Brewers’ Marks Explained

From the unlikely source of a newspaper in San Francisco, in 1901, comes an explanation of the usual English brewers’ marks used in British commerce (XXX, AK, etc.).

In fact, two explanations appear, same city, same newspaper, but separated by nine years. Each is similar but not quite the same.

The source is unusual to say the least, as the information is imparted, not just in the United States where such beers did not trade, but in the form of a reply to readers’ queries. Moreover California by then was lager country with steam beer still hanging on: unlike the east ale was virtually unknown.

Yet the correspondents were based in California, according to the replies given.

This was not a reprint from a U.K. newspaper, in other words, as frequently occurred at the time.

So why would readers in sunny California seek such exotica? Maybe the feature, at least in some cases, was an editors’ resort, to fill up space. The fact that a similar question was answered twice in 10 years, in the same paper, suggests this I think.

Still, perhaps Britons in the city, maybe retired with time on their hands, sent in the questions, it’s possible.

I’ve look at brewers’ designations before, and in this post discussed a hitherto obscure pamphlet from c.1850 that described the different qualities of Swan Brewery’s beers, and by implication other beers carrying similar designations.

The pamphlet is most useful but not an attempt to “decode” designations as such. Rather, it describes the general sorts of beer available and the proper occasions for their use.

I also found the only suggestion so far, in the period of its ascendancy, on the meaning of AK. It’s “keeping ale”, or by reasonable implication, ale for keeping. See here.

19th-century brewing literature sometimes considers where the X’s came from in X, XX, and XXX ales, as well-known by beer historians.

So the 1901 and 1910 material is novel and, as far as it goes, helpful. Where it came from, no one knows. Maybe the newspapers cabled sources in London, or just put together something from their libraries or research departments.

The “40 as compared with 30”, omitted in the second reply for obvious reasons, probably refers to brewers’ pounds gravity. 30 brewers pounds gravity is 1083 OG, see this 19th-century drinks writer for how the conversion works.

So, from the San Francisco Call on August 16, 1901:

BREWERS’ MARKS— A. O. S., City. The marks on casks containing beer or ale signifies the degree of strength. X stands for the Latin word simplex or single, XX for duplex or double and XXX for triplex or triple strength. AK means light bitter beer; AKK, lighter still, P. A., pale ale, and XL, extra strong, being 40 as compared with 30, XXX.

And from the same newspaper in October 1910, a similar answer appears here:

MARKS ON BARRELS— F. T. W., City. What is the meaning of marks on brewers’ barrels such at X, XX, PA, AK. etc.? It is a method of intimating the original Latin names for various degrees of strength and quality of the contents of the barrel so marked. X means simplex. XX means duplex. XXX means triplex. This was the method used at first, but in time other qualities of beers and ales were introduced and it became necessary to add new distinctive marks, such as XL, PA, AK, AKK, etc. AK means that the contents of the barrel is light, bitter beer; AKK, lighter still; PA, pale ale; XL, extra strong.

AK is called “light bitter beer”, which of course it was. And so on.

Not earth-shattering but good to know that someone turned to their mind to this question back in the day, if only a Yankee editor on a slow day in the newsroom. As far as I know, it’s the only time (x 2) an explanation was sought/offered as to the main brewers’ marks then in use or in memory of those writing.

One would expect to see something like this in a Victorian mercantile glossary or brewers’ or public house trade publication. If that exists, no one has found it yet to my knowledge.

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