Monday, 17 August 2009

The T-word

I'll hold my hands up. I've been as guilty of using the T-word as anyone. My guides are littered with pubs described as "traditional". But what does the word really mean?

In preparation for my posts on Scottish beers, I've been looking at how others describe them. The T-word pops up quite a bit. Which is why I've been contemplating its true meaning. Let's take a look at how the word is used.

When "traditional" describes a brewing practice, the implication is that it's the way something has been done since humans were still living in caves rubbing sticks together. Or almost that long. But hat's not how things worked. The past wasn't a static, mummified place. It was dynamic. Change was constant. By denying that, we devalue the efforts of past generations and oversimplify their world.

Here's a good example: IPA and Mild. IPA is often described as being "traditionally" a strong beer. Mild as "traditionally" low-gravity. So exactly when is this "traditional" period? In the 1850's IPA was 1060 - 1070 and Mild 1055 - 1100. So "traditional" can't be then. What about 1900 then? Then the scores were IPA 1060, Mild 1050 -1070. Not 1900 either, then. Let's try 1950. IPA 1035 - 1040, Mild 1030 - 1038.

It's clear that, for Mild, "traditional" is post-WW II. For IPA, it's 1850. That's the problem with the word in a nutshell: it's incredibly vague. British beer has changed so completely, so radically and so often over the last 200 years that such a word is worse than useless. It conceals the truth. It hides complexities and subtleties of the past.

My search is for the truth. Or at least as close as I can get to it. I could pluck out a year or two from the William Younger logs and "prove" all sorts of things about Scottish beer. Demonstrate what shit the claims of others are. But that would be doing the past a disservice.

Boil times. That's what prompted me to write this. And what BeerAdvocate says about them:

"Scotch Ales traditionally go through a long boil in the kettle for a caramelization of the wort"
Is that statement right or wrong? It's both and it's neither. It all depends which period in time "traditionally" covers.

But I'll explain that more fully tomorrow.

Boil times, eh? When I dreamed of being a writer as I kid, I never imagined I'd tackle subjects like this.


John Keeling said...


Here is one I don't understand

Marris Otter is a tradition barley

Target,Northdown and Challenger are new modern hops.

All were developed with a few years of each other.

Ron Pattinson said...

John, that's a good example of how "traditional" is used inconsistently.

Matt said...

The only thing I think we can say is traditional in the sense of existing for centuries is cask and bottle conditioned beer.

I know in 'Mild!' you say that Pilsener Urquell and Guinness FES are still brewed according to their original specifications but what English beer would you say is closest to its nineteenth century equivalent? How about Fullers 1845 which they claim is a recipe from their brewing logs of that time or Robinsons Old Tom first brewed in 1899 and still 8.5% abv: I can't believe that ever had a higher alcohol content.

mentaldental said...

Traditional is very often a lazy word. It usually means something along the lines of "this is how I think they used to do it but I really can't be arsed to check" and of course it is meant to imply that things used to be done better without any objective evidence to support the assertion.

I bet the majority of articles ever written about Victorian Tower Breweries use the word "traditional" as a descriptor. But the tower brewery just represents one successful response to the need to use efficiency the power available during one period of brewing history. Modern breweries aren't towers not because the brewer's aren't "traditional" but because they are inefficient designs. Which is a shame because modern breweries are butt ugly.

From reading articles in newspapers and magazines you would think that a tower is the only proper design for a brewery and that having one ensures you make great beer (which it certainly doesn't).

Ron Pattinson said...

Matt, Harvey's Imperial Stout. And, funnily enough, White Shield.

Did Fullers claim 1845 is from an old recipe?

Don't know about Old Tom. Though, if it was really first brewed in 1899, the original might have been a pale beer.

Barm said...

A method becomes 'traditional' once it's superceded by something newer, and continues being traditional as long as someone, somewhere is still doing it. Once nobody does it any more, it becomes obsolete or archaic.

Yes, it's far too vague to use in serious writing. Not using it, though, demands a high level of historical knowledge. You have to have the background at your fingertips to be able to say something like "a historical nineteenth-century pale ale" or "a pub in the 1960s bogus-Tudor style".

Kristen England said...

To John's point, I find that very funny. You never hear people say 'traditional flaked maize' althought I would argue thats probably 1000x more traditional than maris otter.

It gets even better when it comes to yeast. 'Traditional yeast'...which originally was borrowed from another brewery b/c said brewery couldn't culture it. Then the first brewery was bought out by another and the yeast was moved. Keeps going on and on. Then you get a current brewery that says, 'the original yeast from X'. Really? You sure about that? Bullocks.

Not to mention, traditional for who? Going through all the old logs when one thinks something is traditional they open another breweries log and see that they NEVER used whatever one though was traditional.

Ron Pattinson said...

Kristen, yeast is a good one. That's something I noticed in the Younger's logs - they used yeast from all over the place. Dryborough, Steel Coulson, and just about every Edinburgh brewer. They didn't seem to have the concept of a proprietary yeast strain at all.

Matt said...

The Beers of Europe website says that Fullers claim 1845 is one of their original recipes although Fullers' own website doesn't.

Gary Gillman said...

I always wondered about claims, sometimes made by CAMRA, that a traditional process was worth saving. But at one time, that process was new. (So was Victorian and other architecture new, at one time, or the Paris street plan. Why is that inherently preferable to modern blocks and grids?).

Square fermenters made from slate were new at one time. Tower breweries were new at one time, and often, as in the examples further above, not so terribly old. Even hand pumps were new technology from the early 1800's or thereabouts.

However, and I feel this way about the German Pure Beer Law, a dogged reliance on tradition isn't always bad, and the contrary is often true. Tradition would be "bad" in the U.S. if defined as 100 years of fizzy, pale, bland lager beer made from corn grits or rice and malt.

In England though, small-scale albeit industrial production tended to ensure a good quality, flavourful product - at least when compared to the alternatives. Not all lobbies are going to refine a historical approach to make their agenda. They will sometimes exaggerate or go wrong, not intentionally of course, but overall they often do great work. This is how I feel about CAMRA. It is its doggedness and determination which (I believe) saved real beer from extinction and it deserves the plaudits of all true beer fans for its work.

In saying this, I am not by any means suggesting anyone is knocking them, but just developing my thoughts in the area.


MentalDental said...

UK brewers were quite resistant to the single strain concept and continued with their traditional strains (there's that word again) even when single strains were being used quite widely in Europe. So I guess a lot of UK brewers were using mixed stains a lot of the time. I wonder if these mixed strains were more similar to each other than various modern breweries pure strains would be.

Also I guess if adjacent breweries cadged each others yeast (as they seemed to do) the yeast would have ended up as a local composite blend if they weren't re-culturing pure strains on a regular basis.

As Kristen says not many brewers or writers refer to traditional flaked maize. You don't see many brewers extolling tradition brewing sugar either, except in Belgium.

Quite a lot of UK micros seem to use dried yeast which, of course, saves a lot of buggering around with cultures etc. Lallemand Danstar Nottingham seems quite popular, which is quite amusing because dried yeast is still seen as spawn of the devil on lots of homebrew sites.

Barm, I like your definition. It probably wouldn't apply in all instances but gets pretty close.

Graham Wheeler said...

To me, traditional means a brewing technique that does not require a control room as complicated as the bridge on Star Ship Enterprise; just buckets and oars and the like - perhaps with the odd P.I.D. temperature controller and a rotating sparge-arm.

I have never seen Maris Otter described as a traditional barley, but it is the most appropriate barley for a traditional brewery, because ex-Maris Otter malt is the best behaved malt available when brewed in buckets, albeit 600-barrel buckets. If it is used in a beer that is not an American hop vehicle, its flavour is very agreeable too. It is traditional in the sense that it is the only barley grown in the UK specifically for brewing; its heritage probably goes back to other barleys that were developed for brewing. It is not even on the EEC approved list, thus there is some risk attached to growing it (no EEC compensation for crop failure), so it is grown under contracts issued by just one (maybe two) grain merchant(s). Everything about Maris Otter is ideal, but it is a good example of the misuse of "traditional" inasmuch as damn near every brewery claims to use Maris Otter, to give the false impression of tradition, but if they all did use it our fields would be full of M.O., but they are not. Likewise if every brewer that claimed to use Fuggles and Goldings really did, our hop gardens would be full of them, but they are not (what hop gardens we have left, of course). It is also a winter barley, even the big commercial boys acknowledge that winter barley is superior to spring barley for beer, but for the life of me I cannot think why. Bear in mind that many beers brewed in modern high-tech brewhouses can use cheap-'n'-cheerful high-nitrogen, feed-grade, spring barley; and most non-M.O. barleys supplied for traditional brewers is the low-nitrogen fraction of ordinary feed-grade barley too.

If you take the term "mild" back to its origins, meaning fresh, immature, not vatted, straight out the bloody door never to see a Sunday, just like we still use today in the UK for cheese, then there is no conflict over the term "traditional" when used for describing mild. The conflict is modernists misusing the term mild, trying to make out that it is something that it isn't and never was. The fact that it is lightly hopped today, is a consequence, in the old days, of getting it out the door quickly so that there are less of the harsh flavours that needed maturation to mellow. Basically (after, say, the mid 1700s), it gave the opportunity for brewers to brew during the summer, without spoilage, as long as the stuff was consumed quickly. The fact that almost all beers today are technically milds is neither here nor there. The big mistake is to assume that what breweries called their stuff post-WW1 is an indication of "style" (Patto is very bad at that). Guinness would have called their beverage a pale ale had it suited their sales figures to do so.

Any brewery that has more than one floor is by definition a tower brewery, although perhaps not a very pretty one. I am sure that there must be breweries that pump stuff "downstairs", but it is obviously quite unnecessary.

Ed said...

Surely the IPA and mild 'traditional' thing commonly used is because with a little bit of knowledge it makes sense.

If you know IPA stands for India Pale Ale it makes sense to say they should be strong and hoppy. Similarly it makes sense to say mild should be weak and not hoppy because it's mild.

Knowing that things are more complicated than that is probably the realm of the serious beer nerd.

Ron Pattinson said...

Ed, that's exactly the sort of thinking that distorts history into what we think it should have been rather than what it was.

My whole point is that IPA (the British one) has NOT always been strong and hoppy and Mild has NOT always been weak and lightly-hopped.

Ed said...

I know, but I'm not sure I made myself clear. I was offering my opinion on why the popular misconceptions exist.

Ron Pattinson said...

Ed, whoops. I managed to miss the point you made. Apologies.