Tuesday 12 June 2012

Arctic Ale tasting

The day started so well.

Chris Bowen was there waiting for me as I popped through customs at Stansted. I'd started worrying on the plane after realising that, while I had a map of the area around Martyn Cornell's house, I hadn't written down his house number. Was it 127 or 197?

Once in Chris's rental car, we chatted away like crazy about beer history in general and Allsopp's in particular. Chatted away so much, Chris eventually realised we were headed the wrong way down the M25. Taking the next exit, we tried to find the right direction. I say tried, because we didn't quite get it right. We were headed to London, but on an A road. Wandering around Romford 's suburbs (good Allsopp connection there) we saw plenty of boarded-up pubs, but no signs for the M25. How hard could it be to find a dirty great motorway?

Ask. That's what we eventually did. A couple of times. And got directions of the follow this right then straight on, then go right, left, third on the right, then look for the chip shop - see that? you've gone the wrong way, go back, up the hill, left at the garage, well what used to be the garage, it's been a Tesco's for five years, used to buy my petrol there, lovely pumps they had, right next, past my mum's old house . . . kind.. I was slightly sceptical when he said "go right", while gesturing left.

It's amazing how country it is around Romford. I expected wall-to-wall tarmac and concrete. Travelling down an ever narrowing road, so overhung with trees it became a tunnel, we finally spotted the motorway. As our tiny road passed over it, an exit nowhere in sight. A bit more asking and a little bit of luck brought us finally to a junction. I remembered the roundabout from before. We'd taken one exit too early.

The prospect of Arctic Ale rendered me immune to doubt or depression. We'd get there because we had to. And if we didn't, we had the Arctic Ale. If we ran out of petrol, we could drink it at the roadside.

We wandered a while around Teddington, but found Martyn's street. When I discovered Chris didn't have his house number either. "197?", he suggested. That was one of my guesses. Must be right. Mustn't it? The street ended at number 193. 179. "Was it 179?". While I went to check, Chris unpacked his precious bottles.

The door of 179 opened - and there was Martyn. Phew. I wouldn't have to knock randomly on doors, hoping a neighbour might know Mr. Cornell.

After pie, chips, a look at Martyn's library and some more beer history chat, we started the serious business. At least when John Keeling of Fullers had appeared. Appropriately enough (it being jubilee weekend), the first beer was 1935 Ind Coope and Allsopp Jubilee Ale.

It might well have been a version of the Arctic Ale. Very dark and very strong. "Flat, vinous, slightly acidic, liquorice." That's my tasting notes. Not great, I know, my descriptions. It was in pretty good nick for its age. I've had beers that were in a far worse state after 18 months.

Bass King's Ale from 1902 was next. It took a while of careful coaxing to remove the crumbly cork. Then there it was. A beer almost as legendary as Arctic Ale. Sitting placidly, a luscious deep chocolate brown. "Touch of acidity, raisin, chocolate, a slight bitterness." An incredibly rich beer and in better condition, surprisingly, than the 1935 Jubilee Ale. Wow. They certainly knew how to brew beer to last. A beer of a round hundred and ten years old.

It was, like the Jubilee Ale, for a few minutes the oldest beer I'd ever drunk.

Next, the star of the show. The beer Alfred Barnard drank when visiting Allsopp in 1889. I was going to drink a beer Barnard had. I can't tell you how excited that made me. Like an excited thing in an excitement shop. Squared. In Martyn's library, we'd been looking at battered volumes of Barnard. The beer had been over ten years old when Barnard drank it. Would it be in better condition than his book?

The cork took some work. Lots of work. Chris never did get it all out. It disintegrated and some fell back into the bottle. What the hell. I wasn't going to let a few bits of cork spoil my enjoyment. Finally, there it was. A glass of Arctic Ale. With my name on it.

Can a beer more than 130 years old still be drinkable? Er, . . . .  yes. Though, as John Keeling said, you wouldn't want to drink two pints of it. Liquid christmas cake came to my mind. Intense dried fruit flavours, with an acidic edge to pickle, sorry tickle, the palate. "Sour, sour cherries, raisins, tobacco." Words can't do it justice. My powers of description wither in the glare of its intensity and complexity. Double wow.

Chris kindly brought along a version of Arctic Ale he had brewed two years ago. A mere infant. Yet there were flashes of the old beer's character. A bit green, but developing beautifully. I hope he's keeping some back to drink in ten years time. Or 100.

We didn't stop there. Martyn contributed a Whitbread Celebration Ale, brewed in 1992 for Whitbread's 250th anniversary. "Figs, leather, dates, black toffee". Another darkly brooding monster of a beer. "Undrinkable the first couple of years after bottling", Martyn said. Time had worked wonders.

The main man is centre stage

For the Barclay Perkins obsessive, Martyn pulled out a brace of Russian Stouts: 1977 and 1992. We tried the later one first. It was much as I remembered it (I've a few dozen bottles, lurking in my beer cupboard to console me on particularly depressing birthdays). A pleasant mix of chocolate and brettanomyces horse blanket. If you can imagine such a combination being pleasant.

I'm not sure I've had a 1977 Russian Stout before. (1979, Bethnal Green Road - what vintage would that have been?) The crown cork still said Barclays on it*. I think it might even have still been matured at Park Street, though it was brewed at Horsleydown. Surprisingly, it was very well carbonated. But the biggest shock was the flavour: a very prominent brettanomyces character. Given it blind, I'd have guessed Harvey's Imperial Stout.

Once done, we headed down Martyn's local. Bizarrely, a Belgianish-themed pub. They did have cask beer. Perfect to wash our overloaded palates.

Didn't end badly, either. A day I'll never forget.

I can't thank Chris enough for a unique chance to try Arctic Ale. Nor Martyn's generous hospitality and wonderful old beers.

* Saddo note: I brought it home. "So you're the saddoes." Martyn's wife greeted us. Perceptive woman.


Martyn Cornell said...

An enormous pleasure to have you over, Ron. You're right about my wife ... fortunately, most of the time, she humours me.

Gary Gillman said...

Nicely done. A tasting of this scope and depth is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most and reading these notes and Martyn's is almost like being there. Fascinating.


Alex R. Wilson said...

Apologies for hijacking this particular post; how does one contact you directly? I am unable to locate an email address for you on here?

I have a book related query.


Ron Pattinson said...

you can find my email address on my website:


Jim Leff said...

Really enjoyed this, even though the descriptions were not very evocative, as you yourself confessed a couple of times.

When tasting such extremely rare beers, it's helpful to include someone who does have a flair for evocative description. This way, tasting of such precious items can vicariously please and benefit a far wider range of beer lovers than just those present.

More importantly, without good descriptions, the experience isn't fully documented. If previous generations of beer lovers hadn't taken time and trouble to thoroughly catalog and describe their experiences, we, today, would be completely in the dark. So the "pay it forward" obligation deserves consideration.

There can't be many bottles left of such beers, so it makes sense to find a way to ensure that each such experience is done the best possible justice.

Just something to bear in mind in future.

Edward said...

Is there a recipe for Arctic Ale? I don't think I've seen a Let's Brew for that.

Andrew Elliott said...

Between your account and Martyn's, I feel as if I was there enjoying the camaraderie and savoring the particular nuances of each arcane sample. Only one word comes to mind for such a tasting: Epic.

Anonymous said...

Did you try the Arctic Ale for Albion? I think I can see it in the lot ;)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, "from" not "for".

Arctic Alchemy said...

Jim L,
Here are some notes from the same 1875 vintage I had back in January of this year, not great either, but maybe it will help...
1875 Arctic Ale - Samuel Allsopp's and Sons

Type/Style: - English Strong old Ale/Barleywine /Burton Ale
Bottle : 750 ML , natural cork, full fill , no label, painted "1875" punt.

Leather, cedar wood ( wet) , dark fruit, raisins, musk, Sherry, almost no hop aromas

Appearance :
Clear, but not brilliant, deep Mahogany Brown with ruby highlights and hues on the glasses edge...

Strong malt and sherry flavors, fully and across the whole tongue, finishes smooth without any unpleasantness or sourness. Licorice and maybe even old taffy.

Mouthfeel :
Completely still , no detectable carbonation , not slick or creamy , simply like sherry or brandy , no cloying whatsoever despite it's high residual saccharine content an finishing gravity.

Overall Impression : An amazing experience of drinking a bit of history, this ale was extremely drinkable 137 years after bottling, other than the musty and oxidized nature ( which is typical) of such an old ale, this ranks up there with the best of them. I have had 15 year old ales that where in much worse shape, for this age, it was simply amazing to experience !

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, AA. Evocative or not, it's fun to read and great to have.

Fortunately, there's still at least some place for professional writers in this world! :)

Jim Leff
Founder, Chowhound.com
For Those Who Live to Eat