A festival-full of regional ales were available in Britain in the 19th century, including Reading Ale, Windsor Ale, Dorchester Ale, Stogumber Ale and Alton Ale, of which only two or three – notably Burton Ale and its close relative Edinburgh Ale – achieved much lasting appreciation. One regional style of ale that is effectively unknown today, despite it being mentioned briefly in William Marchant’s collection of aley anecdotes from 1889, In Praise of Ale, was Yarmouth Ale. Brewed in the Norfolk
Suffolk fishing port of Great Yarmouth, Yarmouth Ale found a wide and enthusiastic market in London in the first 50 years of Queen Victoria’s reign, before vanishing entirely.
No recipe survives, as far as I know, for Yarmouth Ale, but enough evidence exists that we can say it was a strong mild, around 6.5 per cent alcohol, probably pale, considerably sweeter than most ales, and very much more salty, so salty that it was specifically mentioned in Parliament when MPs tried to draw up limits on salt in ale and beer.
Yarmouth Ale looks to have taken off in popularity in London in the 1830s and early 1840s, about the time that steam paddle ships started making excursions for “trippers” from the capital along the Essex and Suffolk coasts. The town’s pubs were doing a considerable trade even in the mid-1830s: on March 24 1836 it was noted that
A bet had been made by Mr Ringer, of the Elephant and Castle liquor shop in the Market Place, “that on Monday he would sell 1,000 glasses of ale and porter from six o’clock in the morning and close the same night. Mr. R. closed at 10, after selling 2,454, at one penny per glass.
Assuming, as I think we can, that a “glass” is a half-pint, that’s four and a quarter barrels of ale and porter in a day, more than 75 pints an hour for 16 hours.
Yarmouth Ale was certainly well-known enough to be called “noted” in 1842, when a brewer was claiming he knew how to reproduce Yarmouth Ale in London, with a treatment that gave an ale “which loses the property of becoming acid.” In the mid-1840s the railway reached Yarmouth, and this encouraged more trippers. In 1846 one guide to “watering and sea bathing places” said of Great Yarmouth that as well as its “matchless” bloaters (a type of smoked herring),
there is always a busy scene of maritime life; the large number of Vessels, either at anchor or passing North and South, the number of boats on the beach, ready to start on short sea trips, the numerous bathing machines, carriages, flys, donkeys, &c, plying for hire, with a fine sandy beach perhaps unequalled in England, from which extend a jetty and two piers, the latter entirely for the accommodation of visitors, the former a convenient landing place for boats. Fronting the sea and close to the beach are Terraces of stately buildings, with an extensive parade in front, about two miles in length.
The Great Eastern Railway ran trains from Bishopsgate, on the edge of the City of London, to Yarmouth, with eight-day excursions available for 11 shillings, while steamers left London Bridge for the town every Wednesday and Saturday, tickets 7s 6d. It seems likely holidaying Cockneys tried the local ale – Yarmouth had eight or nine brewers in the middle of the 19th century, including the old-established Lacon & Co on Church Square – and brought back the taste. In 1859, for example, the New Globe pub in the Mile End Road, east London, was advertising Goldsmith’s XX Yarmouth Ale, four pence a (quart) pot for takeaway “in your own jugs”.
By 1866 John Greaves, the author of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, a handbook for visitors, was writing: “The Yarmouth ales, like the Scotch, are sweet, and are held in great repute in London, Messrs Lacon despatching upwards of 50,000 barrels yearly to London by railway and 20,000 to other localities, in addition to their home trade.” That is a lot of ale for a regional brewer in the 1860s.
It was a trade that had been going on since at least the early 1840s: on March 20, 1844 The Times carried a report of a “Fearful Steamboat Collision” involving the steamship Royal Adelaide, on its way from London to Leith, which ran down the sloop William, of Yarmouth, around 2am on a dark night off Erith, Kent, about 15 miles down the Thames towards the sea. The William, which was heading for London with nearly 400 barrels of Lacon’s Yarmouth Ale on board, was struck in the bows by the steamship, and began to sink immediately. Amazingly, the master and crew of the sloop escaped with their lives, but the ale went down with the ship, until “a great many” casks began floating out of her, to be picked up and conveyed to the Greenwich and Woolwich water-bailiffs. London was not the only place Yarmouth Ale was exported to: a court case in 1845 involved an innkeeper in Saltash, east Cornwall who ordered a cask of Yarmouth Ale from an ale and porter merchant in Plymouth which turned out to be bad.
Yarmouth Ale’s sweetness is confirmed by a recipe from 1887 in Dishes and drinks: or, Philosophy in the kitchen by Gustave Strauss for a “Pleasant refreshment in hot weather”:
Pick and wash a quarter of a pound of currants, put them in water, and let them just come to the boil, then pour off the water, put the currants into a suitably sized bowl, add a pound of powdered plain biscuits, a quarter of a pound of powdered sugar candy, two or three drops of essence of lemon, a few slices of a fresh lemon, three bottles of sweet Edinburgh ale and four of iced ginger beer: stir, and ladle out into tumblers with a teaspoon in each. In default of Edinburgh ale, Yarmouth ale will do, or the sweetest mild ale you can get.
The biggest brand of Yarmouth Ale seems to have been Goldsmith’s, which was advertised extensively in London. The Illustrated Family Magazine of Boston wrote, sarcastically, in 1846:
A stranger is quite struck by the generous disinterestedness with which the proprietors of “Crowley’s Alton Brewery” or of “Goldsmith’s celebrated Yarmouth Ales”, in every street of our greatest thoroughfares, have set up “establishments” for “the sale of the genuine and unadulterated” beer of their respective firms. The idea of their own profit is never once suggested in their showboards or handbills. These leave it to be inferred that the whole of their liberal outlay has proceeded out of the most sensitive regard for the sanitary condition of the public the public, lest the public, poor souls, should drink quassia or “coculus Indicus” or “grains of Paradise” by taking beer at other hands. It was with great difficulty that a very single-minded gentleman could be persuaded, the other day, that it was necessary to pay fourpence in order to profit by the solicitude of these “genuine brewers” on his account.
William Goldsmith was not actually a brewer, but an ale, wine and spirits merchant: he was based at 15 Parliament Street, Westminster from at least 1834. His Yarmouth Ale appears to be one of the earliest examples of “own label” beer retailing, and which Yarmouth brewery made the ale for him does not seem to be recorded. He made enough money from the business to acquire Norbury Lodge, near Croydon, and also, after the rebuilding of Westminster Bridge in 1862, to buy up the remains of the old bridge:
A large number of the stones of old Westminster Bridge were purchased by William Goldsmith, the wine merchant of Parliament Street, whose name was familiar to Londoners fifty years ago in connexion with Goldsmith’s Yarmouth ales. He used the stones to build a boundary wall and gate piers to Norbury Lodge.
(Notes and Queries January 4 1908)
Goldsmith appears to have run at least a couple of retail outlets, assuming he was behind the Yarmouth Ale Stores in Millbank Street, Westminster, a short distance from Parliament Street, in existence in 1853: there was also a Yarmouth Ale Stores in Bethnal Green Road, in the East End of London. His was one of the milds analysed by The Lancet magazine in January 1870: it had an original gravity of just under 1066, 6.45 per cent alcohol by volume, and attenuation was a tad under 80 per cent, which doesn’t automatically suggest a sweet beer. Goldsmith was not the only retailer selling Yarmouth Ale under his own name: in 1879 Henry Howard of the Dolphin pub in Union Street, Kennington, South London was offering “Howard’s noted Yarmouth Ale”.
Adding salt to beer and ale was alleged in 19th century Britain to be a common trick of publicans to make customers thirsty so they would drink more: but Yarmouth ale was pretty salty as brewed. The Farmer’s Magazine reported in 1879 (p153):
The analyst for the Strand district found a sample of Yarmouth ale containing 125 grains of salt per gallon naturally present, and an examination of the materials used by a well-known London firm of brewers showed that the water itself contained chlorides estimated as equivalent to 48 grains of common salt per gallon, which would account for 64 grains per gallon of beer requiring a gallon and a third of water without reckoning the not inconsiderable amount of chlorides in the malt sugar and hops employed.
That Yarmouth ale contained the equivalent of 2137.5 parts per million of sodium chloride: if my calculations are correct that’s about a gram of salt in every pint, or about a fifth of a teaspoon’s worth, which is nudging clear noticeability. Sodium, as every brewer knows, enhances the perceived sweetness of beer, though Yarmouth Ale looks to contain (again if my maths is correct, which is not guaranteed) about five or six times the maximum amount of salt normally recommended for sweetness enhancement.
Whether the well-water used by Yarmouth breweries was naturally salty, or the brewers of Yarmouth added salt to their brewing liquor, I have not been able to find out. The Church of England Temperance Chronicle on May 13 1882, talking about water used in brewing, said: “Some waters require the addition of a little salt and there is or there is said to be a secret in connection with the brewing of Yarmouth ale.” In the Parliamentary debate on the Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Bill of 1872, on August 5 that year, the subject of salt in beer came up when one MP wanted to limit the amount of salt allowed to 30 grains per gallon, and another wanted to reduce that even further, to 15 grains per gallon. Sir Henry Selwin Ibbetson, MP for Essex West, told MPs that he “believed there was an ale well known as Yarmouth ale in the brewing of which salt water was much used.”
A brewer-MP, Samuel Whitbread III, MP for Bedford, pointed out that “salt being contained in the various kinds of malts, and also in the water used in brewing, a number of grains of salt from those two sources would be introduced into the beer, amounting in general to 14 or 15. It would be impossible, therefore, to limit the quantity to 15 grains or even to 30.” MPs took the message, and the salt limit was dropped from the bill.
What colour was Yarmouth Ale? Pale, probably: as we have already seen, mild beers in London in the 19th century were pale beers, and “ale” meant a pale beer to London drinkers: to quote George Dodd’s Dictionary of Manufactures, Mining, Machinery and the Industrial Arts of 1869, “pale malt produces ale, while brown produces beer, and it has become customary in London to give the names of beer, porter and stout, somewhat indefinitely it must be admitted, to the dark liquor, leaving the name of ale to all those of lighter colour.”
Goldsmith’s Yarmouth Ale was still being advertised for sale at the standard price for mild ale of four pence a pot (or quart) in 1888, but this is the last mention I have been able to find for it. Goldsmith’s may have been Lacon’s mild, rebranded: Richard Wilson and Terry Gourvish say in The Dynamics of the Modern Brewing Industry Since 1800 that Lacon’s “shipped at least 75 per cent of their output to the metropolis in the boom years of the mid-Victorian period. In the early 1870s the trade was 100,000 barrels plus, almost entirely of their celebrated cheap mild.” What looks to have knocked that trade on the head is the growing grip of the tied house system, when brewers bought up almost all the remaining freehouse pubs from the early 1890s on: the Brewing Review, in an article in
1862 1962, wrote that
In the middle of the last century, the partners of Lacons Brewery decided to launch a campaign for selling mild ale in London. This proved to be a highly successful venture and a considerable amount of free trade began to be built up. Some two or three thousand barrels per week were sent, originally by water and later by rail, to London, where Lacon’s Yarmouth beers became famous. However, when the tied trade system started, the board decided that it was wiser to spend its capital in developing the trade nearer home rather than entering into the battle to buy houses on a large scale in London.
All the same, Lacon’s brewery continued exporting beer to London by ship until at least the mid-1950s, when its Burton Ale was on sale in the capital as Winter Brew.
Lacon’s was acquired by the fast-expanding London brewer Whitbread in 1965 and the brewery closed in 1968. Brewing returned to Great Yarmouth in 2004 with the opening of the Blackfriars Brewery: so far it doesn’t make a Yarmouth Ale, but I was pleased to see that it will sell you a bottle of “Twos”, the traditional East Anglian name for a mixture of mild and bitter.