There is a lot of back story to the nectar that is beer. More and more information is being discovered all the time, pushing the limits of what we think we know in terms of styles, flavors, brewing processes, availability, and even when beer was being made. There are a lot of hands working diligently to discover and learn as much as they can from the sometimes convoluted and sometimes mysterious histories that make up the world of beer. Many have seen the season of Brew Masters (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brew_Masters) put out by the Discovery Channel, which put a large spotlight on beer and its origins. Also, the writings of many beer historians provide insight into old recipes, old brewing log books, etc, etc. I personally enjoy reading Ron Pattinson, both on his blog (http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com/) and his articles in BeerAdvocate magazine (www.beeradvocate.com), and there are many others out there putting out a lot of interesting work. As the craft beer scene in the United States balloons to astronomical numbers, both in brewers and breweries, it is sometimes fun and educational to cast an eye back on where this entire beer journey really started from.
One of the truly interactive and fun ways to participate in a self-driven study in beer history is being provided currently by Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project (http://prettybeer.com/wp/). Pretty Things has a series (http://www.oldbeers.com/) known as “Once Upon A Time,” in which they brew beers from historical records/documents/recipes, true to form, to open up a window into the past (of beer). As they put it: “We do not interpret or attempt to commercialize these beers in any manner. In fact you have our pledge that if history presents us with a less-than-desirable beer, you will taste this beer as it was. That’s our unique commitment to you.” It’s like going back to the good old days without the shitty Delorean ride.
For today’s history lesson, I’ll talk about three particular brews from the “Once Upon A Time” series, and I’ll relay the brewer’s descriptions of the beers, as well as my experiences with each brew, all in chronological order of original brew date, as any self-respecting geek would do.
December 6th, 1855 East India Porter, 6.0% ABV
From the brewers:
“The recipe that we’re using dates back to a brewsheet from Barclay Perkins Brewery in London, from December 6th, 1855. As with our other historical beers, the EIP was brewed in a vast batch-size that we cannot hope to recreate. The “Porter tuns” were apparently over 3400 barrels in size (that’s bigger than any modern American brewhouse). So, we’re brewing at 1/34th that size, but so much else is the same. We visited our favorite maltster, Thomas Fawcett & Sons in Yorkshire a few months before we brewed this. The Fawcett maltings has been around since the 1780s, this is pretty authentic stuff. So we employed their lovely grain for this beer. Their brown malt is sublime; the amber was, and to some degree still is a mystery. It’s a lightly roasted malt and our guess was that it would accentuate the dryness of the beer. But why did they use it back then? The hops are a different story altogether: 4.47 lbs hops per barrel (Kent Goldings & Spalt). 4.5 pounds per barrel! That’s a double IPA, and as many hops as the 1832 10.5% Mild had! It’s more than some of the hoppiest MODERN IPAs out there… Crazy! So: our Once Upon a Time 1855 EIP is dry, malty beer with a substantial pipe-tobacco bitterness, dark garnet colour and 6% abv.”
From yours truly:
Poured from a bomber into a shaker pint, the beer is a dark, hazy, chestnut highlighted brown-to-black coloring with a thin, frothy, foamy, off-white head. Great bright ring on the surface of this beer the whole time you are drinking. Aromas are heavy of roasted coffee, both bitter and a bit smoky. Flavors are very heavily roasted, with a solid profile of coffee, both bitter and rich. Very heavy coffee profile throughout, as I’m sure was being relayed already. The aftertaste is bitter and roasted, with a hint of bittersweet chocolate notes. Dry, bitter, mid-lingering finish. Solid brew, and fun to see what brews used to be like back in the day, as they say. Coffee lovers dream!
Once Upon A Time 1879 East India Pale Ale
From Pretty Things:
“We couldn’t help but want to brew a proper period version of the beer that started the craft beer movement here in the US and Ron came up with a brewsheet that launched many OUAT firsts. Not only does this one use English hops as would be expected, but also hops from Germany (including hops from Alsace that was only recently ceded to Germany from France) and California. Yes, you heard that correctly. We don’t even grow hops in California these days so it was surprise to see a Yorkshire brewery using them in the 19th century. First ever use of American hops in a OUAT beer. This is also our first non-London historical recreation and we’re really pleased that it lands us in Leeds, England – home of Martha and where I spent several happy years working at Daleside Brewery in Harrogate. That’s one first. Another first with this beer is that it’s from a brick and mortar brewery that only recently closed. In fact I went to a meeting there in 2006 and had a great tour of their brand new packaging hall. Oh well, sometimes history is even closer than we would have liked. That said, I could only dream to have visited at Trumans, Whitbread or Barclay Perkins!”
From this intermittently dedicated author (who is working on consistency a little more now):
Poured from a bomber into a shaker pint, the beer is a hazy, golden-copper coloring with a frothy, filmy, bright white head that eventually settles into a filmy coating. Nose of biscuits in the backbone, with a toffee sweetness, a touch of grapefruit tart, and a hint of hops bitter. The nose is very sweet, but very well blended and balanced. Flavors are balanced, too, but lend more to the bitter side. Initially toasty, with a lemon and grapefruit citrus blend that overcomes the palate rapidly, with a bitter and peppery hops profile following shortly behind. The bitterness is bold, and helps to clean the palate. The aftertaste is a bit on the bitter side, with the citrus tart still present, but slightly overpowered. The original biscuit backbone is a little lost, leading to a slightly astringent finish. Mid-bodied, which works to support the flavors, but the bitterness may “do in” some drinkers who are not fans of the hops, or accustomed to more bold flavorings. Interesting and very flavorful brew, nonetheless. I really like this series so far, it’s been fun getting to know these brews.
Once Upon A Time 1939 No. 1 Ale
From the horse’s mouth:
“This beer was originally brewed November 15th, 1939. On that very day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was laying the cornerstone to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.. Across the Atlantic a shift brewer in Edinburgh, Scotland was making one of the strongest beers his brewery had in its repetoire and it was called “No. 1.” This dark, malty and sweet beer epitomizes Scottish beer of the day…and actually it was a peculiar recipe! Not only does this recipe contain lactose sugar and require us to colour the beer mostly with caramel, but it also demands a “cereal mash”. This one really is a beer from a comparatively modern industrial brewery. So far in our list of historical beers we have beers reproduced from the years 1832, 1839, 1855, 1879, 1901 & 1945. Not one of them showed this type of complexity in the brewhouse. So it was a great joy and challenge to be able to tackle this beer.”
From a horse’s ass:
Poured from a bomber into a shaker pint, the beer is a slightly hazed, dark, amber highlighted brown colored ale with a sparse, very thin surface coat of white head. Aromas of darkly sweet caramel and a hint of nut, with a sugary highlight that gives it richness instead of cloying. Flavors are just as rich as you would expect from the nose, with a deep, smooth ribbon of dark caramel providing a backbone that is highlighted by a touch of smoke and an earthy character that provides both depth and balance to the brew. Very rich, but surprisingly drinkable. There are subtle notes of alcohol throughout, but never anything that builds or overpowers. Smooth, full body that is lightened slightly by the carbonation. Roasty and rich aftertaste, with a sugary kiss, leading to a slick, slightly lingering finish. Really strong representation of the style, and possibly a good bar to use when tasting other Scottish Ales. This was a really tasty beer!
These three brews are a start into this area of the beer world that I want to explore more, and drag all of you with me, kicking and screaming if I must. In all honesty, there are some really great, unique beers being created/recreated due to this look back on history. In this particular instance, we have Pretty Things, which is most readily available in New England…so, for those outside of that area, I guess either plan a trip or find a beer pen pal. In all honesty, it’s worth the effort. In future history lessons I will tackle the other offerings in the “Once Upon A Time” line, as well as some of the historical styles from Dogfish Head and other breweries. It’s an interesting way to delve deeper into the awesomeness that is craft beer. So brush off those history corners of your brain, and drink educated my friends!