Thursday, 5 April 2018

Drink History: Size Matters ... Gauging a Gallon

'The more I see, the less I know...'

These words by the Red Hot Chili Peppers - at the risk of using an incongruous reference in a post about drink history - have sprung to mind on more than one occasion as I plough through the wealth of historical information on brewing online, and occasionally wander Alice-like down all of those other drink related rabbit holes freely available to all.

But this can be disheartening at times, as I realise that I have so much to learn ... and this thought means that I am often left deflated as I read something that's new to me which I feel was well known to others and is indicative of the wealth of my ignorance on a subject matter in which I have a lot of interest.

This also means that in many of my posts I tend to just regurgitate snippets of found information rather than trying to solve problems or add my own thoughts and opinions. (Although in part this is also driven by the fear of sticking my fat, bearded head above the parapet in case it is cracked open by a truth-laden salvo delivered from those knowledgeable drink historians that stalk the interweb seeking falsehoods and long-repeated myths to - rightly - take aim at with an arching lob from their Trebuchet of Truth™...)

Don't get me wrong I enjoy all the historical commentary and get immense satisfaction from all my research, and I've even questioned a few dodgy comments on other peoples websites, blog posts and tweets, but there always this nagging voice in the back of my sieve-like brain asking ... 'Are you REALLY sure about that ... ?'

So with all that in mind you won't find it odd that I never knew a gallon could mean so many different sizes to different people in the past. Sure, I knew that US gallons were different to 'our' gallons ... but not that Irish gallons, British gallons and even wine gallons were all different - and let's not forget mash tun gallons. I should have suspected this to be the case, as I was aware of British miles and Irish miles being different measurements in the past, but it was only when I came across a book on gauging - the measuring of dutiable goods - from 1823 that I had it all laid out in front of me in black and sepia (Okay, so I added the sepia...), complete with measurements in cubic inches...

So I'm putting this up here to enlighten others that didn't know - and who may care - and to allow those who did know to roll their eyes and shout out, 'Well, duh Liam!' at the top of their voices.

And it raises questions...

Firstly, is it true? Next did it cause headaches for exports and imports of beer between Ireland and Britain? Were all casks physically the same size, so that it was just the declared volume was different? When did this end? As presumably at some point English and Irish gallons became the same.

I don't profess to know the answers but leave it with me, as some answers may be in the above book which I have yet to completely absorb. It looks like I have a lot more reading to do in order to avoid a missile from those in the know...

(On that note, while reading through the book and coming across shapes such as prolate spheroids and parabolic spindles - coupled with the extremely difficult looking maths required - it makes me think gaugers would have made excellent rocket scientists...)


Thursday, 8 March 2018

Beer History: Exhibitions All Round...

On the day that the Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair (There's a post from last year's event here.) starts in The Convention Centre in Dublin it seemed appropriate to do this post about another exhibition from 1892, this was held in another iconic - and circle-focussed - building, the Round Room of the Rotunda.

As you can see it had a cosmopolitan air with a focus on Spain, and Californian brandy and wine as you can see here...

Macardle, Moore and Co. from Dundalk were also there, showcasing their stout and a cask cleaner to remove the flaw of casky beer! This is my first time seeing this as a negative term...

Lager was also on show from 'Frankfort' Brewery, along with some beer pumps...

(This piece just led into a different section on glass, you're not missing anything on lager or pumps!)

Last but not least was a display from Corcoran's from my home town of Carlow, once a big employer at a site near the castle...

So there we go, drink fairs of a sort have been around for a few years in Dublin, and imported beverages are not a new thing. Remember that when you're opening your next bottle of California Merlot or German lager!


(Thanks as usual to my local library...)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Recipe: Mangel Wurzel Ale, Whisky ... and Paper!

I've been quite busy and distracted over the last few weeks so blog posts have been scarce to say the least, but with a bit of luck I'll be back to more regular writing soon.

In the meantime here's a quick recipe from the Belfast Newsletter of 1833 for Mangle Wurzel Ale that someone might like to try? Often called fodder beet it's an interesting root that appears to have culinary, imbibing and practical uses that should be explored more!

Let me know if you make some ... and I'll do the same.

So you can make some ale or whisky and the brown paper bag to wrap it up in!

(Thanks as always to my local library...)


Thursday, 1 February 2018

Beer & Travel History: A Grand Day Out in Kilkenny - October Ales & Orchards

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about William Cobbett's visit to Kilkenny and his thoughts on the city, people and the beers of Ireland in general ... and while down my rabbithole of beer history research I came across an article about a visit by a group of Waterfordians to Kilkenny that I thought would be a nice follow up for balance ... with a more positive slant for Kilkenny and for the local beer.

It was published in The Waterford News and Star in September 1873 and I've included the article in its entirety below ... but a couple of intriguing parts stood out to me with relation to the  Smithwicks brewery, which they visited...

'... the Black Abbey Brewery, otherwise St. Francis's, owned and worked by [...] E. Smithwick...'
The Black Abbey is a completely different site to St. Francis's Abbey and it's a little strange that a visitor should confuse the two ... furthermore at this time Sullivan's would have then been the closest brewery to The Black Abbey. Perhaps the writer of the article had one too many on the trip and confused the two, or did someone not want the visitors to know there were two breweries in close proximity to one another in the city, and choose to amalgamate both in our visitor's mind? The writer had visited the city on a number of occasions so either way it seems a strange comment. (I can't of course rule out that it was also known as the Black Abbey Brewery but I can't find any reference to this name, and it would seem highly unlikely...)

We'll never know but it's a lesson to all researchers to be wary about what you read in old newspapers...


'We were taken into what may be termed the "Refreshment Room" on these annual visits, into a large cellar filled with October ales, eleven months old, clear as amber when filled out, ardent as malt when imbibed. [...] with a measure of strong ale in hand and it had to be drunk... '

I wonder if that 'Refreshment Room' is still in use? I confess I've never done the tour so I don't know...

The comments on the storage time, colour and strength - both in flavour and, presumably, alcohol are interesting to read, and sound a far cry from the Smithwick's of now apart perhaps from the colour - but there was a red-ish ale in Kilkenny even back then it would seem ... if not what we think of as an 'Irish Red Ale'!

Not that we should think that Smithwick's have always just brewed one beer - and they don't anymore anyhow, and nor do they brew in Kilkenny of course - as beer history books list the varied output from the brewery in its early days...

But again it's nice see some of this information in print and I came across an advert from The Munster Express in 1866 with regard to Smithwick's opening a store in Waterford to help satisfy demand in the city, although it was possibly a logistical help with exports too.

It also shows that there was a good connection between Waterford and the Smithwick brewery, which would make sense given their relatively close proximity on the new-ish railway, and explains why our visitors would make a point of visiting the brewery on their trip to Kilkenny. (Beresford Street was what is now Parnell Street in Waterford.)

{Edit} Here's another advert showing more detail of what they were brewing in 1897 ... Stouts, Mild, Bitter plus an IPA and Dinner Ale ... and a good amount for export too it appears.


'... we were taken my Mr. McGrath through the extensive orchards, under the experienced Mr Hayes, and I must say I never saw anything to near equal the great profusion of luxuriant crops of apples and pears I there witnessed. The crop proves Mr. Hayes to be one of the top of his luscious profession.'

I never thought of there being an urban orchard at the back of the brewery but the Ordnance Survey maps of around this time do indeed show a great deal of space down towards the river. Top quality apples and pears in the Smithwick's orchard it appears - non for cider or perry?!

... and wouldn't we all like a 'luscious profession'?

So, it looks like Kilkenny has been a tourist destination for quite a while, and although Smithwick's site is no longer a working commercial brewery, the new, reborn Sullivan's Brewing Company do a few specials in the small kit in their tap room and Costellos Brewery have a full production brewery just out from the city centre, which is great for a city with such a brewing history. (I've written previously about beery places in the city too...)

I wonder will either make an eleven month old, amber, strong October ale that I can quaff in a cellar?

I can dream I suppose...


Thanks as ever to my local library...

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Beer History: Politics versus Bad Beer ... and The True Heart of Man?

In 1834 William Cobbett an English journalist, farmer and member of parliament wrote a series of letters back to a labourer called Charles Marshall at Normandy Farm, his home in Surrey, England, recounting his recent tour of Ireland.

I came across the following excerpt from these letters in an edition of The Kerry Evening Post of that year, where he talks about a few topics from a discussion on marble by gentlemen "much bemused by beer" to a rant about a Mr. Finn ... he of the local paper Finn's Leinster Journal I presume!

He also has some disparaging words to say about the beers he came across during his travels, prompted by a meeting with 'Mr. Smithwick' in Kilkenny...

"I dined with one Smithwick, a popular brewer - O heavens! What stuff the wild Irish will drink out of political friendship. Why Marshall, if Tom Paine were to come on the earth again - as I suppose he will at the general resurrection - and turn brewer, I would not deal with him unless he put malt and hops in his ale. The purest principles of patriotism and philanthropy could not make cockles indicus go down. Don't suppose I allude to brewer Smithwick's drink, which I understand is some of the best political swipes in Ireland. But I have a prejudice in favor of good unadulterated malt drinks; and I hope, Marshall, your pity for these poor people will prevail upon you to lose your taste for the same sort of potation. Love your country as much as you will, you cannot love it too much; but love your beer also. Beer is the heart of man."
As you can read below he goes on to complain about those who attend his lectures - which he abandons - for not paying to do so but gives a backhanded compliment with regard to the people of Kilkenny's thirst for knowledge. He has some choice words to say about the city itself, and Waterford too!

It all makes for interesting reading...

But even after all of that ranting, it's those sentences from above that stick in my mind...
"Love your country as much as you will, you cannot love it too much; but love your beer also. Beer is the heart of man." 
Wise words? Who knows...


[With thanks as ever to my local library.]

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Food & Drink History: {Opinion} Be Careful What You Wish For...

As you may be aware, many food writers, bloggers, tweeters and other so called food/nutrition/wellness 'experts' tend to annoy me.

But what's really galled me in recent days are those who say we need to eat 'what our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents ate...' 

If we think that food wasn't 'processed' or was 'additive-free' (their words) back in these halcyon good-old-days we would do well to read a little more history and give our 'like' thumbs a rest. There seems to be a body of people who think that everyone baked their own bread, made their own drink and grew their own food back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, or bought everything from some wholesome local market or guano-fed local farm, but looking back through any newspaper from that time will quickly highlight the issues that existed with food and drink poisoning or other contamination, and just how unsafe eating or drinking could be back then. We only need to think back at the plethora of chemicals available in the last century to know this - for example we used mercury-based products to prevent clubroot in brassicas, also, DDT anyone?

We can debate until be are blue in the face about whether these or any of the batch of still available controls are absorbed into our bodies but the fact remains that there was less science-based knowledge, testing and understanding back in the last couple of centuries than there is now. Sure some people grew more vegetables themselves but not everyone did, could or even wanted to. And yes, I'm being purposely selective and controversial with my points but then again so do those who spout food related nonsense...

Here's an article that appeared in an old local paper, which talks of issues in England but I'm sure that the same sentiment would/could have been applied to Ireland too.

Commercial Honesty in England

A writer, who made no small noise in the world among a certain class of individuals, wrote a book entitled “What to Eat, Drink, and Avoid.” If he were alive now, perhaps he might tell us how to avoid these things, recommend for daily food, which area adulterated, and that to a shameful extent. Unfortunately, the public generally are not up to snuff; it is only the practical chemist who can throw a light upon the matter, and show that we swallow slow poison daily, while we hug ourselves with an assurance, that by going to the best market things may be purchased “pure and adulterated.” Alas! Human weakness leads us to strange conclusions. It is not the tradesman making the greatest show who are the most honest. Allured by the greed of gain, he discovers that honesty in business is but a name, and that unless he acts like his neighbours, in his defence, he must shut up shop, or walk through the Bankruptcy or Insolvent Debtors’ Court, to throw off his liabilities.
Modern science, aided by the alembic of the chemist, has evolved many hidden mysteries, which, in some shape or other, have brought to bear upon the food we eat, in clothes we wear, and the liquid we drink. Our forefathers drank their nut-brown ale, brewed from malt and hops; they ate bread made from good wheaten flour, regardless of its whiteness; and tossed off wine that had not been flavoured, or sham age given to it by the brewers’ druggist. All things are altered in this respect for the worse. People must have their appetites tickled. Your English sausage is too common for the table. Nothing short of real German will do now-a-days, and the newer the importation the better. Perhaps, instead of coming from Germany, it may have been manufactured in Cow-cross, the knacker’s yard contributing greatly to the stuffing department; or some superannuated cow, that had been killed to save it dying a natural death, may have furnished the material; but no matter, the sausage is German, and German sausages must be good, because it is sold at a heavy price. Has no one ever experienced a fullness of the stomach accompanied with dyspepsia, without asking himself the cause? Of course, it was not the German sausage, made of well seasoned offal, like Goldner’s preserved meat. They cannot account for it. The gentleman who drank three bottles of wine after dinner and found himself the next day unwell, laid the fault to eating those “cursed potatoes.” It was not the wine, for his friend never introduced wine that would give any man the head-ache, or cause him to fall under the table in a state of giddiness; and so with those who devour sausage – they fly to something else as an excuse for their illness. 
Some people snub what is called “second bread,” because it is not so white as the loaf of the first quality. Perhaps they do not know that the chemist has taught the baker how to bleach his flour with alum and other ingredients. They may not know that he has the power to make a very white loaf out of the cheapest materials; but such is the case, and the baker who can make the whitest loaf at the cheapest price will out-distance all his competitors. 
The beer we drink is made intoxicating by the druggist’s aid; malt and hops are very well in their way, but, notwithstanding the aid of these, the beer wants body; a fullness is required to be given to it, and Messrs. Strychnine, Cocolus Indicus, and Quassia, are called in to aid the process of the mash-tub. Wine is snubbed if it present no bead, and therefore what is done to make it sparkling and beady? Mr. Arsenic is ready with his recipe to give it the required advantages. Gin, the most adulterated of all liquor, is flavoured, and made strong or rendered weak by the aid of modern discovery. 
You think you use pure colonial sugar, whereas one-half of it is adulterated with sugar manufactured from potatoes, at three half-pence a pound. As to coffee, it is compounded of chicory, horse beans, horses’ liver, and other delicacies. Your milk and cream are manufactured of bruised sheep’s brains, with sugar of lead, and other choice things from the laboratory. The young Raleighs of the day plume themselves upon being able to detect a “prime Havannah” from a sham one, little dreaming that, with the exception of the outward coating (we speak of English manufactured cigars), there is not a particle of tobacco in their composition. If a sceptic doubt what we say, he may see, in the eastern warehouse of the Customhouse, plenty of the imitation of leaf tobacco, which the authorities have seized. 
We talk of the “cup which cheers, but not inebriates,” and buy the finest green tea, brought to that state by Prussian blue, copper, and other deleterious ingredients. The nerves get unstrung, and the hands become shaky from drinking gin; and they would be shaky if the beverage of a person were green tea. There is not a thing we eat but what is adulterated or doctored in some shape or other; there is not a thing we drink but contains slow poison. Your best Witney blankets are half yarn; the gold chain you so much delight in is nothing but lacquered copper; in fact, cheating and humbug extend over every business and profession. Londoners area surfeited with drugs of one description or another. They attribute half their ailments to a want of pure air; and, in the hope of improving their health, retreat to Bleak House, Thacheray Villa, or Gothic Cottage, in the suburbs of the metropolis. Pure air is now the panacea for all conceivable ills. It is time we learned “What to Eat, Drink, and Avoid” - Dispatch
via The Carlow Post 1854
(Paragraphs added by me to aid reading - original text below)

This is from 1854 ... but ironically with a few changes to the language and examples it could have been written today and posted up on a number of food-scarer's websites. Whole paragraphs could be lifted and used by some of the confusion/fear merchants that ply their trade in the nod-along, retweet, repost social media society we now live in. After all, doesn't it sound like some of the food snobs that spout their half-baked (Hah!) opinions on social media and now also in too many mainstream publications?

Even taking the side that the above writer was just some crackpot and food contamination wasn't in reality an issue, then doesn't that play into my personal belief that some of these modern food-gurus are crackpots too?  Either way it tells a tale...

[The part about the German sausages put a wry smile on my face because we now think something similar regarding local ones, and given my distrust of promoting overpriced, local-for-local-sake products with no oversight or accountability it struck a chord.
 '...but no matter, the sausage is German local, and German local sausages must be good, because it is sold at a heavy price...'
(But don't get me started on local and the word 'cheap' again, I got enough abuse last time.)]

Next time someone says that they wish they could eat like they did back in their ancestors time show them this, and tell them to read more, question everything (yes, even this post) and - ironically I know - believe less of what you see on your screens.

It's time we looked at how we eat and drink as much as what we consume, perhaps even more so in my opinion. I'd never claim to be an expert on anything, but I do question and research as much as I can about the subjects I write about.

I take everything with a pinch of salt...

... although apparently we can't do than anymore, unless it's some kind of special salt of course!


(With the usual thanks to my local library.)

Friday, 22 December 2017

Travel: Bonn, Germany Part I - Christmas Markets, Castles and Beethoven's Birthplace!

So here we go again...

I have a reoccuring fear that our annual pilgrimage to a Christmas market each December has become so regular that it is in danger of becoming boring. Even though we usually pick somewhere away from the normal tourist crowds, I was still worried that wherever we chose this year would just be the same as every other trip - like some kind of Every-Weihnachtsmarkt, Germany ... with the same old stalls selling the same old items.

I would hate for that sameness to creep in to our trips, so we put a bit of thought and research into our destinations from year to year...

Bonn isn't on the list of names trotted out each year when people think about a city to visit at this time of year, especially when the tourist magnet of Cologne is just up the road. But as ever - and because of my above mentioned fear of boredom - we chose to venture on the less travelled path, and Bonn was somewhere we knew very little about so it ticked that box in my travel-needs list. That combined with its ease of access via a couple of decent airports and affordable - and available - accomodation, plus a walkable looking city centre with a decent sized market that sprawled across a few streets and squares, meant we took a chance...

And we were glad we did.

At the Christmas market itself the quality and variety of the stalls were superb, it seemed that the various stall holders were vying with each other to produce bigger displays or better products, all presented with that welcome bit of theatre that is essential at this time of year. Most noticeable was  that, apart from a couple of the usual suspects, most of what we saw was local or at least local-ish, plus the quality of everything from the food to the gifts and drinks were all excellent. We were impressed with all the handmade items such as jewelry, pottery and wood carvings, although admittedly a lot of it was in the higher price bracket but it still appeared to be value for money.

The food ranged from plank-cooked salmon (top right below) to flammkuchen and of course plenty of wursts! From vegetarian dishes to roast pork and bacon there was a food-type here for everyone. There was plenty for the sweet toothed too, with our favourite being the flavoured, marshmallow filled Schokoküsse ... we even saw a churro stand! As well as the usual mulled wine there were plenty of standard drinks available and I had my first mulled Belgian beer, a really good Liefmans Kriek served in the correct glassware!

The market stretches from Münsterplatz and Bottlerplatz, along adjoining streets to Friedensplatz and with 180 stalls there's plenty of choice ... but it gets very busy at night so I'd recommend heading out to a bar or a restaurant for a drink or a bite away from the city centre if it gets too hectic. (More on this option in my next post.) 

There's more than the Christmas market to see in Bonn of course, as there are plenty of sights too, although on this kind of trip I find that it's nice just to wander the streets and keep the agenda to a minimum. But one building that's literally impossible to miss is the huge multi-towered Bonner Münster - The Basilica of St. Cassius and Florentius - on Münsterplatz (obviously!) although sadly it was closed for renovations when we visited but we did get to look around the beautiful cloister. (Curiously enough they have built a glass office at the side of the church and placed someone in it whose only job appears to be telling people that the building is closed!)

Bonn is also the birthplace of Beethoven, a fact that's hard to miss given how his name is plastered everywhere and not-so-cheery statues of good old Ludwig abound, including the imposing one on Münsterplatz where he scowls down from his plinth at the christmas merrymakers. The self-guided tour of the museum and house of his birth (picture below) is quite interesting, and is full of items and pictures connected to him. It's a pleasant way to kill an hour or so and a must-do for anyone interested in such an important composer.

The city is a great place for retail therapy too with plenty of mid- and high-end brands available, and a nice touch for Christmas is that each of the main shopping streets in the main part of the city have their name in lights. Walking these streets you'll notice that most of the city was destroyed in the war but some old building remain such as the Knusperhäuschen (centre below), and there are plenty of interesting statues and fountains around to take that raw edge off the city. Bonn also boasts an excellent food market on Marktplatz ( More original naming!) and a nice little flower market close by.

There are many other sights too that we missed or hadn't time to see, I've included a link to the Bonn tourism website below to show what else there is to see and do.

Our other reason for staying in Bonn was to visit the magnificent Schloss Drachenburg with its stunning views over the Rhine. The castle is a wonderfully over-the-top, turreted masterpiece and certainly has a serious fairytale quality. It was built in just three years from 1882 to 1884 half way between the town of Königswinter and the older castle at the top of the hill called Drachenfels - Dragon's Rock! Sadly there was a lot of cloud and mist when we visited so we had to strain our eyes to see the river winding its way in either direction below us...

We got there by taking tram 66 from the city centre to Königswinter Fähre and then it's just a short walk to the funicular railway that take you up to the castle. We timed our visit to coincide with a Dickens' style Christmas market that was taking place in the grounds and a light show that bathed the building in colour. The house itself is full of wonderful stained glass, carvings and unbelievably detailed workmanship, murals and paintings. I'd imagine it's just as stunning in summer so whenever you visit Bonn it would be worth going, and perhaps in summer you can abandon the train and climb all the way to the top! (Check the website for opening times - I've included the link below.)

So ... Bonn might not have been on your radar up to now but I would seriously recommend a visit, and in truth we only scratched the surface of what can be seen, as time, the Christmas market and the need to eat and drink were our enemy as usual!

It could certainly figure in your Christmas market shortlist for next year ... don't forget to try the mulled kriek!

Next up will be a post about the beer and food we had during our visit...


Christmas Market
Bonn Tourist Information
Schloss Drachenburg