Alphabet Soup

History by the Glass by | Oct 2014 | Issue #93

I’m sure you’ve all heard of IPA, but what about KK, SS and AK? British brewers once loved to string together beer names from a few letters. But what on earth do they all mean? I’ve spent many hours puzzling over old brewery price lists trying to make sense of the alphabet soup they contain. I won’t claim to have all the answers, though I am getting closer.

The first question is: why did brewers use letters as beer designations? It’s all to do with barrels. The vast majority of beer was served on draft. Nowadays brewers attach stickers to identify the contents, but in the old days they’d either chalk or stencil onto the barrel end. Who would want to write out India Pale Ale in full, when the initials IPA were clear enough?

X’s and T’s seem to have first appeared at the very start of the 19th century. And as is so often the case with beer, it was all about taxation:

“X, or strong beer, must be kept separate from table beer; if found in the same cellar or storeroom, penalty fifty pounds for each barrel. Table beer to be marked T on the cask, on pain of having it charged X beer and forfeiting fifty pounds. Fifty pounds penalty for mixing TB with X beer.”
The Spirit, Wine Dealer’s and Publican’s Guide by Edward Palmer, London, 1824, pages 16-17.

Brewers soon expanded the system, using more X’s to denote stronger beers:

“The different qualities of beers, whether porter or not, are generally marked upon the casks in which they are sent out, and it is now common to stamp X, XX, or XXX, to designate such gravities as at the option of the proprietary may be determined upon.”
The Theory and Practice of Brewing Illustrated by William Littell Tizard, 1846, pages 503-504.

This simple system worked when most brewers made either Ale or Porter, but when they started to brew both types, something more subtle was required. Using X’s for both Porter and Ale would have been confusing. Most started to use P for Porter, S for Stout and kept X to refer to just Ales.

The next letter to appear was K. It was needed to differentiate the two types of Ale: Mild Ale that was sold young and Stock, or Keeping Ale, which was aged before sale. K was first used as a suffix to denote the version for aging, the keeping version of XX Mild Ale being XXK. Eventually this was simplified to KK.

In the table, you can see the typical range of Mild Ales, Stock Ales, Porters and Stouts brewed by Whitbread. With typical London codes for them, mostly consisting of X, K and S.

93FermentedCulture2

You’ll notice I’ve not mentioned Pale Ales yet. That’s because they weren’t widely brewed until the second half of the 19th century. When brewers only made one or two Pale Ales, PA and IPA were pretty obvious. But the explosion in weaker, running Pale Ales later in the century required a whole new set of codes.

AK—whose meaning I still haven’t 100 percent nailed down—was one of the most popular designations for Light Bitter, but BB, BA, LB and many others were also used.

Some brewers came up with their own unique codes. Allsopp and Worthington used random letters. Bass and other Burton brewers used numbers, from No. 1 Barley Wine to No. 6 Mild Ale.

The system of codes still lives on in many beer names. Just search BeerAdvocate for beers with XX in their name. It’s a long list. And IPA, well, we all know how many beers bear those three letters.