Amber Gold & Black - The Story of Britain's Great Beers is a unique kind of book. Written by Martyn Cornell, author of Beer: The Story of the Pint and beer writer of the year in 2003, Amber Gold & Black is published only in electronic format. As a result it is a low cost publication at £5 for a copy. A very cheap purchase considering the years of research that must have gone into creating this 233 page work.
Cornell's aim is to explore the true history of a range of beer types, including bitter, mild, IPA, porter, golden ales, wheat beer, barley wine, heather ale; the contents list 16 families of beer all with a distinct British history. Each chapter deals with its subject in a similar manner. Reaching back to the earliest references he could find, Cornell brings the reader on a journey through time, with anecdotes, statistics, lists of breweries, from the earliest references up to the present.
What is particularly interesting is how many myths are exploded. From simple ones like "all beer was dark back then" which is dealt with in a single sentence, to the common understanding that IPA was designed especially to survive the journey to India, when in fact brewers had long known how to create beers that would keep a very long time indeed in a cask. In fact, the chapter on IPA is a great story of serendipity and the evolution and spreading of a beer style. Of course the chapter on porter really explores a style of beer that became truly global in nature!
Being a history of beer in Britain, Cornell makes good use of references, and quotes from appropriate periods are scattered throughout. I love these not only as an insight into people's relationship with beer in history, but also for the sheer entertainment value of some. I particularly like, in the chapter on bitter (or "pale ale" as the brewers call it, another case of the consumer inventing the style), the account of a libel case from 1852 where a French professor had claimed that strychnine was being used in these beers to give them their bitter profile. The classic response from one Michael Thomas Bass was "Why, Sir, India would long ago have been depopulated of its European inhabitants had there been anything pernicious in pale ale".
You may have noticed I mentioned wheat beer in the second paragraph. Yes, Britain had a long tradition of making wheat, or white, beer. Even more interesting was learning that the fact that it hardly exists any more was due to a British-style Rheinheitsgebot which was imposed in 1697 as a direct result of England's war with France. As malt taxes were increased, the use of anything but malted barley in beer was prohibited to ensure a maximum revenue. This was not repealed until 1880, dealing a severe blow to the tradition of wheat beer in Britain. Despite this, outliers still continued to make this traditional beer, particularly in Devon and Cornwall, where eggs were also involved in the production of this "white beer". Fascinating stuff!
Other chapters give insights on the traditions of herb and fruit beers, the traditions of which again suffered due to the pressures of taxation pushing brewers to use hops. Although the use of wormwood, also a chief component of absinthe, may have been wise to curtail. The same chapter will be of great interest to anyone considering exploring unhopped beers.
A minor but noticible problem with this book is probably a result of the publishing process that keeps the cost so low. It could benefit from some copy editing as there are some repetitions in early chapters and the occasional sentence that appears a little jumbled, possibly from copy and pasting and not restructuring the sentence correctly. Page numbers would also be of help to those who wish to print it out and read it. The only other issue I had was with some sections where Cornell makes lengthy lists of breweries, their beers and OGs. In some cases I felt this broke the narrative, and they may have been better treated as tables for easy reference. These are minor quibbles however with what is undoubtedly a wonderful piece of research.
As a lover of beer, Amber Gold & Black is facinating as it shows that beer "styles" are living things, shifting slowly with public preferences, making dramatic leaps based on external influences such as government policy, war and taxation, and with a few exceptions, many of the beers we associate with a named style are quite different beasts to what they were in former times.
As an amateur brewer, the listing of gravity figures, grain bills and weatlh of information about historic beers inspires me to try to recreate, at a small scale, some of the monster brews that were commonplace 100 and more years ago.
Note: Martyn Cornell also regularly publishes excellent information on his blog under the Zythophile moniker. In some cases this is almost a supplement to the book, so is well worth a visit. Particularly the myth busting posts!