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.

There we are: some lucky Londoners, while Sir Edward and his crews were still suffering incredible hardships in the ice and fog of the far north, searching for evidence of the fate of Franklin and his men (the Belcher expedition, minus four of its ships left locked in ice, finally arrived home in Britain in 1854) were sitting comfortably at home, probably in front of a log-piled fire, digesting roast beef and plum pudding and enjoying the same rich strong ale, described as ” mellow as old Burgundy and as nourishing as a beefsteak”, that Arctic explorers and Russian royalty consumed.

The strength of “Allsopp’s Strong  Christmas Ale”, otherwise known as Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, is shown by its price, 45 shillings per 18-gallon kilderkin, two and a half times more than the cost of standard XX mild or ordinary porter, and 50 per cent more costly even than imperial stout or the strongest standard No 1 Burton ales. Belcher’s expedition had set out in the spring of 1852: assuming his supplies of Arctic Ale had been brewed when the previous year’s brewing season began, October 1851, that made the Christmas Ale being sold by Parker and Twining just over two years old.

The Burton brewers’ Russian trade, risky but potentially very profitable (as far back as 1777, it was recorded that 3,182 hogsheads of Burton ale worth £26,255 were imported into St Petersburg, equal to a cost of 55 shillings a kilderkin) is always supposed to have stopped in 1822, when the Russians suddenly slapped heavy tariffs on ale imports from Britain, and the Burton brewers turned to brewing paler, more bitter ales for the Indian market. What the Russians didn’t tax, however, was porter and stout, and this is supposed to have given Southwark’s Barclay Perkins (the most famous supplier) and others (such as Reid & Co, another London porter brewer) the chance to expand their sales of what became known as Imperial Russian Stout.

That this narrative isn’t completely true is shown by some “advertorial” printed in the Morning Post on February 15 1869, puffing the business of MB Foster, probably the biggest independent beer bottler in the world at that time. Among the beers Fosters bottled was “the strong sweet ale known as Burton No 1”, which, the newspaper said, “is exported chiefly to Russia and other cold climates”. The Russians clearly could not give up strong Burton ale completely, though No 1 Burton, at around 10 per cent abv, is still Arctic Ale’s smaller brother.

The synchronicity of all this is that last year, Chris Bowen, an American homebrewer, organised a trip to the Arctic Circle with brewing equipment, to recreate Allsopp’s Arctic Ale in the place where it was intended to be drunk, and now Chris is involved in a trip by sailing ship from London to St Petersburg that will recreate the journey the original Imperial Russian Stout made from the Thames to the Neva. That journey will begin in May, taking modern examples of imperial stout with it: my suggestion to Chris is that if he has any Arctic Ale left he can take some of that too, to replicate the journey the original strong, sweet Burton ales made through the Baltic to the Russian court (although to be genuinely authentic, the Arctic Ale would have to travel down the Trent from Burton to Hull and then across the North Sea – um, if any Burton brewer wants to commission me to carry out this trip, I can be free …)

0 thoughts on “Extreme beers in the 19th century

  1. He was the very model of a nineteenth century admiral
    He sailed up to the frozen north with an insouciance so admirable
    And when they asked him if he feared the polar bear or angry whale
    He answered: ‘Not at all, because I’m rotten drunk on Arctic Ale!”

  2. Auctioned on ebay a few years back. Some question as to whether the last bid was legit. In any case, the price has gone up a bit.


    last bid was US $502,501.00

    “” What you are looking at is an actual museum quality sealed and intact bottle of Samuel Allsopp’s Arctic Ale brewed for the 1852 Expedition to the Arctic lead by Sir Edward Belcher. This bottle of beer is likely the rarest, oldest, and most documented bottle of beer in existence! Not to mention the unbelievably unique history surrounding it. Accompanying the bottle is an actual limited handwritten history about the bottle itself.

    It reads as follows:

    “This ale was specially brewed and bottled in England, in 1852, for Kane’s Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. A portion of the lot was cached in the Arctic; and was afterwards taken back to England, where it was bought by Allsopp, from whom Mr. Jus. Fennell obtained a part.

    This bottle was given to me by Mr. Fennell May 13, 1919. Should I depart from this (by that time probably) dry world before consuming the contents, let my son and brethren perform my duties and enjoy my rights in that respect, on the eve of my funeral (if they find it in time) – unless such act be then illegal, in which case those of the aforesaid trustees who sufficiently learned in law shall advise ac-??? To the rule of ey fares.

    Two bottles of this ale were guests of honor at the banquet given to Shackleton and Peary, in Boston, some years ago. (1907/1908) The skeletons of said guests were preserved as mementos of Sir John Franklin! (Useful suggestion regarding the “cast off shell” of the spirit.)

    Signed: Percy G Bolster “”

    1. Spelt, that auction inspired me to recreate this Arctic Ale last year in Canada . Unfortunately , the auction was a bust as that bottle still resides in Tulsa , Oklahoma .
      That bottle I believe was relabeled and re-corked for presentation purposes in 1919, a gent who used to work in the Ind Coope art-shop in Burton, remembers two bottles of the 1852 ale in the brewery vaults for years, this one ( as in the auction on Ebay above) and the other one with the authentic/original label and Allsopp’s hallmark in the waxed cork. I own the latter and researched it for three years, you can find out more about it here: ( where you can find another bottle picture on my Facebook site)
      http://www.arcticalchemy.com or on Facebook “arctic alchemy” .

      The letter attached from Percy G. Bolster , who was a prominent attorney living in Boston MA ( and part of the elite at Harvard University in the early 20th century) was part of a team of barristers who patented new agricultural machinery in the North East of the United States, Justice John Fennell was a friend of Bolsters from Harvard and a district justice in Breeds Hill area(Bunker Hill ). Fennell was in attendance of the said banquet for Shackleton and Peary , he had helped another friend Henry Grinnell , who had financed Lady Franklin’s later efforts to recover her husbands body from the arctic and determine the events that caused the greatest British Naval accident in non-war explorations at the time.
      Of course the greatest portion of this whole story is that , Allsopp’s Arctic Ale , was carried by the HMS Resolute , one of the 5 ships taken on the expedition, and later lost, floated 1200 miles for 18 months as a ghost ship in the North Atlantic , was found and returned to England , prevented war between the US and England and then made into the Resolute desk’s ( for which there are 4 in existence) , one being in the Oval Office of the President of the US, Queen Victoria had the other and ironically Grinnell had one too !
      Just another great tale of how beer helped saved the world : )

      1. Thanks for sharing your website. What a fantastic adventure! I am passionate about beer because it allows my indulgence in history, science, and gastronomy all at once. Your story is an excellent example. Cheers.

  3. Ron, they indeed survived, however are scattered about in the hands of some former Ind Coope and Allied retirees, and I suspect some are in a box elsewhere. My few recipes came from an individual in Stourbridge .

  4. Or not, as I have just learned from Ron’s December 19th, post – Allsopp and St. Petersburg. That and, maybe, Martyn mentioned it in his third paragraph, too.

    I got a little excited, sorry.

    1. Probably pretty light on hops, in fact – this was the 18th century, when something called an “ale” relied more on alcoholic strength for its keeping powers than hops. And these ales weren’t much weaker than wine, if at all.

      1. It’s funny that I’m to going back to original post on this, but I poked around on Ron’s site last night. I noticed on one of his ubiquitous charts (one referencing Truman ales from from 1831-32) that Truman’s XXXXK, used almost ten pounds of hops per barrel–That’s a load. It’s OG was well over 1100, as well, similar to the Arctic Ale. It seems that these two ales are quite alike, on paper at least. Again, returning to my original post, it seems that the hops may have been their, but perhaps greatly subdued, due to the amount of malt.

        Chris notes in his reply, 60 EBUs, which seems to be on the higher side, but doing the math, it seems to be on the maltier side. This one is REALLY interesting.

        Plus, I’ve been looking for a big Christmas beer. I think this fits the bill!

  5. Arctic Ale was hopped to about 60 EBU’s with equal amounts of hops in the copper, both at boil and late additions ,which for example would be double that of say Fuller’s London Pride, it was also dry-hopped in the barrel with only Golding hops . But it is not known of the alpha or beta of the hop characteristics of the day, 60 EBU’s is a modern interpretation of assumed AA content of the hops, based on the hops per barrel calculation.

    1. Arctic Ale was created for a specific purpose and not to be confused with other offerings of the period although similarities exist , it was a huge ale for the time and uniquely left with a high amount of residual saccharine matter OG 1.130 and finishing at 1.042 with attenuation of around 66% , that left an enormous amount of caloric value , which contributed to it’s sweetness, not only from the remaining unfermented sugars, but also from the 11.6% abv. The calories per pint comes in the neighborhood of around 650 , which by medical science provided warmth and energy from the body’s natural process of digesting sugars in cold climates. I suspect the hop rates where an added not for a significant flavor component , but rather the brewers knowledge of ship bound preservation. This was Allsopp’s brewery with exstensive experience for the exportation of India Pale Ale at the time .
      Also too, it was the thought that this ale would contain a vitamin C characteristic that would aide in the prevention of scurvy, which was later dispelled in several medical journals . Arctic Ale was created for this mission, I liken it to the modern drink “Tang” ( the powered orange drink made by NASA in the 60’s ) , a drink created to aid in the delivery of nutritional requirements and vitamins of astronauts , Arctic Ale was simply 110 years ahead of it’s time. In my brewings of this ale, even with the hopping rates of the modern and maybe higher AA Goldings, the large grist , high alcohol and the residual sweetness negate the perception of hop bitterness, they are present in the aroma from dry-hopping, but as Martyn has pointed out, this ale was all about malt. If you have ever tried Meantime India Pale ale, there are some similarities, in that it is fairly sweet, lots of aroma hops, but big sturdy legs of malt.

      1. Thanks for confirming my thoughts, on this. It’s really interesting to think that hops were used solely as a preservative. Even though it seems a good bit was used, their flavor or aroma seems to be irrelevant to their ability to give some stability, and as you say, the malt was really the star of the show, mostly for it’s nutritional value.

        I worked out a 5 gallon scenario, using Goldings, with a comparable Artic Ale amount of malt. 12-1/2 ounces of hops results in 60 EBUs, but the BU:GU ratio is still only in the 40s. This is really cool.

        Any mention of Brett infection or the “English taste”? Is this 100% Pale malt? Is invert added at all, for coloring, or extra sugar?

          1. Brettanomyces wasn’t identified until just after 1900. It got into beers in two ways:

            – as one of the elements of the pitching yeast
            – from the equipment.

            BTW, if you have images of any Allsopp’s I’d love to take a look at them.

    2. I suppose I should rephrase my Brett question, into a statement: I assume that since this was stored for for a length if time in oak, natural Brett infection was inevitable.

  6. The other interesting thing about this ale (Be it Arctic or it’s similar Baltic, Burton No. 1, brother) is that it is on the opposite end of the spectrum from it’s southerly, traveling, cousin IPA. They were darker, maltier, and way stronger, yet, both “styles” served the same purpose—to survive exportation. IPA, with less alcohol, would have frozen in the arctic temperatures, while Arctic ale would have spoiled, spending even a minimal amount of time in equatorial heat. The yin and yang dichotomy of these malt liquors is, to me, truly astonishing.

  7. Well, after17 emails from folks asking for the recipe and speaking with my commercial brewing partner, whom I produced this ale with last year. I am not at liberty to give away the recipe in any specific detail, however I will give a general grist composite

    Pale 2 row 72%
    Amber Malt 9.5%
    Brown Malt 8%
    Carmel Malt 3.75%
    Dememera Sugar 6.5%

    EK Goldings @
    Late copper additions
    Dry Hopped @ 100 pellets per barrel (modern conversion)

    I used a specially conceived strain of yeast developed by Wyeast Laboratories just for this ale , but similar to Irish Ale 1084

    OG 1.130 TG 1.042

    @ ron, will be glad to offline, not logs but hand written notes , and photocopies at that.

  8. Hi Martyn
    Was thinking of trying to go back to the ur-land of zythum to watch things brew, close up. Mike C says you’re in the general area. What you reckon? Contact me direct pls. This message will not self destruct when you’ve read it.

  9. I thought I was a dedicated drunk until I read this. I bow my head in shame, all I do is enjoy pints of real ale in my local. I can’t understand how anyone would want to drink 11% beer, anything above 7% is just treacle. I was fascinated by the history behind Artic Ale though. Keep up the good work, I shall be back.

    Leamington Spa

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