“A.K.” in English Beer History – Another Look

The question of what “AK”, or “A.K.” meant in 19th century British, mainly English, beer ads has vexed beer writers for years. Martyn Cornell in 2014 reviewed the question.

Ron Pattinson has written often on AK and related brews. By my gleaning he considers the K to mean keeping while noting that storage times had been greatly reduced for running bitter in the latter 1800s.

See for example his post last year citing Victorian brewing writer Edward Moritz on much-reduced storage times c. 1899, yet still longer than for mild ale (two to four weeks before delivery vs. four to 10 days).

Boak and Bailey have documented the first known usage of the term AK, in 1846. After about 1850, AK as a beer type proliferates through to World War I, and has never completely disappeared.

It is pretty clear AK was a light bitter beer – a pale ale but on the milder side of the spectrum for alcohol and hops – and price. In the 20th century some brewers and brewing writers considered it a mild ale. This however is explained by changes in beer history, including a large gravity drop, and technology over time.

In 2016, I wrote a post documenting my finding of some years earlier, c. 2010.*  Namely, in 1870 a party using the pen name “Aroma” wrote that AK meant “keeping ale”. Judging by the totality of his remarks he was a brewer, or at least someone closely connected to brewing operations.

He was responding to a reader’s inquiry how to brew bitter beer in the journal English Mechanic and World of Science.

There is good reader discussion in comments to some of these sources, see especially under Martyn’s 2014 post. I mentioned the Aroma statement there and raised other considerations, with other reader commentary relevant as well.

The Aroma statement remains to my knowledge, the oldest contemporary, direct evidence what the term meant.

This is not the place to consider the intricacies of British beer terminology then. Martyn reviews it well, and those new to this topic should read his post as a good introduction. It is titled a “second” look because he expressed opinion on AK history earlier including in his books.

For my purposes here, it suffices to note the part of his post that pointed out difficulties with a “keeping” notion for AK. He stated:

… the K in KKK, and KKKK, and XXXK, and the other strong beers with K in their name, stands for “keeping” – there can be little doubt about that. But the K in AK and KK? K-for-keeping doesn’t seem to apply here, because they weren’t keeping beers. And what about the K Mild, ten pence a gallon, sold by Lucas, Ledbetter and Bird of High Wycombe in 1894, and the K Mild Ale sold by the Heavitree Brewery of Exeter in 1895 for 1s 2d a gallon? Or the K Light Ale Collier Brothers of Walthamstow were selling for ten pence a gallon in 1890, and the K Tonic Ale A Gordon & Go of Caledonian Road, Islington sold for the same sum in 1889? Cleary K doesn’t stand for “keeping” here. Again in 1889, Lewis & Ridley of Leamington seemed to be using “K” as equal to half an X, with XXXK mild ale following XXXX strong ale, then XXX mild ale, XXK mild ale, XX mild and and X mild ale. Again, these were milds, not keeping beers. Henry Lovibond & Son of the Cannon brewery, Lillie Road, Fulham actually called its shilling-a-gallon AK “mild bitter” in 1885.

Despite Aroma’s statement, these thoughts are pertinent, and caused me to think further at this time: could only a few weeks (at most) between storing mild ale and light bitter ale really still qualify light bitter or pale beer as “keeping”?

Especially considering the variety of practice in breweries, and the vagaries of the demand cycle, some beer in either class probably went out earlier or later than even Moritz stated. After all, too, he was generalizing.

So looking further, I found two things that, in the final result, did in my view reinforce the notion of AK as a keeping beer.

First, Rayment’s brewery in the 1890s specifically advertised its AK Bitter as a keeping ale. Martyn’s 2014 post stated that Rayment’s took the view its AK was a keeping ale, but did not state further particulars.

A review of the British Newspaper Archive reveals an 1891 ad by a dealer in beer, Lincoln & Son in Cambridge. He advertised the following beers from “Rayment & Co., Furneaux Pelham, Hertfordshire” (Cambridge Journal and Chronicle, June 5):

A.K. (Keeping Ale) per Cask…

I.A. (India Ale) per Cask…

Next to each is a statement of prices, by size of cask. On May 27,1898 Lincoln & Son is still advertising the two Rayment beers by these descriptive terms, this time in the Cambridge Independent Press.

There are other, similar Rayment ads over this period. Hence, starting at least in 1891 Rayment’s took the same view as Aroma 21 years earlier.

Conceivably Rayment’s and Aroma could have gotten it wrong – conceivable, but not likely when you look at the whole picture, so now to my second point.

Reviewing dozens further of brewers’ ads in BNA in the latter 1800s, when AK was at an ascendancy, it appears “keeping” had a specific sense in the market.

The term did not – in trade ads to the public – denote conditioning of beer at the brewery. Rather, it referred to how long the beer would last in consumer hands and specifically, whether in summer.

Often, the ads tout March or April brewings as having the necessary quality. Further, while typically this quality was associated with pale ales, even mild ales sometimes were described as keepable.

Illustrative examples follow. On March 1, 1890 in the Witney Gazette and West Oxfordshire  Advertiser, Hunt Edmunds & Co. advertised their “Celebrated A.K. and other Banbury Ales”, and added for the A.K:

Noted for its great Purity, Brilliancy and Tonic qualities. Recommended as a good bitter beer for family use. Season brewed and guaranteed to keep.

This ad is headed “October Brewings”. Sometimes advertisements meant for start of a season were carried into the next, out of habit or perhaps to save cost of updating.

Here, probably, October-brewed A.K. was still being sold – and considered sound – before brewings in March.

On May 3, 1894 in the Banbury Guardian, “Dunnell & Sons, The Old Brewery, Banbury”, advertised “A.K. Light Bitter” and “P.A. Pale Ale”, at so much per gallon. Dunnell added the beers were:

… thoroughly recommended to keep sound and bright during the summer months.

February 2, 1876, in Eastbourne Gazette, a dealer lists bitter, light, and India Pale ales, also porter, and single and double stout. Then it states:

The March Brewings are guaranteed to keep through the summer, and the Autumn Brewings until the following Spring.

In this particular ad no mild ale is mentioned. So again, keeping meant through the season and especially summer, when brewing and therefore beer stability were more chancy, even for pale ale brewing.

In Witney Express and Oxfordshire and Midland Counties Herald, April 21, 1887 “Blanket Hall Brewery, Witney” advertised:

Pale and Mild Ales. Now in fine condition, and warranted to remain sound on draught during the Summer months.

While the term “keep” is not used, the same sense evidently is meant, and was applied to mild ales, not just pale beers. I found other ads where mild ales were signaled as keepable over the summer.

May 27, 1876 in Monmouthshire Beacon, Monmouth Steam Brewery included their “Mild Ales” with pale ale, Burton ale, porter, and stout as beers with (the same) “keeping qualities”. Evidently some were brewed in the brewing season just past.

If the readers had any doubt, the brewery added all these beers were:

… guaranteed to keep sound and bright.

On April 26, 1888 in Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, a brewer in Wooton Bassett seeking a position bruited his:

… thorough practical and scientific knowledge of brewing able to turn out high-classed pale and mild keeping ales.

I can multiply examples,** but we can see that in a retail setting “keeping” connoted sound for a season, particularly over summer. Even lighter bitter beers, due to their hopping but also being brewed just ahead of the warm season, were keeping in this sense, whatever storage they were given before sent out to the trade.

Therefore, this adds to the plausibility “A.K.” meant ale for keeping, or keeping ale.

The two notions of keeping, pre- and post-delivery, are not unrelated, of course, but it is useful to stress this other sense in the present context.

*This blog did not commence until summer of 2015.

**I mention one more in the Comments, where keeping in summer was guaranteed without distinction as to beers advertised. There were five qualities each of mild, pale and strong ale.





14 thoughts on ““A.K.” in English Beer History – Another Look”

  1. Fascinating stuff!

    Last month I brewed an AK using a recipe found on line. It came out very tasty, with a flavour resembling a modern English blond ale. I used pale malt, Munich malt and invert sugar plus Sussex hops, which provide earthy, herbal and floral notes.
    Cheers, Nigel

  2. Ron Pattinson on Twitter raised a comment about “KA” being inconsistent with what I argue above. I’ll give an example where I interpret it differently. Once again though, as I stated in the text, I don’t argue for any grand theory on what these abbreviations or symbols mean. There can be inconsistencies in usage with me, and Rayment’s in 1891 and Aroma in 1870, still being right.

    I do argue, that is, that generally AK meant keeping ale, or ale for keeping. In the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser, Sept. 4, 1886, both K.A. and A.K. are advertised, among other beers. The K.A. fetched a lower price. Quote marks indicate each is a bitter ale. I think K.A. meant keeping ale, and A.K. same thing, or ale for keeping. I think that’s just what the brewery decided to do to differentiate between two low gravity bitter ales. In the same ad, there is a XX.M., also a XX.K., and stronger beers similarly termed. I think the M there means mild, the K keeping or old ale.

    I have made my case as clearly as I can, and it has found favour evidently with some, and not (or more doubtfully so) with others. Reasonable people can disagree, or in part, on the evidence.

    • I don’t think total consistency is possible, as stated in the piece, just broad patterns.

      But AKK by one ad I saw was priced higher than AK in same ad, so likely stronger, plus more hops, hence more keeping quality (longer).

      XK too in regard to AK, so where ascending from AK to XK to IPA (or pale ale and similar). Where a K used with old ales, a keeping quality again.

  3. See also the recent tweet by UK beer sommelier Nigel Sadler, and my response. He posted an extract from an 1870s manual by William Loftus, that (imo) reflects the distinction I draw in this post re pre- and post-purchase keeping of beer.

  4. One more point, which I think results from my analysis, but I’ll make it express: for some of the problematic cases cited by Martyn I think K means keeping. K Mild would qualify, and K Light Ale. The case for Lewis & Ridley is more difficult. Their designations that include K may have meant mild beers with more keeping quality than those which did not, more hopped in other words.

    It must be said too it is not possible to find total consistency among the brewers, one of the further points I made to his 2014 post. “X” is sometimes used to designate pale beers, e.g. in the Eagle Brewery ad I just mentioned. But certain patterns are detectable.

  5. I’ll add one more example to my post, on April 30, 1887 in the Boston Guardian. The Eagle Brewery in Boston of Thomas, Wells, Thorpe advertised mild, pale, and strong ales, with five different qualities of each shown. The pales are described as “hop’d down”, which the milds evidently were not.

    The beers by a blanket statement were “guaranteed to keep during summer months”. No distinction is drawn between mild ales and others for this purpose, or between stronger and weaker milds.

  6. And of course McMullens has now (actually a couple of years ago already – Covid has scuppered all time relevances!) re-re-branded AK as a dark mild

  7. Gary,
    Another memory stirred up by this post. I first noticed the AK designation (I believe an ad for McMullen’s) in a Michael Jackson book. In ’76 in London I ran across a McMullen billboard that said that “You don’t have to live in the sticks to get beer from the wood”. English McMullen still has a mild cask AK that they say is Alive and Kicking (https://www.mcmullens.co.uk/our-beers/mcmullen-ak). I doubt that the casks still wooden.

    • A noted AK indeed and still brewed as you note. A true survivor of another era, although I suspect its grist was different in the 19th century.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: