Monday, 5 October 2015

Brewers have themselves to blame

Amongst the gems I excavated from my last JIB mining expedition were a few papers on early 20th century bottled beer. I think I'd originally gone looking for something about beer duty but when you start exploring the JIB archive you never know where you'll end up.

At the time brewers were starting to produced bright bottled beer. This has a clear advantage over bottled beer with a sediment as you don't have to worry about letting it settle and you can drink everything in the bottled. Unfortunately it had a major drawback: it tasted shit.

In 1905 TA Glendinning FIC gave a talk on "The Popular Type of Beer"*. Beer was going through a period of transition

"...since the abolition of the malt tax a much greater range of barleys, both native and foreign, has been brought into the maltster's hands, whilst the free mash-tun has given scope for the successful employment of sugars, prepared cereals, and grits."

"The brewer having thus a wider selection of materials, has found himself in a position to produce lighter beers, requiring but little storage, pleasing to the eye and palate, of low alcoholic strength, and better suited to  modern conditions of life than stored beers of greater alcoholic strength and higher acidity."

"...forces of supply and demand have led to the decline of stock and semi-stock beers, and to the rapid advance into popular favour of light bitter beers. For a long time this demand was met and is today met largely by the class of beer known as 'K' or 'AK', that is to say by a beer of light gravity, distinctly though not strongly hopped, which must fine quickly and carry good condition in within a very short time of racking. The desire for good condition as well as for a convenient package has gradually created a large demand for bottled beer, and the bottling trade has now become an integral part of almost every brewery."

 I thought for a moment there that he was going to explain what 'AK' meant but sadly no. It's also clear that even before the horrors of the first world war beer was getting weaker.

The problem of sediment in bottles is mentioned and at the time this was not easily solved:

“The most obvious plan of removing this difficulty is to artificially charge a bright cask of beer with CO2 and by bottling under pressure to remove all necessity for bottle conditioning at all. Carbonating, however, is but a makeshift and temporary means of avoiding sediment; a short storage suffices for fermentation to recommence, and beers must therefore be consumed within a limited period after bottling. Moreover, carbonated beers possess none of the flavour characteristics of beers conditioned in a bottle, in fact they may be quite inferior in palate to the same beers drawn from cask in good condition.”

 Bright beer contains around 10,000 yeast cells per ml and back in 1905 this would almost certainly include wild yeast strains able to ferment dextrins that brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae can’t.

To overcome this problem the ‘American system’ of cooling and filtering beer before bottling was widely implemented.

“But are we satisfied with the character of these beers now produced and put upon the market? I certainly think not, nor have I yet met a brewer who frankly believes that he is satisfied. They may, of course, be said to ‘meet a certain demand’ but the tone adopted towards them is distinctly apologetic, and they are never seriously compared on the same basis with beer carefully matured in bottle.”

He’s clearly anticipating the line adopted by our Mother Church on bottled beers. He continues:

" ideal beer for modern taste must have the following characteristics:-

  1. Brilliancy, which is not dimmed by cooling.
  2. Low alcoholic strength.
  3. Good condition with a permanent head.
  4. A clean, fairly full, and mature character, a delicate hop flavour, and pleasant aroma.
Are we obtaining these qualities?

Chilling and filtering in conjunction with suitable modifications of brewing and fermenting have rendered it possible to produce both cask and bottled beers with all these requisite conditions except apparently the last one."

Interesting to see that filtered beer had gone into cask as well as bottle. As to the poor flavour, some brewers took the view that as chilled and filtered beer didn't taste good they shouldn't bother trying to make the beer good in the first place. The speaker however thought that this would only lead to trouble. He quotes from an earlier article:

"Unfortunately, in these days, it is not always the highest quality that is aimed for, bu the cheapest method which will produce an article just good enough to hold its own with immediate competitors, and it is this assumption which can alone explain the adoption of some of the more rapid systems of chilling and cooling bottled ales."

Glendinning then continues:

"I am confident that non-deposit beers, both in bottle and in cask, will most certainly monopolise the trade once they are produced in undoubted quality.

There will always be a certain demand for a high class of pale ale, naturally conditioned in bottle, but we may be quite sure that the filter has come to stay"

Filtered beer in draught and bottle does indeed monopolise the trade nowadays, and though bottle conditioned pale ales have more waned than waxed they never died out. As ever, it seems quality was a problem with cask beers:

"I believe that the unreliability of draught beers in respect to condition and brilliancy has been a chief factor in stimulating the demand for bottled stuff"

He then talks of how filtered beer could be served from casks, which considering it didn't really get going until after the second world war it's quite surprising to hear someone talking about it before the first. It is unsurprisingly a bit primitive thought: stronger wooden casks lined with wax or pitch and the beer raised by CO2 pressure. Apparently some publicans were already using air pressure but he didn't approve of this because of the negative effect on beer quality.

Speaking of publicans it seems some things never change:

"I know from experience how difficult it is to convince publicans that skilled cellar management is part and parcel of their profession, and that beer can no more look after itself in their cellars than it can in the brewery cellars."

His thoughts on filtered beer once again sounds surprisingly like the sort of thing you see in CAMRA publications:

"In attempting to establish methods for producing filtered top-fermenting beers we must, I am afraid, recognise the extreme difficulty, if not impossibility, of retaining the flavour unimpaired after chilling and filtering. We have something to go upon in this respect in the experience of lager beer brewers, by whom the opinion is often expressed that the filter has made for increased brilliancy at the expense of palate fullness. On the other hand, low temperatures at which bottom fermentation beers are stored, render the influence of chilling upon flavour negligible, or perhaps I should say, unnoticeable. The case is quite otherwise with English top-fermentation beers, for here we have to compare beers minus resins and other palate-giving bodies, removed by cold and filtration, with beers normally containing them in solution. Naturally the difference is very marked, and is quite capable of becoming evident in flavours which are vapid, caramelised, coarse, or metallic, with a complete absence of the pleasing aroma which one has been accustomed to expect in a well brewed top-fermentation beer."

Though unlike CAMRA he then goes on at great length about ways in which filtered beer could be improved, and once again rails against the

"...short sighted and stupid policy to rest content with, or even to tolerate a characterless product which is not only far inferior to a naturally matured bottled beer, but in the majority of cases not even a credit to the present development of the non-deposit system".
The discussion that follows the talk is also detailed, again showing some fascinating insights:

"Mr. H. M. Chubb said that the chief complaint with chilled and carbonated beers was their thinness, softness, and want of character found in beers matured in bottle. He believed that the reason of the thinness was that, in the process of chilling, part of the proteïds were taken out, but if the beer was simply carbonated and filtered, and not chilled, a sediment formed in a week or less, so that with this class of beer it was a matter of choice of two evils, and that, in his opinion, the public demand for a bright bottled beer with no sediment would end in the adoption of the lager system of brewing."
Once you can tear yourself away from the glory of the word "proteïds", complete with double dot i and everything, you can see that back in 1905 he's predicting that lager brewing methods would be adopted. The next comment from Mr. R. R. Lansdale again has a surprisingly modern relevance:

"A great many people mentally passed an opinion on a glass of beer, on its appearance, before even tasting, as if appearance were the main thing. The brewers would have only themselves to blame if the demand came for cask beer to be filtered and carbonated".
So next time a purveyor of London murky complains about people judging beer on its appearance you'll know that it's pre-WWI brewers that are to blame.

The closing remark from Mr. Glendinning also strike a contemporary chord:
"As to whether the same 'bite' could be obtained on a chilled beer as on a naturally conditioned one, it was extremely unlikely that it could, because, as far as we know at present, bottle fermentation appeared to be a necessity for the production of 'bite'"
Lack of bite in bottled beer may not be something people discuss today, but the merits of bottle conditioning vs forced carbonation crops up now and again, which I really blog about at some point. So many things to mouth off about, so little time.

* 'The Popular Type of Beer' Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 11, Issue 7, December 1905, Pages: 618–633, T. A. Glendinning


  1. Worthington tried chilled and filtered draught beer before WW I. It failed because drinkers didn't like the flavour.

    You see similar comments from brewers about the superioty of bottle-conditioned beer long after WW I. Even though the amount produced was in constant decline.

  2. Much of what purports to be bottle-conditioned beer nowadays doesn't actually experience any noticeable conditioning in the bottle.