The Spice Route

Spice_Market,_Marakech_(2242330035)See note below for image attribution.

Flavoured beers in general are very popular today. The subset with spices, anything from ginger to coriander to cinnamon and much more – is legion.

In a recent discussion of porter for the Session, many of the contributions mention flavoured porters, e.g., those with cocoa or coffee, as of particular interest to the taster. The addition of coffee or chocolate is one of the innovations of the craft brewing renaissance. It is now so well-established that it isn’t felt necessary (often) to mention that porter wasn’t flavoured with anything other than malt and hops for hundreds of years.

True, some old writers suggested to add elderberry juice or more nefariously, “drugs” of various kinds to enhance the effect (if not the taste). At least one writer in the mid-1800s advised that “orange powder” was a good thing to add to porter. But in general, these were not used, partly because the laws in Britain forbade such additions in commercial brewing, partly because, or I’d infer, brewers thought the beer didn’t need it. Ginger was used in one or two English brews until the 1950s it seems, so I’d think the law must have changed to permit this, unless the practice was sub rosa.

In Belgium as many beer fans know, the use of spice and other flavourings did survive commercially. Saison beers as well as wit, the Belgian wheat beer style, are sometimes flavoured with some of the spices mentioned and a wide variety of others. Almost always, hops are used too. This harks back to the early days of brewing, either before hops were used at all, or when hops were used variously with a grab bag of other flavourings.

Rochefort Trappist beer apparently uses coriander although to my mind it doesn’t taste of that really, more cumin I would say or sweet gale, somewhat like those Pictish ales some U.K. brewers make. Perhaps it is the seeds that are used, as there is an earthy, musty-like taste vs. orangey as such. The leaves of coriander do not taste the same as the seeds, it may be noted.

The real question is, are flavoured, including spiced, beers worth drinking? I will say straight off I almost never drink a chocolate or coffee porter. They don’t taste right to me. When porter or any beer is well-made, you don’t need anything other than malt and hops (+ sometimes other grains). I make an exception for some spices if used with discretion. Anything orange seems to work well with porter and stout. Ginger too. But it is too often overdone, and the drink is ruined. (The bane of most pumpkin beers). You need a substratum of hop bitterness and flavour and then just a soupçon of the spice.

An old expression says, good wine needs no bush. More prosaically, good beer needs no spice.

Note re image: Image is by Michael Day (Spice Market, Marakech  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Image was sourced here.

The Session – What Is Porter?


Mark Lindner, of By The Barrel, is hosting the current Session, and invites a wide-ranging discussion on porter. He mentions many resources to understand porter including the protean classifications of a beer-judging certification society, the BJCP.

I have read very widely in recent decades on porter and its history, and indeed have come up with an original theory as to the name’s origin, discussed here and here. It comes I believe from the weaving terminology used by weavers of silk in London’s Spitalfields quarter in the latter 1600s. I won’t revisit that here since the earlier posts are detailed on the point, and will address today subjects of palate and whether porter and stout are the same or different.

First, stout vs. porter. It’s a false issue. There is no difference, none that history at any rate ever knew except that sometimes stout was richer and stronger than porter, the luxury version of the same drink.

Labatt Porter 2015 imageIf you read porter history from its inception (later 1700s) to about 1900 when its decline as a drink had been pronounced, there is never any argument or extended discussion what the difference is. That is because, everyone knew, e.g., Accum, 1821 that stout at best was simply a stronger species of porter, to use one formulation of the difference such as it was.

In this source from 1849, a “Strong Old Porter” sold for 4 shillings the pint. A “Double Brown Extra Stout”, which some merchants might have called Imperial stout, sold for the same price. They were similar in quality and the stout did not contain raw barley because in 1849 that was unlawful. Were further comfort needed, the same listing includes a “Brown Stout Porter”…

Today, Irish stout is considered different to porter by many and supposedly is characterized by use of roasted and unroasted raw (unmalted) barley. That is an incorrect deduction from the facts. Stout which uses these ingredients is simply porter with adjunct. Just as pale ale, in England today, often uses sugar but didn’t before sugar’s use became legalized c. 1845.

It’s all porter: robust porter, brown porter, American porter, dry stout, imperial stout, imperial porter. The only hesitation I have is including Baltic porter in the description since today, much of it is bottom-fermented. But even then, originally, it wasn’t. The porter both sent to and made in the Baltic in its earliest days was the same type as sold in London, where porter finds its origins in the 1700s.

Porter and stout find their key distinction from other beer styles in their very dark colour and burned or roasted cereal quality. That burned taste, which for a long time was called “empyreumatic”, has itself evolved over time. It used to have, often, a wood smoke quality; today generally it does not. But the deep kilned notes of porter and stout are still distinctive when compared to, say, a dunkel, or a black IPA, or a brown ale.

Just as for many beer styles, the ingredients used for porter and stout vary. Some use grain adjunct in addition to barley malt. Some use American hops. Some use only English hops. Some use sugar of various kinds, or molasses, or oatmeal. The best are all-malt, but there are countless variations even for all-malt porter and stout. A few porters, most experimental, even use all-brown malt, as all porter and stout did originally in Georgian England.

IMG_20150920_175555_hdrThe style classifications of BJCP evolved from a particular historical context and are unlikely to change much. There is no harm in this, and it facilitates the judging process. But to suggest in any meaningful way that robust porter is all-malt, say, and Irish stout typically is not is simply not the case.

Even a cursory glance in 1800s sources will show that some Imperial stout was called Imperial or strong porter, and Guinness used porter and stout (the terms) at different times to mean the same or a similar beer. What Guinness calls stout now is in the strength range, or less, of what it called porter for much of the 1800s!

Finally, porter never disappeared for a time in England (certainly in North America it never disappeared at all except during Prohibition). Rather, the name did. For a time in the 1970s, a beer called porter could not be found in the U.K. But beers could be found, called stout, which were porter by any reasonable historical understanding of the term. Mackeson Stout in England was also a porter, a particular type which uses milk sugar in the recipe. There was – still is, I believe – a stout in Australia then called Carbine Stout. That was a porter too.

Yuengling made, and still does, a porter, which some brewers elsewhere might have called a stout. In Canada, some of our national brewers called their porter a stout in different provinces, for whatever reasons of marketing or otherwise that appealed to them, since they knew the beer types are one and the same. You can call one the other, or not, as meets your fancy.





Irish-Style Dry Stout

Culverden All Malt Stout-1This is a response to Jay Brooks’ salutary call for contributions to his recently revised beer typology series. Now, on the first Tuesday of each month, he invites bloggers to post on a style he selected, with good scope given for direction and ideas.

For March, it is dry Irish-style stout.

I have some very definite ideas about this style, few of them positive. It’s not that I don’t like porter, the general name for all stout and porter. It’s that dry stout reflects a historical misunderstanding IMO, in that generally it is made with roasted barley for the darkening agent and frequently with a measure of flaked or plain raw barley (not roasted) to substitute for what used to be malt, that is before the laws were changed in the U.K. to allow such adjuncts. The cue was taken from modern Guinness and other Irish stout producers, which Michael Jackson and others wrote about in the last generation and were emulated by countless craft brewers.

The use of flaked or raw barley in any reasonable proportion results IMO in a thin, astringent beer. Not just that, but unmalted barley in roasted form frequently imparts an unpleasant, burned vegetal note, often in my experience again. In contrast, roasted malt – malt vs. raw grain – imparts more the traditional flavour of beer. Few Irish-style stouts I’ve ever had really appealed to me, and too many of them taste too alike. Probably the best of them are malt + roasted barley to lend the dark colour. Sinha Stout from Sri Lanka fits that description, I believe – we can ignore the gravity difference for a moment. A goodish beer but I think it would be better if 100% malt.

Indeed, my view is all porter and stout should employ grists similar to what was used in the 1800s in the pre-sugar, pre-grain adjunct days. This means, some combination of pale malt, amber malt (Vienna or some modern malt of that hue), brown malt, and black malt.

The great Michael Jackson knew well the history of porter and all English beer, but was mainly concerned in his writing to describe what was currently available. His descriptions of modern Irish stout entranced craft brewers who wanted to evoke what they felt was the mystique of the black stuff. And so we have dry Irish-style stout, made typically with a grist that never existed in the heyday of porter and stout. More power to those who like it, but I plump for all-malt, as all porter was originally.

Note re image above: Image was sourced from this beer label site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes.  All feedback welcomed.



Must Be The Season of Saison

You’ve Got To Pick Up Every Stitch..

IMG_20160229_210808Two friends recently said to me, your blog is great but why don’t you review a broader range of beers? It’s mostly ales, porter/stout, and lager. What about fruit beers, other flavoured beers, wild beers, wheat beers, saisons, bières de garde, and so on?

Well, I admit my bias in favour of beers in the English tradition, and fine lager. I don’t often try other styles, because rarely do I find they are as good. I do occasionally stray to the farther shores of beerdom, pumpkin beer is an example, which I always liked. Or wet hop beer, if that counts.

But recently I came into possession of the beer shown in the image, and will review it. Jordan St. John, the Ontario beer writer, gave it to me, and I understand had some role in its development. Thanks Jordan.

It has upfront sour notes, seemingly acetic or from brettanomyces (wild yeast). As well, light malt, lemon and funk, and an earthy aftertaste. Pretty good, and I haven’t had a Belgian one lately I could compare it too although I recall Belgian saison as less sour than this.

An interesting beer, from the innovative and well-regarded Innocente craft brewery in Ontario. Not something I would normally turn to, but I could see it accompanying a rich Belgian beef and beer braise, ham and endive in cream, or good french fries. Many of the Belgian beers probably developed in a way that suited local cuisines.

Saison is a fairly flexible beer style anyway. I know from my own reading there was new and old saison, and sometimes they were blended. They did, too, tend to use off-piste grains, such as spelt. Innocente uses rye in the mash, which is appropriate to the oddball nature of the style and lends a buckwheat-like note.

But I’m not a fan really of the sour side. I always think of Fritz Maytag’s (of Anchor Brewery fame) comment that that he could never acquire the taste for lambic since in the early days he made too many batches of sour beer unintentionally, before that is he modernized Anchor’s plant and processes. It is precisely the rustic, do-it-yourself nature of saison that will appeal to many, though. It’s kind of a beatnik beer style. I doubt it ever made anyone rich, even in Belgium, but it offers colour and variety on the beer scene.

Ace Hill Pilsner Reviewed, And Other Beers


Ace Hill Pilsner

This is a new Ontario product, just out from Ace Hill Beer Co. Styled a pilsner, it is a medium-bodied, all-malt winner. It is clean yet with good complexity and a good aftertaste, and leans to Austrian or German helles, IMO.

The beer was tasted at the cool Boxcar Social in the Summerhill area of Yonge St. It comes in a white can of elegant design. Looking forward to the draft, so far it’s in cans only.

Jopen Hoppenbier

At the Wallace Gastropub further north on Yonge St., this saison-style Dutch import (draft) has a slightly fruity note and good bitterness while not going over the top. It apparently represents an old beer style of The Netherlands.

As the beer is excellent, one would wish the glass larger, as the brewery’s etched glass is used, which holds 9-10 oz I’d guess. I couldn’t place a slight vegetal note, then noted from the brewery’s website that oats are used in the mash, plus barley malt and wheat. The oats must explain the “different” quality I noted.

The draft survived the journey from the other side remarkably well.

Muskoka Winter Weiss

Tried this at the Dominion Pub and Kitchen, the venerable bar on Queen Street East which had a makeover recently under new ownership (same group which owns Murphy’s Law and Against The Grain in town). This was good but not at the level of the great German dark wheat beers, IMO. The “dark” element reminded me of something more like you’d find in a porter or stout, a black patent malt taste or that type.

It did have some of the wheat banana notes of the style. Certainly good, but not really what I look for in the style.

Blue Point Brewing Toasted Lager

Draft, tasted also at the Dominion on Queen Street. A good solid lager, not German-leaning, more an American interpretation but all-malt, clearly. Well-made, and I’d guess brought in quickly from Long Island, NY due to the distribution network of the owner, AB InBev.




The Ontario Butter Tart, Considered


[Note added October 20, 2019: The post below was supplemented by a second one, here, on November 6, 2018 that explores in-depth butter tarts history in Canada and the United States. Below, I deal mainly with British examples of butter tarts and some related history. As noted in the later posting, I have now published an expanded, fully-referenced article entitled Butter Tarts in North America in the U.K.-based food journal Petits Propos Culinaires, #114 June 2019].

The Canadian chef and food writer Anna Olson gives a good recipe for the classic Ontario butter tart in this online posting.

The image in her recipe is similar to what is shown above. The Ontario butter tart usually has an irregular or crenelated edge of firm but flaky pastry but otherwise exhibits numerous variations: Some people add currants, some, dark raisins, some no fruit at all. Some use maple or corn syrup for the filling, or molasses, or a mixture. Plain brown sugar is hard to beat, in our opinion.

We think too the filling should be slightly runny, but there are different views on that. You can add rum or whisky, or (why not?) strong beer, and a variety of spices although a plain Jane butter tart is best of all to our taste.

Chocolate versions are common today, but they don’t work all that well, to our taste again.

Some History

To be sure, butter figures in all butter tarts save perhaps debased commercial versions, but no more than in many pastry and pie dishes. So why “butter” in the name? This has been a contentious question in Canadian culinary history.

The butter tart is more than an Ontario dish, as parts of the Maritimes lay claim to it as well, and elsewhere outside Ontario. But it is less than national-Canadian. Seeking its roots needs to start here, in other words.


The butter tart is not documented in Canada before 1900. It was called initially simply “filling for tart”. Only in the first and second decades of the 1900s do recipes appear in Canada for the butter tart proper. See this online discussion for good general background.

But where does the butter tart really come from? Did Ontario invent it? Alas, this is doubtful. One theory holds that the name is a corruption of border tart, a rather similar bakery specialty of Britain’s Borders country, which straddles England and Scotland. That is persuasive but the matter goes further: in Ecclefechan, Scotland they have the butter tart itself – that spelling. An example is shown just above (source: BBC News), and it looks very close to our butter tart.

This U.K. butter tart is similar to their border tart, meaning in either case a smallish pastry with a semi-soft or liquid sweet filling in which ground almond, walnuts, glacé cherry, or dried fruit appear. This suggests the British have the same dish as we, and hence inevitably that Britain is the source of our butter tart.

As to construction, the Canadian version is similar but simpler: no cherry, no almonds, although sometimes walnut chips are used here. But the sweet filing and frequent use of raisin or currants is shared by both.

This U.K. blog entry, London Eats, describes the Ecclefechan butter tart. It is sometimes called simply Ecclefechan tart, or again, border tart. A comment states that the writer’s family used currants in the filling; many Ontario butter tarts are exactly the same.

Given the strong Scottish element in Ontario settlement, the Ontario butter tart possibly derives from the Borders where the confection was even sometimes called butter tart, as in Ecclefechan. That Canada’s is not an original preparation seems undoubted.

Consider further these sources.

An 1857 publication, the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, states that “butter tart” was a sweet, spiced mixture of butter, citrus, eggs, and almonds (“macrooms”) spread on a thin “sheet”, or pastry. It was covered with another layer of pastry, baked, and served with sugar and orange flowers. It cites as the source a cookery book, The Queen’s Royal Cookery, first published in 1709. The nature of the dish though shows it is much older than c.1700 – probably Middle Ages if not medieval in origin. This butter tart is not like the modern, compact, semi-deep British/Canadian one, but elements are similar: butter, pastry, fruit, nuts.

I think today’s border and butter tarts, wherever made, must have their ultimate origin in this baked dish of Middle Ages, or yet older, origins. Ultimately, the butter tart may be Norman – have come in in 1066 – as the French frangipane is very similar.


Theory Proposed

I will offer an original idea: perhaps The Queen’s Royal Cookery butter tart was originally called “barded tart”. In the 1709 recipe, a statement advises to “bard” a layer of pastry on the filling, itself placed on a first layer of pastry. To bard means to layer a food on another, e.g., bacon or salt pork slices on a roast. The term bard also meant armour in older English, so a protective layer. The French have a similar word for the culinary meaning, the verb barder.

In different local accents and over time, could “barded tart” have been corrupted into both butter and border tart? We think this quite possible. Perhaps the dish simply survived longer in the Borders country because people later thought the term Borders was the origin.

Alternatively, butter in butter tart is a corruption of Borders for the geographic area, point final. This is persuasive, but we think consideration should henceforth be given to the barded tart as the ultimate linguistic and culinary ancestor. It makes sense in our view that a complicated dish was simplified over time, by removal of excess pastry and omitting spices and flavourings viewed as dispensable.

It makes sense to us that in a new country, as Canada, a stripped-down version emerged for reasons of convenience and economy. As things turned out, it has the best taste of all, since the few ingredients used have a purity of expression. As good cooks know, a recipe too cluttered with ingredients and flavourings ends by being a muddle, as the barded tart of old England arguably was and the modern British border/butter tarts seem still to be.

American and French Influence?

Some people feel the Ontario butter tart is connected to pecan pie from the United States, or the Quebec tarte au sucre, but I don’t think so. The shape and taste of these other delicacies, albeit similar ingredients are used, are rather different. Perhaps though the predecessor of pecan pie was brought by the Scots-Irish, as this group included a component of Borders people (Ulster Irish, Borders, and southern Scots formed an ethnic and cultural unity).

Quebec’s sugar pie comes from France, clearly. There are pies called tarte au sucre in different French provinces to this day that bear a strong resemblance to the Quebec sweet specialty. So whatever the case viz. pecan pie, I don’t think the Quebec sugar pie enters the historical calculus.

Butter Tarts and Beer

What is the connection of all this to beer? Well, we have a Maple Butter Tart Ale in Ontario, you can read the description on the LCBO’s listing. The conjoining of two favourite Ontario things, beer and butter tart, in fact three things if we include the maple, shows the high regard they enjoy among Ontarians even in today’s relentlessly international-flavoured food culture.

We even have a butter tart festival. It’s discussed in this Toronto Star report from not long ago.

Any other ideas out there on the provenance of our butter tart?

Note re images shown: the images were respectively sourced here (CBC website), here (BBC site) and here (LCBO site) and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner. All feedback welcomed.




Canadian Beer Until WW I And Albion’s Shadow


A look through sources in the last decade of the 1800s shows that Canadian brewers, certainly in the east, continued a remarkable adherence to English beer types. A typical list, I give examples below, looks like something you might see on the blackboard of a modern craft beer pub more than anything one thinks of as Canadian beer of the pre-craft era.

Numerous Canadian breweries were represented at the landmark, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition aka the Chicago World’s Fair. The beers exhibited which won awards can be noted in this Canadian government publication of the period. John Labatt’s beers were:

Bottled extra-stock ale, winter brewed; bottled extra-stock ale, autumn brewed; bottled extra pale ale, summer brewed; bottled India Pale Ale; porter in wood; India Pale Ale in wood; extra-stock ale in wood; XXX bottled stout.

All these types were well-known to English brewing, a good example is extra-stock ale. It was probably a strong ale of 8-9% abv, something Labatt still put a focus on as it offered two vintages in bottles, and if that wasn’t enough, it did a draft (“in wood”) version, too. The listing from Dominion Breweries in Toronto –  the saloon adjacent to the old brewery still functions as a bar – also offered a draft stock ale. Dominion Breweries forebore from marketing a bottled stock ale, but as consolation perhaps, seems to have had available two versions of its India Pale Ale in the bottle.

A glance through the full list shows it replete with these old-fashioned beer types. Only two breweries, Carling in London, ON and a brewery in Winnipeg, offered lager. One or two “export ales” were offered, which was probably the progenitor of the lighter, “sparkling” Canadian ale style which, by WW I, had pushed out the old strong heavy ales. What a difference 20 years made.

IMG_20160211_213351“Amber ale” appears numerous times in the list, and it is well-known to brewing history sleuths that northeastern American breweries also did a turn in amber ale in the mid-to-later 1800s. What was this beer? I would argue it was the amber ale, sometimes called twopenny, brewing author Friedrich Accum described in this 1821 text. Different accounts of amber ale are scattered in British Victorian brewing literature. Accum’s account rings true to me due to its length and anecdotal detail included. Amber ale seems to have been sold mild, or new, and technically was an ale, i.e., hopped less than a beer. Its best use was for purl, a heated, compound drink of amber ale, bitters, gin and sometimes orange flavouring.

When Accum likened amber ale to porter, I think he was referring to their somewhat comparable dark colours, and perhaps a lightly smoky taste, since porter was always a beer (well-hopped), not an ale, technically again.

Accum notes that amber ale was out of date by the time of writing (1821), but the style lived on in the colonies or former colonies to the dawn of Edward’s age. In this 1897 Canadian government listing of beers, assessed by the Inland Revenue Department to determine strength and other attributes, one amber appears, from B&M Co. in Toronto. The “pc” of alcohol shown in this table appears clearly to be by weight, not volume. B&M’s amber was a strong ale, therefore, about 7% abv which accords with the strength of the staple mild ale in England into the mid-1800s – before gravities started to fall, that is.

Frequently, when an article of commerce takes root in an outpost or export market, it lasts much longer there than in the home country. This is why, say, goat’s head soup is still a well-known dish in parts of the Caribbean, when it had largely been excised from the British diet by 1900. Countless examples can be given, possibly Ontario’s famous butter tart qualifies. Despite what you read, the best explanation for its name, or so Beer Et Seq is persuaded, is that it is a corruption of border tart, a similar item of baking or confectionary in the Scottish-English borders.

Amber ale, and strong old stock ale – at least its prevalence in 1890s Canadian brewing – were examples of such distant survivals. They had taken root early in Colonial days. They lived on to about 1900 in reasonable flower despite that Britain’s beer preference had long turned to other styles, well-represented in Canada too until WW I such as porter, stout, pale ale, IPA and mild ale.

By the mid-1920s, temperance rules passed during or in the immediate wake of WW I had been repealed or relaxed. The surviving Canadian brewers, certainly the large ones, modernized their production and fizzy ales of 5% strength or, increasingly, blonde lager beer, became the norm. The strong old English beers were largely a memory.

Craft brewers have brought back these venerable tastes and Molson Coors has just done so from its own archive, to its credit, see the 1908 pale ale pictured above.

Note re first image above: this image is from the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto, and was sourced here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Two Countries Divided by a Common Beer (IPA)

Edouard_Manet,_A_Bar_at_the_Folies-BergèreIndia Pale Ale, or IPA, is a blonde-to-amberish beer that tends to stress hop flavour.

It comes from England. In the later 1700s a London brewer called Hodgson sent some pale beer to India, then a British province. It took off and was “the” beer of the Raj until knocked down a peg or two by competition from Burton-on-Trent in the form of Bass Pale Ale and similar beers from the Trent Valley. Pale Ale is the same as India Pale Ale. So is bitter, of “pint o’ bitter” fame. Terminology was never precise and all that can be said is, the exported form of pale ale was often called India Pale Ale, IPA or East India Pale Ale. Ultimately, some domestic pale ale was called that too.

Hodgson’s beer seems to have been inspired by cellared (aged) country pale ale, a drink of the better-off. Hodgson pale ale was not unusually strong although a couple of vague early accounts suggest it was. By the mid-1800s, the strength of IPA in general was about 6% abv. This was not as strong as the staple mild ale of the period but stronger than most porter was in the 1800s. Strong enough, let’s say.

More than its relative strength, what distinguished IPA was its dry character. In a time when most beers were relatively sweet, pale ale was fermented more thoroughly and had dry, clean character on the palate. To be sure it had some malty quality, but not a thick heavy one. The reason for the dryness was that in a time before refrigeration and pasteurization, if the beer had more than traces of fermentable sugar, it might “fret” or spoil on the trip to India or other distant markets. Wild yeasts and bacteria can easily consume available sugars with the risk of making the drink sour. When beer has few or no fermentable sugars, it will remain relatively stable especially as IPA was made very bitter from a massive infusion of hops: hop resins are a natural preservative.

Bottles_of_Bass_beerIPA became famous around the world. It was in Paris in the 1880s when Edouard Manet painted his renowned scene of the bar of the Follies-Bergères. IPA was manufactured in Canada and the U.S. by British incomers who were following the ways of the old country. Even by 1900 some of the North American IPA was around 7% abv, attesting in my view to the character of the earliest British examples (1770-1820). A living time capsule of this 1900-era pale ale, at 6.8% abv, can be tasted in the form of Molson Coors’ recent recreation of a 1908 recipe. I discussed this beer here recently.

Of course, time moved on and by the 1990s, pale ale, initially a bottled specialty, was largely in Britain a draft beer, better known by its pub name, “bitter”. Classic English bitter was sometimes dry but not always – once again pale ale was never a matter for the statute books, its boundaries are naturally elastic. This bitter did remain fairly astringent from the hop resins released in the boil, or flowery/herbal from the hop’s aroma. In the U.S., the last old-established IPA, Ballantine India Pale Ale, was withdrawn from the market in 1996. That beer, although reduced from what it had been, was similar to modern English bitters but stronger, more in line with IPA’s origins. A couple of beers in Canada were still called India Pale Ale and pale ale but these were lager-like in character by then.

The craft brewing movement returned quality pale ale and IPA to the brewing scene. The beers called IPA as such on the label tended to be drier and stronger than pale ale tout court, but again there is no statutory lineThe first commercial IPA to be revived so-called was in the early 1990s and made by Yakima Brewing And Malting, in Washington State. It was owned by the late Bert Grant, who had worked for decades in the Canadian brewing and hop industries. I remember it well and it was a lean beer with a huge hop presence which spoke of American hop fields, understandable given Washington State is a hop heartland. There was lots of grapefruit, citrus pith and pine in the nose and taste.

It is not too much to state that IPA became the star of North American and international craft brewing. The American form – often stronger than contemporary bitter and always redolent of American hop varieties – has become popular in the U.K. It sits next to the older English bitter ales as the brash upstart on the scene. (And yes, for various reasons, modern English bitter isn’t identical to the pale ale and bitter of 1880, say. But it is close enough).

IMG_20160222_130137Recently I tried one of the latest IPAs on the U.S. market, from Tired Hands Brewery in the Philadelphia area.  It’s called, in the jazzy idiom of today’s beer scene, Kick Phone iFlip. It’s got some wheat in it and that, plus the way it’s brewed, and the four American hops used potently for aroma, give it a light and very refreshing quality. In this modern form of IPA, post-modern shall we say, the beer is not really bitter, it’s more the hop flavour you are getting. This is the hyper-cool, contemporary style of IPA, it looked in the glass like cloudy limeade and tasted a bit like it too if you left out most of the sugar. The Ratebeer website, with some 17 reviews in, gives it an astonishing 99 out of 100.

There are lots of IPAs still sold from an earlier time in the craft revival, Stone IPA is an avatar of this type. They tend to have a similar hop taste to Kick Phone but are more bitter and richer in malt taste. But whether new school or older, U.S. IPA always has a different taste to original English bitter. English hops were used for generations to flavour English pale ale and bitter. The English hop taste tends to be much less citric than the American flavour, and often flowery and arbor-like. Also, English pale ale usually has a caramel note lacking in American IPAs. I am excluding here newer English styles such as golden ale and session IPA, both of which have a marked American influence.

Bass Ale, progenitor of the world vogue for IPA which commenced about 1825,  is still available. It is owned by a large group, and nothing wrong with that, Bass was a big boy itself in its classic era. We used to get it in bottles and kegs as an import. I never really enjoyed the taste, which was kind of “old toffee apple”, sometimes with banana or sulphur notes. But I always felt that pasteurization and long transport altered the “brewery-fresh” profile.

In Canada today, or rather Ontario, we get now a draft Bass brewed by Labatt in Toronto. It is very good, you see it in the image above of the amber pint. While somewhat reminiscent of the import formerly available, it is much fresher and has a pleasing, complex aftertaste particularly when left to warm. It is somewhat malty with a fruity quality of some kind and good racy hop edge. It is nothing remotely like the fragrant, citric American IPAs.

I like both types, although the English style of pale ale is hard to beat. I know people always lauded the cask (unfiltered, real ale) version of Bass Ale, which you can still find in England. But this Toronto-made, brewery-conditioned version is plenty good. Any admirer of the brewing arts would have to give it kudos, if he or she is being honest.

Note re images used: The first two images above are believed in the public domain and were sourced via Wikipedia in this entry on Bass Brewery, here. All feedback welcomed.



Whisky Straight Up

IMG_20160220_164712There has been much press recently about an iteration of Crown Royal being the best whisky in the world. As far as I know, that is a blended whisky. I’m going to be frank and say, in my best whisky pantheon, first and foremost, the candidate has to be a straight whisky. If it is blended, meaning straight whisky combined with one or more  “grain whiskies” –  distilled at a high proof – it doesn’t qualify. It can be very good, but in my experience, blends just don’t have the full complexity and mouth-feel of an all-straight.

By straight I mean, a whisky which more or less complies with the American rules for a straight whiskey. Those rules are, whiskey from a mash of malted or raw cereals, distilled out at under 160 U.S. proof which is 80% alcohol by volume. For reasons I won’t explore here, whiskies (or brandies, rums, tequilas) distilled at 80% abv or less tend to have full, distinctive flavours which age under wood influence into something complex and very drinkable. Whiskies distilled over 80% abv, and the typical grain whisky comes off the final still at 94% abv or even more, tend to be more neutral in taste and a little sharp on the tongue.

Grain whisky starts, essentially, as vodka. Vodka is not grain whisky because it isn’t aged in wood. The grain whisky component of a Canadian or Scotch whisky blend is barrel-aged though, so in that sense is considered whisky, but to my mind, the flavour is never the same as a traditional straight spirit aged for the same period.

In American whiskey standards, there are other markers of a straight, notably the new spirit must be barrelled at not greater than 125 proof or 62.5% abv – this is to ensure sufficient wood influence on the spirit when diluted for bottling – and aged in new charred barrels.

These last two criteria are not vital though to international straight character. The Scots and Irish don’t use (generally) new barrels to age their single malt and single pot still whiskies. And distillers there and in Canada might be barreling whisky for aging at over 62.5% abv, of that I’m not sure. (But if they are, they aren’t going too high over).

All this to say, my favourite Canadian whisky right now is Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye. It is distilled, according to information online which sounds reliable, at Alberta Distillers Ltd. in Alberta. It is a straight whisky in that it is distilled under 160 proof and is aged in that case in new charred oak barrels, something like 6-8 years. That distillery is part of the same corporate group to which the Canadian Club label belongs today, Beam Suntory.

The more traditional CC-brand whiskies, all made in Windsor, ON, are, to my knowledge, all blends: they incorporate a small amount of straight whisky with an almost-neutral grain whisky, except in that case, both spirits are married for aging when they come off the still, in other words, aged together. Some Canadian distillers distill the straight and grain whisky elements separately and blend them at maturity. Seagram does this, and indeed Alberta Distillers does for its various blends.

I reiterate: blends are not bad. Grain whisky lightens and, in whisky-industry parlance, “broadens” or “displays” the character of the straight whiskies they are blended with, but again a blend and a straight are just different things.

There may be one or two other all-straight whiskies made in Canada today, I think Lot 40 may qualify, a Corby brand. Excellent product too, but CC Chairman’s Select 100% Rye has a more approachable palate in my eyes, while still offering rich taste.

The CC Chairman’s Select is (or seems) all-straight, essentially like a U.S. straight rye or bourbon except made in Canada. Forget the all-rye moniker even though it is a selling point I know. The important thing is being distilled at a low proof, in the territory for the traditional spirits. If it was all-rye and distilled out to a grain whisky proof, the fact that it came from from rye would be neither here nor there because all the “rye” taste would be stripped out. Compare a vodka distilled from rye, a good Polish brand, say, with vodka distilled from wheat. Can you tell which used either grain? Not likely…



Anchor Steam Beer – Same as it Always was?

Steam Beer Today and of the Pre-Fritz Maytag era 

Something that always struck me about Anchor Brewery of San Francisco: it never made huge efforts to associate its star brand with the pre-Fritz Maytag brewery, or California steam beer in general.

Fritz Maytag, of the famous washing machine family, is a legend in the beer business. He rescued Anchor from the edge of bankruptcy in 1965. he placed it on a solid financial and quality footing. This helped kick-start the craft brewing movement on the West Coast, and ultimately everywhere.

Craft breweries usually go to great lengths to stress tradition. They like to say they make things the historical way, like “the good old days” rather than channeling latest advances in beverage chemistry and science. The reality is more complicated, but validating the old ways is still a mainstay of the business. Even when novelty is offered, for example, an unusual spice is used, people might say in the old days they used everything under the sun to flavour beer. (They did).




Anchor has an unquestioned status as a craft brewing avatar. Still, as noted,  the company has been somewhat equivocal about steam beer history and the degree to which it continues the tradition. To be sure, Anchor limns its history and heritage proudly on its website. It notes that the brewery has functioned under its present name since 1896 and has made steam beer since then. Some information is given on historical steam beer practices.

As well, Anchor’s labeling and advertising have always stressed an against-the-grain, even anti-“corporate” approach: small, hands-on, artisan have been the watchwords for Anchor. At the same time, this extract from an Anchor coaster is instructive, and one can read similar things on bottle labels or in interviews with company personnel:

“The word ‘steam’ may have referred to the pressure of natural carbonation developing in the beers. Today the brewing methods of those days are a mystery, and for many decades Anchor alone has used the quaint name ‘steam’ for its unique beer. Today Anchor is one of the smallest and most traditional breweries in the world. San Francisco’s famous Anchor Steam beer is unique, for our brewing process has evolved over many decades and is like no other in the world”.

As one sees, Anchor considers the brewing methods of steam beer’s classic era, approximately 1850-1919, “mysterious”. An explanation is offered for the name steam but Anchor doesn’t commit to the story. Indeed the website suggests another possible origin, steam rising from wort fermenting on the rooftops of old Bay Area breweries. I find this persuasive, myself.

By saying Anchor Steam is “unique” – twice – and like no other beer in the world, the brewery is marking its beer off from all others, but also to an extent from steam beer history. I offer some suggestions below why Anchor has taken this approach.

But first, what was steam beer in the heyday mentioned? We have a fairly good idea from a number of articles or passages in books written around 1900. This article, from the December, 1903 American Brewers Review, gives a detailed account of California steam beer production. Some highlights are, use of lager yeast to ferment in the temperature range for ale or top-fermentation brewing; an all-malt character but with some brewers opting to include grain adjunct or sugar; a dark amber cast to the beer; fermentation in shallow pans with an initial fermentation in “starting tubs”; hopping at about 3/4 lb per barrel of wort; use of hops from the West Coast; and use of local malting barley.

The account states that for brewers without refrigeration equipment the wort was cooled in cooling equipment which was, as other accounts of steam beer breweries make clear, located on the top floors of the breweries. These often had shutters to control in a primitive way air flow and temperature. The louvers can be seen in the image of Anchor Brewery above, from 1896.


Malting barley often used in California then was a particularly prized six-row type called Bay Barley, it was said to have plump kernels and similar to fine, European-raised two-row barley. Hops then, as California still had active hop culture, was a Cluster type.

Cluster apparently derived from a cross-breeding of wild American hops and a variety(ies) brought from Europe by British or Dutch settlers.

In 1903, steam beer was krausened as well, meaning some freshly fermenting beer was added to clarified, fully-fermented beer to make a final, strong carbonation and add a fresh note. This is mentioned in the 1903 article, the Krausening was added to the keg in which full-fermented beer was then racked.

So that was then, for steam beer generally.

How is Anchor Steam brewed today? The company uses 2-row pale malt as the base, and some caramel (darkish brown) malt to ensure a medium amber and a little sweetness. The hops used are (the hybrid) Northern Brewer, at about one pound per barrel of beer, which would offer a combination of old and new world hop tastes, as Cluster did.

A classic, shallow fermenter and a deeper, square tank are used in a two-step process to ferment Anchor Steam Beer. Open coolers to cool the wort are no longer used as they have a potential to infect the beer – one of the quality issues Fritz Maytag addressed early on, so wort is mechanically cooled similar to what other breweries do. Anchor krausens its beer, too.*

Today all Anchor Steam Beer is pasteurized, however a flash process is used that is felt less impactful on the beer than the more intensive tunnel process.

Cooling the wort the modern way and even flash pasteurizing are simply ways to better ensure a beer’s stability. They don’t alter the character of the beer in any meaningful way.

My view is that in every important respect, Anchor Steam Beer reflects classic steam beer tradition. The beer has the expected, slight aleish quality (fruity note) from a warm ferment but the roundness and clean quality of a lager beer. It is all-malt and uses a hybrid hop, as much steam beer around 1900 did, etc.

Therefore, Anchor Steam is probably quite similar to much of the steam beer available before WW I. Since most breweries then used wood vessels, which are hard to clean, some steam beer had unusual tastes.  One surviving report, reprinted on Jess Kidden’s historical beer pages, called the taste “wild and gamy”. This may have meant some steam beer had a Brettanomyces, or “animal”, note or possibly a sourish edge from lactic acid bacteria.

The 1903 article linked above likens the taste of steam beer to “weissbier”, of which some styles are sharp and lactic in taste. Anchor Steam Beer does not have those tastes, but I’d think the best of the original steam beers were similar to today’s Anchor Steam.


Why then would Anchor distance itself from early steam beer history? One answer is clear and understandable, something Fritz Maytag has discussed in interviews many times. When he bought the brewery the beer was inconsistent. Often it would go sour and bar owners were hesitant to stock a beer which was not reliably stable when sold. Also, due to the straightened finances of the previous owner (from c. 1960 Lawrence Steese, and Joe Allen before him), sometimes sugar was used in the mash to reduce cost.

Whether by 1965 hop content had fallen from historical levels, see the 1903 article mentioned, is unknown to me. In any case today Anchor Steam uses the aforementioned one pound hops per barrel. This is well within the historical range, in fact 3/4 lb per barrel of wort (unfermented beer) might equate pretty closely to 1 lb hops/bbl after evaporation and process losses.

Also, the brewery back in 1965 was so small and faltering it had almost no fan base, certainly no cachet. Quality had be addressed to make the brand saleable and Maytag did so, not just in the changes noted but by buying new equipment, improving sanitation, and finally moving the brewery to a new, purpose-built location. He therefore focused on these factors as explaining the brand’s appeal rather than the romantic but variable, earlier history.

So far so good, but after a few years of success I’d think many breweries would link their product more directly to their early history or at least, to the beer style in question.

Anchor didn’t, though, as brewery spokesmen have always been non-committal when asked what steam beer was. Typically they have stated no one really knows today, and as we are the only ones who sell a steam beer, a beer that evolved in our particular way, steam beer is what we make. This ties steam beer, the style, to Anchor Brewery.

The name Anchor Steam Beer was registered in 1981 as a trademark as no other brewery had used the name steam beer since the 1930s. So indeed Anchor’s steam beer is the only one in the world in that sense.

One can ponder whether product uniqueness based only in part on a vague historical character made the legal argument to gain a registered trademark more acceptable. “Steam beer”, once a descriptive term for a style made by many breweries in California had become distinctive in Anchor’s hands as it was the last company standing to use it when the trade mark was granted.

It’s a good argument, if that was the strategy from a trade mark viewpoint, as no other company has been able to market a steam beer since. At the same time I consider Anchor’s beer firmly within the frame of early steam brewing.

In other words, I think Maytag did want to restore his beer to the best of early steam beer tradition but, understandably from a business viewpoint, made a (hitherto) successful argument that only his company can use the term steam beer.

Final note: how does Anchor Steam Beer taste today? It tastes great particularly on draft in California or from a fresh bottle. Current bottles at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario are vibrant with sweet malt, a light estery (fruity) quality, and flowery hop taste. I’ve been drinking it off and on since the 1970s and it has never been better.

Truth to tell, it does seem to change somewhat from time to time. The current version seems more or better-hopped than I recall. This may simply reflect improved handling before purchase.**

Note re first image above: The image shown of the Anchor Brewery, from 1896, was sourced from this website ( and is believed available for educational and historical purposes.


*Further reading confirms that Anchor pitches its yeast at 60 F, similar to what c. 1900 sources specify for steam beer. This is important as much of the steam beer character derives from lager yeast being used, atypically, at warm temperatures.

**Note added May 2, 2018. Text was lightly edited to sharpen the focus and reasoning, but nothing essential was changed from the original posting. Also, Anchor Steam Beer on draft is now available in Ontario, I had it last night at beerbistro, a bar-restaurant on King Street just east of Yonge Street. Anchor Brewery was sold to family-owned but sizeable Sapporo Brewery of Japan a few years ago. Sapporo also owns Sleeman Brewery in Guelph, ON. As far as I know, the Anchor Steam draft in Ontario is from San Francisco, but if it is or will be made at Sleeman, I’d have no objection. Beer can be replicated anywhere now with today’s technology.