Interpreting Victorian beer ads

Only a particularly sad beer history geek – that is to say, me – would greet the excellent news that Fuller’s, the Chiswick brewer, has released a reproduction of a 7.5 per cent 19th century brew under the name Past Masters XX Ale with the cry: “Hang on, that’s not an XX – it’s too strong.” OMG, FST XX NTST. So I was relieved that Ron Pattinson, who was heavily involved in helping Fuller’s produce this new-old beer, the first in what is apparently planned to be a series of absolutely fascinating journeys back into the Griffin brewery’s brewing books, calls it an XX(K). Because an XXK is exactly what it sounds like: 1065 to 1075 or so OG, which would have sold at one shilling and sixpence a gallon wholesale, and seven pence a (quart) pot, at a time when actual proper XX was selling for four pence a pot. (And if that doesn’t sound much – a mere two pence a pint – according to this extremely useful site, 2d in 1890 is the equivalent, in average earnings, to £4.10 today.)

Victorian brewers in Britain had a fairly rigid hierarchy of beers in terms of gravity and price: each of the three main styles, ale, pale ale/bitter and porter/stout, would be sold at one of five or six “price points”, the price per gallon dictated by the original gravity. Not every brewer sold every beer at every price-point, but brewers sold, normally, nine to 12 different beers. The remarkable lack of inflation in Victorian Britain also meant that ales and beers kept the same retail prices from the 1840s through to the rises in tax that began with the Boer War.

Many of the names brewers gave the different brews were fairly standard: ales (remember, we’re talking about a time when ale was still different from beer, being less hoppy, and usually sold “mild”, that is, unaged) were almost always given an X designation, the more X’s, obviously, the stronger the ale. A light one shilling (1s) a gallon bitter ale was almost always called AK. Why? After 25 years pondering this question, I still have no good idea. The big London brewers all seem to have indicated their versions of Burton Ales with the letter K, and Ron Pattinson has amassed good evidence for this meaning “keeping”. But “K” can’t mean “keeping” in AK, because AK wasn’t a keeping beer. In addition, “K” can’t be taken to mean solely the Burton Ale style, or a keeping beer: other, smaller London brewers than the really big ones, as we shall see shortly, used “KKK” to indicate, for example, a pale ale, not a Burton Ale.

Putting that problem aside for a moment, here’s a table that should enable you to work out from any Victorian beer advertisement what the likely OG was of any beer in it, and also the likely retail price (if the ad only gives the price per firkin, or nine-gallon cask, double it to get the price per kilderkin, of course):

Beer name

OG

price/gal

price/kilderkin

retail price per quart pot

X mild ale
K light ale
Pale ale
Table ale

1035-40

10d

15s

3d

XX mild ale
AK light bitter ale
Bitter ale
Dinner ale
Common porter

1045-50

1s

18s

4d

XXX mild ale
XK or KK pale ale
‘Superior bitter”
PA
Single stout

1055-60

1s 4d

24s

6d

XXXX mild or old
XXK
KKK
Strong stock bitter/IPA
Double stout

1065-75

1s 6d

27s

7d

XXXXX strong ale
XXXK/KKKK
EIPA
No 2 Burton

1080-1095

1s 8d

30s

8d

No 1 Burton
Imperial stout
Christmas ale

1100+

2s

36s

12d

and here’s a pretty typical brewer’s advertisement, from Rogers of Bristol, in 1889, whose 1s a gallon AK bitter ale was so popular it was used as part of the brewery’s trademark (double-click on all these ads, btw, for much larger versions):

From the table, we can see that Rogers’ Light Bitter Ale and its X mild were around 1035-1040 OG; the AK Bitter Ale and the XX mild (the latter the typical 4d-a-pot “four-ale” mild of the Victorian public bar) around 1045-1050 or so; the stronger AKK bitter, the porter and the XXX mild ale were about 1050-1055; the pale ale, the single stout and the XXXX mild probably 1055 to 1060; and the IPA, the double stout and the XXXX “Extra Strong” (sic) 1065 to 1075.

Apart from the stronger mild ales being comparatively lower-gravity than normal for their designations, and the lack of any brew up in the 1080s OG or higher, that is a fairly normal Victorian price list. Here’s another one, from five years earlier, 1884, and further east, Adey & White, the biggest brewer in St Albans, Hertfordshire:

A&W, you’ll see, did a KKK stock ale at a price indicating an OG of 1090 or so, and an XXX mild ale that was rather stronger than Rogers’, at 1065 or 1075 OG. As you might expect, therefore, its XX mild ale was also priced at a level others would have designated as XXX. The X, at an XX price, is called a “Mild Beer”: I think they may mean “Mild Ale”, but only because “Mild Ale” is a commoner name for an “X” than “Mild Beer”. With the pale ales, the PA was at standard IPA strength, around 1065-1075, the BA bitter ale would have been 1055 or 1060 OG, and the AK was, as usual, 1045 to 1050 or thereabouts. The strongest black beer, Double Stout, was a typical 1065-75, the single stout again a typical 1055-1060 and the porter the standard 1050-ish. (I love, incidentally, the line urging customers to order corked fizzy drinks, such as ginger beer and lemonade, rather than ones in Codd’s patent glass-marble stoppered bottles if they liked “a good pure drink well charged with gas”. St Albans, the HQ for the Campaign for Real Pop.)

“X” certainly did not automatically mean an ale (that is, a low-hopped brew). Here’s a flyer from R&H Jenner & Sons of the South London brewery in Southwark (Miles Jenner, boss of Harvey’s of Lewes, is a descendant) from 1886 in which their XK light bitter ale is clearly the equivalent of AK.

Among the items of interest, Jenner’s called their IPA a “stock pale ale”, and at an OG, based on the price, of 1080 or more it shows that IPA in Victorian days COULD be a very strong beer (though normally it wasn’t); its mild ales were at typical prices (though Jenner’s knocked off 6d per firkin and 1s per kilderkin compared to the charge per pin) except for the XXXX stock ale, which, at 1080 or 1090 OG, was a little stronger than the standard XXXX; and the brewery sold five grades of porter/stout, partly because their single stout was a little weaker than normal, in the low 1050s OG or so, and they sold an “Extra Stout” at a normal SS price to make up; and partly because, like their near neighbours Barclay Perkins, they sold an Imperial Stout, theirs being probably 1090 OG or so.

However, even brewers in the same district did not necessarily stick to the same designations for their beers: here’s an ad for the Battersea Park Brewery, a short distance up the Thames from Southwark, in 1869 which shows the brewer making both an XK bitter ale, slightly stronger than Jenner’s, and a standard-for-the-style AK bitter ale. The brewery’s IPA was a more usual 1065-1075 OG, too, though its XXXX strong ale was priced like a 5X.

Some brewers called their slightly stronger pale ale KK, rather than XK: here’s an ad from A Gordon & Co of the Caledonian Road in Islington, London in 1889 where K Tonic Ale is at a price suggesting an OG of just 1040 or less, BA Bitter Ale is at the AK price of 1s a gallon, KK is in the low 1050s, from its price, and the IPA, which is also given the alternative name of KKK, was probably only in the high 1050s or low 1060s.

You’ll also have spotted that the mild ales all fit the table perfectly, except, again the XXXX strong ale, which ought really to be an XXXXX; the Stout and Double Stout are, again, a little on the low side, but there’s a fine-looking Imperial Double Stout. Other points: Double Stout is “Specially recommended for Nursing purposes”, and there was no bottled porter, but instead Cooper, a mixture of porter and stout.

Occasionally a brewer would not bother with anything other than X to indicate strength, regardless of style: here’s the little Gloucester brewery from Croydon, Surrey in 1875:

The X Bitter Ale is the same price as the XX Ale, and the XX Bitter the same as the XXX ale: there is no “X Ale” equivalent of the plain Bitter Ale, which at 7s 6d a firkin can only have been around 1040 or less OG: the Bitter Ale was probably sold only to family customers, who would have taken their time drinking even a firkin, and presumably a (low-hopped) Ale of that strength would have soured before it had been finished. The Gloucester Brewery is also one of the few I have seen to specifically advertise cask Cooper, at a price, as you would expect, halfway between Porter and Stout

Some brewers took a completely independent line on beer naming. Biden & Co of Gosport, Hampshire in 1876 used the K designation in an apparently unique manner:

I have no good explanation for the difference between, for example, XXX mild ale at a price suggesting an OG of 1070 or so, and K1 “Best Mild Ale” at the same price. It seems plausible that OK2 and OK3 Old Ales are aged versions of the K2 and K3 strong ales: certainly the price of the K3 means its OG was above 1100, and it would need some ageing if it was not to taste like gravy. But Biden’s look to have been eccentric: to call your 1045 OG pale ale PA and your 1050 OG pale ale AP is just perverse – and why name your IPA-strength pale ale “PAI”?

Several brewers seem to have charged more for the same ale if it had been aged: in 1884, ST Daniell of the Donyland Brewery in Colchester, for example, priced its XXX strong ale “mild”, or fresh, at 27s a kilderkin, say 1070 OG, while the same beer “Stock”, that is, aged, was 30s a kilderkin. As you can see below, Daniell & Co also had an idiosyncratic use of the K: their XXK was only 1050 OG or so, their XXXK weaker than their XXX. (Note the typo in that ad: the price per 18-gallon kilderkin for the XXXK should be 24s, not 34s.) And K is used on the mild ales, not the “keeping” ales.

Sometimes, as in this ad below by Lewis & Ridley of Leamington, in Warwickshire, from 1889, K is used very specifically as “half an X”: this XXK, for example, is clearly, at 21s a kilderkin, half way between the XX at 18s a kil and the XXX at 24s. Lewis & Ridley also demonstrate another occasional habit of Victorian brewers, making an “EIPA” (East India Pale Ale) that is stronger than their IPA, in this case around 1080-1090 OG for the EIPA, against a more normal 1065-1075 OG for the brewery’s IPA. Note the LS Strong Ale, which, on its price, must have been around 1095 OG or more, and the “Treble Stout”, “recommended specially for invalids”. Nothing like a pint or three of 1090 OG stout to get you up on your feet. Lewis and Ridley were unusual, for the time, in calling their stronger dark beers by the older name “brown stout”, not just “stout”: in the 1880s, it wasn’t so long ago that you could still get pale stout. Lewis & Ridley were also unusual in branding their 1s-a-gallon draught family ale, as “Gem” sparkling ale: within a few years, filtered and steam-pasteurised branded bottled family ales, advertised as clear and free from sediment, would storm through the market, eliminating the “cask at home” trade.

Despite the popularity of Burton Ale, and although brewers up and down the country were brewing the style by the end of the 19th century, it appears very seldom in brewers’ advertising, except in ads from the Burton brewers themselves. Here’s one of the few I have found, from T Norfolk & Sons of Deptford, south-east London, in 1895. It must have been, at 14s 6d a firkin, about 1085 OG, and it was labelled “AB”. The brewery’s “KKK” was a 1060 OG or so Bitter Ale, its “KK” a 1050ish Bitter Ale (and the XX a standard “four-ale” mild).

All the above were “local” brewers, and some were so small they may not even have had tied houses or sold to pubs, their market being local families who still bought ale and beer by the firkin or pin for home consumption. Their prices look to have been lower than those charged by the best-known brands: here’s an ad from the Ipswich Journal of 1871 which shows, for example, Barclay Perkins’s porter, brown stout and double brown stout all more expensive than the equivalents from smaller competitors. Similarly I doubt Bass’s “East India Pale Ale” was really the 1080 or more that the price of 30s a kilderkin might suggest: there is almost certainly a farthing-a-pint “brand name” premium involved, with the actual OG a more standard 1065 or 1070.

The Burton brewers, incidentally, or some of them, had very strange beer naming conventions: here’s an ad from the same newspaper showing that Allsopp’s called its IPA “D” (Worthington’s, of course, was called “E”), its “lowest strength” Strong Burton Ale “F”, the next one up “A” and the top-of-the range Burton Ale “C” (and what a mind-blower a kilderkin of that must have been, at 1100 or 1110 OG). Also of interest: the three brews called “Mild Burton Ale”, another illustration of the way Ale, of which Burton Ale was a subspecies, would be called “Mild” at one end of the strength spectrum, since the weaker versions were meant to be sold unaged, and “Strong” at the top end. I can’t be sure, incidentally, that the X designations on those milds weren’t the put on by the retailer rather than the names given to the beers by Allsopps themselves.

Ron Pattinson says Fuller’s new/old XX reminds him of a Burton Ale: I’m beginning to suspect that ALL Victorian Ales (that is, the lightly hopped, pale brews once carefully distinguished by brewers and drinkers from the hoppier Beers) tasted a bit like Burton Ale, and Burton Ale was a name picked up by other brewers for their strong Ales rather in the way so many wanted to call their 1065 OG bitter beer “IPA”, to grab some of the aura associated with the name. Anyway, here’s your chance to take part in a taste experiment: if you’re lucky enough to get hold of two or three bottles of Past Masters XX, try one against one or more of the following, which certainly ARE in the Burton Ale style: Marston’s Owd Rodger; Young’s Winter Warmer; McEwan’s Champion (actually a Scotch Ale, a sister style). You might also try it alongside Theakston’s Old Peculier, which is certainly in the “Ale” tradition, if perhaps not a Burton Ale in sensu stricto. Send in your feedback: Fuller’s XX, like a Burton or not?

0 thoughts on “Interpreting Victorian beer ads

  1. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that Fuller’s describe their 1845 as a Burton Ale, not sure how the Victorians would have described it: XXXX, XXK?

  2. Thanks very much for that Martyn. You’ve provided some more price lists and some codes I’d not encountered before.

    You have to be very careful with PA and IPA because these beers were relatively more expensive for their gravity than other types. Sometimes considerably so. Bass PA/IPA was only 1060-1065. Safest is to drop then down at least one price category. The same is true of aged beers.

    I’ve been trying to match price-lists and brewing records for years. Fullers is one of my successes:

    http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com/2009/01/fullers-beers-1887.html

    You’ll notice in there that there are three beers with the same OG of 1055: X at 40 shillings a barrel
    XK at 45
    Porter at 36

    There’s loads more I could discuss. But food is on the table . . .

  3. Nearly forgot, Fullers XXK is an earlier incarnation of Burton. When it was still a pale beer. It’s a bit difficult to compare with 20th-century Burtons.

    Pretty Things 1901 KK would be a better beer to compare with modern Burtons. Brewed just 10 years later, but so very different to XXK.

    It’s like a dream getting to taste these beers. Literally. I’ve had lots of beer drinking dreams. That one about being in a pub in Teheran with horizontal electric pumps. Weird.

  4. Martyn, Although I thoroughly enjoyed this I find myself trying to do the math to convert OG to ABV. I guess that the drinkers of the time had an idea of what OG ment in terms of relative strength of the beer but I’m afraid that I don’t. Regardless of what my kids think I really was not around then and I don’t know of any easy conversion to get some meaningful sense of the beer strength we are talking about here.
    Is there an easy conversion formula which does not require the FG of the beer?

    • Bruce, the trouble is that while you can make a rough stab at alcohol-by-volume from the original gravity, it depends very much on the attenuation, which can vary a great deal. As a rule of thumb you can knock the 10 off the front of the OG and put a decimal point before the first number on the right that then remains, so that a beer of 1055 OG will have an abv in the region of 5.5 per cent. However, if it’s a dark beer, drunk “mild”, that is , fresh, it might only have an abv of as low as 5 per cent, and if it’s a very strong beer, say 1130 OG, again the abv is unlikely actually to be 13 per cent: it’ll probably be only 11 or 12, not least because beer yeasts tend to give up in higher concentrations of alcohol. Conversely, a well-attenuated 1055 OG beer might reach 5.7 per cent alcohol, possibly higher still. So I prefer to leave the figures as OGs, especially when, as here, my estimate of the OG of any beer from its price is likely to be out by up to 10 points, maybe more …

    • Bruce,
      (Martyn correct me if I’m wrong) I think most 19th and early 20th century consumers probably inferred the strength of their malt liquor from it’s price, rather than it’s OG or ABV. Higher strength, equated to more raw material, and higher taxation on that material, which in turn, drove up cost on the final product.

  5. Three questions: 1) What is the difference between an Imperial Pint and a reputed one, as seen in the ad for Robt. Miller and Son? 2) What is the difference between ginger ale and ginger beer? They are both in the “Ærated Waters” section of Adey and White’s ad, so neither are alcoholic. 3) In the same ad, “Hot Tom” is advertised. What is it? Google gives me the “Tom and Jerry”, one of those frothy drinks made with eggs.

    • As I interpret it, a reputed pint is roughly a pint, but is not guaranteed to be exactly a pint.

      Ginger ale/ ginger beer seems the easy one. Today, ginger ale is the amber-coloured soft drink (Schweppes, Canada Dry, etc.) tasting of sugar, caramel and a light touch of ginger. Ginger beer is grey, cloudy and has a much fiercer ginger taste. But I am not certain that was the difference in the 19th century.

      On Hot Tom, your guess is as good as mine.

    • Ed, apologies for the long time before responding: to quote from my entry in the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Beer on bottle sizes:

      ‘Early beer bottles in the UK frequently came in sizes known as the “reputed pint,” equivalent to one-twelfth of an Imperial gallon, 13 Imperial fluid ounces, 378 ml, or the “reputed quart,” 26 fl oz. The reputed pint is close in size to the regular modern U.S. beer bottle size, the standard “longneck” 355 ml (12 U.S. fl oz). The reputed pint and reputed quart had been largely replaced in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century by bottles in Imperial pints and quarts, 568 ml and 1136 ml, respectively.’

      Can’t tell you what the difference between ginger ale and ginger beer would be, and as for Hot Tom … sorry, dunno!

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