Monday, 13 January 2014

The condition of Burton Ale in the 1920's

What sort of condition was Burton Ale in down the pub in the 1920's? It's the sort of answer I wouldn't expect to get an answer to. Yet, courtesy of the Whitbread Gravity Book, some evidence does exist.

Because in the early years it also included information about the appearance and flavour of the beer being analysed.

Let's begin with Watney's Burton:

Watney's Strong Ale condition 1922 - 1924
Year Beer FG OG ABV App. Atten-uation Appearance Flavour
1922 KK 1012.5 1058.5 6.00 78.63% cloudy v fair
1922 KK 1012.2 1057.2 5.87 78.67% bright fairly full
1922 KK 1013.9 1055.9 5.46 75.13% v bright good
1922 KK 1010.8 1056.3 5.94 80.82% bright unpleasantly bitter
1923 KK 1012.9 1059.4 6.06 78.28% fairly bright good
1923 KK 1013.6 1056.6 5.60 75.97% bright poor
1923 KK 1015 1059.5 5.79 74.79% hazy only fair
1923 KK 1015 1059 5.72 74.58% bright good
1923 KK 1014.2 1058.2 5.73 75.60% bright going off
1923 KK 1014.8 1061.8 6.12 76.05% bright fair
1923 KK 1010.6 1061.6 6.67 82.79% not bright fair
1924 KK 1014.1 1059.5 5.91 76.30% bright fair
1924 KK 1015.1 1060 5.84 74.83% bright v good
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/001.

Only three of the 13 examples weren't bright. Not too bad at all. Perhaps the other three pubs were marketing it as "unfined" beer. The beers came out a little worse in terms of flavour, with 4 examples not up to snuff.

The Burtons from other London brewers were much more of a mixed bunch:

London Strong Ale condition in 1922
Brewer Beer FG OG ABV App. Atten-uation Appearance Flavour
Barclay Perkins KK 1011.7 1056.2 5.80 79.18% cloudy fair
Beasley KK 1014.4 1056.6 5.49 74.56%
Cannon Brewery KK 1015.4 1054.4 5.06 71.69% not bright no head v poor
Charrington KK 1015.6 1055.9 5.23 72.09% bright American cask
City of London KK 1008.5 1056.7 6.30 85.01% cloudy fair
Courage KK 1013.2 1053.7 5.27 75.42% bright v good
Hoare KK 1015.5 1056.5 5.33 72.57% cloudy fair
Huggins KK 1012.6 1056.1 5.67 77.54% bright good
Lion Brewery KK 1010.7 1056.7 6.00 81.13% cloudy fair
Mann KK 1013 1057 5.73 77.19% bright not good too sweet
Meux KK 1007.4 1058.4 6.68 87.33% cloudy good
Truman KK 1013.8 1052.8 5.07 73.86% rather bitter
Wenlock KK 1010 1054 5.74 81.48% cloudy poor
Whitbread KK 1016.3 1054 4.89 69.81% almost bright fair
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/001.

Only four out of 14 were properly bright, though for a couple of examples the clarity isn't noted. On the upside, 8 of 14 didn't taste bad. But what really struck me was what is said about Charrington KK: "American cask".

I know exactly what that refers to. It means that the cask was made of American oak and its tainted the beer. Although they usually used unlined casks, the last thing British brewers wanted was any wood flavour in their beer. That was seen as a fault.

Overall, the condition of Burton Ales wasn't that bad. If you entered a random set of London pubs today, what percentage of their cask beers would be in good condition? Probably lower than the percentage of well-kept Watney's Burton in the table above.


Gary Gillman said...

I would think "American cask" tasted like the Innis & Gunn Original, where you get a distinct vanilla and coconut note, similar to that in American Chardonnay or bourbon whiskey. In one sense this shows that the taste of British beer from the past is truly lost since there is I believe no Baltic wood in use today, no "Memel" certainly, in Anglo-American brewing. (Except for stout perhaps since we read that Guinness had no objection to American wood).

For the recreationists: time to source some oak from Memel, there must be a little still available. I know that English brewers wanted no taste from the wood but it seems unlikely to me there was none at all: rather there was something there that was not "noticed" and felt peculiarly to suit the beer. Even suspending some Memel staves or chips in a tank might work, it might be as close as one can get to the real thing and presumably would be easy to source.


Gary Gillman said...

If any of the British craft breweries in particular are reading, a quick search under "Baltic oak" discloses two companies in Poland which supply oak for various building and other purposes. One of the sites states most of their supply is from "Central Europe". I can't imagine it would be difficult to get chips, staves or maybe even barrels from these sources from wood grown in the Memel region.

Most modern barrel-aged beers are surely stored in American oak, and what you cited Ron is a good instance of how this taste was remarked on as non-standard and (in effect) not liked.

There is nothing wrong with creating a modern taste for the American wood influence just as I suppose for New World hops, but it would be interesting surely to know what beer pours like from the kind of wood used and preferred for generations of brewers in beer's heyday in Albion.

But indeed, no liners please. That would defeat the purpose. Steam-cleaning and good handling should keep the Memel sweet on its own.


Anonymous said...

I wonder which pubs they used to try the beers out.
Back in the day before modern cellar equipment we all knew where the good stuff was to be found and which pubs to avoid.It was always great fun to drive around from pub to pub and try what the landlords were doing. The predominant beer was Home Ales but every landlord of note put his own stamp on things, the Black Horse was creamy and the Anchor was malty.
Happy days.And all for a few pence a pint.

Ron Pattinson said...


in some cases it says which pub the beer came from.

One of the great things about basically just drinking Tetley's Mild for seven years was that I got really tuned in on the beer and could spot how well, or how much to my taste, different landlords handled the beer.

In some pubs it was just so spot on. And in others never quite right.

Home Ales I always found to be right down the middle of the road. Almost always in good consition, but rarely hitting the real heights.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gary

There are still to my knowledge two working coopers (for beer rather than spirit or wine casks) in the UK at the moment: Jonathan Manby at Theakstons and Alistair Simms at Wadsworth (both breweries supply some of the beer to local pubs in oak casks). I bought a firkin (9 gallon) from Alistair about 5 years ago and regularily use it for my beers and last year bought two pins (4.5 gallon) casks from Theakstons. Once the casks have had a few beers through them (after being coopered) to bed them in they don't provide flavour to the beer. Alastair told me that some English oak is being grown in France (English oak is a species) and you can (or could a couple of years back) purchase a new firkin from him in English oak. mine was a cheaper option - the heads (ends) of the cask were made from English oak and the staves were 60-100 year old, reclaimed from a larger butt used to hold spirits (and therefore possibly Spanish or American). However he confirmed that there isn't a tradition of having 'oaky' beer from these casks - they should be neutral or give a very subtle edge to the beer at most (mine are now all neutral). They work very well in practice being naturally insulated and less susceptible to temperature swings. I keep mine in good nick by cleaning with cold water and then steaming (using a wall paper stripper) between uses. Been fine for 5 years or more, but they are very heavy, even when empty.
I'm starting a tiny commercial brewery this year (2.5 barrels) and planning on ageing some porter and stock ales in these casks. Will be interesting to see how 'Bretty' they get without deliberate innoculation.

cheers, Ben

Ron Pattinson said...


in a couple of cases, the pub the sample was taken from is named.