Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A Scottish brewer reminisces

I've been meaning to use this article properly for some time. Buy I've only now pulled my finger out. Prompted by my Scottish series.

Below are excerpts from an article written by a Scottish brewer, reminiscing about 40 years in the trade. I've chopped out a fair bit, it being rather rambly. And irrelevant to my theme, which is Scotland.

By A. W. Thomson.
In 1890 my father built his brewery, without tied property. In three years he had an annual output of 4,500 barrels. In 1894 he died, and his business gradually died with him. In those days in Scotland the Trade discount was 33.33 per cent., meaning that a 36-gallon cask was invoiced at 54s. and charged 36s. net. Then came price-cutting. In my childhood duty was 6s. 9d. per standard barrel, later 7s. 9d.

. . . .

Between the days of all malt and the last war rather less sugar was used in brewing than now. Scotch beers were invariably kept, and still are, for a month to mature and condition in cask before leaving the brewery, and English bitters were stored for two or three months or more. Indeed, vatting, and October and March brewing, continued in many English breweries right up to 1914. The larger percentages of sugar now necessary for very quick conditioning were therefore not required in the old days. Between more malt and the higher mashing heats of a stock beer a sounder product was obviously come by. But if you presented a matured beer to the public of to-day it would be condemned as "sharp," which is perhaps as well, since, at the present rate of duty, brewers cannot afford to lock up their capital long enough to trade on matured ales.

. . .

Marked changes have come about in the palate character of beer, as distinct from those due to lower gravity. English light bitter ales are, in most instances, not quite so bitter as pre-1914. The partial absence of that very clean and decided bitter is in cases most marked. On the other hand, some brewers have conferred rather more bitter than the gravity can carry and balance. In both bitters and milds there has been for some years an ever-increasing tendency towards sweetness. Sometimes it is even sickly to the old bitter-drinker. But people generally don't seem to mind, and, on the whole, it is likely the fashion and demand of to-day. There is an idea that the craze for very clear beer is a very modern one. But in Scotland forty years ago the public would have it clear, perhaps because glasses were usually, if not always, used, while pewter and earthenware mugs were still popular in England. Reverting to sweetness, women must have it so — possibly on account of the ancient tag, Sweets for the Sweet — and some men, but for a reason more obscure.

. . .

The writer is not nowadays in touch with the export market, but well remembers the beers he brewed for India thirty years ago, quite light in gravity, but all-malt, hops 13 lb. per quarter, and simply loaded with dry hops. Casks were not returnable, being bought outright by the contractors. So the cooperage proprietor was in clover. Beer matured for some months, good stuff then, but not sooner, for, being mashed at 153 deg. Fahr. initial, it was mawkish for long. One brewing peer, with a household name politically, had a large export business, probably not so large now. There was more money in it then, one fancies.

. . .

From these figures must be deducted bottled beer, say 33.3 per cent, of the gross output, for the pre-1914 bottled trade was not worth considering. Therefore draught ales are likely to be too long on tar. Add to this that the type of tenant has tended to alter, not always for the better, and the situation has worsened. Many of the old tenants had been born and bred in the Trade, barmen had acquired houses of their own, were thoroughly trained to their job and the management of beers. The new man is sometimes a retired soldier, sailor or policeman, at the very least one who is new to the Trade. These require time to learn their work, and, to the end, may forget to keep casks hard spiled or porous pegged as the case may be. How many may be careless as to doing this at 2 p.m. ? And between 2 and 6 p.m. a cask ullage without a spile may be irretrievably ruined. In consideration of the price of beer and the necessity for the young bloods to reserve cash for the cinemas, also that he drinks half-pints whereas his father had pints, one wonders if the use of the ancient Scotch "pony," less than half a pint, in addition to the ordinary use of half-pints in the bars might not he a good thing. It might stimulate beer popularity so far as the young people are concerned. In bottled goods a larger use of nip bottles might do the same thing."
"The Brewers' Journal 1940" pages 55-57.

Let's run through that point by point, shall we?

Brewing just 4,500 barrels a year, that was a pretty small brewery, even by Scottish standards. I was most intrigued by the level of discount - a full third of the price. He specifically says "in Scotland". Does that mean the practice was different in England? Then again, English brewers sold the majority of their beer to tied houses, who I assume would get no discount. In Scotland, of course, most of the pubs were free houses.

So Scottish beers were matured for 1 week month both in 1900 and 1940. That's fascinating. I wonder if that applies to all types of beer. Especially as he mention that English Bitters used to get two or three months. Some English beers, like Bass, got even longer than three months. I'm sure he's right that the amount of capital that it tied up was a major reason behind the disappearance of true Stock Ales.

What does he mean by "sharp"? Could it be tartness? A touch wouldn't be unusual in a beer matured for a long time.

I'm still trying to get clear in my mind exactly when glasses became the usual vessel for beer to be served in. There are some who try to make out in was around 1850. I'm pretty sure that's bollocks. Evidence from Booth's interviews of London publicans suggests that the change started around the 1880's or 1890's. Here the author tells us that in 1900 glasses were already standard in Scotland. Why did they adopt them earlier?

I'm quite surprised at him sending beer to India 30 years ago (or about 1910). It seems quite late for the India trade. What is fascinating is his description of the beer: light in gravity, packed with hops. Being more specific about the gravity would have been handy. Bearing in mind that average gravity was in the low 1050ºs in 1910, I'd guess it wasn't much stronger than that.

Landlords - they aren't what they used to be/. That's another recurring theme across the ages. Much as complaints about the youth of today. I've really included the final paragraph because of what it says about glass sizes. It seems that Bolton wasn't the only town where men drank halves. The jessies. Again, it sounds very modern considering the introduction of smaller glass sizes. Like the idiotic two third of a pint glasses some are trying to push.

It's certainly true that in the 1930's smaller bottles came into fashion. Before WW I, bottles were mostly halves or pints. First Strong Ales - like Barclay's Russian Stout - were sold in nips, but the practice spread to much weaker beers. I can't understand why anyone would want a nip of a beer under 5% ABV. But someone must have disagreed with me, or such packaging wouldn't have existed.


Gary Gillman said...

I like these old or older palate-descriptions, such treatments are relatively few in the pre-Michael Jackson and (American beer writer) Jim Robertson days.

I can understand that hop impact was lesser by 1940 since indeed other data shows hop usage falling steadily from the mid-1800's. The author though seems fixed mostly on bitter ale, and perhaps that was most of his output (i.e., mild ale character would not presumably have had a clean prominent bitter even in the 1800's). Since his beer - he refers to "Scotch beer" - was conditioned at least 1 month, I would think it was bitter beer/pale ale in style, not soft/sweet/Edinburgh ale style.

Sharp probably meant dry, bitter, alcoholic and sometimes sourish/tart. If you started with a dextrinous beer produced by a high-temp mashing, i.e., one set for the long run, you might end up with a dryish, often brett-influenced beer, probably like some Saisons of today or Orval, possibly.


Jeff Renner said...

You write, "So Scottish beers were matured for 1 week both in 1900 and 1940."

But the author says one month:

"Scotch beers were invariably kept, and still are, for a month to mature and condition in cask before leaving the brewery ..."

Ron Pattinson said...

Jeff, thanks for that correction.

marquis said...

Perhaps the men were drinking halvers because in their other hand they had a glass of Scotch.Whisky and a chaser in other words.

Gary Gillman said...

Well, that's it, a pony and a gill...


Gary Gillman said...

Bur since accuracy is prized here, I should add, the gill of whisky was really less than that (as served in licensed establishments), something like an ounce and a quarter or that neighborhood: it varied over time in Britain. A true gill was 5 ounces.

But still, the term gill was used loosely to order spirits, eg, "just a gill please", or so I have heard.