Ghosts of Beers Past: Reviving Historical Brews

Editor's Note: Lisa Grimm is a craft beer geek with a background in archaeology. She'll be joining us to explore a bit of beer history. You can also find her blogging about beer at WeirdBeerGirl.com.

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Pretty Things KK on cask. [Photograph: Christopher Lehault]

20110302heatheralesmall.jpgEven the most casual craft beer drinker is aware of the huge variety of beer styles available today, and there seems to be a 'new' style or two added to the fold every few months. But there is also a growing interest in resurrecting styles from the past—everything from relatively recent pre-Prohibition American lagers, such as Leinenkugel's 1888 Bock or Victory's Throwback Lager, to re-imagined prehistoric fermentations developed using archaeological evidence—cue Dogfish Head's Midas Touch, Chateau Jiahu, et al.

Some of these old styles inspire quite a bit of creativity, especially those styles that originated before hops became the chief bittering (and preservation) agent for beer. Recipes for modern Gruits typically follow their medieval ancestors' example in avoiding hops and using a variety of herbs in their stead; Williams Brothers Fraoch Heather Ale is perhaps the most readily-available commercial example. Given that the original documents detailing medieval brewing are somewhat few and far between, it's fertile ground for experimentation.

But there's a trend now toward recreating beer styles exactly according to the evidence at hand; brewing historian Ron Pattinson has long been championing the use of brewers' logs and related records to properly understand historical brews—and it's clear from his research that many assumptions about popular beer styles are not grounded in fact. He has collaborated in the past with Brouwerij de Molen in the Netherlands to recreate a number of early 20th-century British beer recipes.

More recently, he teamed up with Massachusetts gypsy brewers Pretty Things to resurrect two more British beers. The 1832 Mild would blow the socks off most modern double IPAs when it comes to alcohol content (proving that style definitions have always been, rather appropriately, fluid). Their KK is a hoppy black ale originally brewed in London on November 15, 1901 (again, brewers' logbooks are wonderfully specific things—more on that in a moment).

There's no guesswork or modifications toward modern taste here—KK is brewed to the exact specifications of its predecessor at Whitbread's Chiswell Street brewery at the dawn of the 20th century. The resulting beer is one that almost seems custom-crafted for today—the hoppy black ale would be welcomed into the Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale fold with open arms, despite the fact that it predates them by more than a century.

The new/old beer is an achievement for another reason—pulling together direct historical documentation on brewing is not simple. Despite the fact that Whitbread is still an active business (albeit one that offloaded the brewing operations some time ago), its records are scattered around the UK. With the ongoing consolidation of macro breweries around the world, one wonders what is happening to the 19th century (and earlier) records of the collapsing brands—it would seem that much of that could be lost, just as the records of many American breweries disappeared with Prohibition (and what we do know of those operations and recipes is often only thanks to the efforts of collectors and hobbyists; professional care and curation was rarely considered).

Some modern craft brewers are taking steps to ensure that their legacy continues to be documented for the long term—Rogue recently advertised a position for an archivist—and given the pace of growth and change in the craft beer world, it's about time others took a similar step. It would be a shame if future brewers could easily recreate beers from the distant past, but could only guess at what might have gone into some of the most popular beers of recent decades.

Brewing history is not simply an abstract historical concept—the re-engineered past can be enjoyed by anyone who happens to have a bottle handy. Cheers to brewers past, present and future!

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