Anchor Brewing Company’s promo for Humming Ale, their fall seasonal release, states that “HUMMING is an ancient term used centuries ago to describe both ales and beers.” This tie to beer history is one that piqued my interest. Presumably the use here of the words “ales” and “beers” refers to the olden days when beers were made with hops and ales were un-hopped. (To find out more about the different uses of the terms “ale” and “beer” through time check out Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile blog. It’s geeky stuff, but fascinating if you are into that kind of thing. I’m into that kind of thing.) But what of this term “humming?”
Numerous internet searches only turned up one historical reference. An 1889 book titled The Curiosities of Ale & Beer: an Entertaining History, by Charles Henry Cook, John Greville Fennel, and J. M. Dixon has this to say:
“Another epithet applied to ale, and denoting great strength, was ‘humming,’ and a reason for the term is shown by the extract from a letter from John Howell to Lord Ciffe (seventeenth century), who, in speaking of metheglin, says ‘that it keeps a humming in the brain, which made one say that he loved not metheglin because he was used to speak too much of the house he came from, meaning the hive.’ The humming in the head would be equally applicable to the effects of ale as of metheglin, though the hive would only apply to the latter. The same idea is sometimes expressed by the term hum-cup, as in the lines from the old Sussex sheep-shearing song, beginning :—
‘Tis a barrel then of hum-cup, which we call the black ram.”
Another reference to Humming Ale in the same book is this poem by Charles Dibdin the younger that relates a tale of the socializing power of beer.
THE BARREL OF HUMMING ALE.
Old Owen lived on the brow of an hill,
And he had more patience than pelf;
A small plot of ground was his labour to till,
And he toiled through the day by himself.
But at night crowds of visitors called at his cot,
For he told a right marvellous tale ;
Yet a stronger attraction by chance he had got,
A barrel of old humming ale.
Old Owen by all was an oracle thought,
While they drank not a joke failed to hit;
But Owen at last by experience was taught,
That wisdom is better than wit.
One night his cot could scarce hold the gay rout,
The next not a soul heard his tale,
The moral is simply they’d fairly drank out
His barrel of old humming ale.
From these references it would seem that the term “humming ale”, while perhaps not exactly ancient, refers to some sort of strong ale. And Anchor’s Humming Ale is sneaky strong. It’s deceptively light body masks a surprising 5.9% ABV.
Here’s my notes:
Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco, California
Style: Something very much like a strong bitter
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle
Aroma: Citrusy hops; orange mostly with some grapefruit pith. Lightly sweet caramel malt lies beneath the hops. Softly fruity.
Appearance: Voluminous and persistent ivory head. Light amber color with slight haze.
Flavor: Hops dominate. Solidly bitter, but not excessive. High levels of hop flavor; earthy, floral, grassy, orange/grapefruit pith. Grainy sweet malt barely balances at first, but comes in more fully as the beer warms with caramel notes making an appearance. Orange notes are also enhanced with warming. Finish is dry with lingering hops and light sweetness.
Mouthfeel: VERY light body, almost thin. Surprising for the 5.9% ABV. Medium carbonation.
Overall Impression: Basically this is a hopped-up English bitter with a pumped-up alcohol content. Light, easy to drink, and clearly on the hoppy side, with hops carrying through and through; aroma, bitterness, and flavor clear into the finish. Let it warm up a bit or the hops become too aggressive and harsh. The alcohol content was a surprise.