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 …)