From Madeira to Mild Stout


One of the more curious corners of 19th century medicine was a seeming preoccupation with beverage alcohol. Throughout the century, articles appeared in both U.K. and North American professional journals analyzing drinks of various kinds.

Sometimes the professed object was to ascertain sugars and other constituents apart the alcohol and water, as in the case herein. Sometimes a concern for adulteration was evinced. Sometimes an alleged therapeutic function was assessed.

Medicine never really shed its regard for alcohol as therapeutic in some way until the 1930s, by which time it had been removed from the Pharmocopoeia.

I’ve looked at a number of these studies over the years and read analyses by other writers on beer history, here is one I did a short while back, looking at a Lancet survey.

The table above, one I haven’t seen before, is from a London doctor’s report, Henry Bence Jones. It appeared in an August issue of The Medical Times and Gazette, Vol. 9, 1854. Below Bence Jones is pictured.

It is of interest on a number of accounts. First, wines, beers, ciders, and spirits are included, grouped together so one can quickly ascertain and compare alcohol and other indices. The alcohol numbers are evidently by volume percentage here.

One thing that strikes is that the range, say, for fortified wines is fairly similar today at least the average. It’s around 20% by volume (with some marked variances again) – pretty much the norm today for port and sherry.

For dry wines, the numbers are rather lower than modern yields, no doubt a function of the era’s fruit, yeasts, and viticulture. Look at the classified estates in France, say. Champagne is higher than today by a couple of points: no doubt due to addition of brandy.

The cider numbers, with an interesting comparison of sweet and dry types, seem quite similar to today’s.

In the beer area, the pale ales are of note as exhibiting probably the higher end of the average gravity of that time, yet with one strong pale ale specimen at an impressive 11% abv. It may have been Thomas Salt’s pale ale, which showed up in similar territory in the Lancet analysis mentioned above.*

This, with yet other evidence I’ve discussed before, is further evidence that a small class of unusually strong East India Pale Ales existed in the 1800s and Hodgson’s Pale Ale, the ur-IPA, is quite possibly their ancestor.

The beer samples suggest to me little tampering due to their strength. Some are indicated as bottled, so at least some of those not so labelled were probably draft.

The Arctic Ale was the first of a special series sent on polar expedition by Allsopp’s of Burton on Trent in the 1800s. Its strength is an impressive 12% abv, a Burton ale of the old type that has been tasted by a number of modern beer researchers as some bottles survive from the 19th century.

This the first analysis I can recall seeing of the first Allsopp’s Arctic Ale and it appears the strongest of the group issued. Alfred Barnard reported a c. 9% abw sample later issued but the first one evidently was stronger. See pp. 151-152, here.

The initials preceding some beer names are not easy to decipher. “P” for one pale ale is probably Prestopans, a beer regularly canvassed in similar analyses of the 1800s.

All in all a pithy but impactful group,  reflecting an enviable international range to those with a deep enough purse. The chart has a West End flavour, and I have no idea without checking where St. George’s was or is! That is, I’d guess the selections suggest the type of products indulged in by the good doctor and his friends. Perhaps an occasion to test, for whomever paid (perhaps the journal), bottles typically appearing on their evening sideboards.


* See also at p. 341 travel writer Daniel J. Kirwan’s comment on Salt Pale Ale in his book on London, here. 





4 thoughts on “From Madeira to Mild Stout”

  1. I can’t recall seeing any Canadian examples, beer was just getting started again in that period in Ontario for example.


  2. Hi Gary,
    By 1935 ;
    Allsopp’s Arctic Ale (aaNo1)
    Had dropped to 1.084° , 84 IBU and around 7.25% (Draught) , The bottled version was at the same O.G & IBU but the abv increased to 7.75-8% .
    The Jubilee Ale from 1935 is an absolute monster , and I’d say that it was the original Arctic Ale {Jubilee Ale , Brew No 4/318 Tuesday 2Nd April 1935 : OG @ 1.141° , F.G @1.029° , 108 IBU and, a whopping 13.75% abv !!}
    I’ve not seen any earlier records from Allsopp , (that ledger is from the year after the ‘rescue’ of Allsopp’s by Ind Coope in 1934 )

    • Edd that’s great, many thanks. There is lore about the great strength some strong ale once reached; that Jubilee is certainly an example albeit popping up when you would least expect it (Depression, after general gravities had fallen, etc.).


      • Hi Gary ,
        The Jubilee Ale was a special for the Silver Jubilee of George V in 1935 , quite a few breweries over here in the UK did one ; maybe not at that strength though !!, not to sure if any breweries in the Commonwealth did any ?

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