Exactly when it started happening I’m not sure, but bitter, once the glory of the British beer scene, is disappearing. In the place of all those marvellously hoppy, complex bitters and best bitters we once sank by the pottle and quart, we now have brews sold under the same brand names, made by the same breweries, very probably to the same recipes, with the same ingredients – but describing themselves as “amber ales” instead.
Take London Pride, for example. Until very recently Fuller’s was delighted to call this classic beer exactly what it was and is, and has been for more than 60 years, since it first appeared on bartops – a best bitter. Now it’s an “original ale”. Let’s stifle the pedantic retort that an “original ale” would be brewed without any hops at all, and merely ask ourselves: WTF?
Similarly with Wadworth’s 6X, formerly a “traditional draught bitter”, now a “crafted amber ale”. It would take Jacques Derrida to deconstruct what the word “crafted” is doing in that description, but he’s dead, and since he was French I doubt he drank English beers of any sort anyway, so let’s have a stab ourselves and suggest it’s been stuck in there in an attempt to add some unneeded “authenticity” to a beer that has been around for more than 90 years and needs no help from clueless marketeers.
The word “bitter” is disappearing from bartops and bottle labels across the country. Marston’s Pedigree, “The King of Bitters” once, now just another amber ale. Shepherd Neame Spitfire – “premium bitter” when it launched, “Kentish amber ale” today. Hook Norton Brewery’s Hooky bitter – now just “Hooky”, “amber and well-balanced”. Brain’s SA, formerly proud to call itself a best bitter, now just a “premium cask beer”. Arkell’s BBB, which is actually short for “best bitter beer”, is now branded simply as “3B”, with no clue as to where that comes from. Wells’ Bombardier, “English premium bitter” until recently, today a “British hopped amber beer”. Again, WTF? Unless the Scots and Welsh have started growing hops again, and as far as I am aware the last hop gardens in those countries closed in the 19th century, what will be going into Bombardier will be English hops. Is “English” another word, like “bitter”, that cannot now be mentioned in the context of beer marketing?
Not all bitters are dark cornelian-amber, of course, particularly those from the North West of England: thus Robinson’s Unicorn Bitter from Stockport is now Robinson’s Unicorn Golden Ale. JW Lees seems to be resisting, but even its bitter, while still proudly branded “Bitter”, is described today on the pumpclips bottle labels as an amber ale (though, while you CAN get amber that pale, that’s not what I’d call “amber-coloured. And incidentally, Lees, that claim on your website that “our all-malt amber bitter was first brewed in 1828” – I doubt that very much. Nobody was brewing well-hopped bitter ales outside London and Burton for decades yet.)
If you think this is just the big guys trying to move their beers away from cloth caps and roll-ups, I’m afraid not. Woodforde’s Wherry bitter, which stunned me when I first drank it more than 35 years ago – today, another amber ale.
Not everybody is doing it, of course, and it still looks to be only a minority that have ripped the page with “bitter” on out of their dictiionaries: there are plenty of brewers, hurrah, large and small, still proud to call their beer a bitter, a best bitter, even an extra special bitter. But it worries me that some brewery marketing departments seem to think “bitter” is a dirty word, and the way to sell a classic, traditional English product is to call it an “amber ale” instead. It’s dumb, it’s dumbing down, and it’s insulting to the beers and to drinkers, suggesting that they would skitter away from a word that they might associate with their granddad, and refuse to drink something called a bitter lest they sprout a fuzzy grey beard and their Converse sneakers turn into sandals.
The history of beer and food in Britain is easy to summarise: we all, men women and children, used to drink beer with every meal, from breakfast to supper. Then, some time between around 1860 and 1914, due to changes in attitude and culture not easy to find a simple explanation for, we slowed and stopped. Drinking beer with your meals went from being so natural as to be unremarked to something alien and déclassé. Today, despite more than 30 years of campaigns to get Britons to appreciate the joys of beer and food pairing, you’re still not likely, at most dining tables, to see beer treated equally with wine.
That won’t fill half an hour of exposition, though, so when I was invited to speak on the historical angle to beer and food pairing at the Beer Meets Food seminar organised by the Guild of Beer Writers in Bristol earlier this month I had to hunt out some illustrations of the popularity of beer with food in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best example came from an observer from abroad. This is out of the New York Tribune in 1843:
Every body drinks beer in England. I have astonished waiters, in two or three instances, by asking for water. When you seat yourself at table in a “Coffee Room” or “Steak House” for dinner, and have ordered your “joint” or “steak,” or “chop,” the waiter enquires, “Hale, porter, or stout, sir?” If in place of either of these national beverages you reply water, he either laughs in your face or turns away wondering where such a wild chap could have been caught … The drinking of hale, porter and stout is universal here, with the females of the poorer classes, when they can get it, and with those of the better classes of mechanics, females, people and shop-keepers. While at dinner at Birmingham, it was observed by all of us that the ladies (a dozen) at table drank porter as if they were thirsty, and as if it did them good.
The universality of beer drinking at mealtimes for everybody is demonstrated most clearly by the records of English public schools. Winchester College had its own brewery, like other schools, hiring an outside brewer to make the beer, which was stored in a cellar measuring 30 feet eight inches by 24 feet three inches. In 1709 the schoolmaster and fellows (ie teachers) were reckoned to drink 10 to 11 pints of small beer a day each, the servants six pints a day and the 70 pupils, or scholars, and 16 choristers three pints a day. Beer, brewed at three bushels of malt to the hogshead, which would have given an OG of around 1045 to 1055, was available to the scholars at breakfast, dinner and supper, with “beavor-beer”, or bever beer, “bever” being a term for a small repast between meals, available around 3:30pm and, in the evening after supper, with bread and cheese (in 1839 a revolution occurred, when the afternoon bever-beer was replaced by tea). The school had a “butler of beer” among its servants, who was paid two shillings by each new child upon the child’s joining the school. The boys ate at three long tables, with the beer arriving in “gispins”, large leather pots or jacks, one to each table, and the junior boys at the ends of each table serving their fellows.
The masters, meanwhile, drank with their cheese at the end of dinner an extraordinarily strong, well-hopped beer called “huff” (short for “huff-cap”, a term for strong ale dating to the 16th century), brewed at the college in March every other year at the frankly unbelievable rate of 14 bushels of malt to the hogshead. An analysis of a 10-year-old bottle of huff published in 1906 found it to have had an OG of 1116.67, a final gravity of 1008.73 and an abv of 14.46 per cent. It was served in small glasses “similar to a dock wine glass”. The last brewing of huff was in 1904, which seems to have been around the time that brewing of any sort ended at the college.
Eton College also had its own brewery, as did any large establishment, and when Charles I was held as a prisoner in Windsor Castle in 1647 the college brewery supplied his beer. The college beer was “very good” when Samuel Pepys drank it on a visit to Eton in 1666. However, the small beer provided with the dinnertime meal of roast mutton and “excellent” bread in the early 1830s was described as “so bad that no boy ever drank it”. By the early 1870s the college was buying in beer from the big Burton brewer Samuel Allsopp (at least two sons of Henry Allsopp, who was in charge of the firm at the time, went to Eton), and in 1881 the college brewery equipment, including a 36-barrel copper with furnace, an oak mash tun, a 28-barrel oak working or fermentation vat and 48 barrels and hogsheads, was put up for auction.
Beer for breakfast, lunch and supper was the fuel that kept the ordinary working man going too, of course, not just the scholars of Eton and Winchester. Around 1875 an “aged labourer” described the typical routine during harvest time on a farm in Sussex when he was a young man, in the 1830s or so:
“Out in morning at four o’clock. Mouthful of bread and cheese and pint of ale. Then off to the harvest field. Rippin and moen [reaping and mowing] till eight. Then morning brakfast and small beer. Brakfast – a piece of fat pork as thick as your hat [a broad-brimmed “wideawake“] is wide. Then work till ten o’clock: then a mouthful of bread and cheese and a pint of strong beer. ‘Farnooner’s-lunch’ [ie ‘forenooner’], we called it. Work till twelve. Then at dinner in the farm-house; sometimes a leg of mutton, sometimes a piece of ham and plum pudding. Then work till five, then a nunch and a quart of ale. Nunch was cheese: ’twas skimmed cheese, though. Then work till sunset [ie about 8:30pm], then home and have supper and a pint of ale.”
Despite the seven or eight pints of beer, at least, drunk during the day, the old man told his interrogator that “I never knew a man drunk in the harvest field in my life.” He himself, he said, could drink six quarts, and believed that “a man might drink two gallons in a day,” which since it’s very possible to lose 10 litres – nearly 18 pints – of water working in a hot environment, is only putting back what your body needs to function. (This sounds like long-vanished history: life as lived by the rural poor 180 years ago. But I knew a man who knew a man who was that farmworker: my great-great grandfather, John Cornell, an “ag. lab” living in Cherry Hinton, just outside Cambridge, would have been 17 in 1840, sweating those 15 or 16-hour days, reaping fields of barley or wheat under the hot harvest sun, losing a gallon or more of water in perspiration that those pints and quarts of beer helped replace. He died in 1900, when his grandson, my grandfather Harry, was 14, and I was 17 when Harry died.)
The great institution of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was the “ordinary”, a meal provided for a set price at an inn or tavern. The “ordinary” available to “young gentlemen” in Edinburgh in 1742 for four pence a head was “a very good dinner of broth and beef, and a roast and potatoes every day, with fish three or four times a-week, and all the small beer that was called for till the cloth was removed.” The “ordinary”, where the choice was effectively as non-existent as it would have been for those Winchester or Eton schoolboys, was eventually replaced by the innovation of the menu, a word not found in the English language (unless the OED is lying) until the 1830s.
If you did not have the time or money to spend on an “ordinary” or in a newly menued-up restaurant, there were other innovations: in the early 1840s Crowley’s brewery of Alton in Hampshire, where the water was similar to the gypsum-impregnated wells of Burton upon Trent, opened a chain of luncheon bars across London, known as Alton Ale Houses, where a glass of ale or porter and a ham or beef sandwich for four pence were advertised by signs outside. This was supposedly the first time beer had been widely paired with sandwiches. (The Alton Ale Houses were parodied in a production of Aladdin at the Lyceum Theatre in 1844, where the opening scene showed a small Chinese refreshment shop with a sign outside announcing: “Cup of tea and a bird’s nest – 4d”.)
For those dining at home who could not afford to buy, or had no place to store, a firkin or pin of “family ale”, beer was brought round by the potboy. This was a young apprentice barman who set out from the local pub carrying handled wooden trays bearing pewter pots filled with ale or porter around the streets at midday and in the early evening, shouting the while: “Beer-oh!” Householders, or their servants, would hail the potboy and purchase the contents of one or more of his pots to accompany the family meals. The empty pots would then be hung on the spiked iron railings outside the house, for the potboy to return and collect later. Inevitably, many were stolen: and in 1796 Parliament discussed banning potboys from roaming the streets with beer, on the grounds that the temptation of pots hung on railings should not be put in the way of those who combined light fingers with weak wills. It was claimed that pots to the value of £100,000 were being stolen every year, while opponents of the Pewter Pot Bill counter-attacked by declaring that 3,000 potboys would lose their jobs if the Bill were passed. The opposition also declared that banning the potboy would threaten the morals of children and female servants, who would now have to go to the public house themselves to obtain the beer needed to accompany the household’s meals. The Pewter Pot Bill eventually failed to get a second reading, and potboys remained part of the street scene for another six decades.
What finally killed off the roaming potboy was Gladstone’s reforms of the licensing laws in 1861, which allowed shopkeepers to purchase an “off-licence” to sell wine (in particular) and other alcoholic drinks for consumption off the premises. Servants could now be sent out to buy drink for the household meals without any risk to their morals from being exposed to the sight of the interior of a pub. Increasingly, too, take-home beer was available in bottles, rather than jugs, and bottled “dinner ale” became a product every brewer had to advertise.
Gladstone’s reforms also allowed “refreshment houses” to sell wines with meals, and by 1879 a witness to a parliamentary select committee was speaking of the increasing use of wine in cafes and restaurants as an accompaniment to food. But beer continued to be by far the country’s favourite alcoholic drink, with consumption per head actually increasing almost 28 per cent between 1860 and 1899, to 31.4 gallons a year, while wine was up only 18 per cent in the same period, to less than two and a half bottles per head a year, and spirits sales remained essentially flat. It was not, in fact, until the 1980s that wine began to seriously challenge beer in Britain. And while wine was increasingly available in eateries, in the 1890s those looking for good dining in London could still hie to somewhere like Simpson’s Chop House, just off Cornhill, and salivate over “a bountiful selection of most inviting and appetizing-looking chops and steaks … mutton chops and pork chops, loin chops and chump chops; steaks – succulent, juicy rump steaks, point steaks – fit for a bishop, large or small, for lunch or dinner,” all available with pints of porter in pewter.
London was also still the home of the boiled beef house, where rounds of beef weighing between 28 and 40 pounds were salted and then boiled, before being sliced and served hot with carrots, suet dumplings and potatoes – and porter. According to the Daily Express in 1900, the quality of the porter found in a boiled beef house was equalled only by the beer on sale at a brewery tap.
The ties between beer and food were being cut, though, and for a host, probably, of little reasons: the increasing feeling that under-18s should really not be drinking alcohol three times a day meant that families (and schools) had to provide something else for them than beer; the growth in popularity of alternatives to beer, such as tea and coffee; the increasing mechanisation of working life, which made any possibility of befuddlement potentially lethal (you could steer a horse-drawn cart while several pints to the wind, for example, but not a motor-powered “lurry”); the growing association of wine with aspiration, class, tone, while beer in contrast was dropping down the social scale: in 1902 Arnold Bennett could begin a novel, The Grand Babylon Hotel, with the premise that it would not be possible to order a steak and a bottle of Bass pale ale for dinner at a five-star London hotel.
By 1955 the Scottish cookery writer Elizabeth Craig, in a too little remembered book called Beer and Vittles, could justifiably complain:
“If there is one form of cooking that has been neglected more than another in Britain, it is beer cookery. You have to go abroad to find housewives cooking freely with beer and taking trouble about what they serve it with. There are plenty of books telling you how to introduce wine to fare, but few extolling the flavour of beer; plenty of inns serving excellent beer, but not enough taking pains with its accompaniments.”
Unfortunately, in the past 63 years very little has changed. And yet, as Craig’s American-born husband, and fellow-journalist, Arthur E Mann wrote in the same book:
“There is a unique quality about beer, in that it both soothes and stimulates. In its infinite variety, from the lightest of the light lagers through the noblest of bitters and stouts to the heaviest of ales, a choice can be made which will please any palate, suit any climate, fit any occasion, and blend with any dish.”
Indeed: and this was admiably demonstrated with the excellent meal put together by the kitchen at Wild Beer Co’s restaurant at Wapping Wharf in Bristol, served up for the audience at the seminar, which took as a theme the five “tastes”, combining beers and foods to highlight each of the five in turn.
The only pairing that didn’t work for me was the pickled cucumber and the beer flavoured with the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu, meant to be demonstrating umami: personally I find umami much more easily in a young but heavy ale, and even more I don’t believe anything over-vinegary does anything for beer: too much clash. But that apart, the combinations were excellent, in particular the Gose with lemon tart and the sour beer with cheese. I don’t know what plans Wild Beer Co has to repeat this menu, but as a demonstration of how versatile beer can be with a host of different flavours in a way that wine would struggle desperately and unsuccessfully to match, it was tremendous.
I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?
Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.
In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”
In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins, then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.
The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.
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.
There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 triplekickinglast 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.
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).
If a 21st century time tripper stepped through the door into the public bar of a London pub in 1900, what would be the biggest surprise? Probably not the sawdust on the floor, or the lack of seating: most likely, I’d guess, the draught ginger beer on handpump.
The existence – and importance – of draught ginger beer in London pubs in the past is one of those uncountable little details of social history that slip past generally unrecorded because they seem so everyday and ordinary to contemporary observers, nobody bothers writing about them. Today’s equivalent would be the bar gun – ubiquitous, observed by everybody who has ever stood at a bar to be served, and mentioned, I’ll bet, in no account of the modern pub, anywhere.
Fortunately, back in the summer of Queen Victoria’s last full year on the throne, one anonymous worker in the brewing industry spotted a reference in the Daily Express to “half-and-half” as a beer mixture, a term not then used for several decades (it referred, in the early years of Victoria’s reign and before, to ale-and-porter), seized the nearest available umbrage at this anachronistic solecism and ran with it for 1,300 words of invaluable exposition on the drinks available from the pumps in a public bar in London, and how they were mixed together, which the Express printed for the education of future generations on page seven of its issue of Thursday August 2, 1900. And hurrah, digitisation and the web means that for a small subscription, 111 years later we can read about what beer mixtures our great-grandfathers drank without having to travel out to the British Newspaper Library in deepest Colindale and whirr through miles of microfilm.
It’s an absolutely fascinating piece, studded with gems – who knew (not me), for example, that in a London “boiled beef house” (a restaurant specialising in serving “a most delicious ‘portion’ of stewed beef done up in a sticky, coagulated, glutinous gravy of surpassing richness”, Google reveals), the accompanying drink of choice was porter? Slow-stewed beef and porter: I’m channelling Harry Champion just thinking about it. Please contact me if you’re now planning this as a FABPOW, I’ll be over to try it out.
It also confirms information from other sources, such as the availability of draught lager in at least some outlets in Victorian Britain, the identification of “ale” and “mild” as the same drink, and the higher status given to bitter, compared to ale and porter.
Below is the article in its entirety, with asides and footnotes in square brackets by me. The picture above is of the public bar of the Dover Castle, 172 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, taken the year after it was rebuilt in 1895, and just the sort of bar being talked about: note the sawdust, the brass footrail (seats were found only in the saloon bar) the ten handpumps (the saloon bar only had one), and the rows of casks on the back bar filled with spirits from Old Tom (sweet gin) to brandy. No pumpclips: these never started appearing until the 1950s. I believe this pub was destroyed in the Second World War, since the site is now occupied by a building of typical late-1940s neo-Georgian style, though it’s still a bar, called the Walrus. Continue reading The 1900 Pub – the biggest surprise→
It’s now less than one month to go to the official publication of Amber, Gold and Black, The History of Britain’s Great Beers, the first book devoted solely to the development of beer styles in Britain, from bitter to porter, covering every aspect of their history, what they were when they started , how they developed and what they are today. Pre-order it today here and put a few pennies more in my pocket at the same time that you learn new facts to stun your beer drinking friends.
Amber, Gold and Black was previously only available as an ebook, but is now, thanks to the lovely people at The History Press, coming out in hardback, revised and, where needed, updated.
Whether you’re a beer beginner or a buff, I guarantee you’ll learn things you never knew about both beers you’re familiar with, and beers you’ve never heard of.
This is the book for beer lovers, for brewers, for people who work in pubs, bars and drink stores, for anybody interested in beer, the most complete and comprehensive study of British beer styles ever written. Its 16 chapters looking at the roots of the styles we enjoy today, as well as those ales and beers we have lost, and a study into how the liquids that fill our beer glasses, amber gold and black, developed over the years.
I feel bad about this, really bad. Pete Brown’s having a “let’s be nice” month over on his blog, and all I can do is be mean, nasty, negative and carping. (And it’s not because I didn’t win anything in the BGBW awards, ’cos I didn’t enter this year, so there.)
Someone has produced a beautiful “periodic table of beer styles” you can see here, it’s a lovely piece of graphics, based on the familiar periodic table in chemistry, but grouping beers into families of styles, rather than chemical elements. It’s obvious that a huge amount of care and craftspersonship went into the creation of the “beeriodic table”. It looks lovely, and I’ve no doubt many, many beer geeks will print it off and pin it up on their walls. It’s obviously been put together by somebody who loves beer very much. I admire enormously their dedication, and their skill: it must have taken hours, days to do. It’s a great piece of design. And it’s wrong, totally wrong, in so many ways.