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Victorian beers come back from the grave

Added: Sunday, September 14th 2014

3 Brewers new beer

Two historic beers from a Hatfield brewery that closed in 1920 have been revived, using original recipes, and will take centre stage at this year’s St Albans Beer Festival.

The 3 Brewers based at Symonds Hyde Farm between Hatfield and St Albans in Hertfordshire have brought back a mild ale and a strong porter  brewed by the Pryor Reid Brewery, which in the early 20th century was the biggest employer in Hatfield with an estate of 100 pubs.

The beers are the result of collaboration between the 3 Brewers, Hatfield Local History Society and the Dead Brewers’ Society. Between them they researched and found recipes from Pryor Reid that enabled Nick Zivkovic, head brewer at 3 Brewers, to faithfully recreate the beers, using as far as possible the same malts and hops found in the original beers. Nick even imported a rare yeast culture from the United States to match the yeast used by Pryor Reid, while water from the bore hole at Symonds Hyde Farm is identical to Hatfield water. (Pictured above Petar Zivkovic left and Mark Fanner: Nick Zivkovic was away.)

The Hatfield brewery dates from 1582 and started life as a humble brew house behind the Chequers Inn. It grew and passed through several hands until it was bought by the Pryor family, who were maltsters in the town, in the 19th century. Their relatives, the Reids, joined the company later.

It closed in tragic circumstances in 1920, following the death of Lieutenant Geoffrey Reid during the war. He was the son of the brewery chairman and, with no other descendants to pass the business on to, he decided to close it. By this time the large brewery was based at what is now Salisbury Square.

Pryor Reid’s pubs were bought by Benskins of Watford. The estate included the Farmer’s Boy in London Road, St Albans, the Duke of Marlborough on Holywell Hill – now being turned into housing -- and such long defunct pubs as the Crabtree in St Peter’s Street and the Lamb, now a branch of HSBC. The Woodman at Wildhill, near Hatfield, 10 times winner of the local CAMRA Pub of the Year award, is also a former Pryor Reid pub (see photo below).

Pryor Reid wagon

The two beers enable today’s drinkers to taste samples from more than 100 years ago. The mild ale is 3.5% and was brewed for people working in agriculture in the Hatfield area. It’s brewed with pale, black and crystal malts and some caramel, hopped with English Fuggles and Goldings, and it has a deep copper colour. For a beer with a relatively modest strength, it’s full flavoured, with toffee, roasted grain and peppery hops on the aroma and the palate. The received wisdom is that mild ales are traditionally sweet beers, but this version is surprisingly bitter and hoppy.

The full name of the stronger beer is Entire Butt Porter and weighs in at 5.5%. This is a beer style that originated in London in the early 18th century and was a blend of pale, brown and old ales. It was given the inelegant name of Entire Butt but acquired the nickname of porter as a result of its popularity with porters working the streets, markets and docks of the capital.

The strongest version of porter was called stout, a style now associated with Ireland. But porters are in vogue again and the Pryor Reid version gives drinkers the opportunity to taste a genuine 19th century version. It’s brewed with no fewer than 10 malts and brewing sugars, including amber, pale, black, brown and crystal malts and cane syrup. The hops come from Kent, Germany and France.

The beer is astonishingly complex. The aroma offers smoked malt, liquorice, burnt fruit and spicy hops, with herbal, bitter hops, liquorice and espresso coffee notes building on the palate, followed by a long, bittersweet finish with burnt fruit, coffee and tangy hops.

These are beers with a fascinating past and a firm future.

Main photo: Dan Loo, courtesy Herts Advertiser.

*CAMRA St Albans Beer & Cider Festival, Civic Centre, 24-27 September, 11am-11pm. Full details: www.stalbansbeerfestival.org.uk.

I will host a beer talk and tasting during the festival on Friday 26 September, 7.30pm, in the Council Chamber (entry via the festival). The beers will include the 3 Brewers Porter and a new Magna Carta Ale from Windsor & Eton Brewery. Magna Carta Ale will commemorate both the signing of the historic document in 2015 and a meeting held in St Albans Abbey in 2014 that began the campaign to wrest power from King John. Tickets for the tasting cost £12/£10 CAMRA members and will be available at the festival or from CAMRA head office, 230 Hatfield Road, St Albans AL1 4LW or online as above.

Woodman