In 1845 Sir John Franklin set off on the fourth Arctic expedition of his distinguished Naval career. The expedition set sail on May 19th 1845 in two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror with the purpose of finishing the mapping of the Arctic coastline and discovering the famed Northwest Passage - a route through the ice to the other side of America to the Pacific Ocean and on to Asia. The expedition never returned.
And so it was, after much disquiet at home in England, that in 1852 a comprehensive search expedition was launched under the command of Commander Edward Belcher. Belcher also had a distinguished Naval record and the respect of his men.
The Arctic expeditions were absurdly treacherous and it seems bizarre today that such risk was contemplated but such was the massive attraction of the discovery and control of the North West Passage.
To support the voyages much thought and ingenuity was brought to bear and so it was that Belcher's expedition was equipped with a new type of victual - Allsopp's Arctic Ale.
Arctic Ale was commissioned by the Government and first brewed in 1851 by Allsopp & Sons the famous Burton upon Trent brewers. The first brew was bottled and left with the expedition in 1852 from the Royal Harwich Yacht Club.
Whilst we don't know the specification for Arctic Ale we do know that it was designed to keep for long periods, withstand the rigours of the voyage (i.e. low temperatures and the motion of the sea) and provide a source of nutrition for the crew. It may come as some surprise to learn that what we now consider to be a recreational drink was once considered as food but that is the history of beer and ale - especially as far as the Navy was concerned!
We also don't have an original recipe for Arctic Ale but we do have several contemporary accounts of the brewing process and tasting. In any case the key principle was to pack as much malt as possible into the brew to deliver the nutritional value this, in turn, producing sugars, which fermented to produce high levels of alcohol. Allsopp & Sons were already skilled at producing India Pale Ales for the long sea voyage to that subcontinent so the same attention to detail would have been applied to Artic Ale.
Belcher's expedition found Allsopp's product to be excellent and Arctic Ale was brewed again for expeditions in 1875 and 1887.
At some point Allsopp starting brewing Arctic Ale for the home market, probably between the wars after their merger with Ind Coope and probably using a different recipe. By all accounts the ale marketed as Ind Coope No. 1 Arctic Ale was a paler and slightly weaker beer - more like a modern barley wine. It did gain a following though and continued to be produced well into the 1960s.