Before I started writing about beer, I wrote a bit about history. As an undergrad and Masters student in Canadian history, I spent weeks in local archives scanning microfiche for clips on dirty hippies, draft dodgers, student protestors, Canadians fighting in Vietnam and vagabonds thumbing it across Canada.
I even made a road trip to the National Archives to access some files, most of which turned out to be useless, although I bet those blackened bits might have been interesting.
So I got all excited when I got to chat with a fellow history hound, primary-source sleuth, just-the-facts-man — Ron Pattinson, author and amateur beer historian for my latest Hopped Up column in The Grid. He devised the recipe for Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company Dubbel Koyt — a medieval Gruit made with 50 per cent oats — it’s on tap at a bunch of Ontario bars until Thursday or later if the keg hasn’t run out.
I read Ron’s blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, from time to time, but even I have to admit, after scanning a few recipes for one particular historical style of beer brewed in a region, in a specific time period, my eyes glaze over a little. (Perhaps that lack of attention to detail is why us beer writers tend piss Pattinson off so much).
But I’m guessing, from spending time deep in the archives, immersed in a subject I was passionate about — that Pattinson’s own eyes probably glaze over a little after a few hours of photographing old brewing records and sifting through dusty files and microfiche. Yet the English-born, Amsterdam-based Pattinson has been at it so long he’s become the guy that the world’s top brewmasters go to when they want advice — or even a recipe — for brewing a historical beer style, or even a defunct beer from their own storied brewery. Most historians never get to see their ancient fascinations in the flesh — or taste them when they’re brought back to life — Pattinson does — and that’s just fascinating. So I’m posting our whole chat here:
How and when did you get into brewery history?
The thing that really started it all off was Porter. I wanted to know what Porter had been — it’s this legendary thing — I bought all these books and read about it and all the information was contradictory. And if you don’t know what sources they’ve used, how do you know whether what they’re saying is right or not? So I had to go to the primary research. I started looking at old brewing records. The London Metro Archives are amazing — it has brewing records from four of the large London breweries, and really long sets for three of them — for Whitbread it has a run of records from 1815 to 1975 — the complete set. I looked at almost all of them, almost every year.
Fullers have let me look at their records, I’ve been to Lees in Manchester, so I try and collect as much stuff as I can. I’m obsessive about all the primary information, I just had someone send me some more brewing records this week.
That is pretty obsessive. I didn’t realize you’d been at this for so long.
Yeah, I joined CAMRA on my 18th birthday in 1974, so I got interested in beer really early on. I bought my first Michael Jackson book and that really inspired me, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I started going around to places that Jackson had visited. He really taught me about whole foreign beer thing and when I moved to Amsterdam in 1988 and started reading in different languages — German and Dutch — I was able to access even more sources.
So, I know you also write beer guides for different countries, which you sell on your website — do you also have a day job?
Yes. Michael Jackson is the only person who’s ever made a full time living as a beer writer and historian. I have a normal job in IT that pays me enough that I can live.
So, last fall Beau’s Brewing asked you to come up with any Gruit recipe you wanted and then flew you in to brew the beer and talk historical brewing at their Oktoberfest. You chose the Dubbel Koyt — why?
They said they wanted something different. And I thought, ‘OK, well what’s the weirdest thing I’ve got? Hey! I’ve got a really dry book about brewing in Holland in industrial Holland and it happens to have some stuff about way the beers were put together in the Middle Ages…’
It was fun choice for two reasons — because I am coming from Holland so it’s nice to have a Dutch recipe, and two, it was a different type of beer. When I started finding out something about beer in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance in Belgium and Holland, the thing that surprised me was the grains that they made beer out of, and the grain combinations they used — a lot of recipes used 50 percent oats, which is quite odd. I mean you’d just have real trouble brewing with it.
And when we were brewing at Beau’s, some of the things I feared did happen. Plus it was hard work to brew with oatmeal. When I saw what the guys went through to brew it I generally felt really guilty. You should have seen what the mash looked like — a big lump of porridge. They had to poke it with a stick for half an hour to get it all broken up.
And you didn’t have the whole recipe handy, just had the grain bill, correct? So you had to fill in the rest of the pieces?
Yeah, basically I just knew about the Dutch way to brew Gruits. All a Gruit means in English is a beer that doesn’t have hops in it — so it was wide open to interpretation and I quite liked that because then you don’t have to worry about what the hopping level was, you can just have the herbs in there instead. It was such an interesting grain combination; it was worth doing the thing because it’s simply a beer that people don’t see nowadays.
So given that room for interpretation, how do you know you’re making a historically accurate example?
Normally I work with recipes where I’ve got the original brewing records, but even when you have those, you don’t have everything in there, so there’s always a bit of interpretation and guesswork because none have every single piece of information to reproduce exactly. Some stuff that isn’t there, so when I do a beer with Pretty Things, me and Dann have discussed beforehand about the beer and I explain about the ingredients and stuff, and we come up with a recipe. Sometimes recipes can be quite vague about the ingredients — it’ll just say sugar — but I know from other things that I’ve read that it was likely this type of sugar, but it didn’t say that for sure, so you just have to make the best guess that you can…
We’re always very careful to say when you do these historic brews, it’s not a clone of the original beer, we’re trying to make it as true to the original as possible and give you an idea of the kind of beer that was brewed at the time.
It seems like a dream gig for a beer historian to be able to bring historical beers to life with breweries around the world — how did that all start with you, and do you work with breweries often?
It started with Shelton Brothers when I got in touch, and pitched idea, and said would you be interested in re-creating these beers, and I got them brewed for me. That was about six years ago, De Molen did those two beers.
Then the Pretty Things owners, Dann and his wife Martha, were heading back to the States and had unexpected layover in Amsterdam. They asked me down the pub for a drink, we got talking and the whole idea of doing some old recipes came up, so we put this thing together. I work with Fullers as well, they’ve got a series of historic beers, so I’ve worked with the brewers and I looked at the records, and that’s been quite fun. And God knows how many people have brewed the recipes off the blog.
So what does it feel like to taste these Ye Olde recipes that you’ve dug up and brought back to life?
It’s brilliant. It gives me genuine pleasure to drink the beer. And the fact that other people are interested is great and it’s nice that a lot of professional brewers are interested in it. That’s why I don’t brew myself because the professionals can make a much better job of it than me. I’ve made a couple of beers with Pretty Things that I’ve really, really liked so much — drinking them brings it all to life.
After all, it’s a whole lot of work with a lot of fairly boring records and I spend hours and hours and hours stuck in archives, taking photos of stuff… So getting to drink some of the beer makes it all worthwhile.
Living in Amsterdam, I imagine you don’t always get to be there for brew day with your collaborators?
No. In the middle of February I’m going to Boston and I’ll get to see Dann brew for the first time, the chance for once to be there when one of the beer is brewed will be great.
What kind of people read your blog?
Two groups, lots of homebrewers, and quite a few professional brewers as well because they’re interested in the recipe formulation and history, it’s how they’re trained. And just general people who are into beer, not necessarily in the trade.