Sunday 10 April 2011

Stock Ale in the early 19th century

Hey, hey, hey as Krusty would say.  I warned you that April was going to be all about ageing. And I don't mean my limbs. Today's text discusses just how old beer needs to be. For it to be perfect to drink.

It describes private brewing. That is, brewing for your own use. When the text was written, many still brewed this way. But it wasn't to last much longer. The changes in taxation brought into force with the 1830 Beer Act was hugely disadvantageous to domestic brewers. Taxation was removed from beer itself and places 100% on its ingredients, malt and hops. As a result, domestic brewers paid the same tax as commercial brewers.

The increasing sophistication of commercial breweries also put domestic brewers at a disadvantage, particularly in terms of quality and consistency. In the 18th century, there had been little difference between a large domestic brewhouse and a small commercial one. By 1830, that was no longer true.

What effect did the decline in domestic brewing have? It may well have helped the demise of aged beers. Not having the same commercial constraints as their professional colleagues, domestic brewers could afford to leave beer to mature for extremely long periods. Did drinkers, not having access to fully-matured, home-brewed beer, lose their taste for it? I guess we'll never know.

"The age at which ale is drank, will depend upon a private person's stock; the size of his cellar, &c. but more frequently upon his family habits, and the pecuniary means he chooses to devote to this beverage. Good mellow ale, soft and fine, may be had at a year old; and it is, perhaps, never better than from one year old to two. Some persons never reckon ale to be old, unless it drinks a little hard, or with some, approaches to sharpness, or acidity; but this is a false taste: old ale in this sense, it has been well said, is old ale spoiled.

After all, a hogshead or pipe of ale, that has. been properly brewed and carefully managed, will not always be fine when tapped. Suppose it be a year old, or what is more common, suppose it to be brewed in October (the best month in which to brew good ale for keeping), and tapped at the Christmas twelve-month following; if when tapped it be not fine, it may be corked up again, and stand another twelve-month, when it will probably be found not only fine, but greatly improved in flavour; but if it be wanted, it may be fined as follows: draw off a gallon or two, if the cask be a pipe, and take a quarter of a pound of isinglass, and some fresh hops, and scald them in a clean copper pan, dissolving the isinglass therewith; pour the quantity into a dry pail, and when cool put it into the barrel, and stir the whole together well with a long stick, or such an one as you have head-way to introduce; bung down the cask a few hours afterwards, and in a fortnight the ale will become fine. If the ale drink thin, and incline to be hard, let a pound or two, or more if required, of sugar-candy, bruised, be put into the pan with the hops, &c.

The method called marrying ale, we have often seen tried upon a private person's stock with success. It seems to increase its strength, but especially its mellowness and the fulness of its flavour, and consists in tapping a pipe or hogshead of ale in the middle, and when it is drawn as low as the tap, to fill up the cask with another brewing of wort. The particulars to be observed are: to begin upon a sound stock, such as is approved as to colour and flavour; for if there be any approach to acidity it will not do. The next point is to tun the newly-fermented wort upon the old stock, when it has fermented about twelve hours. The third particular, of great importance, seems to be, not to marry your ale in winter, but in autumn (October), for if your cellar be not a vault,the old stock is too chill, and the fermentation may suddenly stop: if this should happen, as in cellars that are not vaults, the heat may increase considerably in spring, the fermentation may be renewed, and the ale may spoil, or mischief happen to the cask by bursting. Ale that is brewed in the usual way will sometimes ferment in summer, and throw up the bungs of the barrels; especially if the fermentation have been hastily conducted, and little or no cleansing have taken place in the barrels after tunning (which is likely to be the case when brewing is performed in frosty weather); where this happens, the danger is that acidity will follow, and therefore the beer should be speedily used. When ale is married, the fermentation will bring away all the old hops, and it is not to be overlooked that the cork will rise that had been driven in with the tap. It is, therefore, requisite to work it out at the bunghole, skimming away the hops, &c. till they and the cork are discharged; then fill up the cask, and take out the top cork for cleansing, as before. It may be filled up several times with fresh wort, as in other cases, until the fermentation stops, and then the cork and bung put in (the latter very lightly) and left so until it is necessary to hop it down. The writer has refilled a cask in this manner five years successively, and had the ale always superior, and always alike in colour and flavour; in continuing this practice for a long period it is necessary to remove the casks for fear of accidents. The excellence of this ale is, that you can never guess at its age; it drinks always soft and mild, without any resemblance to ale recently brewed, and is equally remote from hardness or acidity"
"The London encyclopaedia Volume 1", 1829, pages 503 - 504.

When was beer at its best? Between one and two years old. Patience is what you needed. Brewed in October one year and ready for christmas the year after. I make that 15 months. I love the suggestion that, if it isn't clear the first christmas to just leave it annother year. Few have such pzatience and self-restariant in the modern world.

Adding hops with the finings is an interesting technique. Presumably the hops are to help clear the beer, rather than for any bittering function. I've seen the adjective "hard" used to describe beer before. I'm still not sure what it means. Could it mean sour? That might explain why adding sugar would help.

The process of  "marrying" sounds very much like a solera system. Fuller's do something similar with Prize Old Ale. They draw off half the beer from the maturation tank for bottling and then fill it up again with fresh beer. They're making a proper Old Ale in a very old-fashioned way. I wonder how many realise that?

"when it has fermented about twelve hours" implies that that the wort being added had only just started fermenting. I can undwerstand why you wouldn't want to seal the barrel until it had finished fermenting. Presumably it was the CO2 produced during fermentation that brought the remnants of the dry hops to the surface to be removed.

I keep coming across all these fascinating techniques. Especially ones concerned with maturation. I'd love to see somehow have a go at them.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, it's interesting to compare this writer's insistence that his vatted-solera-type beer is remote from acidity or hardness.

There are many period statements as you know that beer aged for long periods were acid to a point. You read many formulae: approaching acidity, on the verge, sub-acid, slightly sour, etc. Yet this writer insists on aged beer not being sour in the least.

Even accepting that we don't know exactly what he would have called slightly sour, I take his assertions at their word - and his beer must have been very good.

I think those who vaunt barrel-aged beers, particularly in the U.S., as sour are on the wrong track except where making lambic or a Flanders-type red ale. The semi-sourness (whether acetic or lactic) of much Belgian beer in the 1800's is well-established from the record. Indeed to this day Saison can have that characteristic.

However, the craft brewers should consider producing beers stored for a multi-year period which don't become "sharp" (another 1700's term for slightly sour). I am sure there are some available, but the ones you tend to read about are again vaunted as sour in style. Certainly there is some market for these, but let's have some non-sour old beer since we know that long-aged beer didn't have to be, indeed shouldn't have been, sour according to this author and some others.

The writer's statement that the beer drank neither new nor old - but without being sour - recalls the famous statement in Poundage that porter well-hopped and aged a few months avoided the "extremes", was similarly neither new nor old. Clearly there was a tradition into the 1800's to ensure porter and ale of this character.

Why though did quality old beer mostly disappear? I think the tide of bad old beer washed away the little that was good. In a time when quality control was primitive, there probably wasn't enough good old beer around. It's like bad money chasing out good... The addition too of returns (out and out sour) beer to mild mostly fell away because in the end - I infer - it was recognized for the expedient it was.

I say, bring back the old barrel-aged beer that wasn't sour in the least.


Graham Wheeler said...

The acidity of beer was very important in those days, certainly in the previous century. Still is today in a minor way; acidity is, in fact, an important flavour enhancer; a beer that has too little acidity may taste dull or even soapy, soapy being my description.

In the previous century, both ales and beers had much lower hop rates, which then increased substantially during the 1700s and 1800s.

Ellis in 1736 specified 1.5 pounds of hops per quarter for an ale consumed at a month; Watkins in 1773, specified 3 lbs per qtr for the same thing; Tuck in 1822 recommends 6 lbs per qtr for a month, 8lbs per qtr for longer keeping, and 12 lbs/ qtr for a stock ale.

The strength dropped along with the increase in hopping. The Watkins ale was 1 qtr to the hogshead, about 1150. The Tuck beer was 1075, half the strength. This, as it happens, confirms what Poundage wrote.

Most commentators would suggest that Ellis's ale at somewhere around o.g. 1200 with just 1.5 lbs of hops per quarter would have been sweet and cloying. It is often suggested, in home brewing circles at least, that hop rates and original gravity should be balanced. High gravity beers apparently need a higher hop rate to balance their sweetness or maltiness. This theory presupposes that there is only one way of balancing cloying maltiness, and that is by increasing the hop rate. But there is another way – acidity can be used to counteract cloying sweetness in a beverage.

Acidity gives the impression of dryness. It is still considered important in wine.

An modern illustration is that almost every commercial soft drink is acidic even though the traditional major ingredient is half-a-ton of sugar. A typical 330ml tin of traditional (non-diet) soft drink contains around 40 grams of sugar, about ten teaspoonfuls. The sugar, which acts as a preservative, would make the drink overpoweringly sweet and cloying, so the makers add loads of citric or phosphoric acid to the drink to cut through the sweetness. Acidity in soft drinks is an important aspect of perceived refreshment power and thirst-quenching ability, and it gives the sensation of dryness. Without the added acid it would be wearying rather than refreshing, perhaps repulsive after just a mouthfull or two.

The author of the passage hopped at 8lbs per quarter, and this is about three time the hop rate of the previous century. Obviously less acidity would be required in the balance, and too much acidity would taste sour. It is a matter of balance.

Some people relshed a degree of sourness in their beer, just as today some people relish yoghurt and others throw vinegar, ketchup, salad cream and other stuff over their food. All of which are sour.

The Professor said...

The mention of Fuller's technique with the Prize Old Ale sounds very much like what Ballantine (Newark, NJ, USA) did with their Burton Ale (drawing off a quantity of strong,vatted ale-- the core of which had spent up to an incredible 20 years in wood-- and then topping it up with a replacement quantity of newly brewed strong ale).
They continued to do this at least through the mid 1960's (and by some unconfirmed accounts, right up to the time the brewery closed in 1971).

It would be interesting indeed if the current crop of new brewers ventured to make something with this kind of dedication but it would sure be a pricey item. I couldn't begin to imagine what the Newark Burton ale would have cost if it was commercially available during the time it was produced, especially when one considers that even the 1 year aged IPA they made sold back then for the 2011 equivalent (factoring in inflation) of probably well over $16/sixpack.

Gary Gillman said...

Points all taken Graham except I think his ale, brewed in October for keeping one year or two, was really a beer (October beer), and so more in line with Tuck's hopping for beer kept 12 months. Some acid there must have been, but he is careful to note the drink wasn't even a little hard.

Good observation about hops going up and malt going down in terms of what Poundage said. I never thought of it that way. Once again, economics had their say but probably fortuitously, people did acquire the palate for an aged well-hopped beer.

Point taken also about expense but some American brewers seem willing to go all the way in this regard.


Graham Wheeler said...

Yes, Gary
I'll accept that it was probably a beer. Earlier in the passage the author defines ale and beer, but uses just porter as an example of beer. For the passage in question he uses the term ale.

I used the term ale, and associated it with ale, because he did. Because I am currently looking into what distinguished ale from beer, I just used numbers that I already had to hand.

I would say that if the acidity is right, it would not be detectable as such. Today, because we use higher hop levels generally, we do not need the same degree of acidity. Nevertheless, if we brew with water that has too much carbonate, we end up with the pH of the final beer being too high and it tastes characterless - soft - soapy.

Acidity, if it is the right sort of acidity, mellows with age. Initially it is sharp, but that sharpness diminishes. Frequently home brewers have produced beers that have been sour, but if, rather than throw the beer away, they leave it a few months, it often turns out great. It depends, of course, upon what the infecting organism is as to whether it gets better or worse with age, but often these beers turn out fine.

I find it hard to believe that his solera-type beer would have been free from hardness, for any other reason that the acidity had mellowed. He was also continually diluting the aged beer with fresh beer.

I have often wondered if the porter ageing vats were operated solera style. Today it would be the obvious way of doing it.

Gary Gillman said...

The porter vats must have been solera and I was wondering the exact same thing. By being drawn down regularly, there would have been the need to fill them up.

Re-filling would have achieved, i) optimum use of storage resources, ii) agitation of the mixture to ensure ongoing conditioning, and iii) creation of the median palate described in both this short account and Poundage.

Refilling as part of the porter production method has not been spoken of before here IIRC, but I think it may be part of the answer to what porter originally was.

Perhaps in the later 1800's, when porter was left to get hard on purpose (so as to mix with fresh drink), refilling was less methodical or no longer used by some brewers.


Graham Wheeler said...

I was thinking more in terms that the best way of inoculating a beer with the desired micro-organisms would be to be to put fresh keeping beer on top of beer that already has the desired characteristics, before they knew about microbiology.

I was talking about the souring portion - the entire, not the porter that was consumed. I doubt if porter itself was ever made that way. The whole point of porter was this hardening process to balance the acidity, the bringing forward. It is the only thing that distinguishes porter from any other brown beer of the day.

It meant, unlike typical brown beers, that about three-quarters of a porter brewery's output did not need lengthy maturation. It considerably reduced the cost.

Gary Gillman said...

I see what you are saying, but I still feel that such porter, drank at 5-6 months, didn't need mixing with unaged brown beer. Only later did such mixing occur I think, at the pub or finally at the brewery before sending out. Both the author of this homebrew approach and Poundage refer to a median palate (neither new nor stale). Neither refer to further mixing to get the right palate. I don't disagree with you though in terms of how the hardening porter was made by about 1800, because by then "the system had altered"...


Gary Gillman said...

But I still accept that some porter was aged longer than 6 months and still drinkable (short of acid), just as some porter, maybe even the majority, was always sold mild.

I feel the tendency though, in the heyday of entire, was that it was drunk not too old (perhaps 6 months to a year) and not sour but dry. The difficulty, and expense, of reaching the right palate probably encouraged the turn to the altered system.


Graham Wheeler said...

I do not believe that 1700s porter was ever not soured; it was the technique that Whitbread and the others set themselves up to exploit.

Souring in the pub preceded the porter breweries. That was what the 'monied people' did, the agencies; they supplied the sour part, which took two or three years and tied up capital for that length of time.

Any old beer, as opposed to ale, was often kept five or six months if only because of the seasonal nature of brewing.

Because a mild beer was hardened by adding sour, it does not necessarily mean that the final beer tasted sour.

By the 1800s the sourness was diminishing. By 1830 Barclay said that the sales of his enitre, a word he reserved for the aged, vatted stuff, was dropping. He also implied that his entire was too sour to be consumed undiluted.

By this time the mild was becoming fit enough to drink on its own; the brown malt had all but gone, the smokiness had gone, presumably better hops were employed. These things contributed harshness, which required long maturation times to mellow.

It is my belief that the gradual ruduction of brown malt during the 1700s was more to do with speeding of maturation time than anything to do with perceived extract, after the price of pale malt had dropped sufficiently to make it economical.

Gary Gillman said...

If we go back to basics, what was entire? A (finished) beer not mixed. Definitions of entire in this period I have checked state that it means unmixed. All the mashes were combined, and (we know) aged, to form one beer that had characteristics of two or more beers mixed.

Thus, apart from contemporary evidence that porter should not be consumed before one year of age (I can show you this reference), we have the fact that mild porter could have been called entire too (because unmixed), but it wasn't. Entire was the aged version which was in theory at least neither mild nor stale.

In practice, some mixing in the 1700's probably continued because some entire was too acid, the reality did not meet the promise. And, some people clearly still liked fresh brown beer, we saw that "mild porter" was on sale in that 1750's ad Martyn posted on his site recently. That 1750's ad did not offer "mild entire", but mild porter - mild brown beer. I don't say the term "mild entire" was never used, but terminology would have varied to an extent.

Finally the mixing came back, at the pub and then at the brewery because it was a cheaper and surer way to offer the desired mid-point palate. Today Guinness adds I understand citric acid for a similar purpose...

This is as I interpret the history.


Stefan van Rossum said...

Hello, I have a collection of bottles and recently learned that one of the bottles is likely to be a English beer bottle from around 1850. These bottles are found more frequently, but mostly empty, while mine's is filled and sealed. Would you guys be able to tell me a little more about my bottle, naturally after I have send some pics ? Regards, Stefan (