Historical beers – worthy homage or just a gimmick?

Thunder Road are set to release Terry’s Ale, an ale based on a recipe from the Carlton Brewery in the 1860s. The idea to recreate a beer from the past is a novel one and has attracted some attention in the media.

Is brewing such a beer a worthy attempt to give drinkers a glimpse into beers of the past? Or a bit like one of those Hollywood movies that’s “based on a true story” but is just a bit too liberal with the facts?

Recapturing the taste of beers from the past is always going to be difficult, as the equipment, conditions, science and technologies are going to be different. Balancing the need to recapture the conditions of the past while also utilising some of the innovations of today is a challenge, but I think drinkers will understand that these beers aren’t going to be an exact replica. The key is that as there is a genuine attempt to recreate the beer from the past.

I had the opportunity to try some beers from Pretty Things, a brewer in Massachusetts who worked with a beer historian to create beers from the past under the moniker Once Upon A Time.

The beers I tried were 1838 and 1945, which recreated mild ales from the same London brewery based on historical recipes from those respective years. The difference between the two beers was significant and was great to show the change in beers over this 107 year period. The1838 was a 7.4% golden-coloured beer with an almost ashy bitterness while the 1945, a 2.8% dark amber beer with some light toffee tastes.

I found the beers interesting – different to any contemporary beer I’d tasted, and I felt like they’d made a good attempt to recreate these beers from the past as far as I could tell.

They seemed to approach recreating a beer in the right way, writing on their website, “We do not interpret or attempt to commercialize these beers in any manner. In fact you have our pledge that if history presents us with a less-than-desirable beer, you will taste this beer as it was. That’s our unique commitment to you.”

I felt that Victoria brewer Red Duck were similarly committed to recreating the past with their releases such as Canute the Gruit, a medieval-style ale that was sour and smoky and ‘unhopped’, and the Ra, a reinterpretation of the first bread beers from Egypt! The beers were not for everyone but were certainly very different beers that were fascinating to try.

Some have expressed reservations about the Thunder Road’s intentions with Terry’s Ale. As I noted when I first visited the Thunder Road Brewery where there is a collection of historical beer items, I believe the owner has a real passion for brewing history. But at the same time, Thunder Road seem to have put off some beer lovers by seeking attention and by releasing ‘safe’ beers that have been more subtle than tasty.

The exercise of recreating a beer from the past can be worthwhile and I hope that Thunder Road doesn’t sacrifice too much on historical accuracy by trying to appeal to everyone. We’ll find out if that’s the case soon enough, with the beer slated to be first released to the public on March 20 at the Young and Jackson Hotel.

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