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.