An English Brewery Product Guide, 1850

An obscure brewery publication from 1850, The Proprietors of the Swan Brewery, etc., offers real insight on contemporary English beer styles in point of flavour (viewed as body or richness), aging, and strength, from a consumer standpoint.

This pamphlet, from Swan Brewery in Walham Green, Fulham has been examined (to our knowledge) only on a couple of occasions. Once by Alfred Barnard who printed the front page in his Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland (1891) and referred to it as a price list.

Another notice was by Rob Woolley who authored an article some years ago in issue no. 126 of Brewery History, available here.

Barnard does not address Swan Brewery’s trade designations. Woolley recounts some of the styles and prices but does not go further: his focus is elsewhere and includes brewing procedures and the impact of contemporary science (which may be summed up as, almost nil!).

The pamphlet’s descriptions for its range of beers are compelling as nothing similar exists in brewery historical literature that we are aware of. Countless Victorian advertisements contain terms such as X, XX, Pale Ale, and their prices. Brewing texts and journal articles of the era contain similar information, in more summary or fragmented form.

Swan Brewery’s promotional literature reveals early marketing skill, Crawford agency-style before its time, especially in the bucolic artwork and lyrical-poetic content. But the document was still a sales tool and includes a serial description of the beers, like a modern pocket handbook guide.

It was designed for wholesalers, public houses and hotels, and probably too home purchasers, with something extra to entertain or instruct.

The key part is the statement that each class of beers, mild, pale, black, is distinguished by a gradation of strength, body and (especially) age.

While AK, which I discussed recently, is not mentioned, XK is. Its place in the schema is a mid-point between IPA and pale ale, not just for price and strength but especially again for aging, which gives a clue to the respective character. For example, quite possibly the oldest, IPA, had the Brett tang while pale ale and XK did not, or more oxidative notes.

Perhaps Swan XK was simply a blend of the pale ale and IPA, or, all three were the result of three successive mashes blended to a set gravity for fermentation. It could have been either but clearly XK received a mid-point of aging. Perhaps the range was something like two months for pale ale, four months for XK, and 12 months plus for IPA.

The pamphlet supports the meaning of the “K” in XK and AK as keeping as it states all the pale beer range was aged, however short that was for some (in other words), or later became. Brewing history writers have suggested various alternate explanations for the K, but in my view the statement in the pamphlet that pale ale, XK, and IPA “differ only in the degree of strength and age” (my emphasis) suggests K has to mean keeping.

I should add, there was no need to refer to “keeping” in the designations for pale ale and India Pale Ale. By definition these were stored beers for much of their history and universally understood as such. But to describe the intermediate strengths, what do you say?

It’s the same thing inferentially for AK, a light bitter. Had Swan produced a AK it would have come first in the schema. (I believe, and have argued elsewhere, the A meant ale).

Of course, terminology was never statutory or otherwise precise. Hence, some breweries termed their range from weaker to stronger: AK, pale ale, IPA, or AK, AKK, Pale Ale, IPA,  EIPA, etc. The variations are on record but the important thing is that an aging progression was in place. It’s not just for strength, which can be deduced from a study of contemporary brewing records.

There are other points of interest in the pamphlet including the speculation that hop use in England is German in origin and goes well back in time, before Henry VIII.

The lyrical evocation of the Kentish commons and hop fields should form part of the English pastoral, and is a pleasure to read. What better term than “practical poetry” to describe an immersion in the English vales at harvest time?

Rob Woolley’s useful article contains an oddity to my mind in that part of the discussion revolves around the date of the publication. He concludes it was about 1850.

However, the pamphlet appears to state clearly the date of publication as you see above – 1850 in fact.

I think the answer is, Woolley states the pamphlet was “tiny”, only 3 1/2″ x 6 1/2″. The 1850 date at the bottom of the page was probably unreadable to the human eye or rubbed out in the copy he used. The volume on Google Books would have been magnified for uploading and looks in that form as a normal folio, more or less.

What happened to Swan Brewery? To make a long story short the brewery had a succession of owners in the 1800s. It was rebuilt in the 1880s near the original location by the Stansfeld investment firm which owned the share capital then. That firm later leased the brewery to the City Brewery, an old concern in the City, which needed more space.

In 1934, Ind Coope of Burton merged with Allsopp Brewery, and in ’36 the merged group bought Swan Brewery and closed it.

Note re source of images: the four images above were sourced from the 1850 publication linked from Google Books in the text. All property in the source belongs to solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



8 thoughts on “An English Brewery Product Guide, 1850”

  1. Reading the full thing, what caught my eye was the hops “begin to show their maturity by the gradual change of colour from a fine straw to a golden hue”; they were considered “not quite ripe” when green, but were “in perfection” when light yellow-brown.

    This sounds like allowing them to dry naturally on the bine, and picking much, much later than would happen now. I’d always read the high hopping rates of the 19th century thinking “those hops wouldn’t have been in great nick compared to modern vacuum-packed ones”, but it’s interesting to have it confirmed.

    It would be interesting to see how an analysis of hops picked that late would compare with modern hops.

  2. And then there’s the fun of marrying up beers brewed (brewing ledger entries) and the beers sold ; ie blending of gyles to produce more product lines than actually brewed !! ; Peter Walker & Sons ( Warrington and Burton) Ltd were absolute masters of this ! ( one of many I suspect)

    • Oh yes, it’s a complex area and can never be reduced to a formula that will explain every ad, every record, it’s more general patterns that emerge.

  3. Possibly regional and a combination of owners tastes and advertising? .
    The only brewery I know of in the north west (England) that has a clearly labelled AK in the brewing book is Boddington’s , and that’s only in the 1901-1903 book ! , although Robinson’s of Stockport were selling an AK Bitter Ale pre Great War .

  4. I’d plump for the XK being the Swan Brewery’s version of an AK , a relatively low gravity ( for the period ) bitter beer ; as not all breweries used AK as a description of class of product .

    • Edd thanks, usually AK was before pale ale in the listings, with XK after pale. Or putting it a different way, Swan’s pale ale might have been another’s AK. There was also sometimes KA, just K, linguistic variations but it’s for a progression of strength and age is the main thing IMO.

  5. As to the X in XK, it had to mean either extra keeping, or simply X in the sense of stronger. The A in AK meant ale, as in ale for keeping or keeping ale.

    Why not state AXK? I don’t know, maybe some ads did, but there is no other explanation as persuasive, IMO.


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