Everything you wanted to know about X

This is going to bring me large numbers of search engine hits from people looking for something else entirely, but I’m going to talk about the joy of X, which inevitably means mentioning XX, and XXX of course, and XXXX and so on, right up to Simonds of Reading’s strong stout, Archangel XXXXXXX.

The usual (and only semi-likely) explanation of the original use of X and XX as markings on ale and beer casks, and subsequently as beer names, was that they were used as a guarantee of quality by monastic brewers: Frederick Hackwood’s Edwardian-era Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England says that

in shape the crosses were at first more akin to the crucifix, and served to indicate that by the oath of the monks, ‘sworn on the cross’, the beer was of sound quality, fit to drink.”

though, of course, there is no contemporary documentary evidence given for this, and it seems unlikely, frankly, that monks would use Christianity’s holiest symbol on casks of ale. In any case, † is † and X is X.

Another explanation is that it comes from the habit of excisemen from the middle of the 17th century, when beer was first taxed, marking XX on casks of strong ale or beer and X on casks of small beer. The problem with that idea is that the excisemen’s marks were X for strong beer and T for table beer.

But in this we do at least have evidence of X being used to indicate beer strength: indeed, by the end of the 18th century the Burton upon Trent brewer Benjamin Wilson was using “Xth” in his letters to customers as shorthand for “strength”. We also know that XX was used in the 17th century: in 1695 the Anchor brewery, Southwark was sending “15 Tunns of XX beer” to “Beerbadoes”.

While there is, as far as I am aware, no known documentary evidence of monastic brewers using the X and XX marks for their ale and beer, there would be a perfect reason for them to do so, from the widespread practice of making what was known as “double beer”. The 17th century writer William Yworth, in a book called Cerevisiarii Comes or The New and True Art of Brewing, published in London in 1692, said double beer was “the first two worts, used in the place of liquor [water], to mash again on fresh malt”, so that, in theory, the wort ended up twice as strong. A single run-through of liquor would produce weaker single beer.

A similar idea is behind the name of Double Gloucester cheese, which contains the cream from two milkings, evening and morning, in contrast with Single Gloucester, which is made from the cream of just one milking, and thus has a higher proportion of thin skimmed milk.

Double beer is a style at least a thousand years old: a medical manuscript in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) dated to early in the 11th century mentions twibrowen ealath, twice-brewed ale. When medieval monastic brewers referred to the same drink they called it cervisia duplex, a Latin phrase meaning double ale, which is found in texts written in Britain, probably by monks, in the 13th century.

Birra duplex, double beer in Latin, occurs in a document from 1480, and the same phrase comes up again in an account from 1554, in the reign of Queen Mary. Duplex, the Latin word for double (and meaning literally “two-ply”) sounds like “double-X” in English – and simplex, the Latin for single, sounds like “single X”. It is easy to imagine medieval monk-brewers marking the casks of their birra duplex with a double-X to show that what was inside was the stronger stuff, while the simplex was marked with a single X.

Double beer was also brewed by “civilians”: the borough accounts of Southampton for 1497 show that the expenses of the “law-day” feast on the official perambulation of the borough boundaries included 20d for half a barrel of “dobell beere”, and 12d for half a barrel of “fyne dobell beere”. In the records of the county of Middlesex during the time of Edward VI, that is, around 1550, one Peter Jool was charged with illegally brewing too-strong “dobell dobell” beer, which would presumably have been called “XXXX”.

Although few, if any, commercial brewers today make strong beer with a “double wort”, or return wort, the abbey brewers of Flanders and Brabant still use dubbel and tripel to describe their different-strength beers, and at least one, the Schaapskooi brewery at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Dear Lady (“Onze Lieve Vrouw) in Koningshoeven, North Brabant, whose beers are sold under the La Trappe name, still uses Xs on its bottle labels to denote the brews.

The brewery made Dubbel and Tripel for a long time and has “reinvented” (Tim Webb) the terms Enkel and Quadrupel to extend its beer range at either end of the strength scale. The terms double and single for different strengths of beer were used across Northern Europe: the three commonest styles of Swedish beer before the middle of the 19th century, for example, were dubbelt öl, or double ale, enkelt öl, or single ale, and svagöl, “weak ale”.

When Henry VIII set about dissolving the monasteries of England, many of the redundant monk-brewers and their non-ordained employees must have been available to set up commercial breweries. Did they carry with them the habit of marking strong “duplex” beer with a double X (and “triplex”, with a triple X)?

Early brewing books, unfortunately, do not seem to cover the use of X in beer names. References before the 1850s, such as the mention of “Charrington’s XX ale” in the Pocket Magazine of 1821, are rare, and it is not until the arrival of newspapers with advertising from brewers that it becomes clear how widespread the use of X and powers of X was to name beers. Indeed, a children’s “Alphabet of Trades” published around 1856 gratefully recruited the brewer when it got to the 24th letter of the alphabet:

The letter X no trade will show
Unless we to the brewer go;
One who ready has for sale
Rows of XX and XXX ale

Every brewer, practically without exception, brewed a couple or more beers with X in the name. John Steed’s brewery in Baldock, North Hertfordshire was typical: in 1867 it was selling eight different beers, a pale ale, a family bitter ale, a porter, an “extra double stout”, and then XX mild ale at one shilling a gallon, probably around 1045-50 OG; XX “stock ale for harvest” at the same price; XXX strong ale, one shilling and four pence, around 1055-1060 OG; and XXXX “extra strong, highly recommended” at one shilling and eight pence, somewhere north of 1080 OG.

The X designation was almost always applied, where it was used, to milds, to plain “ales” (which even in the 19th century normally meant a less-hoppy brew), and to porters and stouts, while pale ales and bitters would have other letters applied to them: PA, BA, KK or AK, and the like. Brewers seemed to feel that if it was going to have nothing but one or more Xs in the name, a beer had to be dark, or lightly hopped, or both. Certainly almost all the solely-X-designation beers that have survived until recent times have been dark milds, including Greene King XX, Brakspear’s XXX and Devenish XXX, to name just three. However, enough exceptions exist, including the now-vanished Paine’s XXX bitter from St Neots and XX light bitter from the old Starkey, Knight and Ford Brewery in Tiverton and 6X bitter from the Yorkshire Clubs Brewery, York (which also brewed 4X bitter); XXX bitter at the Three Tuns, Bishops Castle, and 6X bitter from Wadworth’s of Devizes.

Few brewers went above XXXX, though EJ and C Healey of Watford, Hertfordshire sold XXXXX Christmas Ale for two shillings a gallon in the 1890s, which must have been over 1100 OG, and Simonds of Reading’s Archangel Stout, described by the writer Andrew Campbell in 1956 as “very powerful … dry and strong to the taste” was advertised in the 1930s with the alternative name of “XXXXXXX”

There seems general agreement as to how strong a beer would be for a given number of Xs: Professor Charles Graham, speaking to the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881 about beer strengths, said the gravities of the standard X and XX milds were 1055 and 1061 respectively. Certainly Courage, one of London’s biggest mild ale brewers, brewed its XX mild in 1891 to a gravity of 1060. XX was the standard “running ale” or “fourpenny ale”, so called from its price of four pence for a quart, which is why the public bar, where XX mild was mostly drunk, was sometimes called the “four-ale bar”.

However, “country” strengths may have been different from “London” strengths: Steward & Patteson, the Norwich brewer, in 1914 was brewing its XXXX mild at around 1065 OG, its XXX at 1055 and its XX at 1047. The different strengths would also, it seems, be different colours, though this would probably range only from “dark” to “very, very dark”: Garne’s brewery of Burford in 1912 gave the colours of its X beers as 25 for the XX, an old-oak brown, 30 for the XXX and 35 – very dark brown – for the XXXX (which, with oat malt in the grain bill, was probably meant to be regarded as a stout).

This did not always apply, however: the Northants & Leicestershire Clubs Brewery in 1935 brewed two grades of mild, XX and XXX, each in three varieties, Light, Medium and Dark. Sometimes, too, the Xs were merely relative indications of strength: at Guinness the two main brews were referred to internally until 1929 as X or SS (for single stout), which was 1058 OG before the First World War, and XX or DS (for double stout), which was 1074 OG, though their official, public designations were porter and extra stout. It took a board resolution that year to force the brewery staff and workers to refer to the beers by their “correct” titles.

The X designation was carried abroad to all Britain’s colonies by emigrating brewers: to give just a few examples, William Peel at the Umlaas Brewery in Natal was selling “fine flavoured table ale X”, strong pale XX and “extra strong” XXX ale when he opened in 1862; Molson, the Canadian brewer, was brewing an XX mild in 1869; while Carlton in Melbourne was selling XXX mild in the 1880s. In 1924 Castlemaine of Brisbane introduced its XXXX Bitter Ale, which was to become one of Australia’s best-known beers. In New Zealand, Ford’s of Hokitika brewed XXXX Pale Ale, In the United States, XX ale was being brewed in Philadelphia in 1857 and Ballantine’s of Newark’s XXX Ale was a famous brew, its cans immortalised in bronze by the artist Jasper Johns in 1960.

Today only a handful of beers sold solely with Xs in their name survive in Britain, against the thousands there must have been in the 19th century: XX dark mild from Greene King; Sussex XX mild from Harvey’s; Tressler XXX mild from Nobby’s of Guilsborough; XXX bitter from the Three Tuns brewery in Bishop’s Castle; the strong (and rare) XXXX from Hyde’s in Manchester; Nimmo’s XXXX from Cameron’s; XXXX bitter from the Spectrum brewery in Norwich, the only other one brewed by a “new” brewer; and 6X from Wadworth’s. Greene King blends two-year-old 5X into its Strong Suffolk but doesn’t, alas, sell it separately.

16 thoughts on “Everything you wanted to know about X

  1. And over here we had Deasy’s of Clonakilty making Clonakilty X and Clonakilty XX. The Porterhouse claim that their Wrassler’s XXXX stout is a revived Deasy’s recipe, though I doubt if the brewery, which closed in the 1940s, used quite so much nitrogen in the serving of their beers.

    Great post, as always. I had generally assumed that the X was employed as it’s the easiest unambiguous mark you can make with a piece of chalk on a barrel lid, kind of on the same principle as an illiterate’s signature or X-marks-the-spot. The Latin connection is really interesting.

  2. The last time I passed through West Cork I noticed that Deasy’s still made soft drinks, though I believe the brewery site has been redeveloped. I’ve never been too sure about the claim that Michael Collins was a fan of the “Wrassler” – at least one source I’ve seen claimed he was a claret man …

    1. I just posted about this somewhere else, so I’ll just C&P it here –

      My Dad has a book with interviews mainly from Dublin landlords & bar staff


      in it, one chap recounts how Collins’ favourite tipple wasn’t a rich dry stout, but in fact a wee glass of sherry!

      Page 91 –
      Tom Bourke, 86 is the oldest publican in Dublin still pulling pints . . . Tom served drink to Michael Collins . . . (Tom B himself speaking -)
      “Now Michael Collins would come in and have a drink of a small sherry . . . he was a great friend of my boss’s at the time . . . ”

      my guess is he told the lads – “if any of youse tell anyone I drink feckin’ sherry . . .”

  3. And there’s the famous story that during the Treaty negotiations, Collins sent to Davy Byrne’s pub in Dublin for “a bottle of brandy and a soda syphon to settle the Irish question”, though I see this is attributed to some guy called Protz, so it’s probably apocryphal…

  4. Insightful post, indeed. And I also found the strength connection to Dubbels and Tripels with Xs fascinating. Also, I do seem to recall Whitbread brewing Mackeson Triple XXX Milk Stout as well, at 4.9% abv.

    By the way, for the uninitiated such as myself, what were the designations of PA, BA, KK, and AK for as far as pales and bitters? I think the first two are obvious as Pale Ale and Bitter Ale, but what are the Ks all about?

  5. No sugar in most of the pre-1880’s ones. Even between the wars (when the logs have the colour of the beer listed) Barclay Perkins X and XX were a darkish amber, except for versions darkened with caramel.

  6. I come from Queensland Australia. Over here we have lager brewed by Castlemaine Perkins, known as XXXX Gold and XXXX Bitter. Although historically the name did refer to the strength, I doubt it continues to be. XXXX Gold is a mid-strength beer (3.5% a.b.v.) whereas the original XXXX Bitter is 4.8% a.b.v.

  7. […] XX ale makes a few appearances too. No-one’s totally sure from where this unusual name stems, but possibly it was originally more akin to a crucifix and marked on the barrels by the monks to indicate that […]

  8. […] XX ale makes a few appearances too. No-one’s totally sure from where this unusual name stems, but possibly it was originally more akin to a crucifix and marked on the barrels by the monks to indicate that […]

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