Mystery Of Musty Ale Solved

I think I know now what the real musty ale was, although it is a series of educated inferences. I think it was what contemporary brewing writers called lively ale, sometimes too cream ale, but where the lively character was stimulated by adding partially-fermented beer to finished beer rather than, say, injecting it with carbon dioxide in the fashion of a soda siphon or soft drinks.

(Beer completed fermented out often is flat from the carbonation escaping during conditioning, or it was in the period of open fermenters and wood vessel storage).

This procedure was well-known in lager-brewing, as krausening, but Americans practiced something similar in ale-brewing as well, especially before carbon dioxide injection was developed.

I’ve written on cream ale and explained that some brewers used cream of tartar or similar chemicals to ensure good carbonation (condition) and retard acidity. This practice was current in the last part of the 1800s. It withered on the eve of WW I due to better methods to control stability and the gaze of emerging food regulators.

In this 1897 article from the Journal of the Institute of Brewing a simple explanation is given of the various types of ale prevalent in America. There was lively ale (very carbonated), also called present-use; still ale (like well-kept cask beer in England); and stock (old) ale, long-stored as in England. Stock ales generally were on the flat side, at least the draft.

The writer does not mention musty ale, nor do brewing scientists Wahl & Henius who wrote in the same period exhaustively on American beer. This suggests “musty” was a trade designation, an advertising term not a brewers’ technical one.

Musty ale may well have been krausened ale. The addition of freshly fermenting, or fermented, beer to spark a new fermentation and create a high volume of gas might have suggested use of the term musty in its older sense. I don’t think German lagering stimulated the procedure in ale-brewing, the Cincinnati connection notwithstanding, since musty ale was known there in the 1850s and lager was just getting started. Also, it seems musty ale was known in Vermont in the 1840s where there was no lager.

Irish brewers in the 1800s added partially-fermented wort to finished beer to impart the creamy head (today aroused by nitrogen), which is a similar idea. See Frank Faulkner’s comments in the 1880s, here, on adding such “heading” to porter before the casks went out to the trade. Maybe the American musty practice was an adaptation of this idea, given too the prevalence of newly-arrived Irish in New England in the mid-1800s – especially Boston.

This is from Tim Daly’s Bartenders’ Encyclopedia, 1903. It was published in Massachusetts – spiritual heartland of musty ale.

The odd-seeming mix of ale and lager was clearly a rough way to emulate the musty of the breweries, a bartenders’ trick. Draft lager would have been unpasteurized, and the addition of a fizzy, yeasty lager to well-matured ale probably emulated the musty taste. Even if bottled lager (pasteurized) was used, its high carbonation and fresh character would have made a still ale much livelier.

It seems clear musty ale was not like other ale. In this 1915 article which appeared in numerous papers in that year, Harvard students are described visiting a tavern and asking for “ale”. The bartender tells them he only has musty ale, which implies it is a special form of ale. They drink it, like it, and return later with more friends, whence the tavern requests its supplier to send it ale “made musty”. This suggests a special technique of making musty ale, which I suggest was adding partially-fermented wort or new yeasty beer to flat production beer – or stock ale in some cases – to make a fresh lively mix.

It is true some musty ale was advertised as old. This may have been truly old ale by confusion with the meaning of musty in its brewing sense, or, perhaps a combination of heading or new fresh beer with still stock beer. British breweries would often mix old and new beer to get a balanced palate and good carbonation, some porter was produced that way.

Musty ale probably is entangled with one or more of these older traditions, but has the distinction of the unusual name, an American feature yet with English antecedents even there.

Finally, it’s possible some brewers added new lager to ale to get the musty character, and there have been recurrent stories in American brewing history of such practice.

As coda, let’s imagine a scene at the Python Bar, Cambridge, MA, c. 1900:

“May I have the Musty Ale, I feel like an ale today with that taste of old overcoat, old cellar you might say”.

We don’t have any, sorry“.

“But there is the sign, ‘Musty Ale’!”

This will taste like what you want, it’s Burton Ale aged nine years“.

“Don’t want that, too dear”.

Well, we have some Bass ale from a fire sale, so reduced price, want that?”

“I want your Musty Ale, there, you’ve just poured one for that Harvard boy over there!”.

Our ale isn’t musty sir“.

“Your sign says Musty Ale!!”.

“We haven’t any ale of that description, I’m afraid, other than what you decline to buy“.

“What kind of place is this, do you toy with all new customers in this fashion? I won’t be trifled with, where’s the constable!”.

“Sir, it is I who will call the constable unless you calm yourself, perhaps you are a stranger to this section, and misapprehend what Musty Ale is…“.

[Customer storms out, thinking, “From this moment I shall simply drink lager at the German saloons. Good riddance to this ‘old Englyyshe’ ale and its weird practices!”].





4 thoughts on “Mystery Of Musty Ale Solved

  1. And here are a couple more:

    Wanted, a Place for a Musty Ale Stores near the Exchange – Liverpool Daily Post – Monday 15 August 1864 p2

    7 School Lane (off Church-street) to be Let, the Ground Floor, suitable for a musty ale store – Apply at Nunneley’s Stores, School Lane – Liverpool Daily Post – Saturday 17 April 1869

  2. The musty mystery continues: thanks to your guidance, Gary, I’ve spent a couple of hours searching the BNL archives (I have a subscription) and among the extremely interesting findings perhaps the most interesting is an ad from 1865 which says:

    “EDGAR PARKINS ESTLIN, Sen., begs to announce that after a absence of nine years he has resumed the proprietorship of the old-established WINE and SPIRIT VAULTS, 109 RATHBONE-STREET … The entirely new Stock of splendid ALES, brewed expressly for the above establishment by John Rogerson of Great Crosby, challenges competition for strength, brightness and flavour. Prime Seven-year-old MUSTY ALE” – Monday 18 December 1865, Liverpool Mercury.

    So – Musty ale was sold in Liverpool aged seven years …

    There appear to have been several “Musty ale stores” and around Liverpool, including neighbouring Birkenhead, and also at least one in Bristol (mentioned in an unfair dismissal case in 1859) and one in Manchester: here are some references:

    Wanted, a Young Woman as Servant-of-All-Work, who can wash. One from the country preferred. Apply at the Musty Ale Stores 119 Watson-street, Birkenhead – Liverpool Daily Post – Saturday 06 December 1862

    Luncheon rooms and Burton Musty Ale Stores, 2 Barnes-street, Market street, near Post-office Hotel, Manchester. A Sandwich and a Glass of Burton-Ale, 3 1/2d – Manchester Times – Saturday 16 March 1867

    To be let, a snug, compact beer vault: ill-health the cause of leaving. Apply at Musty Ale Stores, Queen Anne-street – Liverpool Mercury – Saturday 19 January 1867

    Musty Ale Stores Williamson-street, Liverpool Mercury – Tuesday 13 April 1869. This was the Old Musty Ale Stores Williamson-street, Saturday 31 January 1885, Liverpool Mercury: Charles J Connor, ‘well known as the proprietor of the “Musty Ale” Stores, Williamson-street’, was buried at Ford Cemetery on 26 August 1895, after a requiem mass at St Francis Xavier Church, Salisbury-street; There were 20 carriages in the cortége, and among the large number of mourners were two local councillors, the chairman and vice-chairman of the local licensed victuallers’ association, the president of the Liverpool Press Club and a couple of senior police officers. Liverpool Mercury – Tuesday 27 August 1895

    Musty Ale Stores, Price Street, Birkenhead mentioned in an assault case in 1871 – leased by Mr David Jones of Mill Street, Liverpool – Liverpool Mercury – Saturday 12 August 1871

    For sale – The PUBLIC HOUSE known as the “Musty Ale Stores” and two other MESSUAGES thereon, situate at the corner of Raffles-street and Summers-street containing 95 square yards or thereabouts – Liverpool Mercury – Tuesday 12 October 1880

    • Martyn, thanks very much. It shows I think at least that musty ale in England is unlikely to have been a one-off inspired by an American example (akin say to the first cocktail bars in London).

      Quite apart from the fact that the English in this period didn’t take lessons from abroad in brewing with the important exception of lager, the fact that musty ale was spread around the towns and cities mentioned, loosely northern except for Bristol, suggests it was English to begin with and adapted in America in Cincinnati in the 1850s but probably earlier too I now think (that Vermont reference).

      The idea of 7 year old musty ale corresponds to some of the American ads touting “old” musty, but whether the American stuff was that old is unclear (doubtful I think).

      How this gets to a mix with lager is unclear, but if English musty was a mix of old ale and new ale or partially-fermented wort added to freshen and liven it, American musty might have been been the same in some cases. Or, new yeasty lager might have been substituted for the new ale/heading due to its increasing availability and by observation of the krausening practice.

      Many of the references are Liverpool-centered and I wonder if Liverpool as a destination for Irish emigres may suggest bringing the idea of heading to brewing there and it spread around a bit. Although mixing old ale and newer is certainly English too and the musty term indubitably English including in a beer context.

      I suspect it was a regional thing and someone brought it to America from a Liverpool or Bristol port, and adapted it.


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