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 © 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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