Saturday, 26 February 2011

Very old Worthington Burton Ale

It's a funny old book, Barnard's "Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland". Much of it is detailed descriptions of the physical forms of breweries. Little is said of the beers brewed within them. Except for the odd remark about how particularly fine this or that brewery's AK is. But occasionally there's more detail.

In this case, rather a lot more detail. Age, that's what it's all about. It was the age of this particular beer - around 100 years - that made it the subject of such detailed study.

"Before leaving this most interesting department of the brewery, we saw and tasted a sample of what is probably the oldest beer in the world, being no other than a strong ale brewed by Worthington, in the latter days of the last century to commemorate the birth of the late Mr. Wm. Worthington. This extraordinary beer owes its preservation to the lucky accident of having been built up in the vault of an old building, where it was found some years ago during the progress of alterations. The antiquated style and venerable appearance of the bottle itself quite bore out what was told us as to the age of the contents. When the cork was drawn, an agreeable ethereal odour diffused itself through the room, reminding one of the bouquet of a very old Madeira. The beer has maintained its colour and is perfectly sound, but it has so far lost its character as a beer as to puzzle those who are not in the secret of its true nature. Its prevailing characteristic is the extraordinary bouquet we have already referred to. Occasionally, strange to relate, a bottle is opened which is still charged with gas, and in which the yeast cells of the sediment still retain a certain amount of vitality. This beer is so entirely unique, and is of so interesting a nature, that we venture to append its analysis and the scientific report upon it with which we were favoured.


Specific gravity at 60° F. 1030.45
Original specific gravity 1110.38
Percentage of alcohol by weight 8.7

On evaporation, in order to expel the alcohol, the solid residue was found to have the following composition:—

Fermentable maltose 32.55
Malto-dextrm 9.32
Dextrin 17.61
Albuminoids 12.64
Optically inactive carbohydrates, ash, etc. 27.88


When the results of the analysis were calculated upon the total solids originally present before fermentation, the following numbers were obtained :—

Fermented matter 59.98
Fermentable maltose 13.02
Malto-dextrin 3.72
Dextrin 7.05
Undetermined 16.23


Determination of Acidity.

Volatile acid, chiefly acetic, but with a trace of formic 0.1404
Fixed acids, calculated as lactic acid 0.4691
Total acid per cent, on beer 0.6095

The alcoholic distillate possessed in a marked degree the curious bouquet of the original beer; and since, on redistillation with a little barium hydrate the second distillate was quite free from the Madeira-like odour referred to above it was evident that the bouquet was attributable to the presence of volatile compound ethers (ethereal salts). The development of the characteristic bouquet of old wines is due to the presence of compound ethers, which may be looked upon as combinations of the fatty acids and alcohol with the elimination of water. Berthelot, many years ago, devised a simple method for the determination of the compound ethers of wine, consisting in digestionon of the distillate containing the ethers with a given amount of decinormal soda solution, and determining the amount of soda used up by the acid of the compound ether, a correction, of course, being applied for the free acid present in the distillate. This method applied to the old beer gave the following results, the numbers being expressed as percentages of alcohol present as compound ethers:—

Per Cent.
Alcohol present as volatile compound ethers in the old beer 0.0315
Alcohol present as volatile compound ethers in  a strong ale of eighteen months old 0.0175

Although the amount is actually small, it is seen to be much in excess of the ethers in a comparatively young, strong ale, and quite sufficient to account for the powerful bouquet."
"Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 1" by Alfred Barnard, 1889 pages 434 - 436.

A beer that was more than 100 years old, in corked bottles, yet some retained their carbonation. That's pretty incredible. Most corked bottles of Harvey's Imperial Stout had lost theirs after just a couple of years. Bricked up in a cellar and forgotten. It's surprising how often that's happened. Fifteen years back I drank a Crombé Kriek that was more than 40 years old. Same story: left in a forgotten cellar.

The description of the beer's flavour is intriguing. Like very old Madeira. So, just the odd touch of oxidation.I like the way that they attempted to track down the chemical source of the Madeira flavour. I wonder if the volatile ethers really were responsible?

"The beer has maintained its colour" fascinating. But what colour was that? It would be nice to know. At one time strong Burton Ales were dark in colour. I wonder if this one was. I don't suppose we'll ever know now.

The level of acidity is pretty high at 0.61%. Fresh, sound beer is 0.04% or so. Lambiek is over 1%.


Arctic Alchemy said...

Barnard compared everything to old Madeira.
Here's some analysis done in 1961 on an old arctic ale from 1875 with similar characteristics of an old Burton I suspect:

OG 1126/PG1040
pH 3.9
EBC 156- but that color was prior to the use of the spectrophotometer I believe, and maybe a more reliable SRM around 24?

Thomas Barnes said...

Extreme age tends to lighten extremely dark beers, as the tiny particles of colorant material drop out. Conversely, for lighter colored beers, aging and oxidation tend to darken them slightly.