tl;dr – There aren’t pilsners.


After Boak and Bailey’s intriguing premise for their round of The Session caught my attention, I didn’t think I’d necessarily be writing anything for the next spin of the wheel. However, Alistair Reece at Fuggled has asked people to write on the subject of Pilsners and, since I’m actually in Czech Republic, right now, immersing my progeny in their Slavic legacy, I felt it would be inopportune not to write a few hundred words on the matter.

Which is lucky, because a few hundred words is probably all I’ve got.

I’m not an expert on Pilsner, I don’t think, despite frequently coming to Czech republic and drinking almost nothing else. I’m still working on developing the palate, on being able to identify flavours when someone hasn’t prompted me to expect them, on moving beyond the binary ‘”yes, I like it” or “no, I don’t”.


Pilsner, pilsener or pils is widely considered the most popular beer style in the world, reproduced to greater or lesser worthiness in almost every beer drinking nation, producing pale imitations in abundance and influencing, even if only tangentially, the most-drunk beer in almost every country on Earth. The original call to arms acknowledges this, asking people to compare and contrast the myriad varieties produced over an extensive array of countries.

That is not how things are perceived here, though, in rural South Moravia. There is only one pilsner here, the orginal source, Plzeňský Prazdroj or, in its more familiar German, Pilsner Urquell. This isn’t merely a matter of locality or origin though, in the same way that a beer must be brewed in Cologne to be truly called Kölsch. Gambrinus is brewed in Pilsen and isn’t considered a pilsener. Primus is also brewed in Pilsen, and isn’t considered fit for human consumption. In its homeland, there is only one meaning to the term ‘pilsner’. The idea of an ‘American Pilsner’ is nonsense.

However, this strangely reductive approach to beer is peculiar to the Czech people, and hardly helpful to other people considering similar beers elsewhere in the world. Czechs usually call beers in this style ‘Světlý Ležák’ and, outside fancy metropolitan areas, it’s pretty much the only beer style in the world. Other countries might produce a range of styles, but Czechs have chosen one, and they’ll keep working on it till it’s perfect. They’re pretty close, too. It’s a bugger to spell, though, and even harder to pronounce. I can’t see the name catching on.

Still, I bet you know someone who smugly tells you it’s not Champagne unless it’s produced in Champagne… he’ll probably say Pilsner at some point, and you can tell him.

Mass Observation

Mass Observation

tl;dr – Observations of two very different pubs, on a weeknight 2000-2200, followed by a brief discussion.

Written as part of The Session hosted by Boak and Bailey

Pub One


The pub is on the corner of a small pedestrian arcade between two busy roads in Central London. It is next to a very wine-focused winebar and opposite an Italian restaurant. It’s a warm evening and a large crowd of around ten people occupy most of the five outside tables in an area cordoned off from the rest of the arcade. Most of the facade is comprised of large windows and there are three entrances. Inside is subdued lighting, high wooden tables with stools and large, darkly evocative Lowry-esque prints. The bar protrudes like a villus into the pub, almost separating it into two rooms. Around 30 people are inside, and all the tables are taken, although none are full. Most are in pairs, or threes, although there’s a large group of seven that gives the impression of a work leaving do. Most people seem to have come from work, and a lot of the conversation seems at least tangentially business related, although none are the ‘suits’ or typical after-work crowd you’d expect in pubs and bars in Canary Wharf, or closer to the City. There are a few pairs that may be dates. Except for me, there is no-0ne on their own. I am entirely ignored.

Of the 15 people on the other side of the bar, six are watching Spain versus Croatia on a small television high up on the wall. Most appear to be supporting Croatia; there are intermittent cheers for a Croatian goal and a saved Spanish penalty. Others on that side of the bar give their attention at key moments, but aren’t following the game. The television is switched off after the game. There is music, but it’s light, non-confrontational and low enough to be difficult to discern. There is a loud murmur of conversation, like a large school assembly before it’s called to order. The overall noise is low enough to hear glasses being stacked at the bar, but not enough to easily make out the conversation of people more than a metre away.

The bar has an extensive range of craft beers on cask and keg, six lines of each terminating in chrome taps protruding from the wooden wall of the bar. The names of the beers are chalked above the taps, along with the brewery and brief tasting notes. Along with Beavertown and Redemption, ‘out of London’ breweries, such as Marble, Redwell and Ilkley are more well-represented than one might expect. There are also two Czech lagers on keg, including the uncommon Pernštejn polotmavé, and a keg cider. They also offer a small range of cocktails. Three young men are working the bar, occasionally joined by a man around 30 in chef whites, ostensibly in charge of the kitchen, but mostly taking out rubbish. They’re kept reasonably busy, but not so much that they’re rushed.

Around three quarters of the pub population are drinking beer, mostly pale, although lager or ale is difficult to tell. The rest, the majority of which are female, are drinking short mixed drinks or white wine. A few are eating pizza or chips, the pub has a limited menu. Clothing is fairly uniform, on the ‘business casual’ part of the spectrum. There are no shorts or joggers here, nor suits. Some have buttoned shirts, but ties are rare. There is a reasonably rapid turn-around. No one seems settled in for a long session, most will have two or three drinks and leave. Towards the end of the observation, there were noticeably fewer people.


“Sick of the referendum” – “Pros and cons to Brexit…” – “Too risky”

“If you take their second squad, they’re still better than half the other teams”

“What have you got that’s light” (at the bar)

“What’s a whisky mac?” (at the bar)

“What are you drinking?” – “Beer” – “Which one?” – *shrugs*

*Much animation within a group* “That! Is! Awesome!”

“They do three stages, introduction, core negotiation & advanced negotiation”

“The guy who’s running the training, he’s a really nice guy. He’s Mormon.”

“The European brand manager is coming over from Geneva”

Pub Two

The pub is moderately small and situated next to an unused light industrial unit in one of the un-trendy areas of East London. The dilapidated exterior displays two England flags and a Union jack, as well as five meters of England bunting. The display is unrelated to the ongoing football tournament, the flags are weather-beaten and bedraggled. A broken down picnic table is squeezed apologetically between the wall and the pavement.

The interior is exposed brick in the 70s style, and dimly lit. A long bar takes up three quarters of one long side and is crowned by more England flag bunting. 3 touch-screen betting terminals, one used intermittently, and an unused dart board complete that side.  The other wall comprises a large projector-and-screen television and a completely unused fireplace. A pool table dominates much of the free space. There are three four-person tables and some bar stools. There is an impression of other furniture moved aside to create a bit more space. The far end opens on to a surprisingly large beer garden, an unexpected feature. A jukebox plays sing-along rock and indie at a high volume, conversation is possible with people near you.

The bar is comprised exclusively of keg lines and the usual spirits. Guinness, Fosters, John Smiths, Carlsberg and Strongbow. Most people are drinking light lager, probably Carlsberg, with two or three people drinking Guinness in a manner that suggests no deviation from their purpose.

There are around ten people in the pub, all male, although there is frequent coming and going, particularly amongst a group of young men, mostly in shorts and sports wear, who’s numbers vary between around four and seven. They’re drinking very little, playing pool, and will frequently leave, make phone calls, come back with others, speak briefly and leave again. It gives a strong common-room feel. Three older gentleman drink at the bar, with the quiet and understated determination of people settled in for a long night. Two young men are drinking together, wearing the functional but smart work clothes of people who do skilled manual work and one, wearing jeans and smart t-shirt, sits at the bar watching the football, he has a bet on Poland to beat Portugal. There is one barman, wearing shorts and t-shirt. The demand at the bar barely taxes him, and he spends a fair amount of time playing pool or chatting. Everyone seems to know each other on a first name basis, and will chat or call out comments to acquaintances, although the groups stay roughly consistent. I am very much the outsider, but there is no animosity or even detectable curiosity. Although one of the pool-players referenced my appearance (large beard!) with a comment when I entered, it did not seem harshly meant.


“Look at him watching me! Beady eyes, watching me cheat” (young man playing pool)

“Fucking hell… bloody poofs” (football player dives)

“Who do you fancy in this one?” (discussing football game)

“He done ‘im! Yes! Fuck ‘im up!” (football game)

“Ooooh! Count them…. 2! 4! 6! 7! Aaaaaah!” (on a comprehensive pool victory)

“What’s this ‘es put on!? More my era than his!” (on jukebox selection)

“I can’t! It’s not me, it’s him… I’ll get in trouble!” (Barman demurring a firmly but quietly made request)

“I’m in the block of maisonettes by the school. Been there since I was 3… can’t afford anywhere now” (young man to older gentlemen)

“Another one of those.” “Nah, yer fucked, I’m not serving ya!” (Barman ribbing a regular)



This was a deeply uncomfortable thing to do, both in the nature of the thing, and the specifics. Boak and Bailey themselves have succinctly pointed out both the worth of this sort of exercise and the horror of doing it. It’s not so much the watching people, or even, really, the taking notes, it’s the premeditation of the whole thing, the going equipped to the scene of the crime, the subconscious idea that you’ve got out your red pen to mark other people’s use of the pub. Eavesdropping was particularly difficult, both in terms of compunction and practicality, both pubs were pretty noisy. The quotes I’ve recorded seem, in retrospect, incredibly pat, almost cliched, a stereotype of the pub. I’ve made no attempt to account for Observer bias, or Availability error, but those are genuine utterances made in my hearing.

As to the worth, though, I think this is highly valuable. I talked before on this site of an attempt to recreate a medieaval ale and, despite the efforts of much better men than me there is scant evidence available, largely because it wasn’t considered important enough to be recorded. The everyday doings of everyday people is the very definition of mundane, but after a certain point, really not too far in the past, it becomes the most fascinating aspect of history.

Apart from the discomfort involved in the deliberate observation of other people this task involved a much deeper and more personal discomfort, one that may touch on the secondary part of the brief about ‘The Pub and The People’, and my place within both pubs and peoples. It may get slightly confessional. My apologies.

It wouldn’t take a very deep reading of my observations and previous posts to conclude that Pub One would very much be my milieu, should I ever get one and be confident what it was. It’s a pub I visit quite regularly, generally on my own, in the course of other activities in the area. I go, have a couple of halves of good beer, do some work, chat to the bar staff a little bit and leave. It brightens my week, frankly.

Pub Two is a pub I…. well, not avoid, as such. I’ve been there a few times but, since it’s a pub and less than 50m from my house, once or twice a year probably counts as avoidance. On the one hand, I feel guilty about this. It’s a ‘proper’ East End local, the kind I would be sad to see disappear and may have to. On the other hand, by every sense on my personal barometer of ‘rough’ pub, it simply screams at me; the England flags alone would be enough to make me walk on by. A hasty and unfair prejudice, perhaps, but one I’m not alone in. When I told people what I planned to do, they were aghast. I shouldn’t go alone, I shouldn’t openly take notes in a notebook… but I’d done both these things with Pub One, and it wouldn’t have been a fair comparison if I’d changed. Getting hassled would have been an interesting data point… an interesting, terrifying data point. In the end, I was simply begged not to mention Brexit.

Of course, in the end, it was fine. In both pubs I took notes while ostensibly doing some homework (I’m learning Czech). In Pub One, I suspect, this passed entirely unnoticed. In Pub Two this was probably noted, and the subject of comment after I left, but was never even the semblance of an issue. I was entirely left alone, except for a few pleasantries from the barman.

In the end, it comes down, as so many things do, to class and, in this instance, my own tortured relationship with it. Politically and philosophically, if not in every day practice, I consider myself working class, but the assumptions and attitudes I’ve displayed in this instance loudly proclaim the old trope of an effete liberal elite condescending to rough it in some sort of patronising urban safari.

Gentrification is undoubtedly a problem in this part of London, and I’m undoubtedly part of that problem, tiny though my individual role may be. The obvious solution, or at least minor redress, is to engage with the community you fear you’re displacing, to shop local and use local services. Generally, in this area, this isn’t difficult or onerous, more a pleasure than a duty, but Pub Two is far from the sort I would seek out. The beer selection alone is like some 90s nightmare, the kind you invoke to scare young beer geeks round the campfire, where Guinness is far and away the best choice. Deliberately and dutifully attending on a regular basis, like a secret atheist at Mass, seems faintly hypocritical and not a little patronising, a bizarre mix of atonement and arrogance, as if my patronage is the only thing keeping this tiny oasis of ‘realness’ from being swept away.

Thankfully, Pub Two doesn’t seem to need my conflicted and poorly thought-out support. For a weekday evening, trade seemed fairly brisk and it regularly seems to host parties and events where it fair heaves at the seams. This Pub undoubtedly has its People, and I’m not one of them. I imagine I could be… to be honest I’d quite like to be, it’s got a very pleasant communal atmosphere. Maybe if I were tied to it in some way, as an after-work pub, or the meeting place of a club, or darts team (if I were any good at darts), but simple geographical proximity isn’t enough.

Maybe I’ll content myself with merely observing.

Bread Beer

Bread Beer

tl;dr – You can make a beer using 90% waste bread. Maybe more.


Two key changes to the normal brewing process were used to overcome the difficulty in creating fermentable wort with high proportions of bread: Enzymatically active wort and a long beta-glucan/gelatinisation rest. This resulted in a higher than expected original gravity and a lower than expected final gravity, improving the efficiency of the process.



According to the charity Feedback, almost half of all bread produced in Britain is wasted. In order to promote an alternative use for unwanted bread they are developing a concept called Toast Ale, based on a similar project in Brussels, that encourages the use of bread as an adjunct in brewing. A representative from the charity came to a meeting of London Amateur Brewers to discuss issues relating to the development of just such a beer, and to ask for advice and opinions.

The most obvious problem with this plan is that bread (although mostly made from wheat, which is often used in brewing) has no diastatic power, which means there are no enzymes available to turn the starch into fermentable sugars. This isn’t an uncommon problem, of course; many adjuncts used in brewing have low or no diastatic power and generally you just mash them with something that has diastatic power to spare. Generally speaking, most people wouldn’t use much more than 20% of their grain bill as these kinds of adjuncts.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t really address the issue the charity are trying to press. Bread as an adjunct doesn’t have many apparent benefits; it doesn’t give colour and roasted flavour like dark malt, it doesn’t improve mouthfeel like oats, it doesn’t even provide an easy source of fermentable sugar like rice. It’s eminently possible that benefits exist, if used in the right way, but as it stands I get the impression that the cost-benefit wouldn’t favour the use of bread, even if breweries were given it for free.

The other option is to try and push the limits. Make a Bread Beer, rather than a Beer with bread. With that in mind, I attempted to find out how much bread it was possible to use in a brew.



Normal malted barley has enough enzymes to convert itself and between two and three times as much adjunct, which gives us a theoretical ceiling of 75% bread. However, a very interesting article on Braukaiser talked about using enzymatically active wort to increase attenuation.

The enzymes that convert starches to sugars during the mash work best at temperatures around 60-65°C, but are then destroyed when the sugary wort is boiled. The principle of enzymatically active wort involves saving some of these enzymes during the mash and adding them to the fermenter after the rest of the wort has been boiled and cooled. Fermentation temperatures of around 18°C aren’t ideal for these enzymes, so they work slowly, but they have up to two weeks to slowly convert starches to sugars while fermentation is taking place.


In this case, the mash consisted of:

  • 95% bread, mixture of brown, white and wholemeal, dried and loosely broken into small lumps, between 1cm and 5cm.
  • 5% Marris Otter, in the main mash to provide some diastatic power (theoretically enough to convert around 20% of the bread)

The mash schedule for the main mash involved a 20 minute beta-glucan rest at 45°C and a 60 minute gelatinisation rest at 55°C. Earlier experiments indicated that extended rests in this temperature range resulted in a much higher specific gravity being achieved. It’s unlikely, of course, that this increase in specific gravity is the result of dissolved sugars, but rather suspended starches and other similar molecules due to the breakdown of starch granules and the breaking of intermolecular bonds.

  • 5% Marris Otter, mashed separately from the rest of ingredients at 62°C for 60 minutes.

The liquid was decanted off, pasteurised for 2 hours at 70°C, and added to the fermenter.

The main mash was lautered and boiled for 60 minutes with a small amount of Hallertau hops. After cooling, a small amount was set aside as a control, and the enzymatically active wort was added to the rest. California Ale yeast was pitched as it’s generally a good attenuator (and it was what I had to hand). Fermentation was for two weeks at room temperature, followed by force carbonation.



It’s important to note that this was principally a test to see if it’s possible to make a beer from 90% bread, not whether that’s at all desirable or even advisable. In that respect, it can largely be considered a success.

Due to a miscalculation, the original gravity was much lower than intended, at 1.027 from 1.25kg of bread, which gave a respectable PPG (points per pound per gallon) of 32. This is an improvement over previous test mashes, without extended low temperature rests, that resulted in around 22PPG. Of course, it’s unclear whether this is as a result of the temperature or a much longer overall mash.

Nonetheless, the fermentation with enzymatically active wort finished with a final gravity of 1.003 (89% attenuation), compared to the control fermentation at 1.015 (44% attenuation). As such, I think it can be said that long gelatinisation rests and the use of enzymatically active wort in the fermenter are effective methods for overcoming the difficulties in brewing with bread. In fact, it could be said that the proportion of bread could be increased.

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that change in specific gravity is only a proxy measurement of alcohol production and, while almost always true in most cases, it’s possible here that the change in specific gravity is due to other factors such as, for instance, settling out of suspended unconverted starch molecules.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that it wasn’t a particularly nice taste, although, in my defence, that’s not what I was really aiming for. Clarity was poor, which could have been due to a range of issues, perhaps residual starch molecules. There was also a strong salt taste, that was common to all the beers produced with bread, which will have to be addressed before a truly good beer can be made this way.

Brewing and Parenting

Brewing and Parenting

tl;dr: Making children and making beer are more similar than you might think. But necessarily in a cheerful way.

It’s inevitable, I suppose that eventually someone would ask, pointedly, how, exactly, brewing and parenting are in any way interconnected. The short answer is, of course, that they’re not, and I simply chose the subtitle as a mildly amusing way of describing what it is I do with the majority of my time.

The long answer, though, is that there are similarities, many of them tenuous at best but possibly some verging on pertinence. One thing, in particular, relates to an issue that I can never quite let go of, that hovers round the edge of my thinking and, occasionally, helps me stare wide-eyed at the ceiling at silly o’clock at night.

This particular thought was precipitated in part by reading the excellent Brulosophy website as the authors continue their relentless, and increasingly surprising, dismantling of long and dearly held homebrewing dogma. Time after time, careful observation by the team of investigators has shown no observable benefit to processes, techniques and procedures that have been resolutely and rigorously proclaimed as absolutely vital to the production of drinkable beer. It’s almost got to the stage where one starts to think that nothing you do can possibly make a difference to the final product. And yet, undrinkable beer does happen.

This is what terrifies me about raising children: they are, at one and the same time, indomitably robust and heartbreakingly fragile. Most everyone wants to do a good job raising their kids, wants the child they raise to grow into a bold, effective, happy, confident, balanced, fearless and worthwhile adult, but there is no thing I can do that will make this happen. All the museum trips and healthy snacks in all the universe can’t make that happen. Which would be fine, on it’s own; infant humans grow into adult humans, and are never mine to mould.

The horrible corollary to this though, is that the tiniest action on my part could have terrible, devastating and far-reaching, albeit unintended, consequences. A raised voice, perhaps, or a flippant remark at a sensitive time. An overly brusque “I’m busy right now”. An absence when needed or a presence when unwanted. Are these the kind of everyday failures that may ferment badly in a mind and poison courage and self-esteem?

Brewing with Kids

Brewing with Kids

tl;dr: Brewing with children is not only possible, but enjoyable.

Parenting isn’t the hardest job in the world. I’m not sure who started saying that, but I always detected a whiff of condescension in the assertion. It’s as hard as many jobs, though, and a lot harder than some, and the manner in which it is hard is probably unique. While it undoubtedly taxes your patience, focus, energy and dedication it’s not what most people would call intellectually demanding. In fact, it’s probably the opposite of that… intellectually stultifying? There’s only so much CBeebies you can watch without feeling you’re staring into black vacuum that’s insidiously siphoning away your individuality, your cognitive ability and your will to live, leaving you a soulless autonomic husk barely functioning on basic biological processes to acquire food and change nappies. That’s how it gets me, anyway.

Suffice to say, though, that I feel a hobby of some sort is essential if you’re going to parent and maintain any semblance of sanity. Something you can think about during those long brainless hours of bouncing a howling baby, or shoving mush in someone’s face, or arguing with someone about whether they’ve done a poo or not. Mine is brewing, for a number of reasons.

Principally, of course, you get beer out at the end, which helps with that wired-but-fatigued end of day feeling. Wine is traditional for parents, of course, but I like beer. Plus it’s imminently possible to homebrew beer that is just as good (if not better) than the stuff you get in the shops. As far as I know, the same is not normally true of homebrewing wine.

Secondarily, there’s a lot to think about, particularly if you build, diy or bodge your equipment together from scratch. Quite apart from planning and evaluating recipes, I’ve had to teach myself aspects of plumbing, electronics, chemistry and biology. You absolutely don’t have to go that deep into it, but the beautiful thing is that you can if you want.

There are loads of brilliant articles floating around the web that provide an extensive introduction to homebrewing so I don’t feel any particular need to gild that lily. However, it occurs that I might have a useful insight into brewing with children.

Baby and bucket
Never too early to start

It also occurs that many people might baulk at the mere concept. Brewing, after all, involves large volumes of boiling sugar water and many homebrewers go to great lengths to organise times when the children aren’t around. The risks, though, are easily manageable, and it can even be a fun event for the kids too.

Firstly, a brief overview of the brewing process, as I do it.

  • Malted grain, usually barley, is soaked in hot water (around 65°C) in a large bag for about an hour to release the sugars. This is called a mash.
  • The bag of grain is lifted out and the sugary water is boiled for around an hour, hops and other ingredients are added at set times.
  • The liquid is cooled and transferred to a container and yeast is added.

The key, I feel, is to split the process into three parts:

  • Aspects that are safety critical. Things that are hot, heavy or sharp and need to be kept separate from the sprogs. Principal among these is the boiler. It gets very hot for a long time, and should be kept in a room or space the kids can’t access. I keep mine on the balcony, with the door closed.
  • Aspects that are quality critical. There are instances when you have to do certain things at certain times. Nothing terrible is going to happen if you don’t, but the beer is going to come out a slightly different from what you expect if you’re reading the Gruffalo instead of adding your 20 minute hop addition.
  • Aspects that are neither. There are some that would say that every aspect of brewing is quality critical, otherwise why are you doing it, but you’re going to have to be a bit more flexible than that if you want to include the kids and there are definitely some areas that can easily suffer the administration of your offsprings’ assistance. Measuring out the grain is massive fun, provided you don’t mind a few hundred grams going missing from your total. Washing the equipment afterwards is a sopping wet half hour of joy too. Smelling the hops and tasting the grain is all experiential goodness. Depending on the ages involved there’s counting, reading, measuring, matching, finding, following instructions, motor skills and dexterity… with a bit of imagination, it’s practically a lesson in itself.

It’s not really so different from cooking with kids, and the opportunities and risks are similar. The major difference is that, even if you stretch it out, making a cake isn’t going to take you more than an hour, whereas a brew day can last as much as 6 hours. Not all of that is actually doing anything though, there’s an hour for the mash, an hour for the boil, and most of the activity comes in short bursts. With a bit of luck you can balance kids and brewing in one of those awesome Zen days where everything flows seamlessly and you feel like you’ve got loads done and you’ll remember how, once upon a time, you thought that staying at home with the kids would give you loads of time achieve your dreams.

Here’s what I usually attempt… your brewery and children may vary.

Measuring out the grain with Alpha. Fun but messy.
  1. Get up, read a few books, ease into the day, then measuring out the grain together, pouring it from jugs into a big bucket. Filling the boiler with water is also fun, it’s all cool at this stage. Once the boiler is switched on to warm the water, just shut the door.
  2. When the water is the right temperature, the bag needs to go into the boiler and the grain poured into the bag. This isn’t a kid friendly operation, and timing can be important if you want to get the temperature exactly right, so I try to make sure she’s having breakfast in the high chair at this point. The judicious application of Mr Tumble also helps things go smoothly.
  3. Once the grain is in, and stirred, it’s good to insulate the boiler with old blankets and sleeping bags so it doesn’t lose too much heat. After that, it’s a case of leaving it for an hour, or even more. Timing isn’t desperately crucial at this point, so you have a fair degree of flexibility.
  4. Next is the boil, and the end of the boil in particular is the most involved part. Adding hops, switching things off, cooling the liquid, transferring to fermenters, adding yeast; you don’t really want kids around too much here. If you can time their nap for this hour or so you win the smug satisfaction of knowing you seriously grok parenting.
  5. After that is the cleanup; plenty of soap and warm water and splashing!


Cleaning equipment
Sanitation is very important

Much easier written than done, of course, but when it all goes well it’s easy enough. When things go right it’s a joy and when things don’t go right it will be an excruciating torment of frustration, exhaustion, guilt and repressed annoyance. But isn’t that true of almost everything?

Raw Ale

Raw Ale

tl;dr: Brewing a Medieval ale, with no boiling and no hops.

Beer has been with us throughout history. Depending on your definitions, it predates written history and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find it predates modern humans.

This brew is partly an attempt at a historical reenactment and partly a reductionist poke at the mechanics of brewing i.e. what’s really essential in brewing, what can you do without and what would have been possible for someone a thousand years ago. Although similar in many ways, and obviously the same species of beast as beers we’re brewing now, there are some marked difference between this recipe and modern brewing which I shall outline below, along with such rationales as I can cobble together

Brewing Raw Ale

No boil –

Boiling is considered by many to be vital to the brewing process, to the extent that many brewers would hesitate to try a raw ale. The advantages are extensive: boiling sterilises the wort (beer before it’s beer) and all the equipment it’s in contact with, drives off some unwanted flavours, and alters some of the proteins meaning the resultant beer is more likely to be clear.

The rationale for this is slightly more tenuous than some of the later strictures as I can’t find any evidence that said Medieval ale would never have been boiled. However, vessels big enough to boil a significant amount of wort would have been staggeringly expensive, and the fuel would have to be bought at great expense or painstakingly collected. Given that ale was a staple, everyday drink for almost everyone, it seems unlikely that, say, a tenanted farmer could ever make enough if he had to boil his ale.

This is also borne out, I feel, by the strong farmhouse tradition in Scandinavian, Slavic and Baltic countries (among others) of brewing raw, unboiled ale which persists, generally in more isolated communities, to this day.


No hops –

The overwhelming majority of beer drunk today is flavoured, bittered and preserved with hops. This has changed in recent years as trendy breweries and historical restorationists brew beers bittered by adding something other than hops, such as heather, juniper or a wide range of herbs and spices known as gruit. These would all have been accessible for our putative middle ages brewer but availability may have been inconsistent and use may have been more of a localised tradition.

As Martyn Connell points out, evidence has linked hops to brewing in the 9th Century, but such beers wouldn’t have been known in Britain for another 500 years and British brewers were unlikely to have access to hops until the 16th century.

In one respect, this isn’t a particularly dramatic omission since unhopped ales are not only available but very nice. However, I don’t know of any ales that aren’t bittered at all but, if we concede the previous point, this one is vital as well. Hops require high temperatures to convert their oils into components that we can taste, so it’s unlikely unboiled ale would have used hops in any case.


No measurements –

Although the principles behind thermometers and hydrometers (used to measure the density and therefore, in this case, sugar content of a liquid) are ancient knowledge, workable devices would certainly have not been available. An interesting corollary of this is that it makes a mash impossible, so long as you define it as mixing your grains and water and holding it at a specific temperature. Normally, a brewer will go to considerable lengths to make sure her grain/water mixture stays within one or two degrees of a very specific temperature for an hour or more. This clearly isn’t possible for our Medieval ale-wife, there’s only one temperature she can be assured of achieving: boiling. It’s conceivable they could have achieved something similar, through trial and error, by mixing known volumes of cool and boiling water. It’s also possible, with experience and an impressive degree of pain tolerance, to estimate temperature along the lines of “as hot as you can bear to touch and then a bit hotter”, but both of these require me to presuppose a great deal of experience and ingenuity on the part of our long-dead brewer, and why would they bother if what they’re doing works? Assuming it does work, of course.

* I’ve taken temperature and specific gravity measurements for reference purposes, but not to make decisions.


No cooling –

Once a brewing Padawan masters the basics, she is invariably told on some forum or other to chill the hot wort as quickly as possible, and to control the fermentation temperature as accurately as possible. Neither of these would have been particularly feasible in the middle ages, although, once the use of hops meant beer could be stored longer, conscientious brewers would have noticed that brews made at certain cooler times, or stored in deep caves, tasted much better.

It does present something of a quandary for this brew, though. It’s unlikely that medieval ale would have been fermented outside in the English winter (as it is here at time of writing) and, even in wealthy, well appointed manors the temperature is unlikely to be as warm, and definitely not as stable, as it is in a modern centrally heated home. Since requests to turn off the heating ‘for science’ were rebuffed we had to make do with a temperature of 19°C±3, which is warmer and less variable than I think would have been likely.


No yeast –

Another compromise. Yeast are beer, without yeast you just have a warm, sweet, rapidly rotting liquid, and yet, till Louis Pasteur, we had no idea they even existed. The process of fermentation, and the related process of bread leavening, were literally considered miraculous. One name for the yeasty froth on fermenting ale was Godisgoode and was presumably considered the best, and maybe the only tangible, evidence of His munificent beneficence in a pretty harsh world.

Although only two species of yeast are commonly used, the modern brewer has a staggering array of subtypes and strains available, some jealously guarded.

This stretches into conjecture, but I think it’s most likely that brewers of the period would have mixed the dregs and sediment of the previous batch with the fresh wort of the new one. This would have resulted in a yeast culture adapting and evolving over time and processes may have taken on a degree of superstition around ‘lucky’ barrels or vats that always produced good ale. Starting from fresh, the most logical choice is spontaneous fermentation. Yeast are fairly ubiquitous, so you can leave your cool wort open to the air and hope it will be settled by yeast, but not anything else too terrible. So far, unfortunately, I have hoped in vain. The other option is something of a cop-out and relies on the notion that brewing and baking were closely intertwined and, until recently, there was no distinction between yeasts for either. It’s safe and ahistorical, but I’m also using dried baker’s yeast.


No carbonation –

Modern beers are almost characterised by their carbonation; the fizz, the foamy head, the satisfying tang or harsh carbonic bite. This is produced by giving fermented beer a second go; by adding extra yeast, more sugar or both. This time the beer is kept in sealed containers, so all the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast stays dissolved in the beer. It would have been very difficult for a small household brewer to get enough small bottles or a big enough sealed vessel for the whole batch. Some carbon dioxide would have stayed in the beer from fermentation so there would have been a slight fizz, probably about a quarter to a half what you’d expect from a modern beer.



The recipe for this brew is very closely based on the extensive, well-sourced and excellent article by Paul Placeway. The short version is this: I poured some boiling water on some grains. That’s pretty much it. The long version isn’t even much longer. I did this one BIAB, because that’s my normal process, but it’s equally simple to separate the grain from the liquid by straining or filtering.


  1. Put 1.75kg pale malt, 500g flaked oats and 250g pale malt roasted at 100°C for one hour in a suitable mesh bag in a bucket or tub capable of holding at least 10l
  2. Boil 7.5l of water and very slowly pour over the grain. The easiest way is to use a ladle, which gives you a satisfying, almost meditative, repetition.
  3. Cover and leave for a couple of hours
  4. Separate the grains by pulling out the bag or draining the liquid into a new bucket.
  5. Repeat with 4l of boiling water. This is optional, really, but does give you a bit more value for money. This wort will come out weaker, you can mix it in with the first lot or keep it separate.
  6. Inoculate the wort with yeast. There’s a number of options here:
    • Pour in a packet of dried baker’s yeast
    • Use your favourite dried or liquid homebrewing yeast
    • Leave the bucket open to be inoculated with airborne yeast (which will convert the majority of the sugar to alcohol) and bacteria (which will add funky, fruity or sour tastes although the wrong ones may leave the ale undrinkable). I left it open on the balcony for six hours, but half that would probably work as well. It’s important to close it after this time, otherwise it’s just rotting really.
    • Use a mixture of commercially available yeasts and bacteria to achieve a likely flavour. Go easy with this, though… While it would have been incredibly difficult for medieval brewers to eradicate souring bacteria, the consensus seems to be that the ale wouldn’t have been very sour in the way Lambic or Berliner Weisse might be.
  7. Drink it. While it’s hard to give firm advice on this, three to four days should be fine, provided the fermentation took off with a bit of vigour. If you wild fermented it, you might really have to use your best judgement. With no hops and no boiling, it’s unlikely to stay at it’s best for more than a week or so, but the drop off isn’t nearly as dramatic as you’d think.
Raw ale fermenting
Fermenting with bakers yeast (left) and from spontaneous fermentation (right)

Discussion –


The most interesting thing about this brew is that it worked at all. The flavour is, perhaps, something of an acquired taste, a rather thick-tasting bready base, with a slightly sulphurous and even meaty edge.  Frankly, it tastes quite a bit better than it smells, as the aroma is harshly sour and off-putting. I can’t think of any attractive ways to describe it, but I rather like it. Certainly not easy-drinking, but it rewards perseverance. One for the extremozythophiles, perhaps.

Most striking, for me, was the ‘mash’ process which, to my mind, should not have worked at all. The reason mash temperatures are, usually, so carefully controlled is that the enzymes that convert starch in the grain to yeast-digestible sugars are very temperature sensitive. A difference of only four or five degrees is considered to lead to a very different character in the final beer, and temperatures over eighty degrees will permanently denature the enzymes. Therefore, pouring boiling water on should destroy all the enzymes in the mash and render anything that happens afterwards moot. Limited experimentation seems to indicate that it’s the rate of adding boiling water that’s critical, allowing heat to dissipate. Some measurements taken indicated that even in spots where the water was being poured, temperatures in the majority of the grain were less than eighty degrees and, as the water was added, a range of temperatures were measured across the surface of the grain. This possibly allows a variety of enzyme activity levels.

Overall, this incredibly loose temperature control should result in a very poor efficiency, with very little of the available starches converted to usable sugars. In fact, the process achieved a respectable 67% efficiency, which, shamefully, is actually better than a lot of my ‘proper’ brew-days.

Also interesting was the combination of lack of boil and lack of bittering agent. Farmhouse ales such as Finnish Sahti are unboiled, gruit ales are bittered without hops and traditional Berlinner Weisse is minimally boiled and minimally hopped, but highly soured. This particular combination seems rare. Although certainly not to everyone’s taste, the fact that this brew was palatable, even pleasant, seems to defy the consensus of expectation on the matter. Internet searches for speculation on the matter indicate many people believe such a brew would be undrinkable, disgustingly sweet or at least certainly infected.


One final point I feel is relevant is how staggeringly easy the process is. While a typical brew day may run for more than five hours, with extensive setting up and cleaning, brewing a Raw Ale isn’t much harder than making a cup of tea. Were one to develop a taste for it, it’s easy to imagine brewing up a couple of litres for the weekend on a Monday evening after work.

East London Brewery Crawl.

East London Brewery Crawl.

tl;dr: There’s some awesome breweries and bars in East London, and you can walk round most of them in a day.

There’s something rather ineffable about a pub crawl that makes it more than merely a drinking experience. After all, most people would say that their primary concerns on such a venture would be good pubs and good beer, but if that were the full extent of the matter then it would make more sense to simply pick the best pub and stick there. Perhaps it’s the idea of challenge and adventure, the tiny feeling you get after the third pint that you’re Scott or Hillary boldly turning your back on the pedestrian safety of the pub you’re in and pushing on into the dark and unknown in the forlorn hope of finding another oasis of light and warmth.

Obviously, people’s taste for this expeditionary aspect of the pub crawl varies, and some would no doubt prefer the end of the spectrum which consists of eight hypothetical pubs in a terraced row with a takeaway at the end. This crawl is somewhat towards the other end of that spectrum; involving, as it does, a full day out, around 7.5km of walking and 10 stops (7 breweries, 1 tap, 1 bar and a pub). No unrewarding slog, this, though as the walk passes along canals and backstreets and through the burgeoning new Olympic Park, as well as the beautiful Victoria Park.


Stop 1 – Tap East

Somewhat incongruously, nestled in a corner of the hard flourescent warren that is Westfield shopping centre, is Tap East. As well as a good range of excellent keg and cask beers and an extensive bottle collection, they sell a rotating choice of beers brewed on site. In fact, the shiny copper tanks and boilers are easily observable through the big plate windows in the corner.

Although this crawl could be done in either direction, it’s best to start at Tap East as it opens at 1100 and an early start is vital if you want to avoid a dispiriting route march towards the end. There are extensive food choices with which to line the stomach while you wait for them to pull the shutters, an unexpected advantage of the location.

Moving on from here is a 15min walk out of Westfield and through the Olympic park. If you’re confident of staying the course and need something to keep you busy you can buy some cans from Tap East, which almost seem to have been provided for this express purpose. Exact routes vary depending on where and how they’re building, but it’s best to head towards the stadium, circle right around its north side, and down to the River Lea. Cross at the little cafe/bike repair shop: if you get to the Greenway, you’ve gone too far.


Stop 2 – The Plough, at Swan Wharf

A pleasant café-pub hybrid located in the increasingly trendy Fish Island area south of Hackney Wick. This is now the de facto brewery tap for the revitalised Truman Brewery, generally serving four or five keg and cask Truman beers and a limited range of other offerings, although crawlers pacing themselves may welcome the coffee, juice and smoothy selection. Most striking, perhaps, is the post-industrial pub ‘garden’ where a concrete yard has been filled with reclaimed furniture, wooden huts, and a raised seating terrace allowing leisurely views along Lea.

From here, it’s a short walk along fish-themed back roads, past the new Truman Brewery itself and across the Hertford Union Canal where it joins the Lea Navigation.


Stop 3 – Howling Hops

This large warehouse-style space in the small Queens Yard industrial estate is dominated by the ten gleaming tanks that comprise the unique dispense method of this brewery. Brewed on site, and served straight from the tank into rather dinky two-thirds mugs, the slowly changing range includes the excellent Riding Ale and Howling Pils. Long canteen benches, exposed concrete and steel continue the aesthetic

Next is the shortest walk of the day, less than 50m across the yard.


Stop 4 – Crate Brewery and Pizzeria

Something of a venerable old-stager in the area, having existed on the site for an unfathomable four years or so, it is perhaps the quintessential trendy, upcycled, shabby, carefully effortless Hackney location. The beers are very good, both their own and a nice selection of guests, and the pizzas are excellent and include such esoteric wonders as lemon chicken tagine. It’s well worth stopping here for lunch to fortify and prepare for the longest walk of the day, 20 mins along Hertford Union canal and through Victoria park. Although, it’s possible to shave five minutes off this by crossing the A12 at the footbridge (and some have even been known to call an Uber at this point), the short stretch along the canal is a pleasant mix of bustling quietness and tawdry vitality, with the surprisingly artistic graffiti interestingly soiling the surprisingly natural canalside. From the canal, it’s easy to see when you reach Victoria Park and from there you cross the well laid-out grounds towards the north side of the park.


Stop 5 – People’s Park Tavern

It’s easy to miss the entrance to the People’s Park Tavern (so called for one of the early names for the park; unbelievable as it may sound now, back in the mid nineteenth century the government sold some public property and used the proceeds to build something of benefit to the whole community) and it’s easy to overshoot it and end up too far to the south west. A small gate leads into the most surprising feature of this pub, the massive beer garden, which blends rather easily with the park outside. A surprising and useful feature, since this pub is rarely anything other than completely rammed. Although number of beers are brewed on site, none have particularly stood out and, with the uncomfortable business, this isn’t the most fondly remembered stop on the tour.
The next walk, though, is simple enough: Down the wide avenue along the northern edge of the park.


Stop 6 – The Royal Inn on the Park

Although a pleasant enough pub in it’s own right, it’s not a brewery and nor does it have a massive range of beers on. As such, it’s largely here to break up what would be a longish walk. Of course, after five pints I’ve often found a thirty minute walk to be exactly what I need and, as such, this stop can be skipped. Another option is the very nice Pavilion café near the Crown gates, which sits on the edge of the boating lake and serves bottles of crate pale ale.

Either way, the nicest, although not the most direct, way from here is to head through the western half of the park to St. Agnes’ Gate in the North West corner. From there, keep heading north west through small roads towards London Fields.


Stop 7 – London Fields brewery

Somewhat enigmatic, with occasional rumours of closure attending it, London Fields brewery seems to be existing as vigorously as ever, although it’s unclear how much, if any, of their beer is brewed on site. Nominally excellent, although hit and miss on occasion, the tap room has around a dozen beers on cask and keg.

London Fields brewery marks the start of the ‘Railway Arches’ phase that seems inevitable in any protracted London beer journey. This also aids navigation as the journey continues down Cambridge Heath Road. Finding the particular railway arch you’re looking for is the trickiest part here, but once you cross Regents Canal and reach Cambridge Heath Station heading south you can follow the small road on the right of the railway tracks that runs parallel to the main road.


Stop 8 – Redchurch Brewery

It’s surprisingly easy to walk past Redchurch brewery, especially this deep in the expedition, but there’s usually a small crowd outside to mark the spot. Inside is cramped and cozy, and blends the starkly industrial and homely intimate in a way that should be jarring but isn’t; it’s rather like building yourself a little nest in engine parts. An excellent array of beers, many of which are from the more unusual end of the gamut, is the focus here and, in many ways, it’s a shame to leave them till late on when your perception (and memory!) of them may be dulled slightly.

From here, simply carry on as you were, following the railway line as closely as you can.


Stop 9 – Mother Kelly’s

Mother Kelly’s scarcely needs an introduction. Suffice to say it has an vast, variable and well-curated range of beers and bottles, in an ambience rather like a slightly more polished version of Crate. From here, a number of options present themselves to the heroic adventurer. Mother Kelly’s itself is an excellent venue in which to pass whatever time remains and the sheer range will ensure no one with a passing interest in beer will end up bored. Other options include a walk west along Bethnal Green road to pubs such as the Kings Arms and Brewdog Shoreditch or, to keep with the brewery theme, carry on south to the White Hart on Whitechapel Road, brewpub for the small but excellent One Mile End.