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Washington hosts historic tasting of British and Irish classics

If you were there, what did you think?

It was an historic tasting. Has there even been a better-attended tutored sampling of beers from the British Isles? Or a more enthusiastic one? I don't think so. Last week, almost 400 people paid $25-30 a head to taste an extraordinary selection of brews from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland at the imposing headquarters of the National Geographic Society, in Washington, D.C.

Yet more significantly, has the United States ever seen such a colorful selection of beers from the British Isles? Several of the beers had never been tasted in the U.S. before. These ranged from low-gravity "session" beers like Brain's Dark (from Wales) and Chiswick Bitter (England) to specialities like the seaweedy Kelpie Ale (Scotland) and the herb-tinged Red Biddy (Republic of Ireland). One of the beers had never been offered outside the brewery where it is made: Greene King's 5x, aged in wood, is used only in a blended beer and is not sold "straight". The remaining beers were almost as rare. Bass Museum Barley Wine took its bow in the nation's capital after an "out of town" show in Indianapolis. There was a return visit for Porterhouse Oyster Stout (Republic of Ireland), and A Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout played a starring role after an appearance at the Russian Tea Room in New York.

Guests were provided with tasting-sheets. If you were there, and kept your notes, I would love to hear your verdicts on the beers. If you are willing to share your opinions, please forward them to

National Geographic crowd

Nearly 400 beer enthusiasts enjoy an extraordinary tasting at National Geographic headquarters.


When I was asked to present the tasting, I was determined to show as lively a selection from my own country (and its closest cousin, Ireland) as I had from Belgium and the United States in previous years at the National Geographic. This series of tastings and lectures is part of an annual season called "Live from the National Geographic", featuring anthropologists, naturalists, explorers and the like.

The beers America does not see
One problem in planning this event was that many of the best British beers (though fewer from Ireland) are already familiar to American audiences. Would British brewers be willing to send products that they did not normally export?

The brewers would, of course, benefit in a more general way from the attention attracted by the tasting, but this was a rather vague inducement. Not every British brewery appreciates the value of publicity. Nor do many appreciate how many tastings, speeches, articles, broadcasts and books I have devoted to fostering the appreciation of classic beer-styles in the U.S over the last 20 years. Nonetheless, I was able to call in a few favors. More important, my assistant Owen Barstow applied to the task the stubborn tenacity that is a speciality of Yorkshiremen. While Owen pushed for the best of British, Dave Alexander, of The Brickskeller saloon, in Washington, pulled. He was helped by Matthias Neidhart, an importer who has built a range around the beers that I have deemed classics in my Pocket Guide to Beer.

Why would a brewery be reluctant to export its beer? Some feel, reasonably enough, that the strengthening of their home market is more important or less difficult to achieve. Others did export for a time, and spent money on promotion to little effect; perhaps they did not understand the market. Others were not paid by their importers. Often the importer was a genuine enthusiast. who was mistakenly sure that his zeal would be shared from High Krausen, Minn., to Coronita, N.M. Some brewers feel they cannot afford the investment, or believe that their beers are unsuitable for the market.

For example, Mild Ale suffers in the United Kingdom for its blue-collar image. Being low in an gravity and alcohol, and therefore price, it was traditionally favored in areas of heavy industry, like the coal-and-steel communities of South Wales. It could be consumed in quantity by thirsty men who had sweated in a foundry all day, or breathed coal-dust down a mine. With its slight malty sweetness, it seemed a restorative, too. Not a fashionable beer in the post-industrial society, I agree, but style-consciousness is different among American beer-lovers. They want to sample every style of beer, and it is hard to find a good Mild in the U.S. Brain's Dark is a fine example, and it greatly impressed the audience. How could a beer of such low gravity and alcohol have so much flavour?

Ales that are low in alcohol are rarely exported to the U.S., due to a quirk of labelling laws in some states. Most present legislation had its origins in the repeal of Prohibition. Law-makers at that time seemed to think that ale was meant to be stronger than lager. In some states, ales must have more than 4.0 per cent alcohol by weight (5.0 by volume), and most British "session beers" do not qualify.

That would inhibit Fuller's from exporting their Chiswick Bitter, should they wish to do so. In fact, it is widely available only in Fuller's local market, a handful of neighborhoods and inner suburbs on the western side of London. The brewery is in one of these neighborhoods, Chiswick (the "w" is not pronounced). Because Chiswick Bitter is low in alcohol, it is a delicate beer, and the brewery is anxious that it be served fresh. A wider distribution is given the stronger London Pride and Extra Special Bitter.

Cask-conditioned at the National Geographic
I was very grateful to both Brain's and Fuller's for making available these local specialities. They, for their part, were concerned as to whether such vulnerable beers would survive the journey, and whether they would be presented properly. The same issues arose with Kelpie and even with the much stronger 5x. Cask-conditioning requires experience and judgment. The Brickskeller, where the casks would initially held, is practised in the art - but how would the beer be cellared and served at the National Geographic? This was also a worry for Rock Wheeler, of National Geographic, who was in charge of the tasting.

Emails, phone calls, discussions and meetings to solve these problems spread over several months. The final approach was to borrow one of the walk-in coolers normally used for staff and visitor catering at the National Geographic. Its contents were moved to another cooler. Engineers raised the temperature in the borrowed cooler to about 45 degrees. It was felt that, as the door would be opened from time to time, the actual temperature would be closer the 50F required. Racks and wedges were assembled inside the cooler, so that the casks could be set on their side. This work was done by Dave Alexander and his team. The casks were then vented with a porous wooden peg (known as a "soft spile") and the taps hammered into the bungs, as they would be in a pub cellar. The casks then spent more than 48 hours undisturbed, so that a natural level of carbonation could develop and the yeast sediment precipitate. On the night, the beer was tapped by gravity into pitchers.

Firkins Pitchers

As one set of pitchers was being poured into glasses, another set was being filled from casks. This procedure was progressed with military precision by 18 volunteers from the Washington club BURP ("Brewers United for Real Potables"). Five members of National Geographic's catering staff were involved, together with buildings services contractors, six of the lecture staff, a further half-dozen volunteer ushers, and audio-visual technicians.

The beers:

Brain's Dark (Cask)
From a brewing company founded in 1713 and acquired by Samuel and Joseph Brain in 1882. In Cardiff, capital city of Wales. The slogan "It's Brains You Want" is famous locally. The brewery has a range of ales. Its Brain's Dark is a Mild Ale, with an original gravity of1035 and alcohol by volume of 3.5 per cent by volume (2.3 by weight). The principal ingredient is Pale Ale malt. Other malts are a British version of Munich, caramel and chocolate. The hops are Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings. The beer is centrifuged and has a dosage of priming sugar and yeast in the cask. It typically emerges with a surprisingly smooth malt background and flavor, finishing with a toasty dryness, and was on excellent form for its D.C. debut.

Fuller's Chiswick Bitter (Cask)
The beer I most often drink in my local pub. The brewery, about a mile from my home, is on the road from Heathrow airport into central London. There has been a brewery on the site for 350 years. The Fuller family have been involved since 1845. Chiswick Bitter has a gravity of 1034 and an alcohol by volume of 3.5v (2.3w). Malts: Pale Ale and crystal. Hops: Northdown, Challenger, First Gold. Dry-hopped with Goldings. A light-bodied, refreshing, beer, with a very flowery hop character. I found it slightly flat in D.C., but it won a very warm reception indeed from the audience.

Red Biddy (Keg)
The name is slang for a lethal blend of cheap red wine and methylated spirits. In this case, it refers to a perfectly safe and respectable Irish Red Ale with a twist. The beer is brewed from a gravity of 1050, and has an alcohol content of 5.0 by volume (4.0 weight). The malts are Pale Ale, crystal, chocolate and roast barley. It is hopped with Challengers. The difference is the use of the traditional wild herb bog myrtle. The traditional "Irish moss", carragheen, is used in fining. The beer is big in body and flavor, malty, treacly, toasty and smoky, with suggestions of bitter orange marmalade and a leafy, herbal finish. A stout (Black Biddy) and a lager (Blonde Biddy) are also produced by the brewery, at Inagh, near Ennis, County Clare. The brewery was founded in 1995, in an existent pub. Biddy Early was a legendary figure who carried a bottle that could cure all ills during the time of the potato famine.

Kelpie Ale (Cask)
A seaweed beer, though it is not made with kelp. The name of the ale is a reference to a sea devil in Scottish legend. The beer is not intended to have the pronounced, medicinal, iodine-like, seaweed character of an Islay whisky. The notion is to replicate the flavors that might have arisen when island crofters used seaweed to reinforce the soil in which they grew barley. In the production of the ale, the seaweed is used in the mash tun. Kelpie Ale has a mahogany color; a slightly smoky aroma; and a subtle note of seaweed over the fruitiness and nutty maltiness of a Scotch Ale. After being disappointed with a test brew, I found the sample in D.C. much rounder. It was a hit with the audience, who were also delighted (as I was) when brewer Bruce Williams made a surprise appearance. Kelpie has an original gravity 1044 and an alcohol content of 5.5v (4.4w). Malts: Pale Ale (Maris Otter), caramel, crystal, chocolate, roast barley. Hops: First Gold. This new product is the latest in the Heather Ale range, which began in 1992. Heather ale has its own brewery, making draft beers, at Strathaven, south of Glasgow. It also has a share in a brewery and bottling line at Alloa.

Porterhouse Oyster Stout (Keg)
Another maritime flavor. Porter was the everyday beer of London in Dickens' time, and oysters so common at the mouth of the river Thames that they were offered as free bar snacks. It is not certain when the two were combined in the glass. Firm evidence of this is much more recent: in the period after World War II. Although I first wrote about this style 25 years ago, even keen beer-lovers are often surprised to learn of its existence. Ever since the Porterhouse brewpub opened its doors in Dublin in 1996, it has been making an Oyster Stout, The brew has an original gravity of 1048, and 4.8v (3.8w). It is brewed from both Pale Ale and roasted malts. The grist also contains unmalted barley in two forms: roasted and flaked. The hops are Nugget and Chinook for bittering and Kent Goldings for aroma. A small quantity of shucked oysters is added toward the end of the boil. Porterhouse Oyster Stout was first seen in the U.S. in 2000, at my tenth annual tasting at the University of Pennsylvania. Would a drinker spot the influence of oysters if he did not know they were an ingredient? I like to think so, though I might be kidding myself. As an oyster lover, I find my taste-buds aroused by even a suggestion of their presence. I find this beer both salty and sweet, and to have a very distinctive tang. The audience in D.C. seemed to agree.

Harvey's "Le Coq" Imperial Stout (Bottle)
Why Le Coq? This was the family name of a Belgian who exported strong Porter from breweries in Britain (notably the long-gone Barclay's, which was near Tower Bridge, in London) to other Northern European countries in the mid and late 1800s. A ship containing a consignment of his beer bound for St Petersburg sank in the Baltic Sea in 1869, and the wreck was visited by divers in 1974. Bottles retrieved from the vessel prompted the information officer at the Brewers' Society, in London, to research the history of Le Coq. He passed his findings on to me, and I wrote the first story on the subject, in my 1977 World Guide to Beer. Much more recently, I stumbled upon information new to me about a family called Le Coq who owned a brewery in Belgium, and I hope to have more to report soon. My interest in this story led some years ago to my visiting a brewery in Tartu, Estonia that had been bought by Le Coq to brew Porter inside the Tsarist Empire. (The style eventually became known as Russian Imperial Stout). At the time of my pilgrimage, Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, and the brewery state-owned. It was making only lagers. I suggested that it restart production of Porter or Stout, and it subsequently did. The Le Coq Porter produced in Estonia is a little too obviously lager-like. An agreement has since been reached with the Estonians for a version of the beer to be once again made in Britain. This arrangement embodies a further a Belgian connection, albeit remote. There were once many Flemish immigrant brewers in the London riverside neighborhood of Southwark. A family that made beer in that area until World War II, the Jenners, later became involved in the Harvey's brewery, about 50 miles south at Lewes, on the river Ouse. Harvey's is making the British version of Le Coq Imperial Stout. It is a huge beer, with the classically woody, resinous, tar-like flavors of the style, and made an enormous impact in D.C. It has an original gravity of 1106, and an alcohol content of at least 9.5 per cent by volume (7.6w). The malts are Pale Ale (Maris Otter) and an unusual blend of older, darker styles: amber, brown and black. The hops are Sussex Fuggles and East Kent Goldings. The beer is conditioned for at least 12 months, in closed stainless-steel vessels. During this period, a wild yeast fermentation develops. The yeast is of a strain called Debaromyces hansenii, catalogued in 1924. It is similar to Brettanomyces. Brewer Miles Jenner believes the strain is airborne. The other possibility is that it is an element of the house yeast but, in the manner of Brettanomyces, emerges only in the course of a long maturation.

Greene King 5x (Cask)
"Never before tasted in America. Never sold in its native Britain. Never before offered outside the brewery..." Three rhetorical strikes from me and the beer was out of the cask and into the tasting, to a round of applause. People loved its complexity: winey, sherryish, fruitcake flavors, with suggestions of straw and iron. The 5x has a gravity of 1110, finishing at 1012, producing an alcohol content of around 9.6 by weight; 12.0 by volume. The grist is primarily Pale Ale (Halcyon), with a little crystal malt and some invert sugar. The brew is aged in ceiling-high tuns, typically for between one and three years (see "Having a smashing time"). It is then blended with another beer, called BPA ("Best Pale Ale" or possibly "Brewer's Pale Ale"), at 1052 and 5.0v (4.0w). The blend emerges at 4.5w; 6.0v. The modest strengths of everyday British beers permits this to be called Strong Suffolk. On its first appearance in the U.S. (for the Real Beer Tour), it was labelled Olde Suffolk.

Bass No 1 Barley Wine
This may have been the first Barley Wine to have been widely marketed, around the turn of the century, though that is not the reason for the name. In the heyday of Bass, the company's several brewhouses in Burton, England, each had their own products. The Number One brewhouse originally produced This Barley Wine. It has a gravity of 1103, producing an alcohol content of 10.5v (8.4w). The grist is 96 per cent Pale Ale and four per cent crystal malt. The hops are 40 per cent Fuggles and 60 per cent Goldings, at 5 lbs per barrel. The boil lasts for no fewer than 12 hours, during which caramelisation begins to develop the brew's unusually tawny color. The rate of evaporation is an astonishing 40 per cent. This reduction further concentrates the color as well as the flavors. The beer develops a smooth oiliness; and a powerfully oaky-tasting bitterness. It is produced by Steve Wellington, who was as a "pupil" at Bass in the 1960s. He made beer there for 25 years before being side-tracked into management and consultancy. He was then invited back to set up a working brewery in the company's award-winning museum. The kettle, once used as a pilot plant at one of the Bass breweries, is now been fired daily, often twice. Despite its location in the museum, it is in full production, making a range of classic styles, including Worthington White Shield.

And finally...
Guests also received a take-home sampler. This featured the above-mentioned Worthington White Shield and Greene King Olde Suffolk. There was also a third beer: Harvey's Thomas Paine Ale, named for the writer whose philosophies helped inspire the American Revolution. Between 1768 and 1774, Paine lived in Lewes, now the home of the Harvey's brewery. It was from Lewes that he left for America. In the 1790s, Harvey's was established, initially as a wine-and-spirit merchant. It started to brew in the early 1800s. The ale named for Paine has a malty start, plenty of hop flavor, and a soft bitterness in the finish. It has a gravity of 1055 and alcohol content of 5.5v (4.4w). The malts are Pale Ale (Maris Otter) and crystal, with some flaked maize and sugar. The hops are Bramling Cross, Fuggles, Goldings and Progress.

The last would seem to suit the philosophies of Paine, whose often-quoted aphorisms included: "We have it in our power to build the world anew."

Published: APR 6, 2001

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