1554 Brussels Style Black Ale–1554
“There is no such thing as black beer in Belgium. No. Not now. Never.” So spoke Peter Boukaert, the brewer at New Belgium Brewing, a Fort Collins, CO-based microbrewery that, as the name implies, specializes in Belgian-style ales.
In 1997, Phil Benstein (the brewery’s “quality development whiz”) came across a reference to a Belgian zwartbier (black beer) in an 1888 British book titled, The Popular Beverages of Various Countries. Benstein mentioned the beer to Boukaert, a Belgian-born and trained brewer, who immediately discounted the probability of such a thing.
“I had never heard of a black Belgian beer,” said Boukaert, who asked to be shown the book. But before the two could make it to the library at Colorado State University, a flood had ruined the book in question. So much for that.
A year later, however, Boukaert and Benstein were allowed access to a large brewing library where they found a book (Boukaert can’t remember the exact date or title) that described the beverages of the 1800s. In the Belgian section of the book, they found a reference to Belgian black beers. Boukaert was astounded. “I thought this was kind of wacky,” he remembered.
Not long after this discovery, the CSU library repaired the damaged book Benstein had originally come across. In this book and in several others that they discovered, Boukaert and Benstein continued to find brief mentions of black beer from Belgium. Their curiosity was aroused.
When the two traveled to Belgium for a brewing conference, Boukaert asked every Belgian brewer he met about black beer. “To my satisfaction,” he said, “they acted the same as I had, saying this couldn’t be so.” Not giving up, the two kept inquiring about black Belgian beer. Eventually, they were given the names of several individuals to contact, one of whom invited the two to his private library of old books.
“In his books from the 1700s,” said Boukaert, “we found a mention of black beer and specifically a reference to a black beer from 1554 in a book titled, The History of the City of Brussels.” As luck–bad luck–would have it, that book was not in the collector’s possession. But Boukaert’s nephew is a historian, and he eventually located the book. Sure enough, Boukaert found a few beer recipes, including one for a black beer.
The units of measurement in the recipes were odd and difficult to figure out, but by cross-referencing to other texts, Boukaert soon came up with what he determined were the correct amounts of water, malts and hops. He and others at New Belgium decided that since the earliest reference they had found to a black Belgian beer was from 1554, this was a perfect name for the beer, now a year-round product in bottles and on draft.
Although 1554 is black, Boukaert claims that it’s nothing like a porter or stout. He uses a lager yeast at warm fermentation temperatures, 60 percent specialty malts in the grain mixture, just enough hops to bitter the beer but not flavor it, and secret spices. “Those I don’t tell,” emphasized Boukaert.
This young re-creation, relatively speaking compared to the others, is an academic exercise turned commercial. One of the great brewing schools in the world is the Brewlab Unit at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom. A microbiologist, Dr. Keith Thomas, heads Brewlab.
Thomas explained that in the late 1980s the once famous London beer called porter hadn’t been brewed commercially in the UK for many years. “In 1987,” he said, “we decided to brew a porter at Brewlab, having obtained a recipe from John Harrison and the Durden Park Beer Circle, a group of homebrewers in the London area who research and recreate old beer styles.” Thomas was pleased with his result, brewed at London’s Pitfield brewery, but wanted to make a more authentic porter. Then, serendipity showed her hand.
“The next year, one of our technicians, Matthew Richardson, an amateur diver, was diving in the Channel during a weekend off,” said Thomas. “Afterwards, in the local pub, he noticed an old bottle behind the bar and asked where it was from.” As it turns out, the bottle was from an 1825 wreck in the Channel. The pub owner had heard stories that there were plenty more bottles in the wreck, known locally as the Bottle Wreck, but had no idea what they were or from where they originally came.
Back at Brewlab on Monday, Richardson told Thomas about the bottle. “I thought it would be interesting to analyze this beer,” said Thomas, “but I knew that the bottle in the pub would have deteriorated. So we asked Matthew to go get some more from the sea, which he dutifully did for us.”
Thomas opened the first bottle of the newly recovered 1825 beer at a brewing symposium, with the plan of later analyzing the contents, and saw that there was a sediment on the bottom, most likely containing yeast cells. He opened the second bottle under laboratory conditions and, upon analysis, found living yeast, five bacteria and two moulds. The bottles and their yeast, from a delivery of beer bound for London from Littlehampton, had survived 163 years under the sea. Their solid wood corks and wax seals were impressive stoppers.
“There was a lot of yeast,” remembered Thomas, “that remained alive and incredibly stable because of the cold and dark conditions. The metabolism would have been very slow. Surely many yeast cells would have died, but also a few would have survived on the remains of the dead ones.”
Thomas and his Brewlab crew purified and cultured the yeast. “We teased out the various other organisms that were there, the bacteria and moulds, and ended up with a yeast we thought we could brew with,” said Thomas. “My suspicion is that there were a number of yeasts in the original beer and only the most resilient survived. The one we’ve cultured is not as stable as we’d like, so we use it for the secondary fermentation in the beer we call Flag Porter.”
Thomas believes that the original beer was probably a light-colored porter rather than a dark roasted one such as those brewed commercially today. “I would guess that it was made with the brown and amber malts popular at the time,” explained Thomas. “We brewed it according to an 1850 brown porter recipe that Whitbread was generous to give us from their archives.”
Thomas first brewed Flag Porter at the Pitfield Brewery in London, but when Pitfield moved to Birmingham, he contract brewed the beer at several London microbreweries until demand grew too big for the brewing capacity. The next brewery to take on Flag Porter was the Elgood Brewery in Wisbech, and today, the Forth Brewery in Scotland brews the ale.
“We have a student this year who is looking at brewing a stronger version of Flag Porter (currently 5 percent alcohol) with the same yeast,” Thomas said.
Bound by a Common Quest
Scots, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phrygians, Belgians, English. What’s the connection? The answer, of course, is beer. Carefully fermented grains, and in some cases honey and grapes, that for over 4,000 years men and women in different parts of the world have turned into tasty libations. Perhaps these original brewers and brewsters were inspired by a god, as with Ninkasi, or to honor a great king, like Midas. Maybe they were experimenting in their own times. After all, who ever heard of a black Belgian beer? Or maybe, just maybe, they were simply doing their jobs. Making beer.
Today’s brewers of the ancient and old beers– the historians, archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists, scientists, teachers, and the plain old curious– are a different breed from their predecessors. They have a history of beer to look back and reflect upon. They have the resources and technology to investigate and experiment. They spend long hours at excavation sites, in libraries, in labs and in brewhouses. And for what purpose? Again, to make beer. Beer from the past.
Gregg Glaser is the news editor of All About Beer Magazine.