Arctic exploration in the 19th century was tough work for bands of intrepid adventurers heading to the Pole. There was freezing to death, say. Also starvation, boredom and polar bears jumping out of the water to "resolutely seize and devour whichever dog or human being was sitting closest to their jaws," as Jon Mooallem writes in Wild Ones.
But in truth, these explorers were more concerned about their beer. You've heard the story of IPAs: loaded with hops, and their preservative acids, to stay fresh on the long journey from England to India — and offer a boost of scurvy-busting vitamins once they arrived there. But what about another equally arduous trek — not south, but north? Those explorers needed beer too, for the calories, and for comfort. But no measly mild or puny porter would do. They needed a beer with substance — strong enough to stand the arctic chill without freezing.
This was arctic ale, extra hoppy, extra malt and, especially, extra boozy. A kind of barley wine or imperial IPA of its day. Some were reported to be so viscous, they could stick a pint glass to a table. In fact, that was once a test of a beer's quality, as reported in 1870's The Food Journal: A Review of Social and Sanitary Economy: "The duty of examining the beer devolved upon the magistrates and authorities, who applied a test according to the best of their knowledge. The liquid was poured out on boards upon which it was allowed to dry, and if it stuck, it was pronounced to be good."
These beers could take a hit. Captain Edward Belcher, who sailed after the vanished explorer John Franklin in 1852, set a glass of Burton-on-Trent brewer Samuel Allsopp's Arctic Ale on deck one brisk, -42°F day, and reported that it took 12 hours "before affording any symptoms of coagulation." Allsopp's Arctic Ale was a special recipe so thick, one brewer there reported the wort wouldn't flow through the brewery's pipes, but had to be carried tank to tank in buckets.
OK, but how did it taste? "As nourishing as beefsteak," one captain wrote. "The sustaining qualities of a beer such as this are far greater than those of wine or spirits." Even after a long sail north in a cramped cargo hold — or years in a dusty cellar — this was one special beer. One of the day's best (and only) beer critics, Alfred Barnard, said that a 14-year-old bottle of Allsopp's 1875 Arctic Ale had "a nutty flavour" and "was as sound as the day it was brewed."
More than a century later, beer writers Ron Pattison and Martyn Cornell tried the same batch. "Liquid Christmas cake," they declared. "Pears, figs, charred raisins, stewed plums, mint, a hint of tobacco, a memory of cherries." A memory, for those Arctic explorers, of home.
Arctic ales are rare these days — they've morphed into imperial IPAs and barley wines, usually much more bitter or much sweeter than the original, which effortlessly balanced between both tastes. That was because instead of pale malt and high-acid citrussy U.S. hops, 19th century arctic ales used richer barley and subtler British hops. So to taste the past — no, I didn't have any centuries-old samples in the back of my fridge, or the few hundred bucks to spend on an eBay bottle — I'd have to make it myself.
When my local brewpub in the Bay Area announced a new outpost, Woods Polk Station, designed around an iceberg-esque hunk of a marble bar, perched on a breezy hilltop in North Beach, I asked if I could help inaugurate the space by brewing a special beer to serve at the opening. In honor of the bar's frigid centerpiece and rustic, hunting-lodge-like stylings, I proposed an adventure: an arctic ale.
The mantra of the brew day was "use it all" — we emptied the hops freezer, maxed out our system's grain capacity — filled every bucket we had. Spilled grain swept up became breakfast. We munched the golden kernels like M&Ms. Because this wasn't just any grain, this was Maris Otter, the Beluga caviar of malt.
Ours was donated by Magnolia, one of the best brewers of Anglo-style beers this, or any side, of the pond. They often get malt from tiny old-school producers like Branthill Farm. Our Gleneagles Maris Otter came from a slightly larger operation, Crisp Malters in Great Ryburgh. Still, it was wonderful stuff, rich and earthy sweet.
The wort, or unfermented beer, was thick and syrupy. It flowed through the pipes, but still, so sweet and delicious you could imagine drizzling it over ice cream. Or just drinking it as is. (It would be like hot chocolate — another arctic staple, it turns out.)
But hop it we must — this beer had to last, and hops are indeed preservative. Instead of high-octane American Citras or CTZs, we used the famed East Kent Goldings. Of all British hops, those from Kent are thought to be the best of all, mellowed by the cool kiss of North-Sea breezes. And over all, Goldings reign. Like Red Delicious apples, though ubiquitous today, Goldings began as a unique and serendipitous find. A lucky "Mr. Golding, of the Mailing quarter of the district" out hiking his moors, found a rogue plant "of extraordinary quality and productiveness." He snipped a few cones to plant back home, and stepped into brewing history. Like Red Delicious too, Goldings are remarkably tame, bland even. Alpha acid, which gives hops their bitter kick, makes up only 3-4% of Goldings' volatile oils; in some new American strains, the acid content edges past 15%. But British brewers and their clientele prized Goldings for their delicacy — grassy and mild, like a clover field in spring.
The beer came out marvelous: sprightly and clean, a little sweet, a little bitter, downright refreshing. And then, a blooming warmth. This is indeed powerful stuff, weighing in close to 10% ABV. Though you wouldn't know it from the taste. As filling as shepherds pie, as airy as the crust. The perfect beer for a winter's eve, fending off polar bears, or just the chill.
Apparently, we haven't learned. Arctic Ales have melted into history. Today, beer in the field gets rough treatment. While building Byrd Station in West Antarctica in 1957, scientists suffered through an allowance of ten beers for the whole winter — most of them froze. Antarctic explorers in the 1970s made do with hooch whipped together from raisins and apple peelings. In Hoosh, his book on Antarctic cuisine, Jason C. Anthony describes today's South Pole scientists clad in Hawaiian shirts and tennis shoes, "cutting the tops off frozen beer cans and spooning out the slush." If only they had a beefsteak in a bottle.
If you're in San Francisco for SF Beer Week (Feb. 7-16), pilot your icebreaker toward Woods Polk Station for a taste of history.
Check out these beer stories on Food Republic: