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.