Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Golden Pint Awards: 2011 edition

Here we are again. I’m having a quiet Hogmanay this year with just a few selected bottles and it’s time between the mince pies and chimes of Big Ben to announce the winners of my Golden Pints.

My top choices are not the beers I’ve drunk or enjoyed the most this year (that would be Fyne Ales and Harviestoun, who won everything last year anyway). But they are beers that have stuck in my mind through being good, interesting or thought-provoking. I’ve deliberately chosen beers that I haven’t blogged about specifically, but are worthy of more attention than they’ve had.

UK Draught (Cask or Keg) Beer
Harvey’s Mild: possibly the perfect session ale, still packed with subtle flavour after three pints. I worry that old-fashioned, idiosyncratic beers like this suffer from being less immediately accessible than those lovely New World pale ales that taste of Um Bongo.

Runner-up: Belhaven IPA. Yes, yes, yes. Nobody is more surprised than me to be giving an award to a Belhaven beer. Most of their draught products are frankly dreadful, having lost any character they once had. This new IPA is not one I expected much of. The first pint, drunk out of a sense of duty, was alright, better than Greene King IPA. Subsequent pints were better, with the spiciness and sulphuriness that other ales from the brewery lack. At 3.8% it’s obviously intended to compete with Deuchars IPA and does a more than creditable job. It’s never going to be a flavour bomb at that gravity but is a very palatable session pint. And at least their pubs are starting to offer this instead of the ubiquitous Deuchars or Greene King IPA from the parent company, which, quite apart from its defects as a beer, always looks to me like an angel of death when I see it in Scotland, implying that the closure of Belhaven is coming closer.

UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Worthington Celebration Shield: although I only drank it once, it stood out from the crowd. Being strong, it’s rich and boozy, but also dry and minerally as a proper Pale Ale should be. Unique among all the beers I’ve tasted this year.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Haven’t drunk one … not one that stood up to those brewed in this country, anyway. With one exception: Stone Old Guardian barley wine, superb, oily and bitter. I have a lot of time for Stone. You don’t see Greg Koch going around shit-talking Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhardt.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
I don’t drink many of these either. As I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve, I’ll just put the last one I had: Odell 5 Barrel Pale Ale, which is fair enough as it’s a very nice beer. I like Odell beers; the problem is that they are too British to do well in the UK. You would think this would be an advantage, but as imports they are inevitably twice the price of a comparable local product.

Best Overall Beer
Tryst Nelson Sauvin Hop Trial. Tryst are a brewery I haven’t written about enough on this blog. Their beers can be inconsistent, but that means when they are poor they are merely good; when they are good they are spectacular. Nelson Sauvin Hop Trial is a beer I have ordered every time I’ve seen it this year, and each pint has been better than the last.

Best Pumpclip or Label
Nollaig, the seasonal beer from Williams Bros. The litre swing-top bottle looks so badass. The label is typographically superb, starkly beautiful so you don’t even notice it’s just white type on a black background. The beer is pretty good too, rich and chewy, a little on the sweet side with a marvellous dense head. There’s probably none left now. They will surely make it again.

Best UK Brewery
No award for this as it’s just not fair. There are so many good breweries now.  Can't think of it as a competition any more.

Best Overseas Brewery
Schlenkerla of Bamberg. I could quite happily drink their beer all the time. Märzen in summer and Bock in winter. Oh yeah. I know there are some people who don’t like Schlenkerla. I secretly subtract about 20% from the value I place on such people’s opinions about anything else.

Pub/Bar of the Year
For me, it has to be the Laurieston Bar. When they put on a cask of Fyne Ales Highlander for Glasgow Beer Week’s Cask Night, I had no idea that it would lead to them serving cask beer regularly. I certainly never expected it, but when I was in for a quick pint a few weeks later I was met with complaints that the brewery hadn’t been in touch to sell them any more beer! One thing led to another: after an interregnum of putting on a firkin at weekends, the pub now has two handpumps and at least one cask beer on all the time. Other places will always have a wider range of beer, but there’s nowhere cosier than the Laurieston for a few pints with friends.

Beer Festival of the Year
Alloa. I’ve been disappointed by the beer quality at a few festivals this year. Alloa was brilliant because it was held later in the year when the weather was starting to get colder. As a result there were no cooling issues and the beer was in spectacular condition. We also seem to have banished the spectre of toffee-flavoured dishwater masquerading as “traditional Scottish beer” at these things, with both brewers and drinkers moving to well-bittered, hoppy beers.

Supermarket of the Year
No award. Sainsbury’s might have been in with a chance if the staff in their stores had actually been told about the Beer Challenge they were ostensibly having. I don’t really buy beer in supermarkets anymore — it’s either in the pub, independent shops or homebrew.

Independent Retailer of the Year
After a couple of years in the doldrums, The Cave at Kelvinbridge has returned to form and now seems to stock everything they can get from James Clay. Pricing can be painful sometimes but that’s the price we pay for access to specialities.

Online Retailer of the Year
No award, simply because I haven’t bought any beer online this year.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
In a world in which a work as sub-standard and sloppily produced as the Oxford Companion to Beer can make it into bookstores, it seems wrong to give an award at all.

Best Beer Blog or Website
I’ve been impressed this year not just by how prolific Jeff Alworth of Beervana is, but how insightful his posts are. Runner-up is Adam’s blog Walking and Crawling, because he goes to places nobody else does and I really enjoy vicariously touring Scotland through him.

Best Beer Twitterer
This would have to be @ThornbridgeDom, just because his tweets make me chuckle.

Best Online Brewery presence
I can't remember the last time I went to a brewery website for information. But they are usually a good source of the type of "we use only the finest malt and hops" woffle that plagues brewery marketing. Twitter is where it’s at for breweries, and here Hardknott has developed a reputation that is out of all proportion to its size. Runner-up is Magic Rock for similar reasons: they’ve achieved coverage far beyond that which rivals of a similar size get.

In 2012 I’d Most Like To…
Drink more tasty beer in great pubs. And to see crappy beer ticking sites collapse under the weight of their own fucking idiocy.

Happy new year, folks!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Real ale at Tennent's, 1983

In 1983 Tennent’s launched a new cask beer. Tennent’s Times, the house paper of the company, reported thus on the trials in two pubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh:
Almost 18 months ago the Company re-introduced Draught Bass into a number of selected Managed Houses in Edinburgh as part of a test-marketing campaign in the cask-conditioned ale market. The success of the Edinburgh project brought about the re-introduction of the same product into a number of outlets in Glasgow and again the result has been a success.

Now as part of the overall exercise — and to consider all possible options — a new cask-conditioned ale, known as ‘Heriot Brewery Traditional 80/– Ale’ has appeared in Tennent’s Bar in Glasgow’s Byres Road. Brewed at Heriot, it has already been tasted — under the name of ‘Sheep Heid Inn Ale’ — in Edinburgh’s Sheep Heid Inn and was voted ‘a winner’.

Said Marketing Manager, Andy Lowe, “We recognise that the cask-conditioned sector of the market is very small at less than 2% of the entire Scottish market but we have to look at and consider all options, including brewing our own product in Scotland.

After all, Draught Bass is currently having to be shipped north and we would like to consider something brewed locally too.”
Note how cautious the article is. How the reader is repeatedly assured that this is just a test, just considering all options. They didn’t even want to put the Tennent’s name on it (it’s interesting to note that the same approach has been applied to the recent launch of Caledonia Best). Perhaps the project was not popular within the company. Unsurprising considering that they’d spent the previous twenty years eliminating cask beer from their pubs.

Here’s a young George Howell filling casks at Heriot. George is now Head Brewer at Belhaven.

The reluctance with which Tennent’s did this is palpable even 27 years later; next to the small two-column article reporting on the new beer, there is a larger opinion piece denouncing CAMRA. Relations were apparently less than good:
It’s always a very sad thing when people begin to exercise any kind of blind prejudice and particularly when that group is speaking on behalf of an obvious minority. No one denies anyone the right of protest or the right to try to expand the range of choice available to the consumer.

But what is offensive is when a small body begins to make unwarranted attacks upon a quality product which is already enjoyed by many people and one which has stood the test of almost 100 years of taste.

Yet that is what CAMRA in the West of Scotland has done in the recent weeks. They have made blind attacks on Tennent’s Lager on the basis, purely and simply, that they know best. They — a small group of misguided, albeit well-meaning individuals — have decided that Tennent’s Lager, enjoyed by millions throughout the world is not a top quality product!

And this comes from a group of individuals whose own spokesman was unable to tell Tennent’s Export Ale (brewery conditioned) from one of their so-called ‘real ales’ … and even admitted that he preferred Tennent’s Export!

CAMRA has a role to play and it plays that role very well in many parts of the country. However, it is doing itself no favours by ‘knocking’ other brews in a misguided fashion.

Better by far to promote cask-conditioned ale on its own merits, and let the public decide.


Two per cent of the market. I wonder what it is now after the growth in recent years? It’s probably still substantially lower than in England.

The Heriot Brewery was demolished in the 1990s, but the Sheep Heid Inn, which claims to be Scotland's oldest pub, is still going strong, is now pretty focussed on cask beer and apparently still had Sheep Heid Inn Ale brewed for them until recently.

Monday, 26 December 2011

The return of black cork

Inattentive readers with short memories may already have forgotten my post a few weeks ago about Black Cork, the lost Edinburgh beer that was the favoured pre-loading beverage of the villainous Deacon Brodie and his chums before they went out a-robbin’ of an evening. I argued that Black Cork was most probably a strong Scotch ale; “strong” in this particular historical context being 10% loopy juice, and not, as the name might suggest, a type of porter.

Now Edinburgh-based Knops Beer Company has revived the name and launched a new beer called Black Cork. It’s … a porter. This follows in the same vein of previous beers that pick up old beer names such as the previous Three Threads and Musselburgh Broke.

I had to go along to the launch at Edinburgh’s trendy Stockbridge Tap, because it was an opportunity to see the full Knops line-up on draught at once, and I’ll probably never get the chance again to tell a brewer that his beer isn’t a proper Black Cork at all (I’m not really bothered by this in the slightest. If I’ve learned anything from my research it’s that brewers will call any beer by any name if it will sell the stuff. It’s not like anyone living remembers the original black cork, which was only ever made by one brewery anyway).

Well, it’s porter. Coffee dominates with supporting chocolate. A surprising amount of fruitiness and an interesting damp-basement character. It’s easy to drink for its 6.2%. It has an underlying sweetness too, and the more you drink the easier it gets to drink. Dangerous.

I also try Knops IPA, which was launched some time ago but I’d never seen on draught before. It’s a fair bit sweeter than most of the beers I generally drink.  Nevertheless it grows on you; there’s a respectable hoppiness that becomes more noticeable the more you drink. Knops has aimed from the beginning to produce easy-drinking beers; the very idea might send beer geeks running screaming down to the Cowgate but the IPA and Black Cork certainly achieve what they set out to do. Beers that are approachable, yet have enough character to remain interesting over several pints.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A midwinter night’s dream in Partick

Depending on whom you listen to, the new Bruadar bar at Partick Cross is the best thing to happen for beer in Glasgow for years, or a flash in the pan that will be lucky to last six months.

The bar is in the premises last known as the Millhouse (which embarrassingly proclaimed itself “a great pub” on a sign outside. Erm, we’ll be the judge of that, thanks), the scene of several previous failed bar ventures. It’s the attempt by Fuller Thomson, operators of bars such as the Holyrood 9a in Edinburgh, to create a serious beer establishment in the west end of Glasgow. I’ve never been particularly impressed by the beer on offer in the Holyrood 9a the couple of times I’ve been there, so I was cautiously curious, albeit not wetting myself in anticipation.

Though announced to the public at very short notice, brewers like Williams Bros, Black Isle, Tempest and others have been happy to help out by supplying beer. Indeed the Williams brothers themselves, Bruce and Scott, had turned up for the opening to launch their kegged Profanity Stout.

First impressions were not great. Looking around and wondering where the handpumps were, it was a few moments before I twigged that the cask taps were mounted in the wall, Euston Tap-style, alongside the keg taps. Confusion ensued when I asked the bar staff what was available from cask—I was confidently assured that Profanity Stout was cask, as was 69 IPA from Lovibonds (a brewery who actually produce no cask beer whatsoever). Luckily my cynicism won out and I’d by now noticed the difference in the tap handles so could tell cask from keg. Still fumbling over which beer to try, I ordered Durham White Stout and got a shock when the half pint surprisingly came to £3. It was a strong beer and fairly good, but not worth that much. Fortunately this price point is not necessarily typical, with weaker quaffing beers even a little below the average for this part of town.

Still, these quibbles could be easily fixed with better signage (you have a blackboard, chalk the prices on it!) and when the staff get more experience.

I certainly didn’t let them spoil my night, as Glasgow’s contingent of beer nerds were arriving. We all crowded into a corner and joined brewery people from Williams and Black Isle for drink, burgers and chat.

What several people have been wondering is: is it a good idea to situate this new venture right next to one of the best-known real ale pubs in the city, the Three Judges? My answer is an unequivocal yes—it makes Partick Cross a real beer destination, worth crossing town for in the knowledge that if there’s nothing you fancy in one pub, or it’s full to bursting, you can always try the other.

Moaners will say “it’s not a traditional pub, though, is it?”, to which one can only point out that the weirdly fossilised pseudo-Victorian pub interiors favoured by pub companies are very much a historical aberration. Glasgow bars have often been refurbished in modern style, as the few remaining examples of 1930s art deco bars show. One thing I do find annoying is how loud the place is. It’s hard to hear yourself talk across the wide tables when even a few other customers are in. When it’s full it’ll be deafening.

How is the beer? 69 IPA’s deep, resiny harshness makes it an acquired taste, but I think I want to acquire it. Star of the show, though, was Tempest’s Into The Light, a pale ’n’ hoppy full of citrus flavours. Magic Rock’s Rapture was one of those hoppy red beers that I don’t normally like, but is well made.

Some of us were drinking keg, others cask, some both. Just as at Social Media Week’s beer tasting a few months ago, people are capable of enjoying the products of different brewing traditions without getting their knickers in a twist. Will Hawkes had an excellent piece on the Independent website last week which really hit the nail on the head about what’s going on in Scotland (and I’m not just saying that because he quoted me in it). Scottish brewers and drinkers are developing closer ties based on respect and a love of good beer. Suddenly it’s the sectarian Brewdog cult that looks out-of-touch and irrelevant. Everyone else is getting on great and having a good time.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Disher’s ale and Edinburgh United Breweries beers 1928–1933

Edinburgh United Breweries. Pretty much forgotten today. It was set up in the late nineteenth century to absorb several small breweries, among them Bell’s, sometime brewers of “black cork”, and Disher’s, famous for their strong ale.

Bell’s brewery on the Pleasance remained the brewery for the united concern. Here it can be seen in the background. Splendidly, the pub in the foreground is advertising Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale:

Picture courtesy of David Gordon of the Edinburgh shop Now and Then

Here's what the site looks like today. Hooray, the brewery building is still there!

View Larger Map

Now for some numbers. I don’t know for sure what kind of beer the 54/– to 80/– and the 6d and 8d beers were. Most likely Pale Ale, but I am not going to assume. As 210/– is ten guineas, I think we can take it that they were still making Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale up to the end. But look at the gravity of it and how it plummets by almost 20 gravity points in just five years. More happily, Jeffrey’s continued to brew it after they took over EUB in the 1930s and were still making Disher’s Extra Strong Ale at 1.088 in the 1950s.

Gravities of Edinburgh United Breweries beers, 1928–1933
Brewery Beer name Beer type OG Year
EUB 6d ? 1037 1928
EUB Mild ? 1033 1928
EUB 8d ? 1052 1928
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1103 1928
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1100 1929
EUB 54/– ? 1031 1929
EUB 80/– 1054 1929
EUB Exp St Stout 1055 1929
EUB 60/– ? 1036 1930
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1093 1930
EUB 54/– ? 1031 1930
EUB Mild Mild Ale 1032 1930
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1090 1930
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1089 1931
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1085 1932
EUB 54/– ? 1030 1933
EUB 60/– ? 1036 1933
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1082 1933
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1090 1933
EUB 60/– ? 1039 1933
EUB 60/– ? 1042 1933

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

On the trail of black cork

On Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, there is a pub called Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. If you are a 19 year old German or Spanish backpacker, you have probably been there. It is named after William Brodie, the 18th century cabinetmaker by day, robber by night whose double life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

But for his notorious trial, the beer once known as “black cork” might be altogether forgotten.

The account published as “Trial of W. Brodie and G. Smith”, in The Scots magazine, August 1788, tells us: “...they met in an upper room in Smith's house, and had some herrings, chickens, gin, and black cork, which last he explained to be Bell's beer…” (p. 371)

Later accounts appear also to be based on this version, and black cork remains a feature of the story, such as in The Trial of Deacon Brodie (1906): "Smith, Brown, and Ainslie were sitting in an upper room beguiling the time with a light refection of herrings and chicken, washed down by draughts of gin and “black cork”, i.e. Bell's beer." (p. 36)

Almost two hundred years later, Forbes Bramble can be found writing in The strange case of Deacon Brodie, 1976: “On the bare boards of the floor stood several bottles of Bell's ‘black cork’, thick, black ale more intoxicating than wine”. But this is not a contemporary source, and there is no reason to believe that Bramble hasn't just made a guess at what black cork was.

Bell's beer also appears by name in fiction, in The gaberlunzie's wallet by James Ballantine (1843):
“Talking of the fiddler, have ye heard any word of him lately,” inquired the Gaberlunzie. 
“No,” said Nanny, “ye ken I maunna be ower inquisitive. But sit ye in, there’s something will suit your Scotch stamack better nor French frogs; just eat awa there, and I’ll run ower the way to Bell's brewery, and get ye a pint o’ black cork to synd it doun wi.” 
The Gaberlunzie ate heartly of the savoury dish which Nanny placed before him, and thanked his stars he was at home once more.
So what was black cork? It sounds like it's a slang term for porter, doesn't it? That seems reasonable enough, as porter was at its most popular in the late 18th century, and black. And it appears significant that the beer was made by Bell's brewery, with no other being mentioned.

Could black cork have been porter? It seems the obvious answer, but contemporary sources suggest not. In an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, February 1820 (No. 35, Vol 6)  about food adulteration, widespread in England and described in great detail on the preceding pages, to which the author patriotically, if naïvely, fancies that Scottish foodstuffs are less liable, he praises the beer of Prestonpans and Edinburgh:
Uncontaminated by drugs, the porter of the Prestonpans brewery will still maintain the high reputation it has acquired; and share with Bell's ale an honourable, an extended, and a lucrative popularity.
So one beer is described as porter, and the other as ale. If they were both porter, wouldn't they be compared as such? In 1805 we also find Robert Forsyth describing Bell as a brewer of ale, so implicitly not porter (“The Beauties of Scotland Vol I”, pages 159-160, quoted in R Pattinson, “Scotland!”, p15):
Formerly a brewer, who had established his works in the southern district at the Pleasance, Mr Bell, was more celebrated than any other in Scotland for the preparation of malt liquor ; but his ale had the fault of being extremely intoxicating.

Another source also treats Bell’s beer and porter as different things. In Hugo Arnot, The history of Edinburgh: from the earliest accounts to the year 1780 (first published, as far as I can make out, in 1779, but I quote from the 1816 edition), we read:
“The Pleasance consists of one mean street; through it lies the principal road to London. There is nothing remarkable in this suburb except a large brewery, with spacious vaults, belonging to Mr Bell, where the best strong beer is made of any brewed for sale in Scotland. The quality of it is, indeed, so good, as to recommend itself to be purchased not only for home consumpt, but also for exportation.” (p251)
“The strong beer brewed in Edinburgh by Mr Bell, and its excellent quality, have already been spoke of. Porter is also brewed in Edinburgh: but it is a different liquor from London porter, and greatly inferior to it; accordingly, a considerable quantity of that liquor is annually imported from London.” (p267)
Bell’s is, we learn, strong beer, but the statement “Porter is also brewed in Edinburgh” immediately following implies that the beer previously mentioned is not porter.

David Loch, in his Essays on the trade, commerce, manufactures, and fisheries of Scotland (1778) had already noted the inferior quality of Edinburgh porter vis-a-vs London porter — or at least what was sold to the unwary as London. But specifically, he complains about the willingness of the Edinburgh public to accept watered-down London porter in place of the (in his view) perfectly adequate local product:
I have already acknowledged that we cannot, or at least do not, for reasons before accounted for, brew Porter so well here as they do in London; but I dare venture to say, there are many persons who make such Porter as might please any English palate; and a dose of patriotism mixed with it will make it also agreeable to the Scots. Out of a great number of eminent Porter brewers, I shall beg leave to mention the following:— Mr George Miller, St Ann’s yards; Mr James Hotchkiss, Grass-market; Mr Archibald Campbell, Cowgate; Messrs Gardener and Co, Goosedub; the Industrious Company, Edinburgh; and Messrs Cundell and Son, and Mr Matthew Comb at Leith.
I have formerly hinted, that the Porter drunk in our taverns and public-houses is not genuine London Porter, but adulterated with small beer. —This fact has been declared by Londoners themselves, and others well acquainted with its true taste. In short, there is hardly a tavern or public house in Edinburgh or Leith, where London Porter, as they call it, is kept, but at least one third of the bottle is small beer, though you pay fourpence and sixpence a bottle for this precious stuff.
… Whereas, good Scots Porter, without any adulteration, can be had at threepence a bottle, and excellent strong ale at the same price, at any public house in the town, both of which are better worth the money than the mixed trash drunk by hundreds of dozens in a day, in and about this metropolis.
Following his argument that Scottish brewers, blessed with lower malt duty and cheaper coal, should be able to compete easily with imported English beer were it not for the fashion for London Porter, he concludes:
“…we may be supplied with as good wholesome drink at home and at a cheaper rate than any we can import from England.
I could particularize many instances to prove the truth of this assertion, from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Leith and other places; but I shall confine myself to one at present; and that is, Mr Hugh Bell of this city. This gentleman occupies a most extensive brewery, and, without partiality to the manufactures of my own country, I may safely aver, that no brewer in Great Britain furnishes better malt liquors of the different kinds and prices than he does. His strong beer, or ale, known by the name of Bell’s Beer, is famed both at home and abroad. His small beer, too, is of an excellent quality, and, if properly managed, will keep twelve months, being but little inferior to that which is drunk here in public houses under the appellation of London Porter. Private families may be supplied with it, being good, wholesome drink, at a little more than a penny a bottle. Mr Bell has not yet attempted to brew Porter, his demands for different sorts of ale being very considerable.”
This seems quite clear. Loch lists a number of porter brewers, and explicitly mentions Hugh Bell as a brewer who does not make porter. If we were still to assume that black cork was porter, we would have to assume that Bell began brewing it at some point in the subsequent ten years and that Brodie and his chums began drinking it. Not an entirely impossible scenario, but probably less likely than black cork being Bell’s already famous strong ale.

There is a short article by Charles McMaster in the Scottish Brewing Archive Newsletter #17 which traces the most salient points in the history of Bell’s brewery, but doesn’t tell us an awful lot about the beer, except that it was a strong Scotch ale, though no evidence for this claim is presented. There is a rather odd description of Scotch ale as strong and dark; perhaps McMaster was conflating the dark beers produced as Scotch Ale in the 20th century for the Belgian market with the old-style Scotch ale described by both Roberts and Booth as exquisitely pale.

McMaster does tell us that the secret of brewing black cork died with its last brewer, Robert Keir, in 1837. I wonder how secret a beer recipe can really be, but it seems to have been accepted that the secret, whatever it was, was lost. It seems strange that a beer evidently well-known over a period of sixty years should just disappear, but there you go.

Sadly there are no records of the Bell’s brewery in the archives. The trail begins with Edinburgh United Breweries, who bought Bell's and some others in the late nineteenth century. But black cork was long since gone by then.

There are therefore no real successors to black cork in modern times. However, in 1933, shortly before EUB went into administration, they were brewing 54/– ale at an original gravity of 1030, 60/– at 1036 (though some brews of this went as high as 1042) and 210/– at 1090. This last ale was presumably the descendant of Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale which was praised (albeit in its own advertisements) in the 19th century as “the burgundy of Scotland”. It had already fallen in gravity from 1103 in 1928, so heaven knows how strong it had been in the 1800s. Perhaps that is, though certainly not a direct relation of black cork, the nearest known next of kin.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

New Scottish Brewing Archive Association website

After years of perching on a link three levels deep in a subdirectory at Glasgow University, the Scottish Brewing Archive Association now at last has its own website: The Association is a support and publicity network for the SBA: the Archive itself is tended by the professionals at the University’s Archive Services. The SBAA holds occasional events and publishes its Journal once or twice a year, which is well worth a read. New members are very welcome. Facebook users can also visit their page.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Well done

I saw this table talker in a pub at the weekend. Good to see a pub making the extra effort and having proper hand-pumped wi-fi.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

If you criticise the Oxford Companion to Beer, you’re a Nazi, says Protz

I was quite gobsmacked to read Roger Protz’s review of the Oxford Companion to Beer in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser. It’s mostly the same as the review posted on his web site a couple of weeks ago, but he has gone to the extra effort of including a newly written section attacking the book’s critics – 25% of the entire review is spent attacking Martyn Cornell and Alan McLeod.

When I criticised one of Roger’s articles in the Companion, he complained that I was condemning him in public for a piece that might have been edited. On the other hand, he is quite happy to pillory the critics of the book in the pages of the Morning Advertiser. I don’t know how many readers the Morning Advertiser has but I imagine it’s a bit more than the few hundred who follow me on Twitter. I’d be worried about the state of the pub industry if it weren’t.

Garrett Oliver has assured us that nobody is making any money off the Oxford Companion to Beer. In view of this I do ask myself exactly why old-guard beer writers are so eager to defame those who have raised criticisms of the book. Roger writes, rather immoderately: “In spite of this, the bloggerati have come piling in, damning the book and some saying it should be withdrawn. How they must wish they had been around in the 1930s when book-burning was in vogue.”

So there you have it. In Roger’s view, if you suggest that getting facts right is important, or that more robust editing might have eliminated a few howlers from the book, well, you might as well pull on your brown shirt and go sieg-heiling down the street.

Roger is on shaky ground when he accuses others of practices reminiscent of totalitarianism. It was his Speakwrite machine which set the record straight, after all, so now everyone knows that London brewery Barclay Perkins never existed

Roger lectures us: “It’s an established fact in publishing that most encyclopedias and dictionaries contain errors that are corrected for subsequent editions … Oxford University Press is a prestigious publisher and it will rapidly update the beer book.” I wonder how Roger thinks the OUP is going to correct the errors, if nobody points them out.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Beer at Whole Foods

When it comes to beer, Whole Foods has a lot to live up to. The chain is well known in the United States for its beer selection and not a few beer lovers have been watching closely for clues about what would be stocked in the Giffnock store which opened last week.
A relatively small area is given over to beer — one large chiller and a couple of shelves. This is not as stingy as it sounds because only premium products are stocked. Peroni and other “world beers” are about as downmarket as it gets.

There is very little that you can't get elsewhere in Glasgow, which is a bit disappointing, but it’s a solid selection with the complete range of bottled beers from Fyne, Inveralmond, Black Isle, Colonsay etc. For imports there are a few Belgian specialities, the mighty Schlenkerla Märzen, a few dull wheat beers and sixpacks of Anchor and Flying Dog.

Whole Foods is also surely the first supermarket in Scotland to sell draught beer. I wondered whether they would transplant this practice over from the US, and they have. You can buy a 1 litre flagon and get it partly filled from one of three draught beers — two keg and one cask. Partly filled? Yes, because (and readers with a knowledge of UK licensing laws will know what’s coming) 1.5 pints is the largest legal amount of draught beer that can be filled into a litre bottle. Two pints is just a bit too much to fit. One and a half pints leaves you with a large amount of headspace, which is bad news for the beer. Agitate the bottle on your way home and you've got a lot of foam and flat beer.

I bought one anyway and got it partly filled with West St Mungo. Thinking of the potential problems I opened it immediately I got home to enjoy the beer at its freshest (theoretically the beer could also get badly oxidised from running down the side of the bottle and being shaken about in transit). St Mungo is often served too fizzy at the brewery, so was just right for having some of the CO2 shaken out of it on the way. I drank half and put the rest in the fridge. When I came back to it a few hours later it was too flat to be enjoyable.

This is a shame, as it means that the ultimate in ecological off-sales, cycling home with beer in a refillable flagon, is a complete non-starter. You have to drive it away in the boot of a car with good suspension, negating any environmental benefit. Whole Foods really need to re-think this flagon.

Good on them for trying to sell cask-conditioned beer too, but I wouldn't like to speculate what sort of shape your cask ale will be in by the time you get to drink it. If you’re thinking of indulging in one of these flagons, probably best to drink the contents as soon as possible, rather than wait out the three days they claim it’ll last. In view of the poor keeping quality and probability of wastage, a lot of mugs like me will probably get a fill once and then go back to buying packaged beer.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Brewing with raw grain in Glasgow in the 1830s

The other day Ron had a post about Scottish brewers using unmalted grain in their beer.

While illegal during most of the 19th century, it did go on, as shown by this extract from a parliamentary enquiry. Who’s that being questioned by the Commissioners of Excise? Why, it’s Hugh Tennent himself, complaining about how the raw-grain brewers are ruining his business. 

Minutes Of Evidence taken before the Commissioners Of Excise Inquiry
at Glasgow.
Sir HENRY PARNELL, Bart, in the Chair.
Appendix No. 78.
23d November, 1833.
Mr. Hugh Tennent called in and examined.
In what business are you engaged ?—I am engaged in the brewing department in the neighbourhood of Glasgow.
The Commissioners will be happy to hear any communication you have to make ?—It has been the wish of some of the brewers here that the duty could be thrown on the beer altogether in place of the malt; at the same time we are aware there are objections to that in England, as there is so much private brewing; but I should think the revenue would be much better collected, and that there would be but little opportunity of fraud, if the duty were laid entirely on beer. At present there is a very great trade carried-on in this very town by the use of raw grain in the mash-tuns in the place of using barley malt, which they ought by law to do; there is a very great mixture of raw grain, and the regular brewer is not able to compete with the people who make use of this raw grain.
Does not it make a bad beer ?—It makes a brisk beer that will keep for a short time; they cannot make it in the summer months, for it will not keep; but if made from October till June, it will keep for several weeks.
Do not the consumers find out the difference ?—No; they get a cheap article, and that is a great matter now-a-days. If there can be no alteration of that kind I believe the respectable brewers here would wish very much, if the Government found it necessary by giving up the assessed taxes, that the duty should be laid again on beer—and I do not think it would be much felt by the community—a duty of 4s. or 5s. a barrel. The trade is completely destroyed by these people who use raw grain, and it would help to put it on a right footing again. 
What was the old duty ?—About 22d. upon the barrel of table and small-beer; 9s. 10d. upon the strong ale and porter; 9s. 10d. a barrel, and 1s. 10d. on the beer; but if Government thought proper to put on a present duty of 4s. or 5s. a barrel, I would propose it should be on all liquor; for before the law was altered they were in the habit of making very strong beer, and reducing it and selling it as porter, paying only the small-beer duty upon it, and the regular trade was very much injured by it; if there was an average duty on all beer made as strong, that would protect not only the revenue but the fair trader.
Have you any thing to suggest with regard to the regulations for collecting the malt duty? —No; I think the duty is very well collected here, so far as I have had an opportunity of seeing.
Is there no smuggling of malt ?—I think not: the regulations cannot be too strong, but I think they are as perfect almost as I can conceive them to be; at the same time we are desirous of every check that can be introduced to protect us against the smugglers. We are considerably engaged in the export to the East and West Indies and South America, and I will take the opportunity of mentioning that we feel a great competition from the Germans and Swedes in those markets, and especially in the South American market and the Havannah market, from the cheapness with which they bring forward liquor to those markets. We do not get any thing like the drawback of malt duty that we actually pay; on every barrel we get two bushels. Now I have just taken a note : there are two articles we ship to the West Indies and South America—a sort of beer and ale; on the beer, where we use eighty bushels in a small brewing, we get a drawback only of fifty-six, and on a brewing of ale of 126 bushels we get a drawback only of fifty-four; they allow just two bushels to the barrel of whatever strength we choose to make it—thus there is no allowance of drawback at all upon the hops: we pay a half per cent, duty upon the glass when we put it into bottles, and what we ship to the East Indies is in hogsheads, made generally of Dantzic wood, on which there is a heavy duty. I mention this last to shew the hardship under which we labour in competing with those persons in Sweden and Hamburgh and Bremen, that when they ship to these markets — they are free of all those duties we pay; it is cramping our export trade very much. In shipping the bottles we are charged a half per cent, on the glass, and a half per cent, upon the beer—whether the beer is in wood or in bottles, we pay a half per cent.; besides that, we are charged debenture, bond, and stamps—all together the charges come to a very considerable sum over and above what those foreigners are able to ship at from their own ports; in fact we are driven out of the Havannah market altogether by the competition, and that is a very extensive market. 
Would you have a considerable increase of business, if all these matters were adjusted properly ?—There is not a question of it; not only in Glasgow, but Liverpool and London, they are all suffering equally with ourselves.
In your view there would be a greater revenue collected from malt ?—Yes, in the first instance; but if we get a fair drawback on what we actually used it would come back to us again.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Only ever brewed in … oh, never mind

In their continuing mission to run once-respected beer brands into the ground, AB Inbev have decided to start brewing Beck’s Beer in St Louis for the US market.

No, local brewing is nothing new at all, but it is a massive fall from grace for Beck’s, which once tried to distinguish itself from all the brewed-under-licence lager brands by using the line ‘Only ever brewed in Bremen, Germany’.

I’ve never liked the beer, but I did always find it amazing in bars how people could be persuaded to pay significantly more than the price of a pint for a titchy half-pint bottle.

AdvertisingAge reports:
A-B InBev will move Beck's production for U.S. consumers to St. Louis by early next year. “We made this decision after talking extensively with our consumers, who tell us they aren't concerned about where the beer is produced as much as how it’s produced,” said Andy Goeler, VP-imports crafts and specialties, noting that the formula won't change.
Reassuring to know that, wherever it’s brewed, it will still be thin-tasting and lightstruck.

I have updated the Suckiness Index which now gives AB Inbev a distinct lead in the suckiness stakes.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A wasted opportunity

I am convinced that breweries do some things on purpose to make me look an idiot. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote, optimistically: “With both Tennent’s and McEwan’s now owned by companies for whom they – for the first time in several generations – are an important part of the business, I’d like to think that these formerly ubiquitous behemoths of Scottish brewing will find their way back to making really distinctive beers.

After Tennent’s escaped from the clutches of InBev, whose marketing team now specialise in floundering about launching failure after failure on the market, I hoped that we would see interesting new beers that capitalise on the brewery’s heritage. Reading about the launch of the new beer from Wellpark, it is as if they are deliberately mocking me.

The new beer, Caledonia Best, is a 3.2% “balanced” (i.e. hopless) ale to be served from nitro-keg. Does that sound familiar? It should do. Spot the difference.

The beer is an exact match in colour and ABV with the established Belhaven Best, which is one of the nastier liquids brewed in Scotland yet miraculously secures 37% of the draught ale market. Not only that, Tennent’s have matched the name and colour scheme as far as legally possible. It looks like one of the own-brand products you see in supermarkets with the package design made to resemble the market leader.

Owner C&C has set aside £1m to develop and market the stuff, so basically they've spent a fortune getting into the fastest contracting sector of the market: a market their principal rival already has all sewn up.

Apparently it’s taken five separate agencies to come up with this, as marketing mag The Drum reports:
JKR created the font and brand identity for the new product, while Multiply handled the point of sale and Newhaven will be the ad agency involved. MPG is the media buyer and Burt Greener Communications will handle PR.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Howard Street: the story of a pub and a grocery store

This post is only tangentially about beer; it’s mostly about a pub and a supermarket on the the same city-centre side street in Glasgow.

This was a branch of the Co-op, previously Somerfield. It finally closed last week. I don’t know what will come afterwards. The 1960s Aer Lingus building is looking very tatty these days and was earmarked to be demolished, though the plans for a hotel and retail development to replace it are pre-credit crunch, so who knows whether they will go ahead. We have a habit in Glasgow, even in good times, of demolishing buildings and leaving the vacant site for a while, say thirty or forty years, until someone figures out what to do with it.

What is planned to replace the supermarket. By the looks of things we'll
have better dressed junkies too. Image from Farrell & Clark

Ironically enough this tatty 1960s block replaced a previous Greek Thomson effort on the same site. To be fair, the Thomson building wasn’t one of his greatest, and the concrete office block was a handsome building in its time. My fascination with this store started when I found out how long it had been trading. It was like the retail equivalent of the brush that’s had three new heads and two new handles. Think about it; the business has been operating here longer than the actual building it’s in. It’s changed ownership too, several times. But until last week it was still in the same place selling groceries where it had been for 130 years.

Let’s jump to the other end of the street for a moment.

This is the Imperial Bar. It’s not much to look at from the outside, though there is some interesting stained glass and the carved wooden frontage appears to date from the 1930s. More interesting is that there appears to have been a drinking shop on this site continuously for at least 150 years.

In 1850 George Malcolm was trading as a “spirit dealer”, in the language used at the time, at 14 Howard Street. By 1851 he appears to have moved down to No. 6 and has acquired an “& Co.”

Mrs G. Malcolm (possibly George’s widow?), was a spirit dealer at 6 Howard Street in 1857. The shop at No. 14 was occupied by J. McCulloch, a tea merchant.

In 1876–77, JB Turner is trading as a spirit dealer at No. 6. Cooper & Co are a tea merchant at No. 12.

Eighteen years later in 1894, Turner’s still trading in the same place. Cooper & Co., tea merchants, have expanded to occupy No. 8, 20 and 22.

By 1902 some well-known names had moved in: Coopers have expanded further to take on No. 28 as well, and Lipton, a rival tea merchant and grocer at No. 2 on the corner of Jamaica St. A. G. Malcolm is listed at No. 4. A descendant of George and Mrs. George?

1904 4-6 Turner. Cooper & Co have opened a café at 30-32. Blackwood & Co at 36-38.

By 1907 Turner’s over thirty-year occupation of the shop is over. No. 4 has a new occupant, James Maitland. Possibly he was related to one or both of William Maitland, a wine and spirit dealer in Wallace St, Tradeston, or Archibald Maitland who had plied the same trade at 171 Cowcaddens, fifty years earlier.

Cooper & Co already occupy a good chunk of the block, at 8, 38, 36–38 with their café at 30–32. The Lorne Restaurant, another famous Glasgow boozer which can be seen on one of the photos below, is also present by this time. Today it trades as Hootenanny.

Cooper’s did very well and by the time the 1960s rolled around it had grown into a successful chain of supermarkets.

Maitland didn’t end up with a chain of pubs, but the pub stayed in the family through the better part of a century. It’s still listed as Maitland’s in the Post Office directory of 1973-4. I don’t know when exactly it changed its name to the Imperial Bar but it must have been in the late 1970s or as late as the mid 80s.

Cooper’s operating as a supermarket, still in the Greek Thomson building in 1964.
By 1966 the west side of the supermarket has been replaced by a modern 1960s building.

Then the east side was also replaced

When Coopers merged with Fine Fare it was presumably the same sort of consolidation that affected the brewing industry in the 1960s. It didn’t stop there. Fine Fare became Gateway which became Somerfield before the store was eventually sold to the Co-op.

Looking west down the street:

Maitland’s can just about be seen next door to Coopers and Ross’s Dairy is on the corner

Looking west today, the block with the Imperial Bar is the only constant

Let’s have a look from the other end of the street, the corner of Jamaica St.
We can sort of see a bit of the pub frontage in this 1930 picture
By 1939 the corner building was Ross’s Dairy and tea-room.

By 1961 surprisingly little has changed except the cars. We still can’t see the front of the pub very well.

Today the Imperial is a typical old pub that still sells McEwan’s-branded beers. I’d wager it’s done so ever since 1960 when Scottish Brewers swallowed up T & J Bernard, the Edinburgh brewery which had owned the property and rented it to the Maitlands for decades. In February 1958 James Maitland wrote to Bernard’s as follows:

Dear Sirs,
As you know, my Father was your tenant at the premises at 6 Howard Street, Glasgow, from October 1906 and that I succeeded to the tenancy on his death. Originally Father had a lease but for many years now the tenancy has been on a yearly basis.
While I have the assurance of your present mangement [sic] that there is no intention of disturbing the existing arrangement and have every confidence in that assurance, I feel that the present arrangement is somewhat unbusiness like and of course liable to give rise to anxieties in the event of changes of management. Under the circumstances I should be glad to learn that you would be prepared to grant me a Lease of the premises for say 10 or 15 years. Should you prefer it I should be most willing to consider purchasing the property and if a sale is in your mind I should be glad to have your views as to the price.
Once you have had an opportunity of considering the matter I should be glad to hear from you.
Yours faithfully, James C. Maitland.

Bernard’s did not have a sale in mind; they had in 1954 refused an approach from a third party who was interested in purchasing the whole property together with the adjoining Ross’s Dairy. But they did agree to give Maitland a 10-year lease, “subject to the usual conditions”. At the time, the pub comprised a public bar, two sitting-rooms and a cellar. Today it’s open plan, but it’s not a big pub, so the sitting-rooms must have been quite small, what we would call a snug.

James Maitland was evidently a confident negotiator and talked the brewery into removing a clause in the standard agreement which would have forbidden him from holding any other licences. His position strengthened by having a secure lease, he approached the brewery again in December the same year for help with repairs to the floor of the pub, which had been damaged by wet rot. Bernard’s agreed to pay half the cost. As the repairs cost roughly half his annual rent, Maitland was recorded as being very pleased with the settlement.

What beer might James Maitland have sold? Funny you should ask that:

T & J Bernard beers in 1958
Trade nameBrewery nameOGFG
Strong AleStrong10671021
Double Brown AleD.B.Ale10431013
Special ExportSp Exp10431012
No. 3Pale 1/110311010
No. 2Pale 1/210361011
Special No. 1Pale 1/410461013

Don’t take these as gospel yet; the range isn't complete. I haven't looked at the grists in detail but No. 2 and No. 3 are the two main draught beers and they are very different. No 2 has maize flakes, invert sugar and Avona, which I guess is some sort of proprietary sugar, while No. 3 has maize grits and all invert sugar. And ten times as much black malt. And No. 3, the weaker beer, has 50% more hops. But more on Bernard beers soon.

In this 1946 image, frustratingly, the pub is just out of shot on the right. But I like to think the casks are empties just collected from Maitland’s. By the look of them, they are barrels, or even hogsheads.

One last pub-related bit of trivia: in the city’s West End (genuinely in the West End, that is: west of the river Kelvin) is a bar which was also once a Cooper’s store. It must have been one of the earliest outposts of the empire as it was already there in 1904 shortly after Kelvinbridge railway station opened. After operating for years as Chimmy Chunga’s and Bar Oz, it now trades under the name Cooper’s once again.

I couldn’t have written this without the images from the Virtual Mitchell, and as ever the Scottish Brewing Archive.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Oxford Companion to Beer: wait for the second edition

To lay people, the Oxford University Press is possibly one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, is undoubtedly one of the most well-known, charismatic and articulate brewers in the United States, and is also gaining a higher profile everywhere where people are taking a greater interest in beer.

So it was a big deal when OUP announced the forthcoming publication of the Oxford Companion to Beer, described as “an absolutely indispensable volume for everyone who loves beer as well as all beverage professionals”.

The book has been received with something approaching rapture in the media, described variously as “a book every beer lover must have” and “the world’s most comprehensive book on beer, to date”.

It’s a good-looking book: the deliciously legible Adobe Minion is very readable on the smooth, creamy paper. The spine looks flimsy but appears designed to flex rather than crack with repeated reading. I understand it has already sold out its first and second printings, meaning tens of thousands of copies will be thumbed and taken as authoritative in beer discourse for years to come. Dozens of respected beer authorities, and, unnervingly, the odd beer fantasy peddler, have contributed entries on subjects ranging from amylase (enzymes which convert starch to sugar) to Zentner (unit of weight for bulk hops).

There’s even an entry on aphids. Their potential to ruin hop crops notwithstanding, perhaps this entry at the beginning of the alphabet reflects early ambition for the book to be even more comprehensive than the finished version. But in view of the number of substantial topics which have been passed over, the inclusion of topics on tangential interest often seems bizarre: how many beers really include mint, or nutmeg? Is the old tradition of wassail notable enough for half a page? There is a bizarrely short article on stout, a quarter of the length of the one on cheese. This latter can be explained as an eminently forgivable piece of whimsy on the part of the Editor-in-Chief, whose passion for cheese is evidently on a par with his love of beer.

Manhattan, manioc, but not malt liquor. It’s a shame the latter is omitted; a very old term which, in Britain, once referred to all fermented malt beverages. Such a term was necessary when people still needed to distinguish between heavily-hopped Beer and lightly-hopped Ale. Nowadays the expression is extinct in Britain, but has gained a new lease of life in America where it refers exclusively to high-strength lager made with a large proportion of adjuncts.

Any book of this size will contain errors, and there are plenty of small mistakes, of the type one would expect: there is no town of Kulmbacher in Germany (it’s Kulmbach; Kulmbacher denotes something from Kulmbach, as Pilsener is something from Pilsen), nor was there ever a “Scottish & Newcastle Brewery”. The picture caption that claims “mashing out” is the term used for removing spent grain from the mash tun is a howler, though. Löwenbräu does not mean “lion’s brew”, it means “the brewer at the sign of the lion”; and so on. Keith Villa moves the foundation of Belgium back in time to the Middle Ages in the article on witbier (and devotes a suspicious, though arguably legitimate, amount of space to his own take on the style, Blue Moon). In an otherwise decent piece on coaching inns, Roger Protz writes the 174 years of independent existence of the London brewery Barclay Perkins out of history and has its merger with neighbour Courage take place in the late 18th century rather than the late 20th century it actually was. These do not spoil the narrative too much in themselves, but one wonders how errors like these, which betray a lack of fact-checking, ever got into an ostensibly authoritative work on beer in the first place.

One might also quibble with the chosen style which renders Pilsner, Altbier and Kölsch in lower case; even two formerly venerable Kulmbach breweries are named sandlerbräu and reichelbräu. But these can be placed alongside other minor annoyances, such as the lazy American use of “ale” to describe all top-fermenting beers, which occurs throughout, depending on author.

The entry on “ale” itself does sketch some of the problems with this usage; however, the article implies that it is now generally accepted, which is true only in the United States. This is a shame, since it misses an opportunity to tell the full story of how the meaning of the term has shifted over time.

An overly short section in this article comes close to suggesting that pale ale and brown ale have existed in their current forms in England since the 16th century; judicious editing could have given us a more succinct and clearer description of the way the word “ale” has been understood in different times and places. We learn that ale in Britain originally meant the unhopped beverage, distinct from the Flemish hopped “beer”, and the article on Britain repeats this, but we are not told that although the ale-brewers eventually started putting hops in their brew, ale and beer still continued side by side as distinct malt liquors, ale being lightly hopped and beer more heavily so; a distinction crucial to understanding British beer even today.

What happens when such an understanding is lacking? Well, you get a piece like Val Peacock’s piece on English hops, which conflates beer with ale and repeats the canard (refuted by Martyn Cornell) that Henry VIII “banned hops”. You get the confused and woffling piece on brown ale, which describes mild as a variant of the same. Certainly, not a few British breweries once took the short cut of bottling their mild as brown ale; but the types have completely different origins and generally enjoyed a (mostly) separate existence. The naive reader is left with the impression that any top-fermenting beer which happens to be brown can be called brown ale; we learn that Altbier, dubbel and oud bruin are “rarely referred to” as such, but not why they are not: because they come from different brewing traditions and the people who actually brew and drink them don’t think of them as “brown ale”.

When it comes to pale ale, the same problem arises. Terry Foster manages to leave the reader more confused than when he started. Belgian pale ales are mentioned, but since he does not mention any by name, it is difficult to figure out which beers he is talking about. “Pale ale originated as a catch-all term for any top-fermented beer that was not dark”, he claims. It would be more accurate to say the term has been increasingly misused for that purpose since the 1990s. We are missing a crucial bit of information: that pale ale is (along with Porter and Ale) one of the major strands in the British brewing tradition and those derived from it; again, it doesn’t just refer to any old top-fermented beer that is light-coloured.

One kind of beer that definitely is a Pale Ale, albeit in a degenerate form, is not mentioned but gets an entry to itself: “Irish red ale”, which at least admits “the term is rarely heard in Ireland”, though the entry could still benefit from heavier usage of words such as “supposedly” and “alleged”. It is amusing to note that one popular brand of “Irish red” in Ireland is — Bass brewed in Glasgow. Glenn A Payne’s general article on Irish beer is so jam-packed with information that one can only hope it is all accurate, since the sheer density of factoids is a deterrent to checking their veracity.

Scotland fares worse than Ireland. Some incredibly inaccurate things have been said before about the subject, but Horst Dornbusch has produced the most egregiously wrong claptrap ever written about Scottish beer. In a long and confused article on the shilling system, which would bewilder the naive reader even if the information contained in it were correct, terms like “wee heavy”, “twopenny” and “80/–” are thrown about seemingly at random. 60/–, a low-gravity beer derived from 20th century Pale Ales, is conflated with Two-penny, a beer from a different historical period which hasn’t existed in any meaningful sense since 1802. The shilling system is described as unique to Scotland, which it wasn’t. We are treated to a detailed description of the beers that American homebrewers create under the name of Scottish or Scotch ales, but little more than fantasies about the beers actually brewed in Scotland.

Dornbusch doesn’t know what heavy is. He thinks it’s a strong ale brewed exclusively from the first runnings of a mash. This alone ought to have disqualified him from writing the article on Scotland. However, at least he brands the drivel about Scottish beer being made with peated malt as the legend that it is; though we can probably be grateful for that to the late Greg Noonan, whose book Scotch Ale Dornbusch uses as his sole source.

Tim Hampson, who should know better, tells us in the entry on drinking vessels: “In Scotland, strong Scotch ales are sometimes served in a pint-sized tulip glass known as a thistle, named after the Scottish national flower... ” Replace “sometimes” with “never” and you’d be accurate. Scotland gets a raw deal in general: the air pressure dispense system has no entry, although every other common dispense system does (it should be noted that air pressure was not only standard practice in Scotland, but also in what was then Czechoslovakia). There is an article on “wee heavy”, i.e. the beer that Americans think the Scots drink, but none on “heavy”, the beer they actually drink (or, since we are being sticklers for accuracy, the one they drank a generation ago).

Dornbusch is no better on German beer. In one entry, in which he quotes three articles from his own website as sources, he places Franconia in “central Bavaria” (it is in the north). One can only guess how reliable the rest of the information is. This uncertainty spoils the whole narrative of his piece on Germany, as one is never quite sure which parts are true and which are invented, and the final assertion that German beer today is in as poor a state as American beer in the 1970s is laughable. It does, however, fit in with the rather sinister sub-text expressed in several places in the book: that Old Europe’s brewing is stagnant and needs rescued by “craft brewers”.

The cod history of Kölsch produced by Karl-Ullrich Heyse reads like it was copied off the back of a beer bottle. No doubt the marketing departments of Cologne’s breweries would like us to believe that “the history of kölsch goes back to the year 874 AD”. It’s complete rubbish, as Cologne has had a long history of brewing ranging from early “red” beers, gruit beers and hopped beers, jumping in the 19th and 20th centuries from top-fermentation to bottom-fermentation, and only within living memory back again.

By the early 1900s the city was dominated by bottom-fermenting beer with top-fermenting beer the speciality of tiny brewpubs. In the 1920s the proportion of top-fermenting beer was in single figures. The triumph of what we now know as Kölsch took place in the 1950s and 1960s, when largely due to the efforts of Hans Sion of the Sion brewery, Kölsch was reinvented as the ubiquitous beverage of the city with its market share rocketing from around a third to over 90%. This remarkable story of the Kölsch revival is not mentioned, sadly, for it deserves to be more widely known. It would be, after all, a splendid case study for the self-same marketing people.

Conrad Seidl, in one of several competent and informed articles, says pretty much all that needs to be said on the subject of German Pilsner beer. Unfortunately his article is immediately followed by Dornbusch woffling on about Germany, and one is left wishing that Seidl had been asked to write it all.

The book includes a surprisingly vast amount of information on hard-core brewing technology, including such packaging practices as “jetting”, and one fears that such articles may be too esoteric for the beer drinker, but too simplistic for any brewer who needs to know about the subject. The parti-gyling entry is too short, garbled and not much use unless one already understands the basic principles. However, at least it countenances that worts may be blended, in contrast to the peculiar idea expressed several times elsewhere that parti-gyling just means making one beer from the first runnings, another from the second runnings, etc. Similarly disappointingly, a mere quarter of a page is devoted to the fascinating subject of priming sugar, and barely scratches the surface.

Garrett Oliver’s own breezy writing style contrasts with the drier prose of the other authors who write on the technical side of brewing, which is no real surprise. It is a relief to see a name like Bamforth or Stempfl underneath an article and know that the information therein is reliable … until the dreadful suspicion arises that perhaps it has been mucked about with later. One certainly hopes that the technical articles are more scrupulously reviewed than the historical ones evidently were; after all, if you can’t trust Charlie Bamforth to get things right, who can you trust? — but the layman has no way of knowing.

In general (and perhaps inevitably given the target market for a book in English of this nature), most entries are heavily skewed to the Anglo-American view of things – and American more so than Anglo. Thus brewpubs, a vital part of the American beer renaissance (over half of currently operating American breweries are brewpubs), are also credited with more importance than they really deserve in the British real-ale revival (which is not to diminish the efforts of David Bruce and others), yet the huge array of brewpubs in Germany and other countries are barely mentioned.

It may have been in an effort to achieve a level of objectivity that contributors appear to have been asked to write about countries other than their own: thus we have Tim Hampson writing about German rye beer, Roger Protz on Czech lager, Horst Dornbusch on Scottish beer, Pete Brown on Prohibition. I am not sure this was such a good idea; an extended peer-review process might have been better for clarifying crucial points and eliminating subconscious bias. Those articles from the horse’s mouth such as Keith Villa on his own creation, Blue Moon, are much more successful.

Matthew Brynildson of Firestone Walker uses a third of the space devoted to the Burton Union fermentation system to present the oak fermentation system at his own brewery; this subject, interesting in its own right, should be somewhere else, as the set-up at Firestone Walker does not share the essential characteristics of the true Burton Union: that cleansed beer flows back into the casks, leaving fresh yeast for harvesting. It’s a shame that Brynildson did not get the chance to discuss the Firestone Union in a separate article, since it is apparently unique even in the hugely diverse brewing landscape of the United States.

Poking around in the book, as one does in a volume of this size and in fact as one is encouraged to do by the editor, one often wishes that Oliver had been more heavy-handed with the red pen. Contributors get to promote their own hobby horses at will and often contradict each other; thus we find Pete Brown defending weak British session-strength IPAs as a legitimate branch of the family, while elsewhere Tim Hampson dismisses one such, Deuchars IPA, as not an IPA at all. Mark Dorber uses a disproportionate amount of his short article on “real ale” to vent his frustration at the more bone-headed members of the Campaign for Real Ale who reject cask breathers on principle; this criticism (irrespective of its merits) is also brought up in the entry on CAMRA and in the one on cask breathers themselves, which seems a bit over the top for an argument that in actuality is dead and buried, at least in the UK. On the other hand, the much more intense debate on whether CAMRA should accept or promote kegged beer is not mentioned, for which we can perhaps be grateful in the short term.

Other redundant sections appear several times over: for example, three separate articles bemoan the supposed reluctance of American consumers to buy returnable beer bottles. The decision to have separate articles for bottles, bottling and bottle sizes seems odd in itself; Martyn Cornell’s meagre half page on bottle sizes could have benefited from being longer and including more details of common bottle sizes around the world, and some illustrations of bottles might be more useful to the reader than the photograph of a 1910-era bottling line. The phenomenon of one article contradicting another comes to a head here, with Dornbusch/Oliver asserting, wrongly, that the imperial pint remains a common size in the UK, only to have Cornell refute this further down the same page.

Pete Brown’s long and reasonably balanced piece on Britain (there is a separate article on Scotland, but none on England as such) has only one serious deficiency, when he misses out the long reign of mild ale as the drink of the working class in the 19th and 20th centuries – which is a shame because his writing is otherwise some of the most careful and meticulous in the book. If every contribution in this tome were up to the standard of Brown’s magnificent IPA article, it would be a worthwhile investment.

Ian Hornsey’s article on the English pub is heavy on history and has too little on the distinctive culture and etiquette of the pub. Presumably there are no pubs in Scotland; actually a discussion of the difference between English pubs and Scottish dram-shops could be interesting, but alas there is no room for it. It ends on a melancholy note which implies the pub (as opposed to the contemporary “bar and kitchen” type establishment) is in terminal decline. Only time will tell whether he is right. One feature of the pub which has vanished, but might have been worth mentioning, was class segregation of the pub, as seen in the common separation of public bar and lounge: this phenomenon is something of which younger drinkers today are often completely unaware.

No book however weighty can possibly cover every brewery that exists, but one is forced to the conclusion that the selection has been made to cover topics of interest to American beer nerds. So Traquair House is mentioned, but not Tennent’s. Of other Scottish breweries, a short, dull piece tells when Belhaven was built and who now owns it (a further snub to Wellpark is that Belhaven, established 160 years later, is named as the oldest brewery in Scotland), and an entry on Caledonian focuses on its changing ownership with just a few words about its beer. Russian River, on the other hand, is a tiny US brewery that makes some very good beer but, as far as I can tell, is not particularly more notable than hundreds of other breweries either for its past or its present. It is included presumably because it is so revered by a small number of people that they would howl in outrage if it were not. Does Boddington’s deserve a mention? Since it is sold in the US in huge quantities in widget cans, it seems it does.

Several European beers are described with the British term “session beers” despite there being no entry for that term in the book. One cannot help wondering whether the absence of an entry on the topic is a wise decision or a cowardly one, given the heat that is inevitably brought to this argument by those determined to apply it to beers of 5, 6, even 7% alcohol, rather than the “under 4%” generally accepted in Britain.

There is progress. Even Dornbusch no longer claims that Mumme and Broyhan were the same thing, as he once did (they were extinct north German beers, neither of which gets an article, and as different from each other as beers can be, Broyhan being light, pale and highly carbonated, and Mumme thick, treacly and barely attenuated). And some long-standing beer myths are rejected or at least called into question. The ale-conners-sat-in-puddles-of-beer story is, at last, treated as legend rather than fact, and Hodgson and Harwood are no longer feted as the “inventors” of India pale ale and of porter respectively, as they were for so long in beer literature. In the long and rambling entry on porter we get half a page retelling the story of how Harwood invented entire butt to replace three-threads, before the author rather grudgingly admits the tale is “probably” not true. Unfortunately, later in the same article there is a spectacular piece of Dornbuschian revisionism which implies that the term “Baltic porter” dates from the period when British brewers exported porter to the Baltic, rather than being a retrospective term coined by Michael Jackson, who in the 1980s needed to find a name for the locally-brewed descendants of those beers. Pure invention is also the notion that Victorian England had an upper-class drink called “robust porter”; it almost certainly originates with early beer style guidelines for the American Homebrewers Association, not with the Victorians – the American beer writer Stan Hieronymus has been kind enough to verify that the Great American Beer Festival did not distinguish between “brown” and “robust” porter until 1995.

Nevertheless, there is some very good stuff in the book: for one, Oliver’s own eminently sensible article on the concept of beer styles. With the words “The great musician does not resent the sheet music; the great baker does not resent the baguette”, he neatly encapsulates the joy of brewing in the discipline of a well-defined idiom and defends the notion that a beer style, to be any use, should actually mean something. But he really comes into his own when describing the flavours of beer; in the article on Belgium his prose, Jacksonesque at its best, describes beer in such detail you can almost taste it: “Wonderfully complex aromatics, very high carbonation, attendant voluminous rocky foam, and a scintillating pinprick mousse on the tongue.”

There is valuable information in the Companion, lots of it. But as the layman cannot be expected to distinguish the valuable, accurate stuff from the nonsense, the presence of the latter devalues the whole volume. Some of the genuine experts who have contributed might rightfully be annoyed at having their own works printed along the large gobs of poorly researched hack work.

Is all this important? Well, yes it is. The buyer who’s forking out £35 in the belief that he’s getting the most authoritative book possible on beer is being had. It’s foolhardy in the extreme to suggest that errors can be fixed later: they’re in the wild now and will reproduce.

Jeff Evans, for example, says in his own review of the Companion, “There are some books you trust more than others, certain writers you know you can rely on to deliver accurate facts.  When you write about beer as much as I do, it’s important to know who these people are and which are the books you can turn to to check obscure details, bolster failing memory or provide a genuine insight into some arcane aspect of the brewing process.” So even people like Jeff who themselves are regarded as experts will be using this flawed volume as a source for years to come, perpetuating all the errors that it contains.

So many questions remain. Why there is an entry for leichtes Weissbier (competently enough written by Schneider Weisse brewer Hans-Peter Drexler) but none for any other Leicht beer? Do we really need an article on beer labels that tells us such insultingly basic information as that labels “are attached to various parts of the bottle, most commonly the front”? Are we actually looking at a finished book at all, or has it been rushed out in time for Christmas?

Garrett Oliver writes in his foreword that he hopes the Companion will not be the last book of its kind. I hope so too. Beer lovers deserve better than this.