An 800-year-old beer drinking song

The anonymous minstrel who, some time around 1210, took Laetabundus (“Full of Joy”). a popular Nativity hymn to the Virgin Mary written by St Bernard of Clairvaux, and rewrote it in Norman French as a song in praise of beer, Or Hi Parra, was taking a risk.

It was certainly a clever parody, leaving the last line in each triplet in the original Latin, but ensuring the new lines altered the interpretation of the remaining one, so that “Semper clara” no longer referred to the Virgin, “always bright”, but the beer pouring from the barrel, “always clear”, while “Carne sumpta” no longer meant the Word “becoming flesh” but was turned into an instruction to hungry drinkers – “take the meat!”

Not all the original Latin lines stayed totally unaltered: “Valle Nostra“, “our valley”, was changed to “Valla Nostra”, “our health!”, a toast to the company of tipplers. But the power of the parody was undoubtedly that even first-time listeners would have been very familiar with the tune, and the proper words (Laetabundus was sung in churches all over Europe, and was especially popular in France and England) and could join in singing the still-Latinised bits.

However, Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux in North Eastern France, who was made a saint only 21 years after his death in 1153, was one of the most powerful figures in the 12th century Roman Catholic Church, and the man who prosecuted Peter Abelard for heresy. It seems unlikely he, or his fellow Cistercian monks, would have been delighted at some dodgy itinerant hurdy-gurdy player turning his best-known, faith-drenched hymn to the Virgin birth into a tavern sing-along about ale.

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What’s a brewster? No, you’re wrong …

Or at least you’re not as right as you think you are. I, too, used to believe that “brewster” meant, exclusively, a female brewer, until a discussion recently on the excellent wordorigins site about the word spinster. Someone put up the Oxford English Dictionary entry on the –ster suffix which revealed that it wasn’t as simple as I had thought:

In northern M(iddle) E(nglish), perh. owing to the frequent adoption by men of trades like weaving, baking, tailoring, etc., the suffix [-ster] came very early to be used, indiscriminately with -ER, as an agential ending irrespective of gender…
It is probable that “-ster” was often preferred to “-er” as more unambiguously referring to the holder of a professional function, as distinguished from the doer of an occasional act. In Scotland, baxter and webster survived as masculines down to the 19th c. …
In the south the suffix continued to be predominantly feminine throughout the M(iddle) E(nglish) period. The Old English formations, baxter, seamster, tapster, were in southern English usually feminine before 1500 … also spinster, which alone of the group has survived (though with change of sense) solely as a feminine…

In other words, if you see “brewster” in a Southern English context in the Middle Ages, it probably means a female brewer, but in the North of England and Scotland it could be female, it might just as likely be a male.

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What art appreciation owns a brewer’s daughter

An absolutely have-to-see exhibition has just opened at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, London featuring the very best – Constable, Turner, Reynolds, Stubbs, Gainsborough and the like – from the finest collection of British art outside Europe, a collection that owes its foundation to the unhappy marriage made by the granddaughter of the man that founded one of Britain’s last surviving family breweries.

The collection is the work of the late Paul Mellon, whose father was the unimaginably wealthy Pittsburgh steel, oil and banking magnate Andrew Mellon, and whose mother was Nora McMullen, brewer’s daughter from Hertford, a little county town only 25 or so miles from London.

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I Told You Those Lying Bastards Were Making It Up

It was fantastically satisfying to see the front page splash in The Times declare what I’ve been saying for years – that the government’s “safe drinking guidelines” of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women a week have no basis in fact, and were literally made up on the spot with no evidence to support them 20 years ago, solely because the “experts” thought they ought to be saying something rather than nothing.

To quote The Times:

Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the college’s working party on alcohol, told The Times yesterday that the figures were not based on any clear evidence … “David Barker was the epidemiologist on the committee and his line was that ‘We don’t really have any decent data whatsoever. It’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t’. And other people said, ‘Well, that’s not much use.’ … So the feeling was that we ought to come up with something. So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren’t really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”

On that basis, as The Times says, public health care policy, and private advice by doctors to individuals, has been conducted ever since, with the figures treated as if they were stone-hard, incontrovertible fact, wheeled out again for the latest report that claimed the middle classes are the new danger drinkers. To quote The Times again:

Professor Mark Bellis, director of the North West Public Health Observatory, which produced this week’s study, felt able to say that anyone exceeding the limits was “drinking enough to put their health at significant risk”. That a host of epidemiological studies had filled the intervening years with evidence to the contrary seemed not to matter one jot.”

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England v South Africa: 36 (bottles) – nil (pounds)

Whatever the score in the Rugby World Cup tomorrow, it’s a result for me, thanks to Fuller’s.

The Chiswick brewer created a poster based on its “Wallaby” ad for London Pride at the time of the 2003 World Cup, this time featuring a picture of a Springbok and the words “frequently found stuffed”. Rather than pay for a campaign featuring the ad, however, Fuller’s decided to use the “viral” method and send an email out to 13,000 people with the poster as an attachment.

The nice PR person at Fuller’s, whom I’ve known for years, sent me and about 20 other journalists a copy, and as I was working for the City section of the Daily Telegraph yesterday, where the deputy news editor is ex-South African Army, I forwarded it to a few reporters there I knew would be amused (it’s a rugby sort of place …).

As it happened, even the ex-South African news editor loved it, and they decided to run the poster as one of the illustrations to a news story about how much money was being spent in England around the World Cup, from train tickets to Paris to extra beer supplies for tomorrow night.

Fuller’s, naturally, loved this free advertising, and me, and when I got home last night there was an email from Georgina the PR saying three cases of this year’s Vintage Ale would be on their way to me in thanks. So – what a score. Sadly, they won’t be here in time for the match, and I feel I ought to share at least one case with the lads from the Torygraph. And I supose it’s really bribery. But I didn’t know the chaps were going to run the poster in the paper when I sent it to them . . .

Making S&Nse

So the sharks have started moving closer to Scottish & Newcastle. This is the latest in a series of foregone conclusions in the British brewing scene since a Conservative government decided it would be a jolly idea to partially sever the tie between brewers and pub ownership with the Beer Orders of 1989.

The result, which had been predicted as far back as 1950, by a right-wing economist called Arthur Seldon, writing in The Economist. was that the big brewers – Bass (including Tennents of Scotland), Whitbread, Allied (Ind Coope, Ansells and Tetley’s), Courage, Grand Met (Watneys), Whitbread and S&N, quickly abandoned pub ownership almost entirely.

Then, because brewing in the UK isn’t that profitable, the big brewers abandoned brewing, so that by 2001 only Scottish & Newcastle was left of the Big Seven brewers of 1989 – the rest merged with others or transformed into something else, such as distillers or hotel companies.

S&N, which swallowed the brewing interests of Courage and Watney, rose from being the smallest of the Big Seven to being the largest UK brewer, while the rest of the industry was brought by Interbrew of Belgium (Whitbread and part of Bass), Coors of the United States (the rest of Bass) and Carlsberg of Denmark (Allied).

Unfortunately for S&N, it never dominated its home market the way Heineken, Anheuser-Busch, Carlsberg or SAB of South Africa did theirs, and it has never been able to find the transformational deal that would turn it into a true and invulnerable giant. It bought Kronenbourg off Danone in 2000, and became the biggest brewer in France; it bought Hartwall of Finland in 2002 and gained a half-share, with Carlsberg, in BBH, owner of the biggest brewing concern in Russia (to Carlsberg’s great annoyance). But what it really needed to do was acquire a truly global coverage, the way Interbrew did by merging with Ambev of Brazil, or SAB did by merging with Miller of the United States.

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More anti-alcohol brigade rubbish

Sky TV rang me up at 1.45pm today to come into their studio in Isleworth to rant at the latest rubbish from the anti-alcohol brigade. Drinkers in middle-class areas are more likely to consume “hazardous” amounts according to the North West Public Health Observatory, commissioned by the Department of Health. But “hazardous amounts”, according to these people, starts at one and a half pints of beer a day, or a large glass of wine ditto. What planet are they on?

Second, while all the newspaper headlines today are about how the allegedly greatest number of “hazard level” drinkers are in affluent areas such as Runnymede in Surrey, and Harrogate in Yorkshire, the Department of Health have literally made these figures up. Their own report admits they don’t have figures to anything like that degree of geographical detail:

Sample sizes are not sufficiently large enough to allow for annual analysis of the data below Government Office region and even combining years does not allow local authority measures to be derived except through the use of synthetic estimates. Although many local areas conduct local lifestyle surveys it is currently difficult to aggregate the data from such surveys since the questions asked and the methods of collection can be sufficiently different to not allow consistent data definitions.”

What they have done is take the percentages of particular social types nationally who “drink to a hazardous level”, who tend to be the more affluent, settled, secure types found in areas such as Runnymede, Guildford, Harrogate and so on, and mapped those social classes to their percentages in individual local authority areas, multiplied one by the other, and claimed this as the percentage of “hazard level” drinkers in those areas.

Sadly, I had an unbreakable appointment to be elsewhere, so I couldn’t get out my soapbox and enlighten Sky’s (small) audience with my views on rubbish statistics, distortions and mythical and invented drinking limits.

Of course, the proper response to health fascists has to be: “Sod off and mind your own business. ” It is the responsibility of individuals to freely weigh up for themselves the risks of their freely chosen actions, from hang-gliding and mountaineering to taking the top off a bottle of beer. Self-appointed nannies should present the evidence, if they wish, and then butt out, and certainly not presume to lecture, harass or threaten.

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Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

Here’s another titbit* from the Times archives: a report from 1840 on the hop harvest with some fascinating clues about what hops went into IPA (I was wrong, incidentally, in saying the archive is not available to the public – if you can use your public library card to access resources like the Oxford English Dictionary from your home computer, you can probably use it to access the Times 1785-1985 archive).

One of the reasons The Times carried hop harvest reports was because of the betting that went on over the yield of the hop tax. By the mid-19th century, according to Peter Mathias’s magisterial The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, as much money was being bet on the hop tax yield as on the Derby.

This was not simple gambling, however, but a way for hop growers and hop dealers to lay off, or hedge, the risks that came with involvement in a trade that could see prices triple one year and halve the next, as yields went down and up depending on the weather, outbreaks of pests and the like. If you were a hop buyer and you thought yields would be low, and the tax take (based on quantity) subsequently low as well, but the price high because of scarcity, you bet on a low tax take, and at least made some money as you paid top whack for your hops. If you were a seller and feared a big harvest and low prices, you bet on a high tax yield, and made up for the smaller amount you got for your hops by winning on the hop betting.

The most interesting part of the Times report from September 12 1840 on “Hop Intelligence”, however, is not the details of the bets being made on the size of the hop harvest, at 25 guineas or 50 guineas a time (huge sums when a guinea – 21 shillings – was as much money as a labourer might earn in a fortnight.)

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Government ale

A mention over on Patto’s blog about Government ale reminded me of one of my favourite beer songs – Ernie Mayne’s Lloyd George’s Beer from 1917. Click that link and check it out – it’s fantastic.

Mayne was a 20-stone (that’s 280 pounds for Americans) music hall artist who died 70 years ago this year, aged 56, and who specialised in numbers such as You Can’t find Many Pimples on a Pound of Pickled Pork (“whether you come from China, Japan or Carolina, you can go to Pimlico and then go on to York but you can’t find many pimples on a pound of pickled pork”) and I Can’t Do My Bally Bottom Button Up (that would be all the pickled pork, Ernie).

Lloyd George’s Beer was, by the standards of the time, hard-hitting social commentary that undoubtedly deeply annoyed the government. Around the time the song came out, the Central Control Board, which was in charge of wartime brewing restrictions, and pub pricing and opening hours, banned brewers from using the term “Government Ale” on price lists for beers under 1036 OG, presumably because the government did not want to be associated so directly with watery pints.

But for the brewers, and the beer drinkers, the situation was rough. Under the impact of the U-boat campaign, which was badly affecting food imports from America, and making supplies scarce, in February 1917 all malting of barley was stopped by government order.

In April 1917 brewers were ordered to produce no more than a third of 1915/16’s “standard” barrelage, that is, the total actual alcohol produced had to be just a third of the year earlier – which meant if you wanted to make the same amount of beer, it had to be only a third as strong. As it happened, both strength and output suffered: the average strength of beer in 1917 was a fifth lower than in 1916, and only three quarters of the pre-war level, while production fell more than a third from 30 million bulk or “real” barrels in 1916 to 19 million barrels.

Industrial unrest in the summer of 1917, at least in part caused by the beer situation, made the government think again, and the restrictions were eased for the second half of the year. But no doubt a thirsty populace, taking solace in the music halls, cheered Mayne until the limelights shook when he sang:

“Have you read of it?
Seen what’s said of it
In the Mirror or the Mail?
It’s a substitute and a pubstitute
And it’s known as Government Ale
… or otherwise …
Lloyd George’s beer, Lloyd George’s beer,
at the brewery there’s nothing doing –
All the waterworks are brewing
Lloyd George’s beer.
Oh they say it’s a terrible war
And there never was a war like this before
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Was Lloyd George’s beer.”

Ales, churches and brides

I’m grateful to Knut Albert for bringing to my attention a review in The Economist on a new book by Sir Roy Strong, A Little History of the English Country Church. The review says that in the mid-1600s:

“the loss of income, particularly from banning the making and selling of church ales, meant that the buildings started to crumble.”

Either the reviewer, or Sir Roy, is confused here. Church ales were events, not drinks, fundraising happenings designed to raise money for the parish: similar fundraisers by newly married couples were called “bride ales”, from which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, our modern word “bridal” is derived.

 “Bridal”, now an adjective, was originally a noun, “bride ale”, meaning “wedding feast”, with “ale”, the drink word, taking on the extended meaning of “celebration”. The same semantic extension is seen in the Irish expression for feasting, “coirm agus ceol”, which literally means “ale and song” (well, what else does a celebration consist of?).

I won’t repeat here what I told KA about church ales – you can read much more about them, what they were used for and how they died out, on his blog.