Words for beer (2) – was ‘beer’ originally cider?

Before we dive more fully into the tangled roots of the words “ale” and “beer”, we have to tackle one particularly knotted strand first, caused by the curious fact that, four hundred years before English adopted the word bier from the Continent to describe a malt liquor flavoured with hops (altering the spelling to “beere”), it already had a word beór that was used for an alcoholic drink. Around the time of the Norman invasion in the 11th century, however, beór disappeared from the English language.

(You might want to skip the rest of this blog entry, because it becomes a trifle word-nerdy, though it does range from Iceland to Babylon via Spain, and takes in gods, magical dwarfs and saints, and you’re more than welcome to stay.)

Most writers who touch the subject assert that beór, which is found much less frequently in old texts than the word that became “ale” in modern English, ealu in West Saxon (or alu in Anglian), was merely a synonym for ealu. They take their cue from the Oxford English Dictionary, which says, under its definition of “ale”, that “Ale and beer seem originally to have been synonymous.” To back up this claim the OED quotes from a poem called the Alvíssmál, or “Talk of Alvíss “, composed in the 11th or 12th centuries, probably in Iceland. This says (in Old Norse): “öl heitir með mönnum, en með Ásum bjórr,” that is, “‘ale’ it is called among men, and among the gods ‘beer’.”

But in fact this quote, (which the OED appears to have nicked straight from Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon dictionary of 1882) although you’ll see it repeated regularly when the history of ale and beer in Anglo-Saxon times is discussed, doesn’t prove what the OED suggests it proves at all, that is, that öl and bjórr (ealu and beór in Old English) are synonyms, because the extract from the poem has been pulled totally out of context.

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Poems on beer, good and bad

Someone has put Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “John Barleycorn”, a “lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, from the BBC Culture Show programme, up on YouTube: you can find it here and, if you haven’t heard it yet, I feel confident in saying you’ll enjoy it greatly.

Duffy’s poem is a rare and brilliant exception to the general rule that poetry about pubs and beer is mostly pretty bad: Pete Brown commented in Hops and Glory that India Pale Ale in particular seemed to inspire Britons stationed out in Bengal, Calcutta or Madras to dreadful attempts at rhyme and metre. Here’s one I reproduce for its awfulness: it appears in the autobiography of a book by Harry Abbott, who was an officer in the Indian Army manager of an indigo factory in Bihar, north-east India in the last half of the 19th century, and, as it happens, grandson of a partner in Hodgson’s brewery, Edwin Abbott. This was “a song which used to be sung at many a pigstick party and race meeting in the thirties, forties and fifties”, that is, 1830s to 1850s:

‘Who has not tasted of Hodgson’s pale beer
With its flavour the finest that hops ever gave?
It drives away sadness, it banishes fear,
And imparts a glad feeling of joy to the grave.

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A short history of bottled beer

Bottled beer was invented in Hertfordshire some 440 years ago, the most popular story says, by a forgetful Church of England rector and fishing fanatic called Dr Alexander Nowell.

While Nowell was parish priest at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, around 20 miles north of London, in the early years of Elizabeth I, it is said that he went on a fishing expedition to the nearby River Ash, taking with him for refreshment a bottle filled with home brewed ale. When Nowell went home he left the full bottle behind in the river-bank grass. According to Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of Britain, published a hundred years later, when Nowell returned to the river-bank a few days later and came across the still-full bottle, “he found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at the opening thereof; and this is believed (causality is mother of more inventions than industry) the original of bottled ale in England.”

The ale, of course, had undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle, building up carbon dioxide pressure so that it gave a loud pop when Nowell pulled the cork out. Such high-condition ale must have been a novelty to Elizabethan drinkers, who knew only the much flatter cask ales and beers. However, Fuller’s story is fun, but it seems unlikely Nowell really was the person who invented bottled beer: it seems more than probable that brewers were experimenting generally with storing beer in glass bottles in the latter half of the 16th century, though there is no apparent evidence of commercial bottling until the second half of the 17th century, only bottling by domestic brewers.

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Arctic Ale: a 158-year-old adventure revived

Back in Victorian times, no polar explorer worth the name set north without as much Allsopp’s Arctic Ale stashed in the hold of his ship as it could carry. This was a mighty brew, more than 11 per cent alcohol, descended from the strong, sweet ales Burton upon Trent once exported to the Baltic. Now an American home-brewer, Christopher Bowen, has decided to recreate Arctic Ale – by actually brewing it in the Canadian arctic, taking a 2,000-mile journey to the shores of Hudson Bay with brewing equipment and a film crew.

You can read about his plans here, while more information is available on the Arctic Alchemy Facebook page here, and the Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod has some very interesting stuff about the original Arctic expedition in 1852 here.

Pete Brown, who famously went the other direction, to the tropics, for his book Hops and Glory, transporting a cask of Burton’s better-known product, India Pale Ale, has declared himself filled with “admiration mixed with seething jealousy” over Chris Bowen’s plans, and I feel about the same. Arctic Ale is the king of Burton Ales, the strongest of a family of beers that have almost vanished now (Young’s Winter Warmer is one of very few left, and Fuller’s 1845 can claim to be a modern revival of the style). I feel a great fondness for Burton Ales, since to my knowledge I was the first person to write about them in the “modern” era (post-1970) when I had an article on the subject printed in What’s Brewing in 1998. I’d love to be standing in the frozen Canadian north with a glass of Arctic Ale held in my mitten.

I devote several hundred words to Arctic Ale in the “barley wines and old ales” chapter of Amber, Gold and Black (just 12 weeks to publication day, people – order it through this link and put a little extra money in my pocket) and I thought, as a teaser for the book and as a way of spreading interest in what Chris Bowen is up to, I’d put up the Arctic Ale extract here:

Arctic Ale

Among the drinks mentioned in the Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms, the rhyming “Good Pub Guide” to London written about 1718, are “Humming Stingo” at the Peacock in Whitecross Street; October at the Fountain in Cheapside; Bull’s Milk Beer at the Bull in Wood Street; and Burton Ale at the Guy of Warwick in Milk Street. This last beer was probably the same as or similar to the nut-brown, sweet, extremely strong ale that brewers in Burton upon Trent were exporting to Baltic cities such as St Petersburg and Danzig, Riga and Königsberg from at least the 1740s. This trade lasted, with hiccups during the Napoleonic Wars, until the Russians imposed heavy tariffs on beer imports from Britain in 1822, and the Burton brewers turned to brewing paler, more bitter beers for the Indian market.

However, the Burton breweries continued making darker, sweeter beers, at a range of strengths, the strongest being around 1110 OG, and 10 to 11 per cent alcohol by volume, (The top-of-the-range Burton ales were generally known as Number One, as they were at the Bass, Ind Coope and Truman breweries in Burton, though Worthington, in typically perverse fashion, called its best strong ale “G”). These were beers with astonishing longevity: the Ratcliff Ale, a version of Bass’s No 1 strong ale brewed and bottled in 1869 to celebrate the birth of a son, Harry Ratcliff, to one of the company’s partners, is still drinkable today, 140 years on. After surviving unopened for the whole of the 20th century in bottles in the cellars at the brewery in Burton, the beer is now completely dry, with a flavour like a cross between sherry and smoky Christmas pudding.

The Burton brewers occasionally reproduced beers of the strength of the kind once exported to the Baltic, for Arctic explorers to take with them. Alfred Barnard, on his trip to Samuel Allsopp & Sons in Burton in 1889, wrote that “the celebrated ‘Arctic ale’ of which we have heard so much in days gone by” was specially brewed at the request of the government for the five-ship Arctic expedition in 1852-54 under Sir Edward Belcher (which was looking for Sir John Franklin’s famously lost expedition of 1845). Belcher reported that the ale was “a valuable antiscorbutic” (that is, scurvy-preventer) and “a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick, as long as it lasted”, and that it refused to freeze until the temperature dropped to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, or -11 degrees Celsius. Even when the temperature went down to -55 Fahrenheit (-48 Celsius) the beer was unharmed by being frozen, Belcher said.

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‘… shoulder aside the prostitutes …’

Since it appears that at least three fellow zythobloggers have named this site their favourite beer blog in end-of-year roundups, I feel obliged to hand out a few end-of-year gongs myself. So here we are:

Best pub or bar of 2009 No contest – the Harvester, Electra Street, Abu Dhabi, the absolute Everest of rough bars, the Mariana Trench of low dives. Once you have found your way round the back of the otherwise respectable Sands Hotel and down the stairs past a threateningly besuited bouncer of indeterminate ethnic origin but about as wide as he is tall, you then have to clamp on your oxygen mask and fit infrared goggles to negotiate through the crush, gloom and roiling cigarette smoke to the bar, shoulder aside the prostitutes from unpronounceable Central Asian republics blocking your passage, who will be stroking your arm and asking if you’d like to do the same to them*, and shout your order at a bored Filipino barman over the racket from an over-amplified trio of Slavic blondes backed by two disappointed and dissipated long-haired Americans in their late 30s on sax and organ and a drummer from Wolverhampton who once had a trial with an Oasis tribute band: except it won’t matter what you order anyway, because all the beer is utterly undrinkable shite, particularly the Smithwicks, a crime against humanity for which every brewer at St James’s Gate should be tortured to death, slowly, and the John Smith’s Smooth, which, remarkably, manages to taste as if it has never even been on the same planet as malt and hops; and you’d be far better to copy the locals, all of whom look as if they derive the majority of their income from smuggling Niger yellowcake in fast motorboats across the Gulf to Iran in exchange for raw Afghani opium, who sit at their own personal table with their own personal bottle of whisky in front of them, surrounded by twitchy tooled-up bodyguards. Marvellous. Unfortunately I was recently informed that the Harvester had lost its drinks licence (some little Health and Safety problem with brown envelopes not being stuffed full enough, probably, such behaviour, if you’re a bar owner, likely to be injurious to your health and threatening to your continued safety), and the place was now practically empty, except for a few sad and silent ladies in most un-Emirati dress clustered at the bar, apparently unable to find their way to the Tourist Club area further east where the rest of their flock had migrated.

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