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.

Would I Go To A Tap-and-Pay Beer Pump Place?

This is news? This is what folk want?

Pay@Pump allows drinkers to order and pour their own pint and pay with a contactless card or device touched on a pad at the base of the pump. The technology has been devised by Barclaycard – and a prototype designed and installed in a Central London pub, Henry’s Café Bar – to help reduce queuing time for customers buying drinks during busy periods.

What is a place like that even called? A tap room? No, a tap room is the sorta thing you find in a back room at a place like the Laxfield Low House. This is just a tap. And, the weird thing, is that its is only that – a tap. One. Click on the photo. So you are getting the last guys beer left overs in the space between the one spigot works its way back into the stand. That might be an ounce. Fine if its all macro gak but, like one of those soda guns behind a bar, everything is getting served through the same nozzle. A bit of stout in your wit? One nozzle. Which no one wipes down between fill-ups. Which means it’s like an elementary school water fountain that spews beer. And whatever else is on that nozzle.


According To Me: Forget Units, Embrace Millilitres

drunkmdRemember last July when I explained how I actually tasted beer? This is another one of those posts. Not looking to convince you of anything but just to set out what I actually do.

First, let me get this out of the way. One of the oddest things about beer is how it triggers a particular sort of outrage. We see it often in relation to the libertarian response to public safety advocates lobbying for lowering the levels of acceptable blood alcohol for drivers. My rights! The stats are wrong! The lawyers are lining their pockets! We see the same sort of thing when public health officers bring out advice about lowering your alcohol intake. My rights! The stats are wrong! The doctors are lining their pockets! I find these complaints boring and odd. Amateur LLBs meeting amateur MDs. They come across a bit addled or at least conflicted in ways that I don’t get. And a bit like a 1950’s TV ad for smoking. Certainly, killing yourself off early is preferable to killing off others but still… who really is driven to strongly react to folk seeing to reduce, you know, death. I bet these days even aging 1970s rock stars might be more inclined to wonder what a few fewer trips to the cookie jar might have meant to one’s latter years. If booze means that much to you, find something else to care about. Get a hobby. Or a fish. Find happiness in a snowflake FFS.

But… I am not here to point fingers and certainly not name names. Folk live their own lives and can react to these things as they see fit as long as they don’t harm others. Yet there is one thing I think would help immensely with the dialogue generally. Get rid of the idea of the “unit” that the public health advocacy is based upon. It just fogs up the whole discussion. You see it in Canada. You see it in the UK. Here, we still live in the 15 drink universe. In the UK, the outrage is the announcement of the 14 unit week. Yet what is a unit to you? Nothing. You require an online calculator to understand the implications. And no one is looking at one of those mid-session. By creating an arbitrary standard, you do not describe the experience as the people you are advocating to experience it. It muddles and befuddles.

There is a better way. Milliliters of pure alcohol. Let’s stick with Canada as I never could figure out the UK model.* There are 17.05 ml of pure alcohol in a standard 12 ounce standard 5% bottle of Canadian beer. We like standards. Canadians are obsessed with 5% beer. If a beer has only 4.8%, it’s is dishwater. Another at 5.2% is Satan’s route to your soul. We are very regular in these matters. So the prime unit is really 17 milliliters. Which means 15 of them for a Canadian man in a week is 255 ml. A 750 ml bottle of what most call hard liquor (aka spirits) also comes in as another Canadian standard: 40% alcohol. Which means a bottle of hard liquor has 300 ml of pure alcohol. Are you with me? Good. Wine is trickier as wine has a range of strengths. Light whites can be 9% or under while reds commonly top 14%. But they come in 750 ml bottles. So the quick mental calculation is based around three-quarters. Meaning a 750 ml bottle of mid-weight 12% wine has 90 ml of pure alcohol. 17 goes into 90 around five times. Five servings in a bottle of wine. Simple. You see where I am going?

Which means the average standard week recommended drinking per adult is a bit less than a 750 ml bottles of hard liquor or three bottles of wine or 15 bottles of beer. I don’t know about you but not only does that not seem like a small amount – it also does not seem to be equal. I would likely think myself a bit of a loser if I gunned a large bottle of, say, Gordons or Dewars a week. Three bottles of wine each seems a bit much, too, especially as I would be sharing that over the dinner table with another but I suppose I would feel a bit better about splitting a bottle of wine a night than I would being that gin bomber draining alky even if it might cost me twice as much. And, you know, the beer doesn’t seem like all that little at all. I wouldn’t want to have two or three beers a day most days of the week – but, again, I also would not feel like a gin dipso if I had fifteen in a seven day span. I certainly would not be sitting down to go on about the nanny state… in public… on the internet.

If the numbers were put in those simpler terms, stated as normal purchasing sizes over a week it seems to be folk would more easily get the message – pace yourself over time and keep it sensible. Yes, there is the jerk who drains the Gordon’s quart in one sitting as part of his healthy lifestyle but that person is, in fact, the jerk. These guidelines – all guidelines – should in fact come with a jerk disclaimer: “Warning: you are a jerk, you will not do this anyway so don’t bother complaining on your blog about it.” For most other sensible people it might get the point across better. Works for me. Which is all I was wanting to mention.

*Which, yes, I do see that the “unit” in the UK is only 10 ml and you now only should have 14 of them which is quite funny as it means the recommended amount is 140 ml a week as opposed to 255 ml here in Canada or 55% of the Canadian levels. Is that right? I’d be outraged! Unless… well, I bet Stonch is about 55% of one of me. He’s only wee. Maybe that’s it.

In Days Of Yore Beer Came In Mainer Goblets


One of the sillier things I have seen pass across the internets lately came up as part of the anti-shaker campaign. You will recall that the function of that campaign is to convince you, the beer buyer, that an 8 oz serving of beer for “X” bucks is better than a 16 oz serving for “X” bucks by insinuating that you are not capable of sensing taste and smell in a drinking vessel without acute curves and a thin stem. Silly. But expensive. They hope you are are that sort of sucker. The silliest thing I have heard as part of this campaign is that shaker glasses are “old fashioned” – that they are a lingering legacy of the age of big macro, the age of industrialized adjunct corn lagers. Add your doom-laced adjectives to taste.

Like so many things that depress one about discussions of beery things, it’s not correct. I knew as much from my months of perusing newspaper and magazine ad images for the writing of the beer histories. But how to prove it to you? Ah, Jay Brooks to the rescue. See, Jay has been posting many things for a mighty long time over at his beer blog and one of the best is an accumulated archive of beer advertising from the golden age of pre-craft. As of the date of this post, Jay is up to ad #1354. If you scan through the ads you will not see any glassware that looks like a shaker. Or at least not many. You will see lots of tall narrow “pilsner” glasses. You will see squarish tumblers. And you will see goblets.

maineglass2I love the goblet. I love this one in particular bought, as you might guess, in Maine. It has images of sailboats and lobsters and diving girls. Click on the image for the full fine detail. It has hefty dimples at the bottle of the bowl that help it fit the hand. It is thick and heavy and holds a full serving. It is ever so slightly tapered in at the top. It is built for a richly carbonated corn based lager circa 1966. And it does the job just fine. A pal whose friendship I deeply value was jealous when I spotted it at the second hand store before he did. He was right to feel that way.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, if you want to smell your beer, get your nose in there. One of the most irritating things about the snifter is how it (i) does not allow snifting until it is half empty thus lying to you for the first half of the drink and (ii) you often cannot get your nose in their so it lies to you for the second half. The goblet and the shaker and the nonic do not lie. You can be immersed in the full aromas if you wish to engage with the glassware. You can choose not to and avoid looking like the guy who relies on sandwich tongs when reaching for a hot dog.

Household hint. If you really want to open up the beer and add to your aroma experience, clean your glassware. Me, I use PBW powder when I am being a keener and wash a bunch of glasses before I am having a focused session. It’s the same stuff you ought to be using when you home brew. On everything. Everything the beer will touch should have this touch it first. That and Star San. Strip every bit of gunk off the glass and even the most basic good beer will have the best head ever, will give up all its scent potential, will tell you all it can.

Why is this not the main message promoted by folk telling you how to serve your beer? Well, there is no money in it for anyone. A supply of PBW and Star San might cost you about $12 a year. Any other reasons? Can’t think of any. It is, however, the best thing – and the cheapest thing – you can do for yourself and your beer.

Fuzzy Photos Of Drinking Things From A Museum

rom1A few hours on the fourth floor of the Royal Ontario Museum Saturday found me looking for beer stuff in the exhibits. Just a game. You think of how pervasive beer has been in western culture and how places like museums like to not discuss it all that much and it starts to be a fun game to play for a tired mind after a long night in a noisy hotel. Fun? Time passing maybe. Temper maintaining perhaps. Anyway, there was some fairly interesting stuff to be found.

Like that friend of Bertie Wooster who passes time when walking through London by imagining golf shots, I think about the beers I would have from these museum pieces. Not hard when the drinking vessel in question is a 1750s Silesian glass tankard but what about a fourth century Sudanese clay drinking cup. Clay asks for something like thin boozy porridge but there’s not much of that going around these day in this civilization. Chip shot into the Shaftesbury Memorial pool at Piccadilly.







Then I think about the techniques the curators are using to get the beer stuff into the displays but not really mentioning. In one room of the exhibit, two Georgian silver tankards are in the back placed on bookshelves along with other curios as if they were not really used for drinking beer at all. In another display, pewter pots are lined up in a row to describe weights and measures as opposed to the uses to which they were put. The weighted and measured. Odd. No pottle. The fifteenth century mead drinking jug made of spruce sits next to the leather canteen in a daring juxtaposition of old things, weirdly shaped and made out of strange stuff. Two iron glanced off Shakespeare’s forehead neatly carries on down Charing Cross Road. Kids are getting tired feet. Me, too.







We took the subway back to the hotel, three stops south to Osgoode the TTC car as empty but for us as the sidewalks had been on the way north earlier. The kids said that Toronto was nice but it was no Montreal. I knew what they meant but it was not a bad Toronto, either. University Avenue looked like the MIT area of Cambridge if the MIT area of Cambridge had stopped being built in 1973 or so.

The Math Of 1600s Beer Can Befuddle Me


I was never much good at math. I liked patterns and making the calculator make words if you loaded in a certain formula. “Esso Oil” could appear on the small LCD screen if you knew the right numbers. So I never became an accountant or an engineer. I was reminded of this when I came across this 1674 entry in the minute books of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, part of that year’s provisioning of that year’s expedition to Canada’s Arctic coast. I understand that 17 men x 28 days x 3 months x 3 quarts = 5 tunns. Or 4284 quarts. But is it true that 4284 quarts equals 5 tunns? What is a tunn? Is there 4284 quarts ÷ 4 quarts in a gallon ÷ 5 tunns mean there are 214.2 gallons to a tunn? This would be a measure way off the pottle chart of the 1840s. Unless I have the math wrong.

Which is exactly the point at which I try to make words appear on my Texas Instrument solar powered pocket calculator in early 1981 or look out the classroom window daydreaming of Friday nights, past or future.

Incidental 1930s Brewing Letterhead Images


Now there’s a sexy title for a blog post. A real whooah-ish search engine optimization blog post title. Letterhead Pr0n. I should have paid more attention to the lighting when I was at the archives last week with Jordan in Ottawa. But, still, these are pretty sweet. It is amazing how elaborate the Taylor and Bates letterhead is. Rich old guys in suits drinking beer and having the time of their lives because they own a brewery and a radio station.







No, I Do Not Want An Imported Man Mug Thanks

So, could the menu offer a Woman Wine? I would have preferred that the mug was manly as opposed to simply masculine. I had no idea mugs were, in fact, gendered. What do they get up to in the dishwasher? I also didn’t know that while their masculinity was superior when not in frosted form – something many males might agree upon – that they were inferior to pitchers. Makes one want to work on that two fingered fastball a bit more… if you know what I mean.

Two Wooden English Tankards From The 1500s


A few months ago, I referenced a wooden tankard that had been found on Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, as part of my review of Mitch Steele’s book IPA. I didn’t clue into one aspect of the tankard until I read this story about another similar wooden tankard from the 1500s found last year in the mud of the River Thames as described in this story posted at the Museum of London’s website:

It is comparable in shape to a modern beer mug, however, this tankard holds three pints. Was it used to carry beer from the barrel to the table or, was this someone’s personal beer mug? The quantity of liquid held in the tankard and markings suggesting it once had a lid, may indicate that it once served as a decanter. However, the lack of a spout seems to contradict this theory. The only other items that are contemporary and similar in appearance come from the Mary Rose, although the Mary Rose examples carry 8 pints.

1500stankard2Eight pints!! That is otherwise known as a gallon. Click on the picture to the right for a full version of the Mary Rose tankard.  Notice how it appears to have straps of split branches rather than metal. Notice also how the photo above of the three pint tankard neatly illustrates how the handle shape likely indicates there was a lid just as on the Mary Rose tankard. Otherwise, why does the handle rise up above the rim as it does? Nothing like the well applied use of scientific photography in the cause of drinking vessel description accuracy by Murray Saunders for the Daily Mail and the unnamed photographer in the Wharf article. Perhaps a guild of their own is in order.

Speculation goes on that these large vessels may have been used as jugs but I wonder. Not only is there no spout, obviously a known technology in those times but it presumes very odd handling of the beer. Barrel to jug to mug. Why not just barrel to mug? B => M is better than B => J => M technology as it needs no staff person as middleman. No waiter. Why wouldn’t these sailors just be lined up daily and given their full gallon, the measure for consumption throughout day? It’s not like they are sitting in a pub as they drank the stuff. Besides, ship’s beer was weak. And anyway, serving jugs had a different shape.

Now There’s A Better Side-By-Side To Try

stupidglass1To the left, the Riedel O-Riedel Series Red+White glass: seven inches high, holds seventeen and one quarter US ounces of fluid. To the right, the Spiegelau IPA glass, seven and one third inches high and holds nineteen US ounces of fluid. Riedel and Spiegelau are closely related companies or perhaps even two brands of the same international firm. In the rush to question, mock or ignore the alleged new Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada thingie, only one comment maker at Time magazine website’s story on the glass has bothered to suggest the relative lack of innovation which could be at play. Amazon reviews of the object associated with wine go back a few years. So, when a source like Fast Company magazine states:

In April, the Bavarian glassmaker Spiegelau will release the world’s first glass designed specifically for India Pale Ales, whose hops-heavy brewing process gives them an especially pungent, fruity aroma. Designed in collaboration with Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada–two craft brewers known for their IPAs–the unusual glass features wave-like ridges toward the bottom that help bring out the beer’s flavor…

…where do the uses of the words “designed” or “specifically” or “in collaboration” or “unusual” come from? Still, it sure broadens the utility, no? Makes it more of a multi-purpose glass. Perhaps call it the “Red and white as well as bunch of shades of brown” glass… perhaps?