A Tale of Historic Beer

by theelvee_w2oe3m

Bethlehem brewer Chris Bowen is finally ready to finish his Arctic journey, but needs your help.  Arctic Alchemy, Bowen’s documentary about his brew-induced trek to uncover the history behind a beer, is in its final stages.   Bowen is running a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to help finish up the film.  We recently spent a day brewing with Chris and tasting historic beers while discussing the story behind his truly extraordinary experience.

Bowen’s home brewery


Let’s start off with a bit about Bowen’s home brewery.  It’s a shed.  The International Shed of the Year for 2011, actually.  His brewing system can put out 10 gallon batches.  The other, pub-style half of the shed is for, of course, consumption.  Throughout the day we brewed a seriously hoppy IPA.


If you’re not familiar with Bowen’s story (we’ll get to that in a bit), he’s a beer historian.  Fittingly, he brought some historic beers out of his private collection to taste throughout the afternoon.

The first was a George Gale Conquest Ale from 2001.  This, interestingly enough, was fairly young compared to the other beers we tried and by far the worst.  Whether it was some sort of unintended infection or it simply aged terribly, this one was flat out bad.  Very little carbonation and a funky smell with a slightly soured taste made this a shell of its former self.


Next up was a beautiful Thomas Hardy English Barleywine from 2005 that tasted divine.  My notes read, “liquid brown sugar.”  It was smooth, hid it’s relatively strong (11.9%) ABV pretty well, and was a pleasure to sip on.  After that we started getting into the really old stuff with a 1977 Ind Coope Silver Jubilee Strong Ale, brewed for the Silver Jubilee (25th anniversary of taking the thone) of Queen Elizabeth II.  This surprisingly opened with an audible sound, usually indicating at least some carbonation.  This was probably the highlight of the day.  The amount of nuanced flavors that remained the entire time this was bottled was particularly amazing. 

And last, but certainly not least, was John Smith’s Coronation Ale, brewed in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  This was understandably oxidized, however still exuded from very subtle flavors, but didn’t hold up nearly as well as the 25 year younger Silver Jubilee. 

So, why exactly is Mr. Bowen a beer historian and historical brewer and have a bunch of old beer hanging around?  Bowen was intrigued by an eBay auction where the beer was selling for an unreal half million dollars and set out to learn all he could about the beer.  His story takes numerous unbelieveable twists and coincidences, ending up with him taking a 2,000 mile trek to the Canadian Arctic to rebrew the beer that first enamored him.  The story is much more in-depth than that, and if you want to read more about the history (and you should), you can check it out over on Chris’s site

The best part about the whole story and trip?  Bowen, as we mentioned earlier, had the entire thing filmed and is in the final stages of finishing the documentary.  He’s asking for help, as he’s sunk a ton of personal money into the film already, in the form of a Kickstarter which offers various goodies for differing levels of donations.  So, check out the trailer below, Chris’s site for some more background on his inspiring project, and head over to Kickstarter and chip in a few dollars if you’re digging it.  Additionally, since it’s Lehigh Valley Beer Week, Bowen is hosting a screening of some select footage from the documentary and sampling a special barrel aged Arctic Alchemy at Bethlehem Brew Works on Saturday at 6pm.


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Amanda February 12, 2013 - 2:52 pm


Martyn Cornell February 13, 2013 - 1:34 pm

I’m not surprised about the George Gale, it was pretty poor for about the last 10 years at Horndean. Totally failed to mature in the bottle, flat and mawkish. Don’t be put off trying the Fuller’s version, though: vastly, vastly superiour, a fantastic beer when it has about four years of age on it.

The Ind Coope Silver Jubilee is interesting, I believe I have a bottle of that – have to search it out and try it.

George January 6, 2014 - 3:35 pm

Is there any background information on recipes etc for John Smith beers? I opened a Coronation Ale as well and still have one left, as well as some other 1950s beers including their Old Ale, but I can’t find any information about them on the internet. I tried searching Pattinson’s blog already. Cheers.

Brew Works Wins Big at GABF | The El Vee October 6, 2014 - 11:37 pm

[…] that Bowen worked on with a pair of Russian filmmakers.  For more information on Chris, check out our article about our day spent with him at his award-winning home brewery, and for more information on his astounding research behind the beer and documentary project, check […]


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