus’.

E.g. Loftus likes a mix of German and English hops; Aroma is an all-English hop man. Aroma speaks of blending aged and fresh hops; Loftus does not refer to aged hops.

It is hard to remember in our day of pasteurization, crash-cooling, filtration, and reliable refrigeration how perishable beer is. It will turn sour fast if not “kept” properly, sometimes in a day or two…

While over time storage time steadily narrowed as I mentioned for all beer, not least lager, to think AK was not stored, or kept, for much of the 1800s would not be correct. AK was an ale for keeping, certainly but the keeping period varied with the intended market.

The designation “K” for beer on its own or in doubled or greater number, KK and the like, surely meant keeping as well. Mild ales if long stored were sometimes designated XK or just K with multiples for stronger beers, which often were kept longer.

While brewery ads were sometimes inconsistent, I believe the K meant the same for bitter beer as other classes long aged: stored.

We don’t really have, today, the kind of beer Aroma referred to. Few beers use all-English hops in North America. Beers that do, including in England, rarely are stored long enough, and not in uncoated wood, to approximate to the Chambers’ description. Even where wood barrels are used, American oak barrels almost always are enlisted.

American wood was not used by English pale ale brewers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however. They thought it gave the wrong flavour to beer – it’s the vanillin, “chardonnay” taste familiar also in bourbon whiskey.

The wood used was sourced in the Baltic generally, so-called Memel wood from Lithuania and adjoining areas. You can still get it. Memel tended to impart a neutral quality to beer. Brewers liked that, they wanted the beers’ inherent qualities to shine.

Apart from all this, the hops used then were all-flower (no pellets) – and a great amount was used, much more than for the bitter offered in England today.

What would Aroma’s AK taste like? I think it would be great, probably like Martin’s Special Pale Ale was (in Belgium) 20 years ago (maybe still, I don’t know). Clean sweet malt taste, lovely flowery scent from the hops, good bitterness but the hop aroma predominating. I am referring to a special, stronger pale ale Martin’s had: there were two in the range, at least then.

For AK, 2-4 months probably wasn’t long enough for Brettanomyces to develop. This is why there was practical recognition IMO of a distinction between pale ale and IPA. They are the same in origin but the very long storage of the latter gave it additional qualities, the “Bass stink”, often, as it was called by Americans circa-1900.

It’s an acquired taste as so many tastes are in the area of beers, wines, and other drinks. However, the general market did not I think favour it, hence the replacement of those beers ultimately by the AK or “running” type.

The bitter today of the English pub, where it has not been replaced by the American-tasting form of IPA, is really the descendant of that AK.






The Meaning of AK in English Beer Terminology (Part II)

This is simply a follow-up to my Part I on this topic, in that I notice HathiTrust has the volume in question, here. Therefore, I can scan in the page and a double-click shows excellent resolution. See the second part of paragraph 4991, by “Aroma”:



Note re images: the image above and in Part I of this post were sourced from the links given in the texts. All intellectual property in or to the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Meaning of AK in English Beer Terminology (Part I)

From time to time the question of the origins and meaning of “AK”, or A.K., in English beer usage has arisen. A certain amount of ink has been spilled trying to get to the bottom of it, with beer history writers Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson weighing in, as I have. Some interesting thoughts are expressed in this article by Cornell from July, 2014, and in reader comments.



Some years ago, I located a reference from November 25, 1870 which stated AK means “keeping ale”, and I mentioned it in those comments. I mention it here now, as I haven’t before in these pages, and include an image from the article.

It was published in the English Mechanic and World of Science, a practical journal intended for various technical trades including brewing. The full page may be viewed here.

One may bear in mind that brewing had not yet entered its sophisticated science stage. It was a practical business, and brewers sought help in journals such as this one for daily problems, often writing in for advice.

In this case, the anonymous “Aroma”, almost surely a brewer, stated that A.K. means “keeping ale”.

It is the only suggested definition in the heyday of AK, and is therefore important as period evidence especially given Aroma’s obvious detailed knowledge of beer and brewing.

Anyone is entitled of course not to treat it as definitive, but Aroma’s statement should be factored in any inquiry.

Personally, I believe AK did mean keeping ale, as even though storage times for pale ales were increasingly abbreviated in the 19th century, AK was clearly a form of bitter beer.

One of the originating characteristics of bitter beer was seasonal brewing and storage and later shipping for the India part or other export.

It’s true that for practical purposes AK was not a stock beer or stock ale for that matter. On the other hand, IPA and pale ale themselves altered to a point where storage was much abbreviated, or eliminated for all practical purposes as today.

What remained as leitmotifs were the heavy hopping, relatively pale colour, and relatively lower final gravity in relation to mild ales (drier).

IPA and pale ale were still bitter beer, as AK was. The stock or keeping quality was a characteristic of their ancestor which lingered in the name of one of the types.

Why it stayed in the name of the lower gravity version vs. the others (e.g. why wasn’t IPA called AK-IPA?) is a valid point to raise, however, IPA was a stored beer for much of its history and everyone connected with the beer business knew that.

Whereas, to describe a lower gravity beer but of similar type, what will you call it?

Today we say Session IPA. They said, I conclude, AK which reflected sufficiently the bitter beer idea to readers. Boak and Bailey stated in the Twitter discussion that the first reference to AK is 1846. This makes sense as beer gravities were getting lighter and storage times less and less for all beer types as the 19th century wore on.

Once a lighter pale ale became an item of commerce, a convenient term was needed, and AK makes sense as a convenient type-description.

N.B. See Part II for a fuller scan of the 1870 article, and my further analysis in a March 27, 2022 posting.*

*It discusses, among other thing, that Rayment’s, an English brewery, also called AK “keeping ale”, in 1891.




I’ll Sing About Some People…

In their 1973 dirge-like song Where Are They Now? The Kinks memorialized literary and cultural phenomena that shook up Britain 5-15 years earlier, yet by the Glam Era seemed period or forgotten.

Lead singer Ray Davies intoned (my ellipsis):

I’ll sing a song about some people you might know
They made front pages in the news not long ago ….

Where are all the Teddy Boys now?
The Brill Cream boys with D.A.s,
Drain-pipes and blue suedes,
Beatniks with long pullovers on ….

I hope that Arthur Seaton is alright.
I hope that Charlie Bubbles had a very pleasant flight,
And Jimmy Porter’s learned to laugh and smile,
And Joe Lampton’s learned to live a life of style.

Where are all the angry young men now?
Where are all the angry young men now?
Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe…

In 1973 the early fans of Johnny Kidd, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who, Cream, etc. were in their mid-20s. They were getting married, beavering in work cubicles or on the factory line. Some were just exiting higher studies.

How many knew, or remembered, the places and personalities named by Davies? Even fewer in America would have known, save a few of the Beat Generation Davies name-checked.

John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe were charter members of the “Kitchen Sink” writing school, an awkward term that tended to minimize their artistic ambitions. Another sobriquet, more descriptive and romantic, was Angry Young Men.

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham with a plastic spoon in his mouth and had a difficult childhood. After a spate of factory work and a goodish stint in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, he built an impressive writing career despite leaving school at 14.

An autodidact, his books are well- but closely-written and need good attention to appreciate the artistry.

His novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and the story cycle The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer were justly acclaimed on release and made into successful, well-loved films.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was directed by Karel Reisz, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia whose lawyer father and other family were killed by the Nazis. Britain had given him refuge in 1938.

Following R.A.F. service and a Cambridge education, Reisz became a pioneer social realist filmmaker. He is best remembered probably for The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Via his anti-heroes, Sillitoe channelled the working man’s dissatisfactions in postwar Britain, which might lead to aggressions and wayward life choices. Similar sentiments were echoed in the lyrics and sound of contemporary popular music, indeed from Liverpool to Los Angeles, especially in blues and rock and roll.

The early Sillitoe finds his musical counterpart in The Beatles’ impassioned song “Help”, or The Who’s clanging “My Generation”. And The Kinks’ stark “Dead End Street” speaks for itself.

Ray Davies understood the duality of aims and gave it expression in the song mentioned.

Arthur Seaton was the protagonist of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a disconsolate bicycle machinist in Nottingham. He was a potent symbol of the kitchen sink, as different can be from the received ideal of suave male hero.

Actor Albert Finney was a smash success portraying Seaton in the film adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The film launched his career and helped bring Sillitoe to international notice.

Broadly, the Kitchen Sink and new wave of visual artists, rockers, and filmmakers vented the frustrations and ambitions of those previously denied a voice by the official culture.

Ray Davies was the thinking man’s rocker par excellence. He did his part to make sure his counterparts in other arts and endeavours were remembered.

Sillitoe later wrote the well-received The Death of William Posters (1965), the first part of a fictional trilogy. It continued themes introduced by his first two books, and offers an interesting two-page reflection on beer.

The anti-hero here is Frank Dawley who at 27 gives up his factory job, leaves his family, and enters on paths hopefully providing more meaning than a wage-earning life. One of his plaints in the latter role is having to cope with “the same brands of ales”.

Sillitoe was surely aware how the auras of wine appreciation and wine-merchant attached to conceptions of genteel living. Of course too wine and Bacchus are associated with poetry, the highest literary calling.

In his way, Sillitoe was making the case for beer, for the right of suburban man to exercise discrimination in beer taste – not to have one of life’s pleasures determined for him. By implication, Sillitoe claimed the right as an artist to write about beer.

Preparing to depart Nottingham for the open road Dawley parks his car in a strange part of the city (he later sells it to pay travel expenses and help support his family).

He searches for a pub to have a valedictory drink to his old life but has trouble finding one. He ends up in a crumbling quarter undergoing redevelopment. Still standing are outdoor privies, a symbol of the life is fleeing.

Dawley finally finds a pub and orders a pint of mild ale. The regulars stare at him, not for his order but being a stranger in their lair. The theme of outsider is omnipresent in Sillitoe.

As preface to the dramatic conflict to come Sillitoe writes Dawley had definite ideas about beer. He knew when a pint “wasn’t right” and would sometimes leave it on the bar and walk out. This referred to the inconsistency of British cask-conditioned beer. Not being “right” meant the beer might be sour, or cloudy.

On this occasion the pint comes to Dawley “warm”, a serious failing. Indeed despite hoary  jokes about warm English beer, cask ale should never be warm but rather at a cellar temperature, pleasantly cool.

Dawley asks to change the beer but the landlord gets testy. Dawley is not on his own turf, where such a request, Sillitoe writes, is accommodated silently.

The landlord tells Dawley in his pub the beer is always fine, and he won’t change it. Voices rise, finally the landlord slams money on the counter and tells Dawley, “clear out”.

Dawley knows he should take the money and leave. But he can’t stopper the genie of rebel. He lifts the glass of beer and dramatically upends it on the tiled floor. The landlord demands Dawley clean it up and oldsters in a corner intone as if a Greek chorus, “that’s just, that’s just”.

The world is stacked against Dawley, for simply exercising discrimination in taste, a right his social betters take for granted.

The stand-off leads to an epic fight in which Dawley barely saves his skin. He leaves his tormentors in the literal dust of bereft workingman’s Nottingham.

Despite his sympathy with Dawley’s condition Sillitoe was no doctrinaire leftist. While at one time feted in the Soviet Union for his seeming working class solidarity, Sillitoe remained an individualist, above all. He declared on one occasion he believed in meritocracy. He was a classic humanist and British democrat.

To Sillitoe, the writing life made you free, in the sense one could live without conforming to pre-determined, societal expectations. For many pop stars, success made them free in the same way.

Sillitoe died seven years ago. I’ll always wonder what he thought of Britain’s revived and vibrant beer culture, which he lived long enough to witness. Although he was not pollyanna about modern British society – the 2008 financial crisis soured him not a little – he surely regarded the beer efflorescence as a positive change.

Finally, to answer Ray Davies’ question “where are all the angry young men now?”, I’d say the smartest and most talented of them, as Davies himself, John Lennon,  David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, etc., made it, and achieved a kind of equilibrium, or stasis in their lives.

As John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols group once observed, “you can’t be angry forever”.

Note re image: the image above, a still from the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was sourced from the Intofilm guide. All intellectual property in or to image belongs to British Lion or other lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Baying for Bass

In my last two posts I mentioned that lager captured the imagination of the technical fraternity of British brewing in the late 1800s. The change percolated into the breweries, assisted by energetic efforts of Germans or Anglo-Germans getting into brewing in England.

Native brewers followed soon enough so that by the 1920s lager was on trade lists, an exotica favoured by foreigners, Bohemian circles, and officers, diplomats and others of the (enforced) travelled classes.

The great culinary writer Elizabeth David advised to bring lager, among other drinks, on a picnic. While she was writing well after WW II no doubt she was recalling picnics of her youth in the late 1930s.

After all wrinklies don’t go on picnics – I’m not sure anyone does with the frequency described in the glossy food volumes, but those who do it tend to be nimble in the knees.

But what of circa-1850 Britain? A very different time. Britain was proud of its beer. Sydney Smith famously encapsulated the feeling when he wrote that no two ideas were more inseparable than beer and Britannia.

One way this manifested was the use of verse to laud British beer, often in gaudy and intentionally exaggerated terms, to make a point of course.

One frequently cited poem – Michael Jackson recounts it in an early book – orated that the beer of old Burton if “right” will inspire you to “fight”, versus that is (un-literally) frothy Continental drinks that inspire you to dance.

Jackson termed it a dubious tribute – one thing Jackson wasn’t was a Mr. Blimp. His politics tended to the left and he didn’t like that kind of swagger.

On the other hand, in his diplomatic way, Jackson made very clear his belief that beer had high epicurean value especially the great range of bitter and mild his native land offered.

The subsequent birth of a renewed world-wide beer culture is a tribute largely to his dogged faith in the special merits of good beer, British beer not least.

Ironically, part of that British heritage, much of it exemplified by old regional companies making beer of English materials, has gone with the, um, wind.

But in its place another form of ale has arisen to carry the flag. Punk IPA is an avatar, brewed by Scotland’s Brewdog. Punk IPA is the successor, via American craft pale ale and IPA, to disappeared regional bitters from Ruddles, the original Young’s, Eldridge Pope, the great Scottish breweries, etc.

Of course too there are hundreds of new regional brewers in England still making bitter and mild in the old way, or one hopes in the old way. And a clutch of the old ones remain, too, to show the way where they don’t re-invent themselves.

In 1855 a mock ode to Bass pale ale appeared in the superbly-named The Welshman, and General Advertiser, for the Principality of Wales, Carmarthen.

Although humorous and exaggerated in tone – it is unlikely for example any bloods visiting the Continent found nothing good to drink – it upheld British pride in their own productions, and by extension, in being British tout court.

A poem like this was only possible in a context where a contemporary writer noted that you could tell a Briton had passed through by the litter of Guinness and Bass bottles left behind.

In 1855, confidence in Empire and its mission was probably at its zenith even though the Empire lasted for another 100 years. The British weren’t embarrassed to send their products, industrial, cultural, comestible, around the world and trumpet them as superior.

What is saying the same thing almost, they weren’t in a mood to take lessons from foreigners, on gastronomy or much else.

A seeming irony is pale ale was barely 30 years old in England. But already it is spoken of as a deathless symbol of John Bull. The beer type is less important though than the deeper impulse behind the poem.

Before pale ale attracted attention of mock versifiers it was Burton ale. Before that porter, the revered Georgian black Champagne. Before that nut brown ale.

There is always a brew, or was, to serve as symbol of Albion.

And you can bet your life British beer at its best fully justified this. A well-brewed lager is very good to have but by its nature doesn’t reveal the ineffable notes of pale ale, porter, old ale.

This Anglo-Saxon gastronomic zenith was something felt more than expressed, the English were good at many things, but expressing pride in food and drink was not one, until lately if at all.

When they did try to vaunt the merits of their liquid best, the results often fell to bathos, as the poem being considered, although the effect is softened by this being the author’s intent. As the editor put it in his preface, no one was setting Parnassus on fire.

Still, the inveterate beer person likes this history, we take validation where we find it.

It remains true that if a culture fails to uphold its worthy institutions they risk fading away, and beer is only the least of it, in truth.

People start to travel, discover new things, encounter new cultures. Suddenly the pint in the corner pub seems old hat, and it’s a misty pale ale with grapefruit tones and Buffalo chicken wings you want in Bristol.

Jane Grigson said it best, if English towns had signs on the outskirts equivalent to what French towns do, à la (I paraphrase) “York, Its Cathedral, Its Medieval Centre, Its Unrivalled Hams and Puddings” then Britons would value their culinary legacy much more.

To be fair, York’s food culture is in good nick these days. The big county of Yorkshire, probably not incidentally the birthplace of Michael Jackson, never succumbed completely to the cultural inferiority that would rate an Italian or French ham over a local specialty perhaps introduced by the Romans.

They do an annual food and drink festival there, one with a strictly regional focus, that is on our radar to attend.

Returning to 1855, did you notice that the Bass declamation takes a good knock at the medical and legal professions, inter alia? But then that is not exclusive to verse, doggerel or other.

In fact the same broadsheet contains another zinger on we legal drudges, see if you can find it. Pretty funny it is too (ha ha).

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the 1855 newspaper mentioned and linked in the text (via Welsh Newspapers Online) and the second and third from the Wales Online website. The interior depicted is the No Sign Wine Bar, in Swansea. All intellectual property in or to the sources mentioned belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Tasting Britain’s First Lager


Wrexham is a sizeable, small city in north Wales. Less known internationally than Cardiff or Swansea, it is a busy regional administrative, commercial, educational, and health centre.

A famous lager brewery was built there, not quite the first in Britain, that seems to have been the Austro-Bavarian lager brewery in Tottenham, London whose ad I discussed yesterday.

A cluster of lager breweries started up in the U.K. between 1880 and 1885. In 1885 famous Tennent’s in Scotland was founded. There were trials with lager in the UK earlier in the 19th century, but Austro-Bavarian is considered the first purpose-built, commercial-scale lager brewer.

Still, Wrexham’s beer was famous because it lasted long, until 2000. One way or another it inspired similar beers in the 1900s, by then many from English ale and porter brewers.

Our interest in beer and distilled spirits history is multi-facteted. We like the social and business side, the wider contexts, the technical side, all of it. But primarily we are interested in palate. What did beer and spirits taste like in the 1800s?

To get at that, and it is most worthwhile to try even if the results are never a certainty, there are two ways, sometimes connected. One way is to study everything about how a drink was made and then make reasoned inferences.

For example, new white whiskey was often mixed with fruit juices or sugar, herbs and spices. One can infer the strong chemical taste of new spirit was being masked.

A second way is to find descriptive notes similar to those of a modern drinks writer. Many of these exist, scattered in a wide variety of sources. For example, Alfred Barnard, who toured Britain’s breweries and distilleries in the late 1800s and wrote numerous volumes to chronicle them, stated that one beer had a “Madeira odour”.

A mid-1800s article once described a rye whiskey as smelling like “fresh-mown hay” – we get it.

Often the formulae were quite general, e.g., “light”, the Victorians’ equivalent of “smooth” today and still a biggie in the coffee table books.

In a home-town newspaper in 1890, the Wrexham Advertiser (via Welsh Online Newspapers), a journalist described Wrexham’s lager well: lovely pale colour, absorbed carbonation like a Champagne, light and “pleasant”. While not as detailed as one would wish it gives a good idea what the beer was like.

Pleasant probably meant much less hoppy than pale or mild ales and clearly less alcoholic. The “depression” reference can be discounted as iffy Victorian medicine but the writer was trying to say the beer wasn’t strong, hoppy, and soporific as ales can be and suited therefore the dinner hour.

Clearly he knew the way lager was drunk in its homelands and thought the style and temper including with food would suit the British more than the sturdy ales and stouts posterity had bequeathed.

No off-flavours are mentioned, which in part may be deference to an important local industry, but reflects more I think the three-month maturation. Long aging probably removed the rough tastes of new fermentation, e.g., from dimethyl sulphide.

Indeed long cellaring was good practice in Europe, but practice and reality were, and are, often two different things. Hence the use of garlic, onion, and similar adjectives to describe many early lagers in British beer annals.

The piece is well-written in general. Obviously the brewery was a local hero and being boosted in the local paper was expected, but still the story gives a good short account of lager’s history in England. It foresaw too the importance lager would ultimately assume to British brewing.

The writer lyricised that the beer was known from “flowery Japan” to the coasts of South America and not to omit, the finest of “Eastern steamers”. Lager was an early prized offering on the cartes of English and American steamships. Pale ales and Guinness were not omitted, but the pride of Munich and, evidently, Wrexham, often graced the menus of the stylish lines.

Note the rhythms of his geographical references, that was a stock device then and he used it well. We see it (in general culture) until about 1970, rocker Ray Davies used it once, quite appropriately in the song Victoria.*

Wrexham lager endured all the way to 2000 in Wrexham though, when Carlsberg closed the brewery. And the beer did come back, made on a small scale in Wrexham for draft service. I’m sure it is excellent.

But other, not dissimilar beers, are known on those Kinksian latitudes, Heineken, Carlsberg, Beck’s, maybe Stella Artois now.

It could have been Wrexham lager though, or Anglo-Bavarian’s, or Barclay Perkins’. But British brewers didn’t twig, didn’t move fast enough.


Note re image: the image above was sourced from Welsh Online Newspapers, linked in the text. All intellectual property in the source article belongs solely to the lawful owner who retains all rights thereto, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




It’s Lager’s World…

… and We Just Live in It

In the last 20 years of the 1800s many reasons were advanced for the desirability of the British accustoming to lager, meaning the blonde pilsener style then expanding over Europe and the various German and Austrian types.

One reason was lager was not as strong as ale and porter and was more suitable as a healthful and refreshing drink.

The encroaching temperance movement, while it never attained victory in Britain, had an influence IMO in the promotion by brewing technologists, people like Charles Graham, of lager’s merits. It made it easier for them to do their work, as these were trained and often highly educated people moving in circles of influence in the country.

Those were not the places to rhapsodize over the merits of strong bitter beers, or XX mild ales: it wasn’t going to happen. Whereas lager was at best a quasi-beer by virtue of having three key attributes, it was: 1) foreign, 2) mild in alcohol, and 3) by its very nature non-turbid.

Perhaps a fourth should be added: a chilled serving temperature and well-carbonated in draft form.

To promote such novel malt beverage meant you were almost introducing a new product to the country. Something the parson at tea might find nonplussing.

I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I’ve mentioned before how it is striking in the period mentioned that so many in Britain’s emerging field of brewing science were enthusiasts of lager.

It is an impression I formed over extensive reading in early trade and professional literature, e.g., the Brewers Guardian and Journal of the Institute of Brewing, as well as early brewing textbooks.

It is as if the brewing experts lost faith in Britain’s traditional styles of beer. Of course they helped keep them going too, largely through developing reliable techniques of filtration, cold-aging, and force-carbonation to produce bottled ales and other beers that had some of the characteristics of lager.

Those beers did hold off the lager tide for quite a while, and the taste remained for traditional bitter and mild ales in the pub, but finally by the 1970s lager’s rise was unstoppable and it has long been the mainstay of the British beer trade.

Cask-conditioned ale and now craft beer have been well-promoted through the efforts of lobby groups and consumer beer writers, but it is unlikely they will unseat the Carlings, Heinekens, etc. any time soon.

This 1893 article in the English business press, on Wrexham lager, a successful early lager in the U.K., encapsulates many of the reasons lager was seen as a saviour. The condescending attitude to the working man aside, the article focused on a signal advantage of lager: its clarity, one of the four desiderata above.

Offering a beer crystal-clear to the last drop meant, not just that (in Victorian eyes) it tasted and looked better than cloudy pale ale, but there was no wastage: always of interest to anyone without a deep purse, which is most people.

The desirable features of lager did not come without a price of their own: a garlic or onion taste, noted by many early observers and through the 20th century to this day. The 1893 writer felt the British middle classes, then bitter beer devotees, would hold back from embracing lager on this account.

(He credited the working classes with interest in getting drunk, mainly, and having no gastronomic discernment – unfairly in our view, but there you have it).

Still, the garlic taste, as well as the early pitch taste (barrels lined with brewers’ pitch to minimize infection from the wood), formed no barrier to early acceptance of lager elsewhere, notably the U.S., Canada in parts, Australia, New Zealand. And it didn’t stop lager’s ultimate rise in the U.K. either.

I recall myself detecting this taste in Britain’s mass-market lager into the 2000s.

And so the ale category, all the types in total, steadily fell back for 30 years after lager got its legs in the 1970s, assisted in part by a passel of hot summers.

What really explains the lager domination then? After all it took a long time, much longer than most other places in the world. It couldn’t be just the clarity and non-wastage factor since British ale offered that too in time.

I think factor no. 1 listed above has a great deal to do with it, the foreign. Once people started to travel widely – even Britain’s classes of influence were not great travellers until the 1970s and 80s – they saw lager’s popularity elsewhere. It became magnetic, different from the pint and bottle at home.

The thinness, the onion taste, even the arguable lack of “freshness” by virtue of being pasteurized (most draft lager is too, now) mattered little in the end. Lager was different, and people today want to try something different, the consumer society encourages it.

The proof of it, and quite ironic it is, is that cloudy, thick, and strong beers are once again popular in Britain – American-style craft beer. It is the novelty of the beers that appeals to people, just as the New World hop taste, once dismissed as coarse by English brewers, now becomes strangely appealing.

But it seems unlikely Beavertown, Kernel, Brewdog, I&G, and the hundreds of growing craft ale producers will dislodge blonde lager as ruler of the beer roost. The reason I think lager’s place is assured, by which I mean mass market lager, is the international nature of the business.

The big brewers, with expert helmsmen in the Netherlands, Brussels, Brazil, Copenhagen, know how to keep their market share and grow it too. In this regard, the big British brewers, with an equal opportunity out of the gate, dropped the ball.

Whether it was insularity, lack of confidence, or less skill in the international business arena, they lost the international markets largely they had built up before the 1880s. And therefore all that potential future growth was forestalled.

Guinness was a partial exception, due to the particular features of that beer. Hey, if there was one black beer to be an outlier in international brewing, why not Guinness? Its recent fortunes appear less robust though, and the beer has changed a lot too (IMO) to accommodate modern realities.

Although it took much longer than he thought, the 1893 writer saw the future. He wrote of lager, “… this class of beer will be the beer of the future in the United Kingdom…”. Remarkable prescience.

Note re image: the image above, from 1884, was sourced from the British Library’s online catalogue of brewery advertisements, here. The image belongs solely to its lawful owner who retains all rights therein. Image is used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.






Brewery Tours in the Age of Acquarius

Let’s Get Back, Pard

The brewery tour has been a standby of the brewing business for a long time. Large breweries perfected it but most breweries accommodated visitors in some form, and today no less.

It makes sense for breweries to “make friends”, as the inimitable American business lingo puts it,  but I don’t care what the cynics say: there’s something special about beer and brewing that encourages the camaraderie.

Perhaps the altered state beer induces encourages amity and welcome.

Back in 1967, Iroquois Brewing Corp. was a rare surviving large brewery in Buffalo, NY (located in the northwestern section of the state, only a couple of hours from Toronto). It had gone through a long period of independence following founding by German-Americans in the 19th century.

In the 1950s it joined one of those regional alliances still with us in an altered form today, and then became independent again.

It was doing well enough by 1967 that it expanded its “hospitality centre”, an event chronicled by the Lackawanna Leader.

The visitor facility was doubled in size by providing a “new” Indian Head Saloon and a Rathskeller.

The word new in the story is ambiguous, suggesting the Indian Head Saloon existed earlier. The images above seem to be from circa 1960 and show many of the features described in the 1967 story.

I’d guess the saloon was enlarged and spruced up in 1967 and perhaps the Rathskeller was added.

The story shows both the future and past of beer in America. The past, in the sense that beer qua beverage and its palate was subsidiary to the general entertainment value of the tour: nothing is mentioned in the story what kind of beer was brewed, or any details of the brewing process or equipment used.

The future appears though, in the sense there was growing public interest to visit breweries: people were interested where their beer came from and to learn more about it.

Almost no one in the beer business though, except a few importers and brewers making characterful products (Fritz Maytag in San Francisco, Ballantine for its IPA), was catering to this marketing opportunity.

Beer was still beer, generic, at most “fresh”, “zesty”, “dry”, “mellow” – the lapidary formulae still popular with the big brewers today.

Iroquois’ growth in the 1960s was fueled largely by a successful tv ad campaign, you can see it here. The genial bartender, Norm Dobmeier, was not an actor, but he was so good in the role he might have been.

He was a Buffalo local who worked in his family’s liquor store. The good-looking patron sampling Iroquois beer both on draft and in bottled form was a professional actor, Phil Scheeler, also a Buffalo resident.

The engaging commercial and the still-potent appeal of the local brewery gave the brand that extra push to last until 1970, but after that the end came fast.

By 1972 the massive Iroquois Brewing plant in central Buffalo had closed, a victim of the unceasing price-cutting and consolidation that affected brewing almost everywhere in North America.

Phil Scheeler is now in his 80s and recently re-appeared to discuss what had been a famous ad in its day in Buffalo. You can see the tv news story here, and it is quite affecting as Norm Dobmeier’s son was interviewed as well and met the tv patron his father had served 50 years earlier.

The commercial was filmed both in the Indian Head Saloon and a restaurant in town that still exists, where Phil Scheeler and Norm’s son had their reunion. Local history at its best.

The tone of the commercial is of course is quite different than today: cheerful, positive, optimistic, vs. the irony-laden content of current advertising.

Is the beer better today though? On the whole, definitely, but I’d like to have tried an “Iri” on draft (unpasteurized) in that neat faux western saloon. I’ll bet it was pretty good, pardner.