Musty Ale, Not

This 1884 ad for musty ale from Park’s House in Boston – that’s Billy Park’s chophouse discussed in my last post – sheds light on the actual palate of musty ale. Or rather, what musty ale was not.

The ad states in stentorian tones: musty ale is not sour, is not old, is not strong, is not musty. The ad goes on to say, if it was musty, it wouldn’t be fit to drink.

Well, you could have fooled me. It does suggest what the etymology drives at, that musty/moist beer was really new and fresh. But how was it different from other ale of the day that wasn’t old, e.g., cream ale and present use ale?

And why the odd, not to say confounding, name musty? I mean, it’s not like they didn’t have better choices.

Was there some weird reverse humour at work in the 1800s, something Monty Pythonseque? That beer so fresh, so creamy, so digestible, so perfect, had to have an ironic name, for fun? Maybe there was an anti-temperance strategy at work here, something to head off the non-drinking denominations sniffing around for malfeasance.

I still think it’s historical – musty as applied to beer (and wine) originally meant fresh and sweet, not old and stale. But of all the words in the English language, why choose one with a recondite historical meaning, and not just that, but one liable to suggest the exact opposite meaning? Why pay good money to newspapers to explain the product was everything the name didn’t suggest?

Life is strange.



2 thoughts on “Musty Ale, Not

  1. I think the word “must” for the first fermentation (usually of wine) was quite current in the 19th century, so it might have made perfect sense to contemporaries to call a fresh, sweetish (“worty”) beer musty. I can’t imagine that “worty” would have appealed…

    • Thanks Andrew, it may well be. I think musty ale was different from fresh, or mild or present ale as it was called, possibly by being partially fermented, which might account for its not being strong, which most ale was then at least in relation to lager.


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