Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hoppy Mother's Day: Like Her, Old-Time Ales Tougher than you Think

According to, the founder of Mother's Day spent her life fighting Mother's Day:
Anna Jarvis founded Mother's Day to honor her beloved mother, then spent the rest of her life fighting the holiday's commerical and political exploitation. She died alone in an asylum....[in 1858 her mother had organized] Mother's Day Work Clubs in West Virginia to improve sanitary conditions and stem her community's appalling infant mortality rates."
Those Victorians were often made of sterner stuff than we envision today.

In a way our memory of beer is no different. Old beer was often really big beer.

Mid-century 19th British ale styles almost certainly confirm Minto's 20 year old "hop juice" would have been a strong ale. Over at the Weekly Brew Jared's already covered some of this with regard to IPAs*, and we've found that 19th century hopping was across the board much more powerful than we ever suspected.

Recently Beervana pointed out blogs by couple of serious beer historians, Martyn Cornell at Zythophile: Beer now and then and Ronald Pattinson at Shut up about Barclay Perkins. These are amazing efforts and put our paltry dilettantism to shame. Go check 'em out!

We were fascinated to read an entry on Barclay Perkins' mild in 1839. BP brewed three different kinds of mild, signified by X, XX, and XXX. We always though of mild as a low-alcohol, gently hopped session beer. Wrong! It means unaged beer, as opposed to "keeping beer," and could be of many different strengths. Keeping beer, which you can see in this ad from a century later, was signified with the letter K - this 1936 KKKK a very rich and strong ale.

The ales from 1839 were also strong, and came out at 7, 9, and 11% alcohol. They were malty and heavily hopped.
The weakest was more than double the strength of a typical modern Mild. The strongest was, well, not for the faint-hearted.
The biggest is like today's barleywine! About a modern recreation of that XXX, the brewer Kristen says:
Big. Very big. Lots of booze and spice. Layers and layers of biscuity malt blended with hop tannins and bitterness. A round sweetness in the middle that is full of fruity hop resins and malt. The bitterness, tannins and spice really dry out the end which lasts well after is is swallowed.
(The comments to the post are fascinating, and the geeks argue impressively abstruse details.)

We're not concerned with the details, but we are fascinated by an inescapable conclusion: Strong Ales meant for ageing were common! The Xs might be aged by the consumer and the Ks aged by the brewery, but both could be made to stick around.

And these weren't even the strongest. Pattinson has lists of historical recipes. About the most highly hopped beer on his list of over 1000 recipes, a 1850 Russian Imperial Stout, he says:
The beer with the most hops isn't a surprise. At least not to me. Barclay Perkins IBSt. That's Russian Stout to you and me. When I gave Menno the recipe for the 1850 version, his response was "I can't put that many hops in." He calculated the IBU's at something over 250. Just as well I hadn't used the 1855 version. That had even more hops. A full 10.12 pounds per 36 gallon barrel. The 1850 recipe only had 9.31 pounds.

The quantities of hops used are terrifying. Barclay Perkins used tons. Literally. In some brews, more than two tons. That's right, two tons of hops. I can't imagine what two tons of hops look like.

So when in 1909 the workers found bottles of Westacott's ale that were 20 years old, it's no stretch to suppose they were in fact strong ales and had been brewed to age. Moreover, they weren't proto-IPAs or export beers (and more here on Burton IPAs), but were ordinary milds, made strong but well within the prevailing range of 19th century British styles. It seems likely that they didn't represent a special bottling of strong ale but were one of the brewery's regular beers.

It appears to be the case that tin can beer, the prevailing style of 20th century industrial lager, isn't even really a blander version of what was normal in pre-prohibition brewing. It looks like even all-grain light-weight "session beer" was but a small segment of the total 19th century range of styles. Indeed, the norm was tough enough to age.

*We need to shout-out to Jared and summon him back to the bloggery. We don't brew and aren't interested in home-brewing, so we miss his more technical perspectives!

(Image: Columbia Sportswear, Gert Boyle "One Tough Mother" campaign)

1 comment:

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