In search of the North West Passage
Allsopp’s Arctic Ale was a strong, sweet, north of 11% ABV brew that was a descendant of the beers Allsopp’s used to export to the Baltic States.
Many daring explorers gave their lives in the pursuit of the fabled Northwest Passage, which, by traversing the polar coast of the North American continent, was to provide an infinitely shorter route to the Far East than the long voyage around the Cape.
In 1845, Captain John Franklin set out on the last voyage of his colourful career. He eventually found the Northwest Passage — though it cost him his life and never realised the hopes of the early navigators. Even his discovery was unknown for fourteen years, as he and his companions vanished into the unexplored Arctic.
"Admiral Belcher reported to the Admiralty that it was the best drink for Arctic regions."
Rescue expeditions were commissioned to discover the fate of the unfortunate explorers. These met with no success, and in 1852 a Government expedition under Admiral Edward Belcher was sent to make a more determined effort.
It was while fitting out this last expedition that Allsopp’s Arctic Ale made its first appearance. The Government requested Allsopps produce a beer suitable for the rigours of the Arctic climate. The beer had to be strong, so as not to be damaged by the freezing climate, it also prevented scurvy. The brew was perfected towards the end of 1851, and the beer was a great success.
A sizeable quantity of a new beer called Allsopp’s Arctic Ale was loaded aboard HMS Resolute. Admiral Belcher reported to the Admiralty that it was “the best drink for Arctic regions. It has indeed been a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick. It kept exceedingly well and was sought after by all.”
He also reported that Arctic Ale was in no way impaired by freezing. Re-bottling found it as good as ever.
By the time Sir Edward and his men were safely home for Christmas 1854, this strong, warming ale was being widely praised, with one astute admirer proclaiming it “as mellow as old Burgundy and as nourishing as a beefsteak”.
Subsequent Arctic expeditions found the warming strength of the ale a great help to the brave men who fought the bitter cold of the frozen latitudes.
Sir Leopold McLintock’s expedition of 1857, which finally discovered the fate of Franklin, was also supplied with this fine, strong ale. In 1875, Sir George Nares, who had been with Admiral Belcher in the previous expedition, asked for a similar beer to be provided. Again Arctic Ale was found a highly successful brew.
In 1895, Sir Albert Markham, whose name is famous in the field of Arctic exploration and who had accompanied Sir George Nares twenty years earlier, gave an interview to an enterprising journalist. The latter, impressed by what he had heard of the beer, investigated the matter further and reported in these terms:-
“This is one of the strongest ales ever brewed by the company. The consistency of the wort was such that it could not run from the copper through the tap in the ordinary way but had to be lifted out in buckets. It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to remind the public the sustaining qualities of a beer such as this are far greater than those of wines and spirits. Its colour is a rich brown and its flavour is suggestive of Old Madeira. It is as sound today as on the day of its birth 20 years ago.”