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.