Tasting Musty Ale in ’91

That’s 1991, not 1891.

It is against the odds that a decent taste note was written on a defunct Victorian beer type, let alone as late as 1991, but it happened. It was authored, appropriately, by a Briton, given the English origins (in etymology, possibly brewing history) of the beer.

The writer was on a working visit to Washington, D.C. He or she was dining in Harvey’s Restaurant, a Washington institution started in 1858 which had a long run as a high-end resort of the powerful and famous. Unfortunately, it went out of business not long after the report was written.

The record is preserved in a February, 1991 issue of New Scientist magazine. The article is by “Ariadne” and can be read online at the website of New Scientist, here. An extract:


On a trip to Washington DC I was taken to a famous restaurant. It specialised in fish, I think but such was the insistence on hygiene that the prawns tasted strongly of chlorine and not much else. One of the place’s attractions was that it served what it called ‘musty ale’. This turned out to be a thin drink resembling a watered-down English mild. Having said that, and in an effort to ward off the inevitable letters from the US accusing me of being anti-American, I should state that I have memories of splendid meals in the US, including one at a restaurant in which it was Christmas every day of the year.


The writer was let down, but that’s not the first time a beer was tasted with anticipation only to come away disappointed.

How extraordinary that musty ale lasted that long. A couple of restaurants, chophouses and fish houses of the old style, kept it going decades after WW II, but Harvey’s appears to be the last.

Harvey’s history is well-described by John DeFerrari in his (2013) Historic Restaurants in Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, you can read about it here. 

In a 2009 article by Kent Boese on a Washington, D.C. information site, much additional information is related on Harvey’s with evocative period photos. One shows musty ale prominently advertised at its horseshoe-shaped oyster bar before Prohibition. The site collects reminiscences of people who knew Harvey’s or had worked there. I posted a note on the site requesting any further data known on the musty ale.

The venerable Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan had musty ale on the menu too after WW II, as late as 1972. You can view the menus at the invaluable archival menu site, www.nypl.org. Keens still exists but sans the musty ale, sadly.

In 1989, Fodor, the well-known travel series, also reported that musty ale was sold at Harvey’s. In 1980 the food critic for the Washington Post, Phyllis Richman, had the presence of mind to ask Harvey’s what musty ale was. She wrote it was a mixture of ale and “beer” (i.e., American lager), which is exactly what bartender Tim Daly wrote in 1903 and an 1890s patent for a dispense system had claimed, all as reported here earlier.

The 1989 and 1980 references to Harvey’s musty ale appear from this Google Books search link.

This 1949 Harvey’s menu (from an eBay listing) shows musty ale being sold as a draft beer at Harvey’s along with Michelob and Piel’s (lager). Numerous domestic and imported bottled ales and stouts of quality were sold as well. The musty may have been a mix supplied by Piel’s. The brewery name was Rubsam & Hormann of Stapleton, NY. It also marketed a number of ales, see the list of its products post-Pro at the Tavern Trove website, whence the R&H XXX Ale label image comes. The brewery closed in the early 1950s.

In Cincinnati when musty ale started to get a reputation c. 1860, ale would have been strong, stored long, and bitter if not sometimes acid. It makes sense the city’s Musty Ale House thought to mix it with fresh lager beer, if it did so. Cincinnati certainly had lots of lager by 1859, so that part ties in.

As to the (apparent) reference I’ve cited earlier to musty ale in Vermont in the 1840s and contemporary (more or less) examples in England, they almost surely didn’t use lager in the blend. But they may have blended old ale and new, or enlivened old ale with “heading”, that is, partly-fermented wort. These were occasional practices in English brewing and may have come over the Atlantic. 100 years of Brewing (1902) by John Arnold discusses these techniques at pp 77-78.

One can infer that some who prepared ale in this way used an old term, musty ale, to convey the idea of something old being made new or freshened. Mustum in Latin means new and appears the source for this sense of musty. Moisty and moist are cognates…

What probably started as a way to condition or improve a stock of old ale became in America and isolated parts of the U.K. a thing, in a word a marketing concept, just as some people argue today for craft beer.

After all this, I wasn’t expecting a taste description akin to that for a 1945 Bordeaux, but thin, watered-down mild…? On the other hand, this was 1991, 100 years after musty’s heyday. There is no reason to think it tasted like that back in the day. The lager and ale for Harvey’s musty ale in the early 1990s and 1960s would have been different to ones of 100 years before, for one thing. I still feel my “recreation” reported yesterday conveyed an idea of some of the musty ale of its salad days.

The menu page below is from a stylish Harvey’s menu of the early 1960s, reproduced again courtesy www.nypl.org. Note the claimed “secret formula”:

Net net, the key American evolution was probably using newly-fermented lager, or “shenk” beer technically, to smarten up old ale, an adapted krausening which Anglo-Saxon brewers borrowed from their German colleagues. Finally, many saloons just mixed ale and lager at the bar.

I look forward to its revival, under gloomy London railway arches and the chic chalets of Vail.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced from Pinterest. The second and third, from the Tavern Trove and www.nypl.org sites linked above. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

4 thoughts on “Tasting Musty Ale in ’91”

  1. I feel it is a reasonable deduction that use of wort including partly-fermented wort featured in some ale brewing in Britain. Arnold’s comments to this effect at pp 76-78 of 100 Years of Brewing are not supported by specific facts, but he was a very experienced top-fermentation brewer in northern New York. His initial core range of beers were strictly Britannic (EIPA, porter) as we see in this early ad: http://fultonhistory.com/newspaper%202//Ogdensburg%20NY%20Daily%20Journal/Ogdensburg%20NY%20Daily%20Journal%201865%20a.pdf/Newspaper%20Ogdensburg%20NY%20Daily%20Journal%201865%20a%20-%200013.pdf

    Also, he advertised using a brewer with experience in different parts of the British Isles, so when he later wrote that this was part of English tradition, it seems credible.

    Finally, Stewart & Thomson in 1849 (the book ran different editions as you know) wrote that Alloa brewers used “fillings” or “wort of the same brewing” to condition beer sent to the trade. They added a pint of fillings to each barrel sent out. It is not clear whether the wort was partly fermented but IMO it had to be at least at some establishments, and if some people were doing it there some had to be ditto in England.

    I think the great multiplicity of brewing practices before the industry became more standard must be taken to include this practice especially where, as Stewart & Thomson state, beer was required for “immediate” use. Where beer and ale were long stored they would condition themselves.


  2. “Gyleing” – adding new, still fermenting beer to older beer to liven it up, effectively the same as krausening – was a technique used by porter and stout brewers right through to the middle of the 20th century, but I’ve never come across it being used for ale/pale beers. That’s not to say it didn’t happen …

    • Here is one more citation, from David Booth’s Art of Brewing , London, 1829. He specifically states that racked ale may be put into condition by adding new ale from the gyle in a state ready for cleansing – that is partially-fermented beer – or even by adding (unfermented, clearly) wort.

      These were the kind of older British practices to which Arnold referred in 100 Years of Brewing.


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