Friday, 31 July 2020

Broughton appeals for cash to save Old Jock

Some hills
The lush, sometimes susceptible to flooding landscape which surrounds Broughton Brewery

Scotland’s second oldest microbrewery has launched a crowdfunder to help it recover from the economic shock of COVID-19.

Broughton Brewery, founded near Biggar in 1979 (only Traquair House is older), is trying to raise £75,000 to pay the bills during the crisis, which has seen pubs close their doors for over three months. Its best-known product is the strong Old Jock ale.

Anyone who’s ever run a business knows how quickly money just seems to disappear into a black hole during the times when there’s reduced revenue coming in.

It seems to me that relatively few small brewers have turned to crowdfunding as a means to survive the crisis, which I find a bit odd. The only other one I am aware of locally is Glasgow-based Ride, who raised money to kit out their tap room in June. People do care about their favourite breweries, perhaps more so than about their local hardware shops or double glazing companies. Mind you, with furlough money about to dry up, perhaps the real crisis for all businesses is still to come.

As is usual, there are some rewards on offer for would-be contributors. £50 will get you a bottle of an imperial stout which was made 20 years ago and has been aging at the brewery ever since. When I was there in January, we were told of the existence of this beer and it was hinted that it would be made available soon – though I don’t think anyone could have predicted the exact circumstances.

Another option is £100 to plant a tree, which will apparently help protect the brewery site against flooding in the future. The brewery has in fact experienced floods in the past so this is a concrete ecological investment as well as a financial contribution.

Some of the other rewards are less enticing, such as £500 for beer for a year, which works out substantially more expensive than just buying the beer in a shop. I don’t want to seem mercenary about this at such a time. Normally I would expect a significant discount for buying beer a year in advance, but this is an emergency and if you would like to help by paying over the odds for your beer, be my guest (it does include delivery so you’re saved schlepping bottles home).

If you do want a bargain, though, you can get 10% off for a year by contributing just £15. That seems win-win, as you’ll buy more beer than you would otherwise and there’s still a profit margin for the brewery in it at 10% off; at least there ought to be.

I know that if I were to go into a shop or a pub in the future and Broughton were no longer in business, I’d regret not having done what I could.

You can check out the crowdfunder at

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

The price of yeast in 1913 and the mystery of M.F.

One of the advantages of brewing beer is that you end up with more yeast than you started with. Great if you need yeast for the next brew. Even better if you find you have more yeast than you need, because you can sell it on. To bakers, or distillers.

After fermentation is complete and the beer has been pumped off, the residual gunk remaining in a tank can itself be collected. Brewery yeast is typically a slurry which still contains some valuable beer. So you can give the yeast a good squeeze and the resulting liquid gained can be mixed with ullage and sugar to make brown ale and sweet stout.

The dry matter remaining is what “pressed yeast” refers to in the document below, which is a page from a notebook displayed at a Glasgow University Archive Services event in 2018 (which might give you an idea how far behind I am with blog posts). The date is 1913, which is handy. As there is a beer mentioned called XXP, I’m assuming the notebook is from William Younger. For the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter.

One press = 25 cwt. = 13 Hhds [hogsheads] Distillery Yeast
Average price for Country = 17/6 p Hhd
do for Town  = 7/6 "
Price of Pressed Yeast to B.S. Co Greenock = 45/- p Ton less 14/9 for Carriage
Therefore £1·16·4 = £4·17·6 = £11·7·6

Thirteen hogsheads is a shedload of yeast. I did say you got more back than you started with.

The buyer of the yeast looks like “B S Co”, but if what I think is an S is actually an ampersand, it might be Blair & Co’s distillery in Greenock, which changed its name to Greenock Distillery after the war.

Why was the selling price of yeast so much higher in the country?

I am not sure what the calculation in the last line is for, and since it is expressed mathematically incorrectly I wouldn’t like to speculate.

The second half of the page seems to be notes on an experiment.

The experiment consists of setting up two kilderkins (18-gallon casks), to which one had a mysterious substance “M.F.” added and the other didn’t. It appears to have had the effect of inhibiting fermentation.

Two kils XXP set up; one with & one without M.F. The kil without M.F. started working first (about 12 hrs before the other). Both kept brisk for fully a fortnight, being tried at spile every morning. After that the cask without M.F. began to cool down while kil with M.F. was still brisk at 3 weeks. Samples then drawn showed the kil with M.F. much brisker with good creamy head.

Two kils stout one with & one without. The kil with M.F. 24 hours later in starting working.

“Working” here means fermentation and “brisk” means well carbonated.

Any ideas as to what M.F. was are very welcome.

Monday, 20 July 2020

I went for a pint again

The day came when the pubs in Glasgow re-opened, and I was curiously unexcited.

Mostly it was because I had a limited number of options. Some of the best pubs such as the Pot Still and Blackfriars hadn’t re-opened yet; others like the Three Judges or the Thornwood are a bit further away than I wanted to cycle – seeing as we’re still supposed to be using public transport for essential journeys only.

Nonetheless I headed into town for a look around, expecting that if somewhere good was open, I wouldn’t be able to get in.

You could do worse than choosing the Horse Shoe for your first pint of proper cask in four months. But it was not for me.

“Any walk-ins, pal?” I enquire from behind my mask.

“Only upstairs,” says the genial doorman.

“Is there cask ale upstairs?”

“No, I only have one cask ale on anyway,” is the response.

I promise to return again soon.

Some of the pubs are positively bouncing – well, as close as you can get to bouncing given the restrictions. The Tolbooth at Glasgow Cross looks very nearly as busy as ever.

Some quite unexpected places have been trading as “beer gardens” since last week when those were allowed to open. I had thought that Britain had a low bar for what can be called a beer garden: usually a few picnic tables in the car park, next to the wheelie bins. But it turns out that these days even some white plastic garden furniture on the pavement will count.

Whatever you call them, these popped-up pavement arrangements are a nice addition to working-class locals’ bars in the East End.

I am about to head home when I glance in passing down Blackfriars Street. Unexpectedly, Babbity Bowster is open. I say unexpectedly because it had been closed for refurbishment before lockdown, but apparently they have taken advantage of enforced closure to finish the job.

Babbity Bowster dates from the mid-1980s when legendary publican Fraser Laurie took on the then-derelict eighteenth-century building and turned it into something quite new for Glasgow. Though decried at the time as a yuppie pub, it has developed into an institution with a formidable reputation. Laurie retired at the beginning of the year and sold the pub to pub company Caledonian Heritable.

It seems much the same on entering, less regimented than some pubco establishments and I just have to fill in a slip of paper and put it in a plastic tub, then sanitise my hands. I choose to sit outside and my pint is brought out to me. I pay in cash because the machine isn’t working yet; I think this is the first time I have used cash since March.

And the first pint of proper cask since March too.


Before lockdown they had regularly served Fyne Ales Jarl, but apparently couldn’t get any in time for re-opening. Judging by the amount of mini-casks that people have been ordering from Fyne, this is not entirely surprising.

With over 200 small breweries now operating in Scotland, I think pubs should feature local beer – especially in Glasgow where there seem to be a score of small brewers all fighting to get into the same dozen pubs. I am glad they will get Jarl back in when it is available. However, I am not complaining about having to drink Landlord.

Landlord is a beer that changes quite a lot as it ages. This pint seems particularly fresh, perhaps even a little green. There is bitterness first, then sweetness, and a notably floral hop bouquet – so floral, in fact, that I have to check I’m not sitting in front of some geraniums.

I actually had two pints. The first seemed to mysteriously disappear. There must be some thirsty blackbirds in the trees in this beer garden or something. 

Sunday, 28 June 2020

And so this is Kulmbach

I’ve got a sausage in my pocket. Train sausages are as essential as train beer, when you’re in Franconia, in my view. Mind you, I think the younger generation of Germans would rather die than be seen eating a piece of Krakauer in public like their grandad.

If there is a Franconian equivalent to Burton-on-Trent, it is probably Kulmbach.

It is the home town of the Kulmbacher Brauerei, a conglomerate that fused the previously competing Reichelbräu and EKU breweries. Reichelbräu had previously taken over local rivals Sandlerbräu and Mönchshof, and since the fusion Kulmbacher has gone on to absorb substantial breweries such as Scherdel of Hof and Würzburger Hofbräu, which are still brewing, and acquired the brands from the remnants of Brauhaus Schweinfurt and Kitzmann of Erlangen, which aren’t. Ultimately, the majority shareholding is held by the Paulaner group. It’s a major player.

Beer geeks speak disparagingly of its beer, and yet it is the repository of several critical aspects of beer heritage. Once, Kulmbacher was its own style of dark lager – though as far as I can make out, the original Kulmbacher beer is extinct. Two unique bottled beers survive, too: EKU 28, sometimes called Kulminator, at one time the world’s strongest lager; Eisbock, pioneered by Reichelbräu, freeze-concentrated to increase the alcoholic strength.

But I wanted to go to Kulmbach because I can say with a fair degree of certainty that EKU Pilsner is the first German beer I ever drank. On my first trip to Bavaria, I remember buying this six-pack of EKU stubbies, purely because our 19-year-old minds were boggled that this beer was cheaper than cola. We probably drank it warm and weren’t used to beer, so none of us thought it was very nice. But never mind that.
The former Mönchshof brewery has been preserved as a brewery museum, and it is enormous. I had rather naively set out to walk there from the town centre, and it’s a fair hike, so I was already quite tired by the time I started going round the many, many rooms. It is pretty good value at 6 euro, especially as you get a free (small) glass of the on-site micro-brewery’s beer at the end. It’s an amber export lager with toasty malt notes, full-bodied and süffig, but needs mair hops.

The on-site brewery is a new, modern affair – from the supplier who made the kit for the Johann Albrecht chain of brewpubs – which seems ironic when you consider that what looks like the entire Mönchshof brewhouse is preserved upstairs in the museum. I guess it would not be economical to switch that on.

There are brewhouses older than this still in production in Bavaria.
I do like a Grant.

Lagering tanks!

There was no explanation of what this machine does, as far as I could see, but I think it is a device for lining casks with pitch.

On the way back into town you can stop off at Kulmbacher Kommunbräu. The Beer of the Month is a pale Christmas bock. No ABV given. It smells of fresh apples and pears and tastes of sweeties, but is not unpleasant. Marzipan, nuts and vanilla, and did I mention it is a sweet beer? We have left the hop-loving part of Franconia behind: here the range of beers starts with Helles and gets less hoppy from there. 

Back in the town centre, I want to try the EKU Pils again. I’ll give any beer a second chance on its home turf. Italian and Greek restaurants in Germany are the vernacular eating places, and almost always have local draught beer, which is why I end up in the EKU Fäßla, which is really a pizzeria. My draught Pils surprises with a rather odd aroma of butter and linseed oil, but has good, bitter, meringue-like foam that is perhaps not quite as stable as it might be.

Malty, full-bodied with a bitter edge. I was wrong in 1989! This is not bad. I quite like it and am glad I came in here to drink it, especially since I get to sit inside a huge old barrel – although from the size and shape of it I am inclined to think it held wine rather than beer originally. Or maybe it’s completely fake to begin with, who knows?

There is a proper dedicated beer place in Kulmbach as well, the Bierhäusla. Initially I am attracted by the beer of the day chalked on a blackboard: Krug-Bräu Lagerbier.

I’ve heard of this but never had it. The dark beer everyone else is drinking looks so good, though, that I decide to have that instead. Of course, it turns out to be the same beer. I hadn’t realised Krug’s lager was dark. It is wonderful. It tastes basically of dark malt. That’s about it. The texture and mouthfeel is perfect too. I wonder if the strange-looking beer font in use on the bar has something to do with that. The only thing wrong with this place is that the regulars are all crowded round the bar stopping me getting a photograph of the bizarre dispensing apparatus. Apart from that, I really like it: it’s a place for beer geeks, but not wanky; and there are no pastry stouts, just terrific regional beers.

I picked up bottles of Eisbock and EKU 28 in the nearest gedrinkymarket to the old Mönchshof brewery. Leaving them out on the balcony overnight, I was a bit concerned I had inadvertently invented the twice-frozen version of Eisbock, but it was fine. Very dark mahogany brown, with aroma and taste both of Munich malt and toast. Not a complicated beer. The 28 is similarly syrupy, but I’ve lost my notes.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

1978 Courage Russian Stout

A few years ago, I acquired a box of old beers, which have been sitting in a corner ever since. Some look more exciting than others.

One of the exciting ones is a bottle of Courage Imperial Russian Stout from 1978. I’ve never had one this old, so decided to crack it open.

Now that every other brewery in the world seems to make something they call Imperial Russian Stout, it is quite difficult to imagine the peculiar status the original Courage beer had back in the 70s and 80s. I am lucky to be old enough to have tasted it in the early 1990s when Courage had a bit of a marketing push on it, giving it a fancy new Constructivist-style label.

More recently I enjoyed the revived version that Wells & Youngs produced in 2012, although I seemed to always order it as a rather expensive treat in Edinburgh pubs when I was already quite drunk. I thought that was still a lovely beer, even though it did not have the classic secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces.

First waft of the 1978 bottle on opening: well they certainly didn’t forget to dose this with Brettanomyces. The secondary yeast has completely taken over, leather, prunes, balsamic vinegar. Residual sugars have almost completely dried out since 1978, but the beer is still drinkable: still some carbonation, still quite viscous and oily, though lighter than it once would have been, yet no sweetness. Blackcurrant and some empyreumatic flavours reminiscent of wood smoke, perhaps a little smoked beef, any acrid or chocolatey notes long since mellowed out. There is still quite a bitter aftertaste on this, though it is camouflaged by the massive Brettanomyces aroma. Would probably have been better not quite so old. If you happen to also have a 42 year old bottle of Russian Stout, drink it fifteen years ago.

It’s a tragedy this beer is no longer made.

In the meantime, you might try brewing your own from this 1976 recipe that Edd Mather has recently published.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The fictional beers of the Queen Victoria 2005–15

“Chamber’s Best Bitter” on the EastEnders set, 2015. Picture: BBC

It’s literally decades since I last watched EastEnders, but I remember – this must be 1989 at the latest and God alone knows why I remember it – Pete Beale ordering a pint of Churchill’s.

Thanks to these high-resolution images of the EastEnders set that the BBC has helpfully placed on the internet for people to use as backgrounds for their online meetings, we get a rare chance to see the array of fictional beer brands created for the Queen Victoria. Normally publicity images are not detailed enough for this, and of course on TV the camera does not stay still for long enough to read anything.

Now we get to see that Churchill’s is still on the price list in 2005 at £2.30 a pint.

I wonder how much of a brief the props department gets for this sort of stuff. Obviously there are not unlimited resources. Given infinite time and money, it could be someone’s job to create fake brewing logs for Luxford & Copley going back to the 19th century. And why not? Is that any more reprehensible than thinking up the endless tortuous twists and turns of the pain-filled lives of soap characters?

Table 1: Fictional beer brands on sale in the Queen Vic, 2005–2015:
2005Melbourne StarLagerBox keg font
2005Thames BitterKeg bitterBox keg font
2005Fo***am’s Ale?Stemmed fontcan't quite make out name
2005Chamber’s Best BitterKeg bitterKeg fontmodified Castlemaine XXXX font
2005Jenkin’sLagerBottleresembles Budweiser
2005Jenkin’s Pale AlePale AleBottle
2005North ExportLagerBottlemodified Miller Draft label
2013Bramford ExportLager?Wedge keg fontresembles French “33”
2013Cromer LagerLagerWedge keg fontBlackletter type
2013Biermann Deutsche [sic] BierCask lagerHandpullAn in-joke?
2013AleCaskHandpullPumpclip with a wolf, or a seal or a bear or something
2013Chamber’s Best BitterCask bitterHandpull
2015Chamber’s Best BitterCask bitterHandpull
2015AlwentCider?Keg fontNo idea what kind of product

I had imagined that all these fake brands were created to comply with the BBC’s strict rules on avoiding product placement or anything that looked like it. But if that was the case why are there genuine brands on offer next to the fake ones? We have Coors, Murphy’s and Michelob next to the Devlin’s and Jenkin’s bottled beers, and a Guinness font on the bar top.

We can also see the Licensed Victuallers’ Association membership plaque on the wall and in one picture the Queen Vic seems to have acquired a couple of Adnams and John Smiths ashtrays.

By 2013 the Chamber’s bitter is on handpump (we also see the Vic does not use sparklers on its cask ales). There’s also something a bit odd: Biermann German beer served on a handpump. I suspect someone was either ignorant or – I prefer to believe – trying to see if any viewers would be observant enough to notice that a fictional beer was using an implausible dispense method, and also pedantic enough to complain about it (with a bonus score if you also point out that Bier is neuter in German (das Bier) and the clip should therefore read “Deutsches Bier” rather than “Deutsche Bier”).

I could have gone into this in more depth, but that would involve more knowledge of EastEnders storylines over the last 35 years than I have or am willing to acquire, and I have wasted an afternoon on it already. A brief glimpse shows the history of the Vic to have been, shall we say, turbulent, since Sharon bought it from the brewery in 1991. I can only say, if you think the real pubcos are bad (which they are), count yourself lucky you’re not running the Queen Vic.

One thing that is striking is that there are no beers from the brewery that purportedly owned the pub when the series started, Luxford & Copley. Did Sharon buy herself out of the beer tie in 1991? Did she buy the freehold or just the leasehold? Are Luxford & Copley even still in business? Researching these things is left as an exercise for the reader.

Next week: the effects of the consolidation of the brewing industry on beer choice in the pubs of Trumpton and Camberwick Green, 1955–1970.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Central Bar, Renton

There is not much nightlife in Renton, and as lifestyles have changed, people do not swarm to the local pub as they once did. The first time I was in the Central Bar a few years ago, it was nearly empty on a Saturday night, one of the snugs remained in darkness and there was a strong smell of damp.

It has had its ups and downs in recent years. Shortly after my first visit I heard it had closed. Then it opened up again. And closed once more. At the moment, of course, it is shut like everything else.

You cannot claim it is not friendly. I was urged to bring my bike inside the pub so it doesn’t get stolen outside. Although a pair of large dogs block my way, I am assured the only danger is that they might lick me to death.

Unlikely as it may sound, Renton’s claim to footballing fame is that its team was once champion of the world. Yes, really, although it was a very long time again. In 1888 Renton FC, the then holders of the Scottish Cup, played a friendly against FA Cup winners West Bromwich Albion. Renton beat the Black Country team 4–1; as the infant game of association football had not spread much beyond the UK at the time, this made them de facto the world champions.

It would be nice to think this event was celebrated in the Central Bar but alas, the pub did not open until 1898, ten years later.

So many features in this bar have not changed much. The rude but functional gantry behind the bar, overshadowed by the enormous spirit casks.

The glorious high windows letting sunshine in, something sadly rare in Glasgow since the licensing board’s demented crusade a century ago to conceal the sinful sight of fun from passers-by, the legacy of which is still felt today in a number of pubs with no natural light.

The Central Bar was only seven years old in 1905 when another Renton footballer was born: Alec Jackson, who was to become one of the “Wembley Wizards” Scotland team which beat England 5–1 in 1928.

When Jackson signed to Huddersfield for the then record-breaking fee of £5,000 the Huddersfield manager Herbert Chapman supposedly took Jackson’s father for a dram in a Renton pub and bought a round for the entire bar. Jackson told Paris-Match magazine that this took place in the only pub in the village, though why he should have said this I am not sure. There was more than one pub in Renton back then, surely.

There is only one pub today. Tam, on the other hand, tells me that Renton had six pubs at one time, and he remembers drinking in five of them. Tam is a joiner and carried out a good deal of internal reconstruction in the Central some fifteen years ago, removing a wall to turn what had been a back room into a snug. He used repurposed wood to do the work and I wouldn’t have guessed it wasn’t original.

The plasterwork on the ceiling is quite ornate too, with the gaps filled by textured wallpaper, all covered by decades of paint and nicotine stains. I find myself wondering how many millions of cigarettes must have been smoked in here to give the ceiling its rich brown-cafe patina. And whether any of them were Club, the brand Alec Jackson advertised.

In London Jackson played for Chelsea and later went into the pub trade himself, becoming licensee of the Angel & Crown in St Martin’s Fields. That has been transformed into a tacky cod-Victorian gin-in-teapots place these days. At least the humbler Central, should it survive, has kept its original character.

Friday, 1 May 2020

How alike are Gordon Scotch and Traquair House Ale?

On the face of it, this ought to be easy.

One is a beer found in Belgian supermarkets, contract-brewed by the biggest Scottish breweries of their day and now churned out somewhere in Belgium.

The other is, whatever its other merits may be, certainly the most romantic of “Scotch ales”: brewed in the big hoose in the centuries-old brewery and fermented in oak.

Can I tell the difference?

It’s time for a blind tasting of Gordon Finest Scotch Highland Ale versus Traquair House Ale.

The amusing thing is that Gordon is the older brand, brewed since 1924, first at George Younger in Alloa and then at Scottish Brewers’ Holyrood and Fountain breweries in Edinburgh before the move to Belgium, its chief market.

Traquair House Ale dates from 1965 when the laird of Traquair, Peter Maxwell Stuart, began brewing again in the long-abandoned house brewery.  His friend Sandy Hunter, the boss of Belhaven brewery, helped a lot, and – I am just speculating here – I suspect the recipe for Traquair House Ale owes more to Belhaven’s wee heavy at the time than to whatever was being made when the brewhouse was abandoned.

Anyway, what do these two ales taste like? Well, the first surprise is just how similar they look. Both a deep ruby red and even the foam appears identical. To look at them you’d think they were the same beer.

While both are quite sweet, beer A is drier than beer B, while also being not so much fuller in body as chewier. Slight vanilla, crystal malt (I never like to identify specific ingredients, but if there is no crystal in this I will eat my hat) and a slight huskiness. As it warms up, more and more malt character comes to the fore. Possibly, just possibly a touch of oak – but it could also be barley husks.

Both are bright, as far as I can tell from such dark beers.

Beer B is sweet and rich, but immediately more sugary in character. Traces of vanilla and caramel fudge, yet a surprisingly high bitterness in the finish. Creamy and smooth with bitter chocolate notes. As it warms, the odd whiff of malt vinegar (the best malt vinegar has a comforting sweetness to it). Becomes fuller and richer as it warms up. Somehow, a little pencil-shaving woodiness in here too.

By the time I have finished the samples I am pretty sure that B is Gordon Highland Scotch and A is Traquair House Ale. And (for once) I am right. It’s the general sugariness of B that gives it away, but in general these two are more alike than I would ever have believed.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

A further note on Bell’s ‘black cork’

Between 1818 and 1822 Robert Fleming of the Summerhall brewery kept a scrapbook which is now one of the oldest items in the collection of the Scottish Brewing Archive. It has been written about a couple of times, most recently in the 2018 Journal of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association.

I have only just noticed that Fleming also mentions the nearby Bell’s brewery on the Pleasance. I can claim no credit for uncovering this, for it was transcribed as far back as 1994 by Alma Topen, the archivist at the SBA and published at the time in the SBA’s newsletter.

Fleming clearly thought quite highly of his late neighbour Mr Hugh Bell:
Of the many eminent characters who have rendered themselves popular as brewers, Mr Bell it is but just to remark ought to be placed first on the list. His plan was to form and adapt every part of his buildings in the different offices in such a manner as that the whole should concur in accomplishing one great object and of this plan he began to feel the good effect when by his death the world was deprived of his further assistance. He set out on a very extensive scale and purposed brewing for the west India bottling trade and no other.

His ales were of the palest kind, his manner of malting very cool and thin on the floors. In brewing some variation in heats was at times made as the state of the air varied and the quality and age of the malt might suggest to be necessary. The mean gravity or strength of the ales being not more than 25lb the barrel the reduction of that gravity by the attenuating affect of the fermentation before cleansing down might bring it to 13 but the most singular and striking part of his practice was in the manner of beating his ales after cleansing.

It should have been remarked that Mr Bells cellars consisted of three different kinds arched vaults one below the other extending to the area of the whole yard. Into the first of these vaults the ale at the time of cleansing descended from the tun into casks of about four or five barrels standing upright where it was carefully attended to by being filled with clean ale of the same kind during the time of its working after it had apparently done working it was slightly bunged down and hopped with hops that had been boiled once in the first wort in this state it remained six or eight months and was then drawn off fine to descend in to the second range of vaults below into clean casks of the same description as those from whence it was drawn in these its new apartments it was destined to remain for an indefinite period until it was likely to be called into service by bottling off a few weeks previous to which it descended into the third and lower regions into other clean casks where it was fined down and suffered to remain flattening for bottling off shipping [last word illegible].
There is quite a bit of information in this. It tells us Bell was making his own malt, common at the time. The cleansing and vatting regime also sounds extremely interesting. I haven’t seen a multi-level cellar anywhere other than at Rodenbach.

But more important than that, there are two notes that tell us a bit more about what kind of ale Bell was brewing.

Cool malting as practised by Bell would produce high quality malt with low acidity and high extract potential – exactly what you would want for premium export ale, especially one you were going to mature for several months.

I argued back in 2011 that Bell’s famous “black cork”, whatever it was, almost certainly wasn’t black – however, I think by the time I came out with this, Bob Knops had already decided to use the name for his porter.

But Fleming tells us “His ales were of the palest kind,” and that the gravity of it was “not more than 25lb the barrel” which might ferment down to 13lb. So we have a pretty good idea of the colour and the strength of Bell’s ale.

25 brewers’ pounds per barrel expressed as original gravity is 1.069, but 13 pounds is 1.036. That seems high, but remember this is only the gravity before cleansing and the beer might well ferment quite a bit further during its six to eight months in the cellars.  With modern techniques you might expect a wort like that to ferment down to perhaps 1.015 or so. Sadly we do not know the actual finishing gravity, which would allow us to calculate a satisfyingly exact figure for the alcohol content of Bell’s black cork; but it does look like we have a pale drink of roughly 6% alcohol.

What we can say, though, is that I was mistaken in suggesting black cork was the ancestor of strong Edinburgh ales such as Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale. It is far too weak for that.

I was led astray by the use of the term strong ale. That does not mean what it means today: something substantially higher in alcohol than an everyday drinking beer. In Bell’s time it was a duty category: beer and ale described as “strong” attracted higher duty, small beer a much lower rate. At the time of Hugh Bell’s death in 1802 the duty on strong beer was 10/– a barrel, five times as much as on small beer.  It’s in this sense only that black cork was “strong ale”.

Edinburgh ales, according to Roberts, might range in OG from 1.080 to 1.125. True, today an OG of 1.069 might appear strong to us, depending on what we are used to drinking. But it is definitely on the weak side for what Georgians and Victorians regarded as strong.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Trying some beers in the Tri-City

For British people of my generation, who are perhaps not as educated as they should be, Gdansk doesn’t sound like an appealing destination. When I was growing up, Poland was under martial law and the name Gdansk still makes me think of meat shortages, Lech Wałęsa, shipyards and grey concrete.

If you also think that way, you‘d be very wrong.

This is Gdansk:

It helps to realise that Gdansk was formerly known as Danzig and one of the most important ports in the Hanseatic League of medieval Europe.

This is Ulica Piwna in Gdansk. In the past when the town was predominantly German, the street was called Jopengasse. Both names redolent with beery history, for Jopengasse is named after the legendary Danziger Jopenbier (or perhaps the beer is named after the street), whereas Piwna literally means Beer Street.

There are a few other beery addresses. As well as Jopengasse, Danzig in the 19th century also had a Mälzergasse, maltsters’ street. The street then called Hinter Adlers Brauhaus, “Behind Adler’s Brewery” is now called Browarna, brewery street and the one-time Hopfengasse is now Chmielna, both meaning Hop Lane.

The grand building at the end of the street is the old town arsenal. Of course, these days there is a bar in there selling New England IPA and milk stout. No, really, there is.

The other end of Piwna is even more impressive, as it takes you to St Mary’s Basilica, the largest brick church in Europe,

After visiting the Solidarity museum in the former Lenin Shipyard (where you can see Lech Wałęsa’s jumper) I do need a beer.

Happily, there is still beer brewed in Beer Street. Browar Piwna, which I suppose you would need to translate as “Beer St Brewery” rather than the decidedly redundant sounding “Beer Brewery” is a bit touristy, as you might expect. But the beer is good. Their Pils is as murky as the soupiest IPA, but tastes entirely different, with that fresh lagering-tank CO2 you find in good brewpub beer. Hops build to a substantial bitterness. If you gave this to me blind I’d call it some sort of Kellerbier rather than Pils, but whatever.

Gdansk and the neighbouring towns of Sopot and Gdynia make up a conurbation known locally as the Trójmiasto, Tri-city. Sopot is the smallest of the three but it has two brewpubs.

In Browar Miejski Sopot we have a very nice oatmeal stout (12º, 4.7%), very smooth and creamy with no rough edges with notes of liquorice and smoke. An “American Red” beer is straightforward, a little watery but not bad. The standout beer, though, is the Pils: fresh malt and just the right amount of diacetyl for me. Low, cask-like carbonation and lovely, perfumey hops with a fresh edge to them. Perhaps not bitter enough to be a true Pils but whatever it is, it’s a very nice beer.

A day drinking in Gdynia sees us start – I can’t remember exactly why – at Blues Club.

As everywhere else, the big brewers are attempting to capture a share of the speciality market. They are pretty keen on witbier and Zywiec Bialy is a very light, bland but drinkable specimen. Toasty malt, creamy mouthfeel, needs more coriander.

There is fancier beer in bottles in the fridge. The double IPA and Porter from Browar Zamkowy Cieszyn look interesting so we order those. They come in 50cl bottles and are 8.0% and 9.8% respectively, and it’s only lunchtime. Woops.

It is a nice enough bar and at least there is a Fun Guide.

The double IPA is surprisingly light in body with savoury, spicy aromas and a slightly odd meatiness. Needs more hops but the bitterness builds gradually. A fairly decent West Coast IPA actually. The porter was apparently so good there are no notes. We then have a further vanilla and chilli stout at 6.4%, made with a traditional (hmmmm) decoction mash, It’s very nice, sweetish with oaty creaminess, breakfast-cereal malt and a very subtle chilli burn – the vanilla is not apparent.

We need pizza before the next beer and fortunately there is a pizzeria right next door to our next stop. The pizza dough is yeasty and not salty enough, which is a shame because the toppings are outstanding. To go with it, Łomża Export is one of those Polish pale lagers: sweetish but with a prominent balancing bitterness. OK. For 9 PLN (about £2) more than OK.

Next door is the tap of the “craft” brewery AleBrowar. It looks like every other craft beer bar  everywhere, but with more Zs and Ws.

Lilt-flavoured grey meh
We start with a beer called “Be Like Mitch”. If more brewers were like Mitch, the world would be a better place. Fruity pineapple, clean bitterness, drinkable, not too extreme. “King of Hop” is excellent too: really good hop nose, intensely dank and bitter.

AleBrowar is perhaps best known for its IPA Rowing Jack, once called Poland’s best beer by Hector, who visits a lot (although the last time I spoke to him he’d since found a new favourite). I find it nice enough but not as outstanding as I’d been led to believe. The classical profile of caramel malt and resin is there, with a certain mintyness and a little diacetyl, so the end effect is a bit like drinking mint Werther’s Originals (is there even such a variety?).

Jesus Juice is their murky. It’s very unattractive pond water and the closest I’ve ever seen to a beer that was actually grey. The flavour is the usual Lilt with hops. Meh for this one.

A milk stout called “Sweet Cow” has a really weird smoke and mushrooms aroma and has to be swapped for a beer called “Roo Juice”. This has a really nice dank aroma with jasmine tea notes, dry and astringent. It is basically best bitter and one of the best on offer today.

At the end of my notes I have written that AleBrowar is the Polish equivalent of Sadler’s, but have no idea what I meant by that.

On to the next beer place, Morze Piwa Multitap, an oddly draughty place with the atmosphere of a theatre foyer.

Ziemia Obiecana Mini Dzordz, a “session New England IPA”, could be a nice glass of pineapple juice but is ruined by a strong, unpleasant flavour of burnt rubber. Przystanck Tiesi Kölsch also has a slight burnt rubber nose and a bit of marzipan, but otherwise is a surprisingly competent attempt at a Kölsch. We don’t stay here for another.

Our last stop before jumping back on the train is Beczka Chmielu, an empty beer bar where draught beers on offer are less fancy and perhaps that’s just as well. Zwiemyniec Pils is an OK lager but again lacking in hop flavour and aroma. But at least it has a head on it. Staropolski Porter Baltycki is 10.2% and full of liquorice flavour, nice and rather reminiscent of Courage Russian Stout.

PG4, Gdansk

The beer culture here has been gratifyingly good. “Craft” beer has been faster to make headway in Poland than in Germany, perhaps because there is more of a blank slate. Polish industrial pale lager is pretty grim, not quite as dull as British standard lager but notably worse than the big German brands. 

I was not expecting to find historic Polish beers such as Grodziskie or Jopenbier, at least not easily, and I didn’t. I did encounter an isolated bottle of Grodziskie, of all places, in the railway station shop in Sopot. At the moment, caught between the oceans of pale lager and IPA, the strong Polish porter is still the most distinctively Polish feature of the beer market here. I will look out for any of these whenever I see them.

But the revivalists are making progress. Our last stop is back in Gdansk at the relatively new brewpub PG4, right next to the railway station.

If AleBrowar is unabashedly American-influenced, PG4 is surprisingly German. I didn’t know it at the time, but the head brewer and the brew kit both come from Germany, which explains the beers they make here. It is a vast space over two floors plus a sunny terrace, and the beer is very nice. On the way to the toilets I count four 20HL conditioning tanks and five more of 10HL, from Caspary. There may be more.

The Pils has poor head formation and retention but is otherwise very nice: lemony menthol hops on the nose, full in body, bitter and sweet at the same time. Well above average.

There is even a Rauchbier which of course I have to try. Massive woody smoked-ham aroma, though the body is a little on the thin and empty side. While it is clearly modelled on Schlenkerla Märzen, it also has a pleasant treacley note that also crops up in those 10% Polish porters. “Makes me sad we’re not in Bamberg,” says J. Like-for-like, I think Schlenkerla is better, but I might swap an old bottle of it for a fresh glass of this.

The one beer with a Polish name is Starogdanskie (Old Gdansk) which is a wonderfully fresh and clean malty beer. Very sticky, in a good way, with toasty notes and a hazy orange colour.

Since our visit I have heard the brewer here is attempting to revive Jopenbier, so I am very curious about that.