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.

Burton Ale: “…They Brewed Not For Home Consumption…”

I hate… yet love… the small nuggets of information I come across when scanning the news reports from the 1700s. That’s a report from the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury of 24 July 1780 describing a debate in the House of Commons in London on a committee report on the taxation of malt. The regional rivalries between the big (or bigg) of Cumberland and Westmoreland as opposed to Scottish malt is one thing but that tidbit about the taxation of Burton Ale is gold… maybe.

Burton appears to be in the New York City market from 1770 from the notices like this one from the New York Gazette of 12 November of that year that offering it for sale at the Wall Street store of Samuel Hake. Eight years later, according to the NYGWM of 24 April 1778, it is being sold at the Vendue Store of John Taylor near the Fly-Market at the foot of Maiden Lane at the mouth of the stream associated at the time with the breweries of Medcef Eden and two Rutgers.  Taylor is also selling Bristol beer and our beloved Taunton ale along with porter.  Plenty of the results of English brewing is ending up in the colony.

Notice that Sir William Bagot does not deny the argument that Burton is brewed primarily for export, just that it opens a door to other presumably less valid claims – and perhaps illicit domestic sales. About a year ago, Martyn and I exchanged a few thoughts about the lack of understanding about the origins of Burton ale. But this bit of a Parliamentary debate is one of the only references I have found indicating an understanding at the time that Burton – like Taunton, porter and others – was part of large and organized North American export trade during the second half of the 1700s.

I wish I could figure out how to determine its scale.

A Theory: From Brimstone Alehouse To Burton Ale


Early this January just past I posted that image above and told you all that it was my new favorite quote about sulfurous brewing waters from around Burton in Staffordshire, England. It’s from The Natural History of Staffordshire from 1686 by Robert Plot. The beer was brewed as a local health tonic but – now as then – I love that it was available especially at theBrimstone Alehouse. Why this particular penny did not drop connecting this post to one that I posted one month before is now beyond me. I posted in my own comments about the first mention of Staffordshire’s sulfurous Burton ale in a high society establishment, the Vauxhall Garden aka Spring Garden, in the nation’s capital of London as described in an issue of The Spectator from 1712. Just 26 years after the reference to the Brimstone Alehouse in the book by Robert Plot. Hmm.

This hit me like a slap on the back of my head as I watched an episode of a Michael Portillo train show Great Continental Railway Journeys on TV. He was at a central European spa, having a steam bath one moment and a mud bath the next. Then he drinks the water. He appears to almost gag. It was full of sulfur. Like the water in Staffordshire 330 years ago. Horrible stuff taken for only medicinal reasons. Made palatable by brewing with it. Double Hmm.

Now, Martyn checked my story about the arrival of Burton ale in the greater marketplace around 1712 and gave it a good hard shake and it appears to be pretty solid, a real myth buster. Which leads to a quandary and a theory. Here’s the quandary. How does this gak water beer from Staffordshire get just one rustic small mention in an agricultural and industrial guide to the county from 1686 and then show up on a very expensive table before the finest of society no earlier and also no later than 26 years later. As you can see above, in each case it is sought out for a quality. But not the same quality.

That leads to the theory. It appears to me to be a bit of a longer distance from the Brimstone Tavern of 1686 to the Spring Garden of 1712 than just the intervening years. What was in the beer itself? Did the brewer of the Brimstone Tavern in 1686 bang in an incredibly high volume of hops to overcome the stated vomit inducing taste of the water? There is no mention that the experience in 1712 was at all unpleasant. Could it be in those 24 years that the hopping technique became refined and the sulfurous waters diluted? Were the waters calmed? I don’t know how I might go figuring out, how to determine if that was the case. But it’s an interesting theory. Somehow, it went from horrible to haute in 26 year.

Porter 2006, Burton Bridge Brewery, Burton-Upon-Trent

Time. For the most part beer’s enemy is time, specially for a beer with only 4.5%. But in 2000, as I’ve mentioned a few times, I clearly remember having a Burton Bridge Porter that was overwhelmingly bitter and pleasantly foul due no doubt to its utter mishandling and disregard. Some time ago I resolved to recreate the effect through the powers of experiment and stuck away two bottles for aging. Tonight, I pop the older of the two, this one carrying a best before date of December 2006 to see what is what.

Findings? The bottle pops with a merry pffftt! and gives off a little of the aroma of an East India sherry. The cream head quickly dissipates to a floating froth. In the mouth, the beer is more watery than a fresh bottle but pleasant enough though sadly not soured. There is a Orval quality to the bittering hops, lacy and lavender-ish, with some residual milk chocolate but none of the roasti-toastiness.

Verdict? Pretty much an entire waste of the effort which went into this experiment except for the fact that it really cost me nothing in terms of time, money or energy. It is somewhat impressive that it was so stable as to be more than drinkable. I am, however, not that impressed with stability as a general thing.

Ontario: 666, Devil’s Pale Ale, Great Lakes Brewing, Etobicoke

A very strange thing has been happening lately. I am going out to a store in my own town and buying the same Ontario-made beer week after week. I wrote about Lake Ontario’s (not Lake Erie’s) Great Lake Brewing’s take on a winter ale a few weeks ago. That beer was a bit frustrating as, while I liked it, I had to buy it in a presentation pack for more than a bit too much. This beer, however, if anything is under-priced at $2.50 a tall can. Better than that, 666 has turned out to be a bit of a puzzle to my mind and in the brewer’s description:

Brewed with 6 select malts and 4 premium hops, it has a rich mahogany colour, reminiscent of early English pale ales. The wonderful hoppy aroma is revealed even before your first sip, followed by a hearty malty body, and culminating with a pronounced bitterness. Prepare yourself for a devilishly good time…

Hmm…six percent…hearty malt body…English hops. Is this a Burton, the elusive Georgian and Victorian bad boy of pale ales before the advent of barley wines? My only possible comparator could be Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, itself a likely pretender, reviewed back here and happily sampled every year. The only thing I think might be against that 666 is claim of final hoppiness but I won’t know until I pop the caps.

As you can see, the Winter Welcome 2007-08 is much lighter, the dark amber orange ale sitting under white foam and rim. By comparison, the 666 is darker – chestnut with a fine rich tan rim and foam. On the nose the 666 speaks of roasty nuts with dark raisin, with a nod to oloroso sherry. The Winter Warmer leans more to orange marmalade but there’s plenty of biscuit in there, too. In the mouth, the two have about the same mouthfeel and, if anything, the Sammy Smith offering is more bitter: fresh green salad herb mixing with twig blended throughout the orange-kumquat biscuit malt. A sip of 666 is more about a rougher bitterness framing the darker dried winter fruits.

Martyn Cornell, the Zythophile himself, recently summarized Burton’s style in a few words – “a recognisably Burton Ale profile: red-brown, bitter-sweet, fruity and full-bodied, with a roast malt aroma.” It’s certainly hard to exclude this Canadian-Satanic joint enterprise of a beer from the categorization even if it were to turn out to be unintentional. It certainly is a lush brew, fruit-ridden with hop and a true roastiness within the grainy malt. Loverly. But is it Burton? Who knows? It fills a similar place in the pantheon but I would likely have to mail Martyn a sample. For now this side by side will have to do.