look to the past

“Is it a mild is it a bitter? A lovely beer in a country that has become obsessed with over-hopped craft beers, lovely and malty and not over strong in alcohol – one of my favs!”

Adrianne Elson, Belfast

Like a ring passed down through the generations, it’s still here – 185 years young – a jewel forged in the fires of a bygone age.

More has probably been written about AK’s name than the ale itself. The term AK was used by breweries across Britain – McMullen’s is the only extant example. Roger Protz touches on it here, Martyn Cornell wrestles with it here and Gary Gilman sheds plenty of light here and here. McMullen brewery also has a collection of alternative name origins related through a mischievous grin.

However, the nomenclature is beyond the scope of this post.

I want to write about AK in its current context – a fixture in many McMullen’s tied pubs but basically found nowhere else save local beer festivals. It hasn’t changed in order to match the strengths or flavours of modern beers and it really does stick out.

It’s a divisive beer. Some swear by it – some at it. I’m not supposed to like it. It’s a beer whose style has faded. It’s associated with flat caps – not modern ones acting as an accessory to sculpted beards, but the originals accessorised by hearing aids.

It’s no longer available in any pub in St Albans so I’ve journeyed via stagecoach to the Salisbury Arms Hotel in Hertford to drink it at its source.

I love the magisterial hulk of this pub. It has curved “booth” doors as you go in and countless side rooms and chambers. It’s a proper hotel too boasting dozens of bedrooms. It’s full of McMullen memorabilia, dark wooden panelling and bar staff in maître d outfits. The central hallway linking each space is like a mahogany runway. The toilets are such a long walk down the hotel’s regal intestines, they’re in a separate postcode!

the magisterial hulk of the Salisbury Arms Hotel in Hertford

There are six people in the public lounge, which despite the Salisbury Arms’ size, feels very intimate. Most seem to be drinking the AK. There’s a group around a table and one perched at the horseshoe bar.

My pint is drawn.

AK pours caramel in colour. The head is a tight foam like lily cuckoo spit. I see the carbonation – it’s levitous, cool and sparkling.

I sip it and get a tannic taste somewhere between burnt wholemeal toast and dark chocolate. There’s a touch of copper too. I watch the world go by.

AK is brewed with one hop – Whitbread Goldings Variety (at least it has been since the early 20th century when it became available) – and so was a single varietal long before the term existed.

I almost always go for the ale at the bar I’ve never seen before – often wishing I’d instead plumped for something tried and tested.

I’ve written at length before about feeling I’m an inbetweener in terms of age (too young to remember the inception of CAMRA – too old to understand the solipsistic re-inventings of the millennials). But I’m conscious it’s the younger drinkers (do I still count?) that “pump surf” whilst older drinkers prefer to stick to their daily bread and that’s how I view AK: a staple.

Unlike St Albans, Hertford is lucky to have its own.

The aroma isn’t strong – a distant orange peel. As I peruse my newspaper, I get the sensation I’m eating chocolate bourbon biscuits – this becomes the strongest characteristic about the beer – taking on a slight ginger loaf edge too.

At a respectful volume, My Sweet Lord by George Harrison pipes though speakers in the background. This slackens me even more.

“Slippery. Rounded. Integrated. And that Jacksonian “moreish” to a great degree, maybe dangerous degree”.

Lew Bryson, Philadelphia

If this beer were presented in a different way, I suspect stuffy associations would change. If, for example, it was presented as a traditional farmhouse recipe from mainland Europe, it would change my perspective. I’d strip down my sensory apparatus and turn my mind into a blank canvas – wide open and virgin to sensory experiences. It’s good to try and do this – unlearn what you’ve learned.

Before I ever tried writing about beer myself, I was reading other people do it – most notably Michael Jackson and it all subconsciously trickles in. I’m not just the sum of all the things I’ve read because there are my own little original tweaks too, but this shared knowledge is the bedrock. Sometimes it needs to be broken down in order to build again.

Modern hop profiles have undoubtedly made beer more interesting and converted more drinkers to it. But in doing so, they’ve made the citrussy fruity hops the benchmark. When you don’t get that hit, it can feel as if something’s missing.

It seems we increasingly judge beers based on the palate’s initial few seconds. If it doesn’t stun front of house, it doesn’t get asked back.

As I sit at the window, an elderly gentleman has entered the bar. He’s immaculately dressed in jacket, waistcoat and tie. His white pate looks like it’s been Brylcreemed down. He’s a regular to the staff as they greet him by name. He sits opposite me and judging by his dark beer, his is a pint of AK too.

Periodically, he asks the staff what day and date it is. He also gets up to cross the lounge to look at the clock on the far wall even though he did it a few minutes previously. Though his short term memory is compromised, his dignity isn’t and he’s haunting his local as always. This instantly makes me fond of the Salisbury Arms Hotel and what it represents to the natives: a home from home – a friendly haven.

If he’s originally from Hertford, AK might have been the ale he was weaned on.

“It was THE beer in the Farriers Arms 20 years ago, and folk would consider Country “too strong”. The other AK specialist was the Liverpudlian landlord at the Maiden’s Head in Whitwell, who stocked an equally great Bass as a guest. Rarely had it elsewhere, except at Cricketers at Woodford Green. I left St Albans in 2001 and have rarely seen it since!”

Martin Taylor, Cambridge

Session. That’s a word that has a whole culture behind it in Britain – perhaps unique to Britain – tied as it is to the industrial revolution. Because industry created the oases of labour workforces across Britain, ale was a way of putting a balm on the end of each day’s physical toil. Whether you worked in a factory, mill, mine or in the case of most of AK’s original patrons – in farming, sessioning low alcohol malt beer acted as both liquid nourishment and analgesic.

The white heat of innovation occupying the younger breweries is exciting both in the challenging beers they produce and the technology they pilot. In the UK, we no longer have a drinking culture when it comes to beer, but rather a range of cultures and AK needs to be treated within its own.

Brewed since 1833, McMullen AK used to be billed as a light mild and was rebranded as a bitter to appeal to younger drinkers, but I can’t help think that in 2018, the term bitter itself bears the stamp of a previous generation.

Ales like this are considerate to the drinker. I drink three pints over the course of about ninety minutes on a quiet Monday afternoon. I leave with a very clear head and feel refreshed. There is a taste that remains like I’ve eaten raisins in porridge. I feel nourished. There’s no caustic burn – something I often get after more aggressively hopped or Bretted beers.

I recommend that you seek AK out but I certainly can’t promise you’ll like it. I do – one reason is precisely because it’s a break away from more cutting edge experimental beers. If you’re London-centric, I further recommend a train from King’s Cross to Hertford for a cultural day out that matches a town with its traditional pint.

It’s a good excuse to put Rate Beer and Untappd away. AK doesn’t try and push boundaries. It’s a slow-building ale which is how it should be savoured. Make sure to have a few pints to see how that works – it’s been slaking the thirsts for generations of Hertfordians.

10 Comments

  1. Always found it slightly surprising that McMullen retain a handful of pubs right in the heart of London. Doesn’t fit my image of them at all.
    Checking (Untappd is useful!), in fact last time had AK wasn’t anywhere in Hertfordshire, but the Nag’s Head, Covent Garden. McMullen’s and Covent Garden – there’s an unlikely symbiosis :-).

    • I’ve been there but it was years ago. I don’t hear very good reports about inner London cask keeping (the Harp excepted, obviously). How was the beer on your visit?

    • I collapsed on the bench on the green outside the pub after trying to walk from Hitchen to St Akbans last year and going the wrong way! I’ve never actually been in!

  2. The Wonder in Enfield is – I think – the only McMullens pub within the M25 regularly in the GBG: a timewarp public bar and excellent AK. As a “bitter” it could seem underwhelming, but think of it as a mild and it makes more of an impression: they should consider switching the branding back.

  3. There are two McMullen pins in central London still – Nags Head in Covent Garden and The Spice of Life in Cambridge Circus – always love to pop in for a pint of AK

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