Tilting at Windmills

Cowshed Meets Pale Ale



… he ate some roast beef and drank two pints of ale, stimulated by the flavor of a cow-shed which this fine, pale beer exhaled.

His hunger persisted. He lingered over a piece of blue Stilton cheese, made quick work of a rhubarb tart, and to vary his drinking, quenched his thirst with porter, that dark beer which smells of Spanish licorice but which does not have its sugary taste…

The above is from an online edition of A Rebours, by French novelist J-K Huysman, published 1884. The title has been translated as Against the Grain.

The book was mentioned by the famed beer writer Michael Jackson, but in a different connection. Jackson quoted Huysmans’ imagining of an all-black meal. It featured black soups, dark game, sauces the colour of “bootblack”, kvass, and porter.

It could as well have been an all-red or other colour meal:  Huysmann was aiming to describe extreme experiences of the senses, in taste and perception, to contrast with bourgeois notion of propriety and the juste moyen.

The all-black meal is periodically reproduced by historical food scholars, but the idea never really caught on. In today’s careening culinary and beverage worlds the concept seems ready for trendy appearance, in London, Paris, and New York certainly.

My quote, though, is further support that 1800s pale ale, aka India Pale Ale, had the barnyard, Brettanomyces tang. Modern brewers sometimes impart the effect by inoculating with a Brett strain.

Some beers have always featured “extreme” flavours, probably accidentally initially, which ended by capturing drinkers’ affections. Ergo the development of regional and local tastes. Bitterness itself, from hops, is the best example. An expedient to preserve beer became an indispensable, admired part of the drink, despite that is the human instinct to reject bitter flavour.

Musk features in perfumes, soaps, and other things: why not in eatables? It becomes a whet, a stimulant. Huysmans focused on the extreme for its outre sensory value and as a metaphor for artistic and personal independence.

To borrow a term from a more modern artistic and sensory quester, Jimi Hendrix, the French writer “raised his freak flag high” – despite his staid look, I might add. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

I argued in my American “musty ale” study that the signature of 1800s U.S. musty ale might have been the barnyard Brett tang, analogous to the contemporary “Bass stink” also documented in my article.

A good example of the palate today albeit more subtly is in Belgian Trappist Orval. In taste and colour Orval, which has a Brett inoculation, may be close to Huysman’s Gothic-tasting English pale ale. Countless craft “Brett” IPAs and other styles deliver a similar experience, which many beer fans admire.

There is some irony in the (translated) book title Against the Grain, as idiosyncratic English beer tastes are upheld, not derided.

Huysmans’ comment on porter, highlighting the dry, liquorice taste, is further evidence of his protagonist’s sophisticated or grown-up palate.

The term à rebours has also been translated as “against nature” or “at loggerheads”. It evokes again the idea of rebounding, a stance of contra. Counter-cultural. That a Sybarite protagonist cottoned to a louche-tasting English beer underlines its exotic character, for us at a distance, certainly.

Now, my recent collaboration with Amsterdam Brewery to produce an 1870 AK bitter, a lower-gravity, “domestic” India Pale Ale, sought intentionally to avoid such Brett. The reason was pale ale stored for a few weeks, even in uncoated wood at the time, probably didn’t produce Brett, or not invariably.

Brett generally needs longer to appear. The yeast type awaits the normal end of fermentation to attack the more complex sugars and dextrin in the beer, unless the wort is inoculated with Brett to gain the intended character. We did not do that as there was no intention to produce this character.

But some pale ale in Victorian Britain had such character, as appears from Huysmans book, as appears too from the more or less contemporary term, “Bass stink”. See this discussion in a U.S. Congressional hearing in 1900 where the term is mentioned.

The Bass funk may have had multiple causes, as discussed in my musty ale article, but the impact of Brettanomyces on Bass, a classic form of India Pale Ale, is undeniable as a wild yeast element was later identified in the Bass yeast. (My article cites the supporting references).

Huysmans’ reference to a cowshed taste in English beer probably resulted from the impact of Brett yeast, I conclude.