Friday, 23 January 2009


When you start digging around in the past, you have to be prepared to unearth the unexpected. The surprises aren't always pleasant. Especially if you have a theory that you're particularly fond of.

I've spent years trying to decode brewhouse names. XXX, KK. Those things. After rummaging through volumes of London brewing records, some of it started to make sense. The X's, K's and S's were sorted.

You may have read the post before this. Where I explained my progress in deciphering the brewer's code. I was quite pleased with it. But it looked a bit dull without an illustration. What better than an old brewery advert full of X's? I wasn't expecting to find any K's. I'd been singularly unsuccessful in finding those so far.

I know exactly where to look for 19th century brewery adverts: old directories. Leicester University has a searchable collection of directories online. Saves me the trouble of fishing out a brewery history and scanning an advert image. I'm so smart. It didn't take me long to find one. I was fair glowing with smugness. Until I looked at it more closely.

If you looked at the comments of my last post, you'll see a discussion about K Ales. I admitted to having found few K Ales in pricelists. And never having seen a single K. And that all the K Ales I'd seen had been strong. All I can say is this: bloody Kilburn Brewery.

Their advert is a like a squadron of Fairey Swordfishes. Laughably antique, yet my theories lie at the harbour bottom, their hulls perforated by torpedoes. Here are my K's. All the ones I'd not seen: a weak K (under a shilling a gallon: that's below 1050), a KK that was also way too cheap (barely more than ordinary Mild) and described as "Pale Bitter Ale". Both the K Ales are called Bitter and there's another beer called Pale Ale. That's buggering not only my view of K Ales as, well, Ales (lightly-hopped) but also challenging the idea that Bitter and Pale Ale were essentially the same thing.

So forget everything I said in my last post. Well, not all of it. I think I got X Ales right. And S's.

You can't ignore evidence just because it's annoying. That's sort of the point of what I'm doing. Better to see today as a triumph. A day where I learned something new. I don't understand K's at all.


Anonymous said...

An interpretation humbly submitted: the K beers in that ad, and anyone's AK, were descended from a moderately hopped ankel keut brought from lands in the old Netherlands. KK and further K multiples are not so descended (are not double or triple keuts), but rather are purely indigenous ales hopped enough to allow them to last many months and become stronger through continuing fermentation.

The AK and K beers are not true keeping beers, in other words, but because by happenstance they shared the letter K with the stock ale group, all these beers ended by being listed in a hierarchy together.

The AK and K beers bore some similarity to draught bitter/Pale Ale/India Pale Ale, but were less hopped. (I am thinking e.g., of Barnard's statement mentioned by Zythophile in his comment to your previous post, Ron). Still, because both pale ale and the K beers were hops-oriented (unlike the X beers), they ended up being conflated. Hence the usage of terms such as "bitter" in connection with a K beer in the Kilburn Brewery ad.

Ultimately (so the theory would go), draught bitter/pale ale subsumed the AK and K designations except where AK (and maybe K) survived well into the 1900's. I am thinking of course of McMullen AK as a classic survival of this type.

The stronger end of the K's, the keeping side, end up subsumed into the strong ale field.


Anonymous said...

I should mention - if only because it might demolish my theory in the above comment - that the Lovibond advertisement shows AK combined with a X designation, either one or two X' (see intermediate ales). However, this can be explained I think in that the XAK and XXAK are higher gravity than the AK, as the price suggests. Therefore here, use of the X designation with AK may show simply higher strength, as indeed it does in the mild ale listing. Why not state it as AKK or AKKK? I don't know. Maybe brewers preferred to state it differently or weren't consistent.

Or maybe an XAK was a combination of a mild ale and a K beer (a pre-mixed mix).


Anonymous said...

Some brewers today call a 3.6% abv ale IPA, others use the same descriptor for an 8% beer. There are no rules and brewers (well, marketeers) will use anything that may aid the sale of their product.

I doubt very much whether things were different in the old days.

You may be searching for a general rule that doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...

"You can't ignore evidence just because it's annoying."

You can if you're in the government or an economist :)