Maxim Ale Before World War I

The Guns of Sunderland

Having examined Vaux Stout in 1898 and illuminated both the alcohol content and final gravity, what about Double Maxim Ale, the fame (as it proved to be) of Vaux Breweries of Sunderland until cessation of brewing in 1999?

The label did continue of course, under aegis of a management group that from 2000 had the beer made under license and, from 2007, in their own brewery, Maxim Brewery at Houghton le Spring (about seven miles south-west of Sunderland).

The origins have often been recounted: Maxim ale emerged in 1901 to honour the contribution in the Boer War of the Maxim Gun Detachment led by Major Ernest Vaux, a grandson of Vaux’s founder Cuthbert Vaux.

Wikipedia on Ernest Vaux:

Vaux was a Major in the Durham RGA (V) when he volunteered for service with the Imperial Yeomanry during the Second Boer War. He was appointed Machine Gun Commander, with the temporary rank of Lieutenant in the Army from 3 February 1900, the day after he left Liverpool for South Africa on the SS Monteagle. He served in the 5th Battalion, where commanded the Maxim guns and took part in over 80 operations in the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony and the Cape Colony. He was mentioned in despatches 7 times, received the Queen’s South Africa Medal with four clasps, and was appointed a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in November 1901. In 1903, he received the Volunteer Officers’ Decoration.

Not long after its release the beer was deemed too strong, with pub landlords arguing they could sell more at a lower strength. I have not been able to trace the source of this story, but it has been in currency for decades.

The strength was reduced, and the brand, with label adorned by image of said gun, went on through the generations, with a renaming to Double Maxim in 1938. That occurred when the beer was hiked in strength.

The strength had fallen in the interwar years in common with many other UK brews, the result of taxation and changing social conditions.

Before World War One

My interest is, what were the first two versions of the beer like, their characteristics? This area has not been canvassed by other beer writers, not that I found.

Looking into it, I found a fairly detailed description of the beer in The Lancet of January 2, 1904, Vol. 1. It reads (via Hathitrust, at 33-34) as follows:

Maxim Ale

(C. Vaux and Sons, The Brewery, Sunderland)

The analysis of this beer was as follows: alcohol, by weight, 4.62 per cent., by volume, 5.78 per cent., equal to proof spirits 10.13 per cent.; extractives, 5.01 per cent.; mineral matter, 0.22 per cent.; and sugar malt, 1.99 per cent. The beer was in sound condition and contained only a minimum of acidity.  It appears to come midway between stout and light ale. The beer is somewhat “dry” to the taste owing probably to the relatively small amount of sugar which it contains; the deficiency is made up by a notable proportion of dextrin. The colour of the beer resembles that of brown Munich beer. As it is only mildly bittered this beer would be more dietetically suitable for some individuals than heavy stout or ale.





This timing is significant as the beer likely had just been released to market. There are numerous ads for it in the northern press in December 1903, leading up to Christmas.

E.g. Hull Daily Mail, December 21, 1903, a dealer in Hull lists Maxim Ale, Pale Ale, and Stout from Vaux among other beers.

In the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, December 8, 1903, an article remarks on a “Maxim ale stand” at the Trades Exhibition held at the Drill Hall.

Rowdies tried to wreck a few stands at end of the fair, without success in this case, but the existence of the stand suggests, or quite possibly, a new product being released.

I could not find ads for it prior to that month although the beer may have been marketed earlier. I will call this Maxim Ale Mark II, as it was not the first.

Interpreting The Lancet’s Data

The numbers in The Lancet by my calculation translate to 1020 FG, OG 1064, apparent attenuation of 68%. Despite not being a high attenuation, The Lancet analyst found the beer on the dry side, which tells us something of beer taste at the time, particularly as the beer was not greatly hopped.*

We are told further the beer resembled in hue a brown Munich beer, and Double Maxim even today resembles some examples of Munich or Bavarian dark lager, a deep brown that is. We are told yet more: the beer struck the analyst as mid-way between a stout and light ale. I think this meant for strength but likely palate also.

The analyst seemed flummoxed by the style here, which accords with the view of some modern writers that brown ale was a 20th century innovation. See Martyn Cornell’s blog article in 2011 where he argues there is no such thing as “English brown ale”, taken as a discrete style, that is.



A December 21, 1912 ad (above) in North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough), so for Mark II, termed the beer a “speciality in brewing”. This seems to buttress its one-off character (via British Newspaper Archive as all press references herein).

Mark II vs. Double Maxim of 1938

Before I get to Mark I, how does the 1903-1904 Maxim Ale compare to the 1938 one, when the strength was increased and the beer renamed Double Maxim?**

In Beer Advocate in October 2011 Ron Pattinson included a table stating, among other information, that 1938 Double Maxim was 5.73% abv, 1009.3 FG, 1053.2 OG, with 82.52% attenuation.

For 1929, he shows Maxim Ale at 3.89% abv, 75% attenuation. This data is I believe from the Whitbread Gravity Book, a comprehensive listing over time of British and some other beer strengths and gravities.

So, we see the alcohol indeed for practical purposes was reset in 1938 to that of Mark II in 1903-1904. But the other numbers are different. The 1938 beer was clearly drier in taste, as 82.52% is characteristic of some very well-attenuated pale ale historically.

The same alcohol was drawn from a smaller quantity of malt, in other words.  Today, Double Maxim is, per the Maxim Brewery website, 4.7% abv, while a stronger ale, Maximus, is 6%, essentially the level for Mark II in 1903-1904 and Double Maxim in 1938.

The First Maxim Ale

A Mark I did exist because it is referred to in a long article in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette of July 3, 1901, titled “The Return of Major Vaux”. It sets out a description of festivities and a dinner held to honour Major Vaux, who spoke of his valiant service and the comrades he served with.

This was one of numerous local functions held in his honour after returning to England in the spring of 1901.

He had left to fight, as we saw, in February 1900. The following lines are from the article, the Miners’ Hall was in New Herrington near Sunderland (via British News Archive):

Inside this building a company, which numbered about 300, sat down to a first-class repast. The caterer was George Davison, and everything was served in tip-top style, the meal being accompanied by Maxim ale of exceptional quality, and said to have been brewed when the Major left for South Africa.

So there we have it. The original Maxim Ale, Mark I, was (to all appearances) brewed before the Major left, not formulated and released after his return. It is a fair inference it was brewed to fête him when (and if, in effect) he returned to British soil from the foreign expedition. At any rate I have seen no evidence it was sold prior to landing in England from South Africa.

The beer evidently was made strong, as many old ales were, to mature well. This celebratory idea, of brewing something well in advance of the time to broach it, once featured also in ales brewed at an heir’s birth to be opened when reaching maturity.

The fact that Mark I Maxim Ale was a stock ale probably explains why the beer was found too strong for general market purposes. It was probably 8% abv or more.

Moreover, when the original tap was exhausted, more had to be made. Maybe more was made of the same type and still found wanting, but we know in any case a Mark II, lower-gravity Maxim Ale had emerged by Christmas of 1903.

The Gun Behind the Early Labels***

Below is an image of the machine gun designed by American-born Sir Hiram Maxim, whose name has long branded a northern English beer. The photo is by Max Smith of The Royal Artillery Museum, released to Public Domain per the source.


Note re images: source of images shown are identified and linked in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*The dextrin-maltose ratio mentioned by The Lancet suggests a good body with restrained sweetness but still, to call such a beer dry seems unusual to me. Perhaps some brewers can comment.

**Single Maxim, at lower strength, still carried on for some time, into the early 1950s according to ads in the British News Archive that show it together with Double Maxim. In Shields Daily News, June 27, 1934 Vaux advertised four beers: Maxim Ale, India Pale Ale, Dark Brown Ale, and Stout. Possibly the Dark Brown had the strength of Mark II Maxim Ale, but this is unclear, and in any case, it did not carry the Maxim name.

***The current label, as seen in the website of Maxim Brewery, does not carry an image of the gun.














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