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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