A Vivid Musty Ale Description From 1921

Of Moxie, Musty and Mutton

The following extract from an amusing article in the Paterson Morning Call of January 1, 1921* is pertinent to my article on American musty ale:

It was written almost exactly one year after Prohibition became law nationally, and seemingly about Billy Park’s, the old chop house in Boston that had closed many years earlier. One can assume the article was either a reprint of one printed years before, or perhaps memoir, or maybe about another “grill” in town.

The writer and perhaps the editor were clearly dyspeptic guys who wanted to diss booze and florid eating habits, so the article suited the Volstead era, but the visit described should not be doubted. The discussion of musty ale and mutton chops is too detailed to suppose fabrication for temperance or general bluenose purposes.

Certainly the musty ale notes are intriguing, especially as little description of the beer has been recorded. Moxie is a soft drink that originated in New England at the end of the 1800s. The brand is today owned by Coca-Cola and still sold. The drink reflects the kind of flavour (generally) more popular in the past, namely a medicinal, bitter-sweet quality. Suze, red vermouth, Jagermeister, certain Italian soft drinks, Dr. Pepper, and root beer are broad analogues. Gentian is an informing ingredient it appears of Moxie, a root variously described as tasting of wintergreen, bubblegum, or cough syrup.

A remarkable compilation on Wikipedia Talk offers commentary on Moxie.

The following lines impress as commendably detailed and Michael Jacksonesque (from J Casto, 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. Some mention turpentine or fluoride, which ties into the “mothballs” metaphor in the Morning Call. It is tempting to think that by using the mothball term the 1921 writer meant musty as in 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 these odours. The mothball smell is a pungent chemical note, both turpentine and fluoride get it at.

From a stylistic point of view “mothballs” was not inapt to use in an article on musty ale, but we shouldn’t let the word conduce, as too easily it might, to the idea that the beer tasted of decay or must.

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

By going for the musty ale and tallowy mutton on the bone, in today’s terms, it’s like someone who knows Budweiser and hamburgers opting for Imperial Russian Stout with red deer chops. That’s not the kind of stout to order, you should have Guinness draft (you knew that was coming eh?).

Where does this leave us? Well, beer-as-Moxie-quinine-soapy suggests something rather like a modern Trappist or abbey ale. Something like St. Bernardus, say, or more particularly the herbal/earthy Orval. I theorize in Brewery History that musty ale was probably often simply Bass Pale Ale or other India Pale Ale or other Burton-style stocked beer. At the time, it can be presumed these had both a brett note and the “Burton snatch”, from gypsum in the brewing. Their combination may have been the musty keynote.

Come to think of it, Orval does use brett. And I’m pretty sure you will find descriptions of Orval that use the word quinine. Anyhow, any Trappist or abbey beer of higher gravity fits within the English ale family. They are cousins at least and strong French and Belgian monastic beer may owe a lot to English roots, as I discussed earlier here in my series on Trappist and Benedictine brewing.***

Finally, a last comment on Moxie from Wikipedia Talk, from “FK”:

To me it tastes a bit like a sweetened version of Guinness.

That brings it all full circle now doesn’t it.


* The full article is online but I was not able to cite it in the usual way. To find it, search “musty ale” in the search box here, and it will be the 11th item down.

** The quotes herein from Wikipedia Talk reflect spelling corrections that almost certainly were intended by their authors.

*** See notably this post.

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.


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