From time to time the question of the origins and meaning of “AK” or A.K. in English beer usage has arisen, for example by Boak and Bailey (@boakandbailey) in a chat with David Turner (@thebeerbiz) on Twitter today, see the exchange here.
A certain amount of ink has been spilled by writers on beer history trying to get to the bottom, with Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson weighing in, as I have. Some interesting thoughts are expressed in this article by Cornell from July, 2014, and in reader comments.
Some years ago, I located a reference from November 25, 1870 which stated AK means “keeping ale”, and I mentioned it in those comments. I mention it here now, as I haven’t before in these pages, and include an image from the article.
It was published in the “English Mechanic and World of Science”, a practical journal intended for various technical trades including brewing. The full page may be viewed here.
One may bear in mind that brewing had not yet entered its sophisticated science stage. It was a practical business and brewers sought help in journals such as this one for daily problems, often writing in for advice.
In this case, the anonymous “Aroma”, almost surely a brewer, stated that A.K. means “keeping ale”.
It is the only suggested definition in the heyday of AK, and is therefore important as period evidence especially given Aroma’s obvious detailed knowledge of beer and brewing.
Anyone is entitled of course not to treat it as definitive, but Aroma’s statement should be factored in any inquiry.
Personally, I believe AK did mean keeping ale, as even though storage times for pale ales were increasingly abbreviated in the 19th century, AK was clearly a form of bitter beer.
One of the originating characteristics of bitter beer was seasonal brewing and storage and later shipping for the India part or other export.
It’s true that for practical purposes AK was not a stock beer or stock ale for that matter. On the other hand, IPA and pale ale themselves altered to a point where storage was much abbreviated, or eliminated for all practical purposes as today.
What remained as leitmotifs were the heavy hopping, relatively pale colour, and relatively lower final gravity in relation to mild ales (drier).
IPA and pale ale were still bitter beer, as AK was. The stock or keeping quality was a characteristic of their ancestor which lingered in the name of one of the types.
Why it stayed in the name of the lower gravity version vs. the others (e.g. why wasn’t IPA called AK-IPA?) is a valid point to raise, however, IPA was a stored beer for much of its history and everyone connected with the beer business knew that.
Whereas, to describe a lower gravity beer but of similar type, what will you call it?
Today we say Session IPA. They said, I conclude, AK which reflected sufficiently the bitter beer idea to readers. Boak and Bailey stated in the Twitter discussion that the first reference to AK is 1846. This makes sense as beer gravities were getting lighter and storage times less and less for all beer types as the 19th century wore on.
Once a lighter pale ale became an item of commerce, a convenient term was needed, and AK makes sense as a convenient type-description.
N.B. See Part II of this post for a clear scan of the 1870 article and further discussion.