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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why Are We Magnetized By Beers of the Past?

On Monday, archaeologists revealed evidence of a 5,000-year-old Chinese brewery. It got picked up quite broadly and for good reason--it's pretty cool. (Follow the link if you missed it.) What was odd was that I had just returned from a junket to Copenhagen, where the Carlsberg brewery was unveiling their own project involving old beer--recreating an 1883 beer they found in their extensive cellars. Over the past couple decades, breweries and archaeologists have made a cottage industry of recreating lost beers, and we are always, without fail, magnetized by it. Serious question: why?

One of the actual
The Carlsberg experiment was a case-in-point. Conceptually, it was very cool. The brewery found these old bottles and realized they dated to a period of bottle-conditioning. (I got to take a trip down to one small part of the cellars and came across a different box of dust-encrusted old cage-and-cork bottles of very distant vintage. They're apparently laying all over the place.) Even after 133 years, they managed to rouse the yeast enough to get it to propagate, and they decided to make a beer from it.

Old brewing logs are great about some things and bad about others. Recipes from the era made it easy to replicate the water, and they went to a seed bank for old varieties of barley, which they had floor-malted at a distillery. (Later, to give the malt the proper 1880s color, they kilned it a bit more.) Hops were more of a mystery. They had some evidence of the provenance--Hallertau--but nothing about the variety or alphas. They decided to use Hallertauer Hallertau and guessed at the bitterness. It took a couple years to get everything in place, and the brewery went into high drive to celebrate its release. You can see a video they put together here, along with a cameo by Martyn Cornell. And of course, they flew me and dozens of members of the media in from all over the world to try the beer.

They finished it off in a wooden barrel for a week--though strangely, an unpitched wooden barrel, which would not have been typical of the day. We were given a tour of some of the technical facilities in Copenhagen (the main brewery is no longer located there) and then joined the brewery for the big unveiling.

The night before, Pete Brown made an obvious point that I think eluded the brewery. They'd set up sort of a no-win situation. Either the beer was going to be sublime, which was the ostensible expectation, or it would be a dud. If it were a dud--well, that's obviously not good. But if it were sublime, it would cast an odd shadow over the brewery's 21st century beers. Carlsberg, which is run by a foundation that diverts some profits into technical research, has a heavy R&D bent. The project itself, whatever the beer tasted like, was going to be interesting as a science experiment. I'm sure they learned a great deal. (Not the least of which was that 133-year-old yeast is still viable.)

But on the big day, we tried the beer and .... Well, care to guess? Here's a picture:

And here's the ceremony:


Guesses? Guesses? It was ... all right. And now we come back to the the question from the top of the post. The beer had an antiquated quality. It was brownish and heavy, quite sweet and undercarbonated. Pale lagers were in the midst of taking over the world, and they were replacing old brown beers. And they were replacing old brown beers, presumably, because they weren't as tasty. We always romanticize the past, thinking that industrial precision and agricultural manipulation have surely brought us to a benighted state. And that's not entirely without merit--heirloom apples taste a lot better than giant supermarket fruit.

But I think it's wrong with beer. I've had the opportunity to sample a few recreations, and they always taste weird and un-modern. Attenuation was terrible, so they're usually heavy and sweet. I don't think recreations tend to capture the microbiological capriciousness of old beers, either. Technology has given us the tools to make the beer we want now, and much more ably and precisely than at any time in the past. The idea of time-traveling through our tastebuds is alluring, but it's foolsgold. I'm convinced the past didn't taste very good.


  1. Had a fair few recreation beers - obviously - the Carlsberg beer was a rare dud.

    One of my favourite beers ever was Pretty Things XXXX.

    Most recreations i've had were at least decent.

  2. I'm not totally shocked to hear you say this. It is no doubt a subjective judgment. I can definitely see how a person's palate could be attuned to antiquity--but I think that's part of the issue. There is a process of attuning.

    It may also be that old lagers don't offer the kind of surprising variety that old ales do. One problem with Carlsberg's beer was that it was too close to modern lagers. It wasn't exotic, but it also wasn't delicious.

  3. I agree and disagree. Some recreations are aiming to the familiar or inevitably will remind someone of something. I've been in on three from 1780s, 1830s and 1905 or so. Mainly they were strong ales but with a tweek - if you were waiting for it. The one with straw cut into the mash had a grassy tang like Sauvgnon Blanc. But you are right. Historic lagers might just be a tougher thing to make stand apart given they were born in the post-scientific era.

  4. Remember that magnetism is a force of attraction as well as repulsion.

  5. I think there should be two questions here: 1. old beer that is recreated and 2. old beer. Some of the best beers I have ever drunk were old beers. For example, a Rochefort 10 that was over 30 years old when I drank it. Recreations are tricky. Personally, I don't see much benefit in drinking an old lager. A recreated one could be interesting, though I imagine not many recreations would make for a special drinking experience.

  6. We just had a Heritage Brew night at the Smithfield in Manchester. Four local breweries (including mine) brewed four different local beers that haven't been seen for quite a while, with us brewing the oldest from 1903.
    What were the beers like? Very good.
    Were they similar to modern ones? Partly.
    Were they popular? Very.

    So why is it, as this post asks, that these beers are so popular?
    I think part of it is curiosity, and part of it is the constant search for something new by a lot of drinkers.
    I also personally believe that a lot of drinkers are getting fed up with hoppy light IPAs drunk in thirds and want something they can sit down and have a few pints of.

    The beers that were on last night were all very easy to drink, and I could happily have stayed on any single one of them for several hours, including the 6.3% strong ale we brewed.

    So perhaps part of it is also that people want something a bit more simple, a bit less challenging. Perhaps they're seeking beers that they can enjoy, without having to have their palates educated.

    I think it may be for some people an attempt to look back to what they see as a simpler time, with less concerns and worries.

    For me, I believe that the brewers back then knew a lot more about beer and brewing than we give them credit for. They didn't have the laboratories and the technology that we now have, yet they were consistently producing beers that the vast majority of the public were happy to drink. So I'm regularly re-brewing these beers to see what they were like, and to try and prove my theory right. That these old brewers knew what they were doing.

  7. Back when I still tried my hand at beer writing I wrote something similar at The Weekly Brew. We tweak our attempts at ancient beer to match our current palates and while that's not bad, to say the beers are authentic is silly. Weather, Terroir, Ingredients, Methods, and even whoever was the head brewer at the time all impact flavor. Especially pre industrialization.

    It's kind of like the theory that food used to taste better before modern ag and modern cooking methods.

    The reality is that food and drink are an experience of time and place as much as flavor. Some of the best BBQ chicken I've had was simply salt and peppered, then cooked over a gas grill, and enjoyed with family in the backyard on a summer night. Was it anything to do with the method or ingredients? Nope.

    Did old brewers make good beer? Probably... Well at least some of them since we have historical accounts of bad beer as well.... Was drinking it a transcendental experience or at least a lot better than drinking a modern beer? No.