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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
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Quaff Some History

Jason Foster
Published Thursday October 29, 06:08 pm
Beer innovation is awesome, but so is the history of brewing

Man, it’s an awesome time to be a beer geek.

In our current age there’s no shortage of new and exciting beers. It seems like pretty much every month, someone rolls out either a beer we’ve never seen before (like oak-aged, fruit-infused or hot chili pepper beer), or a new hybrid beer (like India Session Ale or White IPA). The boundaries of what’s possible for beer have been completely smashed in just a few short years.

It’s super exciting, and everyone who appreciates a good pint should be overjoyed to be living in this new age of craft beer.

I definitely am — but amidst all this well-deserved enthusiasm for this wealth of new choices, I hope we don’t completely lose sight of just how cool beer history is, as well.

I’m not trying to be a killjoy, just saying that there’s lots to be learned from how brewers concocted beer two or three hundred years ago. There’s no question it was beer, but it may not have tasted like what we expect today — even though many of the names of particular styles remain the same. Here are a few examples of beers that are connected to our collective history, and some suggestions on what they might’ve tasted like a century or more ago.

One style that’s always been particularly interesting to me is porter. Once the mega-beer of the 1700s, porter basically disappeared in the mid-1900s, only to be resurrected in the 1970s by the craft beer movement. Today we know porter as a dark, chocolatey, nutty beer with a moderately heavy body and just a touch of roastiness. Think of it as a more gentle stout, its stylistic sister.

But the porters of the 1700s wouldn’t have tasted like the ones we drink today, because of three key differences. First, porter was a process innovation, as it was the combining of the three threads (or runnings) of a mash. At the time, water was run through the mashed malt three times to create three beers of differing strengths. Porter (also called “entire butt” back then) combined those three runnings to create a single beer. Second, the ability to kiln black malts only happened in the early 1800s, meaning porters of the time didn’t have any dark roasted malts. And finally, porters required some aging, usually in oak barrels, meaning they would develop sour and barnyard-like flavours over time.

So a 1700s porter would probably have a lighter body with less chocolate and coffee notes and more nuttiness and caramel flavours than the modern version, and it would also have a noted sour tang. We also know they had a substantial alcohol level — around seven or eight per cent — meaning they’d have carried quite a kick. I imagine they were quite drinkable though, as the tartness would sharpen the musty, malty character of the beer. Here’s betting that’s why it became so popular among the working classes.

Then there’s porter’s sister beer, stout. A lot of beer geeks know the (likely slightly embellished) story of stout’s creation — an error that led to over-roasted malt, creating a coffee character. But just like with porter, 1800s stout would taste quite different than today’s version. Setting aside issues of contamination (which may also have been an issue), it’s the differences in recipes that lead to flavour differences. In the late 1800s, stout recipes were very simple — pale malt, brown malt, black malt, and that’s it. Only in the early 1900s did malting technology improve sufficiently to allow for different gradations of roasted malt, crystal malts and other staples of today’s stouts.

Such a simple malt bill would create a beer with a much less-rounded character than today’s interpretations. It would be a beer with a pronounced roast sharpness, some nutty character and, likely, a fairly moderate body. It would still taste like stout, but I think it would lack the finesse of the modern versions.

Let’s finish with one more dark beer — Scotch ale. Today, Scotch ales are deep, malty and sweet with a rich caramel character, sometimes with a light smoky finish. One hundred years ago or so I imagine they had some different aspects. I’m sure they were still dark brown, deeply sweet and full of caramel and toffee, but I bet that the peaty, smoky notes would be more pronounced, given that malting and roasting processes were less refined.

Also, the alcohol levels in Scotch ales — which today usually run around seven or eight per cent — were surprisingly high back in the day, up to nine or ten per cent. Finishing gravities, as a result, were likely higher, meaning the beer had an even sweeter profile.

Technology changes, consumer tastes change and enterprising brewers get crazy ideas, all of which means beer is constantly evolving — which is great. But while we’re enjoying the next big innovation in brewing, it’s also cool to think about how things used to be.  

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