AK was and is a light bitter style, sometimes confused with being a mild ale but generally accepted now as a lower gravity version of the pale ale family (around 1045-1055 OG). The 1800s was its heyday but some is still made. I recreated a 1870 recipe with Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto earlier this year.
The initials AK, or A.K., have been a puzzle. I’ve uncovered the only contemporary explanation so far to appear, that it means keeping ale, as discussed last year in this post.
The first appearance of AK appears to be in 1846 from Ind Coope as beer writers Boak and Bailey have discovered. See this 2014 article of beer writer Martyn Cornell where he mentions their find and gives other thoughts on A.K. origin.
The 1840s is the time the events summarized below occurred, from an account on the London brewer Fuller’s website:
In 1839, John Fuller died and passed control to his son, John Bird Fuller. The younger Fuller moved quickly to make his mark, and by 1845 he’d severed ties with the Thompsons to take the reins by himself.
He sought investment and expertise from third parties though, and John Smith – already helping to run a successful brewery elsewhere – was invited aboard. He invested on behalf of his son, Henry Smith, and his son-in-law, John Turner.
So it was that Fuller, Smith & Turner came into being.
A new era
Smith and Turner brought with them a welcome bonus: an extensive list of private customers for whom the brewery went on to make a special kind of beer. It was known as HK (hopped and keepable) and a milder version went into production too.
Until that point, the brewery had brewed only ‘ale’ and ‘hock’. Even porter, which had been popular since the mid-1700s, wasn’t adopted at Griffin Brewery until the 1840s.
I cannot recall reading any discussion of HK by beer historians, or finding evidence it existed myself, versus the designations AK, XK, K, KA, AKK, etc. If anyone has found a brewery ad for HK or offered a discussion on same I invite comment, certainly.
I’m starting to think there is a connection between A.K., H.K., and modern hock ale. Fuller is famous in beer circles for its arched brick Hock Cellar.
Hock traditionally has been explained as a country ale connected to the harvest, perhaps deriving from hoch in German. It means high, for holiday or other festivity. See e.g. here, Charles H. Cook (aka John Bickerdyke) writing in 1889 in Curiosities of Ale and Beer.*
At pg. 256 he discusses “horkey-beer”, and likens horkey to hoch, so while he does not use the term hock ale specifically, he is linking hock ale to the hock festival tradition. Numerous other sources are to similar effect. (The addition of the “r” in this fashion is common in some English speech. “I sawr the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade…”).
But if it’s true that H.K. meant “hopped and keepable” – and Fuller should know – this provides a clue to what its hock ale meant. Try to pronounce H.K. as a word – it sounds like hock doesn’t it?
Especially unlettered people might make that inference, workers at a brewery or drinkers (not the founders of Fuller, whose business dates from the 1820s. They have gentry origin).
Think further, about h-dropping in many English dialects (from Wikipedia):
H-dropping occurs (variably) in most of the dialects of the English language in England and Welsh English, including Cockney, West Country English, West Midlands English (including Brummie), most of northern England(including Yorkshire and Lancashire), and Cardiff English. It is not generally found in Scottish English. It is also typically absent in certain regions of England, including Northumberland and East Anglia, although it is frequent in the city of Norwich.
Fuller is in Chiswick, an area between Heathrow and London that seems propitious for one of the H-dropping areas, or let’s assume it was.
If you pronounced H.K. in this fashion, you might render it, because it sounds, as A.K. I think it may well be that these three terms have a common origin and the country harvest drink hock ale, which is documented as much older, is not connected.
It’s true that brewing onsite preceded the entry of the first John Fuller into the business, by some 300 years in fact. The term hock cellar may have been used by a previous owner(s) and been continued by the Fullers, but so too might have been the designation H.K.
After all, why would you need a hock cellar for an evanescent (harvest) drink? Harvest ales were low-gravity beers meant to refresh and be taken in quantity. Would you build all that for a business lasting a month or so?
You cellar hopped beer, to keep it for sale through a much larger part of the year. The St. Pancras cellars were used to store Burton pale ale, for example.
This idea of keepable too answers an interrogation made by some, including Martyn Cornell, that a keeping ale sits ill with A.K. since the style wasn’t stored really, it was sent out fairly soon after fermentation.
There is evidence it was stored longer than mild ale, but not much longer, nothing like the traditional storage associated with India pale ale as Cornell documented in his early writings, the stock or October tradition of IPA (his great contribution to beer scholarship IMO).
But hark: if something is keepable, that implies it can be kept for some months, but can also be appreciated rather new. This is exactly what A.K. is, a bitter ale drunk fairly new but that can last longer if wanted. The nuance of keepable vs. keeping changes the whole picture, arguably.
I know from my own experience AK can last a good while. I have two cans left of Amsterdam AK, brewed about seven months ago, and they drink great. They are in the fridge but were stored for about half the time in our hot spring and summer at room temperature in the room I write. The beer is not pasteurized, just centrifuged.
Finally, if H.K. and A.K. have the same origin, the 1870 explanation that A.K. means keeping ale is proven, via the variant keepable. The fact that Fuller made a mild version of its H.K. may explain too why at times A.K. has been typed as a mild ale.
Note re image: The image of the griffin pictured is from this site and believed in the public domain. By Johann Vogel, 1649.
*N.B. Another line of origin for hock ale is represented by a few early-1800s recipes under this name, such as here. It is termed there a white porter, and made like porter except no dark malts. So a kind of pale ale, hence apt for cellaring (vs. a weak harvest ale). But again: whence the name? If Fuller made white porter/pale ale early 1800s, did an acronym result from hopped and keepable, or simply how H.K. sounded as a word? Hock in the sense of strong beer goes back at least to 1771, see this dictionary source. I incline that prosaic trade terms did inspire a more fanciful, erratically used term, hock.
Alternatively, maybe white porter was viewed as akin to hock (white) wine while regular porter, to red. If that is true, then, as in the case where hock ale might have the old festive origin, HK and even AK may be derivations that only retrospectively seem related to the keepable/keeping notion. However, I doubt the wine sense is behind the hock name for beer, the markets for beer and wine seem too separate due to class and price. And, as noted above and in the Comments, a distant festive origin for Fuller’s hock seems increasingly unlikely to me as well. Looking at it the other way, that the name hock derives from HK, with AK being a variant, seems more likely. This is in tune also with how the term K is used in the beer designations mentioned such as K, AKK, XK where it generally notes an ascending of strength and quality related to greater keeping.