A draught from the past ...
Michael Jackson meets the 'hobby brewers' for whom an 1832 Truman's ale or an 1850 Whitbread's London Porter could be a regular tipple
"Would you like to taste an 1832 Truman's XXK'" How could I resist such a singular invitation?
Dr. John Harrison produces a screw-top pint, such as I have not seen in many years, and pours a russet liquid that forms a thick, creamy head in the glass. Its texture is creamy, too, though never thick or cloying, and its palate is a remarkable balance of malty sweetness, floweriness and intense hoppy dryness. It is one of the best beers I have tasted in a lifetime's sampling.
The last batch of XXK to be made at Truman's brewery in London was released on 29 February 1832.
The last batch of XXK to be made at Truman's brewery in London was released on 29 February 1832. The "K" indicated a "keeping beer." In those days, February and March were the last months of the beer-making season, because warm weather and airborne wild yeasts rendered brewing impossible. "Keeping beer" was made to lay down in the cellar as a provision, to be drawn upon during the summer. The tradition ended when the development of refrigeration made it possible to continue brewing during the warmer months.
Because hops act as a natural preservative, they were used generously in "keeping beers". XXK has three times the hop content of its winter counterpart. It was probably intended to last seven months until the new brewing season began in October.
This 1832 beer has not actually lasted 160 years: it was brewed in a pressure-cooker by Dr. Harrison on his kitchen stove last May according to Truman's 1832 specifications. (The oldest beer I have ever tasted, though it was still in good order, was a Trappist Ale 21 years in the bottle.) At a little more than seven months old, the Truman's has reached the peak of its condition (an everyday ale is more likely to have been matured for about seven days).
Dr. Harrison is one of a group of "hobby brewers" who re-create beers from the heyday of British brewing. In the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, British brewers were world-renowned, but this golden age ended with the shortages of fuel and materials during the First World War. Everyday beers have never been so potent or so tasty since.
The work of these hobbyists recaptures flavours we beer-lovers thought had gone forever. To sample their brews is to taste history: agricultural, industrial, economic, social and gastronomic. The Truman's brewery has ceased all production in the past few years, but its brand name is stilI extant, in the hands of Courage.
The William Black brewery of Aberdeen, ceased production in the Thirties, but here is a glass of its 1835 XXX ale being offered to me by Dr. Harrison's brewing friend Eric Clarke. It has a deep, tawny colour arid the warming finish of Victory-V lozenges.
Then there is an 1841 stout that tastes like oil-of-espresso and a 1909 ale as meaty as beef broth.
Then there is an 1841 stout that tastes like oil-of-espresso and a 1909 ale as meaty as beef broth. The latter seems to have been discreetly brewed by Younger's of Edinburgh in anticipation of the death of Edward VII. It was then released for the coronation in 1911 of George V.
Dr. Harrison trained as a chemist and worked as a materials scientist until his retirement. He lives near Maidenhead, Berkshire, and his interest in the making of drinks arose from a garden laden with soft fruits. He began turning these into wine, then decided to have a shot at his favourite drink, Guinness.
"People said this was the one beer that no one could convincingly home-brew," he recalls. "Rumour had it that there was a secret ingredient. I am sure there isn't. It is a question of getting the balance right between the roasted grains and the hops, and then creating enough body." Dr Harrison began by roasting his own barley on baking trays in his kitchen oven. He experimented even to the extent of picking individual grains from the tray to achieve a consistent level of kilning. and he produced a home brew that was "pretty close" in the view of those who have tasted it.
Home brewing had become legal in 1963 and Dr. Harrison became a founder member of a club for practitioners, the Durden Park Beer Circle, in 1971.
The club has maintained a level of 25 to 30 members, most from the stretch of the Thames Valley between Maidenhead and the western edge of London. They meet once a month at Durden Park Cricket Club in Southall to swap experiences and brews.
Anyone who is this serious about beer has gone far beyond home-brew kits. The Durden Park Beer Circle even spurns home-brew supply stores.
"Shops have too few specifications of malt," says Eric Clarke, "and they don't know enough about the hops they sell. What are the varieties, where were they grown, what is their content of alpha-acids and resins?" The Durden Park group buys its grains in 100-pound sacks directly from a maltster, at about £25 a time. Some of the more unusual malts are shared with another club - there are perhaps half a dozen dotted around the country. Durden Park has persuaded hop merchants to sell it sample half-pound bags for £1.
The group began by trying to match today's beers, but soon began to delve into brewing history, and although brewers were at first reluctant to release archive information on their past products, that attitude has changed over the years.
The Durden Park brewers pore over copperplate records, trying to decipher the abbreviations, codes and archaic terms, and figure out procedures and quantities.
Breweries normally keep a log of every batch they make. The Durden Park brewers pore over copperplate records, trying to decipher the abbreviations, codes and archaic terms, and figure out procedures and quantities.
How accurate are their results?
In 1976, Dr. Harrison made a black potion and offered it as "Guinness" to a lady who was 86 years old. "This isn't Guinness," she scolded him. "This is London porter. I used to drink this when I was in service." The sample had been based on a Whitbread London Porter from 1850. Soon, all such witnesses will be gone.
More recently, the John Smith's Brewery of Tadcaster, Yorkshire, considered adding a small working plant to make a "Victorian" beer for guests at its museum. What would be a suitable brew? The Durden Park Beer Circle was invited to work on the project and the members have been experimenting with an 1880 bitter.
People wishing to make their own essay into the past might wish to browse through the 60 "recipes" in booklet produced by the Durden Park club and just released in a new edition.
"Old British Beers and How to Make Them" costs £3, plus 34p postage, and is available from Dr. J. Harrison, 5 Dorney Reach Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 ODX.
Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: JAN 18, 1992
In: The Independent
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