A Vivid Musty Ale Description From 1921

Moxie, Musty and Mutton

The following amusing piece in the Paterson Morning Call on January 1, 1921 is pertinent to (but was not cited in) my work on American musty ale:

It was printed almost exactly one year after National Prohibition became law. Seemingly it is about Billy Park’s, the old chop house in Boston that had closed many years before. The article was either a repeat of one printed years before, or perhaps simply memoir, or it concerned another “grill” in town.

By deprecating drinking and ostentatious eating the article suited the Volstead era, but the incident described was probably not invention. The depictions are too detailed to suppose fabrication for temperance or general bluenose purposes.

The impression of musty ale is intriguing, especially as so little record of how the beer tasted is available. Moxie is a soft drink, it originated in New England at the end of the 1800s. The name is, today, owned by Coca-Cola and the drink is still sold. It reflects flavours more popular in the past I think, medicinal, bitter-sweet flavours. Suze, red vermouth, Jagermeister, some Italian soft drinks, Dr. Pepper, and root beer are broadly examples. Gentian is an ingredient it seems of Moxie, a bitter root variously described as tasting of wintergreen, bubblegum, or cough syrup.

A remarkable compilation on “Wikipedia Talk” offers good commentary on Moxie. This quotation is notable for its impressive detail (from J Casto in 2006):*

It tastes like a combination of 8% Diet Coke, 15% root beer, 72% cough medicine, 3% cloves, and 2% turpentine. I had it about 4 months ago. I didn’t really like it. Its kinda like Dr. Pepper. When DP is put in your mouth, it tastes like Coke, but when you swallow it, it tastes like grape soda with Coke. Same with Moxie: it tastes like root beer with a tad bit of cough medicine when first put in your mouth, but when you swallow it, it tastes much [more] like cough medicine and other things…”

Other statements in Wikipedia Talk are in similar vein. Turpentine or fluoride are mentioned, which ties into the “mothballs” in the Morning Call. It is tempting to think that by mothballs the 1921 writer meant musty in the sense of the sulphury “Bass stink” or barnyard of Brettanomyces, both discussed in my article. But mothballs don’t really smell of either, in fact they are intended to preclude or at least disguise such odours. Mothball has a pungent chemical note, but turpentine and fluoride do get it at.

The writer was a tyro at ale, so his fastidious dislike must be viewed partly in this light. As he put it, he should have started with a lower order of the “genus ale” rather than an evidently challenging specialty like musty ale. Maybe he had never known beer of any kind although perhaps he was familiar with lager. He doesn’t state in the article that he never drank alcohol before.

Going for musty ale and mutton on the bone in today’s terms is like opting for Imperial Russian Stout with red deer chops when you know Bud Light and hamburgers.

Still, the musty ale description evokes something rather like a modern Trappist or abbey ale. St. Bernardus, say, or the herbal/earthy Orval. I suggest in the article that musty ale was often simply Bass Pale Ale or another IPA or stock beer. At the time, these likely had both a Brett note and the “Burton snatch”, from gypsum in the brewing. The combination may have given rise to the musty keynote, but the matter remains in doubt as some musty ale was advertised as not in fact musty.

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* The quotation from Wikipedia Talk reflects a couple of spelling adjustments.

Note re images: The first image above was extracted from the original news story linked in the first asterisk above. The second image was obtained from Pinterest on the Internet, here. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.