A Sparkle in Your Ale
Today, with all our superior modern knowledge, we sometimes tend to view the present as pure, crystallized truth and the past as a steady, logical progression towards it. But take a closer look any human cultural tradition—pale ale styles, in this case—and you’ll find a great unruly tangle of a family tree rather than a steady march from primitive to “evolved.”
Beer styles morph and shift in response to available technology, agricultural practice, taxation, politics, marketing, fashion and other factors. And even though we need neat, crisply defined categories for homebrew judging and to argue about on the internet, the reality is much more complex.
For example, take sparkling ale, a trade term for a bottled beer that seems to have originated in Scotland as a somewhat lighter, more drinkable product than many of the brutally strong ales of the day. The trend had begun in mid-18th century London with India pale ales, which then spread to, and were displaced by, beers from Burton-on-Trent. Modest in gravity by the standards of the day, and hopped at double or even triple the rate for more old-fashioned brews, these new-style beers fed a craving for something happening and hip.
The Scots, never to be outpaced in the business arena, followed suit with their own IPAs, plus a range of other styles, including dinner ales, table beers and various lagers. Sparkling ale was being bottled and sold by Younger and McEwans and others by at least 1885, and it was exported in large quantities to America and the Empire. Homegrown versions turned up around that time here and in Australia, where the beer still survives at Cooper’s and a couple of breweries in Adelaide. But, alas, no longer in Scotland.
The story reminds me of goetta, a breakfast curiosity now extant only in Cincinnati. Made of pork and oats, and fried up crispy in little slabs, goetta was brought from Germany in the middle of the last century. Conservative natives of the Ohio city cling to this fading taste of their long-lost homeland. Like Chicago polka bands returning to present-day Poland to proselytize for King Oompah among its blasé, existentially modern citizens, the tree has branched off into a twig.
Brewing Sparkling Ale
I must confess that my recipe details are a bit sketchy. This is one of the great frustrations of historical beer research. Old books often give great detail on mashing heats and water quantities, but almost never give a cogent description of the beer being brewed. Ingredients are described in trade terms that no longer exist. It’s just a reflection of the fact that the books weren’t written for us. So, there’s going to be some interpolation here.
Let’s start with Scottish versions. My bottle of Wm. Younger “Monk Brand,” which I’m estimating at 1885 to 1890, lists an alcohol percent as 8 1/4. The Wahl-Henius Handy Book lists a 1901 version at 18.03 degrees B (1075), with an alcohol by weight as 6.84 (8.6 percent by volume), so within a few years, the gravity had dropped.
A version by McEwans comes in at a beefy 21.6 degrees B (1090), and 7.8 percent alcohol by weight (9.6 percent by volume), indicating a high terminal gravity, making it a very sweet beer. Both show moderate amounts of lactic acid, 0.15 and 0.38, respectively (contemporary lambics and Irish stouts both were about 1.0 percent, by comparison), which indicates some wood aging with its inevitable brettanomyces activity.
This acid would have given these beers a refreshing tang, which can be achieved easily by the use of German sour malt or food-grade lactic acid. Hop rates are elusive, but an “X” Scottish ale of similar gravity from mid century came in at 2.8 to 4 ounces per 5 gallons, which would have put it in the neighborhood of 40 to 60 IBUs.
Scottish beers were inevitably referred to as “full flavored.” This could have had a number of causes, one of which almost certainly was a lower fermentation temperature, 5 to 10 degrees F below English beers on average. The Scots had a lager tradition that began much earlier than in England, as well as a much stronger bottled beer market.
Scotland had been trading enthusiastically with the North countries for hundreds of years, and one of the prime goods was beer. I think that the use of “Monk’s Brand” as a trade name is a reference to continental brewing tradition, as such monastic references are rare in Britain. Machine-made bottles that could stand up to higher pressure, cheaper sugar from the Empire, and newly developed filtering equipment also contributed to the craze for paler, crisper beers—India pale ale and others—that began the century before in England.
In America, sparkling ale held a position between cream, or “present use” ale, and stock ale. Gravities were lower than imported versions, about 14 degrees B (1057), about the same as cream ale. The difference was an extended lagering at 39 degrees F. Three months is given as a typical aging time.
It is logical to think that German brew masters would have added their own touches to the ales they brewed. And for the sake of efficiency as well, production was in accordance with mainstream US lager brewing practice. As with most American beers, a percentage (25 to 30 percent) of corn grits or sugar was an integral part of the style. Hop rates were 1 to 1.5 pounds per barrel, or 2.5 to 3.8 ounces per 5 gallons, plenty hoppy at around 30 to 50 IBU, although three months’ lagering would knock the edges off.
For both beers, soft water is preferred, as hard water will result in harsh hop bitterness.
Here’s my best shot at recipes.
Randy Mosher is a free-lance art and creative director, lecturer, and author of books and articles on beer and brewing.