Stray Thoughts As The Year Closes

Some unconnected thoughts that nonetheless encapsulate in toto my specific approach to beer, pubs and other things bibulous.

First, I note with bemusement the febrile rivers of bandwidth still being devoted to big brewery takeovers of craft operations. The angst seems always present even when the opposite posture is proferred.

I was there at the beginning and can say the goal was to get good beer. Many large or old-established regional breweries then, especially in England, Belgium and Germany, made great beer. Guinness (bottled) was great then. No one was concerned as such with how large a brewery was. No one would suggest, say, that Courage Directors or Ind Coope’s Burton Ale were anything but world-league beers. The problem was that breweries in North America had consolidated to the point where light-bodied beer was a firmly-held mantra, culmination of a decades-long process.

The small is beautiful mantra came later as a spin-off from the beer revival movement. While valid unto itself, it was never the only model for good beer, nor could this really be possible as new entrants often lack the skills and palate experience to make fine beer.

Tempus fugit and with it, the tastes and assumptions of a previous generation…

The widespread availability of fine beer in a range of styles has now been fully addressed since 1980. This was due to the landmark efforts of Michael Jackson, Ken Grossman, Fritz Maytag, Charlie Papazian, Bert Grant, John Sleeman, and many others. In a word, they made large brewers take notice. The growing tide finally convinced the megas they were behind the times, to the point some well-known small breweries are being bought up; that’s good. (And it’s not entirely a new phenomenon either, it started almost as soon as the craft breweries did. Its acceleration simply speaks to the slow but certain acceptance of quality beer by the market at large, or enough of it to make a difference).

There is every reason to think big brewers will continue the quality standards the small units bought out made their reputation on. Except for the Bud Light type of beer, and also certain imports such as Corona and Heineken which have an inherent status in the eyes of many, the future is in full-flavoured beers. Big brewers know this. We’ve won, and if any doubt persists, there are lots of existing and upcoming breweries to keep the big fellas honest. If they change Goose Island IPA, say or Mill St Tankhouse Ale, lots of hungry breweries will take up the slack.

The issue is done as dinner as far as I’m concerned, and I hope the beer press leaves it alone except to note clinically the further buy-outs as they occur.

Best beers of 2015? For me, Germany’s DAB Dark with its velvet, molasses-like palate, very stable in the can and showing the true qualities of Bavarian dark lager albeit from Dortmund. In Toronto: Amsterdam Brewery’s Autumn Hop Harvest Ale, which used fresh (unkilned) hops from an Ontario farm. The vivid qualities of these hops surely evoke the kind of beer made in the distant era when hop culture and processing were a local, non-standardized business. I must also mention Bellwood’s Cat Lady IPA, which I discussed in posting a few months ago. In New York, the collaboration brewing of Tres Equis by Threes Brewing and Other Half set a new standard for a broadly Czech-type pale lager as far as I’m concerned. And I must say my re-acquaintance with the venerable Molson Stock Ale was pleasing. It has a full flavour with an insistent hop quality I can only call “nervous”, in the sense that is used to describe certain French white wines. (See the definition of nervous in wine-speak here for those not familiar with the term).

Most interesting Toronto beer bar? As always, Bar Volo due to its ever-changing and imaginative selection and sympa service as well as its connections to the ineffable Cask Days. Other bars appreciated were Dora Keogh, the Wallace, the Granite, the Wheatsheaf, and Cork’s Wine and Beer Bar (Laird St. location). Each offered something different, not least a personal touch from the owners or staff.

When a dram of whiskey is wanted, this year Tennessee’s Jack Daniel Single Barrel impressed a lot. There is an ever-increasing range too of excellent Canadian whiskies, tangy with the mint or spice of rye grain sheathed in sweet barrel gums. Alberta Springs Dark Horse, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye and Gooderham & Worts Four Grain would surely rank in most peoples’ top 10.

In wine, Ontario Niagara sparklers are surely at a peak of quality, especially Tawse’s and 13th Street’s, also Henry of Pelham’s and in general riesling from that area. A number of assemblages of reds put together by skilled craftsmen/vintners in the VQA genre made a statement too.  And did you see I didn’t mention icewine…?

We live in the best of all possible times for quality beer, wine and spirits in Ontario – it will only get better.





The Wheatsheaf – A Toronto Classic










The Wheatsheaf, a downtown pub (really tavern), has operated in the same location with the same name since about 1850!  In other cities, that fact would be lionized with perhaps the inevitable gentrification that happens to storied old haunts. Not in Toronto: the Wheatsheaf wears its history and venerability with nonchalance and remains pretty much the place it always was, a Toronto beverage room where all are welcome, old-timers, young condo-dwellers, hipsters, those who count pennies to make the price of a pint, businesspeople out for a quick lunch, everyone.

It other words it does what a good bar should do: sup and feed at a reasonable cost, in interesting surroundings.

The beer culture in Toronto, focused as it has been (understandably) on beer itself, overlooks the Wheatsheaf. No doubt this is due to its largely macro beer choice, mostly Molson Coors beers. But the pub is a spacious and comfortable place, full of those long wooden tables and chunky “banker’s” chairs that contrive to be comfortable even though they don’t look it.

There is always a food special on, and if they play music on the sound system I didn’t hear it (there are TVs here and there but they don’t seem to obtrude).

The waiters are efficient, no-nonsense but friendly. If you ask about the tunnel supposedly buried underground leading to Fort York they will give you their version of the tale.

You can get Mill St Tankhouse Ale, Steamwhistle lager and Creemore there, so while not the summum of the beerological arts, there is brew sufficient to placate the fastidious taster.

And you know what? You can get Molson Stock Ale there on draft, which is entirely appropriate to the history of the place.  Molson used to have a brewery on the lakefront nearby, on Lakeshore Boulevard, and I’ll bet plenty of Stock Ale was dispensed from the Wheatsheaf in the heyday of that 1950’s artifact (now dismantled).











Doug Taylor, a Toronto historian, wrote a good summary of the pub’s history with some interesting details on architecture, here.

Want to go old-school in Hogtown including old-school Canuck beer? Visit the Wheatsheaf, order a pint of Molson Stock and some wings or a burger with back bacon, and you’re good. Or I am.


Note re images: the images used were sourced from the Internet and indicated as in public domain.

Brown Ale Considered


Alan in Holland suggested I write some thoughts on brown ale, a category he always found somewhat unclear. His perception actually accords with the beer’s place in brewing and beer history. Although if you look closely enough, the general pattern emerges.

First (in Britain’s primal communities) there was ale – fermented barley malt, probably not boiled, no hops, although sometimes flavoured with herbs or spices. A sweetish, bready drink (probably), with little shelf-life.

Later came beer proper, inherited from Holland and the other Low Countries when the Dutch and Flemings migrated to Suffolk and other eastern parts, mid-1500’s. This was an infusion of malted barley, and sometimes other grains, boiled with the resinous flowers of the hop vine and then fermented. Beer kept better than ale due to the preservative and ascorbic qualities of the hop. For a long time, ale and beer co-existed although in time even ale used hops, but less than for beer.

For colour, ale was generally light-coloured, beer was darker and approaching to black in the case of porter and stout. Porter and stout were always beers, not ales although both are top-fermented vs. the sedimentary fermentation of lager.

However, this scheme was never airtight. 1700’s brewing manuals give recipes for both pale and brown season beers – beers laid down to mature and protected by their higher content of hops. Conversely, there are Georgian recipes for common – not 1800’s – pale ale and brown ones, including a strong ale called “stitch”, probably linked to the expression to be stitched up, still understood in Britain.

Thus, by the 1700’s, both beer and ale could be brown or pale or indeed amber. The really important distinction was in terms of hop levels. For much of the 1800’s, beer was well-understood: it was a decidedly bitter drink of porter, stout, or India Pale Ale – confusingly, IPA was beer not ale despite the moniker. True ale could be mild (new) or aged and if aged it had more hops than mild ale, but all things equal ale was on the sweet or at least non-bitter side.  An ale meant for keeping (aging) always had less hops than a beer of the same strength, approximately half according to the researches of beer historian Ron Pattinson.

Today, most beer in my opinion is actually ale except for the most bitter examples of IPA and stout, and the reason is that hop levels today are far lower than in the 1800’s. In effect ale and beer have merged and you can have colours of each in any hue and of any strength. Nonetheless the old distinction lingers in that England’s “pint of mild” where you can still get it is almost always less bitter than a brewery’s “pint of bitter” aka pale ale aka India Pale Ale, the meanings are synonymous.

Brown ale seems to have declined by the end of the 1700’s, as porter and stout rose in appreciation that is. This was probably due to the more complex palate and evolved flavour of the black beers. The odd brown ale was still made though through the 1800’s, and the type resurged in the 1900’s, generally as a bottled beer. Newcastle Brown Ale is or was famous as a brown ale type, and there were sweeter ones such as Mann’s Brown Ale, still made I believe. I would think 1700’s brown ale had a somewhat smoky taste due to being made, as porter was, from all-brown malt then. 20th century brown ale does not have that taste. The keynote signature is a caramel mildness, but each brewer had/has his own take. Today craft brewers make all manner of browns so that stylistically it is impossible to classify them easily.

If one can generalize at all, brown ales are usually not highly hopped, and in this sense reflect the lesser-hopped quality ale had traditionally. History’s hand can be seen at work, albeit one must peer to discern the outline and with the benefit of some historical study.

A Canadian Straight Wheat Whiskey – Like A Fine Malt


This was released a couple of years back as part of a series of straight whiskeys, they are sourced by all available information from Alberta Distillers in Alberta, Canada. The straight rye was the first at 10 years old, then a barley and wheat version. I think a 12 year old version of the rye has appeared now too. These are a merchant’s bottling and initially were sold only in the U.S. but are now available in parts of Canada. Alberta Distillers is owned by Beam Suntory which owns the Canadian Club brand.

I tried the barley version earlier and thought it was just so-so but the wheat one is very good. Reviews online seemed a little tepid, questioning why the whisky is so light-coloured for its 12 years in new charred oak, and noting the lightness of palate.

The colour is down in my view to the colder Canadian climate, in comparison to that of Kentucky and Tennessee. A colder climate results in less intensive “cycling” – the movement of whisky into the barrel frame as heat rises and back into the barrel as temperature drops. This means less tannins and wood sugars get into the whiskey as compared to a hotter-climate whisky. Some warehouses are artificially heated but even so my experience is cold-climate whiskeys are different than the classic Kentucky straights, you get a more restrained palate which isn’t bad or good as such, it’s different.

The flavour of this straight wheat is excellent, winy and with an unmistakable waxy note that shows distillation at a low proof: a copper pot still is used in this case. Distillation at low proof, in the range, that is, historically used to distill brandy, tequila, the original style of rum and Scots and Irish barley-derived whiskeys, results in the true whiskey taste, modified to be sure by long aging. Whiskies which are distilled to a proof at or close to that which produces the vodka-like grain neutral spirits are a later development from better distilling technology – better from a throughput and cost point of view  – but they never deliver on their own a classic whiskey taste. They find their best use in blending though.

The Masterson’s needs a touch of water, at bottling proof the texture isn’t quite right. A little water makes the spirit glycerine smooth and it slides down easily while disclosing fine taste. You can almost smell the wheat too, and the connection to Maker’s Mark, say, is quite evident if you discount for the Kentucky climate, and the corn. This product reminded me of some Scots malts aged in well-used casks, the ones that have a “white wine” look and taste. A good example is here, Old Malt Cask’s Bladnoch at 15 years old. Viewed in this light, much of the online critiques of the Masterson’s wheat lose any force. In other words, the product should not be compared even implicitly to a Kentucky bourbon or straight rye.



Jack Daniel Single Barrel Delivers The (Brown) Goods


Jack Daniel’s in recent years, the famed Tennessee Whiskey that is bourbon-like but eschews the word bourbon, has gotten better. It went through a period until about seven or eight years ago when the whiskey seemed unbalanced with an acerbic banana/acetone flavour. This is all in the past now and I think it is simply the result of better batch preparation: the mingling of the barrels seems to get more attention.

Regular Jack Daniel is on the sweet side, sometimes still with a banana or other yellow fruit note, but the whisky, even at the current 40% ABV (save special releases) is almost always very sound, whiskey which can stand up and then some to the Kentucky bourbon. Indeed today when long-aged bourbon is at a premium, Jack even at its 4-5 years of age is a good value.

But where things really ramp up at the House of Jack is the single barrel version. 10 years ago or so these were higher-alcohol versions of regular Jack and while selected from one barrel, as today, they didn’t offer anything really different. That was then. In the last few years, the single barrels show a demonstrably higher quality, or in my opinion they do. Each bottling, too, is different: some more woody, some more sweet or ashy, some with the trademark Bananas Foster note, and some with no banana esters at all.

This reflects the peculiarities of each barrel and its position on the rack in the warehouse. The weather too each year is different. In the result, the “honey barrels” as they are called, aged in the top (hotter) portion of the warehouse, each end by being a different “vintage”.

The one pictured above, bottled in August of this year, is a virtually perfect Jack. It is viscous, slightly sweet, with a minty/fudge/campfire flavour. Very smooth on the tongue too for something almost half ethanol alcohol.

A fine malt, fine Canadian and fine American whiskey are typically quite different. Jack is a pure American expression of the whiskey-maker’s art. You can see behind it the British influences which the Scots and Scots-Irish brought to Appalachia and environs. I think the charred barrel smoky notes may have been intended to replicate Islay and Ulster whisky of the 1700’s which used peated malt. The grain bill of an American straight – generally corn, rye, barley malt – is kind of like an Irish single pot still approach in that a good part of the mash derives from unmalted grains.

But no Irish whiskey, no Scots malt, tastes anything like a honeyed, slightly charcoal and wintergreen shot of American whiskey. The warm climates of Kentucky and Tennessee have something to do with that. And the Tennessee straight style adds that week of percolation through a stack of maple charcoal before the “white dog” (new whiskey) is barrelled for aging. The maple charcoal treatment, a vestige of a 19th century whiskey “cleansing” process, adds the final fillip to the legend that is Jack.

Anyway, words can’t do it justice, but we have to try. A few drops of Jack SB make the words flow better, I declare.

Spiced Beef for Christmas


In Britain in past centuries, a special dish was reserved for this season: a cured and spiced round, leg, or brisket of beef. It was usually prepared in manor houses or prosperous farms. The great culinary author Elizabeth David devoted almost three pages to it in her classic book Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Penguin, 1970).

She explained that the dish was largely forgotten in postwar London. Intent on reviving interest in the old specialty, in 1958 she informed “Mr. Ducat”, “master-butcher and creator of the famous French boucherie at Harrod’s”, that she intended to publish a recipe for it in the Christmas Vogue.

In response, he offered to make the dish for the Christmas trade at Harrod’s Food Halls. So he did, with her help, and an immediate success it was. By 1970 Harrod’s was selling thousands of pounds of spiced beef each year.

Once cooked, the spiced beef is scarlet, similar to corned or salt beef in this respect. It is best prepared in a large “joint”, as the British would say. Not less than 20 bovine lbs were deployed in the old days. Spiced beef was typically a set piece among festive dishes that might include roast goose with chestnut stuffing, roast turkey, sirloin of beef, baked apple, mince pudding or pie, and baked ham.

Elizabeth David’s encomium on the dish showed her deep interest and respect for the traditional foods of Britain. She stated that the beef must be dry-cured, not brined, and that the character is vitally affected as a result. She specified, too, placing the meat in dry pickle for upwards of one month.

She held that properly prepared, spiced beef gave some indication of the food eaten by Britons centuries ago, at least those who could afford the best to gladden the season.

Spiced beef may be viewed as a kind of a vintage ham, a dish of the piquant and the salt. Not for every day, but few things are, anyway. This is what the cooked result looks like, neatly trimmed for plating:




When I moved to Toronto 30 years ago a few small butchers still offered it at Christmas. Often a full leg or other joint would be displayed in the window labeled “Christmas beef” or “spiced beef”. Seeing this, I wondered what the taste could possibly be.

I’m from a tradition that takes pride in its corned beef and pastrami – we know from corned beef, you might say. I knew of Irish or London salt silverside, often boiled with cabbage or carrots, but Davidian spiced beef seemed a thing apart.

I mustered the courage to buy it and was intrigued with the taste: spicy, salty, with hints of clove, nutmeg, and other scents of Noël. The taste was unique in my experience. Good ham is the closest analogy but the beef taste, married to the confectionary spicing, set it apart. It was both similar and dissimilar to Jewish corned beef when served cold.

As the years went by these small butchers mostly disappeared. Of the one or two that continue, or the odd revivalist, I hope they offer still the dish.

But as Elizabeth David explains, anyone up for it can make it at home. She is specific on instructions. Writes she, “On no account should anyone allow themselves to be persuaded that dry-spiced beef should be boiled or simmered on top of the stove”. Yes Ma’am.

She advises a simple accompaniment: sliced tomato and cucumber, or an avocado salad. These work perfectly of course. A couple of years ago when shopping in the larder that is Summerhill Market in Rosedale, Toronto I noticed a sign in the glassed deli counter: “Spiced beef, only at Christmas”.

I thought, that’s what the little stores up on Yonge Street used to offer, what Elizabeth David memorialized in her book. Summerhill Market has kept it going, perhaps for a few tenacious old customers, or maybe just from sheer habit.

Buying some, I thought the taste excellent, similar to what David described. The ingredients they use are in the label below (and the slices above, from the same package).




A few slices with good whole-grain bread, mustard, and a salad makes a satisfying meal of a late-autumn or winter evening. With sparkling wine or good ale you’re in clover, of a fashion. Tea goes well too, Indian tea by my lights.

Salt advisory: these old foods of pre-refrigeration days can be fearsomely high in sodium minerals, once prized for their preservative power. Spiced beef is not for those shy of the saline hit. Still, just a few slices satisfy, so all told the salt taken in is not excessive. Eaten, too, with vegetables and good bread it makes a reasonable meal we think and certainly one of historical interest.





Heineken Gets Even Better On Its Home Turf


Heineken has released locally (i.e., in the The Netherlands) a version of its famed beer which is kept cold from production until sale from the retail shelf. The beer is also protected from light by a special paper wrapper.

Light can damage beer, particularly when stored in green bottles, although the effect is not invariable and seems in general to be less of a problem than it was. Still, any shielding from light is to be welcomed, an advantage draft beer has by its nature.

Thanks to blog follower Alan in The Netherlands for sending me this and the image.

The last time I had Heineken was in Montreal a few months ago, the standard green bottle. It was very good, no hint of light-struck character or a weedy, skunky taste. It was clean and fresh-tasting with good sweet malt and noticeable hops. Heineken is 100% barley malt. About twenty years ago, the company abandoned the former formula which incorporated some grain adjunct (unmalted corn or another grain). This was a smart move by Heineken, a far-seeing step that has IMO kept the beer front and centre in the quality ranks.

This new version should be even better. It would be interesting to have a comparison from someone in the country, old bottle vs. new. A blind test would be even better.

One question I have is whether the new wrapped one is pasteurized. I would think not, given the end-to-end refrigeration and if so this is all to the good. General readers may not realize that pasteurization is not a necessary procedure for the brewhouse, applying it or not has nothing to do with health issues as it does for certain food products including milk. It is done to ensure greater stability, to extend shelf life by preventing or at least delaying damp paper and other off-flavours from “staling” or oxidation.

Craft brewers generally don’t pasteurize although there are exceptions. I always felt pasteurization does affect beer taste by imparting a slight “cooked” note, although some brewers disagree. Certainly it is nothing most people would notice. I am not against pasteurization as such as the trade-off – better quality for longer –  often is worth it, but all things equal it is better that beer not be pasteurized, IMO.

Postscript: Further checking online confirmed that in English one would call it Heineken Extra Fresh, but little additional background was found, at least in English. To me the only really important question is whether the product is pasteurized. If it is not, a new category indeed has been created…



A Look Back At Newman’s Brewery of Albany, NY – Long Read

That Was Then: The Beer Scene In The Early 80’s

Back in the early 1980’s, there were few options for what is called craft beer today. Anchor Brewing of San Francisco, a quasi-craft brewery, was seminal: its Steam Beer, Porter and Old Foghorn were serving as inspiration for true start-ups. After a spate of openings out west between 1976 and 1980, most of the newbies closed. Sierra Nevada (’80), Redhook (’82), Boulder Brewing (’79) and Hales Ales (’83) represent a slighter later generation and have endured. There were by ’83-’84 a few brewpubs as well on the West Coast both in Canada and the United States, and a handful were starting in the East. Wm. S. Newman Brewing Co. of Albany, New York (’81) was in the second-generation of microbreweries but it was the first in the East and faced the risks the earliest pioneers braved in California.

In Montreal, Quebec, where I lived then, the beers available covered only a narrow range. You could get products of the large national breweries (Molson, Labatt, O’Keefe) and the few imports then carried by the Provincial liquor monopoly such as Tuborg, Heineken, McEwan’s Scotch Ale, Beck’s. For anything more interesting, a visit to a liquor store in New York State was obligatoire. These stores had many beers of good interest, I recall some Belgian ales including one or two Trappists, English beers like Theakston’s and Ruddles, and all the Irish stouts. Guinness Extra Stout was very good then. There were lots of German choices too (Wurzburger!), and the snappy La Belle Strasbourgeoise from Alsace. Plus Aussie imports of quality like the range from Cooper’s of Adelaide and Sheaf Stout.

And so we hopped in to my wife’s “boat”, a blue, square-shape Chrysler gifted by her family in Winnipeg, and pushed it down the autoroute and U.S. thruway system to reach well-stocked shelves in Albany, NY and other large towns. There were smaller towns nearer to Montreal, such as Plattsburgh or Lake George, but beer choice there was fairly restricted too. Only the larger centres had a good range of imports, the decent old-school East Coasters still left (e.g., Yuengling and Stegmaier’s Porter, Ballantine IPA, Maximus Super) and the craft beers from out West starting to penetrate the East.



In those days, a car trip like that was fun. The U.S. Interstate system was a marvel of design and efficiency, and there was the money for upkeep. The relative lack of traffic made it a pleasure to wend down to one’s destination. Add to this the many charms of upstate New York’s hilly and other various terrain.

After a few of these trips and having tried the beers mentioned, I was looking for craft products closer to home and learned of Wm. S. Newman Brewing in Albany, a city I knew anyway as a weekend destination. This was not just for good beer but its restaurants and the general American atmosphere then novel to most Canadians. For example, many of the fast food chains were not established yet in Canada and a trip to McDonald’s was a treat. It was!


My first tastings of the Newman beers were in 1982, when they were draft-only. I bought the beer at the brewery to take home or tried it in the bars. How could a draft beer be available for takeaway? Because it was packaged in square “poly” cubes, pictured here. Of course these were intended for quick consumption but they lasted a week or so if you weren’t picky about a fizzy pint.

Above are pictured Bill and Marie at work in the brewery. What types of beer did Newman’s brew? I recall a pale ale and a winter warmer, the range is well-depicted in the link above from Jess Kidden’s beer pages. The beers were soft and malty with a fresh taste. To my best recollection, they didn’t have the big Cascade-dominated taste of the West Coast. The English beers I tasted on trips to the U.K. later in the 80’s were more estery and with a more developed hop character. Still, Newman’s beers were like nothing else then in the market. They were fresh, local, and handmade: the definition of real ale and as welcome to beer fans here as English real ales were to CAMRA devotees.

Bill, a lanky guy whose shape ran counter to the popular image of the gemütlichkeit brewer, ran the small brewery in a basic, warehouse-like structure. It was in an old part of Albany. Marie helped him. Bill had worked for the state government as a budget analyst, and had been a home brewer and aficionado of English ales and English ways in general. I recall he liked Morris dancing and participated in a local club devoted to this pastime. The name Newman is, or can be, English and I’d guess Bill had the heritage in his background.

In Albany, you could find the beer on draft at various places, one was a tavern at the end of the street the brewery was on, Thacher Street. It was a workingman’s place that had survived in a once busy factory area, now half-derelict. For a time anyway, the beer was pulled on handpump there, and later sold as pressurized draft. Most bars in town that carried the beer offered it in fizzy chilled form only. Cask as a general concept was just a distant dream, then. In a leafy district past The Egg,  a corner bar carried it called the Washington Tavern, pictured below (it looks much the same as I recall it). I remember one thickset bartender who joked, “I prefer Michelob, the additives must agree with me”. (A little unfair to what was then a good draft beer).


Albany, then and surely now, was a dignified town as the seat of state government, and was fairly quiet certainly in the evening. I recall taking in some local theatre, and dining at Jack’s Oyster House, a fine seafood house with an old-fashioned atmosphere, all polished banquettes and big rocks glasses of martinis and Manhattans. (I can remember the Old Gran-dad bourbon ads on billboards in and around the town, and that bourbon was great then!).


During the day we would walk, trying to take in parts of the river, obscured as in many cities by years of industrialization and highway or bridge construction. Jack’s served all manner of seafood including the more or less regional chowders and scrods, but I remember its cherrystone clams best, super-fresh and rubbery in texture but what a taste! They did Clams Casino too, and Oysters Rockefeller, but nothing matched those cherrystones.

Amazingly, Jack’s still exists, and the menu looks very similar to a generation ago although I didn’t see any cherrystones – maybe I missed them.

As I said before, we would visit the local beer stores, Beverage Centers I think they were called, and select beers to take home. I recall on one such trip buying a six of Murphy Stout that had a strong smoky taste, they must have been using, if not brown malt, a black patent that was similar in its effects. In later years, including in England, I would buy this beer on draft and in bottles or cans and it never tasted like that again. A friend in Montreal said it was like licking a charred piece of wood the day after a campfire.

A Brewing Seminar At Newman’s

In the mid-80’s, Bill was running weekend brewing seminars to make some extra coin. I decided to attend one of these, and went down for a couple of days. This was I think the first time I had met him and Marie “proper”. We did a mash, I remember the malt being ground and then dropped into the tun from a hopper to mix with hot water. I think too I helped Bill shovel out the spent grains from the previous mash. Then came the boil with hops and especially the fermentation with the huge rocky head and the heady, sharp fruit smell a good ferment causes. Finally, a beer with Bill, he called it a “beer break”. It was hard work of course, as all brewers know, and the end result was very gratifying. Beer really does go best after physical effort be it factory work, a long walk or some kind of workout.

I liked the pale ale best, the winter warmer was good too but had a strong cereal quality I didn’t quite take to. Both were all-malt beers, very natural, the quintessence of local.

I always felt that hands-on experience helped me a lot after to understand beer, brewing and beer history. It can’t be quite the same for someone who has never done it either commercially or in home-brewing.

The End of Newman’s Brewery 

Unfortunately Newman’s couldn’t make a go of it. Convincing locals to try the beer was a challenge the brewery never really overcome. In a word, it was, as beer authority Michael Jackson had written, ahead of its time. The venture came just a few years too early. It’s strange because Albany was a renowned centre of ale-brewing in the 1800’s and noted for it even into the 1900’s. Bill knew this and had felt this background would incline people to accept a restoration of old tradition. But they didn’t, and it goes to show how fast things can change. Especially in the U.S. when trends are ever-mutating and social change can be so rapid, there weren’t nearly enough people in the 80’s in New York State’s Capital Region to care about good beer and keep Newman’s afloat and growing.

No doubt too, had enough money been available to last another two or three years, success would have come in spades, but under-capitalization is the bugaboo of nascent businesses. I’m not sure how much money Bill started with, but Sierra Nevada started with $50,000 in 1979. That was a fair chunk of change then. Not to take away of course from the vision and enterprise of its founders.

Success finally did attend numerous early East Coast microbrewing pioneers, it happened of course in Boston with Boston Brewing Company. (Jim Koch was a graduate of Bill’s weekend brewing seminars, one might add). Perhaps Albany didn’t have, then, the nexus of interests – in good food, wine, historical revivalism – that was necessary to support a draft-only brewery in a new and untested field. The brewery closed in 1986. After that, Bill had a beer brewed under contract in Utica by F.X. Matt Brewery (now Matt Brewery, well-known for its Saranac line), called Newman’s Albany Amber. This was apparently a lager and was nice enough but didn’t sell big numbers and was taken off the market after a few years.

Bill Newman Today

I caught up with Bill a couple of years ago. He told me he was very gratified to see the surge in interest in craft beer since his day and is (very justly) proud of his role in it. Bill still follows the beer scene with interest. Many people in Albany recall his vision and achievements with respect and admiration.

This Is Now: Bill’s Influence on Me

While I had tasted bottle-conditioned beers before sampling the Newman beers including Sierra Nevada’s beers and Boulder Pale Ale, Bill’s draft, especially the naturally-conditioned beer served on hand pull, first opened my eyes to real ale, as we called it then. The proof is this: My first taste of real ale in England was at the Sun Inn, Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury. I had learned of the pub, a CAMRA hang out, via The Essential Guide To London by David Benedictus, a talented, often comic writer who is still with us and active.  He had a section, “Streets In Which One Has Been Happy”, and Lamb’s Conduit Street was one. The Sun Inn was recommended in his pub section, and so this was a double act I could not pass up.

I can’t recall the first beer I tried in the Sun Inn, but I do remember thinking, “Newman, it’s like his beer”.

Note re images:  The Washington Tavern image was sourced from this travel website (Trip Advisor). The image of the Newmans is from, in its excellent series on early American craft breweries, here. The picture of rural upstate New York, and Albany from the air, are in the public domain as far as I know.









Beep Beep For a Beer

IMG_20151212_161832I visited Goose Island years ago in Chicago not long after the place was starting to develop legs. I was there twice in fact. I never really liked the beers to be honest. The brewpub was a fun place, large and with a good menu, but the beers seemed so-so to me. In particular, the famous IPA always seemed an odd bird with a “garden greenery” nose and taste that was not that attractive.

In later years, I did try various GI beers when I could get them, and certainly the Bourbon County Stout made an impression although – not to sound ungrateful – I don’t think bourbon barrels suit strong stout or any beer. But that’s aside the point as the beer is a landmark in recent American brewing history, to be sure.

There was one beer I did like though, Honkers Ale, probably because it has an English-oriented palate. There are some English hops in the beer, particularly the aroma, and a good soft fruits quality which evokes a certain tradition in English brewing. It isn’t the best American ale certainly, but a sound choice for a tasty, solid beer or two. Its 4.3% ABV is a nice change from the usual higher gravities of American pale and India pale beers, as well.

When GI’s IPA and Honkers became available here on draft a couple of years ago now, I believe they were imported from Chicago, or an American production locale at any rate. This draft was okay but I always like to try a beer in a can or bottle as one has the best chance to get it in optimal condition and without risk of unclean lines or other bad handling, which is more of a problem than many realize.

As it was time, today I tried the canned version available at The Beer Store, which is brewed now at various Labatt plants in Canada including in London, ON. This arrangement follows the purchase of Goose Island by mega-brewer Anheuser Busch InBev a few years ago.

The nose was fruity, almost like an Extra Special Bitter – well, Fuller’s – in England, but also say like Red Tail Ale of Mendocino Brewing or Red Hook‘s ESB or Audible Ale, which were influenced by English ale styles. There was a modest but welcome note of floral hops, I’d guess Golding, famous for hundreds of years as one of the premier ale hops. The taste was fairly full, bearing in mind too the 4.3% ABV, with a toffee-like note. It’s probably from caramel or crystal malt, a characteristic of the “bitter'” which lorded English town and dale until brewery consolidation reduced choice there and craft brewers started to introduce the American (citric) hop taste. (Good judges of beer in England tell me the old taste is far from history though, which is good to know).

And indeed Honkers does feature an American twang too, both in the flavour and finish, I’d call it a grapefruit/rhubarb taste. Withal it is of transatlantic character, while naturally more fowl than fish. 🙂

The can showed no oxidation whatever – no damp paper smell or acetic development. This is a testament to the skill of big brewery staff and impeccable brewhouse procedures. I’d guess the beer is pasteurized but can’t really tell – all to the good.

The field is still open for a brewer in Canada or the U.S. to make a really English-tasting beer. I am sure a few exist here or there, but nothing widely available as far as I know. If Honkers had a stronger dose of those Goldings and used Fuggles or Target or another English hop as the bitterness backbone, it would be a stand out. But then it wouldn’t be Honkers, and a lot of people like it, so Honkers should stay as it is, and someone should fill this gap.

The true English flavour in top-fermented beer is unbeatable, but it has to be done right. The old Courage beers, e.g., Best Bitter or Directors, or the old Ruddles, would be a great place to start. (Image below is from Charles Wells’ website, here).



From “Oak and Alder” to Porter


seemingly enigmatic statement in 1823 on porter helps illuminate the black drink’s byzantine history. The note appeared on pg. 28 of Volume 7 of The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, Etc., edited by John Jephson and George Fitzclarence. The Gazette was one of those learned compendiums of thought characteristic of the 1800s. The anonymous writer, clearly of a certain age, explained that when young, different strengths of beer were served “in Town”, meaning London. These were, he stated, Single, Two Threads, and Three Threads.

The Gazette contributor also stated porter was introduced to London by Felix Calvert, a leading porter-brewer in the 1700s, to supply the “general palate” of these thread beers. This is saying that porter copied the flavour of the thread drinks, of which three threads was always the best known.

This is a variation of the theory, expressed by John Feltham some twenty years earlier in The Picture Of London, that Ralph Harwood, another London porter-brewer, introduced porter to replace the mix of beers called three threads. Calvert may have been a more plausible source for the new, unmixed porter than the comparatively small operator, Harwood. Whether so or not, the really interesting part of the note in the 1823 Literary Gazette is this: in Norfolk, an agricultural area then noted for barley and malt, the thread beers were called “Oak and Alder”. The entry described this as a beer from “two sorts” and, presumably because Oak and Alder would strike most English readers as delphic, said it was a “mixed Nogg”. A nog was and is an alcoholic drink compounded in various ways: egg nog has survived notably in North America and soon will be consumed across the land as Christmas is almost nigh.

Oak wood and alder wood, both commonly found still in Norfolk, are hardwoods. Hardwoods (various types) were used in English malting practice as a fuel to kiln barley malt to a deep brown hue and crispy consistency. Brown malt was the basis of porter in the 1700’s and a component of all London porter until the drink left the scene in the mid-1900’s. The wood was burned in a way to reduce its smoke output but that some entered the malt and finished beer is undeniable based on numerous well-known sources.

Oak-and-Alder aka mixed Nogg aka Two Threads and Three Threads were brown, porter-like beers – how can we infer this? Because the 1801 Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts contains a discussion on barley cultivation in Norfolk (anonymous contributor) which states sub-standard barley was used locally to make “brown malt” for “Norfolk nog”, a beer suitable for “porters and coal heavers”. So poor in starch yield was this grain that treacle was added to ensure the necessary sugar to make sufficient alcohol. So we know that around 1800, Norfolk nog, or one commonly known type, was a dark brown, somewhat smoky beer due to its brown malt. And movers of goods – porters and other workmen – liked it due to its cheap cost, just as they liked porter in London, the drink supposedly named after them.

A variant name for this Norfolk tipple, the 1823 Literary Gazette tells us, was Oak and Alder. The words oak and alder could only have referred to woods used to make the brown malt in these beers, as opposed, say, to being a kind of rhyming slang or having some other origin. It would be too coincidental for the words not to mean this. One beer in an oak-and-alder may have been brewed from malt kilned only from oak and the other, only from alder. Or, either wood might have been used indifferently at times in two beers of different strengths or ages. The point is, the smoky notes of these woods were noted by local drinkers in their nog, hence the provincialism, Oak and Alder.

The 1823 author likened his mixed nog/Oak and Alder to the London two thread and three thread drinks, which latter – the “admixture” – were finally replaced, he said, by porter. It is obvious all these forms of beer were dark brown and smoky because it is known porter was from its 1720’s inception. The only difference was, porter was brewed “entire”, in keeping with its original brewhouse name of entire or entire butt beer. This meant porter was not mixed with other beers on its journey to the drinker’s glass. It was made from brown malt though, as the mixes had been, and aged to a gravity of about 6% ABV (1700’s), as three threads was since both were sold after porter’s introduction (1720’s) for the same price, 3d.

Any suggestion that three threads is unconnected to porter in palate and hue is simply unsustainable in this light.

What this shows too is, the thread beer terminology wasn’t used in Norfolk, but rather in London, which supports a local (London) origin of the terms for mixed brown beers.

I have argued these last months that this London origin was weaving terminology in Spitalfields, and the thread beers were all porters due to the common origin of these terms in that trade. That theory would suffer damage if a drink the same as three threads, albeit called by another name in Norfolk, was completely different to our understanding of porter from its inception. But no, the thread beers had to be very dark smoky beers since mixed nog, which used cheap brown malt very plausibly kilned by oak and alder wood, was the same thing.

Norfolk nog has been revived as a regional specialty and a beer is marketed under that name by the classic English revivalist brewer, Woodforde of Norwich, Norfolk. Lo, it is a dark, porter-like beer – something rather odd as an old country specialty, since country ale originally was pale and where dark, it was not usually a dark brown approaching to black. Yet, in Norfolk, a malt producing area, it was. Now we know why. To boot, Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog tastes a lot like London porter, see various reviews on Beer Advocate. I don’t know what sources Woodforde used to create its nog, but the taste notes on “BA” remind me a lot of a London-style porter. They tie in nicely, too, to the Annals of Agriculture’s 1801 account of Norfolk nog. To cap it, Woodforde’s own taste notes, remarkably, refer to a treacle flavour…

Perhaps in time porter research will show that London porter and the thread beers derived from mixed beers consumed locally in brown malt-producing areas such as Norfolk. Maybe London got the idea to sell cheap mixed brown beers from country makers who had figured out how to make the most of the leavings of local agriculture. The final refinement, entire butt beer aka porter – no blending – of course was a London innovation.

Even apart from Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog, this isn’t dusty old history: an alder-smoked porter is available today, Alaskan Smoked Porter.


Note re images used: the first image, a rural scene in Norfolk, was sourced on the web here and is believed in the public domain. The second image was obtained from the website of Alaskan Brewing Co.