Along with the explosion in the number of new breweries there has been a burgeoning interest in brewers looking back into the archives to resurrect old beer styles and recipes, which taps into drinkers’ growing desire for provenance and authenticity.
London-based Kernel Brewery has long been tapping into the heritage and tradition of brewing in the capital – hence the award-winning Export Stout London 1890 and Imperial Brown Stout London 1856.
Although Evin O’Riordain, founder of Kernel Brewery, says creating an accurate historical recreation is important, the key factor is taste: “We follow the recipes as closely as we can but at the same time we want to make as good a beer as possible.”
A major challenge he faced is reading the archives – dating back to the early 1800s in some cases, with O’Riordain admitting he could not make “head nor tale of them” such are the unusual measurements and notations used, which were also sometimes coded for secrecy.
Peter Haydon, brewer at A Head in a Hat Ales, agrees the archives are a tough nut to crack: “When I first looked at them my heart sank. It was all hieroglyphics and gobbledegook with the old boys often using shorthand.”
Thankfully there is a solution to this problem in the form of beer historian Ron Pattinson who is the go-to man for deciphering these recipes and who has noticed the growing popularity among brewers to resurrect old beers.
“When I started reading the historic records eight years ago and blogging about it in 2007 I wasn’t sure anybody else was interested but I can now see that things have picked up. Especially among the London brewers who’ve gone back to brewing these old beers,” he says.
Together Haydon and Pattinson are producing around six beers a year under the Dapper Ales range. Brew No.1 was Doctor Brown a 4.1% ABV Double Brown brewed by Barclay Perkins (who else?) in 1928, and named after Dr. Samuel Johnson a great friend and benefactor of the Thrale family who founded the brewery that became Barclay Perkins.
Haydon attempted to recreate the beer as faithfully as possible, going back to original boil times, and parti-gyling the wort streams. The original hops used were Pacifics, Bramling, Fuggles and Golding, and care has been taken to get as close as possible to this original bill.
For the Kernel Export Stout O’Riordain took the recipe direct from Pattinson’s website that was originally brewed by Truman’s and “we followed it pretty straight”. Not surprisingly the new Truman’s brewery has been dipping into the archives and brought back to life its 1880 Double Export Stout that has been named London Keeper.
Truman’s are lucky because Haydon says many brewery archives have been lost over the years. Those he has been utilising are from Whitbread and Barclay Perkins whose recipes form the backdrop to his regular beers Trilby, which dates back to a 1935 ale, Tommy is from 1914, and Titfer from 1923.
One initiative took him back to the Whitbread archive (with guidance from Pattinson) to produce three D-Day beers that had first been brewed on 6 June 1944. Although he does not believe the use of old beer recipes for his regular ales necessarily drives increased sales he says the D-Day ales had been particularly popular.
“I constructed a nice story around them and had all three flavours – Sword, Juno and Gold – available at the same time so I mainly sold them to pubs that wanted to put all three on at the same time. I had no trouble selling them – mainly to freehouses in South East London,” explains Haydon.
Pattinson has also worked with Fuller’s and JW Lees who he says are among the few brewers to have “outstanding archives”. He cites the former’s Past Masters series of beers as showing a “respect for history and is an idea that other brewers could do”. He says he has “discussed beers with them and bounced ideas around and given them an interpretation of beers in their archives”.
As well as having the valuable archive Fuller’s has also benefited from the expertise and passion of John Keeling, its former brewing director, who says the return to the archives has partly been a way for Fuller’s to counter the craft beer movement.
“The craft beer industry is good at innovation as the breweries are small and can move quickly. We find this hard. But we’ve got tradition and we can make this play for us. Other brewers might do an 1870 beer from the research library whereas we can make an 1891 beer from our own archive that will be brewed in the very same place. This is authenticity.”
He adds that the ‘innovative’ beers produced today are often simply rediscoveries of something from the past. Keeling cites the first Past Masters, XX Strong ale, from the 1891 recipe as using US hops, proving that this is not a new thing.
Whenever tastings have been done in Fuller’s pubs Keeling says the Past Masters series have always been well received and the authentic story behind them has been very beneficial in the company selling them into the off-trade since they are predominantly bottled.
Michael Lees-Jones, head brewer at JW Lees, agrees there is an increasing appreciation among consumers for historical stories: “They like new and fresh but they also like history and locality and so with our archive we can do modern and traditional by tapping into our history.”
This led to the resurrection of Manchester Star Ale from 1884 that had first been brought back to life in cask in 2001 as a collaborative brew with Brooklyn Brewery in the US. It was then bottled in 2011 and has done sufficiently well for Lees-Jones to consider again looking into the archive for another recipe to re-invigorate.