Thursday, 29 March 2012

Duty may put future of Mather’s Black Beer in jeopardy

The Budget, in addition to retaining the notorious duty escalator, also removed a duty exemption which could possibly threaten the survival of one of the oldest beers made in Britain ( I am grateful to Matt for pointing out this change).

Mather’s Black Beer is the last remaining British survivor of a category of beer known as “black or spruce beer” in the language of tax specialists. Its distinguishing features are extreme syrupiness, a huge original gravity of over 1.200, and its dark colour. The name spruce beer derives from spruce tips that were once used to flavour beer, though as far as I know Mather’s doesn’t use those any more, if it ever did.

Black (“or spruce”) beer was once more common. In colonial times seafarers had to make beer from whatever ingredients were available such as spruce tips and molasses, and it is one of the foodstuffs Captain Cook used to prevent his crew getting scurvy. The once renowned Brunswick Mumme belongs to the same general category of thick, syrupy beers, and the seafaring connection is surely not a coincidence.

(Mumme was once praised as “a safe and speedy remedy, to remove the unnatural heat of the stomach, and giddiness in the head, contracted / by drinking French Brandy.” So you allegedly could get pissed on French brandy, and then sober up by drinking mum. Wonder how efficacious that was?)

There has been an exemption for “black or spruce beer” in the UK since the 1930s when beer duty was hiked up dramatically. Black beer got off the hook because it was regarded as medicine.

According to this story in the Daily Telegraph, the producers of Mather’s, Continental Wine & Food of Yorkshire, are concerned that the effect of the budget will double the price of a bottle. If this causes a dramatic drop in sales, the product may cease to be commercially viable. CWF already sell just 35,000 bottles a year, mostly to elderly people in Yorkshire.

CWF have an interest in exaggerating the danger, of course, but if true it’s a terrible shame that a type of beer with such a long history should be on the verge of extinction. If it came from America and cost £6 a third in the Rake, beer geeks would be all over it. I have drunk a few very strong and under-attenuated imperial stouts which reminded me of Mather’s more than anything else.

Apparently the exemption is to be removed to “simplify” the tax regime, and black (“or spruce”) beer will henceforth be treated like any other beer of 8.5% abv. This levels the playing field and is therefore beneficial to competition, say the government’s experts.

The last remaining example of a type of beer that’s been made since the Middle Ages — I can’t see how driving that into extinction is good for competition. The next time the ministers of the current government start going on about defending English heritage from EU interference, remind them how they did their best to kill off a beer that Captain Cook drank.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Let me get this straight

I noticed this story in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser:
The industry’s first draught vodka has been launched to speed up service and cut down on waste.
Vodka One – crafted and five-times distilled in the US, and distributed in the UK by Hi-Spirits – is dispensed by a font that delivers 25ml or 35ml shots at 1°C in just one second.
Hi-Spirits chairman Jeremy Hill said the font provides licensees the option not just to offer standard ‘vodka & mixer’ drinks, but also super-cold vodka shots and drinks such as Gimlets and Mini-Martinis. He said: “Vodka One has been shown to dramatically reduce serve time to the customer, not least because it’s a single-handed operation, allowing mixers to be added at the same time.”

So, if I have understood correctly, we are ostensibly reducing the strength of beer and hiking up the duty on it to combat binge drinking.

And at the same time, we are introducing draught vodka, so that bars can sell more vodka, faster.

Uh huh.

Friday, 16 March 2012

English Oil

Again and again I find it staggering how familiar the intelligentsia of the eighteenth century was with foreign beer. 

I’ve seen several references in old German texts to something called Englisch Oel or “English Oil”.

Englisch Oel is the nickname that was given to English ale imported to Germany around the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century.

Magazin für die Literatur des Auslandes”, Berlin, in 1856 quotes a manuscript supposedly written at the beginning of the seventeenth century about the habits of the English (unfortunately no more exact date is given):
“To drink they use mostly beer, which in that land is brewed and is also exported in large quantities. But it is brewed nowhere better than at Ochsenfort [Oxford?]. They have a kind which they call englisch Oel, … when it is brought in a jug which is stopped fast, it expels the cork with such a retort, that one thinks a gun has gone off. They like to praise the English beer in the highest, but in my view it is rarely deserving of such praise.”
It is mentioned in August von Kotzebue’s play Menschenhass und Reue (though the English rendition as The Stranger just says “Fetch us some ale”), and in 1801 the Jahrbücher der preußischen Monarchie can be found bemoaning that “the brewing trade in the towns has been universally suffering for 50 years due to the consumption of foreign beverages, tea, coffee, wine, Englisch Öl, etc.”

A lexicon of 1813 tells us it was “a strong beer of pale yellow colour, brewed in England (at Burton), which is more important to the Englishman than anything else. It is imitated very well in Germany too (Hamburg, Altona, Lüneburg etc.), but incorrectly called English oil.”

As late as 1860 the term still seems to be in use:
“The complete opposite of porter is the ale that is brewed in England or Scotland. The porter is black, the ale pale yellow, the porter is as thinly liquid as any other beer, the ale flows heavy as oil and has thus acquired the name “English oil” that is almost universally used in Germany. The porter tastes almost bitter, the ale sweet, spicy, seductive; the scent of the latter decidedly aromatic and at the same time reminiscent of malt; whereas porter has a sourish and bitter smell … [Ale] is a top-fermenting beer of barley malt, the best materials are used for it and it is made twice as strong as any other beer.” (Chemie für Laien, Dr. W. F. A. Zimmermann, 5. Band, Berlin 1860)
 A dictionary from 1830 also mentions that “certain beers are also commonly called ‘oil’ (ale): Englisch Öl, Rostocker Öl.”

Öl/øl is of course also the Scandinavian word for beer, and it makes sense that Rostock beer would acquire the name Rostocker öl — it’s nothing more or less than Swedish for Rostock beer, and Rostock is very near Sweden and there was a large export trade.

How would English beer get the name?

Well, there are three possibilities. It could be a corruption of ale – at least one source actually does explicitly say that Englisch Oel is a corruption or misspelling of Ale. It could also simply be a re-use of the same word that was being used for other export beer.

Or, the most adventurous explanation, but one which, as we have seen, is given in 19th century sources and congruent with what we know about the English ale of the time, it was called “oil” because it was so strong, thick and viscous. My guess is that it originated as a misspelling, which grew popular because the resulting expression sounded amusing and appropriate.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Beer culture

I actually only intended to stop for a quick pint on the way home from work.

Then a pal arrived in the pub and, although I was about to leave, insisted on buying me a pint. So we had another pint.

Then of course I had to buy him a pint in return.

After leaving the pub I passed another pub on the way home which had an amazing and rarely seen beer. I had to have a pint of that, and let my friend who lives round the corner from the pub know it was on.

When she arrived we had another pint.

Then I had to leave and go home, as I hadn’t had any dinner yet.

This is why we drink session beers.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Making March Mild* Month

I noticed recently a bar that’s been open barely six months arrogantly proclaiming itself “the home of great beer in Glasgow”. That’s reason enough to boycott the place, especially when its owners have anyway repeatedly made clear that they hate British beer and hate British brewers. Given that, I can’t understand why any British brewer would have so little self-respect as to allow their beer to be sold there.

There are several places that could much more deservedly lay claim to the title. One of them is the Three Judges at Partick Cross which has been in the forefront of the beer revolution for decades. The Judges is once again, as it often has done before, running a festival of mild, stout and porter during the month of March.

Here’s the line-up:
Acorn Old Moor Porter 4.4%
Bank Top Port O’Call 5.0%
Bateman’s DM 3.0%
Beartown Polar Eclipse 4.8%
Bowland Hunters Moon 3.7%
Box Steam Steam Porter 4.4%
Bradfield Farmers Stout 4.5%
Bridestones Dark Mild 4.5%
Elland American Robust Porter 5.2%
Fyne Cobblers Stout 4.2%
Fyne Sublime Stout 6.8%
Great Newsomes Jem’s Stout 4.3%
Great Orme Welsh Black 4.0%
Green Jack Lurcher Stout 4.8%
Hadrian & Border Ouseburn Porter 5.2%
Hornbeam Black Coral Stout 4.5%
Ilkley Black 3.7%
Ilkley Fireside Porter 4.2%
Kent Brewery Porter 5.5%
Leeds Midnight Bell 4.8%
Little Valley Organic Stoodley Stout 4.8%
Nethergate Priory Mild 3.5%
Old Bear Black Mari’a 4.2%
Palmer’s Tally Ho 5.5%
Partners/Anglo Dutch Devil’s Knell ??%
Potbelly Beijing Black 4.4%
Prospect Nutty Slack 3.9%
Purple Moose Dark Side of the Moose 4.6%
RCH Old Slug 4.5%
Saltaire Triple Chocoholic 4.8%
Strathaven Craigmill Mild 3.5%
Three B’s Stoker’s Slake  3.6%
Titanic Cappuccino 4.5%
Titanic Stout 4.5%
Vale Black Beauty 4.3%
Vale Black Swan 3.9%

 I’m often to be found complaining that pubs don’t stock these types of beer enough so I will be dropping into the Judges regularly in the next couple of weeks.

*And Stout and Porter