If you had travelled around Britain in the very early 1970s sampling beers from local brewers, you would have found several 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.
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 1037 or so, and is now described as a “bitter”, it is still comparatively light and lightly hopped (with WGV, Whitbread Goldings Variety).
So where did the name AK come from? In the First World War, Britons joked that AK stood for Asquith’s Knockout. Herbert Asquith was Prime Minister in 1914 when the tax on the standard barrel of beer hurtled up 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, from the Stafford Brewery, when Asquith was only three years old.
Rayment’s claimed AK meant Ale for Keeping, though since AK was a weaker beer, and thus unsuitable for keeping very long, this argument does not stand up either. Another suggestion is that AK was invented by a Victorian brewer called Arthur King, and took his initials, a story 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, said, who invented that one – King Kong?
Indeed, if you look at Victorian brewers’ advertisements, it becomes clear that AK, and KK, were part of a family of different beers with K in their name, including AKK, XK, KKK, KKKK and even KIPA. AK in particular 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 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. The idea of AK as a low-strength, low-hop 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. 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.)
Beers with more Ks in generally seem to have been stronger, but they still mostly look to have fitted into the “bitter pale ale” family, even when they were at the “stock ale” end of the strength spectrum. 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, while 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. The Tadcaster Tower Brewery in Yorkshire sold KKK “Old Tom” at 15s a firkin, which must have been around 1090 OG, as well as AKK Family Pale Ale at 1s 2d a gallon, around 1055 OG again, and AK Dinner Ale at 1s a gallon. However, against these examples, Taylor Walker of Limehouse, East London brewed “KKK Burton”, another style entirely.
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 today 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. Being low-gravity, cheap and light on the hops, they fell within the modern definition of milds. 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, and now calls the beer “Original AK”.)
But why was a K used in the first place? Here we must open the door to speculation. 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”.
It was a commonplace in the 17th century that while the City drank (hopped) beer, the country drank (unhopped) ale. Is the city/country split between K and X found by the Brewer’s Journal actually a hang-over from a time when Xs would only have been used for different strengths of the country’s favourite, unhopped (or less-hopped) ale and the strength of the city’s preferred drink, hopped, bitter beers was indicated by different numbers of Ks?
When the brewing of hopped beer began in Britain in the 15th century, it was introduced by immigrants from the Low Countries, and the two trades, ale brewing and beer brewing, were conducted by different individuals – even in 1606 the town of St Albans made a distinction between its four beer brewers and its two ale brewers.
There were other differences, besides the use or non-use of hops, between the ale brewers, followers of a native British tradition, and the beer brewers. Their casks came in different sizes, for example – the ale barrel held 30 gallons originally, later 32 gallons, the beer barrel 36 gallons. The beer brewers, reflecting the arrival of their drink from the Netherlands, also used several Dutch technical terms, including gyle for fermenting wort, cask sizes called kilderkin and firkin, and isinglass (from early modern Dutch huysen blas, meaning sturgeon bladder).
One popular beer, in the Low Countries and Northern Germany, was called koyt, or keut (or any one of a dozen or so different spellings, including kuit, kuyte, keute and even [in Picardy] queut). This came in two different strengths, single koyt and double koyt. Single koyt to its original brewers would be ankel koyt, ankel being the word in Old Flemish for “single”. (Single beer was the popular name for a lesser-strength brew right across Northern Europe: the Swedish equivalent, for example, was enkelt öl, single ale.)
We can easily suppose that casks of ankel koyt would be marked with a chalked “K”, or even, including the ankel, “AK”, while casks of dubbel koyt would be marked with double Ks, “KK”. Like Xs, Ks are easy for even the illiterate to write. When Flemish brewers settled in the South of England, did they bring a habit of marking casks of weak beer “AK” and casks of stronger beer “KK”, just as they brought so many other Low Countries brewing terms and practices with them?
Koyt was certainly known in England: In January 1441 Henry VI appointed two men, Richard Lounde and William Veysy, “for life, for good service done to him”, to have the “correction, search and survey” of all “les Berebrewers” of England. Lounde and Veysy apparently knew nothing about beer brewing (Veysy was a brickmaker) and their first job was to investigate the rules in force on the Continent.
The two presented a report in April 1443 which mentioned two types of beer, “single coyt”, which should always be sold for two shillings a 36-gallon barrel, the report said, and “double coyt”, which should be 2s 8d a barrel when malt was 3s 4d a quarter, varying by a farthing a gallon for every shilling a quarter variation in the price of malt. The inference is that these were, indeed, the names of the hopped beers Low Countries immigrants were brewing in England, making it quite possible that they were calling them, in their own language, ankel koyt, AK, and dubbel koyt, KK. (You can also work out that double coyt was brewed at 48 gallons, or one and a third barrels, to the quarter of malt.)
Of course, linking AK to coyt/koyt/keut is entirely speculation, with no real evidence, but it does tie the origin of the name AK into what the beer was, a low-strength bitter beer. Until a better theory comes along, I’ll promote this one.
Incidentally a distinctly garbled version of this “Flemish origins of AK” story appears in Dave Sutula’s book on mild ale for Brewers Publications, after Dave apparently misunderstood what Roger Protz told him about what I had written previously on the subject – a fine case of Chinese Whispers.
Unfortunately the guys at Snake River Brewing in Jackson, Wyoming have repeated Dave’s Chinese Whispers version of the story on their website in the details for their “AK Sessions”, a 4.7 per cent ABV “reproduction” of an English mild. If anybody knows them, can they let them know?