What gose around

Hugh Thomas takes us on a brief history of beer.

A couple of years back, Robinsons – the Stockport brewery and pub co in its sixth generation ­– dropped its 1892 mild from production. Apparently the beer, a mildly-hopped ale by modern standards, was damaging turnover. “Today’s drinker does not want a mild,” MD Oliver Robinson told Manchester’s Evening News. “It’s the category that’s declining the most.”

CAMRA filed its bereavements, but Mr Robinson had a point. From a commercial perspective, at least: with its mild now dead and buried, the brewery saw profits rise by 20% the next year. In spite of the fact, the landmark beer was effectively martyred, thus gaining new value. Who knows, in in 50 years’ time it could re-emerge as a modern representation of a classic beer. Much like Carlsberg’s ‘rebrew’ of their original lager in 2016, there’s the notion that something old felt like something new again.

Shoot me for saying it, but Carlsberg may have been onto something. Even if its efforts didn’t turn many heads, the concept of revival is a thread which runs through beer. Gose, which has had its fair share of ups and downs since it was brewed in the 16th century (there was pretty much not a single drop of it in Germany in the mid-1940s), is increasingly one of the more go-to beers in the sour drinker’s fridge. In the 18th century, with the growing preference for kiln-dried malt (over malt left to dry over an open fire), smoked beers fell into decline. Yet a few Rauchbier-peddling German brewpubs, and their influence on craft breweries around the world, have helped turn that on its head. Porter, once the most popular drink in the country, disappeared after the Second World War, but look at many bar tops now (especially those in London) and you wouldn’t know it.

Porter’s revival is thanks to, among others, Meantime, Five Points, Beavertown, and Fuller’s. Oh, and Anspach & Hobday, whose porter is, after their pale ale and IPA, their biggest seller. “We brewed the porter for its history, really,” says co-founder Jack Hobday. “The porter style lends itself to London water, which is naturally very hard. When you start using lots of dark malts, you change the pH of your mash, which counteracts the hardness and the acidity of the water.”

It was during the 1800s that porter really took off in London, and had a good innings until suffering the consequences of rationing, tax, and two world wars. The availability of dark beers in general was at an all-time low, before a slow revival movement picked up in the ‘70s, and which London’s craft breweries are helping perpetuate today. “If you go back 20 years,” says Jack, “the majority of mainstream beer drinkers wouldn’t have had much beyond say Guinness, whereas there’s a lot more variety in dark beers now.”

An especially fair point given Guinness’ one dimensional representation of stout as a style. As an industrial-scale, profit­­-driven brewer, Guinness is quite tight-lipped over what happens behind the scenes at their brewery. When the stout was introduced in 1759, it carried a lactic tang made possible by the beer’s constitution: a blend of freshly brewed ale and a much older one. The brewery declines to say whether it still employs that technique today. Derek Prentice, a veteran of Truman’s, Fuller’s, and Young’s, and now head brewer at Wimbledon Brewery, explains how, partly due to beer duty levied on higher-ABV beers,

Blending was an essential element to many beer styles of the time.

“With things like the barley wine at Truman’s,” he says, “you’d have a stock ale which had been stored for some time, and that would be blended into a running beer to produce distinctive beers. In a somewhat similar way to how lambics are blended to produce gueuze. And, because of the Brettanomyces in the older beer, there was an element of souring.’

Wimbledon is, though not exclusively, a heritage brewer. “We’ve just got involved in a project with Goose Island and [beer historian] Ron Pattinson on a 19th century porter,” Derek says. “We’re bringing together the original recipes ­– we’ve got the Whitbread and Barclay Perkins recipes, and Truman’s records.”

In coming up with new interpretations of old beers, Wimbledon has also been in the business of dredging up its own history. The brewery first opened in 1832 on Wimbledon’s high street, before a fire gutted most of the five-storey building in 1889. The brewery didn’t reopen until 130 years later.

“We only have a couple of things from that period,” says Derek. “One is a picture of the brewery up in flames, the other is a price list that gave us an idea of what they were brewing.”

Said price list includes an XX, an XXX, and an XXXK, based on the old ranking system where Xs denoted the strength of the beer (the more, the higher the strength), and K denoted a pale ale.

Derek continues: “While I was at Fuller’s, we did some recreations of historical beers. Some of Fuller’s brewing records go back to the late 19th century, which was about the same time the original Wimbledon brewery was functioning. There would have been a commonality between what the breweries were doing back then, like an XXK, an imperial stout, and a Burton.”

On that basis, Wimbledon was able to come up with new versions of the beers which passed through the brewery some 180 years ago. They include the now-neglected mild style, which more or less supplanted porters in the 1830s, until porter itself was replaced by bitters in the ‘60s as Britain’s beer of choice. “Our Mild XK is a small beer, which went with the [winter ale] XXK,’ says Derek. ‘It’s done on that same ‘strong beer, small beer’ principle.’

Milds are, like many heritage styles, in and out of fashion, and often misunderstood.

To be fair, styles go through so much change throughout history, yet their names and labels stay the same. There was a time, for instance, when ‘stout’ was a word which carried the same connotations as it did outside the beer world ­– strong and heavy. A considerable number of stouts nowadays however are 4.5% ABV or below.

“Milds used to be so different from what we now know them as,” says Steve Dunkley, of one-man Manchester brewery Beer Nouveau. “Mild now usually means ‘weak’ or ‘dull’, but it was formerly a description interchangeable with ‘fresh’ or ‘green’. It’s only by reading blogs and chatting to historians like Ron Pattinson [and Martyn Cornell, it must be said that we can see this sort of thing, and then by brewing these beers that we can prove it.”

Resurrecting forgotten beers has become Steve’s speciality, which, just counting the IPAs he’s recreated, includes Barclay Perkins’ IPA from the 1930s, Truman’s P18 first brewed in 1953, and Tetley’s 1868 IPA. What Steve’s rebrews show is the true distinctions between contemporary interpretations of beer styles and their vintage equivalents. “East India pale ales such as Tetley’s 1868 are far removed from modern IPAs,” says Steve. “Beers had all their hops added at the start of long boils, which made them bitter and sharp, and would be aged in barrels for six to eight months.”

Barrel ageing is a big part of Britain’s brewing heritage. Tiny breweries such as Beer Nouveau would normally forgo them for all the time, space and resources required. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, which raised £8,000, Steve is not one to follow suit. 

“I’ve now got barrels to properly finish off EIPAs and Russian imperial stouts,” he says. “And working with Malting Box and Crisp Maltings, I’m able to get malt much closer to how it should be. So I’ll finally ­(we hope) be able to brew a heritage porter with diastatic brown malt [sprouted, dried, ground malt, to you and me]!’

Authenticity obviously also extends to hops, which weren’t quite as varied in the 1800s as they are now. Not that that, according to Steve, actually matters. “We’ve got hops such as Citra and Cascade which are great for a light, crisp, citrus aroma, but then we had Cluster, Goldings and Fuggles back then,” he says. “While people may mock Fuggles, I recently brewed and kegged a modern-style IPA with it, and had wonderful mango and grapefruit notes. Not a single person guessed it was Fuggles I used; most thought it was a New Zealand hop.’

These assumptions we make, which in practice often fail to hold much water, flag a valid issue – that old, out of fashion beers are somehow inferior to the ones we’re drinking now. But when long-neglected styles like gose and mild suddenly come back to the fore, we rarely question our previous prejudices. People talk of the perils of history repeating itself. But in this context, maybe going through the motions again and again is the whole point.

“We’ve got a lot to learn from brewers of the past,” confirms Steve. “The industry has changed a lot over the last two hundred years. If we don’t look at that, if we start from where we currently are, we don’t see why it changed, and we can’t see if there’s a better way of doing things now.”

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