Monday, 16 September 2019

A Tall Tale of John Wynne's AK Ale

John Wynne’s brewery sat on the edge of town just beside the river, with Hopkin’s mill downstream and the busy warehouses of the Taylor brothers butting up against his own wooden framed building on the town side. The slow-moving river was the lifeblood of the small village, which nestled in a valley not too far from the bigger cities of the south with close access to the canals than were the arteries of England, transporting much needed goods around the growing country. The politicians said that the new railways would soon take over from the canals for transportation, as they would be quicker and more efficient, but John wasn’t so sure. It seemed to him a lot of work to lay all those iron rails and build the stations and warehouses that every town would require. Old Abraham Taylor thought the same, an opinion he often voiced as he called to the brewery waving with his pipe at John and looking for a free sample of porter, giving his two sons next door a break from his cantankerousness, but even Abraham hadn’t seemed so sure of late, perhaps swayed by the talk of the bargemen who came and went from Richard and Daniel’s quayside jetty.

John didn’t have any family, as his parents had died when he was still in his youth, not long after he had started work in a big brewery in the city. After a few years learning his trade he tired of the city and sold his parents’ house, ploughing the money into a then rundown small-town brewery he had come across via an advertisement in one of the city newspapers. Reading and writing were never his strengths, although he knew enough to get by, but he was much better with figures and was a likeable character, so his new brewery was doing quite well, and he was well respected and liked in the town, which pleased him greatly as he still felt more than a little like an outsider. It helped that his XX porter was well brewed and was gaining a reputation in the town, as well as in the numerous villages that dotted the valley.

But lately he saw a change in the drinking habits of those who frequented the local taverns and inns, especially The Green Dragon, which was by far his biggest account. A taste for bitter pale ales had developed in the palates of the drinkers in the town. These ales were being brought in via the canals and the river, with much of it coming through his neighbours the Taylor’s stores, as old Abraham often told him; he said he saw ten barrels stamped PA for pale ale arriving from a brewery in the city just the previous day. This worried John as he only brewed porter and hadn’t tried his hand at ales like these, although he was aware of the process. All was not lost however, as many of the inn's customers found these new ales too heavy and hard to drink, so John had a plan to try his hand at brewing a lighter pale ale; something refreshing, still bitter but easy to drink, and this he would sell alongside his porter.

And so a couple of months later John arrived into The Green Dragon with his XX porter but also with a couple of barrels of his new ale, which he perfected under the curious eye of Abraham who had become his chief taste tester, even if he did have a tendency to fall asleep on the malt sacks in the loft. He had grown quite fond of Abraham over the last few months, and liked having him in the brewery, where he also acted as a form of security, as his gruff nature scared the local kids who had a tendency to sneak into the brewery to nibble on the malt.

William, the owner of The Green Dragon, was an ever-happy character who had a sharp business brain, always looking to make a few extra shillings wherever he could. He was a larger-than-life, rotund individual and he huffed and puffed as he moved his bulk out of the kitchen where he was supervising the roasting of a large pork joint to feed his clientele later that night when the stage coaches arrived from the city for a stopover. He too worried about the effect that the railroads would have on his business but was able to turn a problem into an opportunity better than most, so he knew he’d survive. John unloaded the barrels on which he had hastily scribbled XX for his normal delivery of porter and had simply scrawled the word ‘Ale’ on the barrels of his new brew.

‘What ya got there John?’ William asked, pointing at the new barrels, which were left to one side.

‘Hello William, this is my new ale. I’m hoping you will try it out and see if it will sell alongside the other bitter ale you serve.’

William poked a barrel with the toe of his dirty boot. ‘Huh, I’m not sure, some don’t like that stuff you know? Too heavy they say, they can't drink enough to satify their thirsts, and I already have some barrels in the cellar’

‘This is different, it’s lighter and I think it might suit the local folk more than that stuff from the city.’

William didn’t look convinced, but he liked John and knew he was a good brewer.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll try it.’

‘Great,’ replied John, ‘You won’t regret it.’

‘I hope not. Give me five barrels of the XX and two barrels of the, eh…’ He looked at the writing on the barrels, ‘Of the AK.’

‘Sorry, of the what?’ John said, looking puzzled.

‘The AK, just leave them there and we’ll get them down to the cellar when the foods done, I’ll settle up next week.’

With that William quickly headed back to the kitchen to check on the pork.

John scratched his head, looked closely at the barrels and then the penny dropped. His hastily scribbled word ‘Ale’ did indeed look like ‘AK’ and he could see how William assumed that if he had XX on one barrel than he would use similar, if strange, lettering system on the other. He shrugged, unloaded the last of the barrels and made his way back to the brewery. AK it was so, perhaps the enigmatic name would help it sell he thought to himself, it certainly wouldn't do it any harm.

John Wynne’s AK was a great success in The Green Dragon and over the coming months it completely replaced the other pale ales there, as it also did in most of the other local inns and taverns. His brewery was flat out now and he would need to consider hiring some permanent staff, he was sitting down for lunch in the brewery contemplating this one day when Abraham, who had already drank too much of his new ale that day, came wobbling in from the riverside entrance, beckoning with his pipe to John to follow him.

‘Ay John lad, you had better come look at this...’

John followed Abraham back out along the quay where a barge was unloading barrels. Casks of ale on which were quite clearly stamped with the letters ‘AK' on their ends.

‘I thought you should know.’ Abraham said, sucking on his pipe and looking at John’s face as it reddened.

‘Oi, who are they for?’ John shouted at the driver who was leaning against the side the cart, into which the barrels were now being loaded.

The driver spat, looked up and squinted towards John.

‘I’m going up to William in The Dragon with them. What's the problem?’

John was furious, he rushed along the quay and up the street to The Green Dragon, bursting through the door out of breath and very angry. A strartled William looked up from where he was cleaning tankards, with a puzzled look on his face.

‘Hello John, is all okay with you?’

‘What’s with those barrels down at the quay? I thought I was supplying you with ale now!’

William looked a little sheepish.

‘Oh, that…’

John waited as William came around from the other side of the counter.

‘The thing is John, a while ago the big brewery sent down a man to see why we weren’t ordering from them anymore, and I told him that it was because of the AK and that my customers loved it. He took a taste of it and then said that they made an AK too, which I did think strange cos he never mentioned it before. Then he asked me how much you were charging, when I told him he said he could match the price and give me a free barrel with every three.’

John was getting increasingly angry as William continued to speak.

‘That’s a great deal John, I couldn’t not take it. Sorry but business is business.’

John was furious with William for accepting the deal and with the other brewery, for stealing his beer and his unique mix-up name.

He stormed back out of The Green Dragon with a string of curses sent in William’s direction. He stood for a while outside the inn, seething and planning his revenge. Eventually he calmed down enough to think straight and began to make his way made his way back down to the quay. He’d get even by legal means with that brewery, let’s see them explain how they came up with the letters AK for the ale, only he knew the real story. They’d regret the theft of his idea, his name and his customers...

John could see the smoke before he got to the start of the quay…

He ran as quickly as he could to the front of the brewery, by now flames were shooting from the loft. Richard and Daniel Taylor were standing outside in an agitated state.

‘We can’t find father!’ Richard, the older of the two brothers exclaimed. ‘We think he might be up in your loft!’

Immediately John knew what had happened, Abraham had sneaked up to the loft after the commotion on the quayside and fallen asleep, with that bloody pipe…

‘Call for the pumps!’ He shouted as he rushed into the burning building and reached the first step of the loft ladder.

And with that the whole floor of the loft collapsed…

It took them half the night to finally get the fire under control, fortunately it didn’t spread to the warehouse or the mill, and many thought it lucky there were only two fatalities.

The following year William in The Green Dragon died, his heart finally getting tired of the work required to keep him upright. His son George continued to stock AK along with the other ales in an expanded range from the brewery in the city. Others started brewing more lightly hopped ales, also calling them AK in copycat fashion, and even adapting the K in other ways the same as an X and other letters were used. John Wynne’s brewery was soon forgotten, ironically replaced by a maltings that supplied the big city breweries that now brewed his beer.

And so, nobody knew how the beer style called AK came to be named, they would never know that it was just down to a simple combination of a misunderstanding, and one brewer’s poor handwriting…

The End


Note: This is a complete work of fiction, although there was - and there still is - a beer style called AK. An ongoing debate resurfaces every now and again where people argue the meaning of the letters, not the style of beer I hasten to add. The idea for this story came to me from two sources; one is that when you search Google books for ‘AK’ it often confuses the word ‘Ale’ for those letters; the second is my own dreadful handwriting which was used for the image I used in the story. If you want to read more opinions about AK I suggest consulting Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell and Gary Gillman, who have all written plenty on its name, style and origins and are infinitely more knowledgeable than me on all things to do with beer history. Boak & Bailey have also commented on the subject, as referenced in some of the aboves' articles.


Thursday, 8 August 2019

Brewing History: Some Notes on Pre-Twentieth Century Kilkenny Breweries

From 'The Official Illustrated Guide to the Great Southern & Western Railway' - 1866

The early brewing history of Ireland is often quite murky, and trying to pinpoint the exact position of breweries and the brewers that operated in any give location is quite a tricky job until we get to the era of commercial directories, better record keeping, accurate maps and archived content of newspapers. Even after that point the history and development of breweries is difficult to track, especially beyond The Pale. Kilkenny's brewing history is similar in one way but somewhat different in another, as much of that history is difficult to clearly see due to being muddied by decades of marketing spiel which has been repeated and reprinted over the years.

But I have found a couple of trustworthy sources when trying to track down the historic commercial breweries of Kilkenny. The first is ‘The Brewing Industry in Kilkenny’ by T. B. Halpin which was published in the ‘Old Kilkenny Review’ in 1989. The second is the ‘Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 10, Kilkenny’ by John Bradley, who references the previous article quite often in his own work. Along with these two excellent sources I have come across other information from both online resources and archived papers accessed in my local library which give some interesting insights into brewing in the city in the 18th and 19th century. These are backed up by various commercial directories of the time, where many similar names crop up over the years often in different locations which adds to the headache of unravelling who brewed where. We need to be careful that malt houses are not being confused with actual breweries too, as these are often separate entities although both can coexist on the same site of course. With all of these names it’s also worth remembering that the owner and the actual brewer in these establishments were quite often different people, which adds yet another layer of complexity to any research.

I should point out that I am not a Kilkenny local and have relied purely on sources referenced above and cited below for this post, nor am I a historian so I would welcome clarification of any the issues, dates or comments made here. Please feel free to read any of the articles, newspaper clippings and other sources I reference and get back to me on any points.


A snapshot of the ebb and flow of breweries is given by Bradley as:

“In 1787 there were ten breweries in the city, by 1824 the number had declined to five, and in 1837 it had fallen to four. There was evidently a flurry of activity in the years immediately following because by 1839 the number had increased to eight, but the expansion was short-lived. In 1841 there were five breweries and by 1856 there were only two — St Francis' Abbey (Smithwicks) and James's Street (Sullivans).”1

The earliest reference for a brewery location is on Pudding Lane in 1660, and the earliest mention of a named brewer is for a Miles Lyons in an unknown location in 1691 but the earliest mention by name and location is James’s Street Brewery established by a person named Archdeakin in 17021 and Bradley suggests there was brewing on this site before this date. (Some years later a Mathias Archdekin[sic] occupied a brewery and Distillery near Blackmill up until 1821which I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere.) The brewery on James's Street appears to have passed through different hands - A John Hennessy was a brewer on this street at least in 17883 - before becoming vacant in 1790. It was purchased and reopened by William[?] Sullivan and William Loughnane in 18104 and it appears to have stayed in the Sullivan family until it closed around 1914 (or 1917/1918). The premises was later taken over by Smithwick’s and used as a maltings4 - unfortunately the site is now a carpark for Market Cross Shopping Centre, although I found a c.1946 photo of the ivy covered entrance to the brewery in Halpin’s article and online here with another view here. (Curiously there is mention of an Anchor Brewery on James’s Street in 1859 which Bradley suggests may be the same site as Sullivan’s Brewery, but I doubt this to be the case. There is a George Reade brewing in James' Place in 1839so perhaps there is some confusion over sites, or the names of the actual brewers working in the breweries owned by others as is often the case in brewing history.)

An interesting aside to the actual brewing process, which helps to point to all the auxiliary jobs associated with breweries that are rarely considered, is that in 18976 only Sullivan’s were using solely local cut corks to bottle their beers, Smithwick’s used a mix imported and locally made ones.

For examples of what was brewed in the city in the 19th century, advertisements from 18957 show that Sullivan’s were brewing a pale butt, a double stout, sparkling ales and hop bitters as well as manufacturing and bottling Mineral waters. I'm pretty sure that they were brewing more than just these over the years too, I'll keep an eye out and update here if I find more.

Here's another from The Kilkenny City and County Directory and Guide from 1884:


Perhaps the biggest mover and shaker in Kilkenny brewing was started by Edmund Smithwick who opened St. Francis Abbey Brewery around 1827 after acquiring leasing the site of Bren(n)an’s distillery in that year. (Just to note that Brennan is a surname that crops up repeatedly in the names of brewers/distillers in the various commercial directories – although admittedly it if a very common local name.) The site is listed as a distillery at St. Francis’s Abbey run by Patrick Brenan[sic] in Pigot’s Directory of 1824, and the following year he was producing 26,000 gallons of spirit according to custom and excise reports for the period. An advertisement for its letting at this time clearly say it is a distillery that could be converted into a brewery8. Edmund is listed as a grocery and a wine merchants in Pigot’s also in 1824 and was in partnership with and Owen C. O’Callaghan – this partnership was dissolved in July 1827 along with a similar partnership for a corn, flour and boulting business9, so his commercial interests where extensive but I can't find a mention of brewing until after the purchase of the St. Francis site.

(In fact the site was only leased by Edmund in 1827, here's a note of the sale of that lease by Dudley Brennan son of the Michael Brennan above in 1867 via a solicitors journal. The name William Archebald seems to be the earliest one connected to this lease.)

So if there was any commercial ale brewing on the site before this time I can find no reliable record of it (which means just that of course), although Halpin – who worked in Smithwick’s - suggests there may have been brewing for personal consumption on or near this site by an ancestor of Edmund – John Smithwick – when he was in partnership with a Richard Cole. A messy article celebrating the brewery’s 275th anniversary10 mentions first brewing dates of both 1706 and 1710 as well as mentioning a free farm grant for a brewery and distillery close to the brewery site given to the above mentioned Cole. Curiously and article in the same paper 25 years before states that the firm of Smithwick’s was established in 1710 at the same time that Cole established a brewery, although as mentioned this seems to have been a retail brewery for household consumption. Any reliable auricles I have come across state there is little evidence of beer brewing on the site prior to 1827 and some even point out that the site's connection with the Smithwick’s family was broken with the death of John anyway.11 I have come across the story that the Smithwick’s could not officially declare their interest in the brewery prior to Catholic Emancipation due to Catholics not being allowed to own businesses, but it does not explain why Edmund, who owned a business in 1824 with O'Callaghan as we can see above, could not have put his name in directories or elsewhere at this time as a brewery owner with a different partner if such was the case? I personally think that a better claim may be that the Smithwick family were in business in Kilkenny from 1710 but - perhaps - not always in brewing ... maybe others can add more factual information to this.

George Measom in ‘The Official Illustrated Guide to the Great Southern & Western Railway’ mentions a visit to Edmond Smithwick’s brewery in 1866 where he sings the praises of the beer and the brewery while giving a nice description of the premises and supplying an excellent illustration of the site, which I have used at the start of this post. Interestingly he gives the date the brewery was established as 1828, presumably with the brewery's blessing at that time...

Anyhow, in 1897 Smithwick’s were brewing stouts and mild and bitter ales as well as an East India pale ale and a dinner ale12, and like Sullivan’s they also bottled mineral waters. No mention directly of a red ale of course but presumably one of these could be a red ... and I have written about a Smithwick's amber ale before, but any thoughts that the current famous brew is the same as any ale that may have been brewed in 1710 is pretty spurious in my opinion, to say the least.

Here is another advertisement from The Kilkenny City and County Directory and Guide from 1884 where they are showing off their depots both in Ireland and overseas:

It's probably worth noting too that the Smithwicks family don't seem to have owned the abbey itself until quite late on in their story, as according to George Henry Bassett in The Kilkenny City and County Directory and Guide:
The outlook from it is into the yard of Messrs E Smithwick and Sons St Francis Abbey Brewery. In this yard many tablets originally belonging to the Abbey are set into the walls. The Abbey itself with a very choice fruit garden and cottage was sold a few years ago for 600 to the late Mr William Morrissey hardware merchant Mrs Mary Morrissey his widow is now in possession. She has had the floor of the chancel laid with a carpet of living green and takes great comfort in her proprietorship .

So it appears that in 1884 it was not owned by the brewery itself, nor was it part of it by my reading of the above.

Indeed in a meeting of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1868 there was concern for the condition of the tower and the following was said:

The ruins of the Abbey including the tower were possessed by a person who had not the means of doing anything to preserve them. Although they adjoined the Brewery of the Messrs Smithwick, unfortunately they did not belong to those gentlemen - if they did, no subscription would have been thought of, for the work would have been done at once without assistance from any other source. The Messrs Smithwick had most liberally headed the subscription list with a donation of £10 ,and would afford any facility and assistance in their power.
So, generous indeed but not the owner of the abbey...


There are few other named breweries that I have come across, although there was also a St Mary's Brewery, Parliament St. ran by Robert Terry & Sons which opened around 1862 and was up for sale just two years later in 1864, what’s interesting about this is that it lists all of the equipment in the brewery such as an eight horse power steam engine, an O’Reilly’s large refrigerator, a sky cooler and fermenting squares, not to mention 600 casks…

Incidentally, according to Halpin4 there is a Kilkenny connection with two famous Dublin breweries as John Brennan, a brewer in partnership with a Cormick5 in Pennyfeather Lane, who moved to Dublin when their brewery closed down in 1841 and became manager in O’Connell’s Brewery. His son Charles later bought the business and it became the Phoenix Brewery.

It's worth mentioning here too that brewing has finally returned to Kilkenny with Costello's brewing their beers the city and a reincarnation of the above mentioned Sullivan's brewing specials on the pilot kit in their tap room.

So that's all for now, I have posted other Kilkenny brewing history on this blog in the past too so feel free to search for other posts on the subject.


(Expanded 7/1/2020)

(All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and can not be reproduced elsewhere without full credit to its source and a link back to this post.)


1 John Bradley, Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 10, Kilkenny. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2000 (, text, page 8.

2 Finn’s Leinster Journal – 17/11/1821

3 Lucas’ Commercial Directory

4 ‘The Brewing Industry in Kilkenny’, T. B. Halpin, Old Kilkenny Review 1989, pages 583-591

5 Shearman’s Commercial Directory

6 Kilkenny People – 2/10/1897

7 Kilkenny People – 9/11/1895

8 Finn’s Leinster Journal – 20/1/1827

9 Finn’s Leinster Journal – 7/7/1827

10 Kilkenny People – 27/9/1985

12 The Tuam Herald - 10/7/1897

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Why Write? Why Not? Why Now?

The more observant/bothered among you will have noticed that I haven't posted much here over the past few months. One of the reasons - I try to convince myself - for this is a lack-of-time issue due to an increased 'real-life' workload, plus wanting to give more of the time I have to my family, and a need for a general refocus of energy in other directions.

Okay, so some of this redirection was brought about by the anger I channelled following my discovery that a local social media regurgitator had used my research and my work here on his site without attribution, which in truth motivated me to give more time and attention to the more important things in my life and less to the 'frivolity' of  Blogging and Tweeting, with the result that these other areas of my life have improved immensely in the last few months - not that they were bad to start with of course.

So I guess every anger-laden cloud has a silver lining!?

Of course all of the above could just be an excuse for not writing here as I still write elsewhere, and with the help of a couple of good editors I have articles in a couple of nonbeer/food/travel related national magazines.

But that's different, that's work.

My writing here has always been more enjoyable and certainly less taxing, it was more of a pressure release, an escape. Just anonymous ramblings of interest to only a few, especially since I turned the direction of the blog towards the historical side of brewing. This was never going to be a big draw and hardly a hugely interesting topic for the majority of the public, let alone the beerphiliac minority. 

But that wasn't the point, as it was purely for me anyway, or perhaps anyone doing some beer, food or brewery related research who might find it helpful.

As I mentioned on Twitter a while back to someone who was complaining about the lack of readers to his online writing, we need to be aware that we are trying to communicate to a tiny circle of people, within another circle, within a not-so-big-to-start-with circle so we will never change the world or gain huge traction. Even though my own tiny circle intersects with a few other small, niche history/food/brewing groups, it would require a Venn Diagram maker to break out the tiny compass and pare their pencil to a super fine point to create anything meaningful or legible.

Our writings will never change the world and we will never be those butterfly's wings ... but that's not why we do this, we do it - mostly - for us.

That's why it annoys me when all Bloggers are lumped in with the parasitic influencers that now infest our social media, those extraverts who are in it solely for gain and profit, who harangue hotels for freebies or blackmail restaurants into giving them a favourable review.

But they are the small minority - and we are not them.

We are the majority, we are the introverts who stick our heads above the parapet on occasion with our Tweets or Blog posts, hoping we won't be picked off by those scoffers who know more than us or sabre-rattled-at by those who trawl timelines for something to be offended by, as this seems to be their sole, sad purpose on social media.

But, I'm not sure that all of this interests me or bothers me quite as much any longer...

So what next? Who knows or cares ... but for sure I have changed and I am evolving away from what I originally was here, and perhaps even from what I have become in the last while. I'm due more of a change, even if just for change sake.

In truth I could probably give more time to writing here if I really wanted to and perhaps the catalyst for creating more time is that change.

So ... a new name? A new avatar? A new direction? A hiatus? A cessation?

Perhaps, but I'm not sure and I'm open to suggestions...

Just don't motivate me with anger - even if it is an energy for me - I don't think I could handle much more work or family!

Take care,