Second thoughts on the mysterious origins of AK

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 Prompted by a sharp dig from Ron Pattinson, I’ve finally withdrawn a piece I wrote six years ago about the origins of the beer designation AK, in part because research by Ron has made my stance untenable.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.

McMullen's AK posterThere 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.

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

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.

 

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that's K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that’s K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

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.

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

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.

McMullen's AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

McMullen’s AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

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.

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

An 1875 Arctic Ale tasting

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.

1875 reputed quart AAA bottle

Reputed quart bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale with date ’1875′ painted in punt

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?

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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

‘… shoulder aside the prostitutes …’

Since it appears that at least three fellow zythobloggers have named this site their favourite beer blog in end-of-year roundups, I feel obliged to hand out a few end-of-year gongs myself. So here we are:

Best pub or bar of 2009 No contest – the Harvester, Electra Street, Abu Dhabi, the absolute Everest of rough bars, the Mariana Trench of low dives. Once you have found your way round the back of the otherwise respectable Sands Hotel and down the stairs past a threateningly besuited bouncer of indeterminate ethnic origin but about as wide as he is tall, you then have to clamp on your oxygen mask and fit infrared goggles to negotiate through the crush, gloom and roiling cigarette smoke to the bar, shoulder aside the prostitutes from unpronounceable Central Asian republics blocking your passage, who will be stroking your arm and asking if you’d like to do the same to them*, and shout your order at a bored Filipino barman over the racket from an over-amplified trio of Slavic blondes backed by two disappointed and dissipated long-haired Americans in their late 30s on sax and organ and a drummer from Wolverhampton who once had a trial with an Oasis tribute band: except it won’t matter what you order anyway, because all the beer is utterly undrinkable shite, particularly the Smithwicks, a crime against humanity for which every brewer at St James’s Gate should be tortured to death, slowly, and the John Smith’s Smooth, which, remarkably, manages to taste as if it has never even been on the same planet as malt and hops; and you’d be far better to copy the locals, all of whom look as if they derive the majority of their income from smuggling Niger yellowcake in fast motorboats across the Gulf to Iran in exchange for raw Afghani opium, who sit at their own personal table with their own personal bottle of whisky in front of them, surrounded by twitchy tooled-up bodyguards. Marvellous. Unfortunately I was recently informed that the Harvester had lost its drinks licence (some little Health and Safety problem with brown envelopes not being stuffed full enough, probably, such behaviour, if you’re a bar owner, likely to be injurious to your health and threatening to your continued safety), and the place was now practically empty, except for a few sad and silent ladies in most un-Emirati dress clustered at the bar, apparently unable to find their way to the Tourist Club area further east where the rest of their flock had migrated.

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Twenty more beers before lunchtime

My normal reason for travelling to Parson’s Green in West London is to drink at the White Horse, still a fine place to find a wide selection of beers in a congenial setting (except if the upper middle classes bring you out in a rash, of course).

I was in Sloaneland yesterday, however, for the latest series of the Tesco Drinks Awards, when a very large number of bottled brews are subjected to blind tastings by teams of experienced judges, and me.

Like the similar Sainsbury’s awards, these are a big deal for the winning brewers, since they come with a guaranteed listing on the supermarkets’ shelves. For the retailers, the chance is there to find some great beers your rivals won’t have, and add to the differentiation between your supermarket and the one up the road – which is doubtless why Asda (owned by Wal-Mart, US readers) is now doing the same thing.

Unlike the Sainsbury’s awards, the beers in the Tesco judging are drunk “blind”, the bottles carefully wrapped in thick plastic to disguise their origin. However, the scoresheets, helpfully, now list the ingredients, down to the level of exactly what varieties of hops and types of malt went into each brew. This is fascinating in its own right, and it’s a shame and a scandal that all brewers don’t do this as a regular habit on their bottle labels.

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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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Why Tony Naylor is being a prat

If you’re going to build a rant, the foundation needs to be dug out of solid, properly researched facts. Which is why Tony Naylor is being a prat.

I’m very sorry to diss a fellow beer writer and freelance journalist, especially when he was writing on the Guardian‘s drinks blog with such excellent intentions – to promote good, properly brewed lager.

However, while plugging the pleasures of pils, Tony attempted a big dump all over real ale, insisting, with no evidence at all:

For years now, perries, ciders, real ales and stouts (and many other things which hardly anybody in the real world actually drinks) have received acres of press and undue prominence in gastropubs and good restaurants. If food literate folk enjoy a pint at all, it is a pint of real ale and not lager.

Tony – that’s just crap, I’m sorry. For years now, people in this country who have talked about beer and food pairings have talked about lager on an equal footing with ale. To pull one example off my shelves, Roger Protz’s The Taste of Beer, from 1998, has a section on food and beer pairings which includes Munich Dunkel, Viennese amber lager, Czech Pilsener, Bock beer and wheat beer. Indeed, you can go back to 1956 – long before Mr Naylor was born, when lager was less than two per cent of beer sales in Britain – and Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer, and find lager given as a suitable pairing with dishes such as roast pork, veal and chicken, and creamier, sweeter cheeses.

Tony then goes on to insist:

no-one … stands up for the joys of lager. Is it snobbery? Plain ignorance? Or some kind of evil, beardy, bitter-drinking conspiracy?

Well, no one stands up for lager except Pete Brown or Roger Protz or Ron Pattinson or me, among a horde of others, some bearded, all bitter drinkers as well as lager drinkers. Indeed, the latest edition of the Guild of Beer Writers’ newsletter has just hit my doormat, and on the back page is a piece about how Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire is going to be distributing the highly regarded unpasteurised lagers made by its near-neighbour, the Taddington brewery: beardy bitter drinkers promote real lager horror..

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