Arctic Ale

History by the Glass by | Jul 2012 | Issue #66

“Would you like to try an 1875 Arctic Ale?” Do bears eat Catholics? Of course I would. No way I’d miss the chance to drink a legendary beer. I’d gnaw off both of my arms if I had to.

Chris Bowen, adventurer and brewer of historic beers, became fascinated by the story of Arctic Ale. During research at Allsopp’s (sadly) disused Burton brewery, he stumbled upon a couple dozen bottles from 1875. Most went to The National Brewery Centre in Burton. A few he kept for himself. When he offered to share a bottle, I jumped on the next plane to London.

The story began in 1852, when Samuel Allsopp brewed a beer for the wonderfully named Captain Belcher’s expedition to the Arctic. It was a vital provision. I’ll let Belcher himself explain why:

“I have no hesitation in stating that it is not injured by freezing, which I expressly tried (finding its point of congelation to be +12.5), and that I reserved a portion of the semi-frozen, decanted from the spongy mass, and re-bottled it in a pint bottle. It has indeed been a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick, as long as it lasted. It is now a daily source of lamentation that the Phaenix did not convey fresh supplies.”

When the temperature averaged -55º F, a beer that wouldn’t freeze easily was pretty handy. With all that alcohol, it must have warmed the sailors up a treat. Who needs a fire when you’ve an 11-percent ABV beer?

A second batch was brewed for Leopold McClintock’s 1857 expedition to rescue Belcher, followed by a third in 1875 when Sir George Strong Nares headed North. Alfred Barnard, the late 19th-century chronicler of British breweries, got a chance to try the latter when visiting Allsopp in 1889. This is what he thought:

“We found it of a nice brown colour, and of a vinous, and at the same time, nutty flavour, and as sound as on the day it was brewed. The ale, although of a high original strength, viz., 1.130 sp. gr., equal to about 47 lbs. per barrel, did not show a very high alcoholic strength; in fact, an analysis made in 1881 proved that it contained not more than about 9 per cent, of alcohol by weight (about 20 per cent, proof spirit). Owing to the large amount of unfermented extract still remaining in it, it must be considered as an extremely valuable and nourishing food.”

Opening our Arctic Ale was a challenge. The cork was soft and crumbled beneath the corkscrew. After minutes of careful coaxing, we got most of it out. The beer was a luscious chestnut brown, still as a lagoon, slightly viscous, with just a touch of acidity. Cherries and tobacco dominated the flavor, with a raisin-like fruitiness in the background. Tasted blind, you’d never guess it was beer. More likely port or madeira.

In the 20th century, a much weaker version of Arctic Ale was available commercially, as you can see in the table. I never dreamt of being able to try a beer Barnard drank over 100 years ago. An unforgettable experience.