Living Beer Styles and the Death of William Younger’s XXP

History by the Glass by | Apr 2017 | Issue #123

Coming across a beer I once drank in the records of a brewing archive sends a frisson down my spine, almost as strong as the first time I heard Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” on Top of the Pops. XXP is one of those rare beers.

XXP isn’t the snappiest of names. Luckily drinkers didn’t have to order that. Round my way, it was known as Scotch Bitter; on its home turf, 70/- or simply Heavy, except for the keg version, which was called Tartan. An Ordinary Bitter, in effect, which is quite a journey from its original early 19th century incarnation as an IPA.

William Younger of Edinburgh was one of the first breweries outside of Burton and London to pick up the trendy new style of IPA. Early to the game, it established a firm reputation for its Pale Ales both at home and abroad. Scottish brewers were enthusiastic exporters, and Younger was one of the leaders. Its beers were shipped all over the British Empire and beyond.

By the end of the 19th century, Pale Ale was the core of Younger’s output:

“Messrs. Wm. Younger & Co. still brew the celebrated Edinburgh ale, of a less potent quality, but their principal manufacture, India Pale Ale, is well known and appreciated in all parts of Great Britain as well as in foreign countries.”
Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol II, by Alfred Barnard, 1889, pages 7–8.

Beer styles are living things. Change their environment and they adapt to suit it. That’s exactly what happened with XXP. Early versions from the 1850s were hopped to the same crazy level as Burton-brewed IPA. Running the numbers through brewing software, it spits out a bitterness over 200 IBU. By 1879, that became 76 IBU. But it plummeted much further in the 20th century, from 36 IBU in 1921 to a feeble 13 IBU in 1939. It’s a lesson in the effect time can have on a beer.

Not only did bitterness fall over time, so did the strength, probably as a result of XXP transforming from a premium export to a standard pub beer. An original gravity in the high 1040s during the 1930s corresponds to a Best Bitter of the period. Transformation to a domestic beer also partially explains the big drop in hopping. A beer sold locally would require far fewer hops to preserve it.

Younger didn’t have a monopoly on the name XXP. Edinburgh rivals Lorimer & Clark produced four Pale Ales at different strengths called XXP5, XXP6, XXP7, and XXP8, the number referring to the retail price per pint. Drybrough, another Edinburgh brewer, produced a Best Bitter-strength beer called XXP in the 1950s and 1960s.

When my drinking career kicked off in the 1970s, Scotch Bitter was reasonably widely available in England as a cask beer. In Scotland, the keg Tartan ruled supreme. Today, a big fuss is made about unfined beer. Everyone assumes that cask beer was always fined. Not true. The father of one of my brother’s school friends ran a free house that served Scotch Bitter. Once, when the dad couldn’t get Scotch Bitter to clear, he rang the brewery. What should he do? He was amazed by the brewery’s suggestion: add finings. Younger’s beer was dispatched from the brewery unfined.

Unfortunately, the end of this story isn’t a happy one. XXP survived the closure of William Younger’s brewery in 1986, moving over to McEwan’s. But it just became McEwan’s 70/- rebadged, and gradually faded away as the McEwan’s brand took precedence. A sad death for a classic IPA.