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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Far Reaches of Beerdom

When you're an old man like me, the pace of change sometimes takes you by surprise. Last night, I had BridgePort's latest, Summer Squeeze. It has come to the place where if a brewery doesn't throw something exotic into the kettle or conditioning tank, drinkers will wonder: what's the point? Summer Squeeze is a pale with lemongrass added to the hopback and Yuzu fruit juice (an East Asian citrus, though Yuzu is the Japanese word) in the conditioning tank. I mean, if you're not throwing Asian fruit into the tank, you're not really trying. As a bonus, it's hopped with super-obscure Auroras.

A fascinating beer. I was sure there was a wheat base, but the brewery makes no mention of it. The beer is otherwise a pilsner blond with a huge citrus nose. In this case, the word "citrus" is not evocative or metaphoric, but quite literal. Brewer Jeff Edgerton describes it as Mandarin, but I get more a lemon note (but perhaps that's the lemongrass, confusing me). I expected something like a shandy, but actually, it tastes more like a Mexican beer with a huge squirt of lime. The citrus is assertive and resinous enough to stick around long after you've swallowed. I'm not sure what to make of it. Very crisp and refreshing--like a soda with a twist of citrus--and no doubt perfect on a summer day. But I do wonder, at what point will we have transgressed beyond the essential beeriness of a thing and into a different category altogether? I'll be considering that well after the next three trends come and go.

I had another beer last night, too--actually, just a single swallow. It was also an extreme and strange beer, but if Summer Squeeze was a future visitation, this one came from the distant past. The style of beer was Burton Ale, one I've read a great deal about but never had occasion to try.* That's not a surprise: Burtons haven't really been brewed since the Second World War--and even then they had gone through some substantial change. Burton is an old style, and it seems old-timey to our modern sensibilities. They started out as brown in their proto-phase, and then got amberish by the 19th century. They were brewed at massive gravities, but then finished out quite high, too. They were extensively hopped to balance the inevitable sticky sweetness. The result? Here's Martyn Cornell:
But while they had some success with the recipe as brewed for the Baltic in pubs in places such as Liverpool, Manchester and London, "those who admired its flavour and its purity, and who wished to drink more of it," according to the journalist John Stevenson Bushnan, writing in 1853, "found it too heady, too sweet, and too glutinous, if not too strong. Indeed it was so rich and luscious that if a little were spilled on a table the glass would stick to it."
The one I had was a homebrew, and it was made very much in this vein. It was hugely rich and very sweet, though a decent wallop of hops were trying to balance things out. The balance point was well beyond modern palates' preferences for drier beers. It was disorienting. I would have liked a whole glass to savor, to see what the long-term effects were.

Of the two beers, I would say the Burton, a famous style once brewed for centuries and sent on ships to far countries, was the wildest. Yuzu is one thing, but man, Burtons are wild, strange beers.

*Writers like Cornell insist that certain beers brewed today are roughly in the Burton style, but I am not convinced. The beers they write about from the 18th and 19th century were different beasts than the kind of beers brewed today.



  1. Burton is a perfect beer for Portland. It's everything we love: bitter and boozy. It's a style I'd love to see revived. Glad you liked it. I'll see if I can't get you more of it.

  2. Also, it should be noted that although Bushnan was wrote that in 1853, he was refering to pre-1820 Burton Ales. In the 1820's, Samuel Allsopp is credited with making the beers less sweet and adding more hops to increase their appeal to the English market (they were primarily exported to the Baltic region prior to 1822).

    The best way to describe Burton Ales to modern drinkers is to tell them they're the forerunners of barley wines and old ales. Bass No. 1, the first beer to use the name Barley Wine on the label, was in fact a Burton Ale.

    The version you tried was a Strong Burton and was a composite recipe from the 1920's and 1930's. Burton always came in a variety of strengths. The strong ones were as strong as modern barley wines, but the standard Burtons were more manageable. They were brewed as late as the 1950's as a standard offering by many brewers and as late as the 1960's as seasonal beers (despite the name, they were a style, not a regional beer, so brewers all over England brewed them). Standard strength Burtons were about 20-25% stronger than Bitters. Andrew Campbell in the Book of Beer lists standard Burtons at 1.040-1.050 in the 1950's. Those versions taste kind of like a bigger, hoppier, and slightly sweeter Mild.

  3. Bill, I agree that it's perfect for Portland--Portland, Maine. I'm not so sure that Burtons are in Oregon's wheelhouse, though I'd love see one get an honest run sometime. Perhaps a bold brewery will brew one up for fall. Oregonians--and west-coasters in general--don't like much sweetness, especially when it's combined with heavy body.

    As to the history, I recommend everyone follow the link to the Cornell quote. There's a whole article about the style. I think you also have to recognize the pre- and post-world wars British beers. Everything before 1914 was a lot stronger. Your Burton was apparently taken from the rebound period between the wars. Sadly (to me, anyway), the second war knocked gravities on their arses for good.