Beer, ale and Malt Liquor
old British beer terminology

There are two main obstacles to understanding brewing in the past: changes in the langauge and changes in the methods of classification. To help us around them, I will explain how British beers were classified by brewers, governors and drinkers in centuries past. I will also provide precise definitions of the words they used. I will consider here only the 18th and 19th centuries.

The past is not only a a foreign country, but one where a foreign language is spoken. Without a good understanding of the language used and the specific meaning of certain important words, especially where these differ subtly from modern usage, it's impossible to make any useful analysis of original sources. 18th century English must be treated as a foreign language. And one for which dictionaries are not readily available.

Considering the length of time they survived with essentially the same meaning, it's surprising how much confusion the general classifications of British beeer have caused. We like to think of the modern world as a much more orderly place than that the 18th century. It would be expected that, in the scientific times of today, classifications were more consistent, definitions more precise. In the case of British beer the opposite is true. The looseness of current terminology forms a veil of imprecision through which it is difficult, to interpret old texts without the utmost care.

If you aren't yet convinced how essential it is to get this sorted out before we proceed, I'll give a couple of examples to illustrate the point. These are the texts of two old advertisements from the Tennant Brothers Brewery in Sheffield.

The first reads "Brewers and Bottlers of fine Ales & Stout since 1840". What does "fine Ales" mean exactly? I must have seen this expression thousands of times on old brewery mirrors and windows, yet, like everyone else, I totally misunderstood its meaning. Fine is not used as a synonym for good; it means clear. The word, as both an adjective and noun, was used very specifically by the brewing industry in realtion to the clarification of beer. That's why finings are so called.

My second example is "Tennant Brothers, Ale, Porter and Bitter Beer Brewers". A modern drinker is likely to interpret "Porter" and "Bitter Beer" as referring to specific products. What the brewer is really trying to tell us is that he makes beers of all the three general types (or families of styles) current at the time. It's more than likely that there was no product called "Bitter". I will explain this system of classification in more detail below.

18th Century Classifications
heavily-hopped. The two main subtypes were:
  • Keeping Beer - strong and inteded to be kept for long periods (9-12 months). Different types of keeping beer were:
    • March Beer - a beer brewed at the end of the best brewing season
    • October Beer - a beer brewed at the beginning of the best brewing season
    • Amber Keeping Beer - brewed from amber malt
    • Butt Beer - beer aged in large barrels or butts. Porter and stout were brown butt beers.
  • Small Beer - a low-alcohol drink for immediate consumption

lightly-hopped. It varied in strength, but was always weaker than the strongest Keeping Beers. Ales were usually drunk as soon as they had cleared, after about 3 or 4 weeks in the cask. The main subdivision was on the colour of the malt used:
  • Brown Ale - brown malt
  • Amber Ale - amber malt
  • Pale Ale - pale malt

Malt Liqour the generic term, encompassing both beer and ale. (Malt Drink was also used.)
(Source: "London & Country Brewer", 1736 p.38-43)

You will note that the differentiation between beer and ale had remained unchanged since the introduction of hops in the 16th century. Whilst ales had also adopted the use of hops, the quantity used was so much smaller as to make them readily distiguishable from heavily-hopped beers. In genjeral, beers were hopped at about 4 times the rate of the corresponding ale ("London & Country Brewer", 1736 p.73)

There is another important fact to consider: the distinction between beer and ale was to some extent defined in law. Before the 1819 Weights and Measures Act when a standard barrel size was introduced, in London a barrel of beer was 36 gallons, but a barrel of ale only 32. (Outside London both, ale and beer had been in barrels of 34 gallon until 1819.)

As a modern person, accustomed to modern usage, I've found it surprisingly hard whilst writing this piece not to lapse into using the term beer generically. It's indicative of the difficulty of removing ourselves from our contemporary context.

You will have noticed that there is no mention of porter in the above. That's because the source used is describing the situation at about precisely the time porter suddenly appeared. Information dating from the end of the century, indicates that, at least from a Weights & Measures point of view, porter was a beer. It was filled into 36 gallon barrels.

19th Century Classifications
Bitter Beers
heavily-hopped. Beers generally assigned to this family are

Name Description Designation
Stock Beer/Ale strong and inteded to be kept for long periods (9-12 months) KK, KKK, AKK
Pale Ale a confusing designation used for a pale, highly-attenuated beer. Though these were called Pale Ale within the brewery, by the late 19th century drinkers usually referred to such beers as "bitter". PA, IPA
Running Beers light bitter beers AK, BB, BA, LBA

lightly-hopped. There are a whole range of ales, often only distiguished by a different number of X's. Ales were usually dark in colour.

Name Description Designation
Mild Ale ales of varying strength meant to be drunk young X, XX, XXX, XXXX
Strong Ale high-strength ale, usually aged XXXXX, XXXXXX, SA
Old Ale like the stronger milds, but aged XXXX, XXXXX

the generic term used to cover all porters and stouts.

Name Description Designation
Porter the bottom-end, draught beer XP
Stout the porter equivalent of an XX ale XXP
Double Stout the porter equivalent of an XXX ale XXXP
Triple Stout the porter equivalent of an XXXX ale XXXXP
Brown Stout the name applied to the first stouts, brewed from brown malt. Some breweries (mostly in London) stuck to this name even after they had stopped using brown malt. BS

In the course of the 19th century, the ale suffix was increasingly used in the description of beers. Though when beers are arranged by type, in for example Victorian price lists, Pale Ales are never grouped with Mild and Old Ales. As breweries stopped brewing porters, Stout was increasingly used as the generic term.

By the start of the 20th century, the modern distiction of British styles into just Ales and Stouts was becoming the norm and the term "beer" was losing any specific significance. It gradually disappeared as a suffix in beer names, except for Bitter Beer.

Looking at the Good Beer Guide (these are taken from the 1983 edition), you'll notice how some of the teminology has, at least within breweries, survived WW II.

King and Barnes: XX (mild), PA (bitter), XXXX (old ale)
Harveys XX (mild) PA (bitter), BB (best bitter), XXXX (old ale)
Greene King XX (mild), KK (light mild), IPA (best bitter)
Ridleys XXX (mild), PA (bitter)

Do you want to know why Michael Jackson could find no reference to "bitter" in old brewing manuals? Because in breweries it was almost always referred to as PA or Pale Ale. But it was "a pint of bitter" that regulars would ask for in their local - at least as far back as WW I.

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© Ron Pattinson 2004