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.
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?
The man to whom I owe this honour is the American home-brewer Chris Bowen, who became, in his own description, “obsessed” with the story of Arctic Ale, when a bottle brewed for the 1852 Arctic expedition headed by Sir Edward Belcher (which was looking for Sir John Franklin’s famously lost expedition of 1845) appeared on eBay. Chris researched the history of Arctic Ale, and eventually organised his own expedition to the Arctic Circle, to brew a modern version of Arctic Ale on the shores of Hudson Bay.
In the past six months, explorers in the cellars of the former Allsopp’s brewery in Burton have uncovered a couple of stashes of old beers that included some three dozen bottles of 1875 Arctic Ales, somehow left over and forgotten. Most of these have gone to the National Brewery Centre in Burton; a few were opened and tasted by lucky Burtonites – and one was brought down to my home in West London by Chris Bowen, who had flown over from the US to give a talk about Arctic Ale at the NBC.
On his way from Burton to West London Chris took a wide detour to pick up Ron Pattinson, who flew from Amsterdam to Stansted to ensure he wouldn’t miss a tasting opportunity almost as rare as transits of Venus. We were joined by John Keeling, brewing director at Fuller, Smith & Turner in Chiswick, who lives not too far from me, and who has just (with the help of Ron) brewed a beer that is a not-too-distant relative of Arctic Ale (albeit half the strength), a 1930s version of Fuller’s Old Burton Extra, for the brewery’s Past Masters series of “revival” beers.
With such a gathering, I felt as host I needed to at least offer some beers to compare with 137-year-old Arctic Ale: fortunately I’ve been sitting on a couple of gems for 20 or so years, and there would never be a better time to open them. Thus we started the session, suitably enough, on Jubilee weekend, with a Jubilee beer: brewed for George V’s silver jubilee 77 years ago, in 1935. The name on the label was Ind Coope & Allsopp – Ind Coope had merged with its Burton neighbour Samuel Allsopp the previous year – but the bottle was embossed “ALLSOPP”, and the beer was very probably a close match to Arctic Ale: Chris Bowen said it reminded him of the 1875 beer, despite being 60 years younger. It was still completely drinkable: fruity, powerful, oily, completely still, dark as the hobs of hell, an underlying sweetness that came through only over time, a beer, as John Keeling said, for sipping slowly, like sherry.
Next up was one of only a couple of other beers that might compare in age and rarity to Arctic Ale, a 1902 Bass King’s Ale that my brother had bought me back in the 1990s. The red wax seal over the cork suggested this was one of the 1929 releases of the 1902 brewing: unfortunately at one point early in its time in my possession a nasty-looking mould appeared to be breaking through the wax, and the state of the label suggested the bottle had not been stored under ideal conditions in the past. However, when we scraped the wax away the cork looked sound, and came out fairly cleanly.
Any fears about the state of the beer under the cork were knocked away by a sniff at the opened bottle, which revealed a beautifully rich fruitcake-like nose. The flavour was tremendous, a beer to trickle across the tongue, with cooked fruit, dark sugar, walnuts and almonds all apparent. Despite being 110 years old, it was perfectly sound, less oily than the 1935 Jubilee Ale, dryer, and a slightly lighter colour. Aged beers like this are often described by commentators in the 19th century as “vinous”, and as John Keeling remarked, if you gave a glass of King’s Ale to someone in a blind tasting and said “grape or grain?”, they would answer “grape” with no hesitation.
The King’s Ale was in a pint bottle: the Arctic Ale Chris had brought down was in the size of bottle known as a “reputed quart”, 26 and two-thirds (Imperial) fluid ounces, one sixth of a gallon. This is the ancestor of today’s standard wine bottle, being within half a spit of 75cl. There was no label left: the only clue to what it was came from the “1875” in yellowed paint that was hidden in the deep punt in the bottle’s base. The cork, alas, fell to pieces as Chris tried to extract it, which led to some bobbing bits and fragments appearing in each glass: but the beer itself, bottled when Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister in Britain, when Ulysses S Grant was President of a 37-state United States, when the French Third Republic and the German Empire were each barely four years old, was in excellent condition.
Amazingly, there was still a touch of Burtonian sulphur in the nose, together with a spectrum of flavours that encompassed pears, figs, liquorice, charred raisins, stewed plums, mint, a hint of tobacco, and a memory of cherries. It was dark, powerful and still sweet (unlike the 1869 Ratcliff Ale I was lucky enough to sample seven or eight years ago, which was entirely dry): a thumping Oloroso of a beer: you simply could not have much more than a quarter of a pint without the tongue being overwhelmed. Those frozen sailors on the 1875 British Arctic Expedition, some of whom set a new record for furthest north, travelling to within 460 miles of the North Pole, must have cheered whenever another bottle was thawed out and decanted into their mugs.
Many, many thanks to Chris Bowen, and thanks too to Ron and John for coming over and sharing.