THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

Does It Matter Where Your Beer Is Brewed? Part 1

Well, yes it does but then again perhaps it doesn’t! It matters to some folk seeking local and others want the heritage and the authenticity, is Manchester in 2023 quite the same as Udine in 1859? The brewers can make a good match so perhaps it is entirely up to you….

Happy memories?

Remember the joke circulating around the nation’s brewing rooms while the US Apollo moon landings were in full swing? How come Watney’s have been given a contract to brew beer on the Moon? Because they are used to brewing at one sixth normal gravity. Boom boom. Watneys continued to brew until 1990 when it swapped its breweries for Courage’s pubs but the story does show that in theory you can brew anything anywhere.

Malt being loaded into an ISO container at Barrett Burston’s maltings at Geelong near Melbourne

Beer is made from malt, hops and water. If you do not think your usual malt will suit, then you can ship it in perhaps standard ISO twenty or forty foot containers. The Aussies make just short of a million tonnes of malt each year but only use around 20% of it themselves the rest is exported mainly to south east Asia not in bulk carriers any more but shipping containers from China which would otherwise go back empty. I wonder what happens to ours?

For some customers a waterproof liner has to be fitted before filling. For others, as long as the containers are clean, smell clean, are clear of rodent evidence and are water tight (someone goes in and the door is closed to inspect for cracks of light – not a job which I would relish!) they are approved to fill. One door is left closed and the other closed with a particle board bulkhead which half seals the doorway A conveyor controlled by a skilled operator moves to and fro to fill every corner, further wooden inserts cope with the increasing filled height until the container is filled and the door can be closed. For emptying, the lower sheet has a big ‘mousehole’ (perhaps an unfortunate term to be used in connection with the maltings!) at the bottom sealed with a plastic sheet, this is slit and the container is tipped to empty the contents. So malt is no problem wherever you are.

Top; Hop seedlings at the Hop Research Centre at Zatec (Saaz) in the Czech Republic.
Below Faram’s Archer ready for picking

Hops definitely have a terroir. They also have rather specific requirements for daylight hours so do not do so well outside latitudes 35 – 50 both N and S. Noble hops from Germany are prized for European style lagers while hops from the American north west give a host of high profile and highly prized aromas ranging from piney, cedarwood and blackcurrants through to citrus and stoned fruits. Or else pinecones soaked in cat’s piss as a lager drinker recently told me! The world’s biggest exporters are Germany and the USA. Bold citrusy Cascades will grow in the UK but brewers find they need four times as much of them to get the same aroma punch! Summers are hotter in Washington State and the yards are irrigated.

A UK plant breeding initiative by hop merchants Charles Faram aims to mimic US aromas in home grown varieties. Jester and Olicana for trad high wires while Archer and Minstrel grow to hedgerow height; these were first and have recently been joined by Mystic, Opus, Emperor, Godiva, Most and Harlequin. An accelerated program brought these varieties to the commercial growing stage within five years rather than the usual ten. Again unusually, the early crosses were assessed first for promising aroma and the also important yield and disease resistance came afterwards. Hops are well used to travelling half way round the world so they will not be a problem.

Archive shots of how hop picking in Kent used to be; the pickers arrive, the stilt men have a chat and pickers’ children collect firewood for the hut stoves. From the Tenterden Musuem

The postman will deliver a vial of yeast cells for you to propagate. Matching the yeast is particularly important when brewing ales as the finished beer has far more fermentation derived flavours than a cooler fermented lager. Ensuring there is no cross contamination with existing yeasts can be a nightmare so the temptation is there to utilise a strain you are using already.

The courier will bring any other brewing aids you might need so you are all set but what about the water? The term ‘burtonisation’ was coined in the 1880s by one Egbert Hooper referring to the addition of calcium sulphate to mimic the waters of Burton on Trent. It had long been known that Burton beers had keeping qualities whereas the beers from Derby just ten miles up the road did not. The calcium ions in the water react with phosphates in the malt to lower the pH. This keeps spoilage bacteria at bay, increases the yield of sugar from the mash and the sulphate helps give a crisp bitterness to the beer.

Burton output started to expand in the 1820s as the East India Company dispensed with the services of Geo Hodgson and his Bow Brewery in London to supply India Pale Ale to the growing ex-pat community in South Asia. There was a law suit in 1830 brought by the Burton brewers against the euphonious Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge for claiming that they adulterated their beers with a mixture of various noxious ingredients including ‘salt of steel’ (iron chloride) and ‘sulphate of lime’, calcium sulphate. Chemists for the brewers were able to show that the gypsum was naturally occurring as rain percolates through gypsum laden hills to the north west of the town and flows into the Trent Valley where a ten foot deep hole in the valley gravel would soon fill up with gypsum rich water for brewing. Indeed the Staffordshire Knot well behind a pub in Station Street in the town had a present gravity of 1002o even before you added anything else to it such was the high mineral content!

Before brewing grew in the town, Burton and its surrounds were famous for carving blocks of gypsum known as alabaster which were popular as carved effigies for the tombs of worthies. John of Gaunt, father of Henry IV had a particularly fine example for his wife’s tomb that was back in 1369 but sadly it did not survive the Great Fire of London. Many have surmised that perhaps alabaster carvers took Burton beer to London long before any surviving documentary evidence.

Despite the presence of gypsum being known about, it is likely that brewers were reluctant to use it as it does not dissolve well and Excise rules precluded any additions direct to the mash until the repeal of the Mash Tun Act in 1880 when duty was levied on the wort gravity not what went into the tun. London brewers flocked to Burton to take advantage of the water and brew the increasingly popular pale ales. Ind Coope was first in 1856, followed by Charrington (1871), Truman (1873) and Mann Crossman and Paulin (1876). Production drifted back to London from the 1890s with Truman staying until 1971. Bolton brewers Magee Marshall briefly took a lease on a brewery in town but kept the rights to the well in the next field to where Bass had its Nile well. Water was transported back to Lancashire in converted railway locomotive tenders until the 1950s.

So there is nothing physically stopping you brewing anything, anywhere. Next time we shall look at who is brewing what where and whether they got away with it.