An 1875 Arctic Ale tasting

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.

1875 reputed quart AAA bottle

Reputed quart bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale with date ‘1875’ painted in punt

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?

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Extreme beers in the 19th century

Burton, legendarily associated with strong drink

Once more serendipitous synchronicity works its magic, as hacking through glades of old newspapers for something else entirely turns up fascinating info about one of the 19th century’s most famous “extreme beers”, Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, linking it firmly to the Baltic beer trade.

Arctic Ale, brewed by Samuel Allsopp and Co of Burton upon Trent, seems to have been first made under that name to supply the fleet of five ships of 1852 led by Sir Edward Belcher that tried to discover the fate of the expedition of 1845 led by Sir John Franklin. Franklin and his men famously disappeared while attempting to sail the Northwest Passage around the top of North America. The beer Belcher took with him was massively strong, with an original gravity of around 1130 and an alcohol by volume level north of 11 per cent.

I had always assumed that Arctic Ale was based on the brews Allsopp and the other Burton brewers exported to the Baltic in the 18th and early 19th century, before they began brewing paler, dryer, hoppier beers for the India market, the beers that became known as India Pale Ale, or IPA. That original Burton Ale for the Russian trade was brewed at 42 to 48 pounds of extract to the barrel, against Arctic Ale’s 47 pounds. Now here’s the evidence: it appears Belcher did not taken all the Arctic Ale with him. An advertisement fromThe Standard, a London newspaper, from Friday December 23 1853 declares:

Allsopp’s Ales for Christmas: Parker and Twining, 5 1/2 Pall-Mall, have a small stock, and can send out, as a curiosity for Christmas Consumption, the STRONG CHRISTMAS ALE as originally brewed by the same firm for the Czar Peter and the Empress Catherine of Russia, many barrels of which, by special order of the Lords of the Admiralty, accompanied the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin in the frozen regions of the Arctic Circle.

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Arctic Ale: a 158-year-old adventure revived

Back in Victorian times, no polar explorer worth the name set north without as much Allsopp’s Arctic Ale stashed in the hold of his ship as it could carry. This was a mighty brew, more than 11 per cent alcohol, descended from the strong, sweet ales Burton upon Trent once exported to the Baltic. Now an American home-brewer, Christopher Bowen, has decided to recreate Arctic Ale – by actually brewing it in the Canadian arctic, taking a 2,000-mile journey to the shores of Hudson Bay with brewing equipment and a film crew.

You can read about his plans here, while more information is available on the Arctic Alchemy Facebook page here, and the Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod has some very interesting stuff about the original Arctic expedition in 1852 here.

Pete Brown, who famously went the other direction, to the tropics, for his book Hops and Glory, transporting a cask of Burton’s better-known product, India Pale Ale, has declared himself filled with “admiration mixed with seething jealousy” over Chris Bowen’s plans, and I feel about the same. Arctic Ale is the king of Burton Ales, the strongest of a family of beers that have almost vanished now (Young’s Winter Warmer is one of very few left, and Fuller’s 1845 can claim to be a modern revival of the style). I feel a great fondness for Burton Ales, since to my knowledge I was the first person to write about them in the “modern” era (post-1970) when I had an article on the subject printed in What’s Brewing in 1998. I’d love to be standing in the frozen Canadian north with a glass of Arctic Ale held in my mitten.

I devote several hundred words to Arctic Ale in the “barley wines and old ales” chapter of Amber, Gold and Black (just 12 weeks to publication day, people – order it through this link and put a little extra money in my pocket) and I thought, as a teaser for the book and as a way of spreading interest in what Chris Bowen is up to, I’d put up the Arctic Ale extract here:

Arctic Ale

Among the drinks mentioned in the Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms, the rhyming “Good Pub Guide” to London written about 1718, are “Humming Stingo” at the Peacock in Whitecross Street; October at the Fountain in Cheapside; Bull’s Milk Beer at the Bull in Wood Street; and Burton Ale at the Guy of Warwick in Milk Street. This last beer was probably the same as or similar to the nut-brown, sweet, extremely strong ale that brewers in Burton upon Trent were exporting to Baltic cities such as St Petersburg and Danzig, Riga and Königsberg from at least the 1740s. This trade lasted, with hiccups during the Napoleonic Wars, until the Russians imposed heavy tariffs on beer imports from Britain in 1822, and the Burton brewers turned to brewing paler, more bitter beers for the Indian market.

However, the Burton breweries continued making darker, sweeter beers, at a range of strengths, the strongest being around 1110 OG, and 10 to 11 per cent alcohol by volume, (The top-of-the-range Burton ales were generally known as Number One, as they were at the Bass, Ind Coope and Truman breweries in Burton, though Worthington, in typically perverse fashion, called its best strong ale “G”). These were beers with astonishing longevity: the Ratcliff Ale, a version of Bass’s No 1 strong ale brewed and bottled in 1869 to celebrate the birth of a son, Harry Ratcliff, to one of the company’s partners, is still drinkable today, 140 years on. After surviving unopened for the whole of the 20th century in bottles in the cellars at the brewery in Burton, the beer is now completely dry, with a flavour like a cross between sherry and smoky Christmas pudding.

The Burton brewers occasionally reproduced beers of the strength of the kind once exported to the Baltic, for Arctic explorers to take with them. Alfred Barnard, on his trip to Samuel Allsopp & Sons in Burton in 1889, wrote that “the celebrated ‘Arctic ale’ of which we have heard so much in days gone by” was specially brewed at the request of the government for the five-ship Arctic expedition in 1852-54 under Sir Edward Belcher (which was looking for Sir John Franklin’s famously lost expedition of 1845). Belcher reported that the ale was “a valuable antiscorbutic” (that is, scurvy-preventer) and “a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick, as long as it lasted”, and that it refused to freeze until the temperature dropped to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, or -11 degrees Celsius. Even when the temperature went down to -55 Fahrenheit (-48 Celsius) the beer was unharmed by being frozen, Belcher said.

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