Alloa Ale

History by the Glass by | Nov 2011 | Issue #58

London, Burton, Edinburgh: Britain’s key brewing towns. (Personally, I’d also include Newark-on-Trent.) But one name is missing. The forgotten great of British beer: Alloa, renowned for its ales and Pale Ales.

Scotland’s brewing industry was patchily distributed in the 19th century. Forget romantic images of kilted Highlanders drying their malt over peat fires. Breweries were clustered between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and along the East Coast; the Highlands and Islands were brewery-free.

Industrial brewing arrived in Alloa at the back end of the 18th century with the establishment of George Younger in 1762 and Robert Meiklejohn in 1784. By the end of the 19th century, there were eight breweries in the town, which had a population of just 11,000. Edinburgh, with 20 times the inhabitants, was the only Scottish town to have more.

The Scots have a reputation for being canny. Two particular Scots brewers certainly were. They spotted the potential of Pale Ale early and filled their boots. Coincidentally, both were called Younger—William of Edinburgh and George of Alloa. Other brewers in both towns soon tagged along. Scotland became the second largest exporter of IPA (after Burton, obviously). Burton, Edinburgh and Alloa. What do they have in common? I’d claim it as my own brilliant observation, except someone beat me to it by more than a century:

“It is curious to note that Alloa, like the two great pale ale centres, Burton and Edinburgh, originally derived its reputation from its mild ales.”

Despite embracing Pale Ale like a depressed bear, brewers in these three towns never deserted the ales of their youth. Not just Mild Ales, but Strong Ales, too. Alloa and Edinburgh ales were powerful beers. Gravities were north of 1100º and, despite the low level of attenuation, the alcohol by volume could top 10 percent. All those unfermented sugars left a positively gloopy beer:

“The best Edinburgh ale is of a pale colour, mild, glutinous, and adhesive.”

By a weird twist of fate, Alloa was the birthplace of another beer style: Belgian Scotch Ale. George Younger had an extensive export trade to the West Indies, Australia, the East Indies and North America. When these exports markets dried up after World War I, they turned to the one place that couldn’t get enough British beer: Belgium. A special version of Younger’s Strong Ale was marketed there. Not under the George Younger name, but one that may sound familiar if you’ve visited Belgium: Gordon’s.

The Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale brewed by George Younger in the 1950s was a reminder of the strong Scottish Ales of the late 19th century. The gravity had been knocked down to 1090º, but it remained a rich, sumptuous luxury of a beer, pushing 8-percent ABV.

Another faint echo of Alloa’s glorious past remains. The last beer to bear the George Younger name. A beer totally unlike the ones above. Sweetheart Stout, now brewed by Tennent in Glasgow. It’s the antithesis of the beers that made Alloa famous, a barely alcoholic sweet Stout.

Let’s end on a happier note: a poem written by John Imlah in 1827.

“Alloa Ale”
Awa’ wi black brandy, red rum, and blue whisky
An bring me the liquor as brown as a nut;
O! Alloa Ale ye can mak a chiel frisky,
Brisk, faeming a’ fresh frae the bottle or butt.
An awa wi’ your wines — they are dull as moss water,
Wi’ blude coloured blushes, or purple, or pale;
Guid folks gif ye wish to get fairer and fatter,
Then aye weet your seasans wi’ Alloa Ale!

Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. IV, Alfred Barnard, 1890, page 390.
A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical, of Commerce and Commercial Navigation. John Ramsay McCulloch, 1844, page 9.