Flame War in “The Sun” Over Musty Ale

Between September 29 and October 6, 1911, a brief but intense readers’ exchange occurred in The Sun in New York concerning musty ale. A (satisfyingly named) “G.G.” on the first date replies to an inquiry from Harold Dobbler of Staten Island, NY. Dobbler asked, as I have 105 years later, what is musty ale, and whence its name? I can’t locate that earlier inquiry, but Dobbler pops up – twice – after G.G.’s response.

G.G. sets forth that Jimmy Hartigan’s on Thames Street in New York sold a real musty ale. He offers a description, that it was creamy, and – wait for it – imported from Ireland and black. G.G. recalled longingly the lingering savour, which sounds for all the world like a rich stout.

This is the first reference I’ve read of a connection to Ireland. I’ve referred earlier to the contemporary Irish practice of adding “heading”, or partially-fermented wort, to a blend of new and old stout. It imparted the creamy head and soft carbonation (today nitrogen gas does the trick). I suggested perhaps an Irishman brought the idea to Liverpool where a number of musty ale pubs existed in the 1800s, and thence to America.

While it would be going too far to suggest musty ale was Irish-style porter, the idea that an Irish form of conditioning was at the bottom of musty is not so far-fetched. As I argued earlier, musty ale likely was a conditioning method and (often) the blending of fresh and mature elements, rather than a type of beer as such.

Ironically perhaps, Jimmy Hartigan’s stout had little or no heading in it. Heading was not suitable for exported stout, it would cause the beer to “fret”. See brewing author Frank Faulkner on all this whom I cited earlier. Still, an Irish technique might have been at the origin of musty ale, and perhaps even the unusual name although no Irish source for the name is documented to my knowledge.

To read G.G.’s letter and the replies see the last series of images in this link, G.G.’s is first on the left. Then skip to the last two in that line. Next, turn the page and read James Dewell, Jr.’s letter (October 6).

Dobbler, when re-entering the fray, expresses disappointment no Sun reader really answered his question. He leaves readers with a doggerel poem, “Ode To Musty Ale”.

Here are the last lines:

They drink and love you, musty ale, but de’ll [sic]*a one can tell,

Where you in blazes first did get your name,

What caused you to be “musty” though you look clear as a bell

Well, musty, here is to you just the same.

On October 6, James Dewell, Jr., of New Haven, Conn., wrote in to laud the musty ale of Mory’s Inn in his town, in suitably poetic mode. Mory’s was an old Yalie retreat. In fact, I was delighted to learn it still is.

Per James Dewell, Jr.:

“What is musty ale”? Ah, as you sit supping a mug of musty on an autumn afternoon in the corner of the fireplace with Louis Linder in his gemutlich old Mory’s inn watching the dying day cast her golden shadows through the little window panes, it is music, poetry, art!

Hank, G.G., James, if you have been reading from on high, I’ve tried my darndest to get at the mystery of musty. I think I’ve come close, too. But at the end of the day, especially one limned as nicely as you did, James, I’ll concede your summary, for its higher truth.


*This may be an oblique invitation to his friend Dewell to weigh in. Dewell was a young town lawyer in New Haven, see here. However, the reference may have been a jeu de mots, playing on duel.

2 thoughts on “Flame War in “The Sun” Over Musty Ale”

  1. Hi Gary
    Another fascinating post on one of those forgotten aspects of North American brewing history. Your detective work is admirable and appreciated.

    A couple of linguistic points:

    1. “De’ll as a reference to Dewell sounds plausible, but I suspect it is also a contraction of “devil” “De’il” rhyming with “deal” is still the common Scots pronunciation and would be known to many Irish Americans. Referring to the devil was acceptable at a time when “hell” was considered too profane for print.

    2. Is it possible “musty” was synonymous with “stale” at a time before both words developed their negative connotations? Nowadays, we would describe blending fresh and aged beer to avoid the suggestion that our product was past its “best before” date.

    • Thanks Doug, and good to hear from you, I hope all is well.

      I hope you have been following the musty series this month as this is the 7th post or so on it.

      Good point about devil, I did think about it, but the two l’s inclined me away and I thought he was using a nom de plume to pun with “duel”. However, I checked and James Dewell, Jr. did exist and was the right age and lived in the right place to write that letter. I later altered my asterisked note to show his bio details. Therefore, it is not a nom de plume, and while it can still be a joke on duel, I think you may be right again (unless a triple pun, but that’s pushing it for this piece of doggerel!).

      Musty and stale early on indeed did not have negative connotations and in fact musty meant the opposite (strangely) of what it meant later: fresh and new. I think this meaning is the one meant for musty ale because the musty part is (I think) the addition of heading, or new ale, or (later) young active lager (krausen) to freshen up and enliven a still or possibly tart beer.

      Somehow the term ended being used in America in the late 1800s in its early, Chaucerian sense. How could this be? Maybe something the Irish preserved that went to Liverpool and later America. Or maybe America had it from the Mayflower.


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