Robert Cain's Winter Ale

In the 1860s brewing was becoming an industrial process. The ability to keep the fermentation warm in the winter and cool in the summer made it possible to brew year-round. In 1865 a young brewer called William Blackburn was working for Robert Cain at the Stanhope Street brewery, known then as the Mersey Brewery. While researching Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint I was privileged to be shown his brewing ledger by one of his descendents, whose family owned the Windsor Brewery in Parliament Street, which appears to have been bought from them half a century later by Higson’s. Blackburn’s ledger is a meticulous document outlining all his brews over a five year period.

In December 1866 Robert Cain’s brewery was producing large quantities of what it called ‘xxx ale’, a traditional brew for the brewery at this time of year. Sixty-one barrels of this ale were produced on December 4th, and then 62 on the 5th. A further 60 barrels were finished on the 7th and so it goes on roughly every other day until the end of the month, at which point Blackburn notes that the weather had been very cold–the winter of 1866 was notoriously hard–but the brews turned out ‘very fair’. We are lucky enough to have the recipe for this ale as Blackburn outlines it (this is exactly as written, spelling and capitalisation included):

December 4th, Brewed xxx ale. 1866

Malt 176 Bush’ of Whitworth

Hops 60lb of Kent 1865

Hops 30lb of Hereford 1865

Hops 28lb of Bavarians 1866

Piched at 57Tv 27G Barm 30lb

Finished at 68Tv 8G 61 Barrels

a good fermentation.

To get an idea of what this tasted like, compare the proportion of hops (bitter) to malt (sweet) from his ‘Bitter Ale’, brewed a few days later. Using three times the amount of hops (296lb) and less malt (128 bushels) to produce 62 barrels of finished ale, this would probably have been more bitter than the ‘xxx’, though William Blackburn complains that in this later brew there were too many old hops for a bitter ale–the Kentish hops he used were from the 1856 harvest, ten years earlier.

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