Sunday, 27 February 2011

Mild Bitter Ale

It sounds like an oxymoron. How can a beer be both a Bitter and Mild at the same time?

Understanding the vocabulary of the past is crucial. The term Mild Bitter Ale is an excellent example of this. In this context "mild" means nothing more than "unaged". It should be recalled that the original 19th-century Pale Ales were Stock Beers. Brewed and then aged for long periods before sale. Remember that article of bottling in the 1860's? Pale Ale was matured for 9 months in cask before being bottled.

Later in the the 19th century a new type of Pale Ale or Bitter Beer emerged. Lighter in gravity than Stock Pale Ales and intended for rapid consumption. A variety of names were used, though ones like AK, Family Ale, Luncheon Ale and Dinner Ale were common. Some, like AK, were mostly draught beers. Others, like Family Ale and Dinner Ale, were usually bottled. There were sold much younger, after just two to four weeks*.

"Now beer can be made to vary greatly in its quality according to the way in which this process of brewing has been carried on. Of course, the stronger the wort the more sugar, and the more alcohol as the result of fermentation. But you may carry the fermentation up to various points. You may make, at first, a sweet beer or ale by stopping the fermentation, but which eventually shall become very strong by age and fermentation. Such are our sweet ales, and ales that get strong by keeping. By carrying on the fermentation you may exhaust all the sugar, and by using malt free from gum you get a clear pale ale, and by adding a larger quantity of hops, our pale bitter ales are produced. The fermentation of these ales being over, they can be sent to a distance: hence the practice of sending such ale to India. They are, however, generally strong ales, on account of the completeness of their fermentation, and are objectionable on that account. I find that our ordinary bottled pale ale contains more alcohol than hock, claret, or Moselle wines, and as much as Burgundy.

The brewing of the pale and bitter ales for the Indian market has led to a great change in public taste for beer, and milder pale and bitter ales are extensively brewed for domestic consumption. My own conviction is, that an immense benefit has accrued from this, as the strong and sweet ales formerly drunk were objectionable on many accounts. In the first place, they caused a greater consumption of alcohol than was beneficial; and in the next place, the sugar became a source of disorder and disagreement in the stomach. The increased quantity of hop also secures in the mild bitter ales a tonic effect which is very beneficial. For habitual consumption in families the mild bitter ale, with not more than half an ounce of alcohol in the pint, is to be commended above all others.

London porter, of which prodigious quantities are consumed daily in this metropolis, is coloured with the black malt. It contains about three quarters of an ounce of alcohol in the pint, and more sugar and less hops than the pale ales. It is, however, miserably drugged in the public-houses. Its strength is reduced by water, and its qualities are brought up again by treacle, liquorice, and salt, and various narcotic agents are added to make up for the loss of alcohol. To such a condition has the porter-drinking population been brought that they do not know genuine porter when they drink it, and having acquired a taste for this wretched substitute, they reject the unadultereated article.

Stout is only a stronger form of porter. Good draught stout contains about one ounce and a half of alcohol in the pint.

All beers, ales and porters may be bottled; and this is done before the active fermentation is over, so that this process engenders in the bottles liquid a quality of carbonic acid gas, which converts the stouts and porters which contain a great quantity of gum into one mass of froth. It is not so common in pale ale, but here it is not uncommon to lose half the ale by its seething over the glass when poured from the bottle.

Bottled ales are generally stronger than those on draught; and with some persons the frothing state of the beer seems to agree better than the less lively condition of that from the cask. It is the same with wines and water; and carbonated waters and effervescing wines have the same recommendation.

I have not time to dwell on the varieties of beers, ales and porters sold in this country. But they differ very much; and the impossibility of brewing the same beer in two different districts is an interesting fact. One of the most remarkable facts of this sort is the generally acknowledged excellence of the Burton beers. Now it appears there is only one condition at Burton that causes its beer to differ from all others, and that is, the presence in the water of a certain quantity of sulphate of lime. My friend, Dr. Letheby, has pointed out that this is the real cause of the success of the pale ale breweries of Burton. He says, such water will not extract the saccharine and albuminous matters of malt so fully as others, and that this is desirable in the manufacture of pale ales. I would, however, bear my testimony to the great intelligence and care with which the great pale ale breweries are conducted at Burton-on-Trent. Such prevision and intelligence brought to bear on the minutest details of a great manufactory, cannot fail to be productive of the best results."
"On food" by Edwin Lankester, 1864, pages 221 - 224

The author splits Pale Ales into two groups: the strong type and the light type. The strength of the former is "on account of the completeness of their fermentation". Or the very high degree of attenuation. We've seen Bass and Allsopp Pale Ales that were 85% to 90% attenuated. Their gravities weren't necessarily that high - mostly 1060 to 1070 - but the very high attenuation left some over 7% ABV.

These are Whitbread's two Pale Ales of about the same period. PA (Pale Ale) and FA (Family Ale):

Whitbread Pale Ales in 1872
App. Attenu-ation
lbs hops/ qtr
hops lb/brl
Pitch temp
pale malt
Whitbread brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives

I wonder why the author considers light Pale Ales so much healthier than sweet Ales (I assume he means Mild Ale)? It's not just the greater amount of alcohol the latter contained: "the sugar became a source of disorder and disagreement in the stomach". What the hell does that mean. Funny he considers sugar bad for the stomach, but a high level of CO2 good. I can't see that myself. But it fits in with what another author wrote about bottled beer, claiming the carbonation made it better for those with delicate stomachs. Personal experience tells me the opposite is true.

Porter is, once again, accused of being routinely adulterated. Whether or not this was true, it was obviously generally believed to be. I guess we'll have to wait until my time machine is fully operational to discover if this was just slander. And it's confirmed that Stout is indeed just a stronger form of Porter.

The author correctly identified the high calcium sulphate content of Burton water as the secret behind the success of the PAle Ales brewed there. I wonder when this was first discovered? I need to dig around in more books.

* "Minutes of evidence taken before the Departmental committee on beer", 1899, pages 190-191.


Beerspitnight said...

I read this article in Beer Advocate and thought it gave great insight.
I think I am going to try to replicate the 1830 style of XXX next time I brew over here in China and I was hoping you could provide me with a bit more info regarding the style.
I understand that in the 1830 XXX style brewers used only pale malt, and with the X style they introduced .5% of black malt on occasion. Would they ever use the black malt with the XXX version?
I was wondering what kind of hops the brewery was using back then? Fuggle? Any idea on the hop schedule?
And I just wanted to make sure that your unit of measurement (barrel) is for UK barrels (36 imperial gallons - 164 liters)?
Thanks again for the great article!

Ron Pattinson said...

Beerspitnight, XXX wouldn't have black malt in it. There was no need. It was just used in X to get the colour a touch darker.

In London, they used mostly Kent hops. Goldings, Fuggles or a combination of the two should get you pretty close.

Yes, I mean imperial barrels of 36 gallons.