What Vatting Was And Why It Was Done

In 1907, Herbert E. Wright issued a new edition of his A Handy Book for Brewers; Being a Practical Guide To the Arts of Brewing and Malting. An earlier edition appeared 15 years earlier, itself the outgrowth of Wright’s manual for young brewers (1877). Wright died the year the last version came out (see preface). He represents a good survey of many practical aspects of brewing in the last quarter of the 1800s.

He had brewed at the Diamond Brewery in Dover, whereof some good history can be read at this Dover-Kent historical site. He wasn’t the owner at any stage, it appears, but a company name, Herbert Wright & Co., appears next to the brewery name when the beers were entered for competition. And his name appeared on some of the labels, as can be seen below. Maybe he leased the brewery from the owner with the right to represent the beers as his output.

His multi-page comments on vatting are interesting on many counts, see here. First, he distinguishes true vatting from the later method, which was to ferment beers at high temperature and rouse them (to permit air to enter the fermenting wort). These practices had the result of producing acidic beers in a relatively short time, perfect for blending, but they lacked the “ethereal” taste of beers stored a year or two as ales and stouts used to be stored. Those flavours were clearly fruity because Wright mentions that ethyl butyrate is produced, which has a pineapple note. He also mentions ethyl acetate, which today is considered to have a pear drop flavour.

Wright confirms that the old beers were consumed, in the charming phrase, “one way” – straight with no admixture, which accords with early porter history. Acetic acid was produced (by acetobacter acting on ethanol), but Wright says the high gravity of the beers “carried” the taste. In other words, the acid notes were not objectionable as the beers had a high final gravity – rich malty taste – notwithstanding their strength, which resulted from a very high original gravity.

Wright argues old-style vatting should be continued, either to sell the beers on their own, or for superior blending especially for stout, where an “amalgamation” of flavours from blending some vatted beer with new sweet porter is desirable. This amalgamation has a “sub-acid” component he finds attractive.

This old blending practice has largely been by-passed in modern craft brewing although some breweries have been known to do it and some Belgian breweries never stopped, Rodenbach is the classic example. Lambic blending is another example although the lambic palate would have been considerably more acid than Wright’s vatted beer even one-way as he says the beer should not be sour as such.

Yesterday I tweeted an older post of mine which analyzed the likely strength of Hodgson India Pale Ale, the beer which launched the India pale genre and whose reverberations live with us to this day. I argued that in 1850, Abbott’s East India Pale Ale, successor to Hodgson’s ditto made in the same brewery, had a gravity designed to deliver 8-9% abv and maybe more. Given the country pale ale origins of the style, this is not surprising albeit the IPA style evolved later to a mean of 6-7% abv.

That mid-1800s strong Hodgson’s/Abbott’s East India Pale Ale fetched about the highest price charged for beer in the 1800s, 60 s per barrel. These were the kind of beers mentioned by Wright as being vatted for one and two years. True, the ales seem not to have been aged in bulk (vs. trade casks or other smaller containers) as porter was, but the principle is the same: development of exotic fruit characters and some acidity from long keeping in wood.

Wright doesn’t distinguish between porter, stout, pale ale, and old ale in his advice to vat the old-fashioned way. Any such beer could be long-aged provided only it had a high starting gravity and was brewed strong. In the Eltham brewing advertisement discussed in that earlier post of mine, and the Chilcott’s one in Bristol also referred to, beers of these different styles all had a top-end, and these were examples of Wright’s long-aged beers which developed this “ethereal” character. We know too sometimes brettanomyces was a result of long wood aging, which would add its own earthy or barnyard notes. A quick development of acidic beer would not have permitted the brett yeasts time to do their work.

How were strong were the old worts to be? Wright recommends as high as possible and at least 30 pounds per barrel, which is 1083 OG (390/360). This is exactly the range I calculated the Hodgson’s India beer c. 1850, producing alcohol of 8-9% abv, maybe more. Of course, the pale ales were attenuated lower than the ordinary ales meant to be aged, but still the general character discussed or implied by Wright would be the same, IMO: fruity, winy, port-like.

Final note: Wright offers no heroic/romantic explanation why vatting had largely dispappeared, nothing that is about changes in public taste. He explained it prosaically as the result of consolidation of the breweries and better financial management, i.e., to turn over the capital faster. Then why was porter long-aged in the 1700s? The brewers were hardly unsophisticated then. Alan Pryor has made a persuasive case in recent issues of the (U.K.) journal Brewery History that 1700s porter-brewers stored beer to maximize gains from favourable grain prices. When the cost of the input went up, they drew on their stocks rather than brew at a greater cost.

If he is right, what was different in the later 1800s? Perhaps grain and malt prices had stabilized by then. Or perhaps if they hadn’t, they became a relatively small part of the cost of brewing.

A good topic for someone’s doctoral study…

Note re image: image above was sourced from the Dover-Kent historical website linked in the text. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.