Swanky Beer: The Strange History and Surprising Diaspora of a Lost Style

Feature by | Jun 2015 | Issue #101

Illustrations by Joe Waldron

Cornwall is officially a county of England but, jutting out into the Atlantic in the far west of Britain, sparse and windswept, it feels every bit a Celtic nation in its own right. When we moved here in 2011, we began researching indigenous beer styles. Devon, Cornwall’s nearest English neighbor, has its legend of White Ale, and we hoped to discover something similarly exotic. Naturally, mentions of a mysterious brew known as “swanky” among lists of Cornish recipes online, generated considerable excitement.

One particular set of instructions is repeated in various corners of the internet, usually verbatim, without any original source. The earliest version, posted on RootsWeb by someone called Jan Gluyas in May 1997, calls for boiling four pounds of brown sugar in five gallons of water for 45 minutes with hops, ground ginger, raisins and salt. It is to be fermented for around two days and then bottled with a single raisin in each bottle for priming.

It’s ready to drink “when the head is about to force the cork out of the bottle,” explains Gluyas. The recipe text also states that Swanky was “always made by the Cornish about six weeks before Xmas.” There is only one problem about discovering the kind of “beer from a place” we were looking for: no one in Cornwall seems to have heard of it.

Nineteenth century Cornish dialect dictionaries lack a single mention of Swanky, and no Cornish language word or phrase seems to relate to it. Swanky does not appear in any of the numerous written histories of Cornish culture. Nothing with a name even similar to Swanky is listed in a handwritten collection of 17th and 18th century Cornish recipes held at the Morrab Library’s archive in Penzance, though it does contain instructions for two varieties of wine made with raisins. Nor is Swanky included among the alcoholic beverages like Metheglin (spiced mead) and Mahogany (gin beaten with treacle, or molasses) found in the book Cornish Recipes published by the Women’s Institute of Cornwall in 1930. Questions put to local historians and archivists were met with blank looks and variations of, “It doesn’t ring any bells.”

So, where did the name come from? The etymology of the English word swanky, meaning expensive or ostentatious, is obscure and, seemingly at odds with its use in the 19th century, in parts of the country other than Cornwall, to refer to poor quality small beer. Perhaps there is a connection with the words for “weak” in Danish, Dutch and German—respectively, svag, zwak and schwach—which might also explain how an obscure American style, Pennsylvania Swankey, also a small beer, got its name.

The answer to how the word swanky came to be connected with Cornish culture, meanwhile, can be found on the far side of the world, in Australia. From around the end of the Napoleonic wars until the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Cornish people set out to find their fortune, most often as miners and engineers. They took soccer to Mexico and pasties—savory pastries stuffed with vegetables and meat—to Michigan. In Australia, they built entire villages of Cornish-style cottages, with pubs named the Ancient Briton, the Redruth Arms, and so on. Slowly, though, evidence of this and other distinct migrant cultures began to fade as a new Australian national identity was forged.

In the period after World War II, however, many Australians became interested in rediscovering their roots. One nostalgic 1945 newspaper column from the Kadina and Wallaroo Times mentions Swanky as a lost pre-war Christmas tradition, calling it “the real spirit of the people” which “used to take pride of place in the homes.”

“It was often heard going off ‘pop,’” the paper observed, as the corks “flew off up the chimney.”

The best-known account of Swanky is a passage in Oswald Pryor’s tremendously popular 1962 book Australia’s Little Cornwall. In it, the then 81-year-old author and cartoonist recalled life in the migrant Cornish communities of South Australia around the turn of the 20th century, including passing mentions for some of the recipes prepared by Cousin Jenny (the name given to Cornish migrant women) in their cottage kitchens:

“Swanky was a brew of sugar, hops, ginger, wheat, malt, and yeast. It had to be allowed to work for three days in the bottles before the corks were tied down with string.”

Pryor also notes that it was popular with teetotalist religious groups who “believed—or made a pretense of believing—that it was non-intoxicating.”

Whether the recipe he describes definitely came to South Australia with Cornish migrants is unclear. It is somewhat different to Gluyas’ recipe in that it includes grains, where hers is all sugar. At any rate, whatever its origins, for a generation of Australians of Cornish heritage, Pryor’s publication became a kind of handbook for the reconstruction of something they had lost. Though he did not claim it was Cornish, only that Cornish-Australians brewed it, Swanky was seized upon and made, in effect, the national drink of the Copper Coast.

In 1973, a great festival of Cornish culture was held for the first time on the Yorke Peninsula under the Cornish-language name Kernewek Lowender. Brass bands played traditional Cornish tunes, people ate Cornish pasties by the ton, and, to wash them down, Coopers Brewery supplied a thousand bottles of Swanky beer.

Roslyn Paterson was on the organizing committee and recalls that they gave the Adelaide brewing company a handwritten recipe for the kind of beer enjoyed by their great-great-grandfathers. It called for rainwater, hops, sugar and a handful of raisins in each bottle. Cooper’s didn’t want to use raisins and, instead, “grogged” a more standard lager with port and added a label featuring an iconic Oswald Pryor portrait of Cousin Jack, a stereotypical Cornish miner.

“The resultant drink had a kick like a mule,” remembers Paterson. Cooper’s, Roslyn Paterson says, brewed Swanky for one more festival but eventually refused to brew it again because the batches were too small. Various breweries have since been commissioned to fill the void. Most recently, Copper Coast Wines of Moonta Bay, a side project of local businessman Richard Davis, has taken up the mantle, occasionally brewing a fairly mainstream (malt and hops) version of Swanky and selling it at the Patio Restaurant in Moonta Bay.

101Feature_Swanky2A Swanky Homebrew
We created this recipe by comparing ingredient lists from Jan Gluyas, Roslyn Paterson and Oswald Pryor, omitting anything that did not appear in more than one list. That meant leaving out malt, wheat and salt, and using only sugar, ginger, raisins and hops. We decided on white sugar because, though brown sugar might seem more rustically authentic, refined white “loaf sugar” was actually the most commonly available variety in the 19th century. Various country beer and wine recipes in archival recipe books helped us come up with the method.

2.5 gallons (11 L) water
2 lb. (1 kg) white sugar
4 oz (100 g) ground ginger
2 oz (60 g) raisins
4 oz (100 g) old or stale hops (such as East Kent Goldings)
2 oz (60 g) fresh baker’s yeast

Boil everything together for 45 minutes. Allow it to cool completely before transferring to a fermenting vessel and adding the yeast. After about 48 hours, decant into 750 mL Champagne-style bottles, add a bruised raisin to each, and, using standard corks, seal loosely. After a few days, the corks will begin to work loose, at which point, it’s ready to drink.

This is a homebrew in the true sense of the word, so don’t get worked up about temperatures, equipment, specific ingredients or process—imagine yourself thousands of miles from home and improvise with what you have at hand. The batch we brewed on Saint Piran’s Day, the national day of Cornwall, was ready to drink less than a week later and sat somewhere between true beer and a soft drink: fizzy and refreshing, with a powerful herbal dryness from the hops which set it apart from straight-up ginger beer. It was perhaps a touch bitter. Next time we’ll use 60 grams (about 2 oz) of hops. It won’t keep long, so if you brew some, have a party. 

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