I recently took my father out to The Harp near Covent Garden. Over a pint of Twickenham Dark Mild, he related a memory he had from Essex in the 1960s: He had lived in Tolleshunt D’Arcy where there was a pub called The Thatchers Arms run by Elsie & Sid (originally from the east end of London). The beer at the time was Truman’s Bitter and in the colder months the locals would heat a poker in the fire until it glowed red. They’d then plunge it into their pints of bitter whereupon the ale would broil.
A couple of days later I was looking through my Twitter feed and came across the following:
SirenCraftBrew @SirenCraftBrew Mar 30
One of the specials on show @pubcathope Friday is this brand new, pilot batch Breakfast Braggot. Stout meets Mead
For some reason, I’ve put both the account of ales being heated by pokers and the launch of one of the most innovative beer hybrids into the same mental folder. It was a subconscious act but it has to do with the nature of staples, pleasure and technology, but above all culture. The two phenomena are just snapshots from a long evolution of beer and communal drinking – whether that community be in the flesh in The Thatchers Arms or on a social medium (if social media is ever singularised). Let me tease these things apart.
We’ll start from the beery beginnings in this country: Gruit was one of the alcoholic drinks of the British Isles and was the original cocktail. It was a time before yeast had been isolated, where fermentation occurred with fingers firmly crossed and the plants that went into it may have changed from village to village and family to family. It was a time before we’d adopted the preservative and clarifying benefits of hops. Ground ivy would’ve gone in instead or mugwort, yarrow, nettles, sweet gale, horehound, heather or kelp. It would often have been flavoured with the fruits of the hedgerow too. This proto-beer would almost certainly have been cloudy and possibly quite soupy.
Fast forward to the 19th century where buildings had been built with malting floors, hops had been trained into bines, the water had been Burtonised and the yeast isolated into powder form. The temperature could be accurately read and controlled, the boil accurately timed and the alcohol content calculated beforehand and confirmed afterwards. Weights and measures were hotly scrutinised by the government.
Zoom ahead to the 21st century where, apart from cleaning out the spent hops & malt, all the brewery functions can be controlled by computer. Inspiration or competition doesn’t come primarily from the closest brewery but via the internet. A new brew from a small producer in Colorado has motivated you to try and import a new hop variety, mix it with a Scandinavian yeast culture and roast it over peat to up the ante. You’ll be reading and watching reviews of your beer from across the world.
I’ve been told another recollection from a work colleague from east London who recalls the same red hot poker treatment but with pints of porter instead of bitter. He reckons the practice in central London died out because of The Clean Air Act which was applied in 1958 and in effect up until 1964. The act prevented a lot of inner London pubs from putting a fire in the hearth or persuaded them to move onto gas or electricity. In St Albans, every publican and punter I’ve asked over a certain age confirms the practice so it was common at least in the London-centric parts of East Anglia. There is also evidence of folk adding pinches of ginger to heat it.
|CGI has become so advanced these days it’s impossible to tell what’s real anymore
I currently work for a central London council and can vouch for the fact I’ve never seen a working fireplace in any dwelling – be it an affluent Mayfair apartment or a one bedroom council flat in Kilburn. The closest I’ve seen them in is zone 2 – some of the pubs in Hampstead.
Has the poker trick reminded me of little fancy gimmicks of culture – shamrocks traced into the heads of pints of Guinness, cider thrown over chunks of ice, the lemon wedge added to bottles of Corona or even the lumps of butter that are now being dropped into cups of coffee? If the reason was to stay warm during the colder months and spirits were outside your budget, wouldn’t a cup of tea have worked better? Why weren’t the pubs just mulling cider or beer with spices and fruit? Maybe it wasn’t a thing then – just not the culture.
Siren created Uncle Zester – a sour citrus braggot I reviewed just before the new year. It was outside my comfort zone and instead of reining things in, Siren has cranked up the juice to bring an even freakier monster to life by crossing the mead with a stout. I get excited when a new beer tries to stare me down. I want the chance to try and pin its shoulders to the deck. But this is a new emerging culture of experimentation; we’re seeing a beer not as refreshment or even sustenance, but as a challenge. Nobody would stick a red hot poker into the stout braggot because it isn’t a staple but an education.
I read the tweet about the black breakfast braggot whilst in the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico – notorious for its informed selection and the first of the Craft Beer Co pubs. I showed the tweet to the folks behind the bar like it was a Top Trumps card to beat the gamut of exotic offerings they already had on tap. Whether or not I like Siren’s new offering, I desperately want to try it.
The items are footnotes in the long history of beer, the making of which changes as do the cultures that appear in its wake. I see these events like neat little dioramas of which there are hundreds – little figures in smocks stand around an oak tun in one whilst tiny LED lights light up the edge of a poker in another booth. A phone screen illuminates faces of tiny models behind a bar in another – that last one’s me in The Cask & Kitchen bemusing the staff.
The future is just the present but more so. Based on this trope, a few observations:
Breweries like Siren (others include Buxton, Beavertown, Anspach & Hobday, Weird Beard, Magic Rock) are actively cross-breeding styles. There is logic to this – beer is generally four ingredient groups that can be mixed into a finite combination. Why not reach out beyond this quad to blend with mead, cider, spirits, tea, coffee and wine.
This is where it gets schizoid because simultaneously, we focus increasingly on each ingredient in the beer over the sum of its parts. As a drinking public, we’re more aware of what effect each ingredient actually has on the beer. There are definite splitters – people that seek out a beer based on the hops or yeast and currently, that seems to also be a trend.
Yeast and hops seem to be leaving the beer and taking on their own identity. Some hopheads’ thirst for lupuloids makes it seem like the beer’s actually holding it back. Sure you can make a hop tisane, but it’s still trapped in a liquid. Some yeasters just want the tombstone crepitus of Brett. Similar cracks might appear between the malt and water too.
What if individual ingredients could be set free? As a simple step from breweries showcasing single hop varietal beers, will we at some point start dividing beer up like Michelin starred restaurants deconstructing dishes into their composite parts?
Here is the cell in my parting diorama – little figures in a see-through pub with a retro hanging sign.
Ye Olde Smartephone & Appe is a traditional pub with an original 2060s aerogel bar. On Thursday in the activity zone, there’s the classic workout for old age pensioners – Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus is beamed from an antique flat screen with suspended balls and foam mallets. Clothing is optional. On the perspex wall behind the bar is a red flag with tassels bearing the acronym SPBNK – The Society for the Preservation of Beers from Nitro Keg.
In the chiller stand bottles of Snatch – sparkling Burtonised water. At a neoprene table sits a yeaster; he chomps on a heavily leavened Brett bap which he dips into hop oil. In the Snug, a woman gets stuck in to a bowl of Marris Otter & rye porridge and in the vaping section a man tokes away. Eyes closed, he’s lost in blissful abandon as he blows a Cascade & Amarillo smoke ring.
Ye Olde Smartphone & Appe is an old boys’ flat cap pub – it’s full of ageing hipsters. They disapprove of the new fashion rapidly taking the world of brewing by storm and it’s being installed here on a glowing crystallised fount – a brand rated across the globe by the younger generation of beer geeks – Watney’s Red Barrel.