Saturday, 12 May 2012

Irish brewing in the 1920's

Can you remember the time - it seems like generations ago now - when I wrote about Irish beer? We'll be returning to that theme, at least for today. For a simple but good reason: I bumped into this when looking for stuff about Scotland. And, oddly, it fits right in with a piece I've just written for BeerAdvocate magazine about Irish Porter brewing.

Brewers' Journal is my type of magazine, covering a broad spectrum of beery topics. From the fascinating intricacies of licensing legislation, through mid-numbingly technical articles to discussions of foreign brewing practices. I almost forgot financial reports. All the stuff I hunt for.

This article I loved. It's a hymn of praise to the mysteries of Guinness. Probably hard to comprehend for someone who's only encountered Guinness in its current insipid form. Guinness was popular for a reason: it was a damn good beer that couldn't be replicated by English brewers. It was the flavour and quality of Guinness that brought it fame and fortune.

It's worth noting that this article was written at an odd historical moment, when Ireland (or at least part of it) was on the brink of gaining independence. Remembering that Ireland was still technically part of the United Kingdom, makes the lack of interaction between Irish and English brewers the more surprising.  Especially as Guinness was the UK's largest brewery.

I'd suggest reading this post first. It contains Frank Faulkner's description of the Dublin method of brewing written 30 years before this article. It sounds very much as if most of it still held true in the 1920's.

There is something at unspeakably seductive and evasive of true description about a first-class Irish stout, It is extraordinarily full and round, mellow and succulent. Yet is it bitter - but that somehow you don't notice. Behind it and enriching the whole lies that soupcon of strange lactic-like sub-acidity. This infinitely charming beverage compounded of so many different flavours, is most fascinating and wholly characteristic and unapproachable in type.

Head and shoulders, so far as universal popularity is concerned, above other brands, stands out Guinness. Some of the other Dublin brands come remarkably near a prototype; but none has, or, at all events in pre-war days had quite full measure of the Guinness touch. Cork stouts have a delightful soft palatability and a distinction of their own.

To the mind of the writer it is the will-o'-the-wisp sub-acidity that does the trick in Irish stout. Take it away and you've little left but a black, heavy, dry, but very soft and full mild ale with a lot of hops in it — nothing very characteristic or outstanding. Curious that no one has succeeded in fathoming and grasping that extraordinary suggestion of a rare old vintage wine — something lactic it exposes to us — hidden away in the chocolate-coloured depths. In the export variety you get too much of this sub-acid touch and consequently too little of the limpid polished fullness. But the home consumption product has a veritable perfection of nicety of balance in this respect : it is indeed a wonderful work of the Art of Brewing.

The average Britisher has seldom or never tasted Irish stout in Ireland. He only knows it as he gets it in this country. That is probably why the consumption here indicates that many of us like it very much, but not quite enough to enthuse over it. Why it does not possess full measure of its native characteristics when sent to this country is, like the sub-acid, one of the impenetrable mysteries surrounding it. The idea that, in its native form, it would not keep well enough for a trip across the Irish Channel is not wholly convincing.

One most striking characteristic of this home-consumption stout is its consistent condition. It is not so consistent — comparably less so — when it crosses the water. Guinness's draught stouts and porters for Irish trade never seem to have either too much head or too little. The writer is not very familiar with other best brands, but these doubtless also possess this distinctive quality. Strangest of all, even though a cask should stand on an ullage of merely a gallon or two for a considerable time the contents still draw off with the usual firm, close, quiet-looking head. How different from the tempestuous, fiery, overflowing condition one so often sees in English stouts. You may judge a new delivery of porter to be flat, flatter than you ever knew it. You draw off a sample in a glass, and it looks black and uninviting. But let the glass stand for a few seconds, and then, when not before was a speck, the creamy foam, luscious like the head of a gyle as fermentation is just getting under way, appears on top. It is the universal practice to draw off to the last pint without vent. If condition is not good enough to force the liquid out of tap without air-pegging, it is not, according to popular taste, good enough to drink.

The best brands of Irish stouts for home trade used to be about 1074 sp. gr., and the draught  porters nearly 1060. These porters would correspond to the common ales of 1035 to 1045 sp. gr. of this country as being the beverage of the masses. The question suggests itself as to whether or not it was really too heavy for the climate. There is an exotic mildness in the climate of Ireland that beyond all cavil or doubt saps energy. Only those who have lived in the country for years know it. The climate is also extremely moist — some substance in the beverages seems desirable in a wet country. It is a knotty problem altogether, even for those who lived in the land. Let us leave it.

The double stout in those days never appeared to get too much condition in bottle any more than it did in cask, that is to say, within reasonable limits of time bottled. As a rule, a few days would condition it, and afterwards it would not get too high. Certainly it rarely attained the stinging, overflowing and aggravating condition that most ales and stouts acquire after long bottling in this country.

The secrets of manufacture of the finest Irish stouts have never been revealed, if, indeed secrets in the common sense of the word there be. The art may originally have been acquired much as an accident. Perhaps it hinged on bulk storage and pressure, blending, and little else, as many seem to think. These are even now scarcely thoroughly understood in respect of scientific explanation in definition and detail. The writer has himself heard a whole bookful of folk-lore in Ireland attempting to explain away the "secrets" of Guinness's stout. Do or do not the members of the technical staff themselves know the "secrets"? It is feasible that the attractive sub-acidity is got from the blend of old vatted stout, and produced therein in its most pleasing nicety only by the agency of enormous bulk. The soft newness that combines so well with this vatted flavour comes, of course, from the proportion of mild new stout. The condition is unquestionably obtained from the system of priming with raw wort in incipient fermentation. It is possible that the checking of excessive condition is accomplished by the presence of the old vatted stout in some manner not as yet scientifically realized.

The blending of these three-part stouts must be a fascinating thing. Consider the variety of flavours and conditioning that can be obtained for the different conditions of sale. How different from the general run of manufacture of our English stout.

A complete history of the Irish stout industry would be an interesting and instructive thing. It has never been written. Nor even, in the whole mass of brewing literature, have we come across a treatise dealing deeply and exhaustively with the principles of blending malt liquors, and the mysterious changes and flavours Induced by vatting in immense bulk. It is passing strange that so little has been done on this side of the Channel to account for the Complexities of Irish brewing. Considering that the most gigantic brewing concern in the world has arisen from these complexities, entirely on a free-trade basis, and that it still grows faster, perhaps, than any other existing firm it would seem worth while in this scientific age to attempt to get to the scientific bottom of it.

One hears very little in this country concerning brewing in the sister isle. It is a conservative industry, and separated from us by a natural barrier the sea — enough of itself to cause lamentable indifference. We know that the staff of operative brewers required by Guinness number 16 or 18, and the writer understands they are all Oxford or Cambridge men with the fun her advantage of a specialized scientific training at Continental universities. One never hears of these men. Their names never figure in trade journals. They are practically outside our ken.

Irish brewing is a thing apart. It is a pity, for they could teach us much if they would, as we in return could teach them. But there seems little intercommunication. They come to us for much barley and hops, machinery and plant ; they go as silently as they come. It may be we are not so hearty in our reception of them as becomes brothers in business. Perhaps the coldness is mutual. Perhaps it is the deep-rooted conservatism of two very conservative races. Whatever it is, it is a sorry spectacle.

Some research into the peculiarities and principles on which hinge the production of best Irish stouts and porters seems a desirable thing. It is just possible that one of the secrets of production of our own light ales of the future may be bound up with the art of blending. But that appears so remote that it won't lift us of this generation out of the lethargy of passionate conservatism. It is also just possible that the art of "worting," if scientifically investigated, might be applied to light ales with the same success as it has been applied to Irish black beers. Both these ideas may be far-fetched. In any case there is nothing impossible to true Science, and its innermost meaning is to account for everything and neglect no possibilities."
Brewers' Journal 1921, pages 29 - 30.

What's so useful about this piece is the description of the characteristics of Guinness and the attempt to explain how it acquired them. Let's sum these up:

- lactic sub-acidity
- fullness of palate
- bitterness
- a flavour like vintage wine
- firm, dense head, without being overly carbonated

It sounds lovely. If only it were still around. Having been lucky enough to drink plenty of Guinness when it was still bottle conditioned, I can recognise some of these characteristics. There was a faint sour milk background note that really filled the beer out. The high bitterness and firm carbonation were there, too. Though, obviously, the strength of the version I had was lower.

The most important element in obtaining all these characteristics was blending. Just as it had been back in the 1880's when Faulkner described Irish brewing. And the three items to be blended remained the same, too: fresh Mild beer, vatted beer and the partly-fermented wort (called "headings" by Faulkner) that was used in a similar way to sugar primings. The vatting of beer in large volumes sounds very like the old London practice. Where huge vats were used and beer left to mature for a year or more. Odd that the practice had pretty much died out in London by the 1870's. Just when Guinness was starting to become really popular in England.

The conditioning sounds weird. That story about pulling a flat pint and then a head magically appearing a few seconds later is bizarre. How that could happen, I've no idea. But I guess that it's connected with the wort system of priming.

I'll be returning to Irish Stout brewing techniques soon. There's a nice little article from the 1928 Brewers' Journal I wouldn't want you to miss.


Martyn Cornell said...

Interesting that the writer appears to be describing a single-cask serving method, rather than the high cask/low cask method of part of the pint coming from a fresh cask in high condition and part from an older cask in low condition, described elsewhere.

Ron Pattinson said...

Martyn, that had struck me, too.

I'll be publishing another article about Stout brewing from a few years later. It confirms the practice of blending "headings", old beer, and fresj beer.

Gary Gillman said...

Extraordinary! I am sorry Michael Jackson did not live to see this early paean to the then-still living historical flavour of porter.

Before Michael's time there were just snippets in the literature appraising beer from a gastronomic standpoint; this is perhaps the most notable found to date. Well done.


P.S. True enough Frank Faulkner outlined the main elements of stout brewing in Ireland a generation earlier but his description lacked the sensory description and poetry of this "eloge".

Gary Gillman said...

Regarding high cask and low: it may be that when this system came in, the use of headings had been abandoned.

In Roger Protz's book on porter and stout which is where I first read of the system, retired brewers from Dublin and Cork explained the system similarly for their breweries, but no mention was made (that I can recall) of headings. Blending to be sure was still done.

Assuming there was no headings to ensure good condition for the forseeable time the casks had to endure, clearly some would go flat and perhaps a little lactic and sour. Fresh casks would still be lively enough. Also, in a time when less and less vatted stuff was (I'd infer) added to the beer, the use of low casks would supply that want: it's kind of a mini vatting system unto itself. I'd rate my theory as reasonable provided there is evidence no headings were used in stout manufacture by 1960, say, by the era just before the nitrogen dispense system came in. Who can attest to this? There must be retired brewers and others still living from that era. Some who are only 80 now would have been about 30 in 1960. There has to be a Guinness retired employees association, perhaps even readers of this blog in Ireland would know of such gents to ask.


Gary Gillman said...

I just looked at Roger's book (Classic Stout & Porter, 1997) and the brewers interviewed were ex- of Murphy and Beamish (no Guinness men were interviewed). Also, one of the retired brewer's accounts does refer to "unfermented" wort being added to induce a high condition in the casks. There is no explanation whether the "low cask" was similarly confected, but presumably it was and was just older stock. So the high-low method does seem still to have relied on finished beer to which unfermented or partly fermented wort was added. Protz does not indicate if Guinness itself used the high-low in this period (post-WW II and before nitro dispense started) but I think it did. Something must have changed from the 1920's, maybe it had to do with consistency, but also, the 1920's account may have been more a contraction on this point. The writer was English, too, so close as he seems to have been to Irish methods, he may not have understood everything about how the pubs worked in Eire.



Gary Gillman said...

Okay. Here is an account of Irish stout service as described in a 1992 novel of 1950's Irish tenant like (see pp.26-27). The book is The Bodhran Maker by John B. Keane.

Keane evidently did research for this depiction, and his book was written some 5 years before Protz's, so that is not the source.

His account is similar to Pat Early's, the ex-Beamish brewer interviewed in Protz's book, except that Mr. Early stated the pint glass was filled two-thirds with the high cask stout and the remainder with the low. Keane states that the pint glass received just a "squirt" from the high cask and the rest was poured from the low. Maybe it varied in different localities or as between brewers.

Note the detail of "half-tierces" made of wood holding the beer, this could not have been made up, someone who knew about porter in the 1950's told Keane this or he read it somewhere.

This does IMO answer your question, Ron, about the pint looking flat and then the head appearing. Keane states that the mingled beers roiled and only slowly formed into two components of head and black body of the beer. This is what that 1920's account surely was referring to.


Lady Luck Brewing said...

I must comment that this is one of the best writings that I have read about stout. I could almost feel my long gone family enjoying Guinness of the past.