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Beer Historian Ron Pattison Researches Beer, Collaborates with Pretty Things

It’s no surprise that Dann and Martha Paquette of the Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project and beer writer Ron Pattinson would work together, if you’ve met them. All three are not only very knowledgeable about beer, but also hold some fairly strong opinions.

Pattinson has been writing about beer online at his blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins since 2006. He had an interest in historical stout and porter and started to pursue whatever information he could find. What he found, though, was often inconsistent. So he started to go the archives of various breweries, as well as public collections, to see the actual recipes. Breweries keep a record of every brew day. When Pattinson started pursuing these records, he realized that most other beer writers had not done so. A great deal of what he found conflicted with the prevailing wisdom.

For example, every beer lover knows the story of British brewers making strong pale ales for export to India. Patinson points out that India Pale Ale would be a drink for officers and officials. Porter, the drink of common soldiers, was much more common in 19th century India. Mild Ales, as another example, are not necessarily mild in strength or in hop content. Mild simply means that the beer has not been aged, as contrasted with aged “stock” ales. Pattinson found a recipe for a highly hopped, 10.5% alcohol mild brewed in 1832. That beer was the first collaboration between Pattinson and Pretty Things.

After all, the historical record can tell us how a brew was made, but the only way to find out how it tasted is to actually make it. Pattinson had previously worked with the De Molens brewery in Holland as well as Fuller’s in England. Dann and Martha had been in conversation with Pattinson online and at beer festivals in Europe. They met up with him again during an unexpected layover in Amsterdam. This began a series of collaborations that Pretty Things calls the Once Upon a Time series.

The most recent Once Upon a Time beer is a Double Brown Ale recipe from 1955. Pretty Things released it at Somerville’s the Independent, at a March 8 event where Pattinson was also present, signing copies of his new book The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer (which Dann has reviewed here). Martha explained the process by which they choose a beer to brew. Pattinson supplies them with a list of possibilities (he aims to educate beer drinkers about things that are not what they may have expected – the 10.5% Mild and an East India Porter both appeared in the Once Upon a Time Series), and Dann and Martha choose from among those. They are limited to some degree by the availability of certain ingredients. Martha explained that brewing culture in Britain has not changed much since World War II, so may ingredients from that era can still be obtained. It’s more difficult to be certain you have the same yeast that was used fifty years ago. “For the yeast, we do our best,” she said. For the Double Brown, which was originally brewed by Whitbread, they used a Whitbread yeast that they were “pretty confident was pretty close.” Some ingredients can no longer be obtained, though. In the 19th century, many beers were made with diastatic brown malt, which contains certain enzymes that help to break down the sugars. It is now impossible to come by diastatic malt, but Pattinson would like to undertake a project to recreate it.

For the Once Upon a Time series, the brewery takes one record and recreates one brew day in history exactly. As Martha put it, “even if we think it’s a bad idea, we do it.” This provides a tangible, drinkable version of the unrealized truths that Pattinson has uncovered. The Double Brown ale, for example uses only pale malts. It gets its color from caramel.

Pattinson’s book makes it possible for homebrewers to undertake these sorts of experiments on their own. It contains recipes from as far back as 1804. Before that point it’s too difficult to find historical records and Pattinson wouldn’t want to speculate too much. When pressed on the issue of a certain brewery that attempts to recreate beers from archaeological data, Pattinson said there’s “no chance of getting anything similar” to what was brewed thousands of years ago (although he admits the results may be interesting beers). What Pattinson’s book and the Once Upon a Time beers provide, instead, is a real record of what a given brewery really made at a given time.

The recipes in the book are arranged by style from Porter to Stout, to Pale Ales and so on through the major styles of British brewing. In the back are a handful of recipes from Continental Europe, including a Grodziskie (smoked wheat beer) and Broyhan (an acidic, hopless beer). That Pattison chose these “forgotten” styles fits in perfectly with his quest to uncover the hidden and the little known.

The most interesting part of the book, though, might be the beginning chapters on ingredients and techniques used in the past. The ingredients in beer have, of course, changed over time. Most of these changes were due to political and economic realities. Pattison contrasted this with brewing trends today, where brewers pursue new ingredients to find new flavors. Perhaps this chasing of novelty ingredients is what Dann was referring to when he said he found much of our contemporary brewing “gimmicky.” In contrast, vintage brew recipes tended to change in response to taxes on ingredients or war shortages. Pattinson said almost all “the big changes in British Beer were the result of war.” As an example, Barclay Perkins X mild changed drastically from 1838 to 1945. The 1838 version was 7.4% alcohol, pale and hoppy. The version after World War I was “completely transformed,” into a 2.8%, dark, not very hoppy beer. The Double Brown is also an example of this. Even as a double-strength brew, it’s only around 5% alcohol. Still, the relatively high abv demonstrates “that the supply chain for raw materials in post-war Britain was easing, although rationing had only ended in 1954,” according to Pretty Things’ website.

Both the book and Pretty Things Once Upon a Time beers are well worth checking out for anyone interested in the history of brewing. The Once Upon a Time beers are brewed in batches of 50 to 100 barrels and only released in Massachusetts. You may not be able to find any Double Brown left, but if you want to try, you should look sooner rather than later. Pattinson said in the future he may write about the history of American brewing (although it may take him years). If he does, I thoroughly look forward to that book and whatever beers may result.