British Beer and Arctic Exploits

The British have a proud tradition of brewing beer and exploring the North and South Poles. These endeavours are linked through history in more ways than you might imagine, as shown by the recent auction of a beer brewed especially for an Arctic expedition.

Allsopp’s Artic Ale was brewed in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire for an expedition led by Sir George Strong Nares in 1875. This was not the first time this ale would accompany explorers travelling to the arctic.

Ale was instrumental to long sea voyages as it contains vitamin C and stores well. The Arctic Ale was brewed by Samuel Allsopp & Sons, founded in the early Eighteenth century by Benjamin Wilson. His son Benjamin sold the floundering business to his nephew, Samuel Allsopp in 1807.

This period was marked by an economic downturn in Britain caused by a blockade ordered by Napoléon Bonaparte. His Berlin Decree of 1806 forbade any continental trade with Britain, reducing British exports by over 50%. The blockade ended in 1814 when, after losing the Battle of Leipzeig, he was exiled to the tiny island of Elba, some 12 miles of the coast of Tuscany.

Arctic Ale was first brewed to accompany an expedition to the Arctic led by Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin. Franklin’s expedition left in 1845 and aimed to chart the famous North-west Passage, linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Unfortunately, this ended in failure and the ships and participants were lost. Franklin became a national hero and Queen Victoria ordered that the expedition party must be found.

Arctic Ale was brewed again to supply ships led by Sir Edward Belcher in 1851, seeking to discover what had befallen the Franklin expedition. A young George Nares served as Second Mate on one of the ships. Belcher failed to find anything and returned to England after three hard years of searching.

Arctic Ale was again brewed to accompany Leopold McClintock in 1857 in another failed attempt to discover the Franklin expedition. He returned with only a note detailing the fate of the expedition, discovered on an island close to where Franklin’s ships became icebound and foundered.

In 1875 Arctic Ale would accompany Nares to The North Pole.

Nares had already made a name for himself as something of a maverick. In November 1869 he took his survey ship, the Newport, into the Gulf of Suez via the newly opened Suez Canal. The French Imperial yacht L’Aigle was officially the first vessel to pass through the canal, however Nares’ ship was actually the first to do so. On the night before it was due to open he navigated Newport through the long queue of moored ships in total darkness and without lights. In the morning, the crew of L’Aigle were mortified to find that the Royal Navy had a ship in front of them and there was nothing they could do about it. Nares received an official reprimand from the Admiralty for causing a diplomatic incident. He was also promoted to Captain for his superb seamanship and for increasing Britain’s seafaring prestige.

Nares did not manage to reach the North Pole. However he became the first explorer to take his ships through the channel between Ellesmere Island and Greenland to the Lincoln sea. This passage is now called the Nares Strait in his honour. His name also graces a small island in Northern Greenland called Nares Land, and Nares County in Australia’s Queensland state.

Some 140 years later, a bottle of beer from his final Arctic expedition was discovered by Trevanion and Dean auctioneer Aaron Dean in a box in the garage of a house in Gobowen, Shropshire. Nobody knows why it was there. On the 13th of June 2015 it was auctioned for £3,300! Quite a lot for beer perhaps but certainly one steeped in history.

However, this bottle was not the first sold at auction. As a final twist in this tale, in 2007 a bottle from Belcher’s 1851 expedition was listed on eBay. Unfortunately this bottle of Allsopp’s was listed as “Allsop’s Arctic Ale”, and fetched $304. The buyer then relisted it with the correct spelling and 76,464 views and 157 bids later it sold for $503,300 (£325,000).

As spelling mistakes go, thats pretty costly!

Image is “George Nares“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What Does 150 Year-Old Wine Taste Like?

On the 6th of September 1864 a British-built steamer left Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda bound for Wilmington, Virginia. The manifest stated it was carrying canned-meat and general merchandise. In fact this ship, the Mary Celestia, was carrying Enfield rifles and other munitions to the ailing Confederate States of America. Whilst rounding the southern tip of the island she struck rocks and sank.

Her wreck has been of interest to divers and archeologists ever since, but recently wine enthusiasts have had also had good reason to take interest. Why? Read on.

The Mary Celestia was launched in February 1864 by William C. Miller & Sons, a shipyard in Liverpool. She was a side paddle-wheeled steamer, iron hulled, 225 feet long and 207 tonnes. It took two months to outfit her and she then set sail for Bermuda, arriving in May.

Bermuda consists of 181 islands ringed by reefs, and sits some 600 miles off the coast of North America. Spanish mariner Juan de BermudezIt discovered Bermuda in 1505. Unsurprisingly, the first settlement of Bermuda happened because of a shipwreck. Today Bermuda is famous for being part of the Bermuda Triangle, an area formed by Puerto Rico to the South and Florida to the West, which has claimed hundreds of ships and aircraft, often disappearing mysteriously without a trace.

In 1864, the American civil war was in it’s fourth year and the Confederacy of southern states was being brought to it’s knees by a Union naval blockade. Called The Anaconda Plan or Scott’s Great Snake, the blockade was proposed by Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, and it was working.

500 Union ships were trying to prevent supplies reaching the confederacy, covering 3,500 miles of coastline. The Union Navy would capture 1,500 ships trying to cross the blockade over the course of the war. Many of these “blockade runners” were ships commissioned by the Confederacy to bring in vital supplies, notably from Britain. The Mary Celestia was one of these ships.

Her career was brief, perhaps performing tens of journeys in the three or four months before she sank. Brief, but full of drama. Whilst being pursued by a Union blockader the captain had to throw 100 bales of cotton overboard to lighten the ship, some $100,000 in todays money. This wasn’t enough, and she only escaped her pursuer when the ship’s engineer opened the safety valves to allow the boilers to heat past safe levels so that she could generate enough steam to hit 17 knots.

However, on the of September 1864 her luck ran out. She struck rocks near the Gibb’s Point Lighthouse and sank. Her wreck is now been visited by hundreds of divers each year. She is one of Bermuda’s “top ten” diving attractions and continues to be investigated due to her historical significance within the context of the American Civil War.

Her watery grave was periodically disturbed by passing hurricanes over the next 145 years, tossing the wreck around, sometimes revealing more of the wreck, sometimes burying it in sand. In 2009 it was reported that a corked bottle of wine was visible in the bow next to a wooden case, exposed by the passing Hurricane Bill. The bottle appeared to be intact and contained a grey looking liquid.

It was not until 2011 that this case was recovered, and not until this month (6th of March) that a bottle of the “grey wine” was actually uncorked and tasted at a wine and food event in Charleston, South Carolina.

And what did it taste like?

Apparently it “smelled and tasted like crab water, gasoline, salt water, vinegar, with hints of citrus and alcohol.” So seawater then.

A crate of wine retrieved from a ship involved in a war over 150 years ago, painstakingly recovered but sadly with little of the original wine remaining. Still, a fascinating story!

Full story in The Independent.

Image is of a ship similar to the Mary Celestia, also built in Liverpool, the Colonel Lamb by U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons