A Still Ale That Sparkles (Part I)

In 1897 a famous British brewing scientist, Horace T. Brown, visited American breweries, apparently in New York and New England (the old ale region). He wrote a long report, “On Some Recent Advances in Brewing in the United States”. It was published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, you can read it here.

Summarizing the ale types observed on the visit, he classified them as present use or lively ale (well-carbonated); still ale (not very fizzy); and stock ale:

This triptych has come to mean to beer historians, essentially two forms, carbonated and still, of what the British called running ale, and stock ale. The running beers were sent out almost as brewed for ready sale; the latter was the long-vatted type, often a little acidic from the long rest in wood.

India Pale Ale was not mentioned by Brown but would have been the stock type, as confirmed by contemporary trade ads, e.g. of Evans Brewery in Hudson, NY, but also many others, as I’ve referenced earlier.

It’s a reasonable interpretation on the face of it, since the U.S. stock ale clearly meant long aged, upwards of a year as Brown stated, and hence the other two terms must have meant running ale even though grammatically Brown seems to exclude the still ale from its ambit. As well, today almost all cask ale is the running type, so this fits into the idea of still ale as similar. (The American stock ale, IPA or other, was by my reading typically aged in large vats versus 31 gallon ale casks, but that is neither here nor there, Brown was using a shorthand clearly and we know what he meant).

Wahl & Henius in their landmark 1902 American Handy-book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades have a slightly different scheme: present use aka cream ale; brilliant ale; and stock ale.  See p. 851. The first two are clearly running though, and stock is clearly stock, so presumably the authors left out the still form as it was going out; indeed Brown seems to imply that when he writes “until recently…” and notes that almost all present use beer was the lively, high-carbonated type.

Wahl & Henius are useful in making clear that present use condition was often achieved by kräusening the ale – with lager wort – or by not doing that and simply carbonating the ale after a short period of standing. The latter was the brilliant variation, the former, still somewhat turbid from all that fermenting lager wort added.

I’d like now to suggest that the understanding of still ale in this way is at best a simplification, and quite possibly an erroneous take on what still ale meant to the brewers circa-1900.

The reason results, in part, from an interesting press account of the dismantling of obviously large wood vats in the cellar of an ale brewery, the T. Briggs Brewery in Elmira, NY, a town in south-west New York State near the Finger Lake country. It appeared in 1912 in the Elmira Star-Gazette, see here.

15,000 gallons of ale was held in the “great” wood tanks, called “‘still ale’ tanks”. The reason given for the replacement was the wood imparted an undesirable taste to the beer. This perhaps arose through an uncontrollable infection, or maybe simply from the tannins of the wood, probably cypress or American oak. Similar steel and glass equipment was also in this period being installed to replace hooped wood vats used to age lager, essentially the same kind of vats Briggs had used to cellar its ale.

The wood tanks, if of equal size, held 250 gallons each about eight normal ale casks. This is a vat, tun, call it what you will, but clearly not a trade cask and must have been used for prolonged storage. Even if the aging was of different durations depending on the type of ale (India, stock, winter stock, etc.), this could not have typically held still beer for present use. Why were the tuns called still ale tuns?

One possibility is with aging time the ale became still in the wood unless at some point treated to make it carbonated or sparkling. And that could be done for example by adding sugar as priming, which Wahl & Henius advised to make a carbonated stock ale (see extract above).

And if you didn’t prime or force-carbonate, what would you have? A lightly fizzy ale, that retained some original carbonation from fermentation with perhaps some additional CO2 from any secondary fermentation in the tuns.

Brown’s still ale may have been this type, what he called equal to the most fizzy beer in England, the most fizzy cask-conditioned ale, that is. Note too Brown states the still ale was more attenuated than present use, which might suggest a period of aging beyond present use, a few months, say.

My second reason for thinking in this vein is this ad in 1933 by Quandt, a revived early post-Pro ale brewer in Troy, NY, in the Cohoes American in Cohoes, NY:

Now, how can a still ale be “sparkling”? I refer to my comments earlier above.

Finally, this ad was one of many in the early 1900s from Bartels Brewing Co. in Syracuse, NY, vaunting its impressive top-fermentation range as well as different lagers. It appeared in 1901 in the Daily Sentinel in Rome, NY. Many similar ads from Bartels appeared in the first decade of the 1900s. There are two types of still ale: export and brilliant. It’s a rare type, going out by all accounts, but Bartels finds room to market two. Why?

At least one, but maybe both, were likely stored in a 250 gallon “still ale tank” a la Briggs. Perhaps the export was the long-aged one, in effect a higher-gravity stock ale, but not carbonated when sent out. Note that Bartels does not use the term stock ale in its adverts, stock porter yes, I.P.A. yes, but not stock ale. Perhaps it called its stock ale still ale. The brilliant one was likely carbonated in my view and either young or old.


For Part II of this essay, see here.