Ashburton Pop: What We Know

Illustration: a cork flies out of a stone bottle.

This lost Devon beer style came to our attention flipping through A Scrapbook of Inns a few weeks ago and we’ve since done a bit more digging. Here’s what we’ve got so far.

The best single description of Ashburton Pop comes from John Cooke, born in Ashburton in 1765, whose autobiographical pamphlet England Forever was published in 1819. We can’t find a copy of the original but fortunately is quoted at length in William Hone’s Table Book from 1827. Cooke wrote:

I recollect its sharp feeding good taste, far richer than the best small beer, more of the champagne taste, and what was termed a good sharp bottle. When you untied and hand-drew the cork it gave a report louder than a pop-gun, to which I attribute its name; its contents would fly up to the ceiling if you did not mind to keep the mouth of the stone bottle into the white quart cup; it filled it with froth, but not over a pint of clear liquor. Three old cronies would sit an afternoon six hours, smoke and drink a dozen bottles, their reckoning bit eight-pence each, and a penny for tobacco. The pop was but twopence a bottle.

A footnote to the 1817 edition of Sir John Sinclair’s The Code of Health confirms that high carbonation was a defining feature:

There is a particular kind of beer brewed at Ashburton in Devonshire, very full of fixed air, and therefore known by the name of Ashburton pop, which is supposed to be as efficacious in consumptions as even the air of Devonshire itself.

For what it’s worth J. Henry Harris speculated in 1907 that “it was probably some concoction intended to rival white-ale”, another famous Devon oddity.

Our attempt at Cornish swanky beer, which we reckon is in the same family.

Ashburton Pop was said to have died out between 1785 (Cooke, via Hone) and 1804, the latter date being given by an 1816 source. Cooke also says that the recipe was lost with the death of the brewer. Later sources mention surviving Ashburton Pop bottles bearing the name of what was probably the brewer, Richard Halse, and dates of 1771 or 1773. It was apparently revived in some form by William Michelmore, landlord of The Royal Oak at Ashburton, no later than 1835. He died in September 1846 aged 68. (Western Times, 12/09/1846.)

In the later 19th century references to Ashburton Pop only turn up in political commentary, like this from the Western Times for 03/06/1881…

Sir Stafford Northcote delivered his long-bottled speech at Manchester on Wednesday…. [He] was primed accordingly; but a more flat and vapid effusion was never poured forth in public than the oration of the Conservative Leader, on Wednesday. “Ashburton Pop” is a brisk potation, taken at the right moment, but a brief exposure to the air takes all the life out of it. Sir Stafford’s “pop” won’t stand the open air of public utterance.

… or this coded satire from the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette from 17/07/1852, signed ‘John Barleycorn’ and addressed to the town’s voters ahead of an upcoming election:

By the bye they say, good ale is drunk at Barnstaple, but his Lordship’s brewery turns out tipple too bitter even for his family circle there, and certainly would not suit the taste of you my friends, accustomed to excellent Ashburton Pop, of which with your permission, I will now drink to our next merry meeting, never ceasing to reiterate the common-sense patriotic principle that “England and every English Interest ought to be protected against the rivalry of the rest of the world.”

Assuming that, even referenced jokingly, these are accurate descriptions of the beer itself, we might gather that it (a) foamed quickly but didn’t retain a head; (b) was sweet rather than bitter; and (c) was to some degree still a topical reference, i.e. still in production as late as 1881, or at least generally remembered.

After this references to Ashburton Pop only appear in the context of historical notes and queries columns, often repeating the Cooke quotation above, and sometimes suggesting that it was a precursor to modern bottled beers.

So, for now, we don’t have much solid advice for those wanting to recreate Ashburton Pop, but as none of the sources mention unusual ingredients, e.g. ginger or raisins, you could probably do worse than this:

  1. Brew something along the lines of a fairly basic golden ale.
  2. Then follow the method for Cornish swanky beer given here: ferment with baker’s yeast; allow a short fermentation in a larger vessel before bottling with corks; when the corks start wanting to escape, after a day or two more, drink it, while it’s fresh.

7 thoughts on “Ashburton Pop: What We Know”

  1. More of this stuff, please! It’s fascinating – so many questions.

    The first ones being – why Ashburton? Is it something to do with the proximity to Plymouth allowing it early access to Caribbean sugar/molasses, or the other way – did the Navy have a special liking for it, is it something to do with eg tin-mining allowing tin-glazed pottery which had an advantage in this trade? Or is it just one of those random things that could have grown up anywhere and just needed someone with the enthusiasm to do it? The fact that it seems to have survived so long seems to suggest that there was some local reason to make it there.

    The second question is what’s the USP? High carbonation is part of it – is that something to do with better containers that were more gas-tight (did Plymouth allow access to better corks?), or is it priming sugar allowing a secondary fermentation? Christopher Merret wrote about the idea of adding sugar for a secondary fermentation of wine in 1662 so it was a known thing – and the English glass industry was sophisticated enough to produce bottles strong enough to reliably hold the pressure. We seem to be talking about stoneware here rather than glass though.

    The third is – what was the grist? What grains were being grown around Dartmoor at that time? The lack of head retention implies no wheat, but could mean some oats in there?

    As far as reproducing it – I don’t think you need to put up with the problems of bread yeast, proper brewing yeasts have been around for at least 400 years. But it doesn’t have to be a fancy one – something like that cheapo Muntons dry one you can find in any Wilko. Rather than a golden ale, I’d assume pre-20th century barley, which was more characterful than modern varieties, so chuck in a bit of crystal for something closer to BBB.

    Hmm – I’ve just had a thought. What if this is a British clone of Nijmegen Mol, a sweet-sour predecessor of Berliner weisse? It was a “white” beer made apparently with either oats or wind-dried malt. The distinguishing feature was a weird form of krausening – aside from a double decoction, a third of the wort was removed before fermentation and reduced down to a syrup. This syrup was added back at bottling, and apparently you had 10 days to drink the sweet-ish/sour beer before the resulting secondary fermentation chomped all the sugar and it became just flat sour beer. See http://lostbeers.com/nijmegen-mol/ for a recipe.

    It all kinda fits, no? It’s the sort of thing that sailors might have got a taste for in foreign ports but landlubbers just wouldn’t “get” so would remain a local curiosity. There’s a certain “trick” to it that again would help keep it proprietary.

    You mention white ale – is that a Devonian clone of koyt or broyhan?

    1. Here’s the best thing written about Devon White Ale. No evidence it was a clone of anything, just a spontaneously arising (ha) local beer style.

      We try to resist too much speculation but those all sound like ideas worth bearing in mind.

      If we get chance the next thing we’ll try to do is find some old local recipe collections at archives in the area, along the lines of the one at the Morrab Library in Penzance with handwritten notes on food and drink going back to the 17th century. It feels for now as if we’ve reached the limit of what’s going to turn up in mass market books or in digital archives.

  2. Hmm – I’ll grant you the distracting weirdness of deliberately thickening beer with egg looks like it’s pure Devon, but otherwise I’m not sure it’s so original. Very pale (air dried?) barley malt, mixed with wheat flour with few or no hops and then fermented quickly with a “mother” of lactic bacteria and some kind of non-Saccharomyces yeast? Sounds not a million miles away from broyhan, the dominant beer of northern Germany for 300 years. If IPA can evolve into both Greene King and Hill Farmstead, then what’s a bit of egg?

    I like to see the connections between things because of my biology background, and because there’s very little new under the sun in the beer world, especially with this amazing radiation that happened from the Low Countries in the Middle Ages. The Hanseatic League was a perfect way to distribute ideas and beers from the Baltic to the English Channel – and wherever there are sailors, there is alcohol…

    If nothing else, mol gives a different frame of reference, and if you’re looking for evidence of boiling up krausen into a priming syrup then you’re more likely to find it than if you’re only thinking of conventional brewing.

  3. Always nice to see that there are still undiscovered beer styles out there. It would be hard to link it to Nijmegen mol with certainty (which as far as I know was never bottled and died out at the end of the 18th century), but it shows the idea was floating around.

  4. The combination of a (presumably) low a.b.v. and high carbonation – in bottle – sounds like it was the USP; Cooke’s account still sounds pretty attractive. Sounds like it was something in the Berliner weiss area…?

    1. Phil — we couldn’t find any solid info on how strong it was or wasn’t, but one 1846 article referred to a bloke being pissed out of his skull on it at Ashburton Fair, so it definitely had some alcoholic content. If I had to guess I’d go for about 4-5% ABV, which would have counted as low alcohol for the time. But that really is just a guess, based on what we know about other country beers.

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