How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing.

Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

The Governor's Palace

The Governor’s Palace

The man in charge of the Historic Foodways department at Colonial Williamsburg, Frank Clark, has a deep interest in the history of beer, and gets to demonstrate 18th century-style brewing on probably the most authentic historic brewing set-up I have ever seen: several wooden tubs, a number of basins and saucepans, and a large copper cauldron that is swung over the wood fire in the scullery of the (reconstructed) Governor’s Palace to heat the water for mashing and boil the resultantwort with hops. The beers he and his colleagues make don’t get sold, but one of the local Williamsburg breweries, Alewerks, taps Frank’s knowledge to make a couple of “authentic” 17th/18th century beers for sale in the local taverns, Dear Old Mum and Old Stitch, the first loosely based on an Anglo-German spiced ale, the second the name of a brown ale found in The London and Country Brewer from the 1730s.

I’m guessing (I never actually asked him) it was Frank’s idea to put on the conference, and despite what seemed to me to be the extremely high price of $325 (£220) for the full two-and-a-half day ticket (and that’s before travel and accommodation), there were still more than 120 people in the paying audience, from as far away as California. Could we get away with anything like that in the UK? I suspect you’d start hitting serious consumer resistance at a fifth of that price, frankly. Was it worth it? Well, I enjoyed it hugely, but of course, I was being paid to be there … still, here’s the speaker line-up – see what you think:


Travis Rupp, who combines being an “adjunct professor” at the University of Colorado lecturing on classics and anthropology with being the packaging supervisor at Avery Brewing in Boulder, was first on stage. Travis is writing a book on the beginnings of beer in the ancient Mediterranean, which, if his talk on the subject at the Williamsburg conference is a guide, will be a must-buy. He touched on everything from palaeoecology – the changes in ancient Syria, from heavy forestation around 10,000 BC to the trees being replaced by wild barley 2,000 years later – to the oldest known brewery in Egypt, at Tell el-Farkha, some 3,000 years and more BC, to evidence of brewing in Minoan culture. Travis seemed to be suggesting, if I was following him properly, that the Sumerians taught the Egyptians how to brew, who taught the Greeks how to brew, who taught the Romans how to brew, and the Romans taught the Celts and Germans: the last part, I have to say, I don’t believe at all. Still, cracking start to the weekend

Dear Old MumStan Hieronymus, writer of excellent books on subjects such as hops, monastery brewing and wheat beer, and owner of the Appelation Beer blog, presented In Search of an Indigenous American Beer Style, which covered territory that was pretty much entirely new to me: the tiswin corn (maize) beer drunk by the Apaches, for example, and the choc beer of the Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma, which supposedly included tobacco as well as hops and barley; and also Kentucky Common and Pennsylvania swankey, among other beers and beer styles unique to America.

Karen Fortmann, a research scientist at White Labs, the yeast specialists, in San Diego, talked about the “family tree” of brewer’s yeast – a difficult pedigree to draw up, since as Karen said, “If yeast is in an environment where it’s encouraged to hybridise, it will.” And it has, except we’re finally working out exactly who the mummy and daddy were in, eg, lager yeast. Or possibly “mummies and daddies” – according to Karen, genetic studies are suggesting two “domestication events” for brewing yeasts.

Jonathan Chown's Tavern: you can just see the authentic chequers on the post suppurting the tavern signboad that marked th place as somewhere selling alcohol. Identical marks on tavern posts can be seen in the paintings and prints of William Hogarth

Jonathan Chown’s Tavern, Williamsburg: you can just see the authentic chequers on the post supporting the tavern signboad that marked the place as somewhere selling alcohol. Identical marks on tavern posts can be seen in the paintings and prints of William Hogarth, and elsewhere

Frederik Ruis, a brewer and historian from the Netherlands, filled the tricky post-lunch slot with a presentation on “One Thousand Years of Brewing with Hops”, which had some interesting revelations and yet another controversial claim. Archaeological finds, he said, show much of the earliest use of hops in the Baltic and North Sea areas, particularly around Bremen and Hamburg, taking the focus away from Southern Germany, which is normally given primacy in the use of hops in brewing, and giving it to the Vikings. He also suggested that continental gruit or grout was not the herb mixture everyone supposes, or even herbs mixed with grain, but instead concentrated wort infused with herbs, which was then sold by the gruit houses to their local brewers. I look forward to reading more.

Andrea Stanley, of Valley Malt in Massachusetts and John Mallett, director of operations at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, then dressed up in period costume as female maltsters and brewers from the past for “Maltster-piece Theatre”, which gave the audience an insight into the lives and trials of brewsters from centuries ago, via a well-written script that succeeded in the difficult double of being both informative and ha-ha funny.

Williamsburg locals

Williamsburg locals

Finally for the day, Edward Bourke, a former Guinness technical expert who wrote a book on the brewery and the family in 2009 called The Guinness Story, presented the history of brewing in Ireland, including some revelatory information from late 18th century Guinness brewing books. The ingredients for a brew of 20 barrels of ale from August 1797 were four barrels of brown malt (Irish brewers measured malt in barrels, generally reckoned to be the equivalent of 168 pounds, one and a half hundredweight ) and six barrels of pale malt, plus 38 pounds of hops, slightly less than two pounds a barrel, to give a drink of very roughly 1060OG that must have been mid to dark brown in colour: the kind of brown ale that had vanished from London 30 to 40 years earlier. The ingredients for 43 hogsheads – 64.5 barrels – of stout a year earlier, January 1796, were 15 barrels of brown malt and 35 barrels of pale malt, 30 per cent brown, against the 40 per cent brown in the ale, and 273 pounds of hops, just under four pounds four ounces of hops per barrel, to give an OG of perhaps 1080 and considerably more bitterness, though a lighter colour, than the ale would have had. Indeed, Edward suggested that to get the colour in the stout that the customers would have wanted, Guinness was perhaps charring the inside of its casks. However, that’s another theory I don’t buy …


More Williamsburg locals

More Williamsburg locals

Frank Clark himself kicked off Sunday morning, dressed in his finest green suit with knee breeches, as an 18th century brewer should be. His talk was on “Home Brewing in 18th Century Virginia: Some Interesting Things They Did With Beer”. I was rather worried by the repetition of the “water was unsafe to drink” meme, but apparently Williamsburg water really was unsafe. The town’s wells were contaminated by sewage, while the water table was only some 25 feet down, which meant that as Williamsburg was on a peninsula and the sea was just three miles away, they were also sometimes filled with salt water. Colonial Virginian home-brewers used molasses, with wheat bran or oat bran, presumably for flavour, and hops and there were a fair number of home brewers around: at least 80 households brewed when the town’s population was only about 1,800.

Next up was your not very humble blogger, talking about “Industrialisation in the British Brewing Industry 1720-1850: the Rise of the ‘Power-Loom Brewers'”. Charles Barclay of Barclay Perkins had called the big London porter breweries “power-loom brewers” in the 1830s, meaning they had taken up new technology in the form of steam engines and the like the way the cotton weavers of the North West of England had leapt to mechanise. But my thesis was that (1) the brewers had grown to enormous (for the time) size even before they mechanised and (2) they beat the “power loom weavers” to it, being among the very first manufacturers to adopt steam power.

Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone Brewing in California followed, his chosen subject being “The True Origins of India Pale Ale in England, Scotland and the United States”. Sound man, Mitch: I sat ready to heckle, but feeling confident I wouldn’t have to, and I was right. Right behind Mitch was Ron Pattinson, demonstrating his width of knowledge with something only he could have presented, “International Co-operation in the 19th Century Brewing Industry”. You can get an idea of his talk from this article in Beer Advocate here.



As we headed towards the finish, two more brewers gave terrific presentations. Tom Kehoe, founder of Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, spoke on “Brewing Historic Beers for a Modern Market”. Yards brews several beers with a historical theme, including General Washington’s Tavern Porter, Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, a spruce beerbased on a recipe by Benjamin Franklin using barley molasses and essence of spruce. Then Tanya Brock, manager and brewster at the Carillon Brewery in Dayton, Ohio, revealed all on the running of a brewery dedicated to making only historic beers, The brewery, which opened in 2014, is part of the Carillon Historical Park, which was set up to showcase the history of Dayton, though its name comes from the 150-feet-tall carillon in the grounds, where concerts happen every week. At the brewery, meanwhile, Tanya and her team turn out historic brews including a sour porter – I SO want to go to Ohio– and a coriander ale from 1831. It was then down to the beer writer Randy Mosher to sum up with a talk on “The Past and Future Beer”, and for everybody to file out of the auditorium thinking: “That was great! I really hope Colonial Williamsburg do it again next year …”

I fea your handpump technique needs a little work, madam …

I fea your handpump technique needs a little work, madam …

I didn’t spend all my time in the conference hall, of course: the night I arrived I went out to the Alewerks Brewery’s taproom. I don’t believe – I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong – any new small American brewery would open now without having an on-site bar to sell its beers, but it’s still nothing like common enough in the UK. The Alewerks Tap was clearly a well-used, popular local bar that just happened to sell only one brewer’s beers, though with a dozen different ales, stouts porters and speciality brews to decide among, there was no demurring from me. The “soaking up the beer” problem was solved by the bar supplying half-pound soft petzels for the hungry: simple, cheap, effective, welcome.

Shiny … the lovely new kit at the Virginia Ber Company

Shiny … the lovely new kit at the Virginia Beer Company

The next night, after Randy Mosher had opened the conference and I had said hello to the surprising number of people I had met before, several car-loads of mixed speakers and conference attendees went off to Williamsburg’s newest brewery – so new, in fact, it wasn’t officially open – the Virginia Beer Company. It has been started by Robby Wiley and Chris Smith, two former graduates of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, (the second oldest university in the US, after Harvard) who had apparently made fortunes in the banking business despite only being in their 20s, and who had decided that running a brewery was just the tickety-boo. I was told that around $1.5m had been spent on the whole start-up, and it looked like it: lots of lovely shiny stainless-steel brewing kit (30-barrel capacity in the main set-up, five barrels in the experimental brewery) in a big tall-ceilinged former garage about a mile from the Colonial Williamsburg district. And, of course, there’s a tap: a huge drinking area, in fact, across the front of the old garage, with walls covered in wood from a barn dating from 1907 and room for more tables outside in the sun, all impressive. And the beers were good too.

Virginia Beer Co's head brewer, Jonathan Newman, serves me a glass of stout: tha's not really cask-conditioned, it was racked bright into the pin, but it tasted fine

Virginia Beer Co’s head brewer, Jonathan Newman, serves me a glass of pecan smoked porter: that’s not really cask-conditioned, it was racked bright into the pin, but it was excellent

Ber menu at the Virginia Beer Company

Ber menu at the Virginia Beer Company, constructed from 110-year-old wood

Most of my between-lectures drinking was in the DoG Street Pub, DoG standing for Duke of Gloucester, and Duke of Gloucester Street being the main thoroughfare through Colonial Williamsburg (it was named for the son of the then Princess Anne, third in line to the throne while he was alive, whose death aged 11 in 1700, before his mother became Queen Anne in 1702, meant the British crown eventually passed to the Hanoverians). The building is a former bank converted in 2012, and the establishment styles itself as a “gastropub”. Not the smallest attraction was that it was relatively easy to find room for six or more people to sit at a table: Williamsburg being a tourist honeypot means that while the Colonial area has plenty of “taverns” where mob-capped wenches come round with stoneware mugs of ale, you’re likely to be told: “Can you come back in an hour, we’re full right now …” Bet they never said that to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Others' stories are not totally forgotten …

Others’ stories are not totally forgotten …

Also, the DoG Street Pub has an excellent selection of beer: the first time I went in I was able to try draught Gose from the Bahnhof brewery in Leipzig, Procrastinator Batch 2, an “accidental eisbock” brewed in 2014 by the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes in Switzerland; and something called “Strawberry Schwarzcake”, a fruit-flavoured Schwarzbier from another Virginia brewery, Wild Wolf, in Nellysford, about 140 miles from Williamsburg. (Minor aside: I know this is a naïve cliché, but here’s a classic example of just how BIG the US is: 140 miles and we’re still in the same state. An equal distance from my house in London and I’m in Sheffield.) The food, too, stepped up to the plate (pause to wonder if that joke really works – OK, moving on …) the fish and chips was fine, though I passed on the corned beef and cabbage, since like most Britons of my generation, I’d be sure, “corned beef” means disgusting slices carved from a can of Fray Bentos and served with hard tomatoes, too-old lettuce and sta;e salad cream for a summer Sunday “salad”.

The best bring-a-bottle party ever

The best bring-a-bottle party ever

Then on the Sunday night we had what has to go down as the best “bring a bottle” party ever: Ron P, Chris “Arctic Ale” Bowen and I had been discussing bringing some old beers to Williamsburg, and that’s exactly what we did: I donated a Whitbread 1992 250th Anniversary Ale, a 1994 Thomas Hardy and a 1992 Courage RIS, Ron supplied two-decades-old Liefman’s Goudenband, Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus and Hertog Jan Grande Prestige, and a 1930s Truman No 1 Barley Wine, while Chris brought some John Smiths nips from the 1950s, including a Coronation Ale from 1953. Around 20 people jammed into the hotel room in the Williamsburg Lodge of Ron’s friends Paul and Jamie Langlie to enjoy those and other gems that had been brought along, including an old bottle of Double Diamond (!), a 1988 John Lees Harvest Ale, an old Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale and a Bass 200 Ale from 1977. Astonishingly, all the beers were drinkable, and some verged on excellent.

Finally, before I left on the Monday, I went to see Frank Clark demonstrate colonial-style brewing: tremendous, especially the making of essentia binae, the burnt molasses colouring brewers used to make their porters as dark as possible before the invention of “patent” malt in 1817.

Many thanks to Colonial Williamsburg and everyone who works there for inviting me over and organising a truly excellent weekend, particular thanks to Frank Clark and his team for being such great hosts, cheers to everybody I met there, well done to everyone who bought my books in the bookstore, and let’s hope it happens again.

Frank Clark with mash fork, mashing the gains for a batch of porter in the scullry of the Governor's Palace

Frank Clark with mash fork, mashing the grains for a batch of porter in the scullery of the Governor’s Palace. The hops there are East Kent Goldings, entirely in period …

Running off the wort

Running off the wort into the copper

Addng the molasses to the iron pot before heating it to make essentia binae, porter colouring. (This was illegal for commercial brewers, but fine for home brewers)

Addng the molasses to the iron pot before heating it to make essentia binae, porter colouring. (This was illegal for commercial brewers, but fine for home brewers)

Heating the molasses in an iron pot until it just catches fire, at which point it needs quickly dousing

Heating the molasses in an iron pot until it just catches fire, at which point it needs quickly dousing

Ladling the wort into the copper

Adding the watered-down essentia binae into the copper

Boiling the copper

Boiling the wort in the copper with the hops: note the used grain in the tub bottom right – this goes to feed the animals

Ladling the boiled wort though a coopered sieve to remove the hops

Ladling the boiled wort though a coopered sieve to remove the hops

A better view of the hop sieve set-up

A better view of the hop sieve set-up

†Though Richmond, Virginia is named for Richmond, Surrey – which itself is named for Richmond, North Yorkshire, which was named for the village of Richemont in Normandy. Hampton, Virginia, however, is named for Southampton, not the one in Middlesex.

And so we say farewell to Colonial Williamsburg, until hopefully, we meet again some day …

And so we say farewell to Colonial Williamsburg, until hopefully, we meet again some day …

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

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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Interpreting Victorian beer ads

Only a particularly sad beer history geek – that is to say, me – would greet the excellent news that Fuller’s, the Chiswick brewer, has released a reproduction of a 7.5 per cent 19th century brew under the name Past Masters XX Ale with the cry: “Hang on, that’s not an XX – it’s too strong.” OMG, FST XX NTST. So I was relieved that Ron Pattinson, who was heavily involved in helping Fuller’s produce this new-old beer, the first in what is apparently planned to be a series of absolutely fascinating journeys back into the Griffin brewery’s brewing books, calls it an XX(K). Because an XXK is exactly what it sounds like: 1065 to 1075 or so OG, which would have sold at one shilling and sixpence a gallon wholesale, and seven pence a (quart) pot, at a time when actual proper XX was selling for four pence a pot. (And if that doesn’t sound much – a mere two pence a pint – according to this extremely useful site, 2d in 1890 is the equivalent, in average earnings, to £4.10 today.)

Victorian brewers in Britain had a fairly rigid hierarchy of beers in terms of gravity and price: each of the three main styles, ale, pale ale/bitter and porter/stout, would be sold at one of five or six “price points”, the price per gallon dictated by the original gravity. Not every brewer sold every beer at every price-point, but brewers sold, normally, nine to 12 different beers. The remarkable lack of inflation in Victorian Britain also meant that ales and beers kept the same retail prices from the 1840s through to the rises in tax that began with the Boer War.

Many of the names brewers gave the different brews were fairly standard: ales (remember, we’re talking about a time when ale was still different from beer, being less hoppy, and usually sold “mild”, that is, unaged) were almost always given an X designation, the more X’s, obviously, the stronger the ale. A light one shilling (1s) a gallon bitter ale was almost always called AK. Why? After 25 years pondering this question, I still have no good idea. The big London brewers all seem to have indicated their versions of Burton Ales with the letter K, and Ron Pattinson has amassed good evidence for this meaning “keeping”. But “K” can’t mean “keeping” in AK, because AK wasn’t a keeping beer. In addition, “K” can’t be taken to mean solely the Burton Ale style, or a keeping beer: other, smaller London brewers than the really big ones, as we shall see shortly, used “KKK” to indicate, for example, a pale ale, not a Burton Ale.

Putting that problem aside for a moment, here’s a table that should enable you to work out from any Victorian beer advertisement what the likely OG was of any beer in it, and also the likely retail price (if the ad only gives the price per firkin, or nine-gallon cask, double it to get the price per kilderkin, of course): Continue reading

‘… shoulder aside the prostitutes …’

Since it appears that at least three fellow zythobloggers have named this site their favourite beer blog in end-of-year roundups, I feel obliged to hand out a few end-of-year gongs myself. So here we are:

Best pub or bar of 2009 No contest – the Harvester, Electra Street, Abu Dhabi, the absolute Everest of rough bars, the Mariana Trench of low dives. Once you have found your way round the back of the otherwise respectable Sands Hotel and down the stairs past a threateningly besuited bouncer of indeterminate ethnic origin but about as wide as he is tall, you then have to clamp on your oxygen mask and fit infrared goggles to negotiate through the crush, gloom and roiling cigarette smoke to the bar, shoulder aside the prostitutes from unpronounceable Central Asian republics blocking your passage, who will be stroking your arm and asking if you’d like to do the same to them*, and shout your order at a bored Filipino barman over the racket from an over-amplified trio of Slavic blondes backed by two disappointed and dissipated long-haired Americans in their late 30s on sax and organ and a drummer from Wolverhampton who once had a trial with an Oasis tribute band: except it won’t matter what you order anyway, because all the beer is utterly undrinkable shite, particularly the Smithwicks, a crime against humanity for which every brewer at St James’s Gate should be tortured to death, slowly, and the John Smith’s Smooth, which, remarkably, manages to taste as if it has never even been on the same planet as malt and hops; and you’d be far better to copy the locals, all of whom look as if they derive the majority of their income from smuggling Niger yellowcake in fast motorboats across the Gulf to Iran in exchange for raw Afghani opium, who sit at their own personal table with their own personal bottle of whisky in front of them, surrounded by twitchy tooled-up bodyguards. Marvellous. Unfortunately I was recently informed that the Harvester had lost its drinks licence (some little Health and Safety problem with brown envelopes not being stuffed full enough, probably, such behaviour, if you’re a bar owner, likely to be injurious to your health and threatening to your continued safety), and the place was now practically empty, except for a few sad and silent ladies in most un-Emirati dress clustered at the bar, apparently unable to find their way to the Tourist Club area further east where the rest of their flock had migrated.

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Twenty more beers before lunchtime

My normal reason for travelling to Parson’s Green in West London is to drink at the White Horse, still a fine place to find a wide selection of beers in a congenial setting (except if the upper middle classes bring you out in a rash, of course).

I was in Sloaneland yesterday, however, for the latest series of the Tesco Drinks Awards, when a very large number of bottled brews are subjected to blind tastings by teams of experienced judges, and me.

Like the similar Sainsbury’s awards, these are a big deal for the winning brewers, since they come with a guaranteed listing on the supermarkets’ shelves. For the retailers, the chance is there to find some great beers your rivals won’t have, and add to the differentiation between your supermarket and the one up the road – which is doubtless why Asda (owned by Wal-Mart, US readers) is now doing the same thing.

Unlike the Sainsbury’s awards, the beers in the Tesco judging are drunk “blind”, the bottles carefully wrapped in thick plastic to disguise their origin. However, the scoresheets, helpfully, now list the ingredients, down to the level of exactly what varieties of hops and types of malt went into each brew. This is fascinating in its own right, and it’s a shame and a scandal that all brewers don’t do this as a regular habit on their bottle labels.

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Lessons from blogging 1: most people can’t spell Allsopp

It’s been a year since I started beer blogging, and the big lesson I have learnt is this: a majority of the population thinks Kirstie Allsopp’s surname has only got one ‘p’ in it.

One of the coolest wrinkles available from good blogging software is the ability to see what words people have put into search engines in order to be guided to your pages.

Kirstie Allsopp, the presenter of the TV property programme Location, Location, Location, was mentioned in a piece I wrote about people descended from brewers. Ms Allsopp is a direct descendant of the family that ran one of the biggest pale ale breweries in Burton upon Trent.

Since that post, searching for Kirstie has been the sixth most popular reason for people using Google and the like to wash up on the beach at the Zythophile. But two thirds of the people looking for information on the lady think her name is Allsop, with one ‘p’, although they must have read her name to know who she is. What does this say about the intelligence of people who watch TV property programmes? Don’t email me: just because I ask the question doesn’t mean I don’t know the answer.

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Why Tony Naylor is being a prat

If you’re going to build a rant, the foundation needs to be dug out of solid, properly researched facts. Which is why Tony Naylor is being a prat.

I’m very sorry to diss a fellow beer writer and freelance journalist, especially when he was writing on the Guardian‘s drinks blog with such excellent intentions – to promote good, properly brewed lager.

However, while plugging the pleasures of pils, Tony attempted a big dump all over real ale, insisting, with no evidence at all:

For years now, perries, ciders, real ales and stouts (and many other things which hardly anybody in the real world actually drinks) have received acres of press and undue prominence in gastropubs and good restaurants. If food literate folk enjoy a pint at all, it is a pint of real ale and not lager.

Tony – that’s just crap, I’m sorry. For years now, people in this country who have talked about beer and food pairings have talked about lager on an equal footing with ale. To pull one example off my shelves, Roger Protz’s The Taste of Beer, from 1998, has a section on food and beer pairings which includes Munich Dunkel, Viennese amber lager, Czech Pilsener, Bock beer and wheat beer. Indeed, you can go back to 1956 – long before Mr Naylor was born, when lager was less than two per cent of beer sales in Britain – and Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer, and find lager given as a suitable pairing with dishes such as roast pork, veal and chicken, and creamier, sweeter cheeses.

Tony then goes on to insist:

no-one … stands up for the joys of lager. Is it snobbery? Plain ignorance? Or some kind of evil, beardy, bitter-drinking conspiracy?

Well, no one stands up for lager except Pete Brown or Roger Protz or Ron Pattinson or me, among a horde of others, some bearded, all bitter drinkers as well as lager drinkers. Indeed, the latest edition of the Guild of Beer Writers’ newsletter has just hit my doormat, and on the back page is a piece about how Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire is going to be distributing the highly regarded unpasteurised lagers made by its near-neighbour, the Taddington brewery: beardy bitter drinkers promote real lager horror..

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