How Brazil’s favourite beer arrived from Scotland

‘If the man who invented the censorship bar had drunk Skol, it wouldn’t look like this – it would look like this. Skol goes down round’

It is one of the stranger results of global beer marketing that the biggest-selling beer in Brazil, which is also one of the biggest beers in Africa, from Algeria via Guinea to Rwanda, and is sold across large parts of Asia, from India via Malaysia to Hong Kong, began life more than 50 years ago in a small Scottish town on the north side of the Forth estuary.

I doubt too many drinkers of Skol in Rio de Janeiro know that the drink that “goes down round”, according to its advertising, came originally from 6,000 miles away. Today a beer that was one of the pioneers of mass-market lager in Britain is seen in Brazil as so Brazilian that drinking it turns Argentinians into supporters of the Canarinhos.

Skol is also huge across the South Atlantic in the Congo, where it inspires what I suggest may be one of the best music videos in support of a beer ever, by the too-little-known Bill Clinton Kalonji. (Give yourself eight minutes 33 to watch, and if you’re not grinning broadly by two minutes in at the latest, you can have your money back. The Portman group would turn into steam.) In Malaysia (where the beer is brewed by a Carlsberg subsidiary) and the Far East, meanwhile, it has been launched as a “value for money” brew.

In Britain, Skol was the biggest-selling beer in the market 25 years ago. But it had fallen out of the top 10 by 2004 and is now a commodity lager, sold in cans at just 2.8 per cent abv to take advantage of the UK’s new low-alcohol tax band. Skol is currently the fifth best selling beer in the world, thanks to its popularity in places such as Brazil and the Congo. But in the country where it began, Skol is a sad, tired brand.

The other curiosity is that brewery mergers and takeovers mean that Skol-the-brand is owned by Carlsberg in Britain and Asia, A-B InBev in South America, and UniBra, a Belgian company, in Africa. How all did this happen to a beer from Alloa? It’s a long story, and it properly starts in Burton upon Trent more than 110 years ago, where a substantial but struggling pale ale brewer, Samuel Allsopp & Sons, decided in 1898 to get into the lager-brewing business.

Allsopp’s Lager ad, Daily Mirror, 1906. Love that typeface …

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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.

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Interpreting Victorian beer ads

Only a particularly sad beer history geek – that is to say, me – would greet the excellent news that Fuller’s, the Chiswick brewer, has released a reproduction of a 7.5 per cent 19th century brew under the name Past Masters XX Ale with the cry: “Hang on, that’s not an XX – it’s too strong.” OMG, FST XX NTST. So I was relieved that Ron Pattinson, who was heavily involved in helping Fuller’s produce this new-old beer, the first in what is apparently planned to be a series of absolutely fascinating journeys back into the Griffin brewery’s brewing books, calls it an XX(K). Because an XXK is exactly what it sounds like: 1065 to 1075 or so OG, which would have sold at one shilling and sixpence a gallon wholesale, and seven pence a (quart) pot, at a time when actual proper XX was selling for four pence a pot. (And if that doesn’t sound much – a mere two pence a pint – according to this extremely useful site, 2d in 1890 is the equivalent, in average earnings, to £4.10 today.)

Victorian brewers in Britain had a fairly rigid hierarchy of beers in terms of gravity and price: each of the three main styles, ale, pale ale/bitter and porter/stout, would be sold at one of five or six “price points”, the price per gallon dictated by the original gravity. Not every brewer sold every beer at every price-point, but brewers sold, normally, nine to 12 different beers. The remarkable lack of inflation in Victorian Britain also meant that ales and beers kept the same retail prices from the 1840s through to the rises in tax that began with the Boer War.

Many of the names brewers gave the different brews were fairly standard: ales (remember, we’re talking about a time when ale was still different from beer, being less hoppy, and usually sold “mild”, that is, unaged) were almost always given an X designation, the more X’s, obviously, the stronger the ale. A light one shilling (1s) a gallon bitter ale was almost always called AK. Why? After 25 years pondering this question, I still have no good idea. The big London brewers all seem to have indicated their versions of Burton Ales with the letter K, and Ron Pattinson has amassed good evidence for this meaning “keeping”. But “K” can’t mean “keeping” in AK, because AK wasn’t a keeping beer. In addition, “K” can’t be taken to mean solely the Burton Ale style, or a keeping beer: other, smaller London brewers than the really big ones, as we shall see shortly, used “KKK” to indicate, for example, a pale ale, not a Burton Ale.

Putting that problem aside for a moment, here’s a table that should enable you to work out from any Victorian beer advertisement what the likely OG was of any beer in it, and also the likely retail price (if the ad only gives the price per firkin, or nine-gallon cask, double it to get the price per kilderkin, of course): Continue reading

Arctic Ale: a 158-year-old adventure revived

Back in Victorian times, no polar explorer worth the name set north without as much Allsopp’s Arctic Ale stashed in the hold of his ship as it could carry. This was a mighty brew, more than 11 per cent alcohol, descended from the strong, sweet ales Burton upon Trent once exported to the Baltic. Now an American home-brewer, Christopher Bowen, has decided to recreate Arctic Ale – by actually brewing it in the Canadian arctic, taking a 2,000-mile journey to the shores of Hudson Bay with brewing equipment and a film crew.

You can read about his plans here, while more information is available on the Arctic Alchemy Facebook page here, and the Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod has some very interesting stuff about the original Arctic expedition in 1852 here.

Pete Brown, who famously went the other direction, to the tropics, for his book Hops and Glory, transporting a cask of Burton’s better-known product, India Pale Ale, has declared himself filled with “admiration mixed with seething jealousy” over Chris Bowen’s plans, and I feel about the same. Arctic Ale is the king of Burton Ales, the strongest of a family of beers that have almost vanished now (Young’s Winter Warmer is one of very few left, and Fuller’s 1845 can claim to be a modern revival of the style). I feel a great fondness for Burton Ales, since to my knowledge I was the first person to write about them in the “modern” era (post-1970) when I had an article on the subject printed in What’s Brewing in 1998. I’d love to be standing in the frozen Canadian north with a glass of Arctic Ale held in my mitten.

I devote several hundred words to Arctic Ale in the “barley wines and old ales” chapter of Amber, Gold and Black (just 12 weeks to publication day, people – order it through this link and put a little extra money in my pocket) and I thought, as a teaser for the book and as a way of spreading interest in what Chris Bowen is up to, I’d put up the Arctic Ale extract here:

Arctic Ale

Among the drinks mentioned in the Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms, the rhyming “Good Pub Guide” to London written about 1718, are “Humming Stingo” at the Peacock in Whitecross Street; October at the Fountain in Cheapside; Bull’s Milk Beer at the Bull in Wood Street; and Burton Ale at the Guy of Warwick in Milk Street. This last beer was probably the same as or similar to the nut-brown, sweet, extremely strong ale that brewers in Burton upon Trent were exporting to Baltic cities such as St Petersburg and Danzig, Riga and Königsberg from at least the 1740s. This trade lasted, with hiccups during the Napoleonic Wars, until the Russians imposed heavy tariffs on beer imports from Britain in 1822, and the Burton brewers turned to brewing paler, more bitter beers for the Indian market.

However, the Burton breweries continued making darker, sweeter beers, at a range of strengths, the strongest being around 1110 OG, and 10 to 11 per cent alcohol by volume, (The top-of-the-range Burton ales were generally known as Number One, as they were at the Bass, Ind Coope and Truman breweries in Burton, though Worthington, in typically perverse fashion, called its best strong ale “G”). These were beers with astonishing longevity: the Ratcliff Ale, a version of Bass’s No 1 strong ale brewed and bottled in 1869 to celebrate the birth of a son, Harry Ratcliff, to one of the company’s partners, is still drinkable today, 140 years on. After surviving unopened for the whole of the 20th century in bottles in the cellars at the brewery in Burton, the beer is now completely dry, with a flavour like a cross between sherry and smoky Christmas pudding.

The Burton brewers occasionally reproduced beers of the strength of the kind once exported to the Baltic, for Arctic explorers to take with them. Alfred Barnard, on his trip to Samuel Allsopp & Sons in Burton in 1889, wrote that “the celebrated ‘Arctic ale’ of which we have heard so much in days gone by” was specially brewed at the request of the government for the five-ship Arctic expedition in 1852-54 under Sir Edward Belcher (which was looking for Sir John Franklin’s famously lost expedition of 1845). Belcher reported that the ale was “a valuable antiscorbutic” (that is, scurvy-preventer) and “a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick, as long as it lasted”, and that it refused to freeze until the temperature dropped to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, or -11 degrees Celsius. Even when the temperature went down to -55 Fahrenheit (-48 Celsius) the beer was unharmed by being frozen, Belcher said.

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Lessons from blogging 1: most people can’t spell Allsopp

It’s been a year since I started beer blogging, and the big lesson I have learnt is this: a majority of the population thinks Kirstie Allsopp’s surname has only got one ‘p’ in it.

One of the coolest wrinkles available from good blogging software is the ability to see what words people have put into search engines in order to be guided to your pages.

Kirstie Allsopp, the presenter of the TV property programme Location, Location, Location, was mentioned in a piece I wrote about people descended from brewers. Ms Allsopp is a direct descendant of the family that ran one of the biggest pale ale breweries in Burton upon Trent.

Since that post, searching for Kirstie has been the sixth most popular reason for people using Google and the like to wash up on the beach at the Zythophile. But two thirds of the people looking for information on the lady think her name is Allsop, with one ‘p’, although they must have read her name to know who she is. What does this say about the intelligence of people who watch TV property programmes? Don’t email me: just because I ask the question doesn’t mean I don’t know the answer.

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On being a blockhead

In April 1776 James Boswell noted the “strange opinion” of Samuel Johnson that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

As a professional writer, I stand alongside Johnson on this one. Being paid to put words in a readable order beats not being paid to do the same thing. Yet, as Boswell commented immediately after recording Johnson’s words: “Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.”

In the age of blogging (and what a great blogger Boswell would have made) more writing is being done for no money than ever. Since this is my 50th blog entry, which represents (at the going rate per word for commissioned articles on most UK magazines) more than £10,000-worth of writing I have given away for nothing in just six months, it seems a suitable time to ask: am I a Johnsonian blockhead for being a blog-head?

Boswell recorded Johnson’s “blockhead” remark after the Doctor had told him that he would not be writing up a proposed trip to Italy because, although he would like to do so, no one would pay him for it The reason why I blog is because on this site I write about those things that interest me, but that no one will pay me to write about.

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