Struggling Again With 1600s Derbyshire Strong Ale (Part 2… the Son of…)

Building on part one of this struggle, let’s consider the passage above again for a minute. It is from volume 7 of The Reliquary, by John Russell Smith, 1867. It looks a lot like the passage by Mott from 1965 that I quoted (poaching as I noted from the Martyn of 2009) in my previous part of this consideration of 1600s Derby ale. If we unpack it we see a number of things at the outset: small scale decentralize industry, great fame… and two products. Both ale and malt. But what made Derby ale… Derby ale? Let’s start from the last bit.

i. Two Commodities

Both ale and malt. It’s a common theme. In Magna Britannia: Volume 5, Derbyshire by Cadell and Davies published in 1817 we find another similar statement like the one made by J.R. Smith above:

The chief trade of Derby, about a century ago, consisted in malting and brewing ale, which was in great request, and sent in considerable quantities to London; in corn dealing also, and baking of bread for the supply of the northern parts of the county

And again, in The History of the County of Derby by Glover from 1829 is is stated:

About two centuries ago, according to Camden, the chief trade consisted in malting and brewing ale; which he spake of as being in great request, and much celebrated in London, to which city large quantities were sent.

Camden is William Camden who, conveniently for our purposes, dies in 1623 after writing a survey of Britain but well before coke. In his chapter of “Darbyshire”* in the late 1500s Camden wrote:

…all the name and credit that it hath ariseth of the Assises there kept for the whole shire, and by the best nappie ale that is brewed there, a drink so called of the Danish word “oela” somewhat wrested, and not of alica, as Ruellius deriveth it. The Britans termed it by an old word “kwrw” , in steede whereof curmi is read amisse in Dioscorides, where hee saith that the Hiberi (perchance he would have said Hiberni , that is, The Irishmen ) in lieu of wine use curmi , a kind of drinke made of Barly. For this is that Barly-wine of ours which Julian the Emperor, that Apostata , calleth merrily in an Epigramme πυρογενῆ μᾶλλον καὶ βρόμον, οὐ Βρόμιον. This is the ancient and peculiar drinke of the Englishmen and Britans, yea and the same very wholsome, howsoever Henrie of Aurenches the Norman, Arch-poet to King Henrie Third, did in his pleasant wit merrily jest upon it in these verses:

Of this strange drinke, so like to Stygian Lake
(Most tearme it Ale), I wote not what to make.
Folke drinke it thicke, and pisse it passing thin:
Much dregges therefore must needs remain within.

The next paragraph is even more interesting:

Howbeit, Turnebus that most learned Frenchman maketh no doubt but that men using to drinke heereof, if they could avoid surfetting, would live longer than those that drinke wine, and that from hence it is that many of us drinking Ale live an hundred yeeres. And yet Asclepiades in Plutarch ascribeth this long life to the coldnesse of the aire, which keepeth in and preserveth the naturall heat of bodies, when he made report that the Britans lived untill they were an hundred and twenty yeeres old. But the wealth of this towne consisteth much of buying of corne and selling it againe to the mountaines, for all the inhabitants be as it were a kind of hucksters or badgers [salesmen].

Dealers. In grain. Fabulous. Brewers of beer and dealers in grain. Look at that passage from Mott (quoted in part one) again:

Much malt was carried to the ferry on the river Trent, five miles away, whence it could go by water to London; 300 pack-horse loads (each of 6 bushels which each contained 40lb) or 32 tons were taken weekly into Lancashire and Cheshire.”

The trade in malt is not the trade in ale and it’s not the trade in barley. We see the malt from Derbyshire referenced as late as in the mid-1700s. Pamela Sambrook in her 1996 book Country House Brewing in England, 1500-1900 wrote:

Particularly prized among midland brews houses in the early eighteenth century was ‘Darby’ malt. It is mentioned repeatedly by William Anson in his notebooks as the basis of the best-quality strong brews at Shugborough. Derby malt was also used by the Jervis household near Stone and the Farington household of Worden in Lancashire in the 1740s.

The export of Derby malt also pre-dated the generally accepted 1640s application of invention of coke to the malting process. And it was worth taking a risk over. Dorothy Bentley Smith in Past Times of Macclesfield, Volume 3 describes the laying of malt related charges:

On December 1629, James Pickford (former Mayor of Macclesfield 1626/27) a tanner by trade of Pickford Hall on Parsonage (Park) Green together with tow accomplices, George Johnson and Roger Toft, appeared in Court in Chester. Their crime: They had erected a handmill or quern in Wildboarclouggh to the detriment of the three Macclesfield mills. Pickford had family connections in Derby and admitted supplying the inhabitants of Macclesfield with Derby malt “as others had done” Malting was the principle trade in Derby, from here supplies were sent to the greater part of Cheshire, Straffordshire and Lancashire, with a considerable portion taken to London by which many good estates have been raised” (a comment written by a historian, Mr Woolley, in 1712).

So, it’s pretty clear that well before coke, Derby malt was a thing and a desired thing. Moved by massive pack horse trains, by water as discussed in the first post or by subterfuge as the Pickfords of Macclesfield illustrate. Folks wanted their hands on it.

ii. Top quality selected barley

What made Derby malt so popular? Was there a singular characteristic like the particularly sulfurous waters in Staffordshire where in the 1680s a satantic ale was brewed at the Brimstone Alehouse that later may well have been tamed to become the hallmark of Burton ale a quarter century later?

Just as the function of pre-coke straw kilning played a role as discussed in the previous episode of this head scratching tale, so too was the sort of barley being malted important. Houghton in his book on husbandry recites a reference from one of his earlier writing’s from 1682, as you can see above. Note that states that it is made of “sprat or battledore” barley. Careful readers will recall that Battledore was one of the identified varieties of barley in the 1700s.** It was also known as Spratt or Sprat and as such was a parent to that darling of English brewing before mid-1900s Maris Otter, Spratt-Archer.  And it was in a way, selected and treated as an improved variety well before Chevalier was introduced in 1823. Consider this passage from The Modern Husbandman, Vol II at page 9 and 10 written by William Ellis from 1750 where Battledore is described by another of its common names – Fulham barley:

…the Hertfordshire Farmers, several several of them, send for Fulham Barley-seed above thirty Miles an End, and all by Land carriage. Now, though we have sandy, chalky, and gravelly Lands just by Home, yet, we at Little-Gaddesden chuse to be at the extraordinary Charge of sending for this Fulham Barley-seed, though we live Thirty-four Miles from it, and find our Account in so doing for as we sow it in our stiff Loams, from off a fandy short Loam, it returns us a very early Crop, with a Kernel much bigger than that we sowed, and is so natural for making true Malt, that it is commonly sold for two Shillings a Quarter more than our common Barley…

Ellis goes on to list other reasons for “Fulham Barley seed before all others.” You can grow a turnip crop  or rape-seed or wheat in a cycle with it. it is so early, it gets a good air drying. It has a shorter season making it useful in northern plantings. It is also available as seed grain by water transportation. Plus we know it made excellent straw which mean not only could it withstand a storm but it provided one means, other than sun drying, before coke to make pale malt by flash kilning the barley with clean fuel. So, the use of Battledore – by one of its many names – was the use of the choicest barley known to the England of the 1600s.

iii. Growing and Integrated but Decentralized Barley Production

And it was not just the quality of the barley. It was the quantity of the quality. Access to lots of top quality barley was also important.  You are not building a pre-industrial hive of… industry without a fair bit of the raw resources. In volume 16 of the Derbyshire Miscellany, there is a wonderful study of the inventories and wills of farmers in the parish of Barrow-upon-Tweed to the south of Derby. What it describes are many farms growing barley at the time in question. At page 24 there is a very helpful table that shows how from the early 1500s to the late 1600s the percentage of farmers growing barley rose from 18% to 45%. Interestingly, mention is made of not only barley but big barley as a distinct crop sometimes stored separately. The sophistication in separating and blending grains is evident. Farmers also store malt and some even have separate well appointed brew houses. In Elizabethan Barrow-upon-Trent one farmer posessed eight steepfatts, aka steeping vats or mash tuns.

But local barley feeding in to the Derbyshire machine was not enough. In 2016’s Farmers, Consumers, Innovators by Dyer and Jones, there is a description of how the demand for Derby malt was so great that barley was brought in from neighbouring districts. They state that similar probate inventories indicated that large quantities of barley were being grown in neighbouring Nottinghamshire and that Derby maltsters depended on it and other sources:

…it seems that the inhabitants of Derbyshore were keen to make up any shortfall they might have had in the barley output of their own county by buying in barley and malt from elsewhere. Derby was famed as a centre for malting; according to Camden its trade was “to buy corn [grain], and having turned it into malt, to sell it again to the highland counties.”

Which tells us a few additional things. At a time when many grains were grown and stored both separately and blended in mixes, Derby malt was focused on barley and, as seen above, top quality barley.  And then it was made into a regional trade named product, aggregated in the storage barns by the river described in part one or by the 300 weekly loads by pack-cart and sold on to markets.  The aggregation of the trade is similar to the one in hops we saw in the mid-1700s court ruling discussed two and a half years ago where the purchasing agent went rogue on his boss, the hop dealer:

London-based James Hunter is described as being “one of the one of the most considerable dealers in hops in England.” His agent, named Rye, worked in the Cantebury area for years had been well known as Hunter’s man. But in 1764… there was another good year with hops bearing top price. Rye set out to make deals as an independent – without telling Hunter or anyone else.

So, the many maltsters in derby 1690 Houghton were a part of the same sort of supply chain well before control of all stages in an industrial output was considered. The key spot in that chain which Derby places itself is important, too. Malt was by far a premium priced bulk product over unmalted barley. William Ellis above noted in the mid-1700s that malt was worth two shillings more a quarter compared to barley. And as Broadberry, Campbell, Klein, Overton and van Leeuwen show in their 2015 text British Economic Growth, 1270–1870 (as summarized in the remarkable and remarkably clickable table to the right) that premium coincided with a general jump in barley production in the 1600s:

The output of barley increased markedly in line with demand for better-quality ale and beer brewed from the best barley malt.

So, the folk of Derby build the name for their malt and sell it to the country just as ale quality is peaking in general demand.

iv. Speculative Conclusion

All of which leads me to a question. As Jordan and I saw in our research that went into our cult classic history Ontario Beer, the cost of transportation was a great issue in the colonial boom of 1800s before 1867 and national Confederation. Beer was heavy and the roads were poor. Which meant whisky was carted inland and beer was for the lakeside towns. Above, we see that discussion by William Ellis on around 1750 describing the extraordinary costs being paid to move Fulham barley seed just thirty-odd miles. Yet, Derby malt is shipped out by pack horse and cart from county to county and Derby ale is prized in London. Why is it worth it?

What if Derby malt was so singular that ale made with it anywhere carried the mark? What if the malt was thicker, stronger, paler and so clear of smoke that even a London brewer could make identifiable Derby ale that matched what was brewed in its home county and stood above the competition? Was that what Pepys was drinking? I don’t know. So I will leave it there for now to see if I can find more about the shipment of malt into London from Derbyshire in the 1600s. I need to learn more about who was receiving what was being shipped out of the county.

*Note again the plague that is foisted upon the pure hearted digital document scanning historian.
**Pete B in his Miracle Brew suggests at page 30 that barley prior to the cultivation of Chevallier in 1823 was simply a landrace. Use of “landrace” as it comes to hops, say, in NY State in the early 1800s can be code for “an inability to go back farther in records” sometimes unfortunately laced with a dash of “I could not be bothered looking for more information.” My inclination was to consider this not correct as this 1790s discussion – let alone Houghton in 1682 – confirms. There were clearly species of barley known and made subject to husbandry before 1832 in England. But then consider this: “[a] landrace represents the equilibrium… within… a crop… under a given set of climactic, soil and husbandry conditions.” That seems to be what Battledore was… yet it was also selected and traded. Conversely, the same text Diversity in Barley discusses “barley breeding” as “conspicuously… different plants within local landrace populations together with separate harvest and seed multiplication.” So, landrace triggers breeding. Which makes landrace not a simple thing at all.

Struggling With 1600s Derbyshire Strong Ale (Pt 1)

I was thinking I needed to write a post about Derby ale. The other week when I wrote this post with a bit more information about some of the other great 1600s strong ales Margate and Northdown and Hull and Lambeth, I knew I needed to have a look at Derby.  I even had this lovely map, above, of the road to London from Derby* of the era, John Ogilby‘s atlas of 1675 working on the premise that it was going to tell me about how the beer got from Derby to London. A lovely map.

But then I began to read more and realized that I needed to understand more about the roads and the river Trent, the fuel crisis from 1550 to 1700 and period barley varieties. This is because, it strike me, Derby ale might just be the combination of at least three unique elements coming together as opposed the factors which caused its competition. It might actually be quite unlike them altogether – an ale named for a municipality which is not necessarily the municipality in which each example was brewed.

Then after a week of assembling the post and hitting 2500 words, I realized I need to break this down into manageable bits. So, in this post I am going to discuss factors related to Derby ale in the 1600s related to transportation and malt kilning while leaving other factors to another. Hopefully this will be more helpful even if, as Stan commiserated with me, after viewing yet another text “getting it wrong” I am also well aware no one much reads the history posts. Which is fine.

Factor One: Goods and Navigation on the Trent and Derwent

For a beer to be worth the cost of transportation, it is reasonable to expect that it had to have an advantage making that cost worthwhile. Advantage is key. We know that the poet Andrew Marvell obsessed, in his side gig as a Member of Parliament for Hull from 1658 to 1678, over the effect taxation was having on his constituency’s brewing industry. Given its 1600s southerly competition were all much closer, any imposition on the price of Hull ale would affect the position of Hull ale exports to London greatly.

The same is true for other great beers of the pre-Georgian era. In this post, I discussed how the opening of the Trent in 1711 by, George Hayne made the Trent navigable to the southwest of Nottingham leading to, in issue 383 of The Spectator from 20 May 1712, the early journalist Addison notes going out for the day in London with his pal Sir Roger to drink Burton ale. New and improved transit makes for new an improved drinks choices for the wealth drenched.

The city of Derby sits on a tributary of the Trent, the north to south flowing river Derwent** near where the rivers meet. Historically, the Trent was not navigable or at least not safe or perhaps reliable upriver from Nottingham, 13 miles to the east of Derby. According to this source, the Derwent was opened to navigation from Derby to the Trent at Wilden Ferry in 1721 under an Act passed the previous year. After the 1600s. In 1699, the same source states that the authority to open the Trent from Wilden Ferry to Burton was granted by Parliament to Lord Paget*** but only exercised, as noted above, in 1711. Again, after the 1600s.  So, following what might today be a 16 miles portion of the A52, goods would have been carted from Derby to Nottingham for loading on watercraft for London.

But would they? It is clear Derby ale is well known in London in the 1600s well before the opening up of the Trent and Derwent. Pepys drank it in the 1660s. The fame of Derby ale has been argued to be tied to the development of coke during the English Civil War in the 1640s. Hornsey, too, describes in his now ten year old History of Beer and Brewing how Derby produced fine ale by the mid-1600s. So before the rivers were made open in the 1700s, Derby ale was known. Meaning it had to have been, at least, moved by a mix of transport modes.

Notice, too, the scale of operations. As Martyn pointed out in a 2009 post, the historian RA Mott, writing in 1965, said of the town:

“In 1693, when there were 694 family houses, there were 76 malt houses and 120 ale houses, so that malt-making and brewing must have been the dominant occupations. A list of those occupied in the wool, leather, wood, metal and stone trades and the normal supply occupations left room for some 200 maltsters and brewers. Much malt was carried to the ferry on the river Trent, five miles away, whence it could go by water to London; 300 pack-horse loads (each of 6 bushels which each contained 40lb) or 32 tons were taken weekly into Lancashire and Cheshire.”

Which, if you think about it, is interesting. Pre-aggregation. If there are 76 malt houses, there isn’t one central mammoth Derby Malting Co. Similarly, there are 120 ale houses, not one or five big breweries. What is going on is cottage industry production. One alehouse or malt house for every 3.5 households on average. A large number of small operations coming together to make one product. This is different from, for example, the contemporary competition out of Northdown which depended on the reputation of one brewer, the “inventor” Mr. Prince.

Wikipedia tells us that stone barns and warehouses still exist at Shardlow, described as an inland port developed before the improvement of navigation on the Trent. Shardlow sit on the north side of the Trent “about 6 miles southeast of Derby and 11 miles southwest of Nottingham.” It is just to the west of where the Derwent enters the Trent. This is a heritage listing for a 1700s Shardlow barn which sits on “the London Road.” Here is another in the parish of Shardow on Wilne Lane, Great Wilne which sits to the east of Shardlow itself. This is a survey of bats living at another.  The regional tourism development agency describes the key feature of Shardlow today thusly:

Shardlow is one of the best-preserved inland canal ports in the country… A walk along the canal towpath brings you into contact with many of the old buildings of the Canal Age. Mostly now used for different purposes, but still largely intact: the massive warehouses that once stored ale, cheese, coal, cotton, iron, lead, malt, pottery and salt; and the wharves where goods were loaded and unloaded. 

A district with period barns and warehouses for storing bulk grain, malt and other goods indicates something. That it was a hub of storing bulk grain, malt and other goods. A point of aggregation.

Click on the thumbnail to the right. Notice the lay of the land. A narrow winding river in boggy land to both sides of the Trent Canal and the river itself. The Derwent also twists away to the north. No wonder getting goods through this area was difficult. No wonder statutes of Parliament and great investments were needed to get the goods out of the district in the 1700s.

So, to get out of town and down to London, Derby ale had to be transported and transported along a long road or a boggy river yet to be improved. Which, like the extra distance Hull ale needed to cover, is a cost that apparently Londoners were willing to bear.

Factor Two: Coke, Straw and Pale Ale

Derby ale is known to be an early adopter of coke kilned malt. Derbyshire, along with being the valley of the Derwent, is part of a fairly southerly coal mining district. A canal was finally constructed in the 1790s to get the coal out. Hornsey also describes in History of Beer and Brewing how Derby produced fine coke by the mid-1600s due to the particular purity and hardness of the region’s coal. Even so, coke was not immediately or universally accepted as a replacement for wood or straw.

Note that, I said above, the generally accepted date of coke being used for the kilning of malt is in the 1640s. But in 1977, an article in Scientific American states “[b]efore the British (sic) civil war of the 1640s, coke was introduced for the drying of malt in connection with the brewing industry.” Before. This appears consistent with contemporary records. In 1637, Charles I of England received the following petition:

61. Petition of John Gaspar Wolffen, his Majesty’s servant, to the King. Your Majesty gave leave to petitioner to make trial of his invention for brewing with a “charked” sea coal, which, as your Majesty has seen yourself, yields no smoke, and will do as readily, and within a little as cheap, as the ordinary way of brewing. Prays licence for brewers of Westminster and other places, questioned about smoke, who are willing to embrace the said invention, to continue in their brewhouses without molestation.

“Charked.” Made dark as if charcoal. Sea coal. Not Derby mined coal. Sea coal is coal gathered on a beach. It was gathered until at least ten years ago in some parts of Britain. An opportunity to make coke with that coal was suggested earlier by a decade. This is an interesting thing. It’s the sort of thing that was interesting to Martyn back in 2009 when he wrote this about coke kilning and Derby ale:

Coke was invented in the North of England (it appears to be a North Country dialect word, originally meaning “core”, as if the “coakes” were the “core” of the coal), apparently in the 17th century. Its use to make malt was first taking place in Derbyshire in the early 1640s, according to John Houghton, an apothecary and part-time journalist, who issued a weekly bulletin in the 1690s and early 1700s, price two pence, called A Collection for Improvement of Agriculture and Trade. In one issue in 1693 he talked about the coal miners of Derbyshire, and added:

The reason of Derby malt being so fine and sweet, my friend thinks is the drying it with cowks, which is a sort of coal … ’tis not above half a century of years since they dried their malt with straw (as other places now do) before they used cowkes which made that alteration since that all England admires.

Note one more thing about that passage from Houghton which Martyn quotes. Coke is the successor to straw. Not to coal. Not wood. Not even charcoal – aka “charked” wood. We have established, in this post from three years ago, that straw had been used for yoinks to kiln lovely pale and un-smoked malt. As Houghton stated in the 1690s: “’tis not above half a century of years since they dried their malt with straw…” Coke is the next fuel, not the first. We need to accept that pale malts either – sun dried and straw kilned – were a thing well before coke. Why wouldn’t there be? Cheap and effective and no one was sitting around glum waiting for the future when coke was going to be invented.

We know that ale was popular, pale and not smokey in the 1690s after coke was introduced as a kilning fuel as Martyn showed in 2009:

[A]nother late 17th century writer, Mr Christopher Merret*, “surveyor of the Port of Boston”, fills the breach, though writing about Lincolnshire, not Derby. In a paper called “An Account of Several Observables in Lincolnshire, Not Taken Notice of in Camden, or Any Other Author”, presented to the Royal Society in 1695-97, he wrote:

“Here Cool are Charred and then call’d Couk, wherewith they Dry Malt, giving little Colour or Taste to the Drink made therewith.”

Pale ale was definitely being made in Lincolnshire in the 1690s from coke-dried malt. Yet earlier than that point, paleness and purity of taste was not created by coke. Over 100 years earlier a similar observation was made, well before the invention of coke by William Harrison, a scholar clergyman, who published his book A Description of England in 1577. Here is a full copy of the text posted by Fordham University in which you will find this:

The best malt is tried by the hardness and colour; for, if it look fresh with a yellow hue, and thereto will write like a piece of chalk, after you have bitten a kernel in sunder in the midst, then you may assure yourself that it is dried down. In some places it is dried at leisure with wood alone or straw alone, in others with wood and straw together; but, of all, the straw dried is the most excellent. For the wood-dried malt when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke.

Chalk is, you will note, pale and also that smoke is associated with wood. Straw kilned malt has the best of both. This was long remembered. In the seventh edition of the The London and Country Brewer from 1759, this is stated under the heading “The Value of Coak”:

It is a most sweet Fuel for drying Malt, the pale Sort in particular, but is best made from the large Pit Coal, which has supplanted the Use of Straw Fuel; and, when it is made to Perfection, it is the most admired Sort of all others.

This passage is in Chapter IX “Of the Fuel to dry Malt, of Malt, &do.” In that chapter, there is a description of techniques and a variety of fuels in a number of English locations including an unnamed town (ie “…in this Town of ____…“), Warminster, Ispswith, Oxfordshire as well as Derbyshire. A number of fuels are described such as aged wood, Welsh coal, coke, fern after a good shower of rain, wheat straw and “Newcastle Coal burnt in a Cockle-Oast.” A successful malt kilning is described as forcing “a quicker Fire to crisp the Kernel, and thereby save Fuel, Time and Labour.” Which means that even as late as 1759, the driving forces behind making malt are financial efficiency through use of available local resources. Standardization of malt kilning fuel has yet to be imposed through full scientific industrialization. Coke is not yet king.

The chapter also includes a specific discussion of Derby ale:

Mr. Houghton’s Observations of Malt-Making – The Reason, he says, why Derby malt does not make so strong ale as formerly, now they make the pale Sort, is because they lay it too thin on the floor to come, by which a great deal is not malted and the rest only Barley turned. Now in Hampshire, he says, the Barley, which is much smaller and thicker skinned,  is laid thicker on the Floors, and consequently heats, and all becomes rich Malt and makes stronger Beer with the same Quantity.

The Mr. Houghton being quoted is John Houghton (1645–1705), member of the Royal Society, a newsletter publisher writing in the 1680s and 1690s and an apothecary – as was Louis Hébert in Quebec in the first half of the same century. Proto-scientists. The passage above referencing Houghton from the The London and Country Brewer in the 1750s is looking back to Houghton’s opinion in the last two decades of the 1600s by which time Derby ale is already on the downturn, less than it once was. 

We will leave it there for now. This one has hit about 2650 itself. So more in another post soon. Derby ale was something that was worth getting out of the hinterland into the capital. It was made with coke and, before that, straw. Straw was still being used side by side with coke after the new technology was initially introduced. And, whatever it was, Derby ale was already on the way down at the end of the 1600s.

*Which I think is now part of the A6.
**I know “-by” is town so I presume “-went” is river and both relate to “the Der” – whatever that is.
***Another ambassador to Constantinople like Sir John Finch who loved Northdown.

Session 124: That Old Beer I Loved, Where Have You Gone?

I have been away.* Again, as it turns out. In the last weeks of winter, I drove home alone to Nova Scotia for the funeral of a close pal. I drove the sixteen hours there and sixteen back to think about what he meant to me as I headed east and to decompress on the return. It was a heavy time but the fabulous views of the lower St Lawrence River at Kamouraska and passing by rural high schools where he and I played on the sports fields put things in their place. But it was heavy.

So, last weekend I did it again. College reunion. And a couple of pals getting married. The same views got me there and back. The same round domed worn volcano cores pretending to be islands and near shore hills near the corner, the point where the drive north up through northern New Brunswick and across Gaspe becomes the drive southwest from the mouth to the source of the river that made Canada. The sun was out for long stretches. This time the stereo wasn’t as loud. I didn’t need the Foo Fighters’ anger as much. As Friday morning drizzled, I took time to listen to the old guys at the gas station coffee shop explain how the St.John valley had been in drought, so the rain was good. I even thought on the way home to try out mumbling in half French to the waitress at the Exit 177 chicken BBQ place. 690 AM sports radio taught me about the Montreal Canadiens from Edmundston to Brockville. I drove as you do on long familiar roads, slightly glazed.

When I got to my small university at the sea and checked into the dorm I had lived in 35 years before, there were friends – all in makeup, pretending to be themselves in middle age. Within minutes I had been called old, fat, and an idiot in a bunch of ways by a bunch of pals. I was back home. I jumped in someone’s new red SUV and headed to a hotel with a gang to meet up with another gang. We laughed, told each other about our jobs and our hobbies, our kids, our spouses past and present. We talked about our dead friends. Not too much but enough.

One pal walked in the room with a case of Oland Ex, a plain old Nova Scotian pale ale. Undergrad beer made by a regional brewery generations old. Now owned by a company owned by a company but still brewed in town. Hadn’t had one in decades. Bread crusty, not quite as light as a macro lager. A little sweet and a jag of rough hop hinting at nothing German, British, Belgian or American. A perfectly fine Maritimer pale ale. I actually said “God, that’s good” out loud. A friend asked, given I was a beer nerd, what made it so good. I said the bread crust malt but I meant the company as much as anything.

*This month’s edition of The Session is hosted by All the Brews Fit to Pint.

That Musty Box Of Fuller’s Vintage Ales

First conclusion of the experiment: the boxes are far less mould caked
when not left in a corner of a cold room for a decade.

OK, it wasn’t so bad. I was worried there for a bit but its gonna be OK. Turns out I have doubles. I have leeway. But, come to think of it, this box holds ten years of Fuller’s Vintage Ales, 2007 to 2016 and it’s high time I tucked into them. First, I bought them and tucked in right away. Later, I would do some comparing and contrasting, like the .05 v .10 and the ’06 v ’11 but I didn’t keep it up. I just stock piled.

I used to stockpile. Like those Stone Vertical Epic Ale annual releases. Like the Thomas Hardy ales. I ended up giving away Stone’s 05-05-05 to 12-12-12 more out of a sense of boredom than anything. By the end of the project it was a parody of itself. Reports were that a third were great, a third were fine and a few plain sucked. Such is the path of big US craft. Yet, they gave more joy to those gifted than my THA’s are given me now. Yik. Malt reduced to soy sauce. Hops now only offering the residue left after I boiled down my childhood ’45s. So glad I saved them. So, tonight I begin my attack the box at the back of the cellar.

First up and this Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2015 is not giving me the joy. There’s an astringent green vegetable taste in the middle of my pint where, you know, rosy cheeked English youth gathering in autumn’s harvest should be gamboling… cavorting even. But it’s clear and the colour of a love match between a lump of amber and a chestnut – which I will grant you is a bit of a range. And it raises a good head. As ale it is not fouled. BAer review speak of a wooden bitterness. I get that.  Don’t want it. But I get it. Yet… as it sits it moves from astringent green vegetable to astringent exotic orange-like citrus fruit you couldn’t pronounce but thought you would buy anyway because “hey, it’s Christmas!” and then you find it dried out a bit at the back of the shelf weeks later, closer to February than December. Which is better. I now get some husky grain. I can even see Seville marmalade from here. Even if made by my cray cray great-aunt well past her marmalade glory days. Household helpful hint: open this and let it breath for an hour.

I had to wash both bottles of the 2014. The first one I pulled out was stored upside down and it’s showing a need to sit for a bit. Cloudy. And both have stage one designate substance issues on the box and label. In the mouth, again with the musty staleness. Gonna let it sit a bit but at least its not paying homage to a green pepper. Later. Better. Still maybe infanticide as the flavours have not resolved. There is a hay loft grainy dry as well as a a rich earthiness. If my garden compost tasted like this I’d be ecstatic. Thinking about it, Gouda and mushrooms on toast. That would work well with this. Later still, the narrative is adds a dry stone aspect. I am now walking on a path on a hot day through rocky fields like those in our nearby fine wine region.  The hops after an hour have a rich sweet field herb and mint aspect. I once owned a scythe and an acre garden needing tending. This is taking me back there.

[More later. An on-going project… until it’s all gone.]

A few days later, the 2013. Bottle washed and cap popped. Cold. Canadian cellar in February cold. Gotta let it sit but the first sniff and sip are promising. Cream, grain and rich sweetness.  Unlike its two juniors, nothing off yet. Receding beef brothiness shifting towards sweet stewed apple. But mainly a mouthful of husky graininess. And cream. Brie cream, though. The cream made by the Brie cows. There’s something going on there. A Brie thing. Brie-like. Maybe. Thick viscous stuff. But no earthy brooding and nothing like Seville marmalade. Fresh and open an hour later. A lovely beer.

One more week has passed. The 2012 just opened had a far less challenging bottle. Cold from the final few boxes in the beer cellar it is stunning, exemplifying what I absolutely love about great beers. Masses of cream cut orange marmalade.  I curse 49 year old me for not buying cases and cases of this. Kumquat even. I say that as a man who just this very afternoon roasted two chickens stuffed with kumquats. Just saying. Go eat kumquats if you don’t understand. Tangy, fresh, intense, bright citrus. I am pouring half an inch at a time into a dimpled pint mug and ramming my nose in, sucking the aroma in deeply.  [That, by the way, is how to drink fine beer according to me.] As it warms, the graininess starts to assert itself. So now it is like wholewheat bread with a double cream and marmalade spread. I should be graphing this, with different brightly colour lines tracing the taste every fifteen minutes. I am going to leave it there. I am having a moment. OK… ten minutes later weedy herbal notes as well as a nod to beef broth come out. Stunning.

Ontario: Golden Beach Pale Ale, Sawdust City

kwakAh, my least favorite glass ever meets my favourite brewery of 2016. I got the Kwak glass likely the best part of a decade ago and had to wash a decade’s worth of dust off it to celebrate or mark or mourn today’s news. I am not sure I deeply care as I have never liked the beers of Bosteels all that much – though I liked Kasteel in 2004. Jeff has some of the early reports. Suffice it to say that the Great Satan now has a maker of muted B grade Belgian malty things in its portfolio. My world has not altered.

Which is not what I said when a number of mid-central Ontario’s Sawdust City beers started showing up in tins placed on retail shelves here in south-eastern Ontario. Great value at about $2.75 CND each, they all have more then held up their end of the bargain. This 4.5% ale pours a swell yellow gold with a rich white head. On the nose there’s plenty of weedy herb along with a fair chunk of white grapefruit rind over a cream background. The swally is interesting. A brightly ringing bitterness elbows out a modest lemon cream cake foundation. Lots of dry white grapefruit pith from the four hops named on the side of the can. Busy but still attractive. Especially on a day that is hitting 102F with the humidity.

You know, I’ll pour the next beer in another glass and put this monstrosity away likely until I hit my sixties. It’s all more than a little overdone, pointless marketing for a brewery that really hid in a safe spot in the market. Now owned by the forces of evil. Or of the future. Or just of reality. Gnashing over it all is a bit like being angry about that goldfish that died back in junior high. Things change. Things you have ultimately little to do with. Good beer, however, keeps showing up. Like this one from Sawdust City.

Vermont: The Farmhouse Tap & Grill, Burlington

Back from the road. There is still time ahead away from work but my banker and I agree that we would do well to pull back from the Atlantic shore and pull into the driveway. Not that I am grumbling. It was the attack on marine life that I had been hoping for. Good restaurants are a training ground for both manners and inquiry. Or at least that’s what I tell the bankers. I picked Farmhouse Tap & Grill for Sunday brunch, however, for one thing – line avoidance. See, it is a place that you have half a chance of getting a beer from Vermont’s celebrated brewery Hill Farmstead without driving off the road, up the hill and apparently waiting in line. Not a training ground for manners or inquiry. My own, that is.

 

 

 

 

First, this was brunch and it was a good one. By chance, we hit the place in a lull that turned into a blur of plates, eggs and coffee cups. And In that blur a mistake was made. A blessed mistake. We were served the wrong thing. When I pointed out that the Farmhouse sandwich was not mushroom and kale laced Eggs Benedict, we were told not to worry, to nibble on that and the proper order would be out soon. I scoffed the lot. I did offer to pay for both but there was none of that. So I upped the tip. Tipping well on the right occasion is a proper lesson for the young as well. Shun those who calculate closely after sharing a meal or a few pints. Shun them.

The beer from Hill Farmstead was named Edward. I thought we were past the inside baseball naming of beer but I guess not. Edward was the brewers’ grandfather. I will think of this as Gramp’s Pale Ale from herein out. It’s a bitter pale ale with weedy and black tea hop over, my companions agreed, apricot fruity malt. Not really the citrus and pine as advertised but that’s par for the course, right? Its creamy texture was cut by bite of the hopping. Minerally without being drying and dour. A fitting companion for drippy egg and kale. A lovely appetizing beer which cost $6.5 for a 12 oz snifter. Fine for one at a brunch but a bit steep for the session which its weight at just over 5% might invite.

 

 

 

 

An excellent place. The sort of place in the sort of city you can build a weekend trip around. I took photos of the drinks menu which I thought might be good fodder for discussion. I will post them in a bit when I figure out a handy way to display them. Quebec beers seem to earn a premium while some US craft were quite modest. It struck me as uneven. But the marketplace is a good educator in relative value. Or so I told the kids. School is coming up, I said. Back to math class.

England: Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2006 v 2011, London

In December 2010, I decided that I had to get at the task of drinking the Fuller’s Vintage Ales that I had been hoarding in the stash. I figured I needed to compare beers that were brewed five years apart and posted the ’05 v. ’10 results. Now, it’s time for the second edition comparing 2006 to their 2011. First, one thing to note is that I am using 200 ml German glasses for this experiment. See, the thing is, this was the week that the pint was dissed to a lower point than I have ever seen it dissed. My choice of glassware reflects that brave new world where reasonable measures of beer are a thing of the past. Still, I am sure these tiny tiny Teutonics will not let down this litre of greatness as they are wonderful wee things in themselves.

I reviewed the 2006 back in the day. It has clearly improved according to that description… or maybe my powers of description have. It now gives off an aroma of fresh bright orange marmalade on malt bread. Oddly, the scent is much stronger than the 2011 which gives off some booze and a bit of beef broth with not a lot more… or at least not nearly as much.

In the mouth, again there is no question that the 2006 is a bigger more complex beer at this point in its life. It’s got the malty smoked thing I noticed in 2006 and I get the green fig as well. But the texture is no longer what I likely meant when I wrote grain. It’s more like baseball glove leather now. Quite sweet as well. But well cut by what I had called black tea hops. They are now melded much more neatly together to give a sort of rose water effect. The 2011, by comparison, tastes of beer. There is a fresh acidity but the malt is a bit undeveloped. I had a 2006 Thomas Hardy Ale yesterday and it informs that idea. That pleasant little variety of acids that are in both ’06s of the last 24 hours sit dormant in the 2011’s pear juicy sweet ball of pale malt. The ’11’s box and insert card tells me that the malt is organic but not the variety. In 2006, the malt was Optic which the OCB tells me is the most widely planted variety in England.

First 400 ml down. Unlike the 2005 v 2010 comparison, I would not suggest the younger beer is cloying. It has a rustic hopping that is a bit twiggy and a bit menthol. Goldings, organic First Gold and Sovereign hops were used according to the box. They give a bit of a licorice effect at this point which may unpack into marmalade with time. I will let you know in 2016. The 2006, by contrast, relies on Fuggles and Super Styrian hopping. The OCB tells me that the Super Styrian – as opposed to the pending Super Dooper Styrian – is itself a form of Fuggles. From my lost homebrewing days, my world of English beer is divided into three: Goldings, Fuggles and Northern Brewer. I think 2/3s of this are demonstrated before me. The older beer leans to the hedge. The younger is more floral. Quite content to be the Mayor of Simpleton in such matters, it’s a distinction that works for me.

The head of the 2006 is worth comment – fine, densely packed off white bubbles giving a very appealing visual creaminess and a lovely maker of rich lacing. Otherwise the two beer appear to be quite similar. The elder is a bit clouded but I don’t care about the sorts of things. Each a very attractive deep orange amber ale.

700 ml gone and I am just going to enjoy the rest.. This is as high a point in my beer experience as any – and one that only cost me about 15 bucks and just half a decade. I am little proud of me. I was very sensible to start this series, to start saving these beers. The process may well see me out now that I think of it. There are far worse markers of another year’s passing.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale ’05 v.’10, South-like London, England

I have been wondering what to do with these single boxes of Fuller’s Vintage Ale I stick away every year. Seems a shame to blow them all in one binge even if shared with pals and plenty of notes. Not much to learn there. I needed a plan, a system. So, with that in mind, I figured that I would open the current version as well as the version from five years ago. That sounds like a plan. And it is a recurring theme. Just what the modern blogger needs: plans and themes. The boxes are note worthy in themselves if only to note that someone took the time to make the font on the box a little more elegant between 2005 and now – though it does not carry over to the card inside. And interesting to note that the 2005 is #10599 while this year’s model is #026673, expectant of its siblings growing into six figures. But let’s not get bogged down in packaging. Unless you really want to. No? Fine.

The 2005 opens with a fizt and immediately gives off a nutty sherry aroma…rummy even. Plenty of frothy oranged off-white head. In the mouth, I first get marmalade and sticky bun. There is a very nice light astringency around the edge. Nutty with almond a bit like Hungarian Tokay. Very rich with a pleasant candied quality but clearly working its way yeastily beastily through itself. The malt has pear juiciness in there, too. Before the pear shows up, in the first wash there is a hot wave that is almost tobacco. As it opens the tobacco and pear morph into a touch of licorice. In the finish there are complex twiggy things going on, something like hedge.

By comparison, the 2010 is simpler, heftier and sweetly cloying, the sugars not having broken down for half a decade of thermostatic abuse in my basement stash. Even the head is more of a uniform fine cream rather than the more bubbly open froth of its elder. The bitterness is more generalized and slightly rougher. The back of the throat heat a notch more pronounced. No sense of the pear in the malt at all but maybe bread crustiness instead. Good and pleasant but clearly a bit young by comparison like a cheese that has yet to develop its bite. Frosh.

Having said all that, I still have 80% of each bottle left. I feel like I should do some tests upon the fluid with, say, litmus strips… or maybe observe the reaction of small penned animals asked to bed down in the boxes laid down amongst the smelly wood shavings. But what can a data like that tell you? Look at the photo above. Science is not all its cracked up to be. Both beers are very moreish, rich and worth opening at this time of year. Each could stand up to old cheddar or stilton very nicely at the end of a big holiday meal. I expect I will go buy more 2010 and hide it from myself. I will. I’ll be a year away from the beginning of paying university bills by the time it’s ready. Better buy lots. They’ll probably be drinking them by then, too.

While we are thinking about it, it does make you think whether any nation on this planet can express the hidden capacities of good rich malt like the English can.

Obviousness Update: Monsieur Noix of Ireland calls me out over the geography but I am mere puppet in this respect, parroting the brewery itself.

Click on the image to the right as to the evidence at hand.

Wisconsin: Moon Man Pale Ale, New Glarus

It’s Memorial Day weekend in the USA and I am celebrating. Mainly because I’ve been sick since the middle of last weekend’s Victoria Day long weekend up here. Being in a border town it’s not a great stretch even if I can’t get over to witness one of the glories of the western world, a small town US parade. Eat a hot dog this weekend, woudja?

This beer was launched just a few weeks ago and arrived in a mixed 12 pack care of my Wisconsin mule – oddly by way of a village in north western Quebec. It gives off the aroma of peaches and apricots at an alarming level. It pours light burnished gold with an actively sustain pure white foam. On the swallow, theres a wall of pale malt sweet graininess with black tea hop with a weedy floral overlay. The finish is a bit tea, a bit bitter green with a squirt of juicy malt right at then end. Yum.

Structurally, it’s quite singular – a overly perfumed kolsch? And at 5% its a reasonably sessionable beer but I bet it could be rolled back to 4.4% with reasonable integrity. BAers got the love thang.

Wisconsin: Stone Soup, New Glarus, New Glarus

A Belgian pale ale from the USA’s Upper Midwest. This one smells good. Either that or I smell really bad. I’ve just finished two 16 hour days so it is not beyond the realm of possibility. But I’ve been in a jacket and tie the whole time. So it’s likely the beer or the guy next to me was inordinately polite.

Medium pale golden ale under a thin rim of white. Apple and pear on the nose with a little nutmeg. More in the mouth framed in a sweetish effervescent rich ale. Plenty of bready yeastiness. Dryish ending with black tea and twiggy hops and that lingering spice. A reasonable session beer at 5.3%. Part of a New Glarus mixed 12 pack that made the trip from near Lake Superior to the east end of Lake Ontario. A respectable level of BAer respect but probably not enough.