Tracking the Lost History of Swanky Beer

Do you find yourself wondering what the mysterious brew known as “swanky” is? Well, this article will take a deep dive into the lost beer style's strange history and surprising diaspora. Follow us as we explore the source of this intoxicating tipple from Cornwall, explore its exotic roots, and uncover its secrets!

The sunlit county of Cornwall in the far south-west of Britain has a long and proud brewing tradition, with a wealth of traditional ales and beers crafted by generations of talented brewers. Once upon a time, a certain beer was even said to have been indigenous to the region: the strange and mysterious “swanky”.

What is Swanky Beer?

The first record of swanky comes from a curious source. In a collection of early 19th century Cornish recipes, there’s a brief mention of swanky being used as an ingredient in some form of medicinal drink. But other than that, it seems as if the origins of the beer are lost in the mists of time. It’s unclear whether it was even genuinely a beer at all, though its name hints at a connection to the fermented beverage. The word “swanky” itself is derived from the Cornish word swonn, which translates roughly to “dark and sweet” – suggesting that the beer was brewed to a robust and highly-flavored specification.

Devon, Cornwall’s nearest English neighbor, has its legend of White Ale. Was there a similarly exotic indigenous beer style in Cornwall? Naturally, mentions of a mysterious brew known as “swanky” among lists of Cornish recipes online, generated considerable excitement. But alas, this excitement would eventually come to nothing; without any further information available, the supposed beer was consigned to the dustbin of history, leaving only a whispered memory.

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The Small Revival of Swanky Beer

A few intrepid brewers remains determined to recreate the lost beer, toiling away in their south-western workshops. After a few false starts and disappointments, a recipe was finally uncovered, published in a magazine article dating to 1856. An exciting new revelation it might be, but the truth is that the original swanky beer is likely to remain hidden in the past.

Today’s swanky beers are something of a modern approximation of the lost original. The recipes typically consist of a combination of pale malt, crystal malt and chocolate malt, producing a deep brown hue and a robust, heavily-flavored beer. English hops are generally used for balance, and some versions also include a refreshing hit of elderflower – another traditional Cornish ingredient.

The Diaspora of Swanky Beer

But the spirit of swanky beer is still alive and well. Its current state of existence stretches far and wide; the original recipe is now sprinkled with the imagination and innovation of modern brewers. It’s been resurrected and reimagined, now cropping up in the more eclectic bars, pubs and breweries of England, the US, and elsewhere around the world.

One example of the beer’s current wildly-diverse interpretations is the “Russian Swanky”, a vaguely sinister-sounding homage to the original that features a chilling addition of rye malt, blackberry juice and coriander, for a unique and multi-dimensional character.

A few years ago, swanky beer might have seemed destined to linger forever in obscurity. Now, it’s enjoyed in different forms and in many countries, thanks to the dedication of those brewers who honored the style’s memory and brought it back to life.

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Making Your Own Swanky Beer

With the original recipe found and now freely available, it’s entirely possible for the home brewer to recreate the beer themselves. Herein lies the fun – a special chance to explore the history and evolution of swanky beer, by creating something with a unique identity of its own.

As for the equipment needed to craft your own swanky beer, you’ll need the usual suspects: mash tun, boil kettle, and fermenter. The wheat and rye malts can be securely procured from most any homebrew store, as can the hops. Using these supplies and your own creative vision, you can begin concocting your own unique iteration of an historic and enigmatic beer.

  • Ingredients:

    1. 7 lbs. pale malt
    2. 1 lb. crystal malt
    3. 14 oz. chocolate malt
    4. 1/2 lb. rye malt
    5. 1 oz. blackberry juice
    6. 1 tbsp. coriander
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