Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The decline of Stock Ales

Back to the parliamentary committee on beer materials again.It's full of great stuff. Like this little gem about the move away from sour, aged beers to sweet running ales.

"6362. May I ask you from your very long experience in connexion with this subject, will you give something of your opinion and give a descriptive character to the beers of old times and the beer of new times within your own experience ? —The beers of old times within my experience used to be very hard, we should call them sour in these days, there was no care taken at all about the kind of yeast used in the fermentation of the beer, so that as a rule it was a beer that to my mind was very objectionable on account of its hardness. I know it has been praised.

6363. And it could only be strong; you could not have it otherwise than strong, or it would not keep at all ?— Exactly; and there was not the same care taken in connexion with the casks and the keeping of the beer as there is now ; and it was very often the case when you went to a small farmhouse and tasted some of the beer you would find that it was "casky," and that the cask containing it was not cleaned when the beer was put in. I may take as an illustration the West of England; it was quite common there until recent years to have a beer that was quite sour, hard beer; Messrs. George, of Bristol, and other brewers brewed a beer of that kind for a number of years, but that is practically all gone, and you will find from the return now that the quantity of sugar used in Bristol and the West of England is enormous.

6364. So far as your experience goes, how would you describe the ale of the present day ? —As to the ale of the present day, the person who consumes the ale of the present day wants a drink that appeals to his eye as well as the palate, and therefore he wants it bright. If we take the working men—they do not drink beer in pewter that they cannot see as they used to do; they want their beer in glasses so that they can see it, and it must be quite bright and clear. It is quite free from acid and fairly sweet, and that is the kind of beer they seem to like, and it is not too strongly bittered.
6365. Can you give any opinion as to its comparative wholesomeness with the old thing? —I think it quite as wholesome, for this reason—that there is more care taken now in its manufacture. The brewer has to take more care in the manufacture of that particular beer to get it into condition and to keep it sound until it is drunk.

6366. And there are fewer brewings go wrong ?—Yes, because they are better looked after.

6367. I mean not only looked after, but there is the question of substituting the malt by other things. With regard to the substitutes specified, supposing on the average 15 per cent, of sugar used at the present day with the material—is that an objection, so far as the soundness of the beer goes, or an advantage ? —I think it is no objection at all, because the ordinary beer sold is not a stock beer at all; that is a beer to be kept for a length of time before being drunk, whereas this beer has to be got out of the brewer's hands and into consumption in a few weeks, because the public will not have an acid beer.

6368. Could that same character be got within the time at the same cost or anything like it, supposing substitutes were prohibited ?—Not within the time or at the same cost, it could not.

6369. And if they had the time, could they do it with as great security for soundness ? —I think they might do it with as great security for soundness.

6370. But taking half as long again, meaning so much more rental ?—Yes, and they could not turn out the same quantity."
"Minutes of evidence taken before the Departmental committee on beer materials", 1899, page 240.
Evidence given by Mr. R. Bannister.

I like the reference to the move from pewter to glass drinking vessels. People often get completely mixed up about the effect of glass on drinking habits. Assuming that's when beers became paler. In fact the opposite is true: beers like X Ales and K Ales became darker in the period when glass became popular.


Gary Gillman said...

It's interesting that this observer links the onset of glass vessels to the need for clear beer (of whatever hue, he doesn't specify); however, the desirability of clarity long pre-dated his testimony and indeed the era when glass became common. People always wanted clear ale and clear beer. If they could get it. The onset of glass pots may have made the concern more acute, but it wasn't new.

The story about glass favouring the development of pale beer is another facet of the clarity issue, but just as fanciful, clearly (sorry).

I find it interesting too that he attributes hardness in the older type of beer to numerous causes - indeed he doesn't mention time itself as a detriment, although that can be implied probably; rather he focuses on yeast and the need to have clean casks before filling. Indeed you can read these brief remarks as suggesting that some mild beer was often sour too - as lambic still is - especially in the West of England.

He implies that you could age beer reasonably long with good results if your yeast and sanitation were good. That was certainly true by his time. Frank Faulkner wrote in his brewing text that Guinness's great store of aged stout was not sour. He said mixing mild stout with sour beer would not produce the results Guinness got by blending mild beer and aged stout (and heading).

I believe if Guinness got these result, earlier porter brewers did too. Indeed as we know there is evidence from early in the 1800's that once again stale beer didn't mean sour beer, but rather dry beer, something short of tart. Nonetheless there was evidently a range of qualities, and this observer seems to be saying that hard beer in general was too sour and therefore became obsolete.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, I think what he's saying is that the public's taste had changed and they wanted sweeter beers.

In "A Bottle of Guinness Please" it's mentioned that sometimes Guinness had problems with beer getting too sour.

Graham Wheeler said...

'Hardness' is an old brewing term for acidity - sourness. The term used for mixing stale with mild to become porter was known as 'hardening'. The sourness was intentional; a background sourness determined by the blend.

However, when a beer first turns sour it is a sharp sourness, but if that beer is left a lot longer, the sharpness goes and the sourness mellows to something rather more pleasant.

Guinness was certainly soured originally; they would not have called it a porter otherwise; and they would probably not have gained an early foothold in the London market without it.

Without knowing for sure the microbial cocktail employed by the London brewers it is difficult to know what type of sourness it was; indeed, different London brewers probably had different cocktails which might explain the often reported large disparity in taste and quality between the various London brewers.

London well water is peculiar water. It favours sour beers. Brewers in most other parts of Britain have very 'chalky' water. That chalk goes a long way towards neutralising any acidity that may be formed. If there is any sulphate present it will tend to inhibit the responsible microbes. It was very difficult for most brewers outside of london to get the 'proper' sort of sourness.

With stock ale, certainly the type of stock ale that was used to blend with summer-brewed mild to get it out of the door and consumed quickly, sourness was a fault. Fortunately, the water in most regions helped to keep the sourness at bay. The blend in this case was called 'bringing forward' rather than hardening. The blend imparted a brettanomyces-induced nuttiness and other forms of maturity to the mild.

Although Mr Bannister is probably correct in stating that sour beers seemed to linger on in the West Country longer than elsewhere [as did smoky beers], he is cheating somewhat when he singles out George's Brewery. George's began life as an export porter brewery; they had a good reputation for porter, probably the best reputation outside of London, so it must have been properly soured. They no doubt continued to make the stuff until it completely died out. Makes one wonder how old Bannister was.

Ron Pattinson said...

Graham, I'm not so sure about assuming Porter had to be sour.

Martyn Cornell said...

I'm several thousand miles from my copy of George's official history, but here's what I wrote in Amber Gold and Black about West Country stock beers:

"At WJ Rogers's Jacob Street brewery in Bristol, [Alfred] Barnard [in 1890] saw a huge cellar dug out of the red sandstone beneath the premises, containing 30 beer vats, each 20 or so feet high. They were filled with maturing "Bristol Old Beer", some of it up to three years old, and none allowed to leave until at least 18 months after its brewing. The brewery manager, Mr Clifford, told Barnard that "to a large extent" West of England drinkers "will only drink old beer", hence the need for so many vats of ageing beer.

A rival Bristol brewer, George's, was still brewing Old Beer and maturing it for at least a year in huge oak vats ("some of the largest in the world") just before the Second World War. Brewing of these West Country vatted strong ales always began in the autumn, using a mixture of old and new malts, often a "high-dried" English malt with plenty of colour, mixed with a mild ale malt. The Brewers' Journal in 1936 was advising that such strong stock ales "of 30lb gravity and upwards" (that is, OGs of around 1085 or more) should go through two or three secondary fermentations in cask before being bottled after nine to 12 months not fully worked out, but still "in slight 'creamy' condition".

So -'twas an ale, not a porter. And still being made in the 1930s.

Gary Gillman said...

This sounds to me something like the Rodenbach approach, where the concept is to assist a preservation of the beer (i.e., along with the hops and alcohol) by getting a pH level in the beer which in effect stabilizes it. Probably too experience showed the optimum barreling time was about a year and that is why it was bottled at that time.

In the days before methodical and science-based brewing, the results were probably inconsistent both internally and as between brewers. Some brewers would have based reputations I believe on how good their beer was short of out and out sourness.

I think all modern beer fans were schooled, by Jackson for starters, to admire George Gale's Prize Old Ale but I could never drink it. (I am not referring to its present incarnation but as it was 20 years ago). It tasted too cidery for me, like a combination of ale and scrumpy cider. Now, is it possible this rare survival wasn't one of the better ones? That there were old ales and porters in the 1800's with a pleasing dryness that held short of a strong acidity?

The whole range of porter and old ale tastes as they were in the 1800's is now lost to history, unfortunately.

To my knowledge, there is only the Lancet article from around 1870 and especially Charles Graham's article on lager from about 10 years later (discussed here numerous times) which gives the percentage of acid for Somerset vatted, or other old, ales. Those might be consulted and compared to modern beers to get a sense of how sour those beers typically were. Even then you would need to know the type of acid in the beer, the "cocktail" Graham Wheeler mentioned, which those articles only would partly have addressed, but at least you can get an idea. Was the Somerset vatted beer Charles Graham mentioned at least as sour as a modern unsweetened gueuze?

One thing that is sure is for much of the 1800's, a change in public tastes was recorded, moving inexorably to mild beers. This may have been a reaction to beers that went sour if kept too long, but not necessarily. Tastes change over time in dry and sweet wines for example, and no one suggests that a good dry wine is a sour one. It may simply be that with time people wanted more of the sweet taste in a beer, the part that comes from the maltose and dextrine that gets used up in long aging. Perhaps this was so because aging made beers too weak. Alcohol ultimately gets eaten up by some of the buggies, I can't recall which, certain bacteria I think. Maybe that was the change. You would think as the 1800's wore on people would want less sweet beer since manual occupations surely were less intensive (overall) than 100 years earlier, yet the reverse occurred. Maybe they didn't like being dunned out of strength, particularly factoring the common watering problem. As for the 1700's drinkers, this may explain why blending mild and old never (seemingly) disappeared. Maybe those who drank "all stale" were the most abstemious and willing to pay more not to get over-refreshed in the modern euphemism.

There is just so much we don't know about the old days.


Graham Wheeler said...

"So -'twas an ale, not a porter. And still being made in the 1930s."

Yes, well even George's had to move with the times, I suppose. The Bath Street brewery was Georges porter brewery, which later became Courage Western HQ. George's were brewing pale ale as early as 1790, if t'internet is to be believed, but they built/acquired a separate brewery for that in Tucker Street.

I would suppose it depends upon when porter brewing became of minor importance to George. It seems certain that it had diminished substantially by 1899, the date of the report.

George's incorporation prospectus of 1888 does not mention porter by name:

"The objects of the Company are to acquire, work and extend the well-known business of Georges & Co., Old Porter Brewery, Bristol, which is one of the largest Brewery businesses in the West of England, having been established just 100 years since by the ancestors of the present partners...

...The business consists of brewing Vatted beers (for which this Brewery has long been celebrated), Mild Beers, Bitter Ales and Stouts.

Of course 'Vatted Beers' would cover porter, but porter had probably lost its importance by then. The phrase 'Old Porter Brewery' in the address probably gives a clue there.

Oblivious said...

"In "A Bottle of Guinness Please" it's mentioned that sometimes Guinness had problems with beer getting too sour."

Yep, they had problems in the summer if bottles where let sit to long before been consumed, but also the kilometres of pipeline could never be sterilised or even clean efficiently until modern times which only added to the problem

“Messrs. George, of Bristol, and other brewers brewed a beer of that kind for a number of years, but that is practically all gone”

I presume here was talking out Gale’s old prize ale, but would have thought was continually breed from Victorian time?

Graham Wheeler said...

Gary Gillman said...
"This sounds to me something like the Rodenbach approach,"

I used to think that Rodenbach was the nearest that we'd get to an old-time London porter, but today I am not so sure. The founder's son came over to England to learn how to make porter, but I am do not think that what is brewed now is representative of London porter.

For a start they encourage a lactic fermentation during primary fermentation, and to do this they use very low hop rates of 8 or 9 EBC.

London porter brewers do not appear to have encouraged that to happen in the fermenter, not that they were able to control it, but they used much higher hop rates which would have inhibited much lactic acid bacteria.

I think that there are different micro-flora involved in producing Rodenbach than that used in London porter. Rodenbach seem to go for Lactobacillus, but if there was any lactic character in London porter it would be most likely be contributed by Pediococcus, which is happier with higher hop rates.

It has been observed that a beer mildly infected with Pediococcus has character and fullness, whereas a larger infection spoils it. By today's standards, I guess, that once the sourness becomes detectable, it is considered spoiled, but up to that point its flavour is enhanced. The squeaky-clean beers have less character.

There are well over a hundred forms of lactic-producing bacteria, and many more that produce different acids. So it seems unlikely that we will ever know for sure.

The often stated requirement that secondary fermentation must take place before the beer is ready, is a thing that indicates to me that brettanomyces activity that has a lot to do with it. Some brettanomyces strains produce assertive acidity, some do not. They do produce assertive aromas though.

A brewer of the day had little control over the types or balance of microbe that became dominant in his vats anyway. It certainly would have varied from brewery to brewery.

With stock ales or old ales used outside of London the situation is different. The high alcohol content 10-12%, and higher hop rates of stock ales keep sourness at bay. In these it is mostly brettanomyces activity that gives them their character. These were typically blended with something weaker and fresher before going out the door. Green King Old Suffolk (or whatever they call it) is probably the last surviving example of these, but there were several more until just a few years ago, particularly among the Dorset brewers, as a matter of coincidence.

Gary Gillman said...

My comments about Rodenbach were meant in relation to what Martyn was writing about West Country old ales. The prolonged aging in large vats (up to 3 years) and blending approach seemed reminiscent of Rodenbach's techniques. True, the latter is famous for not using high hop levels, but I still think there are numerous similarities.

I agree with you Rodenbach's product of today seems not porter-like, the palate alone would suggest that (nothing scorched or burned-tasting). Probably when porter had a big reputation in Europe it was de rigueur for wealthy brewers' sons to do a tour of London porter houses, just as a contemporary generation of North American brewers studied in New York, I think it was called New`York Brewers Academy, or later at the Siebel Institute in Chicago (still going strong).

By the way in Washington, D.C. last night I had a Paulus from Leroy in Belgium, which had an interesting sour-sweet taste. It seemed quite likely that sugar had been added to balance the palate, and I think I would have preferred it less sweet, but it was very good. In unsweetened form it might have been like one of those old Bristol ales.

Also sampled (incidentally) was a cask double IPA from Maryland, which tasted like a 1970's vodka-and-grapefruit juice if you tipped in some MacEwan's Scotch Ale. Also, some sticke alt from Dusseldorf, on draft again, was essayed, Uerige's. Unfiltered and rather restrained in palate but very good. But what can stand up to a grapefruit hop bomb?


Gary Gillman said...

This series of remarks by David Hughes on the history and characteristics of Guinness FES is extremely interesing:

I think a clue to the nature of the best matured porter lies in his comment that significant lactic acid build-up characterized the beer through its conditioning and that unlike the case with acetic acid, this added a fullness to the palate of a vinous and fruity nature with no unpleasant sourness.

At the same time, it was still difficult for Guinness to maintain the quality of the beer. He gives the various reasons. E.g., sometimes the beer was aged for too long due to market slumps and secondary and wild yeasts got the better of it. Even by 1945 conditions were so unpredictable that bottling naturally-conditioned FES had "broken down".

All this led to FES becoming a brewery-conditioned and pasteurised beer although when he was writing they were still adding an aged element - apparently a high-gravity, low-hopped beer, initially in a proportion of 10%. Clearly FES was becoming more like Extra Stout, but with a greater aged character.

I think it must be true that porter at its best was not acetic acid sour - it had a different quality, imparted by the creation of lactic acid, brett flavour and esters. However, there must have been a huge range of variation in the market. Barclay was adding returns in the early 1800's, and perhaps when done correctly the difference from true matured entire was hard to tell, but still the practice was going on.

I know Rogue in the U.S. sometimes has aged Imperial Stout available (I mean in the barrel). It's been a few years since I had some but I recall it being fruity, leathery, not vinegar-sour.