Inside the pale

The Times newspaper in London has recently completed the magnificent task of digitising its entire run of issues back to 1785, meaning every word, including all the advertisements, is now electronically searchable. This is a tremendous boon to historians, who will be greatly helped in finding the answers to many of the vexed historical questions of today, such as: is pale ale really a different drink from draught bitter?

Your man with his tent erected in the middle of the “pale ale and bitter are different styles” camp is Britain’s Leading Beer Writer™. In the latest edition of Beers of the World magazine, in a series of articles on beer styles, himself writes:

Let us begin by stating what pale ale is not. It’s not IPA – India Pale Ale – neither is it bitter. Pale ale stands between the two … Bitter, as we shall see later in the series, is an early 20th century beer, brewed to meet the demands of the new “tied pubs” of large brewers who wanted a draught “running beer” that could be served after only a few days of cellar conditioning.

However, the evidence points overwhelmingly towards pale ale and bitter being regarded as synonyms by both the public and brewers from the time the terms first appeared. (I won’t comment on Roger’s second claim, that 20th century bitter was a new invention that needed only a few days of cellar conditioning, until his promised piece on the history of bitter comes out).

As far as I know, the Times historical database isn’t open yet to the public, so I can’t point you to a URL, but it’s available on the News International intranet. My peripatetic career as a journeyman journalist is currently taking me inside the ramparts at Times House, however, and in slack moments between helping to produce editions of the next day’s paper (and correcting reporters’ errors, like the prat who thought the Goodwin Sands were “in” Kent) I’ve been running searches on the archive. The very first mention of the term “bitter beer” in The Times comes on September 5 1842, in a small advertisement for “Ashby’s Australian Pale Ale”, which “is the most pleasant of all the different sorts of bitter beer that we have ever tasted,” according to a newspaper quoted in the ad. So the first time we find bitter beer being mentioned, it is as a synonym for pale ale.

Ashby’s Australian Pale Ale was made by the Quaker-founded Ashby’s brewery in Staines, Middlesex, a few miles up the Thames from London. A later advertisement, from the following year, showed Ashby’s had been exporting it to “the Australian colonies” since 1829 and the beer “resembles the East India pale ale in flavour and colour, with rather more body.” The ads appeared alongside others for “Bass’s Pale Ale, as prepared for India”, “Hodgson and Abbott’s pale ale” (Hodgson’s of Bow, of course, being the first earliest brewer to export become well-known for exporting a pale ale to India), and “Allsopp’s East India pale ale, as prepared for India”. This last ad says:

The reputation which ALLSOPP’S PALE ALE has obtained in the Eastern and British colonial markets will be best shown by a reference to the price current, and the high esteem in which it is held by the faculty [that is, medical faculty] in this country …

all indicating, I would suggest, that India Pale Ale was seen as merely a subset of pale ale, the kind “as prepared for India” rather than something completely different.

The best evidence for the idea that brewers, and the public, regarded pale ale and bitter beer as interchangeable synonyms comes with the “great strychnine libel” of 1852. In March that year a French Professor, Monsieur Payen, claimed that large amounts of strychnine were being exported from France to England for use instead of hops in giving beer a bitter flavour. The libel was repeated in an English medical journal, the Medical Times and Gazette, which wrote:

It is just now the fashion to believe that bitter beer is the best stomachic that was ever invented … That the bitterness of the best kind of ‘pale ale’ is given simply by an excess of hops or camomile we firmly believe [but] large quantities of strychnine have been made in Paris… to be intended for exportation to England, in order to fabricate bitter beer.

A letter appeared in The Times on March 29 under the heading “Bitter Beer”, calling the wider public’s attention to the French claim. This was answered by a broadside from the brewers intended to bring down M Payen’s canard, including a letter the next day from Michael Thomas Bass, head of one of Burton upon Trent’s biggest brewers, and one of the biggest exporters of IPA. Bass said:

When a letter is admitted into The Times, warning the public that they may be imbibing the most subtle and deadly poison while they are only dreaming of the pleasures of “bitter beer”, I may, perhaps, be pardoned as one of the brewers of that favourite beverage if I ask your permission to notice what the Spectator in its last number called a “Paris Fable of Pale Ale” … Why, Sir, India would long ago have been depopulated of its European inhabitants had there been anything pernicious in pale ale. Permit me to add that “pale ale” has won the public favour by means of a perfectly “free trade” and that we, and our eminent and respected competitors, only hope to maintain that favour by contending with each other by producing a beverage as palatable as it is possible to obtain from malt, hops, and the purest water.

Bass’s letter makes no distinction between bitter beer, pale ale, and the pale ale drunk in India. A follow-up story published in The Times on May 12 1852 under the heading “Alleged adulteration of pale ales by strychnine” gave details of a report commissioned from two professors of chemistry in England by Henry Allsopp, head of another big Burton upon Trent brewer, and said:
… the charge of adulteration is totally unfounded, and the bitter beer drinker may dismiss all fears of being poisoned some day while quietly enjoying his favourite beverage.
Once again pale ale and bitter beer are treated as synonyms, as they are in an advertisement in The Times in November 1855 which says:

EAST INDIA PALE ALE – To be SOLD, about 150 barrels of sound and full-flavoured BURTON BITTER BEER of last season’s brewing and in prime condition, either for bottling or present use.

While this proves, I think, that from the beginning of the appearance of the term “bitter beer” around the start of the 1840s it was regarded as a synonym for pale ale, and India Pale Ale was just a type of pale ale or bitter beer “as prepared for India” rather than something totally different, it does not prevent the possibility that in the 20th century bitter became divorced from pale ale as a style. However, in 1948 the London brewer Whitbread published a book called The Brewer’s Art which said:

“In this country there are four chief types of beer to-day: pale ale, mild ale, stout and Burton. Pale ale … is sold both as draught beer (“bitter”) and in bottle. India Pale Ale was the name originally given to a fine pale ale made for export to troops in India … Among the cheaper and therefore weaker pale ales are light ales and family ales.

Whitbread’s stance, therefore, was just the same as Michael Thomas Bass’s nearly 100 years before: bitter is just another word for pale ale.

19 thoughts on “Inside the pale

  1. Another really interesting post. I too get annoyed by the insistence of some writers that Bitter is a relatively recent invention.

    I agree about Pale Ale and Bitter being essentially the same thing. There’s plenty of evidence from Victorian adverts to that effect. Also that brewers called the beer PA in the brewhouse and marked PA on the casks, but that it was sold as Bitter in pubs.

    But not all Bitters devloped from Pale Ale. The class of beers called variously “intermediate Ales”, “luncheon Ales” or “dinner Ales” were significantly different from Pale Ale. Much weaker, for a start, and sold without ageing. These seem to be the ancestors of Light Ale and ordinary Bitter, while Pale Ale was the precursor of Best Bitter. You can see this clearly with Barclay Perkins, where PA was marketed as Best Bitter and XLK (a sort of Light Ale) as Bitter.

    Though the slashes in gravities during the 20th century have blurred the distinctions. In my hometown of Newark the Best Bitter of Warwick’s & Richardson’s was called IPA, whilst Hole’s was called AK (a classic “intermediate Ale” name).

    Some odd things also happened to IPA around the time of WW I. In the 19th century, IPA was as strong (if not slightly stronger) than PA. In the 20th century the gravity dropped to be closer to that of light Bitter. These are the gravities of BArclay Perkins Bitters in 1936:

    PA (export) 1069
    PA 1053
    XLK (draught) 1046
    XLK (bottling) 1039
    IPA (bottling) 1045

    You can see the same with Harvey’s, whose IPA is a weaker version of their Blue Label Pale Ale.

    I’ve a suspicion that, certainly in the first half of the 19th century, “Bitter Beer” was used as a generic term, roughly equating to the 18th century term “Beer” – that is anything heavily-hopped. I’ve seen old brewery price lists divided into three sections: Ale, Bitter Beer and Porter.

  2. Your comments are excellent as usual Ron, and I agree that the lake we call “bitter” is watered by other streams than just straightforward pale ale.

    Indeed, backing up your point about AK and “intermediate ale”, I have a copy of the Richmond and Twickenham Times from July 8 1892 which carries an advertisement from Henry Lovibond & Son of the Cannon Brewery, Lillie Road, Fulham with “Intermediate ales” listed alongside the “Mild ales”, “Pale bitter ales” and “Stout and Porter”, and the “Intermediate ales” are listed as AK “Mild Bitter” (sic) at nine shillings a firkin, implying an OG of around 1045, XAK “Extra Strength” at 12 shillings a firkin, suggesting an OG of 1055 or so, and XXAK “Best Quality” at 15 shillings a firkin, around 1080 or upwards.

    The brewery’s six “Pale Bitter Ales”, meanwhile, were XB “Light Bitter” (seven shillings and sixpence a firkin, suggesting an OG of just 1035 or 1040), PB “Pale Bitter” at nine shillings, VPA “Victoria Pale Ale tonic bitter – highly recommended” at 10 shillings, around 1050 OG; XVPA “Extra Strength” at 12 shillings; XXB “Best Quality” at 15 shillings; and XXXXB “a Strong Bitter Beer” at 18 shillings, suggesting something well up into the low 1100s OG.

    Lovibond’s didn’t brew a beer with the name IPA, but others advertising in the same paper did, listing it as part of their range of “pale ales” or “pale and bitter ales”, and at 12 shillings or 11 shillings and sixpence a kil, that is, around 1055 OG, equivalent to Lovibond’s XVPA.

    However, others also listed AK, but under the “bitter ales” category, such as Sich’s Lamb Brewery in Chiswick, which sold three “bitter ales”, AK at nine shillings a kil, Pale Ale at 13 shillings and Table Ale at seven shillings and sixpence, and its next-door neighbour Fuller, Smith & Turner, which sold AK ‘Light Bitter Ale”, again at nine shillings a kil (the almost universal price for a beer with that name in the last half of the 19th century).

    So the brewers themselves weren’t consistent in their categorisation – indeed, JW Green’s of Luton were selling AK “light ale” at 10 pence a gallon in 1910, but by the 1950s Green’s AK had turned into a dark mild …

  3. Fantastic blog , I’m very glade I stumbled upon it
    I will make clear from the outset that I am firmly in the Mr Protz camp on this one. While it is very clear that pale ale was marketed and referred to as bitter ale, or simply bitter this does not mean that the two styles are synonymous. In the same way that there where ales referred to as stout long before that term meant dark and roasty, or in this day and age a bitter in Australia means an insipid golden lager the context of language changes. The advents in yeast understanding and handling and the invention of stewed crystal malts were crucial to the development of what we now understand an English bitter to be. The same advents were important to mild ales and I would argue that bitter and mild have far more in common than pale ale and bitter.

  4. Fascinating things, these old price lists. There’s a mass of information that can be gleaned from them. Unfortunately, so far I’ve never been able to match brewing logs and price lists for the same brewery. That would be really interesting.

    Those Lovibond beers are interesting. I’ve never come across XAK or XXAK before. The variations I’ve seen are AAK and AKA.

    Have you ever seen a Barclay Perkins price list? I would love to know how they described their beers. I’ve never been able to find one myself.

  5. Thanks for your kind comments, Kieran, and for putting a link to my blog on yours – much appreciated. I take your point that beer styles change, and no one today would accept a “pale stout”, though such beers were on sale in the past. However, I will continue to argue that pale ale and bitter still overlap so much as to be effectively indistinguishable, and any attempt to separate the two is meaningless. Fuller’s London Pride, for example, is described on its bottle label as a pale ale, but it’s brewed as a parti-gyle beer with ESB – Extra Special Bitter – and Chiswick Bitter. So how can pale ale be different from bitter if three mashes of the same grains go to make two bitters and a pale ale? Young’s, when it was at the Ram brewery in Wandsworth, used to send its “ordinary” bitter out in casks labelled PA, for pale ale, and its Special bitter in casks labelled SPA, for Special Pale Ale (don’t know what it does now the beers are brewed in Bedford). And so on …

    Ron, the variations I have found on AK, KK and XK run through almost every combination human ingenuity can think of: A Gordon and Co of The Brewery, Lyndhurst Road, Peckham, for example, sold K tonic ale at 10 1⁄2 (old) pence a gallon, KK pale ale at 1s 2d a gallon and KKK India Pale Ale at 1s 4d a gallon. The Eltham Brewery sold “KIPA”. Facey and Sons of Abergavenny sold XK mild at 10d a gallon. Ashby’s Brewery, Staines, Middlesex sold KX mild, and the Hadley Brewery, near Barnet, Hertfordshire brewed both AK and KA bitter ales. Cleaver and Co. of Baldock in the 1870s sold four grades of pale bitter ales, AK, XK, XXK and XXXK. EJ and C Healey of King Street, Watford, Hertfordshire in 1898 brewed KK family bitter ale, for 1s a gallon, KIK light dinner ale at 1s 2d, KKK India Pale Ale for 1s 4d and KKKK India Pale Ale Extra at 1s 8d. Taylor Walker of Limehouse, East London brewed “KKK Burton”, another style entirely from IPA, while the Tadcaster Tower Brewery in Yorkshire sold KKK “Old Tom” at 15s a firkin, a barley wine style, which must have been around 1090 OG, as well as AKK Family Pale Ale. About the only thing all these beers had in common was that any brew with a K in its name was almost invariable described, when a description was given, as a pale beer, and AK was universally described, when it was described, as a lightly hopped pale bitter beer.

    I’ve not found a Barclay’s price list yet, but when I do you’ll be the first to know …

  6. It is intriguing how often K pops in beer names. I used to think, like you, that it usually designated a pale beer. My ideas have been modified by looking through brewing logs.

    Before 1900 I haven’t found any dark beers at all, with the exception of Porter and Stout. Everything else, including all the Milds, is pale. I’ve also seen KP used to mean “Keeping Porter”:

    Both the Griffin Brewery (Reid) and Barclay Perkins brewed two sets of Ales, one designated by X’s, the other by K’s. XX and KK are both 100% pale malt and exactly the same gravity. The only difference is the hopping rate, which is 25-50% higher for the K Ales. I assume that here the K stands for “Keeping” and that these are Stock Ales.

    Right up until WWI, Barclay Perkins KK was a pale beer. I’m not sure when it went dark, but it happened sometime around then. The 1936 version I’ve had brewed was definitely dark, as was the KKKK of that date. I’m pretty sure that the KK was sold as Burton on draught and as Southwarke Olde Ale in the bottle. The KKKK was marketed as “Strong Ale”, at least in the 1930’s.

    I have the impression that some breweries had slightly different designations, using XXK instead of KK.

    Barclay Perkins used another variation, XLK, for their ordinary Bitter. I’ve not seen that used anywhere else, though the Griffin Brewery did have an XL Ale that had a gravity between that of the X and XX Ale. So the XL could mean X and a half.

    It’s frustrating that no-one ever documented what the hell all these letters mean. The only one I’ve ever seen described in a contemporary document is T for Table Beer. I think I could have worked that out myself.

  7. Yup, it’s confusing – I’m not at all convinced by the “K stands for keeping” argument, however, at least not for beers like AK and KK. When the great brewing chemist Dr Edmund Moritz described beer types to a Parliamentary Committee on beer in 1898, he spoke of light pale ales, or AK, kept two to three weeks before delivery, while other pale ales were kept for up to a month (while mild ale, X or XX, was kept four to ten days before delivery, according to Moritz). So AK wasn’t for keeping, at any rate …

  8. Maybe that’s why they were called “Intermediate Ales” – because they were kept longer than mild ales but not as long as Pale Ales.

    I’m pretty certain that, in the records I’ve looked at, KK does refer to a Stock Ale. Then again, in other places I’ve seen beers called KK that were Light Milds.

    Interesting source about the length of time beers were stored. I’m not sure I’ve seen that anywhwere else.

  9. London Pride may be described as a pale ale on its label but that makes it no more a pale ale than describing me as a 6 foot Jamaican would make me one. Batemans XXXB has changed its label in the time I have been drinking it from describing its self as a bitter to describing its self as a pale ale, I suspect that this is due to bitter going out of vogue like mild did , to a much lesser extent of course. Golden ales rule the day at the moment so brewers are rushing to stress the pale, downplay the bitterness.
    It still all comes down to crystal malt as far as Im concerned.

  10. Kieran, I’m not quite sure what point you’re making here. Are you saying that if a beer contains crystal malt it’s a Bitter and if not a Pale Ale?

    Barclay Perkins PA was sold as Best Bitter in pubs but, up until 1919 at least (I’ll have to check on the 1926 and 1936 versions) contained no crystal malt. Neither did their XLK, sold as Bitter, contain any. Does that mean that both were Pale Ales and not Bitters?

    I haven’t found crystal malt in any Barclay Perkins beers before 1900. When it does start to appear in the early part of the 20th century, it’s only in their X (Mild), KK and KKK (Strong Ales).

    The only difference I’ve come across between Pale Ale and Bitter while studying old documents is that the term PA is used in breweries and Bitter in pubs.

    The malts used in beers gradually changed over time. Before 1880 British beers were made using almost exclusively pale malt, with the exception of Porter and Stout, where there was also brown, amber and black malt in the grist. The first change after the Free Mash Tun act was the use of sugar and maize.

    I’ll check later Barclay Perkins logs to see if and when they started using crystal malt in ther Pale Ales/Bitters. I suspect that it will be all or nothing – that is, either used in all of them or none at all.

  11. Right. I’ve been looking through the photos I took in the archive. These are Barclay Perkins grists for their Bitters.

    1925 PA (Best Bitter, 1053º) XLK (Bitter, 1046º)
    66 quarters pale malt
    2 quarters lager malt
    12 quarters maize
    22 quarters sugar

    (1 quarter = approx 320 pounds)

    1935 PA (Best Bitter, 1053º) XLK (Bitter) IPA (bottled)
    57 quarters pale malt
    7 quarters maize
    22 quarters sugar
    74 pounds caramel

    1940 PA (Best Bitter, 1048º) XLK (Bitter)
    92 quarters pale malt
    10 quarters rice
    18 quarters sugar

    As you can see, no crystal malt to be seen. They only used that in their dark beers. All the beers are draught, with the exception of the IPA.

  12. I just remembered this bit in “The Brewer”, 1863, by William Loftus:

    It’s a chapter called “India Pale Bitter Ale” and is a description of how to brew IPA. In paragraph two he calls it “Bitter Ale”.

    Everything I’ve seen shows Pale Ale and Bitter being interchangeable terms from at least the 1860’s. What evidence is there to the contrary?

    I had assumed that brewers started throwing crystal malt into Bitters to compensate for the big drops in gravity after 1916. But I haven’t found any trace of it. Then again, most of my theories went out of the window once I got hold of some facts.

    I plan another day in the London Metropolitan Archive next month. I want to look at developments post WW II at Barclay Perkins and the ale logs of Whitbread and Truman’s. That should provide a better picture of what was going on with Pale Ale/Bitter.

  13. ” Are you saying that if a beer contains crystal malt it’s a Bitter and if not a Pale Ale?”

    I think the addition of crystal, chocolate or black malt to a pale ale grist in order to turn it amber and give it stewed malt character is the defining difference between pale ale and bitter, yes.

  14. “I think the addition of crystal, chocolate or black malt to a pale ale grist in order to turn it amber and give it stewed malt character is the defining difference between pale ale and bitter, yes.”

    That means Barclay Perkins, at least up until 1940, produced only Pale Ales not Bitters? Because they didn’t use any of those three malts in their Pale Ales/Bitters Does that mean they were deceiving the public when they sold these beers as Bitters?

    Sorry, I think this is a differentiation that someone has applied after the fact. Where are the contemporary sources to back up this theory? If neither brewers nor drinkers acknowledged this difference where does it originate? My guess is from a late 20th century writer.

    Take a look in some old brewing manuals. They make no mention at all of Bitter for the most part. Only Pale Ale is discussed, but as they also talk about draught beer, it’s pretty obvious that this includes Bitter, too.

  15. zythophile – I saw your post on Henry Lovibond & Son. Not too relevant to this thread, but you may be interested to know that I found an enamel-on-steel sign behind the back wall of my flat just off Lillie Road in Fulham. It was very deteriated, and badly rusted – but it’s from Henry Lovibond & Son and has an image of medals the brewery won at the International Health Exhibition in 1884. It’s about 3′ by 1′ – I was quite excited to find it. About the only other reference on the web (apart from yours) to this brewery is a photo on the english heritage site which I obtained a copy of. You can see it here.

    I’d be very interested in getting a copy of the advertisement from the Richmond and Twickenham times which you mentioned above.


  16. What a terrific find, David – you’re very lucky The Brewery History Society book Where have All the Brewers Gone suggests that Henry Lovibond had been brewing at Langport, Somerset in 1831 before opening at 80-84 Lillie Road in 1867. It was first registered as a ltd co in 1897 as Henry Lovibond & Sons Ltd, then re-registered three years later as Henry Lovibond & Sons (1900) Ltd but taken over in 1901 by John Lovibond & Sons Ltd of Greenwich High Street in 1901 – see Richmond & Turton’s The Brewing Industry: A Guide to Historical Records, because I CBA to type out all the details on John Lovibond, but the company also owned another Lovibond’s brewery in Salisbury. The Cannon brewery in Lillie Road closed in 1909 and was used as a depot, and later as an aircraft factory. John Lovibond in Greenwich closed in 1962, with most of its pubs going to Courage: its surviving records are in Greenwich local history library.

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