Friday, 12 August 2011

Arctic Ale

You know what just struck me? I haven't mentioned Allsopp for ages. A while, anyway. I never get bored of Allsopp. Or any of the Burton brewers for that matter. I assume you don't. Otherwise you'd have given up on this blog long ago.

Arctic Ale. The legendary Allsopp beer that genuinely was brewed for arctic expeditions. At least in the 19th century. The beer continued to be brewed well into the 20th century, albeit at a much lower gravity. And without the romance of sitting out the winter on a ice-bound ship.

As so often, Barnard is a handy source. He did exactly what I would have done had I been getting a private tour of Allsopps: he asked for details of Arctic Ale. And a taste, the cheeky monkey. Let's see what he had to report:

Before taking leave of Dr. Griess we requested to be shown the samples of the celebrated "arctic ale," of which we have heard so much in clays gone by, and which was specially brewed by Messrs. Allsopp & Sons at the request of the Government for the arctic expeditions in 1852, under Captain Sir Edward Belcher, C.B., and also in 1875 under Sir George Nares. We were sorry to find that our desire to taste the ale brewed for the first expedition could not be granted, as Messrs. Allsopp & Sons had none of this particular shipment left; but that it must have been of an excellent quality may be inferred from the following extract from the report made to the Admiralty by Captain Sir Edward Belcher, C.B., in 1852, on the ale supplied by Allsopp & Sons for the arctic expedition under his command:—

"H.M.S. Assistance  Captain Sir Edward Belcher, C.B.
"A most important and valuable aid — a valuable antiscorbutic. Found, by experiments made at a temperature of -42° on deck, to stand +12 before affording any symptom of congelation. . . . Very good, and very important"

"H.M.S. Resolute — Captain Henry Kellett, CB.
Kept exceedingly well, and sought after by all."

"H.M.S. North Star — Commander W. J. S. Pullen.
"The best drink for arctic regions."

We were also shown a letter from Sir Edward Belcher, under date January 27th, 1854, in reference to the ale supplied to the arctic squadron, from which the following is an extract:—

"As I consider 93° below the freezing point last season, and 91.5, with 84 hours at a mean of —55º a pretty fair trial for external atmosphere, I have no hesitation in stating that it is not injured by freezing, which I expressly tried (finding its point of congelation to be +12.5), and that I reserved a portion of the semi-frozen, decanted from the spongy mass, and re-bottled it in a pint bottle. It has indeed been a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick, as long as it lasted. It is now a daily source of lamentation that the Phoenix did not convey fresh supplies."

However, respecting the ales supplied to the Government Expedition of 1875, we had ample opportunity, by direct inspection, to convince ourselves of its superiority. We found it of a nice brown colour, and of a vinous, and at the same time, nutty flavour, and as sound as on the day it was brewed. The ale, although of a high original strength, viz., 1.130 sp. gr., equal to about 47 lbs. per barrel, did not show a very high alcoholic strength; in fact, an analysis made in 1881 proved that it contained not more than about 9 per cent, of alcohol by weight (about 20 per cent, proof spirit). Owing to the large amount of unfermented extract still remaining in it, it must be considered as an extremely valuable and nourishing food. That the Government was also well satisfied with this shipment may be inferred from a letter of Sir George Nares, under date February, 1875, which closes with the following pertinent remarks:—

"Excellent. Would recommend as large a quantity as can possibly be stowed away to lie supplied to every future expedition."

The following is a copy of another letter — selected from many more that we were permitted to peruse — addressed to Messrs. Allsopp, January 3rd, 1877:—

"Might I take the liberty of asking you to give me what information you may deem desirable regarding the ale you furnished to the late arctic expedition. I am desirous of knowing its composition as nearly as possible, its strength, etc.

"It kept splendidly in the arctic regions, and the fact of its freezing did not appear to detract from its good qualities in any way. It was highly appreciated by the men.
"I am, Gentlemen, yours very faithfully,
"Fleet Surgeon and Senior Medical Officer to the Arctic Expedition."
"The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 1" by Alfred Barnard, 1889, pages 151 - 152.

I love those testimonials. They're a bit like those you see on cinema posters. Though you wonder, if like cinema posters, they've been selective in their editing. Like "The best drink for the arctic regions . . . if you have no rum or whisky." Resolute and North Star were, by the way, other ships that took part in Belcher's arctic expedition. The North Star was the only one to make it home, the others being left stuck in the ice. The Phoenix was a supply ship that they met on the way home. I can imagine the disappointment when they discovered it carried no beer.

Only freezing after 12 hours at -42º F is pretty impressive. That means you could happily stick a bottle in your freezer and not worry about it turning to ice. I would try the experiment myself, but I don't have any Arctic Ale. Unfortunately.

The idea of feeding the sick beer may sound odd today, but it was standard practice in the 19th century. This is the period that gave us such great styles as Invalid Stout. Judging by the strength of some of these, you could be forgiven for assuming they were intended to turn you into an invalid.

Let's now look at what Arctic Ale was. For once, there's a reasonable description: brown, vinous and nutty. Sounds like one of my more recent beer reviews. That it was still sound as bell after 13 years in the bottle attests to the keeping qualities of strong British beers. Yes, they made 'em to last in the old days. Not these new-fangled running beers that'll go sour before they drop bright.

Arctic Ale 1875 - 1965
Year Brewer Beer Style Price size package Acidity FG OG Colour ABV atten-uation
1875 Allsopp Arctic Ale Barley Wine bottled 1044.3 1130 11.24 65.96%
1937 Ind Coope Arctic Ale Barley Wine 9d halfpint bottled 1018.7 1081.3 8.19 77.00%
1950 Ind Coope Arctic Ale Barley Wine 18d nip bottled 0.05 1020.1 1079.8 18 + 40 7.80 74.81%
1951 Ind Coope Arctic Ale Barley Wine 17.5d nip bottled 0.08 1019.1 1078.1 7.71 75.54%
1952 Ind Coope Arctic Ale Barley Wine 18d nip bottled 0.07 1020.2 1080.3 21 + 40 7.85 74.84%
1953 Ind Coope Arctic Ale Barley Wine 18d nip bottled 0.08 1018 1079 18 + 40 7.98 77.22%
1950 Ind Coope Arctic Ale No. 1 Barley Wine pint bottled 0.10 1020.8 1079.9 40 + 16 7.72 73.97%
1956 Ind Coope Arctic Barley Wine Barley Wine 18d nip bottled 0.05 1019.7 1077.1 105 7.49 74.45%
1965 Ind Coope Arctic Barley Wine Barley Wine 21d nip bottled 0.04 1018.6 1078.6 85 7.84 76.34%
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/001
"The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 1" by Alfred Barnard, 1889, page 152

You can see that in the 20th century Arctic Ale had a lower gravity and was more attenuated. Unusually, its strength didn't really drop between the 1930's and the 1960's. That wouldn't have been true of many beers. They had different standards in the 19th century. That's how Barnard can say that a beer of over 11% ABV "did not show a very high alcoholic strength". He'd fit right in with the modern geeks who think something 8% ABV can be a session beer.

The problem with a description like "a nice brown colour" is that you've no idea what shade Barnard considered brown. An analysis in the 1960's of a bottle from this batch came up with a colour of EBC 156. Which is pretty dark brown. It seems to have got progressively paler as the 20th century progressed, but remained fairly deep brown..

When was Arctic Ale last brewed buy Ind Coope? Probably later than 1965. But I'm sure it hasn't been around for a while. Other, obviously, than the Arctic Alchemy brew. Another sad loss to the British beer world.


Alex Wilson said...


Will there be a Arctic Ale focused 'Lets Brew...' forthcoming?


Duncan said...

I know that neither of these qualify as Arctic Beer "styles", but there is some "high latitude" beer interest out there at the moment

Spirit of Scott beer:

Captain Oates Mild:

Pivní Filosof said...

Man! I wish someone brewed an "Invalid Stout"....

Ron Pattinson said...

Pivni filosof,

I drank invalid stout in Australia, it couldn't have worked properly I still walk

Jim said...

Hi Ron - would a very strong bottled beer in the mid-nineteenth century like the early Arctic Ale have been carbonated? It seems like the yeast would have had enough before bottle conditioning. I would love to see a Let's Brew for Arctic Ale.

Ron Pattinson said...

Jim, it had to have been carbonated naturally. It's too early for forced carbonation. Not sure what they did. Maybe they added fresh yeast at bottling.

Jim said...

Thank you Ron - I think I misled you with the word "carbonated". I meant "would it have been sparkling or completely still". I thought that even if they added fresh yeast the alcohol would have prevented any further bottle conditioning.

Ron Pattinson said...

Jim, as I've seen no mention of it being uncarbonated, I assume it was.

It depends on the specific yeast strain how much alcohol it can tolerate. Burton brewers had lots of experience of making very strong beers so presumably had quite alcohol-tolerant yeast.