Tag Archives: Christmas beers

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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What ale will you be leaving out for Santa?

We don’t leave sherry out by the fireplace for Santa on December 24 in our house: not that I dislike an Oloroso or Amontillado myself under the right circumstances, but this is a beer-oriented home, and anyway I reckon the old boy would like something refreshingly hoppy after several tens of million glasses of sweet-and-sticky and around 5,000 tons of mince pie as he and the reindeer fly west dropping off the presents.

This year I thought, as he lives in the Far North, Father Christmas might like a beer from close to home: Haandbryggeriet’s excellent Norwegian Wood, a tribute to Norway’s farmhouse brewing traditions, which is made with juniper berries and juniper twigs, and smoked malt along with Munich, chocolate and crystal malts.

Odd Nordland’s book on Norwegian home brewing, Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, is one of my all-time favourite beer books, with its incredibly detailed mapping of the different methods used by Norwegian farmers to make beer. Norwegian Wood is probably the closest most of us will get to sampling real Norwegian homebrew, but it’s a good introduction. Neither the juniper nor the smokiness are pushed too far forward: it’s a lovely, well-balanced dark ale with an attractive tang that almost insists on being drunk with tasty snacks such as smoked salmon or that strange brown Norwegian cheese, Gjetost. I’d probably better leave some of that out rather than the mince pie: if Santa doesn’t like it, Rudolph can have it with his carrot …

An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign
An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign

Christmas is a good time to be a beer drinker, since there’s no part of the traditional British celebration where you can’t enjoy a beer. I laugh myself silly reading articles by wine writers on what wines to have with Christmas dinner, as they struggle to find any sort of match to the turkey before sighing and admitting that sauvignon blanc is about the best you’ll do. Personally I think turkey is too often itself a waste of space, being frequently dry and tasteless, but I can name you at least three or four different beer styles that will leave you, after the dindon, merrily on high.

Strong porter is what I’ll be having this year: the chocolate/coffee flavours of a stout or porter will complement the roast bird, and the crunchy roast vegetables, and also the baked ham that is an essential pairing with the turkey. I’ll probably have a small glass of Gale’s Prize Old Ale as well, since its sourness is a good match to any good gravy-meat-and-veg meal: I’ve said this before: British beer and British food evolved alongside each other, and one naturally pairs up with the other. But if you can’t get POA, a Belgian geuze makes a similar match.

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