This is another piece inspired by a newspaper advertisement. One I found when looking searching for “Mild Ale”. It happens quite often that the most interesting material I come across is when I was searching for something completely different.
Why do I find it so interesting? Because is appears to confirm my main theory of the meaning of AK. Let’s take a look at the advertisement in question:
Hampshire Chronicle - Saturday 25 January 1890, page 2.
There are three Pale Ales, listed in descending order of price and strength. It’s the last two that tell the story.
You sometimes see X’s used for Mild Ales and K’s for Pale Ales. At this time a single X or K beer would have a gravity of about 1055º. Stronger versions would have be denoted by XX, KK, etc. (Though in this case XX is the base level Mild.) Pale Ales commanded a premium, which is why the K is 42/- a barrel (14d a gallon) and XX 36/- (12d a gallon).
AK was a new class of beer in the second half of the 19th century. A light, running Pale Ale, with an unusually low gravity for the period, in the range 1045-1050º. It sold for 36/- a barrel. Here AK is clearly signifying a beer that is weaker than K. A standing for one strength class down from K or X.
I’m gradually becoming more and more convinced of my theory. A indicates a gravity below X, K indicates that it’s a Pale Ale. Pretty simple, really.
Now what I’d love to know is who first used the name and when. It seems to have been commoner in the south (though there are examples from Yorkshire) so my money would be on its origins being there. I must do some newspaper archive searches to see the earliest reference I can find.
One last point: why are there three different versions of XXX? I can get the difference between Mild and Old Ale, but what differentiates something as Burton Ale? It’s the same price as Mild or Old so can’t simply be a different strength.