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.


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