Sunday, 20 September 2020

So many questions in Oxford

You can call me naive and ignorant if you like but no, I hadn't realised that Oxford was a touristy place. I know better now.

The town attracts visitors of all kinds, from those following a Europe-in-twelve-days itinerary, to obsessional fans of Harry Potter and Inspector Morse, to sociologists studying the mechanisms by which the depraved British ruling class reproduces and perpetuates itself.

I am finished my business in the town by five, and the closest pub to fall into when I get back to the city centre is the Crown. A familiar beer, Five Points Railway Porter (£4.40, 2/5) is still enjoyable served much warmer than it should be.

The Royal Blenheim is more to my liking. This is what a tied pub should be like. It belongs to the White Horse brewery and offers a full range of their own beers.

I don’t know it yet, but the White Horse WHB (£3.30, 4.5/5) was the one of the best beers of my entire stay in Oxford. How do you get so much flavour into a beer of 3.8%? Huge perfumey aroma, massively sweet on the palate and then a balancing bitterness enough to leave you smacking your lips. Not quite bright but I gather that’s a feature. I had only been vaguely aware of White Horse before; this was one of those pints that makes you want to seek their beer out again.

There is some fine banter at the Royal Blenheim. Customer: Oh, imperial stout, a pint of that — Barman: It’s 12%, sir — Customer: I don’t care!

I’m hungry now. The Blenheim’s internet menu had tempted me with the promise of pies, but the kitchen is closed tonight. It’s time to make a move.

Just round the corner is the Bear, a Fuller’s pub, where I am lucky to bag the last free table. ESB feels like the right thing to order on a chilly Monday night in November. When it arrives, it costs £4.75 and is, and remains, murky (1.5/5). It tastes rich, sweet and extremely fruity.

The room of ties

The barman seems surprised by my paying in cash. I guess the the minimum £3 spend on a card wouldn’t really buy you anything other than a bag of crisps in here. I down my pint in the back snug, which is decorated with a framed necktie collection, and leave.

The Turf Tavern is a lovely, cosy pub but clearly trading on Morse-derived fame. The trouble with this kind of pub, the kind that is lucky enough to have a tourist trade even in November, is that the very small front bar gets clogged up with tourists who have never been in a pub before, and do not know how to keep out of the way of others who are trying to get in the door or get to the bar. Never mind, they’ll learn soon enough.

Some kind of bitter from Butcombe is on offer here and is OK (£4.50, 2.5/5). The front bar is a health and safety disaster waiting to happen, as the lanky barman constantly has to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the low beams behind the bar.

I’ve checked the menu in four previous pubs and can’t wait for food any longer. When my sausage and mash arrives, the sausages appear to have been cooked shortly after I left Wolverhampton this morning. Well, it’s food, and cibi condimentum esse famem, as Socrates said. Maybe I should have forked out for dinner in the Bear instead. But I have a strict rule that if the beer isn't good in a pub, the food won't be either. At the Bear I suspected it; The Turf kind of confirms it. What is wrong with pub companies?

It’s not far to the White Horse, a far cosier pub. As you enter there is Tribute, Doom Bar and Landlord, but go round to the front of the bar and a further three handpumps offer Brakspear Oxford Gold, White Horse and Shotover Prospect.

The last of these, from a brewery I’ve never heard of before, demonstrates that beer isn’t necessarily good just because it doesn’t come from a corporation. It’s extremely bland with a touch of caramel and aroma-free bitterness. But for once, it’s not the pub’s fault the beer is poor.

Possibly the biggest disappointment of the evening is the Eagle and Child. Who wouldn’t want a pint in J.R.R. Tolkien’s local?

Unlike almost every other pub in Oxford, it’s deserted in here tonight. A dreary range of pubco beers adorns the bar. The staff in pubco pubs are often compensated slightly for low wages, it seems, by being allowed to use the place as their personal disco, irrespective of what the customers might like to hear. Oasis blares through the nearly empty pub.

They don’t have pubcos in Middle Earth, which is why the ale in the Prancing Pony and Green Dragon is much better, I suspect, than in the Eagle and Child.

“My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs,” wrote Tolkien’s friend, fellow Eagle & Child regular CS Lewis. Are there any of those pubs left?

On the way into town on foot the next morning, I spy the word “brew” on a sign across the street.  I take a closer look just to check it’s not a nanobrewery. It isn’t – it’s a coffee place – but I’ve stumbled on a charming mews and found one of the pubs I was looking for.


The Gardeners Arms offers Wainwright, Rev James and its house beer from Greene King, which is what I have. It’s a pleasant enough elevenses beer, with some spice and a little bit of sulphur, though on the tepid side. I am the first customer so perhaps the beer hasn't been pulled through yet, or maybe that’s how people like it here; I have possibly already mentioned that I get a lot of room temperature beer in Oxford.

It’s a lovely pub with a genteel, slightly Laura Ashley look, run by a couple who I have apparently interrupted having their lunch. The landlady says that the house beer is as close to the extinct Morell’s Varsity ale as Greene King can get it. As it’s the same badge brew I can drink in my Belhaven local in Glasgow, I’d be quite surprised if this were true, and it makes me wonder what Greene King’s sales people have been telling their customers. Still, Morell’s brewery is clearly fondly remembered here.

On the other side of the lane is the Rose & Crown, a much more rustic pub. A wide, half-boarded corridor leads to a front parlour with a piano and a back room where the bar is. Another White Horse beer, Village Idiot, is on offer here and it’s spectacular: pale and hoppy with citrus and a pleasing dry, bitter finish. Isn’t it awkward when you find the best beer in town as you’re about to leave? Despite the new world hops the beer feels very much at home in this gorgeous little pub.

Back in the city centre I pass The Grapes. Oh yes, that’s the West Berkshire Brewery place I read about. It looks trendy and you can‘t see any handpumps from outside. A US IPA is resiny and oily, and once again served at room temperature, even though someone else had been drinking it before me. Ironically enough I had given the mild a swerve out of fear it would have been sitting in the lines.

A group of older gentlemen are sitting opposite me at a table and one of them comes to the bar to ask for another pint in the same glass. Which he gets, despite the pumps having a swan neck which is thereby immersed in his dirty glass. Isn't that illegal?

In the famous Covered Market, after buying some cheese, I stop at the Teardrop, which is a nanopub – or in this case, a market stall with a licence. There are two other customers and it's full. I have a quick third of Ale X from the owners, Church Hanbrewery. Quick because it’s undrinkable crap and I can’t finish it. The yeast bite and lemony sourness are very unpleasant. Has it gone off, or was it shite to begin with? Why don’t they notice?

There doesn't seem to be anywhere to drink near the station so my last beer is at the Oxford Retreat, a recently refurbished, would-be upmarket place on the way. Brakspear’s Oxford Gold is copper, with a bit of spiky, orangey hop and decent bitter finish but ultimately on the bland side. Yet again, served at room temperature.

Maybe the beer will be better in London. (Spoiler: it was).

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Factory beer, craft beer


I found this short piece in an old newspaper and it seems that beer geeks have been arguing over the same nonsense, with an equal ignorance of the brewing process, for well over 150 years, and probably longer. 

I do hope that today’s self-described “craft” brewers are not cheating by using metal vessels and artificially-generated power in their breweries.

The steam-powered breweries increase constantly in number and it seems they shall quite soon squeeze out the other breweries, or force them into imitating them. As in so many other [trades], the machine seems to make manual labour almost redundant in the brewery. The question must be asked: which beer is preferable, that produced by steam or by hand? Experienced beer conners prefer the latter. The reasons are:

1) In steam brewing much more metal is necessary, which cannot fail to have a deleterious effect on the beer. If the beer stands for some time in a tankard, beer conners believe they can detect a peculiar smell, or even cloudiness or sediment in the glass.

2) The power of steam processes all parts of the malt more heavily, so that the draff is without flavour or nutrition; all the reserves to be found in the barley and malt end up in the beer.

3) The steam brewing takes place too quickly.

4) Hand-made beer is supposed to keep good for longer, when the cask is open; steam beer becomes undrinkable more quickly.

5) Steam beer is supposed to be much lighter.

Why does the consumer seem to prefer to drink steam beer? Because the big brewers also control the retail outlets; because the beer is sold more quickly in larger towns; because the big brewers too use natural methods to make the beer pleasant and drinkable.

The machine shall continue its advance; the small breweries shall gradually disappear; only factories and beer-tappers shall remain. The soul of beer will disappear and with time become a myth, a lost paradise.

Such are the views and fears of the old beer conners.

Allgemeine Bayrische Hopfen-Zeitung, 23 March 1862 (My translation).

Sounds familiar.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Training hops in a pandemic

People who like illustrated books, or hops, or both, might be interested in a charming little book based on hop-growing in the Hallertau region this summer.

It is the product of the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed the course of many people’s lives in quite unexpected ways. 

Hopfen anbinden: Saisonarbeit in Zeiten von Covid-19: Ein Tagebuch is a diary by Berlin writer  Alexandra Hamann, who in March found client work drying up. At the same time, due to travel restrictions, hop growers were crying out for labourers, because the migrant workers who usually work on the hop fields were unable to enter Germany. Hamann decided to give hop training a go, and her diary of two weeks in Bavaria, illustrated by Julia Kluge, became an educational comic of the type Hamann produces in her day job.

I like the diary for the direct encounter of an outsider with the world of hop growing. The childish lettering reinforces the feeling of being on a school trip rather than poorly remunerated seasonal labour. Details of work, such as the description of sitting on a beer crate to train the hop bines, are something you don’t really read elsewhere. A red line around one drawing is simply labelled “fence to keep deer out”.

We get simple diagrams of anthropomorphic hop cones joyfully exclaiming “I give beer its bitterness!”, and meet Hamann’s co-workers, others swept here by the pandemic: food truck operators, jugglers and sword-swallowers who have no work this year as all the festivals are cancelled; a photographer who like Hamann has also seen freelance jobs collapse; but also locals who have taken time off from their normal jobs to help.

It is all a little twee, but there is a serious edge: by the second week Hamann starts to wonder if the pesticide use is sustainable. Worse still, the seasons have become unpredictable, and the weather, despite the mud, is too warm and dry, which is why new hop cultivars are bred for a drier climate as much as for flavour. In ten years we won’t be able to grow hops, warns the hop farmer ominously.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

The filthy state of the Alloa Brewery


In 2001 the Scottish Brewing Archive Journal published a piece from the archive in which the shockingly dirty conditions at Arrol’s Alloa Brewery in 1916 are revealed.[1] I understand the SBAA is currently working on a new website which will make old issues like this accessible online, but in any event most of the report is quoted in three blog posts from Ron Pattinson in 2012. [4, 5, 6]

That report was written by A. J. Heslop, brewer at Robert Deuchar’s in Duddingston and describes in some detail the problems at Arrol’s, from contaminated well water to huge amounts of old, acid beer slowly festering in the cellars.

Now Edd Mather [3] has come up with a similar document from the Tetley Walker archive, also complaining about the grime and filth at Arrol’s [2].

This document, by Robert Hutton, must precede the Heslop report, quite simply because it’s dated 10th January, so too early for any other report to have come before it in 1916.

It appears that Hutton, whoever he was, was the first person initially asked to investigate problems with the beer quality, and his findings were so alarming that a second, more in-depth investigation was commissioned, which became the longer Heslop report quoted in the SBA Journal.

Hutton addresses his report to Col. W. Hall Walker and copies in Farquhar Deuchar, who as we learn in the very first paragraph, was the one who had sent Hutton to Alloa to take a look.

Farquhar Deuchar (1863–1947) is almost certainly the son of Robert Deuchar the Edinburgh/Newcastle brewer – especially since Heslop, the author of the subsequent report, was a brewer at Deuchar’s. However, what connection Deuchar had to the Alloa Brewery is a mystery to me – although Arrol’s was also heavily involved in the trade on Tyneside, having bought up several breweries there (J Meikle; William Turnbull; Dove & Newsome Baxter), probably for their pubs.

Colonel Walker (1856–1933) was the MP for Widnes and presumably involved in senior management at his father’s brewery, Walker’s of Warrington.

This is the puzzling bit. All this was long before Walker merged with Tetley and Ind Coope Allsopp in the 1960s – it was even before Allsopp’s took over the Alloa Brewery – so I am not really sure what connection Walker had to Arrol’s or what Deuchar had to do with either of them.

So why do both Hutton and Heslop address Deuchar and Walker repeatedly in the second person, as if they owned the Alloa Brewery? Hutton: “I propose to shut down your large copper”, “your maltings”, “you have no stores in Newcastle”; Heslop: “the trouble at your brewery in Alloa”, “your stock of Indian and Californian barley”, “your brewer”, “your directors”.

Here’s the whole text:

Dear Sir,

re Arrol’s Alloa Brewery.

I visited the above Brewery at Mr Deuchar’s request, and I have no hesitation in saying that the beers are all wrong. The Brewery itself is wrong, being very dirty throughout with a large quantity of rotten wood lying about in every department except where you have put up your new brewhouse and steam coppers. The cellars are in a horrible state of dirt and stench. The Cooperage is very dirty and untidy with a lot of old useless casks lying about in yard &c. All this rubbish must be cleared away or burnt before the spring.

1st. Malts. (Fair).

2nd. Hops. (Good).

I give you the present grist for Pale Ale @ 60/– per barrel :-

6 qrs Scotch Malt.

6  "  Cali  "  

6  "  Spanish " 

6  "  Tunis  "  

6  "  Maize

8 cwt Sugar.

Hops 8 lbs per qr

6 oz dry per barrel.

Mashing heat 158º

Initial 150º

Sparge 165º to 160º

6 qrs Indian to be used instead of Cali, as the Cali is finished for a month (at least I am so informed by the Brewer).

Proposed grist for Pale Ale @ 60/– per Barrel.

4 qrs Scotch Malt.

10  Indian  (if not Cali).

10  Tunis  

4  Maize

10 cwt Sugar.

Hops 7 lbs per qr

 dry, 5 oz per brl (for the winter)

Mashing heat 162º

Initial heat 152º

Sparge the same as at present but boil a quarter of an hour longer. Do not use your large copper of 250 barrels capacity (it is too large). Had my opinion been asked re a steam boiling plant, I would not have agreed thereto, but you must make the best of it at present.

I propose to shut down your large copper and use the small ones of 120 barrels capacity, but not to charge them with more than 100 barrels and subject them to a vigorous boil.

Your receiver at the refrigerators is too small and the refrigerators themselves too much closed in, thereby not allowing sufficient aeration. There is also far too much rotten plant lying about.

The mill room is starved and the malt before grinding not comfortable; also an open cold water tank should not be in the same room.

3rd. I cannot understand why you are allowing Distillers’ malt to be made in your maltings, as the same man cannot make Ale brewers’ malt to my liking, and you have all the dirt and dust about from the Distillery malt; besides; the double kilns want experience to work them.

4th Fermentations. Your fermenting room requires more ventilation. The copper vessels are all right, but the wooden ones require seeing too.

The cellars are very dirty indeed, and you ought to have them well scrubbed; in fact, shut the worst of them off entirely. You are also keeping by far too much stock of ales.

What I propose is, to rack brighter and hop down, roll for four days, bung down during the day, and bung up at night, and not poroused. (A turn over does as much good as a long roll). Prime when sent out the fifth or sixth day (say two quarts in winter and one quart in summer) per brl) to Newcastle. It would be better still if fined before stillaging, but as you have no stores in Newcastle and cannot manage to fine the Ale before stillaging, you must get a quicker delivery and not from five to six days after fining at the Brewery, which, your Brewer tells me, is the present custom.

You also require to use a thicker fining and not so diluted as you are doing. You are porousing your beers at present, and I again state, keeping far too much stock. It is no wonder that the beers do not give satisfaction; they are flat and stubborn to fine, and are aggravated by your method of boiling & c.

Coming back to the boiling; with the small coppers, a pressure of 120 lbs per sq inch must be kept steady at the boilers. I understand that you harden your brewing water. I would like the analysis and a lot of other particulars if this change does no good. I, however, strongly recommend you to change one thing at a time so that you can definitely locate the trouble.

The same alterations also apply to the Mild Ale; only use Scotch malt and foreign, half and half. If you could get some English malt, say Norfolk, and Cali, half and half, and use the heats I have proposed, you would do well.

I spoke to the Brewer re steaming the pipes out every Saturday[.] Brush them first, then blow naked steam from the boilers (when not using it for the Coppers). I hope that you have plenty of steam for the Cooperage.

I recommend you to make your own finings or buy from Boake Roberts & Co. London.

I would again suggest more aeration at the Refrigerators. Your receiver is too small, but I only want to make one alteration at a time.

We may try a brew with less pitching yeast per brl and pitch a degree higher with twelve hours longer in the settler before racking.

A meeting on the ground may be desirable to discuss matters, but I would strongly impress on you to get the Brewery cleaned all round at once and shut off the bad cellars, also reduce your stock from a month at the Brewery to a week or four days. The ale should be used eight days after racking and not kept a month at the Brewery before being sent out.

Yours faithfully,

Robert Hutton


There is quite a bit of interesting information in the document.

We learn that the Alloa Brewery was producing its own malt, common practice for the time. However, we are also told that distillers’ malt was being made as well, and Hutton’s shocked reaction to this suggests that was not a common practice. Distillers’ malt is made to a different specification to brewing malt, but I don’t know why Hutton thought the same maltster would not be able to make both, or why the distilling malt was thought to create more dirt and dust.

“Poroused” seems to mean using a soft spile.

There is confirmation that the brewery were hardening their water – which in turn confirms everything else I have ever heard which said that Alloa water is extremely soft.

Even better: we’ve got a recipe for Arrol’s 60/–. There aren’t really any great surprises in it.

The major changes Hutton suggests from the previous recipe are cutting the rate of hopping, both in the kettle and dry hopping. Then he cuts some of the maize and replaces it with additional sugar. It looks like this is a straight swap; the quantity of malt remains the same at a total of 24 quarters.

I am not sure why you would dry hop only in winter. Wouldn’t the preservative effect be needed more in summer?

The mash heat already seems a little on the warm side by modern standards, but his proposal is to mash a tad hotter still. The combined effects of these changes would be to produce a slightly fuller and less bitter beer.

That would be no good, of course, if nothing were done about the manky brewery, which jeopardised the quality of any beer made there. 


[1] Edward Burns. “The sorry state of Arrol’s Brewery”. In: Journal of the Scottish Brewing Archive 3 (2001).
[2] Robert Hutton. “Report re Arrol’s Alloa Brewery”. (1916).
[3] Edd Mather. Make mine a Magee’s! url:
[4] Ron Pattinson. Trouble at Messrs. Arrol & Sons, Limited, Brewery, Alloa. 2012. url:
[5] Ron Pattinson. Trouble at Messrs. Arrol & Sons, Limited, Brewery, Alloa (part 2). 2012. url:
[6] Ron Pattinson. Trouble at Messrs. Arrol & Sons, Limited, Brewery, Alloa (part 3). 2012. url:

Friday, 31 July 2020

Broughton appeals for cash to save Old Jock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can check out the crowdfunder at

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 July 2020

I went for a pint again

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

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

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

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

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

“Only upstairs,” says the genial doorman.

“Is there cask ale upstairs?”

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

I promise to return again soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the first pint of proper cask since March too.


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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 June 2020

And so this is Kulmbach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagering tanks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 May 2020

1978 Courage Russian Stout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The fictional beers of the Queen Victoria 2005–15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Central Bar, Renton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 May 2020

How alike are Gordon Scotch and Traquair House Ale?

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

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

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

Can I tell the difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

A further note on Bell’s ‘black cork’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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