Wednesday 30 January 2013

Why I don't read beer magazines

The latest issue of What's Brewing and Beer Magazine arrived today.  First article, third paragraph it says this:

"As porters turned to pale ale, hops had to get better in quality and more focus went on their flavour. As bitters lost favour to lagers, fewer hops were needed and brewers moved away from Brish varieties and towards high alpha foreign hops."

Once again, it's a miracle how the author, in this case Mark Dredge, can get the story so wrong. The poor understanding of the history of British beer styles doesn't bode well for the rest of the article.

Porter, as a Beer, was heavily hopped. London brewers used top-quality Kent hops in their Porters and Stouts. Pale Ale replaced Porter? No it fucking didn't. Mild Ale replaced Porter. Pale Ale was only very briefly the nation's favourite - approximately 1965 to 1985.

Now onto the hops stuff. I've found plenty of 19th century beers - for example Younger's beers, including their IPA - with no British hops in them at all. The simple trruth is that Britain couldn't grow enough hops for its own needs after about 1840 and imported hops from everywhere imaginable. Some years in the late 19th century Britain imported more than 50% of the hops used in brewing.

Brewers often preferred foreign hops for a simple reason: they were cheaper. British farmers were discouraged from growing hops by foreign hops driving down the price and the susceptibility of the crop to bad weather, pests and disease. That's just one epidose, and quite a simplification of it. WW I had a huge influencce on hop-growing, too. The whole industry would have gone bankrupt without government intervention.

The ups and downs of the British hop industry are a fascinating story, driven by a whole array forces that spanned the whole world. Reducing its decline to something as simple as a change in the public's preferred beer style is really irritating.

Beer writing still has a long way to go.


Barm said...

This is a bit harsh. But the quote does shows the danger of trying to telescope 200 years of beer history into one paragraph.

"As porters turned to pale ale, hops had to get better in quality and more focus went on their flavour."

Well, Loftus does suggest here that brewers might want to keep their finest hops for pale ale, as they used their best malt for it:

"As bitters lost favour to lagers, fewer hops were needed and brewers moved away from Brish varieties and towards high alpha foreign hops."

You're right, Mark has indeed left out the long reign of Mild. The reason is that he’s jumped forward a hundred years without telling us, and is now talking about the late twentieth century, in which case the sentence makes sense.

Alan said...

Not to mention that pale ales pre-date porter by centuries:

Cooking Lager said...

I think you ought to go round his gaff and sort 'im out. How dare he get a bit of inconsequential beer trivia wrong! Burn him !

Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, my main problem, along with the distortion of British beer style development, is the idealistic view: that it's the abstract notion of beer style that determined the history of the British hop industry. That's not a simplification, it's completely untrue. It was far more complex and driven by economic forces.

Why didn't Mild get a mention? Because it wouldn't fit in with the pat theory of needing more high-quality hops in the mid-19th century to brew Pale Ale. As we all know, Mild doesn't have hardly any hops in it.

Ron Pattinson said...

Cooking, see my answer to Barm. That mistake in beer history is the whole basis of his argument.

Oblivious said...

Is this not a case of beer bloggers confusing their opinions with really historical research?

Tandleman said...

Mark has come a long way in a short time. I'd cut him some slack. Nobody chins Roger Protz for getting things wrong after all.

Oh. Wait a minute. They do, don't they.

I'm sticking to opinions. Facts are bothersome and vexatious.

Ron Pattinson said...

Tandleman, I have been cutting him slack. It's just run out.

Anonymous said...

Dredge is a charlatan. Not only does he know nothing about beer history but nothing about beer full stop. How can he be taken seriously when his beer of the year is craft carling from the brewery that bank rolls him!

Mark Dredge said...

I happen to like that sentence and when you've got a tight word count for a broad article you can't sprawl on for pages and pages about the history; sometimes you need to get from A to B with a jump.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong: porter was Britain's most popular style. A few hundred years later it become pale ale/bitter (not much separates those, right?) and then it became lager. Yes, it didn't happen as quickly as that and things happened in the middle, but that's largely accurate, I believe.

As for quality, I got that part from Margaret Lawrence's 'The Encircling Hop'. "...known as Indian Pale Ale and Pale Ale, it was made with better quality hops. This made redundant the inferior hops which had been suitable for porter brewing and the gardens producing these were destroyed..." (There's other stuff in there too but I'm not typing it all out) Dark beers, no matter how heavily hopped in comparison to IPAs or PAs, will still have an element of that powerful dark malt flavour and that can cover any kind of quality issue.

You also missed the next part: how tastes then shifted towards brighter, juicier American and NZ hops. That's important in context. Because tastes change and we don't all still drink London porter from the 1800s or Mild from the 1940s.

What you have done is taken 40-odd words out of 2,500 and changed their context. As a historian I guess you can do that and spin it to your own use? The point of that paragraph is to show a quick overview of some reasons of the decline of the hop industry. I couldn't take 1,000 words to do it because... and this is the important part... the article ISN'T ABOUT THAT! The article is about what is happening with British hops RIGHT NOW. It's about what growers are doing, about hop breeding; it's a COME ON GUYS, LET'S USE SOME BRITISH HOPS cheeralong.

The history provides some brief - perhaps too brief, I accept that, and I know I haven't gone into details about brewers using non-British hops, but that was largely unimportant to the article - background to show the British hop industry today. If you read past the first page you might have seen that.

And Anon... What the hell are you talking about? You want to have a chat about beer history some time? I'm not bankrolled by anyone. And you are clearly showing an idiotic naivety. Now grow some and put your name on comments like this or just go away. A charlatan? Whatever.

Mike said...

I don't understand all this "cut him some slack" sentiment.

He's written an article for a commercial magazine and why shouldn't he meet professional standards? Because he's young is no excuse.

If he wrote this on his blog, these comments might make some sense.

However, professional standards should and do apply to anyone who writes professionally and in this case as well.

Ron Pattinson said...

Mark, they still needed loads of cheap hops for Mild, which outsold IPA manyfold in the second half of the 19th century.

I've spent the last several years fighting over-simplified versions of beer history. The sentence implies Pale Ale became the most popular style after Porter fell out of favour. That's missing out about 110 years of Mild's supremacy.

The British hop industry was damaged in the second half of the 19th century by the government's decision to allow a free trade in hops by removing import tariffs, not by a change in style preferences.

I've seen what London brewers used in their Porter and Stouts: lots and lots of East Kent Goldings.

Bailey said...

When I'm editing people's writing, they sometimes say: "It can't be simplified -- it's too complex and using any other words will render it untrue."

The problem with that is, if it's impossible for the layman to understand, and the author won't or can't simplify and summarise, someone else will -- either the reader or an intermediary. And they'll probably get it wrong.

Serious historians need to either learn to write for a popular audience, or accept that that ground's been lost and not worry too much about it.

(Not meaning to be rude to anyone with this, just joining in the general festival of frankness.)

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the premise here. Even local media - especially newspapers - want to write a story rather than just the truth of the news, and end up getting something wrong. It's like they're ADHD and can't sit still long enough to pay attention to the subject. Or worse, they somehow find a way to disparage the subject when trying to be cute!

Tandleman said...

Bailey (Mike) - That's what I meant about cutting some slack. "Beer" isn't written for historians, but for the most part, ordinary CAMRA members. I could go on.

Ron Pattinson said...

Tandleman, so It's OK to write something that isn't correct if the audience isn't historians? I despair.

panadero said...

I think the beer mag readers can deal with the 'complicated' story. I think that is what they want. Ron's point, I think, is that if you can say what you want, leaving out bits that don't jive with your outcome, you aren't giving a true history.
i.e."Fidel Castro was born, played some mediocre baseball, had a career and died." Not false, but not really the story you are looking for. If the story is too long for the piece, write a different story, or make it a two parter - give us a real cliffhanger!
taste and smell(2 cents)

Tandleman said...

Ron. No. OK. Send the boys round and sort him out. Down with him

Panny. You don't know what Beer Magazine is do you?

Jeff Alworth said...

I have no dog in this fight--but maybe one in a more general fight. Sometimes history can't answer everything. "East Kent Golding" hop may be a good variety, but there's going to be tons of variability. If I were a porter brewer who let his monstrously huge, smoky-roasty beer sit in a barrel until it turned port-like with brett, the last thing I'd do is put my best hops in it.

Sometimes writers do have to make certain inferences. I would never write the sentence Mark did because we need to try to communicate clearly, and Ron's complaint demonstrates it isn't clear. (Writers commit this crime constantly.) But in terms of understanding history, we do need to depend at least a bit on inference.

Ron Pattinson said...

Jeff, but the London Porter brewers' records are full of EKG's.

That's the problem with trying to second guess what was done in the past based on what seems logical to us today. It isn't necessarily the way they looked at things in the past.

Ron Pattinson said...

Jeff, Barclay Perkins Imperial Stout, roastier, portier beer you couldn't imagine. What hops did they use in it? An absolute ton of the freshest EKG's.

You're thinking about beer in in a 21st-century way.

Jeff Alworth said...

No, my point is that they may well have been using EKG, but I would bet a ton of money they weren't their best hops. Obviously this is speculation, but I do know brewers. And I know that if they're making beers in which the hops' subtlety cannot be noticed, they're probably not going to use the most expensive ones. EKGs are good hops. Not all EKGs are the best. Crops vary, hops age differently, and so on. Brewers often buy their hops by lots, not type, because they know about variation. That's one reason why hop-sellers take core samples of hops (I actually saw English samples at Fullers)--to illustrate the lack of packaging chicanery. Variety does not equal quality.

I'm not even making this as a point of history--I would never argue without evidence that they used poorer hops. I'd just mention, as you did, that they were EKGs. But no brewer would squander good, expensive hops. They wouldn't in the 21st century, and I can't imagine they'd be any happier to in the 19th.

Ron Pattinson said...

Jeff, you're working from supposition. I've seen the brewing recods and you can see which are the cheap and which are the expensive. Quite often the prices are even given. And the better quality Stouts were full of top-class EKG. In quantities equal to, or even greater, than those in Pale Ale.

The simple fact is this. The article says that more good quality hops and fewer low-quality hops were needed because people stopped drinking Porter and started drinking Pale Ale. That just didn't happen. The move was from Porter to Mild. So why did they suddenly need more good hops if it was more Mild they were brewing?

The market for cheap hops collapsed because of the trade policies of the British government. Cheap foreign hops priced them out of the market.

The farmers in Kent weren't very happy about the abolition of the import duty on hops was proposed:

". . . if the proposal was carried it would lead to the ruin of hundreds of thousands of families in this country. (Hear, hear.) He asked emphatically, whether the trade and profits were to be thrown into the hands of German Jews and other foreigners, to the disadvantage, and perhaps ruin, of the English merchants ? (Hear, hear.)"
Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 21 February 1860, page 7.

You're thinking of hopping in a very modern way, as being all about flavour. It was very differnt in the past.

Jeff Alworth said...

"You're thinking of hopping in a very modern way, as being all about flavour. It was very differnt in the past."

That's why I read your blog. And that first paragraph is convincing. (Which is why when writing about history I try to avoid filling in blanks even when I think I could. It's just too seductive.)

Ed said...

From "The Encircling Hop" by Margaret Lawrence: "Porter was a dark, heavy, nutritious drink suitable for the working man but there had been a call from the hot climates of the British Empire for a less nutritious, brighter, lighter and more refreshing beer. Known as Indian Ale and Pale Ale, it was made with better quality hops. This made redundant the inferior hops which had been suitable for porter brewing and the gardens producing these were destroyed at a great loss to the grower."