A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier supposedly pictured learning from a Canadian First Nationer how to save his men from scurvey: but the chap with the buckskin suit and the metal axe with the tepees in the background looks like a Plains Indian 1,500 miles and 220 years away from home rather than a Huron

Early European explorers in North America had to be shown the healthy properties of the spruce tree by the existing inhabitants. When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36 on his second visit to the land he had named Canada, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree was probably White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, a member of the cypress family, rather than spruce. But later French settlers turned to spruce trees, a better source of Vitamin C, and thus a better way to combat scurvy, the curse of long-distance voyagers, than cedars. The secretary to the new French governor of Cape Breton Island, Thomas Pichon, writing in 1752, noted that the inhabitants of Port-Toulouse (now St Peter’s) “were the first that brewed an excellent sort of antiscorbutic [“la bière très bonne” in the original French], of the tops of the spruce-fir”, “Perusse” or “Pruche” in Pichon’s French.

Around the same time, the Swedish-Finnish botanist Pehr Kalm, who travelled in North America from 1748 to 1751, apparently found the French in Canada drank little else but spruce beer. In his letters to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he wrote:

“Among other liquors commonly drank in the European plantations in the North of America there is a beer which deserves particular notice; it is brewed from a kind of pine that grows in those parts and is by botanists called Abies Piccea foliis brevibus conis minimus [black spruce, Picea mariana]. The French in Canada call it Epinette and Epinette Blanche, the English and Dutch call it Spruce.” Spruce beer, Kalm said, “is chiefly used by the French in Canada; a considerable quantity is indeed made by the Dutch who live round Hudson’s river, in the most Northern parts, but the English seldom have it except in New England and New Scotland; because in Canada the tree is very common, but at Albany it is so scarce that the people are obliged to go some miles for it; and in the other English plantations it is hardly to be met with.”

Kalm gave much detail about the making of spruce beer, telling the Academicians:

“I had no opportunity to see the method of making this liquor used by the Dutch, but often drank it amongst them, and thought it very good. The account they gave me of preparing it is as follows: take 12 gallons of water and set it to boil in a copper; put into it about a pint and half or as much as can be held between two hands, of cuttings of the leaves and branches of the pine; let it boil about an hour, and pour it into a vessel, and leave it to cool a little; then put the yeast into the vessel to make the wort ferment; in to take away the resinous taste, put a pound of sugar amongst it. After it has done working, it may be put into hogsheads or barrels, but it is reckoned best to bottle it directly. It will keep a great while, and will not grow so soon sour in the summer as malt liquor. It looks clear and like common beer, has an agreeable taste, and when pour’d out of a bottle into a glass mantles like ale. It is reckoned very wholesom, and has a diuretick quality.


“When I afterwards came to Canada, I had several times an opportunity to see the French prepare this beer, which, as they use no malt liquor, is their only drink, except wine brought from France, which is pretty dear. Their way of brewing it is this: After having put the cuttings of the pine into the water, they lay some of the cones of the tree amongst it, for the gum which is contained in them is thought very wholesom; and makes the beer better. The French do not cut the branches and leaves of the pine nearly so fine as the Dutch; for if the branches are small enough to go into the copper, they do no more to them, and they measure the quantity no otherwise than by putting them into the till they come even with the surface of the water. While it is boiling they take some wheat, put it into a pan over the fire and roast it as we do coffee, till it is almost black; all the while stirring, shaking and turning it about in the pan, when that is done they throw it into the copper with some burnt bread.


“Rye is as fit for this purpose as wheat, barley is better than either, and Indian corn is better than barley. The reasons given me for putting this burnt corn and bread into the water are: 1st, and chiefly, to give it a brownish colour like malt liquor; 2nd, to make it more palatable; 3rd, to make it some more nourishing. When it has continued boiling till half the quantity only of the water remains in the copper, the pine is taken out and thrown away, and the liquor is poured into a vessel thro’ a sieve of hair cloth, to prevent the burnt bread and corn from mixing with it. Then some sirrup is put into the wort to make it palatable, and to take away the taste which the gum of the tree might leave behind. The wort is then left to cool after some yeast has been put to it, and nothing remains to be done before it is tunned up but skimming off what, during the fermentation, has risen up on the surface; and in four and twenty hours it is fit to be drank. As there is a great resemblance between the pine and that which is common in Sweden, it would be worth while to try whether ours could be made use of in the same manner.”

Black spruce

Black spruce, Picea Mariana

Kalm’s description of spruce beer brewing involved very little extra fermentable material, suggesting the French and Dutch found enough fermentable material in the spruce sap itself. However, John Claudius Loudon, writing in 1838, repeated an account of spruce beer brewing by the 18th century French physician, naval engineer and botanist Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-1782), apparently from the Traité des arbres fruitiers of 1768, clearly matching French Canadian practice, but with plenty of molasses or sugar:

“To make a cask of spruce beer, a boiler is necessary, which will contain one fourth part more than the quantity of liquor which is to be put into it. It is then filled three parts full of water, and the fire lighted. As soon as the water begins to get hot, a quantity of spruce twigs is put into it, broken into pieces, but tied together into a faggot or bundle, and large enough to measure about 2 ft. in circumference at the ligature. The water is kept boiling, till the bark separates from the twigs. While this is doing, a bushel of oats must be roasted, a few at a time, on a large iron stove or hot plate ; and about fifteen galettes [flat yeasty cakes], or as many sea biscuits, or if neither of these are to be had, fifteen pounds of bread cut into slices and toasted. As these articles are prepared, they are put into the boiler, where they remain till the spruce fir twigs are well boiled. The spruce branches are then taken out, and the fire extinguished. The oats and the bread fall to the bottom, and the leaves, &c., rise to the top, where they are skimmed off with the scum. Six pints of molasses, or 12 lb. or 15lb. of coarse brown sugar, are then added ; and: the liquor is immediately tunned off into a cask which has contained red wine; or, if it is wished that the spruce beer should have a fine red colour, five or six pints of wine may be left in the cask. Before the liquor becomes cold, half a pint of yeast is mixed with it, and well stirred, to incorporate it thoroughly with the liquor. The barrel is then filled up to the bung-hole, which is left open to allow it to ferment ; a portion of the liquor being kept back to supply what may be thrown off by the fermentation. If the cask is stopped before the liquor has fermented 24 hours, the spruce beer becomes sharp, like cider ; but, if it is suffered to ferment properly, and filled up twice a day, it becomes mild, and agreeable to the palate. It is esteemed very wholesome, and is exceedingly refreshing, especially during summer.”

Loudon also quoted “Michaux”, either the French naturalist Andre Michaux or his son Francois, as saying: “the twigs are boiled in water, a certain quantity of molasses or maple sugar is added, and the mixture is left to ferment,” and also: “The essence of spruce (which is what spruce beer is made from in this country) is obtained ‘by evaporating to the consistence of an extract the water in which the ends of the young branches of black spruce have been boiled.’ Michaux adds that he cannot give the details of the process for making the extract, as he has never seen it performed; but that he has often observed the process of making the beer, in the country about Halifax and the Maine, and that he can affirm with confidence that the white spruce is never used for that purpose.”

The British Army in North America looks to have learnt from the French the importance of spruce beer for treating and preventing scurvy: there is a strong argument for saying that spruce beer helped the British defeat the French and conquer Canada, by keeping troops healthy who would otherwise have fallen ill with scurvy. John Knox, born in Sligo, who served as an officer in North America between 1757 and 1760 with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, said the troops from New England temporarily occupying Louisbourg after its capture in 1745 were supplied with spruce beer, “this liquor being thought necessary for the preservation of the healths of our men, as they were confined to salt provisions, and it is an excellent antiscorbutic: it is made from the tops and branches of the Spruce-tree, boiled for three hours, then strained into casks, with a certain quantity of molasses, and, as soon as cold, it is fit for use.” When British troops were again involved in a campaign against the French in Nova Scotia in 1757, their commander, the Earl of Loudoun, had insisted on an allowance of two quarts of spruce beer per man each day, for which the troops paid seven pence in New York currency, equal to four and one-twelfth pence sterling, later increased to five pints a day.

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General Jeffrey Amherst

General Jeffrey Amherst, who followed the Earl of Loudon as commander in chief of British forces in North America, was equally insistent that the troops be well supplied with spruce beer, “for the health and convenience of the troops”, and a “Breweree” (sic) was set up when the British Army was camped at the head of Lake George in what is now north-east New York State in June 1759 with each regiment donating one man to help with the brewing, and instructions to allow five quarts of molasses to every barrel of spruce beer. When Amherst’s troops moved north to capture the French Fort Carillon, subsequently renamed Fort Ticonderoga, the next month, each regiment took with it eight barrels of spruce beer, with a barrel to each company of Grenadiers and “Light Infentry”. Amherst considered spruce beer important enough to record a recipe for it in his journal on 15 August 1759, involving boiling “7 pounds of good Spruce” until the bark peels off and adding three gallons of molasses to the spruce-water, to make 30 gallons of beer.

Later on at Ticonderoga, in 1776, after the fort had been captured by American forces from the British during the War of Independence, two enterprising sergeants in the 5th Continental Regiment from New Hampshire, William Chamberlin and Seth Spring, crossed Lake Champlain to gather boughs of spruce, brought them back and with two quarts of molasses and a “quantity” of “spicknard or Indian root” (American spikenard, Aralia racemosa, a member of the ginseng family) for added flavour, brewed a barrel of beer. It was instantly popular with the other troops, and Spring was sent to Fort George to bring back two barrels of molasses to make more beer to sell. After six or seven weeks, Chamberlin recorded, he and Spring had made three hundred dollars between them.

An edition of the physician Richard Brookes’s General Practice of Physic in 1765 said:

“Poor People that winter in Greenland under vast Disadvantages in point of Air and Diet, preserve themselves from the Scurvy by Spruce Beer, which is their common Drink. Likewise the simple Decoction of Fir Tops has done Wonders. The Shrub Black Spruce of America makes this most wholesome Drink just mentioned and affords a Balsam superior to most Turpentines. It is of the Fir Kind. A simple Decoction of the Tops, Cones, Leaves, or even of the green Bark or Wood of these, is an excellent Antiscorbutic; but perhaps it is much more so when fermented, as in making Spruce Beer. This is done by Molosses, which by its diaphoretic Quality, makes it a more suitable Medicine. By carrying a few Bags of Spruce to Sea, this wholesome Drink may be made at any Time. But when Spruce cannot be had, the common Fir-Tops used for Fuel in the Ship should be first boiled in Water, and then the Decoction should be fermented with Molosses; to which may be added a small Quantity of Wormwood and Root of Horseradish. The fresher it is drank the better.”

Four years later 1769 a book called The London Practice of Physic, listing treatments for scurvy, gave a recipe for spruce beer as follows:

Take twelve gallons of water and put therein three pounds and a half of black spruce, and boil it for three hours; then put to the liquor seven pounds of molasses just boil it up, strain it through a sieve when milk-warm, put to it about four spoonfulls of yeast to work it; it soon becomes fit for bottling, perhaps in five or six days.

Later versions of this recipe said it was called “chowder beer” and claimed it originated in Devon, adding that “two gallons of melasses [sic] are sufficient for a hogshead of liquor, but if melasses cannot be procured treacle or coarse sugar will answer the purpose.”

Captain James Cook experimented with spruce beer on his second voyage to the Pacific, from 1772 to 1775, making a batch when he arrived in New Zealand. Cook wrote:

“We at first made it of a decoction of spruce leaves [the spruce Cook used was the New Zealand rimu, Dacrydium cupressinum]; but finding that this alone made the beer too astringent, we afterwards mixed with it an equal quantity of the tea-plant, (a name it obtained in my former voyage from our using it as tea then as we also did now) which made the beer extremely palatable, and esteemed by every one on board [this was the mānuka, Leptospermum scoparium, found in New Zealand and south-east Australia]; we brewed it in the same manner as spruce beer, and the process is as follows: First, make a strong decoction of the small branches of the spruce and tea-plant, by boiling them three or four hours, or until the bark will strip with ease from off the branches; then take them out of the copper, and put in the proper quantity of molasses, ten gallons of which are sufficient to make a tun, or two hundred and forty gallons of beer; let this mixture just boil; then put it into the casks, and to it add an equal quantity of cold water, more or less, according to the strength of the decoction or the taste: when the whole is milk-warm, put in a little grounds of beer or yeast, if you have it, or any thing else that will cause fermentation, and in a few days the beer will be fit to drink. After the casks have been brewed in two or three times, beer will generally ferment itself, especially if the weather is warm. As I had inspissated juice of wort [a concentrated form or wort the Admiralty was experimenting with in the hope that it could be used to make beer on long voyages on board], and could not apply it to a better purpose, we used it together with molasses or sugar to make these two articles go farther.”

Cook and his men brewed spruce beer in New Zealand again in February 1777 on his third and last voyage to the Pacific, and also in April 1778, at Nootka Sound on the Canadian west coast, where enough beer was brewed “to last the ship’s company for two or three months”. When Cook’s two ships reached Unalaska Island in the Aleutians early in October 1778, Cook recorded that both crews were free of scurvy, putting this down in part to the spruce beer, which was drunk every other day.

Essence of Spruce ad 1777Spruce beer, (not strictly, of course, a “beer”, since it was not made from malted grain) was meanwhile taking off in Britain thanks to the invention of in Canada of “essence of spruce”. Essence of spruce was advertised in Lloyd’s Evening Post in London in February 1770, but only as a cure for “Scorbutic Complaints”, with no mention of brewing with it. The following year, Dr Henry Taylor, of Quebec, patented “a method of producing an essence or extract of spruce so perfect that one pound and a quarter will make sixty gallons of fine spruce beer which will be fit to drink in three days in any climate.” Taylor’s method was to place “tops or small branches” of spruce in a still, distil off half the liquor, with “all the essential oil on the top of the glass … to be carefully saved”, then run the “residuum” in the still into a boiler where there were more “fresh tops or branches of spruce” and boil that up to reduce it. The residuum was then to be boiled again with fresh spruce tops or branches, and then the “essential oil” mixed in.

The Royal Navy quickly picked up on Taylor’s invention. A letter that year, 1771, from the Admiralty to the Treasury refers to “essence of Spruce” from Quebec, “which when brewed into beer may be of great service to the navy in preserving the seamen from scurvy.” Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, who was in command of the North America Station at the start of the American War of Independence, wrote in a letter to the Secretary of the Admiralty Board from Boston, Massachusetts in September 1775 that “The Seamen always continue healthy and active when drinking spruce Beer”, and in the log of the 70-gun HMS Boyne, one of the ships under Graves’s command, are many entries of butts of spruce beer taken on while it was lying in Boston harbour in 1774-1775. (Spruce beer was still being brewed for Royal Navy ships in 1807.)

Taylor had a partner in patenting the essence, Thomas Bridge, of Bread Street, London, and by April 1774 Bridge was boasting in print that he had the rights to “the sole making and vending the said Essence.” Bridge told prospective customers that one hogshead of essence would make five hundred hogsheads of beer, and a pound and a quarter of it would make 63 gallons of beer that “may be brewed with very little trouble at sea or land, without fire … and will be fit for use in three or four days. It was, he said, “a excellent table beer, is the best anti-scorbutic yet discovered, is also a fine substitute for malt liquor to people afflicted with the stone, gravel and many other disorders,, as it is allowed to be a great purifier of the blood, by dissolving all viscid juices, opening ostructions [sic] of the viscera and the more distant glands.” By 1784 Bridge was not just supplying the essence, but also brewing “the best double American spruce beer” himself at his premises in Bread Street, “under the inspection of a gentleman long used to that business in America”, and selling it in both bottles and casks.

He had a rival, J Ellison, of St Alban’s Street, Pall Mall, and Red Lion Street, Whitechapel, who ran a lengthy advertisement on the front of the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser in September 1783 proclaiming that the virtues of spruce beer could be credited to the large amount of “fixable air” – carbon dioxide – it contained, and claiming that experiments carried out under the instructions of “Dr Higgins” – Bryan Higgins, a scientist who ran a “school of practical chemistry” in Soho, London in the 1770s – showed a gallon of spruce beer would release nearly two gallons of “fixable air” when the cork was removed from the bottle, “which … cause the intumescence and frothing which always appear when a bottle of good of Spruce Beer is quickly uncorked.” Summoning the names of several more contemporary scientists, including Joseph Priestley and Dr Joseph Black, Ellison said they all agreed that “fixable air” was “a powerful and a necessary part of the fluids and solids in sound bodies”, and to fixable air was ascribed “the most salutary effects in diverse diseases.” Since spruce beer “contains so great a quantity of this active spirit,” Ellison said, “it may fairly be inferred that the Spruce Beer is most salutary which is made to retain the greatest quantity of fixable air,” something he was “particularly attentive to.”

'What say we get it on, kid? After all, we both like spruce beer.' '"I'm vewry sorry, M Knightley, I could never grant my lifelong affections to a man who wore hats like that.'

‘What say we get it on, kid? After all, we both like spruce beer.’ ‘I am so very sorry, Mr Knightley, truly, and I am most flattered by your expressions of regard, which I cannot but be sensible are most undeserved, but I could never bring myself to give my heart and hand for life to a man who wore a hat like that.’

Jane Austen liked spruce beer, agreeing with the anonymous author of The Family Receipt-Book or Universal Repository of Domestic Economy, published 1808, that “The salubrity of spruce beer is universally acknowledged.” Indeed, she liked it enough to make it herself, at home, more than once. In a letter dated December that same year to her sister Cassandra from Castle Square in Southampton, where Jane was living in the home of her brother Frank, then a captain in the Royal Navy, she wrote: “we are brewing Spruce Beer again”, with an oblique joking reference to the great porter casks of Henry Thrale, the former owner of the Anchor brewery in Southwark. In Emma, written in 1815, both Emma Woodhouse and her lifetime friend, the landowner George Knightley, admit to a liking for spruce beer, and Mr Knightley gives the local vicar, Mr Elton, who has “resolved to learn to like it too” (probably to try to ingratiate himself with Emma), tips on brewing it. It is more than likely that Jane Austen had been introduced to spruce beer by her brother, who had joined the Royal Navy in 1786, and had a reputation as a commander concerned with the welfare of his men.

Though it was “disagreeable to the taste of many”, spruce beer was a popular drink in Georgian Britain, with The Family Receipt Book declaring that “notwithstanding its invincible terebinthine flavour,” it “forms so refreshing and lively a summer drink, that it begins to be greatly used in this country.” Local newspapers carried advertisements for the imported spruce essence needed to make it, and for local retailers who sold it. J. Lambe, “Purveyor to his Majesty, at his Warehouse, New Bond-street” in London was advertising that he made and sold “the best double American Spruce Beer, which on trial by those who have been in America, will be found of a finer flavour than can be made there from the fresh branches.”

An advert in the Hampshire Chronicle of 5 May 1790 for “essence of Canadian spruce” sold in pots for two shillings and sixpence a time “with directions for making it into Beer” listed more than 20 retailers around the county where it could be brought, including Skelton and Macklin in Southampton, while the City Coffee House, Bath, for example, was advertising in July 1800, a few months before the Austen family moved there, that it sold “Bottled Cyder, Beer, Porter and Spruce Beer”.

The Family Receipt Book gave instructions on how to make spruce beer at home that must have been very close to the method the Austen household used:

“The regular method of brewing spruce Beer, as it is at present in the best manner prepared, and so highly admired for its excessive briskness, is as follows: Pour eight gallons of cold water into a barrel; and then, boiling eight gallons more, put that in also; to this add twelve pounds of molasses, with about half a pound of the essence of spruce; and on its getting a little cooler, half a pint of good ale yeast. The whole being well stirred, or rolled in the barrel, must be left with the bung out for two or three days; after which the liquor may be immediately bottled, well corked up and packed in saw-dust or sand, when it will be ripe and fit for drink in a fortnight. If spruce beer be made immediately from the branches or cones, they are required to be boiled for two hours, after which the liquor is to be strained into a barrel, the molasses and yeast are to be added to the extract, and to be in all respects treated after the same manner. Spruce beer is best bottled in stone; and from its volatile nature, the whole should be immediately drank when the bottle is once opened.”

Twelve pounds of molasses was the equivalent to a bushel of malt, according to a commentator in 1725, so the Family Receipt Book’s recipe would produce 16 gallons – half an ale barrel – of beer of somewhere between 5 per cent and six per cent alcohol by volume.

There is some evidence that American-brewed spruce beer came across the Atlantic: on Thursday 17 February 1785, 158 gallons of spruce beer were auctioned off, along with other goods including tea, coffee, wine and rum, at the Custom House in Bristol, a port more likely to deal with ships from the Americas than from the Baltic. There were certainly commercial spruce beer breweries operating in the United States that could have supplied it: Medcef Eden was advertising his “double spruce beer”, “to be sold at my brewery, Golden Hill,” New York in the Independent Journal in May 1785, for example. American-brewed spruce beer was , at least occasionally, made with hops: a recipe in the New Haven Gazette from 1788 included two ounces of hops –a quarter of the amount used in a recipe for malt beer – and two quarts of bran, together with “one bundle” of spruce and four gallons of molasses to make a barrel of beer.

Spruce brewery London 1806However, plenty of British entrepreneurs were making American-style spruce beer for those who, unlike the Austens, did not wish to make their own. The Observer newspaper on 25 August 1799 carried two separate advertisements on its front page for “genuine American spruce beer” sold by Brown’s Wine Vaults and Italian Warehouse in Paradise Row, Chelsea and “Hickson’s celebrated Spruce Beer … just becoming properly ripe for drinking”, available from William Hickson at his Oil and Italian Warehouse in the Strand. One maker in 1804 in Craven Street, just off the Strand in London, was selling “Imperial Spruce Beer”. There was another spruce beer brewery operating in London, Lowthorp & Co, in the Lambeth Road, around 1806, selling White Spruce “of a most beautiful colour and flavour, almost equal to Champaigne [sic]”, as 12 shillings a dozen bottles, and “fine Brown at 6s per dozen, for Ready Money” (white spruce beer was made with lump sugar, brown with treacle or molasses), and another in Dublin around the same time, John Russell’s American Essenced Spruce Beer Brewery, claimed to have startedb in 1802. (Spruce beer’s success was helped Spruce beer brewery Dublin 1807by the fact that several Acts of Parliament, most notably in 1795/6, had established that no magistrates’ licence was needed to sell it.) John Munro, grocer and porter dealer, 10 South Frederick Street, Edinburgh, was advertising in 1804 “Fine Double Spruce Beer” at two shillings and six pence a dozen bottles, table spruce beer 2s, “Families who make their own Spruce, supplied with the Patent Essence and London Molasses on the most reasonable terms.” By 1806 the black spruce tree was growing in Britain, having been brought over from North America, and according to Richard Shannon, the inhabitants of Devon, Cornwall and Yorkshire were all making spruce beer from that tree and the Norwegian Spruce, which was also now being grown in the country.

Pedley spruce beer 1819In a few years, however, American-style spruce beer began to lose its popularity in Britain, perhaps because now the Royal Navy was using lime and lemon juice as its main defence against scurvy. Essence of spruce for making spruce beer was still being advertised for sale in 1819, by Pedley and Company of Oxford Street, London, who also made “highly carbonated” white and brown spruce beer themselves, as well as ginger beer and soda water. When William Parry’s second Arctic expedition left from London in 1821, each ship carried provisions for three years that included 144 bottles of essence of spruce and 1,200 pounds of molasses, but also 4,500 pounds of lemon juice in five-gallon casks (and 120 canisters of “essence of malt and hops”, each one enough to brew a barrel of brown stout, as well as 4,000 gallons of rum, eight tons of pork, five tons of potatoes, and much else). Mr Pedley died in 1821, and at the end of that year his executors put up for auction much of the equipment at his Oxford Street premises, including “two very expensive Soda Water Engines with metallic barrels, pumps etc by Bramah and Galloway, 700 dozen stone bottles, 1,500 gross of corks, 12 hundredweight essence of spruce”, and “part of a hogshead of molasses”. It looks as if Pedley may have been Britain’s last commercial essence of spruce brewer. “Viner’s Essence of Spruce, sufficient for 18 gallons of superior White Spruce Beer, price 3s 6d per bottle with proper directors” was still being advertised for sale in 1825 for do-it-yourself spruce beer brewers, but looks to have vanished off the shelves soon after. Imported essence of spruce was still being taxed at 10 per cent ad valorem in the 1840s, later changed to 2s 6d a pound: but in 1856 the tax brought in just £1, and 1867 it was declared that not one drop had been imported the previous year

Shall we call this new British beer style – Hoppy Light Ale?

A new British beer style is being born as you read this. Indeed, “being born” is almost certainly wrong: “building up bulk” is probably much better, since it’s been on bar tops, arguably, for at least 15 years, albeit without being properly recognised and catalogued as the fresh branch in the evolution of pale ale that it is.

Redemption Trinity light ale

Redemption Trinity light ale: a classic modern Hoppy Light Ale

This new style of beer is, effectively, the British equivalent of the American “session IPA” or “Indian session ale“, though not inspired by those beers, which are still often stronger, at 5 per cent abv or more, than a British session beer would ever be. Instead the new brews take the floral, tropical hoppiness of a typically strong standard American Pale Ale or IPA and presents that at a much more comfortable UK session strength, 4 per cent alcohol by volume and below.

As with all truly sustainable movements, this has been an example of push and pull: demand was pushed by the makers, individual brewers deciding that they wanted to brew just such a beer, crossing true sessionability with dramatic New World hop flavours, and pulled by consumers, drinkers who had been converted to loving American hops and were very happy to find drinks with all the American IPA taste assertiveness they wanted but low enough in alcohol that they could comfortably have several pints over an evening, not something that is possible with your usual Seattle or San Diego hop soup thumper.

As the trend spread, it seems to have escaped recognition as a different style of British beer, not the least reason being, I suspect, that there wasn’t an easy name to apply to this new family of brews, the way Golden Ales, the last new British beer style, could be badged and corralled back in the 1980s when they initially arrived, with a name based just on their colour. Mark Dredge was one of the first to spot that there was actually a new movement happening, putting a selection of similar low-gravity but hop-filled British brews into a chapter in his 2013 book Craft Beer World and calling the category “pale and hoppy session beers”. His examples included Moor Revival (3.8% abv, brewed with Columbus and Cascade hops); Cromarty Happy Chappy (4.1%, Columbus, Cascade, Nelson Sauvin and Willamette); Hawkshead Windermere Pale (3.5%, Goldings, Fuggles, Bramling Cross and Citra); and Buxton Moor Top (3.6%, Chinook and Columbus). Mark also gave an excellent definition of the category:

Hawkshead Windermere Pale“The love for American Pale Ales and their citrus and fruit-forward hops, combined with the British drinking culture of going to the pub and sinking a few pints, has pushed these beers ahead and created a new British beer style … hitting somewhere between 3% and 4% abv, these beers, pale straw to gold in colour, are made to be refreshing, light in body, powerfully hopped, dryly bitter and drunk all day long. Bitterness can be very high set against the lightness of the alcohol, reaching 50-plus IBUs, although typically it’ll be in the 30s … it’s the hops that elevate this from a Golden Mild or Bitter: brightly aromatic, full of fruitiness, and often crisply bitter at the end with a dryness that makes you want to drink more – it’s the combination of huge hop flavours and the quenching bitterness that best defines these beers.”

Fremlins light ale

Light ale – the ancestor of Hoppy Light Ale?

As a name to label this new category with, however, “pale and hoppy session beers” fails to satisfy: the three descriptors could equally fit American-style “Indian session ales”, and it does not emphasise the most important differentiator: these beers are less strong than their American equivalent. However, there is a solution we can find in the history of British brewing. Throughout most of the 20th century, brewers in the UK would make two different strengths of bitter beer, often called ordinary bitter, at 3.8 per cent abv or less, and best bitter or special bitter, 4.2 per cent to 4.8 per cent or so, and each had its bottled equivalent, where the stronger was called pale ale and the weaker one light ale. What we are trying to find a name for is hoppy, but weaker than American hoppy pale ales – it’s hoppy light ale.

I am sure many are now going to argue that Hoppy Light Ale is not a separate thing from hoppy pale ale: Boak and Bailey discussed “pale and hoppy session beers” in All About Beer magazine in November and traced the roots of the style back to Sean Franklin’s Rooster brewery’s Yankee from 1993. They also threw Oakham Brewery’s Jeffrey Hudson Bitter and the same brewery’s Citra into the “pale ’n’ hoppy session” bin. But for me, Yankee was Franklin’s attempt to make Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at a strength (4.3 per cent) Britons would be comfortable with, rather than specifically aiming for a session hoppy beer, while JHB is a Golden Ale (in the Venn diagram of beer styles, it cannot be denied, Golden Ales and Hoppy Light Ales overlap somewhere between a little and a lot) while Citra, at 4.2 per cent, is also too strong.

Dark Star Hophead

Dark Star’s pioneering Hophead Hoppy Light Ale

You can go right back to beers such as Hartley’s much-missed ordinary bitter from Cumbria, just 1031OG but mouth-warpingly rammed with hops, and similar brews in the now effectively vanished North West of England style of very pale, very bitter beers, such as Boddingtons before Whitbread wrecked it, to show that the new Hoppy Light Ales have a pedigree rooted in an English tradition of pale ’n’ hoppy ’n’ weak. But these were beers made with traditional English hops, not New World ones. If you are looking for the real pioneer in the Hoppy Light Ale category, it has to be Dark Star’s Hophead, I suggest. Brewed since 2001 at 3.8 per cent alcohol, and using Cascade and Amarillo hops and Extra Pale malt with a tough of Caramalt, it’s the brewery’s most popular beer, it actually self-describes as “light and hoppy”, and I strongly suspect it has influenced many of the Hoppy Light Ales that have arrived since then, from Burning Sky’s Plateau (3.5 per cent) to Redemption’s Trinity (3 per cent – which brewer Andy Moffat specifically labels a “light ale”, it being weaker than the next beer up in his range, Redemption Pale Ale). It is revealing to see how the Camra Good Beer Guide‘s description of Hophead altered over the years: until 2006 it was merely “a light, hoppy, refreshing bitter”, but in 2007 that changed to “Wonderfully hoppy and clean-tasting … flavours remain strong to the end”. It looks like this was the time Britain became properly in love with, and appreciative of, American hops.

The country is also increasingly in love with lighter-coloured ales. Last year Mitchells & Butlers’ Nicholson’s chain, which controls 80 or so cask ale-oriented outlets, revealed that sales of paler-coloured ales were up 25% in its pubs, at the expense of traditional amber-coloured bitter. Its top-selling beers in volume terms were still traditional amber ales, it said, but with the introduction of new hops from countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand, “customers are opting for more lighter-coloured ales.” Paler ales flavoured with New World hops are a great entry for lager drinkers, Nicholson’s said, “appealing equally to both men and women”. More evidence to back a prediction that the Hoppy Light Ale category will grow and grow.

Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look

The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

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Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement

I gave a presentation in Denmark to a conference called to discuss “Ny Nordisk Øl” – “New Nordic Beer” – on “Beer and terroir from an international perspective” on Friday November 7. This, slightly tweaked, expanded in a couple of places and cut in a couple more, is that presentation.

The brewers of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are already enthusiastically making beers that reflect the place they are made, using local ingredients: you can read about some of those beers here. But what the Ny Nordisk Øl movement is doing is just part, albeit a tremendous part, of a wider movement to get away from internationally reproducible styles of beer, a movement that is finding expression in North America via campaigns such as “Beers made by walking about” and by brewers such as the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco, the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, the Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois and Plan Bee brewery in New York state, in Italy, in New Zealand, and in Australia, most eloquently by Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall brewery in Tasmania.

As I researched for my presentation, it became clear that the “place-based beer” movement is a growing global phenomenon, albeit as yet those engaged in it often seem unaware that others are fighting a similar crusade. This is a long blog but, I hope you’ll agree, fascinating in its implications for the future of craft beer.

Beer and terroir coverBefore I begin talking about beer terroir, it would be best to say exactly what I mean by the term in the context of brewing, what I think you need in order to be able to say that a beer has characteristics that fall under the name “terroir”, and some of the problems of trying to talk about “beer and terroir”.

There are plenty of complicated ways of defining “terroir”, and what it takes for “terroir” to be reflected in a beer. But the one I like best was said by an American craft brewer who said he was attempting to achieve in his beers “the essence of here”.

How do you achieve “the essence of here”? In beer, there are, I hope you will agree, six major variables that affect the “hereness” of a beer: Continue reading

Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

I have a new “magic beer moment” to savour: drinking 13-year-old Carlsberg Special Brew in the cellars of the Jacobsen brewery in Copenhagen.

den Lille Havfrue

If you’re in Copenhagen you do, really, have to go and pay your respects to den Lille Havfrue

Actually, that was just one of a number of great moments during my trip to Denmark earlier this month to talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” to a bunch of brewers not just from Denmark, but Norway and Sweden as well, as part of a conference in the town of Korsør organised by the New Nordic Beer movement (Ny Nordisk Øl, pronounced roughly “noo nordisk ohl”). The men leading the campaign are two brewers, Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of the award-winning Copenhagen brewery Nørrebro Bryghus, and Per Kølster of Kølster Malt og Øl in the appropriately named village of Humlebæk – “Hops Creek” – north of Copenhagen, and PR man Christian Andersen. The idea of Ny Nordisk Øl is to forge a distinctly Nordic take on brewing, using Nordic traditions and, most especially, Nordic ingredients – not just flavourings, such as heather, sweet gale and wormwood, but yeast and other micro-organisms sourced specifically from a Nordic environment, in just exactly the same way as the New Nordic Cuisine movement has fused tradition and modernity to create a style of cooking that is rooted in a place and yet free to experiment (the success of which effort can be judged by the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, short for “Nordisk Mad”, or “Nordic Food”, which is one of the leaders of New Nordic Cuisine, has been voted “best restaurant in the world” by its peers in four out of the past five years). In a world where the craft beer movement seems intent on replacing one kind of ubiquity – bland Big Brewer lager – with another – highly hopped fruit-salad pale ales – it’s a trumpet-call to battle on behalf of individualistic, rooted, idiosyncratic beers, made by brewers intent on arriving at something that could only have been made in one place and at one time, that excites me greatly.

Hærvejs Lyng

Hærvejs Lyng heather beer: the ‘hær’ in Hærvejs is the same as the here in Hereford

Judging by the number of highly enthusiastic Nordic brewers I met in Korsør – I’m guessing, but there must have been 50 or 60 attendees – and the excellent Ny Nordisk Øl-inspired beers I drank there, it’s a movement with a good weight of support behind it, and terrific results to show those wondering if “beer terroir” is just a gimmick. There have been various names given to the sort of products brewers involved in the Ny Nordisk Øl movement are making, but the one I like best comes from the United States – “place-based beers”. Fortunately I was able to tell the Nordic supporters of “place-based beer” that they are far from alone. In the United States, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Italy and France, there are plenty of others pursuing the same goal, of making beers with what one American called “the essence of here” in them. (I’ll be putting up my presentation on this blog, and naming names, later in the week). The bad news is that in what one might call the “Old World”, there is much less interest in the concept of “beer terroir”.

Hø Øl, or 'Hay Ale',

Mark Hø Øl, or ‘Hay Ale’, once brewed in Britain

One of the ironies of trying to find “beer terroir” today is that once, of course, all beers were local, and reflected their local environment, local ingredients (local hop varieties, “land-race” strains of barley, local water, local yeasts) and local traditions. Porter, the world’s first “industrial” beer, the popularity of which powered the growth of what became the world’s largest breweries at the time, was developed in London as a local beer for local people, satisfying the desire of the city’s working classes for a refreshing calorie-filled beer, brewed using brown malt made in Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 miles to the north, hops from Kent, just to the east, and London well-water, full of calcium carbonate, which helps make good dark beers; matured using giant vats, a technique invented by and originally unique to London brewers; and served using methods of blending old and new beer specifically reflecting customers tastes, while being drunk with foods it was regarded as a particularly fine accompaniment to: boiled beef and carrots, for example, a very traditional old London dish. Even pilsner, the most widely reproduced beer style in the world began as a beer very much reflecting its Bohemian locality: made with Moravian malted barley, local Saaz hops and its home town’s particularly soft water. Coming from the other direction, brewing traditions that are still deeply rooted in the local landscape – in particular the Belgian brews such as Lambic – now seem to be as reproducable as pilsen became, and almost as global. Every American brewer seems to want to make a Belgian ale laden with Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and they can buy that yeast right off the shelf, rather than having to move to Payottenland. When you see a brewery in Britain making a Gooseberry Gose, a variation on a style of beer from Saxony that was effectively unknown until a few years ago, you know you’re living in a world where “local” appears to mean very little.

Xperimentet No 2, beiitered with sea wormwood ('strandmalurt' in Danish

Xperimentet No 2, bittered with sea wormwood (‘strandmalurt’ in Danish)

Which is what the supporters of Ny Nordisk Øl are fighting against – and although they don’t have many fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, it’s to be hoped that when other brewers start tasting the beers that Ny Nordisk Øl has inspired, it will spur them to produce ales that reflect their own places. Here are my notes on some of the “place-based beers” I tried in Denmark: An unlabelled (IIRC – although I may just have failed to record the name) ale brewed with sea wormwood (less bitter than the wormwood used in absinthe), camomile and sea buckthorn, three popular flavourings with Nordic brewers seeking to make a hopless ale. This had a lovely, deep, tongue-coating, very up-front bitterness, a pale, slightly cloudy appearance, a mouthfilling rotundity, and finally a sweetness under a full, vegetally/weedy flavour. Ny Nordisk Hærvejs Lyng from the Vyborg Bryghus: a hop-free heather beer with a massive nose of honey, and liquid honey in the mouth but with a sharp tart lemony undertone, lightly petillant with no head. It’s alcoholic lemon and honey cough sweets. (The ale is named for the Hærvejen, or “Army Way”, a road that runs down the Jutland peninsula from Viborg to, eventually, Hamburg.) Continue reading

Second thoughts on the mysterious origins of AK

There are times when the honest historian has to put his hand up and say: forgive me, for I was wrong. Prompted by a sharp dig from Ron Pattinson, I’ve finally withdrawn a piece I wrote six years ago about the origins of the beer designation AK, in part because research by Ron has made my stance untenable. I suggested that the K in AK came from koyt, the name of a hopped beer found in the Low Countries and Northern Germany in the 15th century and later, and the A was from ankel, the word in Old Flemish for “single”. “Single koyt” certainly existed, and was the name of a lower-strength beer, the stronger version being called “double koyt”. But there’s no actual evidence at all to link “single koyt” with AK, which was a very popular designation for a comparatively light-gravity, lightly hopped (or at least not heavily hopped) pale bitter beer in Victorian England, and which is still around as a (now rare) beer name today. Good historians don’t make evidence-free suggestions.

McMullen's AK posterThere is certainly evidence AK was once a popular name for a beer. In the very early 1970s, you would still have found several beers called AK. Fremlin’s of Faversham, then owned by Whitbread, made one. So did another Whitbread-owned former independent, Strong’s of Romsey, in Hampshire. In Hertfordshire two brewers, McMullen’s of Hertford and Rayment’s of Furneux Pelham, also made beers called AK. These, and the Fremlin’s and Strong’s AKs were sold as light milds. In the Courage empire, the ex-Hole’s brewery at Newark in Nottinghamshire brewed an AK bitter, while the group’s Bristol brewery sold an AK that was a primed version of its George’s bitter, made for customers of the former Phillips brewery in Newport, Monmouthshire, which had closed in 1968. Just before it closed in 1985, Simpkiss of Brierley Hill in the West Midlands started brewing an AK light bitter.

At least three brewers also sold beers called KK: Greene King, which brewed a light mild under that name at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade; Ind Coope, which made KK light mild at its Romford brewery; and Hardys and Hansons of Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, which sold a keg beer called KK.

What all these beers had in common was that they were light, in both colour and gravity, and also lightly hopped. Today only McMullen’s AK survives, and though it has risen in gravity since the early 1970s, from 1033 to 1035, and is now described as a “bitter”, it is still comparatively light and lightly hopped (with WGV, Whitbread Goldings Variety).

However, if you look at Victorian brewers’ advertisements, it becomes clear that AK, was a very widespread name for a beer. More than a dozen other brewers in Hertfordshire besides McMullen’s and Rayment’s once made an AK. A single edition of the Richmond and Twickenham Times, dated July 8 1893, carries advertisements from five different brewers in south and west London, four of whom offered a beer called AK or KK.

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

The noticeable point about these advertisements is that they (almost) all give AK the same price, one shilling a gallon, implying a strength of around 1045-1055 OG. The descriptions of AK are pretty consistent as well: “light bitter ale”, “light sparkling ale”, “family bitter ale”, “light pale ale” and so on. One of the few brewers not to sell AK for one and a half pence wholesale was actually the earliest I’ve found, the Stafford Brewery, which was selling AK Ale, “a delicate bitter ale”, in 1855 at 14 pence a gallon. But, again, the beer was clearly not heavy, albeit bitter. The idea of AK as a low-strength pale ale is confirmed by the few written references to the beer. Professor Charles Graham in his talk to the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881 gave the original gravity of AK as 1045, with an alcohol-by-weight percentage of 4.3, very much as the bottom end of the Victorian beer strength league. The Burton brewer James Herbert said of AK ale in his book The Art of Brewing, published in 1871:

This class of ale has come very much into use, mostly for private families, it being a light tonic ale, and sent out by most brewers at one shilling per gallon. The gravity of this Ale is usually brewed at 20lbs [that is, 1056 OG]

Crowley’s brewery in Croydon High Street in 1900 described its AK in one of its advertisements as “a Bitter Ale of sound quality with a delicate Hop flavour”. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard in 1889 gave almost identical tasting notes to Crowley’s on the “AK shilling ale” brewed by WJ Rogers at the Jacob Street brewery in Bristol: “most pleasant to the palate … a bright sparkling beverage of a rich golden colour and possesses a nice delicate hop flavour.” (Rogers actually used the letters AK as its company trademark.) When he visited Thompson & Son’s brewery in Walmer, Kent, Barnard wrote: ” We were much pleased with the AK light bitter – a delicious drink, clean to the palate and well flavoured with the hop.” The brewing books of Garne & Sons of Burford, Oxfordshire in 1912 show AK being brewed at an OG of 1040 and with a colour of 14, a reddish-brown hue. ( PA for comparison, was brewed to an OG of 1056 and with a colour of 18, a darker medium brown.)

So where did the name AK come from? In the First World War, drinkers joked that AK stood for Asquith’s Knockout. Herbert Asquith was Prime Minister in 1914 when the tax on the standard barrel of beer took off like a Fokker eindekker, from seven shillings and ninepence to 23 shillings, in order to help pay for fighting the Kaiser. Weaker beers paid less tax, of course, and AK was always weaker than standard bitters, leaving it a more affordable “knockout” than regular beers. (“Squiffy” Asquith was also notorious for being fond of his drink.) Unfortunately, AK as a name for a type of beer is found at least as long ago as 1855, when Asquith was only three years old. Another suggestion is that AK was invented by a Victorian brewer called Arthur King, and took his initials, a tale found at both Hole’s of Newark and Courage in Bristol. The problem with this story is that no such brewer has ever been traced – Arthur King seems to be as mythical as King Arthur – and it fails to cover AK’s sister beer, KK. As Roger Protz once said, who invented that one – King Kong?

Rayment’s claimed AK meant Ale for Keeping. Certainly, Ron Pattinson’s research has pretty much proved that, as far as London brewers were concerned, a beer with “K” in its name, or at least multiple Ks, was a well-hopped keeping or stock beer. To quote from his blog:

In the middle of the 19th century, Barclay Perkins brewed two sets of Ales: X Ales that were sold mild and K Ales that were sold matured. X, XX, XXX and XXXX. Then KK, KKK, KKKK. The equivalent beers (XX and KK, XXX and KKK) were exactly the same gravity, but the K Ales had about 50% more hops.

A couple more examples: Mann, Crossman and Paulin in the East End of London brewed a KKKK ale, and Alfred Barnard drank some in 1888: “Two years old, of a rich brown colour and with a Madeira odour, a good generous drink for those who can stand a full-bodied beer.” Barnard also revealed that Mann’s brewed a London stock ale they called KKK. Taylor Walker of Limehouse, East London brewed “KKK Burton”, which again would have been a strong stock ale. Outside London, Adey and White of St Albans made KKK stock ale and the Tadcaster Tower Brewery in Yorkshire sold KKK “Old Tom”, both costing 15s a firkin, meaning they must have been around 1090 OG.


Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that's K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that’s K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

However, the problem is that AK and KK, and the rather rarer K, are always described as light bitters, which would not, surely, have been keeping ales. Yes, Mann’s brewed KKKK and KKK stock ales, but a Mann’s advert from 1898 also shows KK medium bitter ale at 10s 6d a firkin, about 1055 OG, and K light bitter ale at 9s 6d a firkin, about 1045 OG, as well as AKK Family Pale Ale at 1s 2d a gallon, around 1055 OG again, and AK Dinner Ale at, yes, 1s a gallon.

So: the K in KKK, and KKKK, and XXXK, and the other strong beers with K in their name, stands for “keeping” – there can be little doubt about that. But the K in AK and KK? K-for-keeping doesn’t seem to apply here, because they weren’t keeping beers. And what about the K Mild, ten pence a gallon, sold by Lucas, Ledbetter and Bird of High Wycombe in 1894, and the K Mild Ale sold by the Heavitree Brewery of Exeter in 1895 for 1s 2d a gallon? Or the K Light Ale Collier Brothers of Walthamstow were selling for ten pence a gallon in 1890, and the K Tonic Ale A Gordon & Go of Caledonian Road, Islington sold for the same sum in 1889? Cleary K doesn’t stand for “keeping” here. Again in 1889, Lewis & Ridley of Leamington seemed to be using “K” as equal to half an X, with XXXK mild ale following XXXX strong ale, then XXX mild ale, XXK mild ale, XX mild and and X mild ale. Again, these were milds, not keeping beers. Henry Lovibond & Son of the Cannon brewery, Lillie Road, Fulham actually called its shilling-a-gallon AK “mild bitter” in 1885.

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

There is evidence that the K designation was more common in the south than elsewhere in England. Rose’s brewery of Malton, Yorkshire produced an AK, and the Tadcaster Tower brewery had a range that included four K beers. Robinson’s of Stockport sold AK Ale at the beginning of the 20th century. But few other brewers north of Newark, in the East Midlands, seem to have used Ks. In 1898 the Brewers’ Journal said the X mark was “almost universal in provincial towns, the alternative K being equally common in the London district”. But this does not help us much in finding out the origins of AK.

At least the process by which the K beers that survived to near the end of the 20th century became known as milds, when the style started out as a type of bitter ale, is easy to explain. Mild by the 1930s means to drinkers a low-gravity, low-hops, cheaper beer. In the Great Gravity Drop during and after the First World War, AKs fell to around 1030-1033 OG, and cost (in the 1930s) five (old) pence a pint, the same as best mild and less than “standard” bitter. Taylor Walker, the East London brewer, actually advertised its verson as “5d AK” probably because it sold cheaper than London dark mild, at six pence a pint. Being low-gravity, cheap and light on the hops, these AKs and KKs fell within the “modern” definition of milds.  Fordham’s of Ashwell, North Hertfordshire in 1934 sold XX mild and AX bitter at four pence a pint, XXX mild and AK bitter at five pence a pint, stout at six pence, PA bitter and XXXX at seven pence, IPA at eight pence and OO old ale at one shilling. The OG of Fordham’s AK was by now around 1030.

McMullen's AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

McMullen’s AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

All those other AKs eventually vanished with the brewerrs that made them, leaviong only McMullen’s. At one stage, McMullen was describing AK on pump clips as a “mild bitter”, though the beer was sold in polypins in the 1980s as “Trad bitter”. The company dropped the description “mild” for AK only in the early 1990s.

So, although we can still drink AK, since there is no evidence to support the koyt derivation, and little support for the idea that the K in low-gravity, lightly hopped AK could have meant “keeping” the way it does in KKKK and KKK, I’m afraid we still haeeve to solve the mystery of where the K – and indeed the A – in AK come from.

Update: Bailey of Boak and Bailey has been doing some excellent searching through old digitised newspapers and pushed back the earliest mention of AK to 1846, in an advertisement from the Chelmsford Chronicle of October 23 1846 that lists Ind Coope AK. A slightly later ad, from the Ipswich Journal of June 15 1850, lists under “Romford Ales” (Ind Coope again, almost certainly) “AK, a light bitter ale” at 19 shillings for 18 gallons, as well as XK bitter ale and XXK “Ale” at 24 shillings and 31 shillings a kilderkin respectively: only the XXK looks like a “proper” stock ale, at perhaps 1080 to 1090 OG. An even more interesting ad from the same paper three years later, June 18 1853, refers to “The Romford A.K. or Light Bitter Beer, so much in request for Summer beverage”, which can be supplied for one shilling a gallon.

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging

Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

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Why is Camra still getting beer history so very badly wrong?

Excuse the indentations in my forehead, that’s where I’ve been banging my head hard against my desk.

I’ve been reading the “Beer Styles” section in the just-published 2014 edition of the Good Beer Guide. Ron Pattinson gave a comprehensive triple kicking last year to the effectively identical section in the 2013 GBG, and yet this year the GBG’s claims about the history of British beer styles are still just as horribly, awfully wrong. It’s as if nothing Ron, or I, or other researchers into the history of beer have written over the past ten to 15 years or so had ever existed: a stew of errors, misinterpretations, myths, erroneous assumptions and factually baseless inventions. All of the errors, frankly, even before Ron gave them a good pounding back in 2012, were heartily demolished (apologies for the sound of my own trumpet) in my book Amber Gold and Black, published three years ago (and which sprang, as it happens, from a series of articles published in Camra’s own What’s Brewing on the history of beer styles). But since the GBG sells far more every year than AG&B has, that’s many thousands of beer lovers being fed gross inaccuracies about the history of the beers they drink, and only a few thousand getting the truth.

Rising Sun Enfield

Pale and stock ales advertised as on sale at the Rising Sun, Enfield circa 1900: you won’t find stock ales in many style guides, but they were aged versions of the drink otherwise sold “mild”, in other words, “old ales”.

What exactly is the Campaign for Real Ale Good Beer Guide getting wrong? Let’s begin with its insistence that “pale ale” and “bitter” are different products, which leads to the nonsensical statement (p29, last paragraph) that “From the early years of the 20th century, Bitter began to overtake pale ale in popularity, and as a result pale ale became mainly a bottled product.” This is completely wrong, and a total misunderstanding, as I pointed out back in 2007 here. From the moment that bitter beers started to become popular in Britain, around the beginning of the 1840s, “bitter beer” and “pale ale” were used by brewers and commentators as synonyms. There never was any difference between the two. Why did “pale ale” come to be appended as a name mostly to the bottled version of bitter? Because generally in the 19th century brewers called the drink in the brewery “pale ale”, and that’s the name they put on their bottle labels, but in the pub drinkers called this new drink “bitter”, to differentiate it from the older, sweeter, but still (then) pale mild ales.

The section also claims that pale ale was invented because IPA was “considered too bitter for the domestic market” – total made-up rubbish, there is no evidence anywhere for this, and if IPA was “too bitter for the domestic market”, why did so many brewers advertise an IPA as part of their line-up? The weaker pale ales, below IPAs in brewers’ price lists, simply reflected 19th century brewers’ practice of selling two, three or four examples of each beer type, ale (that is, old-fashioned lightly hopped ale), porter/stout and the newer bitter/pale ale, at different “price points” (to use a modern expression) for different budgets. Thus, for example, the Aylesbury Brewery Company in 1899 sold four grades of pale ale, BA (for Bitter Ale), at the IPA “price point” of one shilling and sixpence a gallon (almost all “IPAs” sold at 1s 6d), BA No 2 at 1s 2d a gallon, BPA at one shilling a gallon and AK at 10 pence a gallon; four grades of mild ales, from XXXX at 1s 6d to XA at 10d; and three black beers, from Double Stout at 1s 6d to Porter at 1s. Shepherd Neame two years earlier was calling all its four grades of bitter beers “India Pale Ale”, from “Stock KK India Pale Ale” at 1s 8d a gallon through East India Pale Ales Nos 1 and 2 at 1s 4d and 1s a gallon to East India Pale Ale AK (sic) at 11d a gallon.

That brings us to the section on IPA itself. There’s the usual canard about the original IPAs being “strong in alcohol” to survive the journey east, although as Ron P has shown conclusively, at around 6 to 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 19th century IPAs were in the middle of the contemporary strength range, and weaker than 19th century milds. The GBG also asserts that India Pale Ale “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century”, and “the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were pale bronze in colour.” Wrong again – for a start, pale ale was around from at least the second half of the 17th century, a good hundred years before the Industrial Revolution began, as I showed in 2009. Second, almost ALL beers called “ale” in the 18th and 19th century were made from pale malt, as Ron Pattinson has comprehensively demonstrated with extracts from actual brewers’ records, which led eventually to “ale” meaning any malt liquor pale in colour, with “beer” restricted to the dark kinds, stout and porter, something I wrote about here. So in appearance, IPA wasn’t new at all. What it was, was the first bitter, well-hopped pale ale, as opposed to older sorts of pale ale that, following the style of malt liquors in Britain of the post-1710s “ale” type, were hopped (unlike the original unhopped ales) but less-hopped than “beers” such as porter and stout, and which were sold either “mild” (fresh) or “old” (aged).

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India Session Ales – tremendous new trend or oxymoronic category fail?

“All the IBUs, half the ABV” is how the American beer writer Brian Yaeger describes the newest (?) beery trend in the United States: the “India Session Ale”.

10 Barrel ISAAs you’ll have gathered, the ISA is meant to have the flavours of an American-style IPA, but at a more “sessionable” gravity. “Sessionable” is in the eye of the beer holder: I’d curl my lip at any beer over 4.2 per cent describing itself as “sessionable”, but to many Americans the term means anything under 5 per cent. However, what worries me most is the idea that a beer with 50 IBUs, and hopped with at least six different and powerful varieties, including Warrior, Columbus, Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo and Chinook, even if it’s only 3.5 per cent alcohol, like Ballast Point of California’s Even Keel can in any way be regarded as a session beer. Indeed, at least one “India Style Session Ale”, from the 10 Barrel Brewing Co in Oregon, is 5.5 per cent ABV.

As I wrote in this space nearly four years ago, I love session beers, but to me an essential part of what makes a good session beer is its restraint. To quote myself:

A great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention … A good, quaffable session beer should have enough interest for drinkers to want another, but not so much going on that they are distracted from the primary purpose of a session, which is the enjoyment of good company in convivial surroundings.

I’ve not, unfortunately, had the opportunity to try any of the India Session Ales (also known as “American session ales”, “Session IPAs” and “Light IPAs”) Brian Yaeger talks about in his piece, but in April I did get to try something I suspect may be similar, DNA New World IPA, the collaboration beer made by blending concentrated “essence of Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA” shipped over from Delaware with beer brewed at the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford. Continue reading

The REAL 20 most influential beers of all time

A beery audience

‘Guys, you’ll never believe this “20 most influential beers” list’

An American website called First We Feast has just announced what it declares are “The 20 most influential beers of all time”, a list put together by a “panel of beer-industry pros – brewers, distributors, publicans, and importers, as well as a few journalists.”

You’ll have some idea of the validity of this list when I tell you that half the beers on it are brewed in the US. I don’t want to diss the panel that chose these beers, but I only recognise one name on it, apart from him there are none of the commentators I turn to for insight into the North American brewing scene, let alone anyone from outside the US, and there doesn’t appear to be a single brewing historian among any of them. Which is presumably why they came up with such a totally crap list, with far, far more misses than hits.

The First We Feast attempt at naming the 20 most influential beers of all time

Gablinger’s diet beer, Rheingold, New York
Blind Pig IPA
Westmalle Tripel
New Albion Ale
Fuller’s London Pride
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
Pilsner Urquell
Anchor Steam Beer
Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye
Ayinger Celebrator
Generic lager
Cantillon Classic Gueuze
Anchor Old Foghorn
Reissdorf Kölsch
Draught Guinness
Allagash White
Sam Adams Utopias
Saison Dupont
Schneider Aventinus

I mean, Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye is more influential in the history of beer than Bass Pale Ale or Barclay Perkins porter? Don’t make me weep. Allagash White trumps Hoegaarden and Schneider Weisse? (You may not like Hoegaarden or Schneider Weisse, but I hope you won’t try to deny their influence.) Gueuze, Saison and Kölsch are such important styles they deserve a representative each in a “most influential beers of all time” list, while IPA and porter are left out? I don’t think so. And the same goes for Schneider Aventinus: where are the hordes of Weissebockalikes? Sam Adams Utopias has influenced who, exactly? “Generic lager”? I see where you’re coming from, in that much of what has happened over the past 40 years in the beer world is a reaction against generic lager, but still … And I love London Pride, but it’s not even the third most influential beer that Fuller’s brews.

Gablinger’s Diet Beer is about the only smart choice on the FWF list, because although it’s pretty obscure now, it was the inspiration for all the “lite” beers that, through big brands such as Miller Lite and Bud Light, came to dominate the US beer scene. Pilsner Urquell is a must: you could argue (and I will, in a moment) over whether there has been a more influential beer, but no “all-time greats” list could ignore the pale lager from Plzen. Westmalle Tripel: Duvel, surely, is more important. Guinness: I really don’t think Guinness is influential: it’s so sui generis, it’s just carried on being itself, without influencing anybody.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale I’m prepared to consider, as the pioneer of “hop forward” American pale ales, and the same consideration may be due to Blind Pig IPA, the first “double” IPA. Anchor Old Foghorn was itself too influenced by other beers, especially the English old ale/Burton Ale tradition, to be on a “most influential” list itself. If Goose Island Bourbon County Stout was, as it appears, the first “aged in barrels used for something else” beer, then for all the brews that has inspired, it deserves a “most influential” mention. But having both New Albion Ale and Anchor Steam on the list is far too California-centric: indeed, if you’re looking for a beer than inspired the boom in American craft brewing, them I’d put on a steel helmet and announce that it’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager: I bet that inspired far more drinkers to try something other than the mainstream than any other early American “craft” beer.

So: what ARE the real 20 most influential beers of all time? Judged purely on the size of the effect they had on subsequent beer history, I reckon they are: Continue reading