Legendary: it’s an overused word. But some beers literally are legendary, in the sense that far more people will have heard of them than will ever see them or taste them.
One indisputably legendary beer is Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, the powerful, rich Burton Ale, original gravity 1130, north of 11 per cent alcohol, brewed in Victorian times specifically for expeditions to the Arctic Circle by British explorers. There are a very few bottles left of the Arctic Ale brewed for the expedition under Sir George Nares which set out in 1875 to reach the North Pole. And this week I drank some.
I can’t think of superlatives high enough to describe how thrilled, privileged, lucky, honoured I felt to get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try a beer 137 years old, with so much history behind it. This is exactly the same beer the Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard drank when he visited Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent in 1890. Subsequently Barnard wrote the experience up in his chapter on Allsopp’s in Noted Breweries of Great Britain. How often do you get to compare someone’s 122-year-old tasting notes with your own experience?
It is one of the stranger results of global beer marketing that the biggest-selling beer in Brazil, which is also one of the biggest beers in Africa, from Algeria via Guinea to Rwanda, and is sold across large parts of Asia, from India via Malaysia to Hong Kong, began life more than 50 years ago in a small Scottish town on the north side of the Forth estuary.
I doubt too many drinkers of Skol in Rio de Janeiro know that the drink that “goes down round”, according to its advertising, came originally from 6,000 miles away. Today a beer that was one of the pioneers of mass-market lager in Britain is seen in Brazil as so Brazilian that drinking it turns Argentinians into supporters of the Canarinhos.
Skol is also huge across the South Atlantic in the Congo, where it inspires what I suggest may be one of the best music videos in support of a beer ever, by the too-little-known Bill Clinton Kalonji. (Give yourself eight minutes 33 to watch, and if you’re not grinning broadly by two minutes in at the latest, you can have your money back. The Portman group would turn into steam.) In Malaysia (where the beer is brewed by a Carlsberg subsidiary) and the Far East, meanwhile, it has been launched as a “value for money” brew.
In Britain, Skol was the biggest-selling beer in the market 25 years ago. But it had fallen out of the top 10 by 2004 and is now a commodity lager, sold in cans at just 2.8 per cent abv to take advantage of the UK’s new low-alcohol tax band. Skol is currently the fifth best selling beer in the world, thanks to its popularity in places such as Brazil and the Congo. But in the country where it began, Skol is a sad, tired brand.
The other curiosity is that brewery mergers and takeovers mean that Skol-the-brand is owned by Carlsberg in Britain and Asia, A-B InBev in South America, and UniBra, a Belgian company, in Africa. How all did this happen to a beer from Alloa? It’s a long story, and it properly starts in Burton upon Trent more than 110 years ago, where a substantial but struggling pale ale brewer, Samuel Allsopp & Sons, decided in 1898 to get into the lager-brewing business.