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Mixology Monday LIX: Brown Betty

by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

0.25 cup firmly packed Brown Sugar
4 oz Water
Quarter Lemon, sliced
1 Pinch (1/16 tsp) each Ground Cloves, Ground Cinnamon, and Ground Ginger
2 oz Remy Martin Cognac
4 oz Real Ale (ESB recommended)

Dissolve the brown sugar in the water
Add sliced lemon to mixture.  Let stand 15 minutes
Add brandy, ale, and spices, stirring to combine
Chill well
Garnish with a lemon slice and a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg
Ice can be added if you don’t oppose ice in beer

Multiply by 4 for a full recipe.

* * *

Oxford University is known for many things, among them its tremendous education, exquisite architecture, lovely location, and esteemed graduates.  In terms of cocktail history, Oxford is synonymous with a little book known as “Oxford Night Caps – A Collection of Receipts for the Making of Various Beverages Used in the University” from the early 1800s.  For today’s beer-themed Mixology Monday, we’ve adapted the traditional “Night Caps” recipe for Brown Betty and scaled it down from punch bowl to single serving size.  We think it’s an ideal summer drink, not only because it tastes damn fine but also because it’s a one-two “punch” that’ll impress both the beer-lover and the cocktail snob alike.

Drinks like Brown Betty – so named, it is rumored, for a rather solicitous chamber maid of the era – would have been enjoyed by the members of Oxford’s exclusive dining cubs, which are still in existence today. Essentially gatherings for like-minded individuals – most likely chosen based on titles, wealth, or sporting interests – the “dining” element was really just an excuse for, well, drinking.  A lot.  It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the concept of the American college fraternity was inspired directly by the Oxford dining clubs.  (The idea of fraternity “rush”, the process of visiting prospective frats, possibly comes from the concept of new Oxford students “rushing” to find a seat at the right table and with the right people in the dining hall.)

Today, these clubs are still alive and well.  For instance, Oriel College has The Musketeers, composed mainly of rugby players.  There’s the rather infamous Penguin Club, which came under fire in 2010 for apparently seducing schoolgirls after plying them with cheap cocktails.  Along with the Phoenix Society, which claims to be the oldest of the clubs, the exclusive Bullingdon Club, founded in 1780, was and still is known for its wealthy and rambunctious members (including, in the past, Edward VII and VIII, the infamous John Profumo, and Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer). At their gatherings, the members sport the requisite club “uniform” of blue and white tailcoats blue bowties and golden vests, made for them by Ede & Ravenscroft, the Royal gown makers.

A number of the Brown Betty recipes you find on the web call for Bass Ale, which isn’t technically correct.  At the time that Brown Betty was being first consumed, beer was a locally-made, cask-conditioned product, a far cry from modern, mass-produced beers on the market.  So what you need here is British “real ale”, a term coined by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1971 to differentiate between artisan brews and the less unique, mass-marketed ones.   We chose a Wells Bombardier Premium Ale here – the bottled version – with great results.

The original recipe calls for toasted bread topped with ginger and nutmeg, a practice which dates back to the seafaring days but which began to fall out of fashion by the early 19th century.  If sea biscuits aren’t available, nicely browned toast works as well – although we’ve skipped the step entirely and incorporated the ginger into the drink and the nutmeg on top.  We’ve also tweaked the sugar a bit (although various 1800s recipe disagree here, no doubt due to someone’s typo) and cut the beer in half – resulting in a more unified beverage versus just simply a spiced beer.

In profile, Brown Betty resembles Buttered Beere to a great degree, minus the heady creaminess imparted by the butter, as well as a number of other “Night Caps” drinks.  According to contemporary sources, the biggest differences between many of these is simply the name.  You could argue that the strong/weak/sour/sweet combination of ingredients makes the Brown Betty a beer-based punch, although at the time, it was classified as a “cup”.   In terms of flavor, I find it far more tasty than you would ever suspect – like a gentle, less potent root beer with a hint of lemon.  With said profile, it makes a perfect hot weather sipper, infinitely quaffable with enough of a kick to wake up both mind and body.

If anything, we Mixology Monday-ers form a bit of a club ourselves, one devoted, like those in Oxford, to drink.  Of course, we tend to be inclusive rather than exclusive and we don’t have a fancy uniform (not that we would be opposed).  Our host this month is Frederic over at Cocktail Virgin Slut, a fine drinking companion if ever there was one.  Many thanks to Frederic and, as always, to Paul Clarke for putting everything together.

Now, if you’re interested in another group of drinking buddies from Oxford, we highly recommend you take a stroll, Brown Betty in hand of course, over to our friend Deana’s (LostPastRemembered) recent post on The Inklings, arguably Oxford’s most influential social club ever.

Extended Esoterica:   While Oxford is the inspiration for today’s drink, fruit-y pudding is the subject of today’s esoterica, as I for one can’t help but think of the dessert of the same name.  If you are lover of cobbler and all things crumbled, you have probably more than once puzzled over the difference between these fruit-based desserts.  For those of you, here is a little primer.  By the way, all of the sweet treats below would taste wonderful with our beer-based Brown Betty tipple above.

Betty or Brown Betty – A fruit-based dessert, usually apples, which are baked between layers of buttered crumbs.  They were very popular in colonial times.

Cobbler – American deep-dish fruit-based dessert with a biscuit-type crust, which looks a bit like a cobblestone street.  (“Sonker” is a deep-dish cobbler unique to North Carolina.)

Crisp/Crumble – Fruit on bottom, crumb topping – usually oats, but sometimes bread crumbs, nuts, or graham cracker crumbs are used.  Crisps are American; Crumbles are British, originating during the rationing of World War II.

Grunt/Slump –A New England stewed cobbler cooked atop the stove much like a steamed English pudding.  In Massachusetts, they are grunts (apparently the sound the mixture makes while cooking); in Vermont, Maine, and Rhone Island, they are slumps.

Buckle – A single layer cake in which berries, usually blueberries, are added to the batter with a streusel-like topping.

Pandowdy – A deep-dish dessert most often made with apples and sweetened with molasses or brown sugar.  The crust is broken up during or after baking and pushed into the fruit mixture.

    Comments ( 4 )

  • Oh. that was fun. It is interesting to see students and profs dressed in their outfits walking down the street… like costumes in today’s world. Love the club history… interesting about the bread in the drink with the ale… like many wassail recipes… maybe helped with hangovers!

    • I’m still trying to get to the bottom of the whole bread/biscuit in punch thing, and I just peppered Dave Wondrich with a bunch of questions on the subject. Once they’re answered, I think we’ll be doing a post on “toasting”.

  • Thank you for your submission and I’m glad that a few of you did some 19th century drinks (was my first thought before I got distracted by some modern ones).

    • Our pleasure. We have a hard time resisting the arcane.

      NOTE: I just make a batch (8x the above recipe) for a party and used Fuller’s London Pride. The result was much less interesting, but we solved it by adding a little extra spice and a splash of Guinness. I’ve gone back and indicated in the recipe that an ESB, like our original Bombardier, is the best way to go — you want the drink to have a little bite.

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