“It’s a Shopping Mall for Alcoholics Out There”

When I was a kid thirty years ago, maybe 22 or 23, I got in an elevator to find myself moving upward with the folk singer Ed McCurdy. I was likely a bit worse for wear. He looked at me and proclaimed just that – it’s a shopping mall for alcoholics out there. Meaning downtown Halifax. My old hometown. Haven’t been here for 15 years, since playing in an alumni soccer game in 2002. He was right, too. It can be a blur out there.

I drove across a third of North America to get here. 1600 km of highway up along the St. Lawrence and then, once past Maine, south through the forests to the sea. All to be at the funeral for a friend, one of the best loved pals in my broad gang of undergrad pals. Gone far too young.  Kept in touch on the phone when I had a business question he could help with. We played on the law school team, too. Once made a sweet long looping pass from my spot in the rear at sweeper that he took off on, scoring on the breakaway. Told me with a grin as he ran back “hey, you don’t suck as much as I thought you did.”

We may well gather after the service to share stories. Friends flying in from across the country. Friends I haven’t seen for maybe 30 years. Halifax will still be ready. Ready aye ready. I was out with my brothers for a bit of dinner last night and then had a beer later with a newer pal who moved here a year ago from where I’ve lived in Ontario for that decade and a half. We walked around, me telling him what used to be in the empty store front or the bustling bar, him being somewhere between patient or interested.

Actually looks much the same. The pubs are still full. And are actual pubs. Lights higher, music lower. Big tables of people talking, shouting, laughing. I had New Ross cider at one place, Hell Bay oatmeal pale ale at another. Ate a good bit of haddock at the Henry House. Ate a big plate of Brussels sprouts and bacon later at a place on Argyle near where The Graduate used to sit. Cheery chatting waiters working at a busy clip.

Fog is starting to lift. Might go find some breakfast. Schooner Books is still there. So is Taz Records. Good old town.

 

Beer and Art: The Harvesters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Nosing around the Met‘s digitized collection a bit more, I came across “The Harvesters” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1565. Not hard as it was on the front page. I have posted a few times about paintings by his son, the imaginatively named Pieter Bruegel the Younger, over the years but this one struck me as perhaps illustrating a few things worth thinking about.

Look at the scale of the people compared to the height of the grain. One of the characteristics of Battledore barley two hundred years later in Britain was that it had a short stalk. It could survive hail or wind better than other varieties but didn’t provide all that useful straw that we learned about in relation to beer in New York before the switch to barley from wheat. The stalk was in itself important to the community as a multi-purpose material for mattress stuffing to looser wheat mash spargings. In “The Harvesters” the stalks are tall and entire stooks* are taken from the field with care. The stooks are strong enough to serve as a bench for the workers having their meal.

Harvest time is big stuff. The image is a narrative of agricultural economy in the Renaissance. If you click on the image at the met site, you can zoom in quite closely. Look at how the topography is used to illustrate the economic activity. The field being harvested is on the top of a hill. Scythed and stooked, it is carried one by one to the bottom of the hill where it is loaded on a cart and carried away. There are three communities in the painting. The hilltop has a church to the upper left seen through the trees. Down below there is a manor of some sort where some are swimming while others are killing a tied up goose as a blood sport. In the far distance, there is a coastal town with ships in the harbour. Is one point of the painting’s structure that the grain gets exported?  Or is beer made from the grain getting shipped out?  I should cross reference the painting with Unger.

Where is this place? The blurb attached to the image by the Met says:

Bruegel’s series is a watershed in the history of western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and the unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.

But is this really a local scene or an imaginary one? Where is it? Bruegel lived in coastal Antwerp, Belgium a city of about 100,000 at the time and the richest in Europe. He was born in the river town of Breda, another community now in the Netherlands but then also in the Duchy of Brabant. Perhaps one of those two centres is in the background.  Could you find the field and stand where the artist stood?

But what about the beer? As one commentator notes, the scene is about producing and consuming. Or – if you are the goose – producing, torturing then consuming. The workers are eating bread and cheese as well as pears that one guy is shaking from the tree to the upper right. And they are drinking. A central character is a man carrying two large jugs up the path. Another man in the circle having a meal drinks directly from a jug. A fourth jug with what looks like a loaf of bread on top sits in the uncut wheat to the lower left.

We are told by Markowski that saison and biere de garde were brewed for centuries in the Low Countries and northern France to attract and retain workers. Farmhouse beers. The scene in “The Harvesters” is smack-dab in the middle of that culture, in the saison zone that included Brabant. Unger explains that particularly in the sixteenth century, tax records indicate a wide number of names for various grades of beer: “… dun and scheynbier and volksbier and scharbier and scherbier all turn up. No matter the name, it was always cheap.”** Was that what was in the jugs? We can’t reach back to ask those in the picture what they called their drink or even if it was in fact beer. But it could be and, frankly, likely was so… it is what it was. Day drinking 1565.

*I use the SW Ontario usage, spelling and pronunciation of the in-laws.
**at page 129.

Babylonian Cuneiform And Brewing Patterns

The other day, I read that The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had freed thousands of images from their intellectual property right shackles for free and unrestricted public use. This is good. And being a dutiful beer blogger, I immediately put in the word “beer” in the search engine to see what would pop up. And this is what popped up. A chunk of dried mud with scratchings. I love stuff like this. Three years ago, I stared at Mesopotamian brewing things at the Royal Ontario Museum, aka the ROM.  Somewhere I have photos I took thirty years ago of myself, when a selfie took a tripod, at the British Museum staring at Mesopotamian brewing things made of mud. Scratchings made a person over 150 generations ago. On just a piece of mud.

It’s actually more than that. It’s Urra=hubullu, tablet 23 from Mesopotamia in the late 1st millennium B.C.  “Twenty-three, eh?” thought I. Being a clever man I realized there must be twenty-two others. So off I went. Or, rather, I put a few words in Google… and found what I am sure you all expected I would findCuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Literary and scholastic texts of the first millennium B.C. by Ira Spar, Wilfred G. Lambert published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005 where I learned about what had been scratched into the dried mud thingie over three thousand years ago. Tablet 23 is a vocabulary of food and drink terms. The passage on this piece of cuneiform cites, at page 234, a 1950 article “On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia According to the XXIIIrd tablet of the series HAR.ra=hubullu” by Oppenhiem and Hartman which describes the content of tablet 23 in the context of brewing.

Fabulous. So fabulous as it is all seemingly quite authoritative. The Spar and Lambert text goes on to state what exactly was written down on three thousand odd years ago in that clay. There is great beer, dark beer, white beer, cloudy beer and beer for the tigi-songs whatever they were. My favourite might be the symbol for “clear/clean beer” indicating, of course, that folk were both skillful and appreciative of skill. That information is all in column 2. In column 3, the words are about process. Yeast is pulverized, barley bread is crushed and spread just right. It is soaked and dried then soaked and mashed. It is rinsed, pressed, crushed, broken and mixed. Malt is dried, watered, opened, spread and warmed. To my mind, this is more than a vocabulary. This is a guide not so very much different from Samuel Child’s 1768 guide discussed the other day.

This is interesting. How is it that I can read a Mesopotamian clay tablet and pretty much immediately understand what is going on? If it was about religion, governance or astronomy I wouldn’t have a clue. But beer and brewing are not strange. They are, in a very meaningful way, constant. You can see that if we go back to column 2 where you see words for 1:1 beer, 2:1 beer, 3:1 beer and even triple beer. The ratio is the relationship of grain input to beer output. If you scroll down to page 238 of the 2005 Spar and Lambert text you see there are footnotes and in the footnotes an explanation of Mesopotamian methodology. I am just going to cut and paste the footnote in relation to column 2, line 11 and what follows as I think it is one of the more extraordinary things I have ever read about beer in a couple of ways:

 

 

 

 

First, it is extraordinary as it basically sets out the scheme of brewing over 3,000 years ago in a manner which is readily understandable to anyone who has home brewed from an all-grain mash. Second, not only is it understandable… it is very familiar. It looks a lot like the parti-gyle process which makes a lot of sense as no one in their right mind wastes resources. So, the first sparging of the mash gives a 18% sugar solution wort, the second a 6% wort and the third a 1.5% wort. Roughly declining to a third each time. And sometimes the wort is recirculated to strengthen it even more to make what the footnote’s author describes as “very powerful” beer.

What is extraordinary to me is that this ratio looks a heck of a lot like the proper way to brew that I have read about from Piers the Ploughman in England’s 1370s to Matthew Vassar in New York’s 1830s. It reads like the 1825 advert for Thomas Molson’s brewery here in my hometown. Strong ale, single ale and small or ship’s beer with what looks like double double thrown in for good measure, that hazard from Shakespeare to Schenectady.

Which leads to another thought. Is that pattern a constant? Four grades of beer naturally created solely by the relationship between the sparge fluid and mash?  Following these rules you will have a 11%-ish beer, a 4%-ish one and a 1.25%-ish one. As well as whatever the heck double double was to create all that toil and trouble. A constant pattern. Could be. Could be.

The Promise Of Every Man His Own Brewer, 1768

I’ve been thinking about Samuel Child’s 1768 work Every Man His Own Brewer, Or, A Compendium of the English Brewery for a few days and particularly its fine narrative flow. Consider this brief passage in the preface:

I was once on an election, at a certain borough in Wiltshire, and, in the course of our canvass, drank sometimes to the amount of two quarts of beer in the forenoon, not only without sensible prejudice, but that it rather mended my health, and gave me brisk spirits. As I had not been used to drinking, especially in the morning, I admired at this, and found, on the most strict scrutiny, that nothing was used in this liquor but malt and hops, and that its happy vinos flavor was merely the result of good ingredients, well cured, a fine a fine chalk water, and not being too much boiled…

What a lovely way to introduce the basic idea of beer, a bit of knowledge that has been repeated in pretty much every book on brewing and good beer in the intervening 249 years but seldom stated so well. I have dug around in brewing texts from before 1800 hunting for facts about fern ale or that fib about smoke-ridden gak that so many beer experts erroneous suggest was the state of affairs back in the era that, you know, the expert never much studied. But I have not thought about the texts as writing or even read them from beginning to end. Maybe only for Coppinger because he was such an odd duck. 

I’ll do that, save the text to a reader of some sort. But right now look at the table up there. It’s from page 37. First, I love its title. The TABLE. As if Child would have added a few exclamation marks. As if he was just figuring out how to make a table out of HTML. Yet… there is another table also titled “The TABLE” just seven pages later. The thing I like next best is how it is immediately bragged up by the author:

These are hints sufficient to guide any one in the choice of his malts, as it respects the color of his beer, and the time it will be fit for use if judiciously brewed; and the experiment is to be made in the kiln as soon as the malt is perfected, and used as soon after as possible to preserve the genial spirit.

Brew with the malt as soon as kilned to attain the desired colour of the beer. Which means nine grades of beer brewed from any given malting should be considered attainable. Child then over pages and pages describes many sorts of beer: “London Beer under the name of Porter,” London Amber, Burton Ale, table beer, oat ale, Marlborough beers, Dorchester beers, Nottingham beers, Western White Ale.

The variety is quite extraordinary. As a whole, the book frames not so much the state of British brewing in the decade before the American Revolution, at a point before traditional brewing shifts to industrial with the shift to steam power starting with Whitbread in the 1780s as it now provides a guide how to go back and recreate them from the few basic elements he first considered on that election campaigning in Wiltshire. Including, towards the end, exotics including three pages on Brunswic Mum  and a shorter passage on Newfoundland spruce and molasses beer.

It would be a great project to annotate and experiment with the techniques described in the book. It is, after all, only through the use of a guide that one figures out if its any good or not.

 

 

Issac Bobin’s Letter, 6 September 1720

As I was going through the blog posts shifting them over to the new platform for the past few months I realized that I’ve had tight waves of writing enthusiastically separated by other phases of, you know, treading water.  If I had a topic to run with, a new database to explore I got at it. But I also skipped over some things. Failed to suck the marrow. I had in my head that I had a stand alone post on Mr. Bobin’s letter above from 1720 but in fact had only written this in one of my posts about the Rutgers brewing dynasty in New York City from the 1640s to the early 1800s:

In a letter dated 6 September 1720 from Isaac Bobin to George Clarke we read:

…As to Albany stale Beer I cant get any in Town, so was obliged to go to Rutgers where I found none Older than Eight Days I was backward in sending such but Riche telling me you wanted Beer for your workmen and did not know what to do without have run the hazard to send two Barrels at £1 16/ the Barrels at 3/ and 6/. Rutgers says it is extraordinary good Beer and yet racking it off into other Barrels would flatten it and make it Drink Dead…

Isaac Bobin was the Private Secretary of Hon. George Clarke, Secretary of the Province of New York. So clearly Rutgers was as good as second to Albany stale for high society… or at least their workers. And in any case – we do not know if it was from Anthony’s brewery or Harman’s.

The Smithsonian has a better copy of the book of Bobin’s letters. What I didn’t get into were the details of the letter itself. Riche. Albany stale Beer. Drink Dead. Just what a whiner Bobin was. Riche? He seems to be the shipper, moving goods from the New York area to wherever the Hon. George Clarke was located. In another letter dated 15 September 1723, Clarke’s taste in fine good – including beer – is evident:

THERE goes now by Riche (upon whom I could not prevail to go sooner) a Barrel of Beef £1. 17f 6d; a Qr Cask of Wine @ £6; twelve pound of hard Soap @ 6£; twelve pd of Chocolat £1. if; two Barrls of Beer; a pd of Bohea Tea @ £ i.; Six qr of writing Paper. Will carryed with him from Mr. Lanes four Bottles of Brandy with a Letter from Mr. Lane.

In another letter dated 17 November 1719, beer and cider are being forwarded. Bobin’s job includes ensuring Clarke and his household has their drinks and treats. It all is very similar to the shipments for the colonial wealthy and well-placed we’ve seen half a century later from New York City to the empire’s Mohawk Valley frontier where Sir William Johnson received from the 1750s to 1770s: his beer from Mr. Lispenard, his imported Taunton ale and Newark cider .

I find the reference to stale in the 1720 letter interesting as it suggests a more sophisticated beer trade that merely making basic beer quickly and getting it out the door. Albany stale beer. Stale distinguishes as much as Albany does. Plus, Bobin compares to the “Albany stale” to the young Rutgers beer and seems to get in a muddle. What will the workers accept? Or is it perhaps that he is concerned what Clarke thinks the workers will accept. I worry about words like stale like I worry about the livers of the young beer communico-constulo class. We need to do better. Stale seems be a useful word in common usage for (exactly) yoinks but Martyn certainly places it, in the context of beer, as in use around the 1720s so Bobin’s usage is fairly current in England even if at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s thrown around generously in The London and Country Brewer in 1737 and used by Gervase Markham in the 1660s.

Aside from stale-ness, the dead-ness of the beer obviously is about its condition but why raking off is considered is unclear. Was it just at the wrong point in Rutger’s brewing process or was he operating his business by holding it in larger vessels and selling retail to his surrounding market, like the growler trade today? Again, not just any beer will do. In Samuel Child’s 1768 work Every Man His Own Brewer, Or, A Compendium of the English Brewery we see this passage referencing deadening at page 38:

It has been said before, what quantity of hops are requisite to each quarter of malt, and how the same are to be prepared; but here it must be considered that that if the beer is to be sent into a warmer climate in the cask, one third more hopping is absolutely necessary, or the increased heat will awaken the acid spirit of the malt, give it a prevalency over the corrective power of the hop, and ferment it into vinegar: to avoid this superior expence of hopping, the London and Bristol beers are usually drawn off and deadened, and then bottled for exportation; this really answers the purpose one way; but whether counterbalanced by charge of bottling and freight, &c. those who deal in this way can best determine. 

Just bask in that passage for a moment. It’s (i) a contemporary that British beer was prepared for transport to warmer climates and (ii) among a few other techniques, the intentional deadening a beer followed by bottling was a technique used for export. Burton was, after all, brewed for export. As was Taunton for Jamaica’s plantations. The British simply shipped beer everywhere. IPA was not unique. Was there a beer brewed for Hong Kong that we’ve also forgotten about? Dunno. What we do know is that Bobin is saying is that Rutgers warns against a deadened beer for local use. Would he have been deadening beer for export? In 1720s New York City?  We know that porter was shipped out of town later. We know that late in the century shipments of bottled porter were coming in.

Excellent stuff. I need to think about this more. But, like the seven doors of the Romantic poets, suffice it to say that a good record in itself can open up a wonderful opportunity to chase an idea. In an era of such early and falsely confident conclusion drawing, a useful reminder.

My Local Pub Is Six Miles Away But My Local Brewery Is Closer

Twelve years ago… seriously…

Ah, the pub lunch. It’s Feb Fest,  our municipal winter carnival so we got out of the house and downtown for a pub lunch – well, after watching a bunch of seven year olds playing hockey on the outdoor rink behind City Hall. Surprisingly good game. Yellow against red. A butterfly save was made. Back checking even. The lad we know scored a goal for team red. Knuckle punches given. Goodbyes shared after dinner plans made.

We marched over at the Kingston Brew Pub right after the final whistle. The oldest continuing brew pub in Ontario, they have a newish menu focused around their own smoker out back  – and are carrying about twenty Ontario made good beers in addition to their own. Kale and bacon soup. Veggie tacos. Big burgers. Good to see the owners of another great good beer bar in town having their family lunch in the next booth over. Yellow teamers. I still said hello. We got a front window booth, one of the best spots to sit and have a beer anywhere.

I had a Junction Hey Porter! as well as Nickelbrook’s Headstock, two beers that ask you to explain the point of beer hunting into the States. The exchange rate is enough of an argument now for most but Ontario has done much to stop the grumbling. I think I need to admit that the KBP is my pub. This is at least my 25th year of going there even if we’ve only lived here for fourteen years. We watched Canada lose to the USA in the final of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. My children have grown up eating there. I am not sure what that means to me but it means something.

I do know a pub man in town, a cheery snappy grumbly Welshman prof now in his eighties, who may now not be so able to get around. He’d have at least double my time in the local pubs. I saw him last in the KBP, holding court. Great guy. He must have seen and amazing shift in the scene given he was here for two decades before the brew pub opened. But the recent news is pretty amazing and now coming at a rapid pace. Just three years ago the nearest breweries were an hour’s car drive away – at least. By the end of this year, we may have eight in town or within a half hour’s drive. And they are good. I have an excellent brewer from western Lake Ontario asking me to introduce him to the guys I know at Stone City. I get a bit frustrated that I can’t get any of the excellent black lager or Belgian pale ale made by Napanee Beer Co. because its all of a 22 km hike away. They opened last spring. I am consoling myself with Kings Town Brewing GPA at the moment. They’ve only open for about six weeks.

I am not sure what that all means to me either but I have planned in better weather how on a Friday I can take the 701 bus from downtown, hit KTB for a growler, then plant myself at a favourite sports bar and wait for a drive home. That’s good. And new.

As Expected The Beer Health News Ain’t Good

In these exciting new times, we are suddenly aware of the need to sift the news, seeking out the alternative facts and hidden interests to cast aside. It’s normal to want to be on the winning side but, as this stuff gets layered by the shed load, we need to take a responsible approach and act like adults.

As much as anything, this applies to the brewing yap-o-sphere. Fortunately some folks are putting their big boy pants on and debunking the fibs, as we see today in Outside magazine’s article “Sorry, Folks, Beer Isn’t a Health Food” in which we find this particularly telling observation:

…sometimes research—especially on nutrition—is overly reductionist. Food writer Michael Pollan opines about the dangers of studying single nutrients in his 2007 book, In Defense of Food, saying, “A nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another.” As you’ll see, some of these beer studies look at only a single compound within the beer and extrapolate results from there, when really, there is likely more going on.

Every time some altfactiod blurts out onto social media about the magical properties of beer, the interested mid-rangers gather like sharks to a wiff. Hallelujah!  If life were only that easy.

I thought of that nutrition point when I went through Pollan’s books back then but didn’t make much of it. I thought of it again this week when, again, a saw a photo of a good young keen beer writer with the slightly jaundiced hue. I worry. A few months ago, Maureen Ogle tweeted a link to a study that talked about how beer health studies were so selective, never took the net effect into account. I lost the link but remembered the lesson. Your health? It’s operating on the net effect.

That article? It’s got a great conclusion. Let me ruin it for you. Beer’s pretty okay. Beer isn’t the new kale.