Sunday, 9 October 2011

Fowler's Twelve Guinea Ale

Wee Heavy. I've always been troubled by this supposed style. Partly because it seems to be based on a single commercial beer: Fowler's Wee Heavy. Or to give it it's proper name, Fowler's Twelve Guinea Ale.

The name "Wee Heavy", though poetic, is pretty rubbish. Wee = small, heavy = strong. "Small Strong" doesn't sound quite so cool, does it? The more I look into Scottish brewing, the more obvious it is how broadly the word "Heavy" was used. There's Heavy Export Ale, Heavy Stout and, of course, Wee Heavy.

Let's use the real name for Fowler's Wee Heavy: Twelve Guinea Ale. What does that mean? Nothing more than that a hogshead of the beer sold for 12 guineas (£12 12/-, £12.60 in new money). It's like the shilling system, just posher. Guineas weren't used for any old sums. No, they were reserved for the price of racehourses and that sort of thing. And for the very top-end Scottish beers.

Just a few days ago we heard that ten and twelve guinea ales were "rarely brewed". William Younger didn't make one. They didn't go higher than 160/- (£8). There was one brewer who did regulalry brew a Twelve Guinea Ale. You guessed it, Fowler of Prestonpans. It must have been quite famous, given the number of analyses of it that I've found.

In the 19th century, Twelve Guinea Ale had a ludicrous OG: 1159º. I think that's the highest I've seen. It's so high that even though the FG is 1068º, it's still 12% ABV. You can see that between the wars, it was still a real beast, with a gravity of over 1100º. The second war put an end to that and, by the time we reach 1955, the OG is the same as the FG had been a century earlier. Sort of sums up the decline in British beer strengths.

The colour, well that's brown A darkish brown. I wish I knew the colour of the 1862 sample. I suspect it would have been very different. Basically much paler. That's what happened to Edinburgh Ales like William Younger's No. 1 Ale. That mysteriously darkened - like many Stock and Strong Ales - sometime around 1900.

Here's a table with all the facts (at least the ones I know):

Fowler's Twelve Guinea Ale 1862 - 1955
Year Beer Style Price size package Acidity FG OG colour ABV App. Attenuation
1862 Twelve-Guinea Ale Strong Ale 1068 1159 11.99 57.23%
1921 Prestonpans Ale Strong Ale bottled 1042 1118 9.92 64.41%
1925 Twelve-Guinea Ale Strong Ale bottled 1038 1117.7 100 10.44 67.71%
1926 Strong Ale Strong Ale bottled 1031 1117 140 11.33 73.50%
1926 Twelve Guinea Beer Strong Ale bottled 1040 1115 9.79 65.22%
1928 Strong Ale Strong Ale bottled 1043 1114 130 9.24 62.28%
1929 Twelve Guinea Ale (carbonated) Strong Ale bottled 1030 1114 No. 15 11.06 73.68%
1929 Twelve Guinea Ale (carbonated) Strong Ale bottled 1030 1115 No. 15 11.19 73.91%
1931 Strong Ale Strong Ale bottled 1024 1098 9.71 75.51%
1933 Strong Ale Strong Ale bottled 1034 1108 9.68 68.52%
1940 Twelve Guinea Cream Ale Strong Ale 7d nip bottled 0.06 1028 1094.3 14 + 40 8.66 70.31%
1940 Twelve Guinea Cream Ale Strong Ale 7d nip bottled 0.07 1028.2 1095.3 14 + 40 8.76 70.41%
1947 Heavy Ale Strong Ale bottled 1025.5 1081.4 7.27 68.67%
1948 Strong Ale Strong Ale bottled 1019.5 1079.5 7.84 75.47%
1948 Prestonpans Twelve Guinea Ale Strong Ale bottled 1021.5 1080 7.63 73.13%
1949 Prestonpans Twelve Guinea Ale Strong Ale 1/3d nip bottled 0.06 1030.3 1077.7 15 + 40 6.13 61.00%
1955 Twelve Guinea Ale Strong Ale 1/3d nip bottled 0.04 1016.9 1068.1 120 6.67 75.18%
"The lancet 1853, Volume 2", 1853, page 631.
Thomas Usher Gravity Book document TU/6/11 held at the Scottish Brewing Archive
Younger, Wm. & Co Gravity Book document WY/6/1/1/19 held at the Scottish Brewing Archive
Whitbread Gravity Book document LMA/4453/D/02/002 held at the London Metropolitan Archives


beer guru, jr. said...

just 1159 O.G.? pussy lawnwower beer ;p

Barm said...

I think it's a tad more complicated than that. Some anecdotal evidence (reminiscense of staff at Belhaven and Aitken's) suggests that bottled strong ale was at some point known informally as wee heavy. Presumably Fowler’s (or the marketing team at United Caledonian) picked up on this and started putting it on their labels. By the time I started drinking Fowler's was the only such product left so it is difficult to trace. Murray's had something called a Wee Murray which may have been a similar type of beer.

But no, certainly not before the 20th century and certainly not universally. And definitely not in America unless you want to make yourself sound ridiculous.

Gary Gillman said...

Belhaven makes a Wee Heavy, at 6.5% ABV:

I thought initially that "wee" referred to a nip bottle. Some clearly was marketed that way. The Belhaven pictured seems to be a standard bottle though.

Maybe the term at its base is ironic, "ah it's just a wee little beer, can't hurt ya".

The concise description below of mid-1800's Scotch ale gravities, designations and alcohol strengths refers to them generically as heavy ales. It's by Dr. Thomas Thomson, the Scots chemistry professor who also co-authored a well-known brewing text.

The highest strength he noted, 18.5% proof spirit, translates by my reckoning to 10.35% ABV - impressive but certainly numerous beers today, especially some American imperial stouts and barley wines, exceed it.


Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, I've seen something analogous in England, where you had things like "Little Bricky" a Brickwood's beer in a nip bottle (can't remember which type it was).

I can understand why "Wee Heavy" could be the way you'd order something in a pub. A nice shorthand for "A small bottle of your strongest Ale good man". So it having a generic meaning is perfectly reasonable.

I just love the sound of Twelve Guinea Ale. The sound of the words and the description of this sweet gloopy stuff.

That reminds me. The two analyses from 1929 came with comments:

"Objectionably sweet & syrupy." "Very sweet - no bitterness."

Barm said...

Gary, "wee" does refer to the nip bottle. At least, it did when the expression was in colloquial use.

Barm said...

Apparently these types were also known in the North East as a "wee dump" or "heavy dump". Perhaps Stonch or his dad could say more about that.

Barm said...

Then again, William Younger had a beer called "Wee Willie" (no sniggering at the back there), which was a "Light Pale Ale" on the label, so we can't even assume that anything with "wee" in the name was a Strong Ale.

Gary Gillman said...

That word dump is so odd-sounding, I was going to say funny but that wouldn't be right viewing it from a historical prism as we must.

These expressions are probably very old.

Now I'm wondering if the old LOndon slang for porter, "heavy wet", is connected to these other usages. Yet, regular-issue porter by the 1800's wasn't particularly strong. Even stout wasn't, in relation anyway to best Scotch ale.

Maybe heavy meant simply, rich in body. Yet porter wasn't, particularly.

The oddities of history...


Tandleman said...

Apropos of nothing, but related to Fowler's Wee Heavy, I seem to recall this being made by Belhaven for a while not that many years ago.

And the bottle size of the Belhaven Wee Heavy beer mentioned is certainly down to bottle size availability.

I do have both a Murray's and an Aitken's beer label saying "Strong Ale", but alas, no Wee Heavy ones. (Though I do have a Blair's Heavy Bitter Ale one which is unusual I'd venture.)

I suspect the term "wee heavy" refers to the amount of alcohol squeezed into the little bottle. A pint's worth of alcohol in a third. Or so they thought?

Angus said...

In the late 60s and early 70s Wee Heavy (Fowler's Strong Ale or FSA as it was known in the brewery) was brewed at Heriot Brewery, Roseburn Terrace, Edinburgh. The OG was around 1072 if I recall correctly. Very nice to have a nip with you when working in the brewery yard on a cold winter's day!

Ron Pattinson said...

Angus, it sounds like you worked at the Heriot Brewery. I'd love to hear anything else you remember about it.

Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, just looked through my collection of Murray beers and have found a "Wee Murray" from 1959. It's a low gravity (1033) Pale Ale.

Intriguingly, I have analyses from before WW II of something called Heavy Ale that was around 1080.

Barm said...

Tandleman, yes, Belhaven brewed it for InBev until it was discontinued. The last brew was in 2005, according to George Howell at Belhaven. George was at Heriot before becoming head brewer at Belhaven.

Angus said...

Ron, I haven't been on the site for a year.
I did indeed work at Heriot and I have fond memories. It wasn't the prettiest brewery but was a nice place to work.
I was saddened to see that the site is now cleared for housing with street names refering to the original maltings rather than the brewery.
Fowlers was brewed as a parti-gyle with Redcap - a low gravity beer. It could be tricky to get the FSA gravity if you missed your dips....
We didnt brew it very often so the demand must have been quite low; mind you there a lot of nips in a couple of 120 barrel tuns!
Unfortunately, I can only refer to memory as I have no photos or written notes. I keep searching for on-line photos of the brewery

Ron Pattinson said...


thanks for your comment. Do you remember anything about the grist of Fowler's Wee Heavy?

In fact, any memories you have of working at Heriot I would greatly appreciate.

Angus said...

As mentioned earlier I have no records at present, I can only rely on memory.
At Heriot we used bulk ale and lager malt from the Bass Maltings at Alloa and from maltsters for sale. In addition we used some crystal malt in bags. Adjuncts were Brumore flour in the mash tun plus liquid cane sugar and Flo Sweet wort syrup in the coppers. Liquid caramel would have been used in the copper and for in FV colour adjustment if needed.

The Beer Wrangler said...

HI Ron

I'm doing a bit of research for a book, do you know when Fowlers first used the term 'Wee Heavy' in an advert or on a label?

Many thanks

Ron Pattinson said...

Beer Wrangler,

not sure whe it first "Wee Heavy" first appeared on a label. Pretty sure it was after WW II.