Book Review: The Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beer / Let's Brew

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The Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beer and its followup book Let's Brew are recipe books by noted beer historian Ron Pattinson, blogger of http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com , aka Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

In case anyone is wondering, I have no connection to Pattinson except for being a regular reader of his blog, and I paid for the books. No cash, beer, trinkets or other swag has come my way for this review.

Description:

Each book contains well over 100 recipes spanning more than a century, primarily from England but including examples from other countries as well. The recipes are generally taken from the Let's Brew recipes that Pattinson has published once or twice a week on his blog for years. Pattinson's sources are mostly the actual logs from breweries, most now extinct.

There is also some brief beer history -- The Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beer has short introductions to ingredients, methods and styles, as well as bits of information on each beer recipe. Let's Brew has an introductory essay for each beer recipe.

Neither book is a true guide to brewing. The recipes are laid out in standard tables of ingredients, mash temperatures, and the like, but there is little in the way of explanation -- it is assumed that readers already know terms like sparging and dry hopping, and won't need any help figuring out how to mash, transfer wort to a fermenter, or prime and bottle. Most recipes are not hard to follow, but true beginners should skip these books. Unfortunately, suggested priming rates are not included.

Also, neither book is comprehensive. Notable countries don't show up. And even the best-represented country, England, has only a small slice of possible recipes included. If you're looking for a complete listing of Fullers recipes, for example, you'll have to make do with a handful of the many different beers they have brewed through the years. There is simply no way to include more than a sample of what has been brewed by a sample of breweries, and you'll need to take the ones that are of interest to Pattinson and which he was able to copy.

One important point is that a significant number of the British recipes use brewer's invert syrup, which almost certainly needs to be made at home. The books contain a guide. It's not hard, but it does take some time to cook up a batch.

Also, these books don't provide guidance on translating old brewing methods to modern homebrewing. If you want to recreate Yorkshire Square fermenters or barrel aging, you'll need to search elsewhere. Let's Brew has brief quotations about decoction at a commercial level from old sources, but I would hesitate using them at a home brewing level without a lot of trial and error adjustments. There is no guide to malting or roasting, no information on growing your own old hop varieties. And also significant, there is no guidance on adding to Brett in recipes for beers that were aged and presumably exposed to Brett in the barrel. That information is not contained in brewers logs -- some of the logs predate the modern understanding of microbiology.

Differences:

Vintage Beer is a much more polished book. It has a nice spiral binding which makes it easy to use on brew day, it is illustrated, and is clearly professionally laid out. It's an easier book to read and browse, being clearly broken out in chapters for different styles, and the introductory essays on beer style histories are very educational. If you buy just one book, this is the one I would recommend.

Let's Brew is far more bare bones -- it is essentially a table of contents, hundreds of pages of recipes and accompanying text, and an index. One interesting curiousity is a section of 19th and early 20th Century North American beers, which gives a sense of how different things were before the Prohibition really cleaned out the diversity of beer you might find in the Western Hemisphere. The layout is not ideal -- for some reason, the margins on each page are quite large and the fonts are small, making the recipes less easy to use than they could be.

What you get:

Recipes. Lots and lots of recipes. Multiple hundreds between the two books, from England, Scotland, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada and the US. Porters, Milds, Pale Ales, Lagers, Strong Ales, and curiousities too.

Pattinson is up front that there is a good deal of guesswork involved. He is converting large scale brewery recipes to five gallon home brew scale, and unquestionably the results of home boiling, fermenting and storing will be different from what old time large scale brewers obtained on a large scale. There is simply no way to know exactly what old malts were like, hop cultivars undoubtably had some different tastes and aromas decades or a century ago, and yeast strains are unlikely to be the same through the years.

With that in mind, it's clear that these many recipes have all kinds of interesting variations from modern beers. For instance, a recipe for 1845 Reid Stout uses an astonishing 23 pounds of malt and almost 13 ounces of hops, with the dark malt being overwhelmingly Brown with only a fairly small percentage of Black. An 1846 Truman Strong Ale has an even more amazing 27.5 pounds of pale malt and a full pound of Goldings.

There is an 1850 German Kotbusser containing not only Pilsner malt but wheat malt, oats, honey and sugar. And there is a miserable 1947 Shepherd Neame Light Ale with less than six pounds of fermentables that clocks in at 2.6% ABV. You wouldn't want to make that last one, but it's interesting to know it even existed.

Some recipes are clearly just curiousities like that Light Ale, but others look like classic modern Bitter or Mild recipes, and some others are extremely intriguing and hard to imagine in any modern category.

For instance, there is a recipe for a 1933 Stout from the Dutch brewery Oranjeboom. It uses lager malt and almost all of its color coming from a hefty dose of dark brewers syrup, plus Hallertau and Spalt hops, fermented with lager yeast at lager temps. Clearly not a Stout that would fit any style guide, but all the same it existed and it may well be an interesting beer.

Conclusion:

These are books for people who are comfortable with recipes and are able to think things through on their own. What's more, they are for people who are not hung up on received wisdom and insist on following standard dogma. Anyone who insists that a Porter must be a very specific beer fitting in a very specific slot will have a hard time with these books, because they show that this is not only false in the grand span of history, it's false at a much narrower scale. There has clearly been considerable variety within a style of beer in the same time, in the same region, even within the offerings of the same brewer from one year to the next.

Think of all of the different ways you might find a grilled cheese sandwich or a taco today, and you are in the same ballpark for how different a Brown Ale or a Mild might taste from one pub or club to another at any particular time.

The recipes in these books are liberating as a result. History makes clear if you want to make a session IPA, you have liberty to ignore those who insist IPAs need to be high ABV beers; these books establish that IPAs not only were comparable in strength to contemporary Pale Ales, but there existed IPAs at points where the ABV was 4% or below.

Should you want to combine unusual types of hops in a Stout? You'll find evidence that brewers were doing that as well, so even if they didn't do it in the way you're thinking, you might just decide you have their permission to improvise today, even though you'd be striking out on your own and not following a recipe in the book. You won't be making a historic Stout if you strike out on your own, but you will be following the example of Oranjeboom in following your own concepts. Just be prepared to fight with the prescriptivists when you do.

And of course should you want to be a traditionalist and try your hand at an old Scotch Ale free from modern hooey suggesting you use a peated malt, you'll find a recipe as close to authentic, peat-free old style Scotch Ale as you could hope to get.

Browsing through these books and looking for ideas, you gradually get immersed in the realization that brewing has always been switching between dynamic change and refinement, innovation and tradition, making do and taking risks. You won't find long essays spelling this out, deep discussions of the science of mashing, and you certainly won't find any recipes for New England-Belgian Milkshake Golden IPAs. But if you're open, you'll get an appreciation of the great sweep of beer history, as well as a lot of interesting beer recipes.
 
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