The American Roots of Labatt’s I.P.A. (Part I)

My heart lies in old West Virginia…

(From The Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbilly“, 1971)

In my article “Fleming’s Golden Ale” in the current issue of the journal Brewery History, I included among some 150 endnotes an 1861 advertisement* for Mendum’s Wine and Ale Vaults. Mendum’s, at Broadway and Cedar in the financial district of New York, was an ale specialty house that was also a high-end provisioner. In many ways Mendum’s, which deserves a blog study of its own, was the Eataly of its day.

The ad was set out in The Union Sketch Book of 1861, a guide to New York City, see here (via HathiTrust digital library).

Mendum’s, run by two English brothers who retired home finally with a small fortune, carried an impressive range of British (English, Scottish) and Irish ales and porters. It also offered numerous American ales – cream, golden, bitter, and more – evidently felt worthy to stand with famous imported marques.

Among the Stateside beers was Smith’s American Bitter Ale, rather a modern sounding name, indeed it was the “I.P.A.” of its day. The notice described the beer as hailing from Wheeling, Virginia. Wheeling from June 20, 1863 was thenceforth in West Virginia, as on that date West Virginia acquired statehood due to Civil War developments.

For Mendum’s to fetch beer – multiple brands – all the way from what was still a semi-frontier showed its high regard for Smith’s products.

Who was this Smith? He was English-born George Weatherall Smith (1799-1872), from Lincolnshire, who immigrated as a youth to Philadelphia with his father. He returned to Britain after his father died, and then came back, to New York City. After a peripatetic trading career that ranged across America, he ended in the Pittsburgh brewing business, in 1829.

He became successful in ale-brewing there, branching out (1850s) to Wheeling, VA to establish a similar business. See this 1890 biographical account for more detail on his career. During the 1820s his business career including brewing in New York and Albany, so he had some experience in the field before establishing in brewing in Pittsburgh.

He became well-known for his Kennett Ale, Stock Ale, Fresh Ale, and Porter, according to this biographical sketch by Christina Fisanick, a professor of English in Pennsylvania. Her sketch contains much else of interest on Smith including his connections to Canada.

Clearly he later produced other beers. His Champagne Ale, also carried by Mendum’s, may be an example, unless perhaps it was a re-naming of the Fresh Ale. It is unclear if Smith’s reputed I.P.A. was the same as his Stock Ale, as the latter term can denote numerous styles of beer.

An interesting point is how Smith, who had lived in America from the early 1820s, became an I.P.A. specialist. Pale bitter ale did not become a standard article of commerce in Britain, much less reputed (vs. in India), until some years later. Probably he had learned the art from workmen imported from Burton or elsewhere in the old country, or perhaps he used one of the numerous manuals in circulation by the 1850s that explained the brewing of I.P.A., the “tonic” now the toast of Empire.

So good was he at the art, that he attracted attention from the Labatt’s brewing family in London, Canada West, now Ontario. A number of Canadian beer histories, including Matthew Bellamy’s fine new book Brewed in the North: a History of Labatt’s, state that John Labatt II studied brewing in Wheeling with Smith. Smith had met the Labatts years earlier on one of his sorties to Canada.

The purpose of the stint, which lasted for much of the Civil War, was to master the brewing of India Pale Ale. Fisanick writes:

Labatt’s brewed its version of George Weatherall Smith’s IPA for 129 years. It was so successful in the North American marketplace that Labatt’s was able to forestall brewing lager until 1911, which was highly unusual. In 1992, Labatt ceased brewing IPA altogether in favor of investing in technology that would help them produce an ice beer. This new line of beer helped them remain competitive in the brewing industry, and as of 2018, Labatt is still going strong.

The Smith’s American Bitter Ale offered by Mendum’s to tony New York ale-fanciers was clearly the famous I.P.A. Not only that, it is likely John Labatt II had a hand in making that very beer. Hence, a long-disappeared, long-forgotten ale from West Virginia, not a place generally associated with fine ale-brewing, resonated down the ages, into the 1990s, via its DNA in Labatt’s I.P.A.

I remember Labatt I.P.A. as it was brewed from the 70s- early 90s. Sadly, by then it was a golden, fairly innocuous beer, not so different from Labatt’s standard lagers and golden “50” ale. One can argue that had Labatt’s more vision at the time, it might have renovated the I.P.A. and returned it to its 19th century glory. 1992 was just the time when modern I.P.A. started its ascent to star-status in the constellation that is modern craft brewing.

Fast-forward to 2019. Labatt’s now brews characterful pale ale – from recipes of modern craft brewers purchased by its foreign parent.

Note re images: the source of the first image above is identified and linked in the text. The second image was sourced from a 2013 issue of the Brampton Guardian, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner(s), as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

For my Part II, see here.

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*The description of Mendum’s was likely, or in our view, a paid advertisement albeit taking the form of guide-book narrative.

 

 

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