Friday, 23 January 2009

Beer code

The codes used in the 19th century to designate different beers fascinate me. I'm talking letters and numbers. All those X's and K's. And numbers, too, like Bass's No.1 to No.6. But what the hell do they mean?

I'm pretty sure I've cracked the X's. They are the simplest method of strength indication. The most likely explanation for their origin is, as so much about beer, all to do with tax. Pre-1830, there were, for tax purposes, two classes of beer: Table Beer and Strong Beer. The former was taxed at the rate of 2s 6d per barrel, the latter at 10s.

There were strict rules about marking and keeping separate the two types of beer. One of the simplest fiddles was to mix Table and Strong Beer and sell it as Strong. Judging by Accum's analyses, in the first decades of the 19th century this practice was rife. I know for certain that barrels of Table Beer had to be marked with a "T". Barrels of Strong Beer it seems were marked with an "X". Depending on which explanation you believe, this either stood for "eXcise" or was simply the Roman numeral for 10 (the tax in shillings).

The number of X's used, give an indication of a beer's strength. In the early part of the 19th century, breweries usually produced a range of Ales, ranging from X to XXXX, though you occasionally see XXXXX. This system was mostly used to designate Mild Ales, that is Ales sold unaged. Mild did not mean weak. XXXX Ales had gravities up to 1100. X's were also use for Porter. Though a P was often stuck on the end to make it differentiate the names from those of Ales. Guinness called their Porter X, Extra Stout XX and Export Stout XXX. As X's came to be associated specifically with Ales, they were sometimes replaced by S's. Whitbread, with S, SS and SSS is a good example of the use of this naming convention.

Breweries produced a second range of Ales. Stock or Keeping Ales. These were aged before sale. In the first half of the 19th century, these were often designated XXK, XXXK or XXXXK. But, as the century progressed, the names were mostly changed to just K's. So KK, KKK and KKKK. Typically, a brewery would produce X, XX, XXX and XXXX Mild Ales and KK, KKK and KKKK Stock Ales. The equivalent K and X Ales (for example XX and KK) had the same gravity. The only difference was a slightly higher hopping rate for the Stock Ales. Though no-one seemss to have bothered ageing the weakest Ales, so you don't find K Ales.

By around 1900, breweries had reduced the number of X Ales they brewed. The London breweries usually only made one, X. The stronger Mild Ales had mostly died out. The range of Stock Ales had thinned, too. Typical for London breweries was KK and KKK. As ageing went out of fashion, these came to be known as Strong Ales rather than Stock Ales. KK, or Burton as it was usually called in London pubs, was a standard draught beer between 1900 and 1950.
Here are a few random examples from London breweries:

Griffin Brewery Ales 1839
X 1073; XX 1089; XXX 1105
KK 1089; KKK 1105
(Source: Griffin Brewery brewing records)

Griffin Brewery Stouts 1844
S 1073.4º
SS 1087.3º
SSS 1097º
(Source: Griffin Brewery brewing records)

Whitbread Stouts 1873
S 1070
SS 1077
SSS 1091
(Source: Whitbread brewing records)

Barclay Perkins Ales 1869
X 1060; XX 1080; XXX 1093;
KK 1079; KKK 1093; KKKK 1106
(Source: Barclay Perkins brewing records)

Barclay Perkins Ales 1880
X 1060; XX 1079; KKK 1090
(Source: Barclay Perkins brewing records)

Some names, need no explanation. I think most of you have an idea what PA and IPA stand for. Others, have me flummoxed. AK, for example. How I would love to know what that stands for. Or derivatives like AKA and AAK. Answers on a postcard, please.


zythophile said...

I think that's a pretty good analysis, Ron: the idea that K stands for Keeping makes sense for the higher-strength beers - but as you nsay, it leaves the mystery of AK, and XK, which I've also seen - and why was KK generally sold at one shilling a gallon wholesale, same as AK, which implies a gravity of around 1045, too low, as you say, for extended keeping? (I have seen a K beer, incidentally, Steward & Patteson made one, and it was pretty strong IIRC)

X was indeed the legally required mark on casks of strong beer/ale; I'm not sure it stood for anything, other than as a marker: IIRC (again - I'm currently about 10 miles from my books) the X was used before the tax had risen to 10 shillings.

Ron Pattinson said...

The KK's I've seen in the brewing records were always pretty strong, not seen a shilling a gallon one that I can recall.

I've just had a look through my price list spreadsheet. I have very few examples of K Ales. The only KK is described as "Best Bitter Ale" and was 1s 2d a gallon.

This is the whole sorry list:

Rogers' Ales, Bristol 1890 AKK Bitter Ale 1s 2d
Ind Coope & Co, Romford 1893 AKK Light Bitter 1s
Arnol, Perret & Co, Wickwar, Gloucs 1895 AKA Bitter Ale 1s 2d
Epping Brewery, Epping 1898 AKK Stock 1s
Waltham Bros., London 1898 KKKK Strong Old Ale 1s 10d
Godsell & Sons, Stroud, Gloucs 1909 AKK Bitter Ale 1s 2d
John Bird, Westerfield, Suff. 1883 KK Best Bitter Ale 1s 2d

Considering that I have more than 700 beers taken from price lists, it's pathetic how few K Ales there are.

Gary Gillman said...

From everything I've read so far, I think that the best explanation of AK is that given by Zythophile in his fine book, Amber, Gold & Black, which I am reading now. The theory is also advanced in his equally impressive History of the Pint, which I read some years ago. That is, AK is an acronym for Ankel Keut (or koyt, coyt), a moderate-strength and moderately (relatively) hopped beer associated with Flanders that Flemings may have brought to England during their influx.

This theory makes real sense to me and is an excellent insight. (One can perhaps trace a similar kind of unique history to the English hock beer).

Once the system to make keeping beers assigned (logically so it would seem) a K to casks for same, the two traditions merged and some brewers just integrated their AK in their range of K beers. Where there was no tradition of doing a AK beer, this may explain why some brewers issued only a K beer. I wonder too why a relatively low-gravity beer would have been stocked. There may have been a tradition though of wanting an old ale character for not-very-strong beers, or perhaps conditioning time was calculated differently for the different K designations.

I have checked keut and similar words online in recent years. I know I found at least one beer of this name in Belgium that seemed similar to what Martyn describes as AK in his books, but I can't find it again; I will keep trying.

The only other thing I can think of is AK meant Ale-Keeping but I think that is doubtful even if the earlier K and KK beers were stocked. Why would the prefix A be kept for AK but not for KK, KKK, etc.?

I would think too that finally, the K beer tradition merged with the one associated with bitter beer/bottled pale ale/India pale ale. But that is a different question.


Gary Gillman said...

Oops, I see in Ron's reply that there was a AKK. So perhaps this lends more credence to the idea that AK could mean Ale-Keeping. Why not then a AKKK and AKKKK? Too many letters to bother with possibly and everyone would have known that a krazily K beer was a right old ale!


Ron Pattinson said...

I'm not convinced that AK stands for Ankel Keut. Then again, I can't say that I have a theory I feel much happier with.

Keut, Koyt (and many other spellings) was brewed in the Low Countries and Germany from at least the Renaissance onwards. It was originally an unhopped beer. The only beer in this style currently brewed is by Jopen in Holland.

Keut hung on in Münster until the late 19th century, though it had been hopped for a couple of centuries.

It's another one of those weird old styles I get excited about.

Gary Gillman said...

There is also a Keyte made by Strubbe in Belgium, this is the one I had found some years ago online.

Here is an extract from the brewery's website's English section:

"Keyte› Return
Origine: In 2004, the city of Ostend celebrated the battle of Ostend. Shortly after the call of the culture department, the Oostendse Bierjutters (~Ostend beer lovers) decided to also organise themselves an activity as part of the year of the battle. On their request, and taking into acount their instructions, the traditional and familial Strubbe brewery of Ichtegem has made three different test brews. The choice and the result: Keyte, a blond original high fermentation beer with a 7.5% alcohol level and with taste evolution.

Ingredients: mineral water, pilsener and Münich barley malt, hop pellets, fresh malt, white candy

Characteristics: white high fermentation beer with a 7.5 % alcohol level with secondary fermentation in the bottle



True, it is 7.5% ABV, but that could be viewed as the double or triple version. Otherwise, it is blond and hopped. I see now from your sites Ron that keut was unhopped originally and later a gruit beer apparently.

But if the Flemings brought hops to England, I wonder if their keut beer by then was somewhat hopped, or it may have become so early in the style's history in England.