Journey back to hazy days of yesterbeer when wooden casks and wild yeasts reigned

by Jason Foster

Humans have been brewing and enjoying beer for thousands of years, creating many classic styles along the way. If you’re a fan of those styles — stout, porter, pale ale, pilsner and on and on — it’s fun to think of their history and maybe feel a connection to beer drinkers of the distant past.

That sense of connection is absolutely cool but not entirely accurate.

When I enjoy a crisp pilsner, for example, I can imagine how beer lovers in the early 1800s would’ve marveled at its pale hue, because it was so uncommon back then. But that’s about as much as I can imagine — because the pilsners we’re drinking today almost certainly tastes quite different from their 19th-century ancestors.

Sure, they share basic qualities of a crisp, light body and spicy hop bitterness, but here’s betting you wouldn’t recognize a pilsner made 200 years ago. The same holds true for any beer style with historical origins.

Why? Simple: because brewing techniques and technology have evolved.

We have knowledge of microbiology that they didn’t have in the 1800s, leading to superior sanitization and healthier yeast. Barley and hop farming have changed significantly. And the way the barley is malted, the malt is mashed and the wort is boiled has also changed radically.

It’d be silly to think that all of the changes that have occurred in the brewing world haven’t made any difference in the way beer tastes. Here are a few of the biggest factors.

First up is the fact that today we brew almost exclusively in stainless steel, whereas hundreds of years ago, wood and copper would’ve been the materials of choice. Stainless steel is very inert, meaning it doesn’t impact the beer at all. Copper and wood, on the other hand, interact with the brew and impart certain flavours and characteristics.

Second, modern brewers purchase grain from companies that specialize in producing consistent, reliable malt every time. Even when small differences occur from harvest to harvest, brewers, especially the larger ones, fine-tune their recipes to ensure consistency. Brewers 200 years ago had little choice but to prepare their own grain, which meant from brewery to brewery and batch to batch — and often even within a single batch — there’d be a great deal of variation in the malt.

Third, most modern beers are filtered to capture the yeast and proteins that can cause a beer to look hazy, which is why so many styles look crisp and bright. Without access to filtration technology, historical beer would almost always have had some degree of haze — which can have an impact on flavour as well as appearance.

Probably the most significant change in the beer world is sanitization. Brewers today go to great lengths to ensure no microorganism except yeast gets into their beer — and the yeast they use will be a pure culture of a particular strain. Before Louis Pasteur’s work in the early 1800s, there was no knowledge of the different bacteria and wild yeasts that floated in the air, so most beer was fermented by a cocktail of yeasts and bacteria. Those uninvited guests would’ve altered the flavour balance of the beer in a variety of ways.

Obviously, it’s impossible to really know what a particular style really tasted like 200 or 300 years ago, but brewers can approximate the conditions of the past by using traditional methods. An interesting example is Paddock Wood’s release of Black Friars, which the company calls a “17th century London ale.” It’s a porter brewed specifically to replicate what this dark ale might have tasted like in the 1600s.

The two key things co-owner Stephen Cavan did to achieve this was to roast his own malt (reportedly on his backyard barbecue) and to add the micro-organism Brettanomyces (which is common in lambic beer) to replicate the “wild yeast” effect from lack of sanitization.

Here’s betting it’s still only roughly similar to a beer from that era, but that’s not really the point: the fun part is being able to compare it to a modern version. Conveniently, Paddock Wood also produces London Porter, a good example of a modern porter, which allows for a nice side-by-side comparison.

London Porter is dark brown with good clarity. It has a moderately full body with a rich, malty flavour of chocolate, nuts and some light roast, and it has a sweet, slightly roasted finish. Black Friars is lighter and has a slight haze. The malt character is similar — toffee, chocolate, raisin and a hint of roast — but overlaying the beer is an earthy tartness. This tartness transforms the beer. It seems thinner and less sweet, and has an almost quenching finish.

Which one is better depends on personal preference, obviously, but there’s no mistaking just how different the two beers are. Despite their almost identical recipes, they’re hardly recognizable as belonging to the same beer style.

It’s a cool experiment and it’d be great to see more brewers take similar approaches with other styles, giving fans more opportunities to taste the beers of yesteryear.