Sunday, 26 April 2009

Beer history and origins

Since the failure of English beer night (announced in my previous post) Here is a little post about beers origins and history.

I once hosted a short quiz at a family event in which one of the questions asked if it was true or false that beer was invented by a fictional individual in the eleventh century. The people who know could probably guess this was one of those easy questions to separate the people who have no clue from the others. Surprisingly some people thought it was actually true (obviously just guessing) and were later shamed.

But the thing is evidence to date has it that beer itself is around as old as civilized society and no one really knows who or how it was discovered. I have quiet often found it a quite fascinating concept that someone (or it could have been a group of people), most probably by accident discovered beer. Because beer itself is such produced by such a complex process it might be logical to think that it was unraveled step by step over time and constant trial and error. For instance you could assume that once man learnt that germinating barley kilned over a fire produced malt (which is edable) someone must have thought of then blending the malt with hot water (to produce a simple mash). Separating the liquid from the malt after a certain time, the resultant liquid could be left to cool, and this (if left open to the air) would ferment (via natural microorganisms found in the air).

Now this is where things get more interesting, because at this stage the beverage in question was probably foul tasting and alcoholic, with plenty of fermentation bi-products, off sour flavors and all sorts. Alcoholic effects would certainly interest people of early civilization but this beverage was probably not safe to drink. Someone from this point must have thought to boil the wort (or liquid separated from the malt) for the sterility before allowing microorganisms in the air to naturally ferment it (producing what is technically beer). Thus we have here a possible theory of how beer was discovered, but I could be wrong, I mean it could have been the brainchild of some genius mastermind or passed onto humankind from an alien race that visited many thousand years ago.

The point is although no one truly knows, beer history and historic beers have captured the imagination of brewers worldwide with many brewers producing their own interpretations. From Dogfish head in Delaware to London’s Meantime brewery brewers have on many occasions gone to great lengths digging up old brewing records to recreate ancient beers. Interestingly some may know of the ‘yeast libraries’ that can be used for such attempts. These are storage facilities that hold (in frozen form) yeast strains often incubated from age old bottled beers which allow people to replicate (with the formulation) age old beers. I myself have considered brewing my own replications (except I would have to use my house yeast strain). But even given resurrected ancient yeast strain, exact methods and formulations brewers or centuries gone would have suffered from unpredictable raw material qualities and inferior process technologies than today meaning consumers were given beers of far more inconsistent quality. This point was often empathized by my old lecturers at Heriot Watt university, and must recognized by all those drinkers out there that keep complaining that beer today isn’t what it used to be (if we were in 1975 I would agree with them). But today craft brewers globally have the technology, scientific knowledge, experience, creativity and inspiration to create truly outstanding beers. Even in the face of the dominating mass market brands, craft brewers have surged from the ashes developing cult followings worldwide.

Every day whilst I’m at work casually running the cask washer or CIP system, or just cleaning up I always feel privileged to be part of the new golden age of Brewing.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Beer themed Events

So far the spring has went well with some nice but often changeable weather. The Newcastle 33rd annual beer festival was as entertaining as usual featuring a few new releases including Allendale’s characterful Adder Lager and Entrepreneur ale (one I have yet to try). Of current times I am developing my own summer ale for future months and a lovely dark mild for May.

But another idea of mine I had whilst reading beer writer Jeff Evans’s latest book ‘A beer a day’ was to have my own themed beer evenings. For example national themes could work well, meaning that evening only beers for a specified country can be consumed by myself an other participants. St Georges day is coming up soon so an English beer night might be on hand. So far other ideas include American beer night (July 4th) Belgian beer night (July 18th) and German beer night (October 3rd). However Australian, and Scottish beer night (on Australia day and Burns night) I shall have to wait until next year for as both dates have passed. Another idea is to do beer style themed nights, where by participants consume numerous beers of the same style.

But the main problem for such events is the lack of availability of certain beers in this country. For example I really wanted to do a Canadian beer night, however only a few Canadian beers can be found even in specialty beer shops. Other ideas such as Munich Helles or Saison nights could also prove to be tricky.

Regardless of this the idea is simple, and such events could provide as a temporary substitute to my big dreams of doing a beer hunting world tour. Coincidentally my next beer themed night is English beer night on the 25th of April, the same date as the Skipton Beer festival which I will be attending. But I may consider having it on a different evening, in a more peaceful setting that allows for lengthy reviewing to be done, and perhaps an additional cheese board featuring classic English Cheeses. Exiting stuff.