‘X’ Ales From Pretty Things

Photo: walknboston/Flickr

Lovers of micro-brews and history buffs will equally dig the two newest historical ales being turned out by Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project of Cambridge. The latest offerings from Somerville-based brewery Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project will take you back – way back. Specifically, to 1838 and 1945.

The two “X Ales” – one like an IPA, the other a mild brown – were released in March and are the fourth and fifth installments in Pretty Things’ Once Upon a Time project. They hail from old London brewery Barclay Perkins and are brewed from recipes for the same beer, made 107 years apart, using historically accurate conditions. That could account for anything from wartime grain shortages to antiquated manufacturing processes.

Pretty Things co-owner Dann Paquette said in a recent telephone interview that the project aims to explore the history of beer – and to show just how fluid it really is.

“We always assume what our grandfathers drank was equivalent to what their grandfathers drank, but that’s totally not true,” he said.

Pretty Things, already known for creativity in modern brews (e.g., Jack D’Or and Baby Tree), has been working with Amsterdam-based beer historian Ron Pattinson to recreate the right brewing conditions as faithfully as possible in order to turn out their X Ales.

“We put the dates on the bottles, so we have November 22, 1945 or whatever, and we’re really copying what the brewer did that day in the brew house,” Paquette said. “You have to kind of know the equipment they were working with back then. They had a different mindset – they thought of hops in a completely different way back then, and they weren’t serving beer to a specialty audience either. These were average Joes, off-the-street beer drinkers that they were making beer for.”

The “X” name is as in ‘XX’ or ‘XXX’ for more intense beers, making Pretty Things’ modern brews the standard mild beer, Paquette said, in Barclay Perkins’ original lineup. But while the beers were meant to fill the same niche, the history behind them makes them vastly different.

“No matter what they put in that bottle, that was going to be their X Ale,” he said. “You’re literally watching a beer try to play that same role 100 years later … but you just have such a great view from 1838 to 1945. Many wars.”

I think [we've] brought back flavors that people haven’t seen for a long time
– Dan Paquette, Pretty Things

The 1838 X Ale, brewed in a period Paquette called “Dickensian,” is 7.4 percent alcohol by volume, with bitterness and hoppiness like that of the modern American IPA (though unlike in the modern American IPA, Barclay Perkins was using old English hops).

“They were making strong beers primarily so that they would keep better because of the conditions, no refrigeration and things like this,” Paquette said.

The great English porter came into fashion in London soon thereafter and the 1838 X Ale went out of style. But 107 years and two world wars later, the porter had fallen from grace and was becoming harder and harder to sell.

“A beer industry that became dependent on porter all of a sudden didn’t have a big-selling dark beer,” Paquette said.

Enter the 1945 X Ale, Barclay Perkins’ new reigning mild beer. Paquette said it’s “not hoppy at all, and it’s brown, so you can see the remnants of the porter brewing culture in this beer.”

The other main feature of the 1945 X Ale, he said, stemmed from World War II: the barley and hops that typically came to London by sea were then at the mercy of the German U-boat. Hence, the 1945 X Ale is only 2.8 percent alcohol by volume – what Paquette called a “war-time alcohol content.”

But that alcohol content hasn’t deterred many local watering holes (like Deep Ellum and Sunset Cantina, spots Paquette called “good beer places”) from putting the 1945 on tap. The 1838, he said, has been even more popular and is still for sale at places like Blanchards Liquors in Allston.

Paquette said he hopes Pretty Things will be able to keep the Once Upon a Time project expanding.

“When we do these beers, we have to be perfectly ready to make a really bad beer, because it’s history, after all,” he said. “That said, we’ve loved every beer we’ve made, and I think it’s brought back flavors that people haven’t seen for a long time…It’s been a great opportunity to taste these flavors that you don’t even read about in books anymore.”

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