British beer writer Martyn Cornell has carefully researched 28 short (7- to 8-page) articles about beer in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although most of the stories in Strange Tales of Ale ($20, Amberley Publishing) are about beer in England, they are well-written and accessible to a North American audience. Cornell certainly knows his history and brings us such stories as the Great London Beer Flood of 1814 when a huge vat containing 570 tons of porter failed, causing a veritable tsunami of ale that drowned eight people.
The story that might cause eyebrows to be raised about its credibility concerns the flying of beer in aircraft fuel tanks from England to France in 1944 during the aftermath of D-Day. Apparently the tanks were steam-cleaned, but some claimed the beer had a metallic taint. I think the soldiers were so battle-weary that anything that reminded them of home would have boosted morale even it if the quality was not the same as they were used to in pubs back in England.
One beery tradition that Cornell recalls and that I would like to see revived concerns the brewing of a special, very strong ale to commemorate the birth of a son to the lord of the manor. The special beer would be barrel-conditioned for 21 years and then opened at a big party to celebrate the young man’s coming of age. Perhaps a brewer with long-term plans might want to lay down such a brew. Anyone for 21-year-old barrel-aged barley wine? It could be a new category in the 2036 World Beer Cup.
One story that might surprise U.S. readers is about the degree of choice available in 19th-century bars in England. Apparently many bars would offer on tap: porter, mild, bitter, stout, old ale and alcoholic ginger beer. There may be over 1,200 craft breweries in the United Kingdom today, but many British pubs today only offer lagers, bitters and Guinness.
American readers will probably be familiar with the decline of Schlitz Brewery and Dutch Schultz, the prohibition-era gangster, but Cornell also breathes some new life into these stories.