Monday, 6 December 2010

Colour isn't everything

Burton Pale Ale set a fashion for making beers as pale as possible. A fashion that didn't always have the best of results. As observed by Southby:

"So long as brilliancy and paleness of colour are preferred to the more sterling qualities, so long will the finest brewing value in hops be frequently neglected. The overweening desire to follow in the footsteps of those who brew the most fashionable beers, sometimes continues after the first leaders of the mode have seen reason to hold back from the extremes to which others may erroneously attribute perfection. This is emphatically the case with regard to pale ale. Granted that pale ale was fashionable, and is still regarded as the highest class of this description of beer, something more is requisite than the quality of paleness. The most admired pale beers of Burton were for many years noticeable as containing less colour than other beers. In the spirit of competition, the palest malt and hops have been run after until the pale ales of Burton are transcended in this particular by the paler ales of other localities. The highest quality of ale is rarely attainable by the use of such materials as malt and hops when unduly free from colour, and economy must be altogether disregarded, when it is attempted to use thin, weak, but light and brilliant hops, which, though commanding the best prices, contain so little condition that every full brewing quality is sacrificed to colour."
"A systematic handbook of practical brewing" by E.R. Southby, 1885, pages 232-233.
Pale does not necessarily mean higher-quality. I think that's a lesson we should all try to remember. Concentrating on a single characteristic of beer only leads to heartache. Something hop-heads should consider.

This obsession with pale colour could explain some peculiarities of late 19th-century Pale Ale grists. Such as the heavy use of sugar. Sugar often made up more than 20% of Pale Ale grists. More than in Porter and Stout. And, less expectedly, more than in Mild.

Then there's crystal malt. Used in pretty much every Bitter today. When did Barclay Perkins first use it in a Pale Ale? 1942. Whitbread were a bit earlier in their use of crystal: 1928. Lees? 1946.

I managed to spin that out quite nicely. And even threw in the odd scrap of meaty fact. Must be getting the hang of this lark. Finally.


mrbowenz said...

" Concentrating on a single characteristic of beer only leads to heartache. Something hop-heads should consider"

This a "beyond wise" statement that can not be overstated enough !

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, I assume he is referring to flavour although he doesn't say so in so many words. It may be that, so pale did base malts become that crystal malt became necessary, or dark sugar in some cases, to restore the deeper pale (and correlative flavour) that preceded the palest malt. He suggests the palest malts were the least costly (less fuel and time needed to kiln?), so perhaps it all makes sense.

On the hops side, he distinguishes, as many writers before him did, weak and strong hops and pale and darker ones. This is something today that has disappeared, this particular vocabulary for hops. Everything is reduced to IBUs and who talks of colour in hops today? Has dark colour has been bred out of all the varieties such that a dark hop (or darker than medium-green) doesn't exist anymore?

Some American pale ales have a characteristic light greenish colour but that is as far as it goes and I suspect it's more the quantity of hops they are using than the colour.

His comments may presage those of the 1970's writers who bemoaned the pale and flavourless American international lagers. Relatively speaking.


ZakAvery said...

Imagine that - a characteristic of a beer other than flavour being prized above everything else, ansometimes to the detriment of it. Thank goodness the beer market is no longer so fickle.

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, he's talking about colour, I'm sure.

The reason they later needed to add crystal malts seems pretty obvious to me: the lower gravity beer was brewed to after WW I.

Gary Gillman said...

"The highest quality of ale is rarely attainable by the use of such materials as malt and hops when unduly free from colour...".

Ron, this shows, IMO, that he considered beers that were too pale to have less flavour. Ditto for hops, the references to thinness, light colour and lack of condition show this. Condition meant good odour and resinous quality.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, I think he's saying "really pale ingredients don't make really top-class beer".

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, I agree but what is a top-class beer?

Graham Wheeler said...

I think what the man was trying to say, is that the paler the malt the blander it becomes. Many of the malty flavours are produced by maillard reactions during kilning.

The malts that have a certain amount of "stewing" involved in the manufacturing process, crystal malt, caramalt, Munich malt and the like produce much more malty flavours because moisture, along with the right temperature among other requirements, are necessary for the maillard reactions to take place.

Modern pale ale malt is gradually dried before the kilning 'proper' takes place. The grain is dry before the temperature is raised to finishing temperature. The finishing temperature is quite low, lower than optimum for maillard reactions. Traditionally, kilning of pale ale malt took around five days because of this pre-drying phase.

On the other hand, old-time pale, amber and brown, all of which I put into the 'brown' class of malts took just 24 hours to kiln in the case of pale malt, the others took even less time.

The grain was soaking wet when it was shoved on the kiln and no attempt was made to gradually dry it. Moisture got trapped in the kernel and a certain amount of stewing must have taken place, which will allow the enzymes to produce the sugars and amino acids necessary to form the maillard reactions. The higher finishing temperatures, which must have been the case if finishing was done in just 24 hours, virtually ensured a high level of malty flavour compounds.

Old time malts must have had a much more malty character than modern malts. The inclusion of crystal malt probably replicates that maltiness, which would explain why it took off at around the turn of the twentieth century.

I think that the bloke was simply complaining that pale beers were bland, in much the same way as many ale drinkers today would regard most lagers as bland.

1885 is probably a bit late to be moaning about that though.