There are times when the honest historian has to put his hand up and say: forgive me, for I was wrong. Prompted by a sharp dig from Ron Pattinson, I’ve finally withdrawn a piece I wrote six years ago about the origins of the beer designation AK, in part because research by Ron has made my stance untenable. I suggested that the K in AK came from koyt, the name of a hopped beer found in the Low Countries and Northern Germany in the 15th century and later, and the A was from ankel, the word in Old Flemish for “single”. “Single koyt” certainly existed, and was the name of a lower-strength beer, the stronger version being called “double koyt”. But there’s no actual evidence at all to link “single koyt” with AK, which was a very popular designation for a comparatively light-gravity, lightly hopped (or at least not heavily hopped) pale bitter beer in Victorian England, and which is still around as a (now rare) beer name today. Good historians don’t make evidence-free suggestions.
There is certainly evidence AK was once a popular name for a beer. In the very early 1970s, you would still have found several beers called AK. Fremlin’s of Faversham, then owned by Whitbread, made one. So did another Whitbread-owned former independent, Strong’s of Romsey, in Hampshire. In Hertfordshire two brewers, McMullen’s of Hertford and Rayment’s of Furneux Pelham, also made beers called AK. These, and the Fremlin’s and Strong’s AKs were sold as light milds. In the Courage empire, the ex-Hole’s brewery at Newark in Nottinghamshire brewed an AK bitter, while the group’s Bristol brewery sold an AK that was a primed version of its George’s bitter, made for customers of the former Phillips brewery in Newport, Monmouthshire, which had closed in 1968. Just before it closed in 1985, Simpkiss of Brierley Hill in the West Midlands started brewing an AK light bitter.
At least three brewers also sold beers called KK: Greene King, which brewed a light mild under that name at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade; Ind Coope, which made KK light mild at its Romford brewery; and Hardys and Hansons of Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, which sold a keg beer called KK.
What all these beers had in common was that they were light, in both colour and gravity, and also lightly hopped. Today only McMullen’s AK survives, and though it has risen in gravity since the early 1970s, from 1033 to 1035, and is now described as a “bitter”, it is still comparatively light and lightly hopped (with WGV, Whitbread Goldings Variety).
However, if you look at Victorian brewers’ advertisements, it becomes clear that AK, was a very widespread name for a beer. More than a dozen other brewers in Hertfordshire besides McMullen’s and Rayment’s once made an AK. A single edition of the Richmond and Twickenham Times, dated July 8 1893, carries advertisements from five different brewers in south and west London, four of whom offered a beer called AK or KK.
The noticeable point about these advertisements is that they (almost) all give AK the same price, one shilling a gallon, implying a strength of around 1045-1055 OG. The descriptions of AK are pretty consistent as well: “light bitter ale”, “light sparkling ale”, “family bitter ale”, “light pale ale” and so on. One of the few brewers not to sell AK for one and a half pence wholesale was actually the earliest I’ve found, the Stafford Brewery, which was selling AK Ale, “a delicate bitter ale”, in 1855 at 14 pence a gallon. But, again, the beer was clearly not heavy, albeit bitter. The idea of AK as a low-strength pale ale is confirmed by the few written references to the beer. Professor Charles Graham in his talk to the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881 gave the original gravity of AK as 1045, with an alcohol-by-weight percentage of 4.3, very much as the bottom end of the Victorian beer strength league. The Burton brewer James Herbert said of AK ale in his book The Art of Brewing, published in 1871:
This class of ale has come very much into use, mostly for private families, it being a light tonic ale, and sent out by most brewers at one shilling per gallon. The gravity of this Ale is usually brewed at 20lbs [that is, 1056 OG]
Crowley’s brewery in Croydon High Street in 1900 described its AK in one of its advertisements as “a Bitter Ale of sound quality with a delicate Hop flavour”. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard in 1889 gave almost identical tasting notes to Crowley’s on the “AK shilling ale” brewed by WJ Rogers at the Jacob Street brewery in Bristol: “most pleasant to the palate … a bright sparkling beverage of a rich golden colour and possesses a nice delicate hop flavour.” (Rogers actually used the letters AK as its company trademark.) When he visited Thompson & Son’s brewery in Walmer, Kent, Barnard wrote: ” We were much pleased with the AK light bitter – a delicious drink, clean to the palate and well flavoured with the hop.” The brewing books of Garne & Sons of Burford, Oxfordshire in 1912 show AK being brewed at an OG of 1040 and with a colour of 14, a reddish-brown hue. ( PA for comparison, was brewed to an OG of 1056 and with a colour of 18, a darker medium brown.)
So where did the name AK come from? In the First World War, drinkers joked that AK stood for Asquith’s Knockout. Herbert Asquith was Prime Minister in 1914 when the tax on the standard barrel of beer took off like a Fokker eindekker, from seven shillings and ninepence to 23 shillings, in order to help pay for fighting the Kaiser. Weaker beers paid less tax, of course, and AK was always weaker than standard bitters, leaving it a more affordable “knockout” than regular beers. (“Squiffy” Asquith was also notorious for being fond of his drink.) Unfortunately, AK as a name for a type of beer is found at least as long ago as 1855, when Asquith was only three years old. Another suggestion is that AK was invented by a Victorian brewer called Arthur King, and took his initials, a tale found at both Hole’s of Newark and Courage in Bristol. The problem with this story is that no such brewer has ever been traced – Arthur King seems to be as mythical as King Arthur – and it fails to cover AK’s sister beer, KK. As Roger Protz once said, who invented that one – King Kong?
Rayment’s claimed AK meant Ale for Keeping. Certainly, Ron Pattinson’s research has pretty much proved that, as far as London brewers were concerned, a beer with “K” in its name, or at least multiple Ks, was a well-hopped keeping or stock beer. To quote from his blog:
In the middle of the 19th century, Barclay Perkins brewed two sets of Ales: X Ales that were sold mild and K Ales that were sold matured. X, XX, XXX and XXXX. Then KK, KKK, KKKK. The equivalent beers (XX and KK, XXX and KKK) were exactly the same gravity, but the K Ales had about 50% more hops.
A couple more examples: Mann, Crossman and Paulin in the East End of London brewed a KKKK ale, and Alfred Barnard drank some in 1888: “Two years old, of a rich brown colour and with a Madeira odour, a good generous drink for those who can stand a full-bodied beer.” Barnard also revealed that Mann’s brewed a London stock ale they called KKK. Taylor Walker of Limehouse, East London brewed “KKK Burton”, which again would have been a strong stock ale. Outside London, Adey and White of St Albans made KKK stock ale and the Tadcaster Tower Brewery in Yorkshire sold KKK “Old Tom”, both costing 15s a firkin, meaning they must have been around 1090 OG.
However, the problem is that AK and KK, and the rather rarer K, are always described as light bitters, which would not, surely, have been keeping ales. Yes, Mann’s brewed KKKK and KKK stock ales, but a Mann’s advert from 1898 also shows KK medium bitter ale at 10s 6d a firkin, about 1055 OG, and K light bitter ale at 9s 6d a firkin, about 1045 OG, as well as AKK Family Pale Ale at 1s 2d a gallon, around 1055 OG again, and AK Dinner Ale at, yes, 1s a gallon.
So: the K in KKK, and KKKK, and XXXK, and the other strong beers with K in their name, stands for “keeping” – there can be little doubt about that. But the K in AK and KK? K-for-keeping doesn’t seem to apply here, because they weren’t keeping beers. And what about the K Mild, ten pence a gallon, sold by Lucas, Ledbetter and Bird of High Wycombe in 1894, and the K Mild Ale sold by the Heavitree Brewery of Exeter in 1895 for 1s 2d a gallon? Or the K Light Ale Collier Brothers of Walthamstow were selling for ten pence a gallon in 1890, and the K Tonic Ale A Gordon & Go of Caledonian Road, Islington sold for the same sum in 1889? Cleary K doesn’t stand for “keeping” here. Again in 1889, Lewis & Ridley of Leamington seemed to be using “K” as equal to half an X, with XXXK mild ale following XXXX strong ale, then XXX mild ale, XXK mild ale, XX mild and and X mild ale. Again, these were milds, not keeping beers. Henry Lovibond & Son of the Cannon brewery, Lillie Road, Fulham actually called its shilling-a-gallon AK “mild bitter” in 1885.
There is evidence that the K designation was more common in the south than elsewhere in England. Rose’s brewery of Malton, Yorkshire produced an AK, and the Tadcaster Tower brewery had a range that included four K beers. Robinson’s of Stockport sold AK Ale at the beginning of the 20th century. But few other brewers north of Newark, in the East Midlands, seem to have used Ks. In 1898 the Brewers’ Journal said the X mark was “almost universal in provincial towns, the alternative K being equally common in the London district”. But this does not help us much in finding out the origins of AK.
At least the process by which the K beers that survived to near the end of the 20th century became known as milds, when the style started out as a type of bitter ale, is easy to explain. Mild by the 1930s means to drinkers a low-gravity, low-hops, cheaper beer. In the Great Gravity Drop during and after the First World War, AKs fell to around 1030-1033 OG, and cost (in the 1930s) five (old) pence a pint, the same as best mild and less than “standard” bitter. Taylor Walker, the East London brewer, actually advertised its verson as “5d AK” probably because it sold cheaper than London dark mild, at six pence a pint. Being low-gravity, cheap and light on the hops, these AKs and KKs fell within the “modern” definition of milds. Fordham’s of Ashwell, North Hertfordshire in 1934 sold XX mild and AX bitter at four pence a pint, XXX mild and AK bitter at five pence a pint, stout at six pence, PA bitter and XXXX at seven pence, IPA at eight pence and OO old ale at one shilling. The OG of Fordham’s AK was by now around 1030.
All those other AKs eventually vanished with the brewerrs that made them, leaviong only McMullen’s. At one stage, McMullen was describing AK on pump clips as a “mild bitter”, though the beer was sold in polypins in the 1980s as “Trad bitter”. The company dropped the description “mild” for AK only in the early 1990s.
So, although we can still drink AK, since there is no evidence to support the koyt derivation, and little support for the idea that the K in low-gravity, lightly hopped AK could have meant “keeping” the way it does in KKKK and KKK, I’m afraid we still haeeve to solve the mystery of where the K – and indeed the A – in AK come from.
Update: Bailey of Boak and Bailey has been doing some excellent searching through old digitised newspapers and pushed back the earliest mention of AK to 1846, in an advertisement from the Chelmsford Chronicle of October 23 1846 that lists Ind Coope AK. A slightly later ad, from the Ipswich Journal of June 15 1850, lists under “Romford Ales” (Ind Coope again, almost certainly) “AK, a light bitter ale” at 19 shillings for 18 gallons, as well as XK bitter ale and XXK “Ale” at 24 shillings and 31 shillings a kilderkin respectively: only the XXK looks like a “proper” stock ale, at perhaps 1080 to 1090 OG. An even more interesting ad from the same paper three years later, June 18 1853, refers to “The Romford A.K. or Light Bitter Beer, so much in request for Summer beverage”, which can be supplied for one shilling a gallon.