This is about a modern beer with an old history that included a variant called Jesus. Some background first.
College and Beer
A while back, I discussed alcohol at McGill University c. 1970, in “Alcohol and the Academy”, see here. In “Union College and the Time of Schaefer“, I discussed a now-defunct bar at Union College in New York State, c. 1960.
As well, aspects of U.S. college drinking before WW I are addressed in my article on musty ale in Brewery History.
Lacon Brewery’s Audit Ale
In “Alcohol and the Academy” I mention a 2008 article in Brewery History called “Audit Ale – a Short History” by John A.R. Compton-Davey. It described the lengthy, honourable tradition of audit ale at (mostly) Cambridge colleges.
Compton-Davey more than touched on Lacon Brewery in Great Yarmouth, U.K., which produced audit ale for numerous colleges in the interwar years. Taste descriptions were included, including by Lloyd Hind, a noted brewing scientist of the era.
Hind found his sample somewhat acidic but “buffered” by “colloids”. It’s an open question what that meant exactly, maybe a yeasty tang.
The descriptions suggest a beer of full body, potency, sweetness, and dark hue. Audit ale was a form of the historic strong ales spread through the United Kingdom that included Scotch ale, Burton ale aka old ale, Yorkshire Old Peculier, and stingo.
Compton-Davey reproduced a leaflet apparently circulated in New York in 1937 by an enterprising Cambridge graduate trying to market the beer there. Maybe he was an American returned home looking to establish an offbeat importation business.
Unfortunately, the ad cannot be deciphered as reproduced online. It would be useful to know the content, which probably referenced taste attributes.
Modern Audit Ale, a Modern Lacon
In 2019, we are eons away from cranky, regional, 1930s brewing with its non-sterile plant, wood vessels, and mixed ale cultures (although revivalists sometimes mimic this experience).
However much Chamberlain-era breweries had advanced over hundreds of years earlier, modern brewing today technically is much further ahead.
If we recreate an audit ale of the past, what can we expect? Does it bear a connection to the 1930s impressions garnered by Compton-Davey?
Actually, yes. The Campaign for Real Ale’s Champion Winter Beer of Britain for 2019 was just announced: Lacons Audit Ale, from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. It’s not the Lacons brewery discussed by Compton-Davey, as a new one started in 2013. But the new shop found old Lacon recipes, and its yeast culture. Using these, it includes heritage brews in its range.
The description of the new Lacons Audit Ale is informative:
Lacons Audit Ale is a dark copper barley wine with flavours of berry fruit and spice. The finish is smooth and sweet. A unique style of beer.
Available on limited release.
No fruit or spices are used, these are metaphors. The alcohol range is 8% ABV, not as strong as some audit ale of old times, but strong enough to convey the essential character.
Oxford Chancellor Ale
Some years after Compton-Davey’s article, Terry Foster, a well-known writer on brewing and beer, wrote an article for the same journal on recreating Oxford’s Chancellor Ale. (Historical brewing recreations are nothing new and go back to the 1970s, at least).
Foster took pains to reproduce old recipes, following in particular commentary of the aforesaid Lloyd Hind and others. Venerable country brewer Elgood’s was enlisted to make the brew. Foster wrote:
At this point the unfiltered and unfined beer had aged on the yeast for one year in a stainless steel keg with no artificial carbonation. It poured with just a little head, and a deep black-brown colour, though still slightly translucent in the glass. Since I do not like the use of grandiose and fanciful terms to describe beers, I can only say that it was luscious, full-bodied with some caramel present, and well-balanced; neither the high hop bitterness, nor the high alcohol content stood out. In short, it was voted an excellent beer by the assembled company.
Foster decided against including a lactic character – the acidity noted by Hind. Given the recent fashion in brewing for “sours”, making a lactic beer mightn’t seem as unusual as when Foster was writing. Still, beers, strong or other, would have varied in acidity in the old days. A “clean” beer in this sense was no mistake as such, in other words.
Audit ale in 1902
In 1902 a news piece in the U.S. on collegiate drinking in England and Germany touched on audit ale.* Audit ale at Jesus College Oxford was described thus:
[The Oxford student] … drinks beer at lunch and at dinner, and he has some famous beers too. There is an audit ale at Queen’s of great age and potency. When the Queen’s man wants to give his friends of this weird beverage he has to make formal application, state how many guests he expects, and then get a written order for an exact and somewhat small amount of it [due to strength], to be served to him. At Jesus, too, they have a well-known beer, called “Jesus old”, a rich, soft, mahogany-colored liquor of considerable body. Once it was brewed in the college brewery, but in more modern times, when colleges and private houses gave up brewing their own beer and thus made possible the growth of that part of the British peerage which has been christened the “Beerage,” the recipe was handed over to one of the great brewing houses to manufacture for the delectation of Jesus men and their friends.
And so, we have a continuity of 120 years for the sensory qualities of audit ale, not so shabby.
Revival of old Beers Today
When old beers return, usually American white oak is used for vats or barrels, the same type used to age whiskey or, say, Chardonnay wine. There is nothing wrong with this as such, but such oak was not approved in older British practice, as I’ve often written, due to the characteristic vanillin tang such oak imparts.
British brewers before the era of metal vessels preferred oak of European origin, especially Baltic Memel oak, for its neutral quality on the beer, among other virtues. This oak generally was not lined inside because the wood had a fairly neutral effect, at any rate a liked effect, on the beer.
In my view, today’s usual metal vessels, typically of stainless steel, probably render a more authentic result to recreate the audit ale of old, failing hard-to-find Memel oak vessels.
It seems the revived, champion Lacons Audit Ale was not fermented or stored in American oak. An article some years ago by well-known beer writers Roger Protz and Jeff Evans made no reference to wood of any kind. Evans did, in his taste note, write “slightly woody”, but I believe as metaphor.
If in fact American oak was not used, this enhanced the result, in my opinion, contrary to what some (quite reasonably) would intuit.
*The source, Fulton Historical Newspapers, does not state the newspaper, the name of which was cut off in the scan. The report probably appeared in New York State or New England.