What was “Musty Ale”?


What was it?* A type of top-fermented beer which was generally consumed and made in the U.S. Northeast, from the Civil War years to the dawn of Prohibition. There are numerous ads for it in newspapers and other print media of the time.

It was associated in particular with alehouses and the “chophouse”, in America a  restaurant modelled on the English tavern of the 1600s.

The cities most closely associated with musty ale were Philadelphia, Boston, New York, but you could find it in smaller towns throughout New England and adjoining states. Some of the brewers who made it were Evans of Hudson, NY, Robert Smith, Philadelphia, and Greenway of Syracuse.

Some brewers seem to have stayed away from the name – I can’t find an instance of Ballantine Brewery of Newark, NJ using it, for example.

Most beer usages of America “B.V.” came back or resurged with the craft beer movement: ale, India Pale Ale, IPA, brown stout, porter, cream ale,  brown ale. All these, except probably cream ale, are firmly rooted in English history and exemplars of its brewing nomenclature.

But whence musty ale? Nothing sounds more English, and indeed the etymology clearly is. The term appears in various forms in English literature and manuscripts dating at least from Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer, a vintner’s son, lauded “moist and corny ale”. In later literature where a similar expression is used, sometimes you read “moist”, sometimes “musty”, or a cognate.

Most authorities agree that moist/musty meant new or fresh – the opposite of the ostensible meaning. Mustum means new or partially fermented wine in Latin, and the term must is still understood in wine vocabulary without negative connotations. One 19th century etymology states Chaucer really meant to state “musty”, i.e., new. (Corny meant strong, presumably from lots of grain – corn in the older sense – that could convert to alcohol).

Park’s House, run by Billy Park, was a 19th century chophouse in Boston. It was famous for its broiled lobster, mutton and other chops, game, and musty ale. The musty was often flipped, made into ale flip. (The mixture of ale, eggs, milk, and cream is nothing new). This 1891 reverie from a Boston newspaper recalls the comfort and joy Billy Park’s imparted to generations of Harvard students. So potent was the spell even a university administrator who arrived to admonish Billy was seduced by his delicious flip.

Here you see an atmospheric ad by Park’s House in, appropriately, the The Harvard Advocate in 1885. It shows a mug festooned with the musty name and mentions the signature dishes musty was drunk with.

There were similar places in Manhattan, Keen’s Steak House on 44th Street is a notable survivor (sans the musty or mutton, sadly). William Grimes in his food history of New York some years ago evoked well the world of Farrish’s and other chop houses – Farrish was mentioned by Don Marquis in my post yesterday.

While I said ale and porter became a trickle in the period I am discussing, enough was still sold to constitute a minor tradition, one that endured until Volstead and has come back big time post-Jackson/Maytag/Papazian.

In the 1891 article, Billy Park’s claimed to have sold nine-year old Burton Ale in bottle. The writer described the label carefully but omitted to mention the name. (Any ideas?). So that was really musty. Musty ale was something else, possibly young or mild ale, but perhaps in a mistake of etymology an old beer although not reaching the Mosaic heights of the Burton. Some ads of the time speak indeed of musty old ale.

You can find numerous references to musty ale in c. 1900 menus collected at the invaluable nypl.org site. A good example is from Lane’s, touting Evans Musty Old Ale. Another is pictured here, from Boston Oyster House.

I find it strange that the numerous narratives referring to the beer never question the term “musty”. Perhaps a lot of beer then was musty in its usual sense…? Or were Victorians just incurious?

One or two accounts refer to musty ale being consumed in England but closer inspection shows Americans were doing the writing, so clearly using a vocabulary from home. I am not saying the term was never used in England in the beer trade – as opposed to poetic or literary usage – but I have never seen an example.

Another seeming oddity is, the beer appears early in Cincinnati, a town famous for lager, not ale. However, this use goes back at least to 1859 when lager was (comparatively) just getting started in the U.S. Ale was the older drink and still being made in what later were the great lager cities. Here you may see an ad from August 1859 by the Anglo-Saxon-sounding J.B. Hume, for his musty ale. The beer was sold at 104 Main Street, Cincinnati at the Musty Ale House (or Cottage), a hostelry clearly kept by Hume.

From there it seems to have spread east and become associated as I said to Yankee ways and food customs.**

The Cincinnati ad implies Hume was the first to sell musty ale, and even by 1859 he had imitators to contend with. Did Hume take the idea from the line in Chaucer, or another English literary reference to moist or musty ale? Did a customer suggest it to him? He seems to have been interested to introduce more than one form of English-sounding beer, as the ad mentions his newer Withington Beer.

Musty ale is sort of like Vienna beer when Michael Jackson went to Vienna to discuss it with local brewers only to be told the style didn’t exist. Except that Vienna beer really did exist. The locals had forgotten about it (for a time). With musty ale, it seems it never did exist outside the realm of books and manuscripts in Britain, but was a New World creation albeit English-inspired.

The only other explanation is that musty ale in America had no connection to England and was a local invention to name a funky-tasting old ale. But I don’t think so. It would be too coincidental that literature records moist or musty ale in England, as e.g., in this Canterbury manuscript studied in the 19th century.

Note re images: the first image is from a 1909 book sponsored by Robert Smith Brewery of Philadelphia on the inns and taverns of the city, linked in the text above (courtesy HathiTrust). The next image is courtesy www.nypl.org, also linked above. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong solely to their owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*This and my other blogposts on musty ale were replaced for practical purposes by a lengthy, fully-referenced article I wrote now published in the U.K. journal Brewery History, see here.

**Here is an older 1847 reference to musty ale from a Vermont newspaper. I did see it earlier but thought the reference was simply poetic, akin to the literary use of the term in England. However, reading it again, I think perhaps one can conclude musty ale was a known drink in New England before 1850.  The journalist is referencing the views of political parties on the temperance question and refers to drinking being part of politicking for the pro-liquor faction. Hence his references to “champaign”, “musty ale”, “hard cider”. (What is the stuff with cloves and sweet flag? Maybe a mulled drink of some kind). But would much champagne have been drunk in Vermont then? Anyway there is some warrant to infer musty ale was rooted in New England to begin with, which makes sense in terms of the quasi-English antecedents of the drink.




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