Bristol Lambic?

Beer maturing in vats.
George’s vats as pictured in the Illustrated London News in 1909.

Here’s a new question for us to chew on: was the ‘Old Beer’ for which George’s Bristol Brewery was famous up until World War II an early example of a wilfully sour British beer?

We’ve been reading bits and pieces about George’s here and there for the last few months, fascinated by the long-gone local giant which built so many of the most interesting pubs in Bristol. It was founded in around 1730, and acquired by Courage in 1961 after which, to all intents and purposes, the brand ceased to exist. For a large chunk of its existence, though, its flagship product was a notable vatted ale:

Georges’ Old Beer, famous throughout the West, is matured in huge vats, some of the largest in the Kingdom, with a total capacity of one million gallons. The beer remains in the vats for at least 12 months before it is allowed to go to the consumer. (One Hundred and Fifty Years of Brewing, 1938)

Other Bristol breweries, notably Rogers’ of Jacob Street, also produced vatted Bristol Old Beer. Martyn Cornell has written about West Country vatted ales on his blog and in his essential 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black (disclosure: he sent us a freebie PDF at the time) and gives a useful summary of the tech spec:

Brewing of these West Country vatted ales always began in the autumn, using a mixture of old and new malts, often a ‘high-dried’ English malt with plenty of colour mixed with a mild ale malt. The Brewers’ Journal in 1936 was advising that such strong stock ales ‘of 30lb gravity and upwards’ (that is, OGs of around 1085 or more) should go through two or three secondary fermentations in cask before being bottled after nine or twelve months not fully worked out, but still ‘in slight “creamy” condition’.

What really grabbed our attention, though, was a description of George’s Old Beer in a 1943 article about the brewery in a technical journal (PDF):

The brewery was famed in early days for Porter, hence its early title ‘The Bristol Porter Brewery’. Afterwards ‘Old beer’ became one of the main products, and many vats of considerably over 1,600 barrels’ capacity were in use for storing the heavy beer for at least 18 months, the competition with cider no doubt influenced the character of this old beer.

This blew our minds a little.

We’ve long been fascinated by the similarity between the wilder Somerset ciders and Belgian lambic beers but this is the first time we’ve seen it suggested that the cider-friendly West Country palate might have influence how the local beer tasted. It’s certainly plausible, though, that drinkers used to the intensity of scrumpy might find fresh, bright, clean-tasting ales just a bit bland.

Now, at this stage, of course we still have a lot of questions to answer:

  1. Did cider in 1943 taste like cider does now? (We can’t see that it tasted less sour or funky.)
  2. When this writer implies Old Beer was equivalent to cider, does he mean that it tasted like cider (actually acidic and wild) or only that it was similar in some other way? E.g. relatively strong, or differently complex as a result of Brettanomyces, or merely very dry. A 1909 article in the London Illustrated News describes it as having ‘depth and mellowness’ which doesn’t sound much like cider.
  3. What happened to the vats; when did Old Beer go out of production; and did drinkers in Bristol suddenly acquire the taste for ‘normal’ beer? (Guess: the Blitz; the war; no. But we’ll see.)

In the meantime, there’s an idea for some more sacrilegious beer mixing here: three parts old ale, one part scrumpy anyone?

Psst! Don’t forget to enter our competition if you want to win copies of 20th Century Pub and Brew Britannia.

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