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Monday, October 27, 2014

What Did "Sweet" and "Sour" Mean in the Old Texts?

Lars Garshol has an interesting post on a question that has bothered me for the last four years: how sour were pre-20th century beers?  His post is well worth a read because he tackles it from a few angles.  The portion I'm interested in, though, is the survey of historical materials, which often indicate that 16th-19th century beers were not soured.  For example, Lars cites a typical 16th century Swedish account by Olaus Magnus, an archbishop:
He describes both sweet and sour wines, but of beer he says that people brew it sweet or bitter according to preference. He says winter water is the best, as it never makes the beer go sour. Today we can see what was really going on, but he was right that beer was less likely to go sour in winter, due to lower temperatures. He says winter water is used in the brewing of Danzig beer, "the noblest and healthiest beer". It's clear from the text that to Olaus Magnus, beer is a sweet or bitter drink, and mainly sour by accident.
So here's the thing: I don't trust Magnus.  The problem is that language is not precise, especially in describing flavor, which is by necessity always relative.  We don't have precise language for flavors, except to compare them to other things.  Flavor descriptions build on shared understandings of the way known things taste, and we use those understandings when we describe related flavors.  When we say hops taste "like citrus," we mean to say that relative to other hoppy flavors, they have a few molecules that remind us of orange.  Originally, though, hops like Cascade were so exotic and bizarre when compared to European hops that they weren't always described as citrusy.  People were using a different baseline for hop flavor in the 1970s.

Similarly, if the accepted baseline for beer was always a bit tart (by modern standards), then all the terms writers used would be relative to that reality. We have zero-level thresholds for "sour" because we can control microbiological activity. Did 19th century writers share that threshold? My strong suspicion is no; therefore, beer that was "sour" was relatively sour--that is, sourer than the baseline.  Let me draw your attention to the 19th century writer Georges Lacambre and his famous Traité Complet de la Fabrication des Bières.  He illustrates the point.

In the section on the old style of beer called uytzet,  He quotes the work of another writer who had written about chemical analyses done on uytzet.  That writer, Wauters, described double uytzet as "the most delicate and sweetest of all known beers."  What did he mean by "sweet?"  Fortunately, we have the actual analysis as well, which measured things like "resinous grain," "dry mucilage," and "vinegar" (acetic acid).  In 48 ounces of beer measured, 3 ounces of which were acetic acid.  (The 48-ounce figure come from a conversion Randy Mosher did, which is sadly no longer online.)  Lacambre comments: "However, we agree that Mr. Wauters must be accustomed to such a beer to find it so good, as it contains so much vinegar and so little alcohol."  Even then, language was imprecise enough that writers didn't agree on meaning.  You see this throughout Lacambre's book, where he dutifully explains what locals think of their beers, then savages them with his own less-admiring descriptions. 

When I read sources like Lacambre, I read "sweet" as "not yet very sour," or "young."   It's not the modern definition of sweet, which means "not hoppy."  When writers of this era--and earlier writers, like Magnus--mention "sour," I think they mean what we would call spoiled. It's why they talk about winter and summer brewing--when we know very well thanks to lambic-brewing that winter beers can get very sour indeed without spoiling. 

As a final data point, it's useful to turn to Louis Pasteur himself.  In his seminal work on yeast, Etudes sur la Bière (translated into the English as Studies on Fermentation), he recommended the lager-brewing practice, because ale-brewing so often resulted in soured beer.  “How is it that the use of ice and yeast operating at a low temperature [in lager brewing] so greatly facilitates the preservation of our beer and enables us to secure such striking advantages?  The explanation is simple: the diseased ferments, which we have pointed out, rarely appear at a lower temperature than 10° C. (50° F.), and at that temperature their germs cease to be active.”  This further suggests to me that the ales must have been either sour or had such a short window before they got sour that he discouraged their manufacture.  And indeed, his research was one of the reasons lager-brewing (along with technological advancements) took off at such a rapid clip.

Without being able to taste these old beers ourselves, we can't know the microbiology of pre-20th century beers based on the descriptions of contemporary writers from earlier periods.  But I would encourage readers to exercise a healthy skepticism.  Our assumptions about the way beer tastes is very unlikely to reflect their assumptions--and subsequent descriptions are going to confuse modern minds. 


  1. This also speaks about the whole thing about the so-called "historical" recreations. We know almost nothing about those beers, a list of ingredients, if that much; the rest? My guess is as good as anybody else's, really.

  2. I’ve looked at my fair share of brewing records, most recently a porter recipe from Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company from the near side of 115 years ago . It called for a healthy dose (21% of the total volume) of “old ale”. There is no record from the years of 1900-1905 of Amsdell brewing anything they dubbed an Old Ale, so the assumption is that it simply was old ale—as in beer that had not sold (or perhaps had been returned). Along with being spiked with this old ale, Amsdell’s Porter was also batted. Most of Amsdell’s turn-of-the-century brew was racked, and then kurausened, So the batting of this Porter—brewed only two or three times a year—was a rather unusual process for the brewery. Licorice root, grains of paradise and capcaisin was also added. There is however no mention of the beer being “sour”

    We know that it was a common practice during parts of the 18th and 19th century for British brewers to vat and age their porter as well as adulterate it with old ale or aged porter. The most logical reasons for this was 1) it eliminated old beer from the brewery, and 2) they wanted to impart an aged flavor to the beer. In the U.S. Amsdell apparently wanted to hedge their bets—and did both.

    As to the sour nature, it seems reasonable to assume that since most of the fermenting and aging vessels used by pre-20th century brewers would have been made out of of some kind of wood, and since the microbe Brettanomyces claussenii—which N.H. Claussen pegged as a potential cause of spoilage in beer (specifically resulting in what was known as the British flavor) in 1904—is wood-borne, meaning that Brett. c. infection was inevitable and would eventually spoil or sour the beer, especially in brews that were aged.

    But, here’s the thing. Brett c., is funkified, but I don’t think I’d go as far as to say it’s sour (maybe I’d go as far as to say tart, but even tart don’t really do it justice) and definitely not as sour like a Lambic or a Flanders red which pack a pretty sour punch due to their exposure to Brett b., Pediococcus and Lactobacillus. I’m not sure it’s a lack of precise language that is the problem. It’s more of an experience issue. I think sour is in the mouth of the beholder. To Wauters, Lacambre and even Claussen—who were continental European drinkers of beer that was, by all accounts, not sour at all—12 to 18 month old aged porter or ale may have very well tasted sour—but not lambic-ish—rather bile-like.

    Which is what Brett c. beer taste like to me.

  3. Did I just say what you said, only I said it differently?

  4. My only comment would be there is plenty of discussion about the taste of food and drink in the pre-scientific era but we tend to discount it because it is no scientific. Sweetness gets referenced as more prized than we might consider it today but that's cause it was rarer. Sour was more common and was accepted. But it is still sweet and sour to the common person.

  5. Well, I've read a lot of beer descriptions in the 1800's and I think they distinguished sour and sweet as we do today. You can tell by expressions such as "more or less tart", or by English travelers commenting that much Belgian beer is sour (some still is, not just lambic), beer that has "mucilage" (this means very sweet), beer that is "acid" (sour), etc. The porter blenders sought a balance of these elements and anyone can try it today and see that it works very well.

    Also, Ron Pattinson occasionally reports actual percentages of acid in 1800's beers, recently he did this for some north German lagers. It would be easy for someone to dose a lager with lactic or acetic acid and see what it is like. Since the attenuations were rather low for lager in the later 1800's, my theory is the extra zing was absorbed into the frame of the beer, you wouldn't notice it so much. With modern high-attenuated beers, you even a touch of lactic would probably upset the palate.

    Try it Jeff, since so many sour styles are available today, add 10% any sour beer (not lambic though, ale or porter) to 90% very fresh porter. Personally I wouldn't go past 10% for the tart element. The results can be really good. The beer loses some of the sweet malty quality but the reason why isn't immediately evident,

    Gary Gillman