Tales from the Barley Field

One man’s quest for the perfect pint

Some change really is progress and beer is the perfect example. The Campaign for Real Ale, which started in Britain in the early 1970s, was a protest against the homogenization of beer that was a function of the big brewers buying up the pubs and filling them with wishy-washy products. And then came the era of micro-breweries. Real cask ale—no filtering, no pasteurization, secondary fermentation, no nitrogen or carbon dioxide.

Which brings us to Ian Coutts, author of The Perfect Keg: Sowing, Scything, Malting and Brewing My Way to the Best-Ever Pint of Beer. On the evidence of this book he is one of the funniest, bravest, most interesting and resourceful men on this planet. And best of all, he is a beer lover. So much so, in fact, that he set out to make his own beer from scratch. I do not know about you, but my idea of making beer from scratch is to go to a little store in the mall, where I buy a can of this and a package of that, and then they put it all in a boiler for me and I come back a couple of weeks later to bottle it. Not Ian Coutts. He really does start from scratch—water, barley, hops, yeast. An interesting thing one learns from Mr. Coutts is that hops is, relatively speaking, a recent addition to the brew. It was only in the ninth century that some German monks discovered that adding hop flowers to the mixture not only stopped it from going off but also gave it an interesting flavour. One more good reason to be thankful for not living in the eighth century, quite apart from the Viking raids.

Well, how do you start from scratch? Water is fairly straightforward. What about barley? First of all, you’ve got to find it. You do not just go into your local nursery and say “I’d like a hundredweight of barley please.” And when you do find it, and it is the right kind, you’ve got to plant it. Back in the 1970s Mrs. Ian Coutts (Catherine) and some friends right out of college bought a farm in the Ottawa Valley. Rather than just fantasize about organic farming, she and friends actually did it. There was land to spare. All it needed for the planting was a Victoria Day weekend, ten loads of cow poo from an obliging neighbour and a huge amount of hard work.

Hops were easy enough to start but then wilt struck. This is not a character from a Tom Sharpe comic novel, but an insidious form of disease that attacks hops. The cure apparently is a mixture of baking soda and “manure tea.” Don’t ask. The real problem is that hops need a year or two to mature and you don’t get much at first. A lot of care and worrying went into their well-being. But then it was the turn of the Japanese beetles. You know, there is something to be said for going to the mall and buying it all in cans. Especially when an August drought comes and your barley is starting to go under and so you are connecting up hoses used for the lawn and you are worried that the pump in the basement is going to burn out because you are forcing the water not to your nearby bathtub but halfway to Toronto and uphill all the way.

And so it goes. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you about the trip to a real brewery to learn some of the tricks of the trade. I will, however, share one of the gems that Coutts discovered. “Beer should never be taken rectally.” Which, in fact, leads me to wonder, why not? I had a graduate student once from California who would wax happily on the subject of tea enemas. So why not beer? Not that I plan on finding out, you understand. Although I suppose there must be some use for Bud Light.

Back on the farm, the hops were doing fine, but the barley was a disaster. “Everything I had read about barley had been false. No problem with weeds; just stick it in the ground and it comes on up. Oh, and it doesn’t need to be watered. Lies, lies, lies.” Fortunately a chap in Quebec came to the rescue, and a sufficiency was obtained. Ian Coutts did at least harvest it himself. I was amused to learn that the grower in Quebec, living on government subsidies, pretended to be Scottish and oppressed by the English, and so curried favour with the equally oppressed francophone civil servants who oversaw his business.

Was it cheating to use another man’s barley? Who cares? How can you criticize a chap who then went to work, in period costume, at the Black Creek Pioneer Village, in order to learn how beer is made authentically? “On Catherine’s insistence, I had not trimmed my beard or hair for several weeks. This, she assured me, would make me look more authentic; I told myself it made me look like the Unabomber. But that was too flattering.” On checking himself in the mirror, “I had that same, sheepish, self-conscious expression you see on a dog’s face when you dress it up in a shirt and tie.” But he did learn all sorts of wonderful things about mashing and worts and more. (And if you want to know what these are, buy the book, because the man really has earned it.)

Where do you get your yeast? Well, apparently you get it from bakers. And where do they get their yeast? Well, apparently from brewers. Very helpful. I am very glad and rather proud to say, to add the personal touch, that for advice Ian Coutts turned to the Ontario Agricultural College, part of the University of Guelph of which for 35 years I was a happy member, and a former colleague (Ron Subden) came to his rescue. I always say that if you want to know about yeast or about philosophy head west from Toronto about a hundred kilometres. The Coutts’s brew was off and running—or should one say bubbling?

I will pull back now. Read all about malting and that sort of stuff for yourself. The guy even searched out a real keg to put his beer into. I remember when I was a student at the University of Bristol, we started by being able to buy real kegs for our parties, but then about halfway through it all changed and aluminum was the order of the day. I am sure it was all better for us or some such thing, but I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. Beer should come out of a wooden barrel. And that is what happened to Ian Coutts’s perfect pint.

I will leave our author with the penultimate word concerning that historic barrel:

The keg itself is sitting downstairs right now. There is still some beer in it. The international beer expert suggested seasoning it by filling it with whiskey. A good idea, I think—especially if I distill it myself.

And perhaps, if we are lucky, turn that experience into a book as well.