As always, I’m posting this a while after actually finishing the book.
Supposedly, I read this book a few years ago… but I don’t really remember doing so. Perhaps that’s the result of sleep-deprivation, since the time when I (supposedly) read it, my son was very young. In any case, I thought I’d get a refresher on English beers, and this fall I might brew up a few of them.
I’m without the two brewing books I used to find most useful and/or inspiring while planning out my brewing, what that was a more frequent pursuit: Ray Daniels’ Designing Great Beers and Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing. I do intend to get both again—secondhand copies are very affordable, I just haven’t brewed enough to justify the expense—but when I picked up The Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer, it was because rather than feeling like wild experimentation, I wanted to know more about traditional English ales, and Ron Pattison’s more than demonstrated mastery of that topic on his popular blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.
I don’t really go in for the American fixation on “beer styles”: I perceive that as kind of a simulacrum of how brewing cultures and practices really worked historically, and a product of the artificial categorization system that was (necessarily) invented for dividing up entries into brewing competitions. In reality, every brewery and each little town kind of had their own way of doing things, in the light of the grains available, the local water profile and climate, and the preferences of those making and drinking it.
Still, I think there can be value in trying out different historical recipes, if only to get a better sense of the range of things that were done in the past, and I can’t think of a better guide to the British beers than Ron Pattison.
The Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beers is a smallish, spiral-bound hardback book that follows a pretty straightforward structure: after a few introductory chapters (on ingredients and historical brewing techniques), Pattison discusses a series of traditional beer types—porter, stout, IPA, pale ale/bitter, Light Bitter/Light Ale, Mild Ale, Stock Ale/Burton Ale, Scottish Ales, Brown Ale, and a couple of European styles (Broyhan, Grätzer, Salvator, and Kotbusser). For each type, there’s a short discussion of the beer’s general characteristics, history, and then a sampling of recipes Pattison collected from historical sources.
The historical discussions are mostly brief and simple, even when Pattison takes up the challenge of dispelling some of the fantasies that have accreted around IPAs: the main attraction is the recipes and the commentary on them, and these are invaluable, an embarrassment of riches really. For me, the biggest surprise was how extensive use of invert sugars and caramels in English beers: I hadn’t known about that, and had been under the impression—due to American homebrewer propaganda, I suppose—that “all grain” (even if that meant adjunct grains, like flaked corn or oats) was how things were done back in the day, at least everywhere outside Belgium. Not that I took that all that seriously: I’ve never had a prejudice against the use of sugars or invert sugars or caramels in beers, myself, but it’s something a lot of homebrewers rail against as heretical, probably as much due to received wisdom as to bad experiences with actually putting too much raw cane sugar into beers as an adjunct.
Of course, one can only read so many recipes in a single sitting (or, in my case, two sittings) and still process the differences between them, but a read-through helped me see which recipes I’d like to try out. I’ll post whatever I do get around to brewing up, when I do it. I’m not brewing till after my family moves next month, as I prefer not to have movers struggle with a bucket or carboy full of beer and I won’t have time for bottling before the move. Fall and winter are more salutary for brewing anyway, so it’s not a hardship to wait, especially when I have so many options to sort through, as I’m not sure I’ll be brewing more than two or three of these vintage beers this year at most.