Meet The Old Boss, Same As The New Boss, Cont’d.

The Bear Inn, Oxford. UK

(Image is © Jorge Royan / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The fragmented attention of our age, which has only gained tremendous pace with the growth (paradoxically) of the global village, can deceive as to origins and trends. The beer renaissance started  in the late 1970’s and one of its hallmarks is “cask” beer: beer served from a barrel in which a slow secondary fermentation continues and dispensed without additional pressure, direct from a thumb-tap or more typically by a hand-pump system (similar to the one still seen in the country which operates with a piston and vacuum system). Beer dispensed in this way was called real ale when coined by CAMRA enthusiasts in the U.K. in the early 1970’s. The term now has a period flavour and is rarely uttered except by the historically minded or superannuated.

Despite the beer revival mentioned, cask ale was slow to take root here, unlike in England where it still has an honoured place in the market albeit reduced from its pre-1970 heyday. The reasons are many: it is difficult to handle and can easily turn sour or become infected; also, it dispenses at less than a chilled temperature, which puts off a lot of people; finally, due (IMO) to a misapprehension here that such unfiltered beer should look cloudy in the glass, the pints often poured rather turbid. Many people don’t like this, for aesthetic or taste reasons. Nonetheless as craft brewing has grown, cask has grown too, and most beer bars of any repute now offer a cask beer or a few of them, at least periodically.

While many beer fans know that cask beer hails from and has been long-honoured in the United Kingdom, and that analogues exist elsewhere in Europe which have been followed here, such as Keller Bier and variations (some entail added pressure, some don’t), few understand that top-fermented beers were commonly dispensed in this way in North America. This was at an earlier stage of our brewing history, from the 1800’s until at its latest the 1930’s.

A frequenter of the famed McSorley’s in New York, if he peers carefully through the people and the dust, will perceive a disused set of hand pumps on the backbar. They are arrayed in a curved housing similar to what you see in this image from Billie’s Bar of New York City from the mid-1930’s. The 30’s hand pumps at Billie were still in use as one can tell from the pitchers beneath them. (Now did those pitchers contain ice water, intended to be placed on tables as customers walked in? This is possible but I don’t think so. Stock, India Pale, Burton and other ales, as well as brown stout and porter, were still being made by some breweries in the New York and Jersey area then; this form of dispense was a natural for such beers. Even if they were water-pumps by then, their existence attests to their original function at an earlier date, pre-Prohibition that is).

If McSorley’s and Billie’s had beer hand pumps, other places had to have them too.  It was probably a small handful, but this type of beer service, inherited from English influence in the earlier 1800’s, hung on for a quite a time in America. It’s not new here, and likely the same applies for Canada: the craft beer revival simply brought back an old practice.

As in our day, those pumps probably sometimes spouted clear beer, hazy and yeasty/sludgy. Whether it tasted similar to our countless varieties of “cask” is hard to say though.


Beer Awesomeness in 1908

A diamond of an old menu appears here from the classic German-American restaurant, Janssen Hofbrau Haus.* Operated in New York from 1898 until the 1960s it was founded by August Janssen, a real estate mogul and restaurateur (1867-1939). The house slogan was “Janssen Wants To See You!”, no doubt a double-entendre for his many employees.

New York once had a tradition of German eating, from the substantial influx of German-speakers that began in the mid-1800s. Famously they concentrated in the Yorkville area on the Upper East Side. A classic product of German Yorkville was Lou Gehrig, for example. Donald Trump’s paternal line descends from New York-based German incomers in the 1800s. For that matter, Jacob Astor was a German immigrant mogul, albeit of an earlier generation.

A significant sub-set of this German crowd was Jews, the upper crust portion memorably portrayed by Stephen Birmingham in an absorbing social history, Our Crowd.

The menu of Janssen’s Hofbrau covered many bases in German and American eating but primarily rendered the metropolitan and hotel cuisine of contemporary Germany and Austro-Hungary. Whether hot dishes or cold, fish-based or game, eggs, delicatessen, grills, there was an enormous choice. Only the famed Luchow of New York had a comparable range.

With the onset of WW I the Hofbrau Haus remained open despite the sentiment that ran high against German-Americans following the Belgian invasion and the Lusitania disaster.  Overt displays of the German ethos were held to a minimum in New York to avoid the charge of siding with”Kaiser Bill”, but Hofbrau Haus never closed.

A high-end, international reputation helped it survive the period of anti-German sentiment. The same thing occurred during the next war. By then the restaurant had relocated to Lexington and 44th street in the still-standing Greybar Building.

(Perhaps Hofbrau Haus had some connection to the famed German beer hall of the name although I’ve not been able to substantiate one).

Even in 2015 New York hasn’t quite forgotten its German history. There are German restaurants and pubs scattered in Manhattan. One or two are still in Yorkville and also Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey. A Goethe Institute continues its good work in Manhattan albeit, at Irving Place, far south of Yorkville.

The original Munich Hofbrauhaus now has a small outpost mid-town, as does Paulaner which brews onsite in the Bowery. Still, it is a safe bet that no German restaurant in New York today, and probably few outside Germany anywhere, can equal the breadth of Janssen’s menu.

The menu is decorated with an ornate Germanic design and portrays scenes from the equally Teutonic decor of Janssen Hofbrau Haus. The restaurant’s artistic and cultural goals are well expressed in Baroque narrative in the handsome and ornate menu.

The authenticity extended to the small but well-curated and explicated beer list, set out on page 9. The best saved for last, we might say.

There were four beers described by name, all imports from Germanic territories, all draft, and amazingly, each from a brewery still in operation. As the menu explains, the restaurant took significant pains to ensure a quality “seidel”, noting that 36 barrels were kept in constant operation with temperature carefully controlled.

How beer was shipped then from Central Europe to America is not something easily fathomed but I’d guess the trip took a lot longer than now. These draft beers surely were not pasteurized, so how they arrived in a drinkable, let alone ideal, state is hard to understand.

The boss beer bar of pre-WW I may have arranged a way still to ensure a top glass every time. Its critical clientele would have expected no less. In any case, the beer list clearly was of repute.

Domestic beers were available too at Hofbrau Haus but not dignified by name  – presumably these local productions were not felt worthy to bracket with great Central European originals. One wonders if cultural pride and the lure of the import made people drink long-travelled beer that was actually inferior to the best New York brewing kettles. We will never know, but in a good-size city one can do the test today and decide for oneself.

Each of the four beers was accompanied by a taste note which, if one ignores the puffery on health and doctors’ opinions, wouldn’t be out of place on BeerAdvocate or a current beer blog.

Beer is the description of each, shorn of the puffery:

Burger Brau Pilsener [this is the same beer as Pilsner Urquell from the Czech Republic]

Light, bitter, slightly veiled. This is the lightest [meaning in colour] of all beers and contains the smallest amount of alcohol [4.4% ABV then and now, not so shabby actually].

Münchner Hofbrau [this is the modern Dunkel, or dark lager of Hofbrauhaus in Munich].

Dark, sweet, creamy. The finest brew in the world.

Nurnberger Tucher Brau

The burgundy of all beers; very dark, creamy and full of character.

Wurzburger Burger Brau

A little lighter in the color than the Munchner,not quite so sweet, and therefore a good medium between Pilsner and Munchner.

It’s easy to check reviews of these beers on a modern rating service. For the last two breweries, beers differently named correspond closely to colour and taste on the Janssen’s menu. Pilsner Urquell is not “veiled” (lightly cloudy) as available anywhere today unless you get a Keller version in the Pilsen cellars, so the beer sent to New York in the early 1900s sounds pretty authentic.

Let’s raise a New York cheer – not a Bronx cheer, a real one – for what was an important beer and dining haunt in the Gilded Age and long after. And it’s more proof that great beer was always taken seriously by some people in some places – it was always part of gastronomy, a conclusion reinforced for us recently with the success of our Waldorf Hotel 1944 Beer Tasting Recreation held recently at Dora Keogh Irish Pub in Toronto.

*Note added August 21, 2015: Please see the comments below of noted ephemera and menu-collector Henry Voigt who states that the menu in fact dates from 1934, despite bearing a copyright notice of 1908. On page 7 of the menu we read, “Ten years ago…the doors of the Hofbrau Haus were first opened to the public”. As it opened in 1898, this, plus the curator’s notice Henry Voigt mentioned, convinced me initially this menu is a 1908 original. In fact this appears not the case. Many thanks to Henry Voigt for his expertise. Still, one way or another, these fine beers were long available at Janssen’s, probably from close to inception of the restaurant and until the 1930s at least.

The Grace of Serendipity

IMG_20150818_185731English drinks and food writer Henry Jeffreys has sagely observed that a resolute focus on a top scorer or style is not the only route to finding a gem, that serendipity plays a role if only given the scope, with the pleasure being commensurate. This truth was brought home to me recently when I found an Engineer’s IPA  more than half-full, closed with a whiskey cork, behind a group of whiskeys in a drinks cupboard.  I had put it there a couple of months before and had completely forgotten. I had consumed part of the bottle, closed it and placed it in an available spot behind a forest of whiskeys, well a grove anyway.

Sometimes I keep bottles in this form for a short time to drink later or use in blending experiments, of which I am a proponent. (It is surprising how blending can cause consternation among even the cognoscenti let alone the non-advised: once after nonchalantly tipping two malts together at a LCBO tasting counter a lady at the other end said, “how interesting, but is that legal?”. I explained that if Scots grocers could do it in the 19th century and thus inadvertently create blended Scotch, one of the most famous drinks in the world for the next 100 years, I could do the same. Somehow she didn’t seem convinced, but thanked me nicely).

And so I fished out this dusty item, and took the cork out, at which there was a loud report. One of the stories of how bottled beer started in England is, a fisherman put some ale in a bottle, went to a stream with his rod, and when he came back realized he had left the bottle on the bank, partly consumed. (Was it Isaak Walton?  I need to check this). Some time later he fetched rod and reel and returned to brave his luck on the lazy English river or branch. Lo, he finds the abandoned bottle, still partly full and closed with a rag or something else in the neck, and extracts the closure.  He recorded that the bottle had become a “gun”, referring to the build-up of CO2 from the beer working away at a warmish temperature and the cloud of vapour which burst from the neck when the bottle was opened. And he found the beer excellent.

Well that’s exactly what happened to me, the bang was loud just like the angler said, with a puff of steam coming out as from a gun. Despite all the pressure in the bottle, the beer wasn’t that fizzy and was well-rounded, in a word, matured. In the past, I’ve found that opened bottles kept for a time unrefrigerated will often go south but this beer was just fine, better once again than the first sally.

Serendipity, what?

Munich-On-The Hill Of Vankleek



I was attracted to this “Farm Table” offering from the innovative and ambitious Beau’s Brewing Co. due to the fact frankly that the beer is not an obscure or laboured style as it were (beers dosed with coffee, cocoa, hot peppers, ginger, Thai spice or other things I find generally don’t add much and often take away from what beer should be).

This is labeled as “helles lager”, a classic Bavarian type of beer of which numerous brands are available as imports at LCBO. I was much impressed with the fidelity of the beer – it tastes very similar to Jever, Warsteiner, Konigsberg and other German blonde lagers. It is dry for a helles but the style has become so in Germany too in recent decades (it used to be sweeter and richer). The beer has the classic oniony yeasty note, a lager fermentation flavour that many helles and pils beers have.  It tastes exactly like many beers I had on my trip to Munich a few years ago, and similar to numerous canned imports of this style when fresh.

I won’t say it’s my favourite style but I enjoyed the bottle for the exact mirror Beau has offered of what good beer often is like in the homeland of the style.

Now Beau, can you do an exact clone of a great English bitter, say with two-row floor-malted English malt, no or just a little sugar and lotsa Kent hops? I’m there.

An Ode to Genesee

GeneseeBeer (Genesee Beer Sign Outside Genesee Brewery, Brian Stiehler, September, 2010,

John Holl (@John_Holl) has alerted to an excellent article just up at All About Beer by Tom Acitelli, here. Tom explores the history of Genesee Cream Ale, an iconic brand of the old Rochester concern.

It’s a good beer especially on draft, and more importantly to some, it recalls a certain time. I’d hope the same malt percentage and hop spec are used as per original formulation. I wonder what Gary Geminn would say of Genesee 12 Horse Ale, particularly its original formulation. By the time I came upon it in the 80’s, it was hardly more flavourful than the Cream Ale. At inception, I’d have to think it was a much better beer.

Off South Winton Drive in Rochester aka the Flour City, the pioneering retailer Beers of the World had its main store for many years – now relocated elsewhere. Because I went there a number of times, I learned about Fox’s Deli next door, an excellent New York-style deli with its own take on things as all good delis should have. It offered Genny Cream on draft in stemmed schooners and it always tasted best to me there.  I looked at the current menu and am glad to see Genesee beers are still mentioned, the bottled form specifically. One hopes mavens of the draft cream ale will be rewarded by a quick scribble on the pad followed by a frosty schooner as I remember.  A Reuben at Fox’s, schooner of Genny draft, and a Kent with the Micronite filter after.  (Oops, let’s lose the Kent).

I hope one day I can meet Tom and John for lunch at Fox’s – give me some dates, gents, and I’ll brave the border.




Of Bitter Beer, Hot Weather and Some Current Reading

IMG_20150816_175707As I write it’s over 8o F in the room and I’ve just opened a l’Interdite from Brasseurs du Monde in Saint-Hyacinthe, QC ( It’s taken straight from a 12-pack – tablette – of three of their beers. The first one, the Assoiffée, a Belgian-style dubbel, was as much a winner as this one. The beers are bottle-conditioned, which means they retain their original yeast or enough to ensure a slow conditioning.

Despite some weeks at ambient temperature and being knocked around before that on the trip from Montreal, they are fresh-tasting and as good as can be. The yeast in the bottle uses up the residual oxygen, preserving high quality despite daunting storage conditions. Had brewers stuck with bottle-conditioning vs. the ubiquitous heat-pasteurization, overall beer quality would be superior in my opinion, but that’s an issue for another day.

The Interdite is a 6.5% IPA and claims an American style, which it is, as it has the American citrus punch (thank you Oregon) notably in the aftertaste.

However, there is a grateful English influence as well, both in the Ovaltine-and-quinine flavour but also the darkish colour. It reminds me quite a bit of the legendary Ballantine IPA in its heyday.

How can you drink IPA, or any beer, room temperature in this soaking heat? Mais c’est bien simple. “When you’re a Jet you’re a….”, okay? I’m not saying I would turn down the beer in chilled form but it’s best this way to scope all the subtleties. You wouldn’t chill a red wine – or very much – same thing for a beer of this quality.

I’ve placed next to it a book I was re-reading recently, one that had a big influence on me, Stephen Morris’ The Great Beer Trek (1984). I’ll write a separate post on this book but suffice to say it’s one of the top 5 beer books I’ve read. Morris and his wife took a beer tour of America in 1978, so essentially at the dawn of the beer renaissance but it was early enough that he covers the first craft brews to emerge, e.g. Sierra Nevada and New Albion. Essentially though it is a lively canvas of the light North American lager style as produced by the national and surviving regional breweries of the day. Morris, a Vermonter with the idiosyncratic perspective of many from that state, is still going strong and I had an e-mail palaver with him a couple of years ago. The book’s engaging hand-drawn artwork is another plus, including drawings of Dogbone Brewing Company and its “tap”, McDogbone Ale House, Morris’s projected ideal small brewery. It is one of my regrets that a planned Dogbone brand, Bolt Upright, never saw a bar-top. Morris had come out of the home brewing culture of upstate hippie Vermont and …  well… more anon about this fine book.

The brown volume in the image is Complete Practical Brewer, a mid-1800’s tome that is a constant reference. The red volume is a biography of the poet Allen Ginsberg – I went through a beat phase about 20 years ago (the literary aspects not the political such as it was) and was reading about him again. You don’t really hear much about him now, all things must pass, as George Harrison, from a band rather better remembered, wrote. But there was a connection after all, think of the Beatles’ name.

The white volume is Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days And Collect. Whitman was a forerunner of the Beats and much more of course. A very interesting writer, the parts about the Civil War are very moving, someone should do a film of Whitman’s time spent in hospitals in Washington, D.C. during the war.

It all ties in and it all makes sense at beeretseq central.


1920s Montreal Grocery and Its Beers


(Source: Ville de Montréal. Gestion des documents et archives).

Above is a fine image, vintage 1920s, in the City of Montreal’s photo archive. With a couple of clicks there is great period detail of beers and beer styles sold then by Montreal-area breweries.

As I mentioned in a post yesterday, bière et porter (“ale and porter” in English) was a typical description for the beers sold in mid-20th century Montreal. The phrase appears in the image above, under the letters spelling Molson. This particular store also advertised Ekers I.P. Ale (i.e., India Pale) and Black Horse Ale, from Dawes of nearby Lachine, QC (and later Montreal).

The general type of Molson ale then sold, still brewed today as Molson Export Ale was not a IPA, or at best a watered down version. Dawe’s Black Horse Ale was probably similar. Ekers’ IPA was probably more intense in flavour and of darker hue.

Barely legible, just across the vehicle in the background, a sign between the sidewalk and window display advertises Frontenac, another Montreal brewery.

Here is an absorbing sketch about Frontenac and its too-short history as an independent, French Canadian-owned brewery, this at a time when brewing was almost completely dominated by Anglophone business interests.

Molson Porter, for its part, was still sold in Ontario at any rate into the 1980s and was pretty good, the best of the old-school porters. There are modern craft porters at the bland end of the spectrum not very different.

No, I can’t remember the 1920s, any appearances to the contrary, but versions of these signs endured into the 1960s and 70s, and as to those,  je me souviens.




Ale and Porter – “Biere et Porter”

Growing up in Montreal in the 60s I remember grocery signs with the legend “Ale and Porter”.  In French, “Bière et Porter“. I recall wondering what they meant. Beer was delivered to homes by a small black pedal bicycle (no gears). Cases were fitted into a wide, low metal basket, of 24, 12-oz. bottles. I’ve looked online for the fascia of a store reading Ale and Porter or Bière et Porter, but can’t find one.  A verbal description will have to do but anyone who grew up in Montreal in the period mentioned or earlier, will know what I mean.

It was years later that I actually had a chance to try the ale and porter of my native Quebec province.  The ales – Molson Export, Labatt 50, Laurentide Ale, O’Keefe Ale – were tasty enough. The porters were reduced by the time I could find any to Porter Champlain, a sweet, licorice-tasting black beer.

All these were probably reduced in character from earlier in the 1900s. In later years with the onset of the craft beer I got to see what authentic ale and real porter were all about. below are some images of beers tasted recently in my long-adopted city of Toronto.

This is Stone IPA, all the way from San Diego, CA but tasting very sound far from home. It’s rich and sweet, resinous and rather bitter, the real deal for old England beer via the Oregon hop fields.




The porter is a mild example of the genre, from Sleeman in Guelph, ON, apparently a replication of an 1800s porter as brewed by Sleeman’s in the 1800s. An old book of recipes still exists from that time, I saw it myself 25 years ago when touring Sleeman with the beer writer Michael Jackson.

The porter a good beer and may be similar to some porter still sold in Quebec in the 50s and 60s.




The beer tradition of Quebec, inaugurated by the French colons including notably l’Intendant Jean Talon, was later continued by British and other English-speaking settlers. They came after the Conquest in the 1770s. However, all residents, French, English, and other, seemed to like the beers from the newer tradition.

The beers may not have changed that much anyway, given local grains and hops were used before and after (with any imported), as well as a top-fermentation process.

In Quebec taverns circa-1970, the call, donne-moi une Porter Champlain tablette (room temperature] was commonly heard. Today, with all the refinements craft brewing has brought, that way to drink beer seems lost to history, at least in bars and restaurants.

“May I have an I.P.A., that new one on the blackboard, shelf please?”. Incomprehension would follow.



Quebec Hiking Memories and Quebec Cider

Dieppe_Rocky_Otterburn copy(See below for image attribution)


Back when I was a student at McGill University in Montreal, occasionally I would visit the Gault Estate with friends and climb Sugarloaf Mountain (in French, Pain de Sucre), which is part of the Mont-Saint Hilaire hills pictured above. This protected nature reserve has been owned by McGill since the late 1950’s and is now a UNESCO-recognized biosphere with old-growth forest and other pristine features of the original landscape. As I recall, it took a couple of hours or so to reach the top, from which there were panoramic views of the countryside and Richelieu Valley.

We would drive down there from Montreal, I think a half-hour drive or so, this is when Montreal and area traffic still had human dimensions unlike today’s semi-gridlock pattern.

Usually we would stop at farmhouses on the way and buy three things: a white loaf (Quebec country bread was quite plain, a simple white loaf with a light crust), white cheddar curd cheese which was salty and would squeak on the teeth – if it didn’t squeak it was too old – and, if he had some, the farmer’s apple cider, typically made from the McIntosh variety which is still a big eating and cider apple in Quebec. The Mac hails from Ontario originally and still has a good crop here, but Quebec adopted the variety as its own early on and does the best work in the field, in my view. Quebeckers quite naturally took to apple cultivation as many French colons were from Normandy where apple cultivation and derivative products are both legion and legendary.

In the early 1970’s, cider had not yet been legalized for sale in Quebec, this came a little later. So it was sold under the counter as the expression goes, either that or perhaps it was sold as apple juice with the purchaser deciding if he liked the sharp tang that week’s version offered. 🙂  I recall that it was quite rough in taste, usually bone-dry too, similar to some scrumpy cider I later drank in England. After a good walk up the wending path to the top, this tripartite snack really did refresh and I recall a fourth element too, a good cigarette as these were the smoking years. It might have been Export A hand-rolled, a favoured Quebec brand then – that was a long time ago – or maybe one of the American brands I would bring back from beer runs to Plattsburgh, NY. Kent in the long white pack, say, or Camels or Philip Morris, no filter. The good old days. 🙂



Image attribution: “Dieppe Rocky Otterburn” by Guillaume Hébert-Jodoin – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Great Cloudy vs. Limpid Taste-Off

I’ve been on this issue for years as well, initially my experience came simply from noticing that an “all-in” glass of bottle-conditioned beer tasted inferior to one decanted carefully. The hop and malt character can be blurred by too much yeasty stuff in the glass. Then I noticed, or thought I did, the same thing for cloudy pints. Whether the same proportion of yeast and protein gets in both forms, I have no idea, but it has been my impression “on the ground” that fined pints are better – nothing to do with “learned cultural prejudices”.

Now in these discussions, people never do the obvious thing. Just do blind taste tests! Boak can do it tonight with one of the beers in their bunker and serve it to Bailey in the same glass, who noses and drinks with eyes closed. So easy to do. (Of course you can do it vice versa well, but I think Bailey will rather object :)). And it can be done in a pub too, I mean with cask beer, although more preparation is needed.

The great cloudy vs. limpid taste-off, come on guys, just do it and report well and truly. I am not against all the theorizing in print and have contributed to it not a little myself, but time to do some work in the field. It may well, as some have projected, depend on particular brand and if so fair enough.