On the trail of black cork

On Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, there is a pub called Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. If you are a 19 year old German or Spanish backpacker, you have probably been there. It is named after William Brodie, the 18th century cabinetmaker by day, robber by night whose double life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

But for his notorious trial, the beer once known as “black cork” might be altogether forgotten.

The account published as “Trial of W. Brodie and G. Smith”, in The Scots magazine, August 1788, tells us: “...they met in an upper room in Smith's house, and had some herrings, chickens, gin, and black cork, which last he explained to be Bell's beer…” (p. 371)

Later accounts appear also to be based on this version, and black cork remains a feature of the story, such as in The Trial of Deacon Brodie (1906): "Smith, Brown, and Ainslie were sitting in an upper room beguiling the time with a light refection of herrings and chicken, washed down by draughts of gin and “black cork”, i.e. Bell's beer." (p. 36)

Almost two hundred years later, Forbes Bramble can be found writing in The strange case of Deacon Brodie, 1976: “On the bare boards of the floor stood several bottles of Bell's ‘black cork’, thick, black ale more intoxicating than wine”. But this is not a contemporary source, and there is no reason to believe that Bramble hasn't just made a guess at what black cork was.

Bell's beer also appears by name in fiction, in The gaberlunzie's wallet by James Ballantine (1843):
“Talking of the fiddler, have ye heard any word of him lately,” inquired the Gaberlunzie. 
“No,” said Nanny, “ye ken I maunna be ower inquisitive. But sit ye in, there’s something will suit your Scotch stamack better nor French frogs; just eat awa there, and I’ll run ower the way to Bell's brewery, and get ye a pint o’ black cork to synd it doun wi.” 
The Gaberlunzie ate heartly of the savoury dish which Nanny placed before him, and thanked his stars he was at home once more.
So what was black cork? It sounds like it's a slang term for porter, doesn't it? That seems reasonable enough, as porter was at its most popular in the late 18th century, and black. And it appears significant that the beer was made by Bell's brewery, with no other being mentioned.

Could black cork have been porter? It seems the obvious answer, but contemporary sources suggest not. In an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, February 1820 (No. 35, Vol 6)  about food adulteration, widespread in England and described in great detail on the preceding pages, to which the author patriotically, if naïvely, fancies that Scottish foodstuffs are less liable, he praises the beer of Prestonpans and Edinburgh:
Uncontaminated by drugs, the porter of the Prestonpans brewery will still maintain the high reputation it has acquired; and share with Bell's ale an honourable, an extended, and a lucrative popularity.
So one beer is described as porter, and the other as ale. If they were both porter, wouldn't they be compared as such? In 1805 we also find Robert Forsyth describing Bell as a brewer of ale, so implicitly not porter (“The Beauties of Scotland Vol I”, pages 159-160, quoted in R Pattinson, “Scotland!”, p15):
Formerly a brewer, who had established his works in the southern district at the Pleasance, Mr Bell, was more celebrated than any other in Scotland for the preparation of malt liquor ; but his ale had the fault of being extremely intoxicating.

Another source also treats Bell’s beer and porter as different things. In Hugo Arnot, The history of Edinburgh: from the earliest accounts to the year 1780 (first published, as far as I can make out, in 1779, but I quote from the 1816 edition), we read:
“The Pleasance consists of one mean street; through it lies the principal road to London. There is nothing remarkable in this suburb except a large brewery, with spacious vaults, belonging to Mr Bell, where the best strong beer is made of any brewed for sale in Scotland. The quality of it is, indeed, so good, as to recommend itself to be purchased not only for home consumpt, but also for exportation.” (p251)
“The strong beer brewed in Edinburgh by Mr Bell, and its excellent quality, have already been spoke of. Porter is also brewed in Edinburgh: but it is a different liquor from London porter, and greatly inferior to it; accordingly, a considerable quantity of that liquor is annually imported from London.” (p267)
Bell’s is, we learn, strong beer, but the statement “Porter is also brewed in Edinburgh” immediately following implies that the beer previously mentioned is not porter.

David Loch, in his Essays on the trade, commerce, manufactures, and fisheries of Scotland (1778) had already noted the inferior quality of Edinburgh porter vis-a-vs London porter — or at least what was sold to the unwary as London. But specifically, he complains about the willingness of the Edinburgh public to accept watered-down London porter in place of the (in his view) perfectly adequate local product:
I have already acknowledged that we cannot, or at least do not, for reasons before accounted for, brew Porter so well here as they do in London; but I dare venture to say, there are many persons who make such Porter as might please any English palate; and a dose of patriotism mixed with it will make it also agreeable to the Scots. Out of a great number of eminent Porter brewers, I shall beg leave to mention the following:— Mr George Miller, St Ann’s yards; Mr James Hotchkiss, Grass-market; Mr Archibald Campbell, Cowgate; Messrs Gardener and Co, Goosedub; the Industrious Company, Edinburgh; and Messrs Cundell and Son, and Mr Matthew Comb at Leith.
I have formerly hinted, that the Porter drunk in our taverns and public-houses is not genuine London Porter, but adulterated with small beer. —This fact has been declared by Londoners themselves, and others well acquainted with its true taste. In short, there is hardly a tavern or public house in Edinburgh or Leith, where London Porter, as they call it, is kept, but at least one third of the bottle is small beer, though you pay fourpence and sixpence a bottle for this precious stuff.
… Whereas, good Scots Porter, without any adulteration, can be had at threepence a bottle, and excellent strong ale at the same price, at any public house in the town, both of which are better worth the money than the mixed trash drunk by hundreds of dozens in a day, in and about this metropolis.
Following his argument that Scottish brewers, blessed with lower malt duty and cheaper coal, should be able to compete easily with imported English beer were it not for the fashion for London Porter, he concludes:
“…we may be supplied with as good wholesome drink at home and at a cheaper rate than any we can import from England.
I could particularize many instances to prove the truth of this assertion, from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Leith and other places; but I shall confine myself to one at present; and that is, Mr Hugh Bell of this city. This gentleman occupies a most extensive brewery, and, without partiality to the manufactures of my own country, I may safely aver, that no brewer in Great Britain furnishes better malt liquors of the different kinds and prices than he does. His strong beer, or ale, known by the name of Bell’s Beer, is famed both at home and abroad. His small beer, too, is of an excellent quality, and, if properly managed, will keep twelve months, being but little inferior to that which is drunk here in public houses under the appellation of London Porter. Private families may be supplied with it, being good, wholesome drink, at a little more than a penny a bottle. Mr Bell has not yet attempted to brew Porter, his demands for different sorts of ale being very considerable.”
This seems quite clear. Loch lists a number of porter brewers, and explicitly mentions Hugh Bell as a brewer who does not make porter. If we were still to assume that black cork was porter, we would have to assume that Bell began brewing it at some point in the subsequent ten years and that Brodie and his chums began drinking it. Not an entirely impossible scenario, but probably less likely than black cork being Bell’s already famous strong ale.

There is a short article by Charles McMaster in the Scottish Brewing Archive Newsletter #17 which traces the most salient points in the history of Bell’s brewery, but doesn’t tell us an awful lot about the beer, except that it was a strong Scotch ale, though no evidence for this claim is presented. There is a rather odd description of Scotch ale as strong and dark; perhaps McMaster was conflating the dark beers produced as Scotch Ale in the 20th century for the Belgian market with the old-style Scotch ale described by both Roberts and Booth as exquisitely pale.

McMaster does tell us that the secret of brewing black cork died with its last brewer, Robert Keir, in 1837. I wonder how secret a beer recipe can really be, but it seems to have been accepted that the secret, whatever it was, was lost. It seems strange that a beer evidently well-known over a period of sixty years should just disappear, but there you go.

Sadly there are no records of the Bell’s brewery in the archives. The trail begins with Edinburgh United Breweries, who bought Bell's and some others in the late nineteenth century. But black cork was long since gone by then.

There are therefore no real successors to black cork in modern times. However, in 1933, shortly before EUB went into administration, they were brewing 54/– ale at an original gravity of 1030, 60/– at 1036 (though some brews of this went as high as 1042) and 210/– at 1090. This last ale was presumably the descendant of Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale which was praised (albeit in its own advertisements) in the 19th century as “the burgundy of Scotland”. It had already fallen in gravity from 1103 in 1928, so heaven knows how strong it had been in the 1800s. Perhaps that is, though certainly not a direct relation of black cork, the nearest known next of kin.


  1. What an extraordinary story. From what we can piece together, it sounds as if this was
    a) none more black (at least, if 'black cork' is meant to evoke burnt cork, which is noted for its blackness)
    and b) none more strong (10%? 12%?)

    But not a porter. Making it in contemporary terms... what? A strong dubbel?

    And then they stopped making it, and the punters... drank something else instead. Gose shmose, this is the style I want to see brought back from the dead.

  2. But none of the contemporary sources say the beer itself was black. Only the one written two hundred years later does that. Black cork was just its name.

    The sources do say it was loopy juice, which I am quite prepared to believe. Strong ales had massively high gravities back in the day, over 1.100 sometimes.

  3. Private families may be supplied with it, being good, wholesome drink, at a little more than a penny a bottle"

    Which equates to around 52p a bottle in today's money. The lucky sods.

  4. none of the contemporary sources say the beer itself was black

    Good point. For all we know it may have got its name because the bottle had a black cork.

  5. It's possible that it could have been a dark Scotch Ale.

    In the 18th century I don't know if Scotch Ale was usually pale as it was in the 19th century. The related Burton Ale seems to have started off as a dark drown beer, become pale in the early 19th century, then become dark again around 1900.

  6. You don't have long to wait for the return of Black Cork, Robbie. The new Knops beer release on the 14th of December - Rob's new beer is an homage to that very beer. If you're in Edinburgh, we'll be at the Stockbridge Tap for the launch...

  7. Fascinating - I wonder what style the Knops BC is. I see it's only 6.5%, though - a light easy-drinking quaffer by eighteenth-century standards.


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