Sunday, 10 January 2010

Real Brown Stout

Today's text is a pub description from the early 19th century. I caught my eye because of the description of the various types of beer kicking around at the time.  What's striking is, at the time when Porter dominated London (and many brewers made nothing else) the diversity of beer available.


Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess.  Hermione

How various are the tastes of men in the matter of malt-liquor! One loves a glass of the brook-clear Kennett; to another's palate, the dark, heavy ale of Shropshire is an earthly nectar; a third will drink nothing but the luscious Burton—almost innocent of hops; while a fourth detests the honey-sweet draught, and regales upon beer of most bitter brewage : some affect the new, and some the old : the Welchman can stomach ale of three days age, as muddy as a marsh pool, made up of barley spoiled in the malting, and hops whose vitality is slackened by time and mouldiness: in many of the inland counties, the good folks like a hard, severe, cut-throat beverage; whilst in others, the soft, balmy Scotch is most popular: your genuine porter drinker turns up his nose at ale of all sorts, and can tell you by its head, complexion, and flavour, whether the beer you offer him comes from the mighty vats of Meux, of Whitbread, or of Delafield.

We are a malt-worm ourself; we oftentimes do homage to stout Sir John Barleycorn, and, whenever it falls in our way, scruple not

" to take our part Of jolly good ale and old."

For a nip of Burton we have no affection ; Edinburgh is our abomination ; our palate loathes the town-made trash termed ale: but a tankard of bright, old, sound, mellow October is, to us, a most delectable draught. Lord Byron loved not a full pot better than we do a pewter of—that poetry of porter—good brown stout. One of the best places within the bills of mortality to obtain it in perfection is the Brace, in Banco Regis. If the amateur of heavy wet should call upon some luckless wight in Abbott's Priory, or go there to see Pitman, the prince of racket-players, display his agility and skill at the bat and ball, we recommend him, by all means, to take beer at the Brace.

Many years ago, this tavern was kept by two brothers, of the name of Partridge, and thence arose its singular title. We should suppose, that there is not a house within the bills of mortality which can boast of so large a consumption of stout. Its custom is not confined to the prisoners ; people from all parts of the neighbourhood resort to it, on account of the excellent quality of its heavy wet. Here the evening visitor may meet with a most strange set of characters; but without the help of a by-stander, who has been long a resident in the Bench, he cannot sufficiently enjoy the scene. Should you be acquainted with any gentleman, who has for some time been incarcerated here, on suspicion of being guilty of debt, make him your Ciceroni for an hour, and take a glance at the living curiosities of the place. You must, remember, go early, or you will see but little ere the night-bell rings for the departure of the visitors : do not tarry long at those private public houses, the whistling shops; their liquors, which are smuggled in under the petticoat, are generally execrable—eschew them as much as possible ; but fail not to drop in at the Brace before you depart, and there acquaint your palate with the grateful flavour of real brown stout."
"Every night book, or, Life after dark" By William Clarke, 1827, pages 51-53.

The description "luscious Burton—almost innocent of hops" clearly isn't referring to Pale Ale, but the Strong  Ale for which Burton was initially famous.

The pub seems to have been pretty famous. It also gets a metion in the 1811 "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue":

The Brace tavern; a room in the S.E. corner of the King's Bench, where, for the convenience of prisoners residing thereabouts, beer purchased at the tap-house was retailed at a halfpenny per pot advance. It was kept by two brothers of the name of Partridge, and thence called the Brace."

Mmm. The Brace Tavern seems to have been inside a prison. Who says 19th century justice was inhumane?


Anonymous said...

A few explanatory notes:

"a glass of the brook-clear Kennett" - Reading ale (made with pale malt)

"within the bills of mortality" - very approximately, the area covered by the City of London and the immediately surrounding suburban parishes, north and south of the Thames.

"heavy wet" - 19th C (?and earlier?) slang for malt liquor of any sort.

"Abbott's Priory" - nickname for the King's Bench prison.

"Banco Regis" - "humorous" translation of "King's Bench" in Latin.

"whistling shop" - unlicensed alehouse

To quote the London Footprints website on the King's Bench prison (which was in Southwark), it "occupied a site of about 4 acres … Besides the 225 rooms there was a kitchen, coffee house, stalls and public houses. The yard provided 3 pumps and racket grounds & fives courts. Women and children were excluded after ten o'clock. Those who could afford it purchased 'Liberty of the Rules' allowing them to live within 3 square miles of the prison." Prisoners had to purchase their own food and drink, hence the need for the stalls and pubs.

Gary Gillman said...

A very interesting description. Narrative descriptions such as this are essential to have a fuller picture of what beers of yore were like. This writer was assessing beers in the way familiar to modern readers of Michael Jackson and many other beer writers. These descriptions are all too rare in the old literature but they do exist.

A recent favourite is one I found describing the flavour of one of the old German top-fermented wheat beers. The (English) writer said, non-too-admiringly, that it tasted like a combination of weak cider flavoured with camomile.

Recently in New York, at Daniel Boulud's chic beer bar in the East Village, I had a draft Berlin-style wheat beer made in Germany as an attempt to duplicate an early 1800's recipe. And you know what it tasted like? Weak cider flavoured with camomile. (I liked the beer, it was an intriguing taste of history).

Heavy wet was a slang term for strong porter, of which Lord Byron evidently was an admirer, proof that porter was not always a working class affection by the way. It pleased "both peer and mechanic", in the well-known phrase.

Kennett ale should be explored, I believe it was from Wiltshire. Scotch and Burton ales evidently were quite sweet. This is known from other information but this current description reinforces that. Well-aged October beer seemingly was not that sweet. Or perhaps it was as sweet as the beers not liked by the writer but much more bitter. I am not sure what today would resemble that October, perhaps something like Orval or even Rodenbach since the author liked the smack of old beer although not too sour evidently.

I think the description supports the inference of a tavern located in the precincts of a courthouse, despite the term "gaoler" in the poem introducing the piece - after all it is a poem. The term prisoner probably referred to the accused brought on charges before the court, (some of whom would have been detained but not all). And it seems the judges and other court personnel had resort there too - maybe it was an all-purpose dispensary for judicial purposes, which seems odd today to be sure.

Porter and the bench have attracted the attentions of other writers. I believe it is in Bickerdyke that I first read (actually it was in Michael Jackson quoting that source) that a certain Judge Maule had a "depreciatory" view of stout, in that he drank it to bring his intellect "down to the level of the rest of the bench". :)


Gary Gillman said...

Zythophile's remarks convince me the KB must have been a prison but clearly a very different one than we think of today.


Anonymous said...

Gary: Kennet ale = Reading ale, as this source, which says "a great quantity of it is sent annually to the West-End", makes clear, while this site says Reading Ale "is in high repute, and has been for years."

Gary Gillman said...

Martyn, thanks for that. Kennet ale seems also to have been associated with Wiltshire, as appears here:

I've found some other references as well to this effect.

I think the river Kennet flows through both Wiltshire and Berkshire which may explain the differing associations.