There are plenty enough well-known quotes about beer. Some of the best-known, unfortunately, are made up. However, it’s still possible to come across great, genuine yet little-known snippets. Here are 20 of my favourite beer quotes in need of wider broadcasting:
“If [beer] is … the people’s beverage – and nobody, I take it, will deny that it is just that – its history must of necessity go hand in hand, so to speak, with the history of that people, with the history of its entire civilisation.”
John P Arnold, Origin and History of Beer and Brewing, 1911
If I ever worry that the history of beer is a little trivial, I re-read this passage from the American-German beer writer John Arnold and feel that, yes, I’m recording part of the story of my people, my civilisation. OK, people?
“See that ye keep a noble house for beef and beer, that thereof may be praise given to God and to your honour.”
Advice given to Leonard, titular sixth Lord Dacre, in 1570
Leonard Dacre was one of the leaders of the Northern Rebellion, a revolt designed to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne of England. But he managed to lose the battle of Gelt Bridge in Cumberland in 1570 despite outnumbering the Elizabethan forces two to one with his private force of 3,000 armed men, raised from the local tenantry. He subsequently fled to Flanders via Scotland, dying three years later. Part of the motive behind his taking part in the rebellion seems to have been his failure to claim the title of Baron Dacre of Gilsland after the death of his nephew, the fifth Lord Dacre. In the manoeuvrings before the rebellion took off, Leonard was sent a letter by one of his dependants, Richard Atkinson, telling him how to maintain the loyalty of the Dacre tenants in Cumberland, which included the excellent advice above about beef and beer.
“You must have seen great changes since you were a young man,” said Winston tentatively. The old man’s pale blue eyes moved from the darts board to the bar, and from the bar to the door of the Gents … “The beer was better,” he said finally. “And cheaper! When I was a young man, mild beer – wallop we used to call it – was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.” “Which war was that?” said Winston. “It’s all wars,” said the old man vaguely. He took up his glass, and his shoulders straightened again. “’Ere’s wishing you the very best of ’ealth!”
1984, by George Orwell, published 1949
Orwell described the elderly prole that Winston Smith was trying to interview as “eighty at the least”, which, curiously, would have made him almost exactly the same age as Orwell himself would have been had the consumptive socialist still been alive in 1984. “Wallop” was indeed the nickname, in the 1930s, at least, for mild ale, four old pence the price per pint, and we know George Orwell liked mild. It’s good to see beer get a mention in a book studied by so many teenagers for English literature exams. Even if they probably have to have “mild” explained to them. (The screen grab up there, incidentally, is from the 1954 BBC TV production, with Peter Cushing as Winston Smith – you can see the whole bar scene here. You’ve got to love the 10-sided beer mugs, and the wooden cask on the bar, far more 1954 than 1984. Twelve cents for two half-litres? Outrageous. And yes, that’s Wilfred Bramble playing the old man: he was, in fact, only a year older than Cushing.)
The Rat, meanwhile, was busy examining the label on one of the beer-bottles. “I perceive this to be Old Burton,” he remarked approvingly. “Sensible Mole! The very thing! Now we shall be able to mull some ale. Get the things ready, Mole, while I draw the corks.”
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 1908
Here’s a mention of beer in a book for children. I discovered while researching this post that I am actually referenced on the subject of Old Burton in The Annotated Wind in the Willows over this exact quote from the “Dulce Domum” chapter of TWITW, one of my favourite parts of one of my favourite children’s books. Like all great children’s authors, Grahame wrote as much for the adult as the child, and adults reading this to their small ones would have smiled with recognition at the mention of Burton Ale. The version of Wind in the Willows illustrated by Arthur Rackham (see picture) actually shows Ratty carrying bottles clearly labelled with the red diamond trademark used on Bass Burton Ale. The Rat and the Mole, incidentally, give some of the mulled ale to the (underage) fieldmice who have come round carol-singing – hem hem. Don’t try that yourself.
Some folks of cider make a rout
And cider’s well enough no doubt
When better liquors fail;
But wine, that’s richer, better still,
Ev’n wine itself (deny’t who will)
Must yield to nappy ale
John Gay (1685-1732), “Ballad on Ale” from Songs and Ballads
John Gay, today, is known almost entirely for being the writer of The Beggar’s Opera, but he also wrote a considerable amount of light verse, including the marvellously brisk “Ballad on Ale”. I love the whole poem, actually. “Nappy” in this context means “foaming” and/or “strong”.
It was this day a twelvemonth since we left England, in consequence of which a peice [sic] of cheshire cheese was taken from a locker where it had been reservd for this occasion and a cask of Porter tappd which provd excellently good, so that we livd like English men and drank the hea[l]ths of our freinds in England.
The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, August 25 1769
When Joseph Banks set out on the great exploratory voyage with Captain James Cook across the Pacific that made both men famous, the ship was well stocked with provisions from England, including London porter. At the time the porter was tapped to celebrate being away from home for a whole year, the Endeavour was heading south from Tahiti towards New Zealand. The porter they drank had travelled across the Equator down to Rio de Janeiro, around Cape Horn and then halfway across the Pacific, and was still in fine condition: so much for the idea that only well-hopped pale ales could survive long journeys to hot climes.
Talking of beer and children, as we were earlier, here’s a quote from Charles Dickens that gets far fewer outings than the many better-known Dickens beer quotes:
It was darkly rumoured that the butler, regarding him with favour such as that stern man had never shown before to mortal boy, had sometimes mingled porter with his table beer to make him strong.
Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1848
The boy being given the porter in his table beer, at Dr Blimber’s school in Brighton, is Paul Dombey junior, who is just six years old. And nobody raised an eyebrow. Table beer was still being handed out at British schools certainly, it appears, to at least the middle of the 19th century.
Glorious Mild, that Drink Divine,
That Nectar, far surpassing Wine,
That Noble Cordial swill’d by Porters,
And bless’d by Soldiers at their Quarters
The Hudibrastick Brewer, 1714, by Ned Ward (1660 or 1667-1731)
Ned Ward was a writer, satirist and poet and, from 1712, successively an alehouse keeper and tavern proprietor, before ending his days running a coffee house. Judging by The Hudibrastick Brewer, he was brewing his own beer at the alehouse he was keeping in Clerkenwell Green, London when the poem was written, having decided that “Men of Sense must own is better/To live by Malt, than starve by Meter”. (Despite what Wikipedia claims, there is no evidence that he kept the King’s Head tavern by Gray’s Inn before moving to Clerkenwell: he only lived there.) We can assume that at his Clerkenwell alehouse, Ward brewed, and sold, mild ale, which in the early 18th century meant a drink low in hops, and sold quickly before it had time to sour, but probably pretty strong, perhaps seven to eight per cent alcohol by volume. Looks like porters were still drinking mild, too, rather than the drink that was to be developed in the next decade, and would take their name. “Hudibrastick” is a style of verse used in, and named after, Samuel Butler’s poem Hudibras, written in the 1660s and 1670s. Ward also looks to have written a couple of the earliest pub guides to London, A Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, published around 1718, and A Guide for Malt Worms, published a couple of years later. They are great sources for information on the drinks available in London pubs at the time (porter is not mentioned at all, and three-threads only in passing), and a surprising number of the pubs listed in them are still open.
She was luxuriously tired and her muscles felt sore from the unaccustomed strain of riding astride. Nothing had ever tasted so good as the cool golden ale she swallowed from a pewter tankard. She slept deeply that night and longer than she had intended …
Kathleen Winsor (1919-2003), Forever Amber, 1944
Forever Amber, set in 17th century England, is the story of Amber St Clair, an orphan who – basically – shags her was to the very top of Restoration society. It was the Fifty Shades of Grey of the 1940s, condemned by the Catholic church, banned in fourteen US states and selling three million copies. Its author, a Midwestern US housewife, read almost 400 books as part of her research before writing the 972-page novel. Drying malt using coke was very probably taking place by the Restoration, and Samuel Pepys was drinking bottles of “Hull Ale” in London in 1660, which was most likely ale from the pale-malt-making Midlands shipped down via the Trent, so it might have been possible to drink golden ale from a pewter pot at the time of the Great Fire. But even if the details are wrong, sex and beer – what’s not to like, frankly.
“Only a pint at breakfast-time, and a pint and a half at eleven o’clock, and a quart or so at dinner. And then no more till the afternoon; and half a gallon at supper-time. No one can object to that.”
Lorna Doone (1869), by Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900)
This is Jan Ridd, the hero of Lorna Doone, defending the 17th-century Englishman’s beer-drinking habits to an Italian woman who kept a Somerset alehouse (don’t ask, it’s an important plot point). I cannot help feeling that Dickie B is taking the micturation out of his hero here somewhat, but as Blackmore’s grave is less than three minutes’ walk from my house in West London, I’ll cut him some neighbourly slack. And it’s certainly true that in the 17th century, an Englishman could well be putting away a gallon of ale a day, with an Englishwoman not that far behind.
“Let’s have filleted steak and a bottle of Bass for dinner tonight. It will be simply exquisite. I shall love it.”
“But my dear Nella,” he exclaimed, “steak and beer at Felix’s! It’s impossible! Moreover, young women still under twenty-three cannot be permitted to drink Bass.”
“I said steak and Bass, and as for being twenty-three, shall be going in twenty-four tomorrow.” Miss Racksole set her small white teeth.
The Grand Babylon Hotel, by Arnold Bennett, 1902
The refusal by the maitre d’ at the Grand Babylon Hotel (aka Felix’s) in London to serve the American multimillionaire Theodore Racksole and his daughter Nella with an order of two steaks and two bottles of pale ale for dinner sets off a chain that sees Racksole buy the hotel just to get the meal his daughter wanted, and uncovers on the way, a murder, the disappearance of a German prince, and various other villanies. The Grand Babylon is clearly the Savoy Hotel in disguise: Arnold Bennett loved the Savoy, and the hotel honoured him in return by naming a dish after him. I like this quote for honouring pale ale with steak, an excellent combination.
When the lager lout says that beer is an old man’s drink, the reply is to ask if they have ever thought of growing up.
Beware the Barmaid’s Smile!, by “Chris Thompson” (George Williamson), 1987
George Williamson, who died in 2007, aged 68, was a Scottish architect, political activist and nuclear disarmament campaigner who, from 1970, worked in brewery estates departments. He wrote the too-little-known (and, today, almost impossible to find) pamphlet Beware the Barmaid’s Smile!, subtitled “The New Vulgarity in Our Pub Culture”, using a pseudonym, unsurprisingly, considering for whom he was working. The pamphlet was a polemic demanding that the evolution of the pub be controlled by the customers and not by the breweries, and calling for militant opposition to the remorseless corporatisation of pubs and the brewing industry. As his Guardian obituary said, “Unfortunately, this insurrection never happened.” The “lager lout” was the folk devil of the era, about whom we were all supposed to be in a moral panic: “binge drinking” had not yet been invented. The quote also nicely demonstrates that to a lot of Britons, “lager” and “beer” were then (and, I suspect, still are today) separate categories, the one pale and yellow, the other dark and brown.
Genial and gladdening is the power of good ale, the true and proper drink of Englishmen. He is not deserving of the name of Englishman who speaketh against ale.
Lavengro, George Borrow (1803-1881)
Lavengro, published in 1851, is a semi-autobiographical account of the wanderings around England by an anonymous hero, and his dealings with gipsies and travellers – “Lavengro” is meant to be a Romany word meaning “word master”, and George Borrow was a writer and translator. The book failed to take off until after Borrow’s death, but was then extremely popular right through to the Second World War or so. In the past 60 years Borrow’s reputation has faded: does anybody read him any more? But who among ye can deny the truth of the words quoted here? (They come, incidentally, just after the hero of the book has shared a large jug of ale with a tinker and his family, including a boy and girl “about four or five years old”, who are each given a draught of ale by their mother. Is a theme developing here?)
Good beer is the basis of true temperance
The Daily Express, 25 January 1919
The Daily Express may be a sad and unfunny joke today, but a century ago you could, sometimes, find sense in its pages. The edition of Saturday, January 25 1919 carried a editorial decrying the fact that two months after the end of the First World War, during which breweries’ production had been severely restricted, there was still a shortage of beer, and insisting: “There must be more beer, cheaper beer and better beer … Good ale and beer are the drinks of temperate men, and it must be confessed that England has bred a race of mighty fighting men on her national brew.” That last bit is a load of cock, of course. The “national brew” has nothing to do with the fighting ability of the British Army. But to the extent that good beer is not the stuff you fling past your tonsils simply to become drunk, then yes, it’s a temperance drink in the proper meaning of the word.
“In England in the late ’60’s, a chain of companies called Watney’s brought out a new beer entitled Red Barrel, which was absolutely disgusting, and they gutted all these pubs in England … they took these lovely charming olde worlde wood-panelled saw-dusty pubs and made them look all tiled and futuristic, like men’s lavatories, and had this Red Barrel stuff in there, that was all you could get, this disgusting beer, which made you go to the lavatory pretty imminently.”
Andy Partridge of XTC, speaking on WBRU radio in Providence, Rhode Island, 1989
Partridge was attempting to explain to a bemused interviewer on WBRU, the Brown University-based radio station, the story behind the track “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel)” on the Psonic Psunspot album. I really wanted to include this quote at the start of the last chapter in Beer: The Story of the Pint, but Hodder Headline’s lawyers were apparently frightened that the publishing company might get sued for calling Red Barrel disgusting: yes, “avoid like the plague” revisited. I reckoned we could have found enough people to say it was disgusting to win any libel case anyone might have tried, in the unlikely circumstance that anyone felt their reputation could be lowered any further, when by bringing the case they were admitting to having been involved in the production of Red Barrel, already a crime against beer serious enough to make all reasonable persons think worse of them. However, the lawyers prevailed, and Partridge was replaced by a quote from Richard Boston. (Incidentally, Andy P, who as a Swindon boy probably met the dreaded Red Barrel in pubs owned by Usher’s of Trowbridge, acquired by Watney’s in 1960, was wrong about Red Barrel arriving in the late 1960s. It had been around as an export bottled beer since 1931, was served on draught in Sheen Tennis Club in south-west London in 1935, and was a best-selling keg beer as early as 1959. In 1961 Watney’s was boasting that Red Barrel was brewed with Norfolk barley and Goldings hops, just to prove that great ingredients do not guarantee a great beer.)
Whether Scurvy-grass, Daucus, Gill, Butler, or Broom,
Or from London, or Southwark, or Lambeth we come;
We humbly implore since the Wine in the Nation,
Has of late so much lost its once great Reputation;
That such Liquor as ours which is genuine and true,
And which all our Masters so carefully brew,
Which all men approve of, tho’ many drink Wine,
Yet the good Oyl of Barly there’s none will decline:
That we as a body call’d corp’rate may stand,
And a Patent procure from your Seal and your Hand,
That none without Licence, call’d Special, shall fail,
To drink any thing else, but Strong Nappy Brown Ale.
From The Bacchanalian Sessions: or The Contention of Liquors by Richard Ames (c 1663/4-1692)
Richard Ames was a Londoner who started out as a tailor’s apprentice before producing a host of verse, much of it in praise of women and/or drink. His precise birth year is unknown, but he looks to have died before he was 30, and The Contention of Liquors was published after his death. It’s a long poem featuring a host of alcoholic beverages arguing their particular virtues in front of Bacchus, and this section shows the ales putting up their case. I like this quote because it shows that even at the end of the 17th century hops were still far from totally triumphant in England: Ames lists five different herb ales: scurvy ale, flavoured with scurvy-grass, Cochlearia officinalis, a relative of horseradish, which is high in vitamin C, and was used by sailors as a treatment for scurvy before its place was taken by citrus fruit; daucus ale, flavoured with wild carrot seed, which apparently gives “a fine peach flavour or relish” to ale; gill ale, flavoured with ground-ivy, or alehoof, Glechoma hederacea, a widely used addition to English ale even after the arrival of hops: gill ale was still on sale at a pub in Birdcage Alley, Southwark around 1722; Dr Butler’s Ale, the “purging” brew sold at pubs called the Dr Butler’s Head, which contained half a dozen or so herbs and flavourings, including horse-radish, sage, betony and Roman wormwood; and broom ale, flavoured with the bitter yellow flowering tops of the familiar heathland shrub. Ale infused with broom after it had been tunned was one of only two “herb” beers allowed to be sold after a tax was brought in on hops in 1711. Oh, note Lambeth, opposite Westminster, is there with London and Southwark as a supplier of ale. And if you want to shorten this quote, how about: “The good Oyl of Barly there’s none will decline.” I certainly won’t.
They were drinking iced honey-beer out of tall cut-glass goblets. This had been brought by Popova as a present for Olga – it was the colour of amber and tingled pleasantly on one’s tongue. It prompted Pyotr to make some very happy remarks, but it was useless to try to get them in because of Alexei’s tiresome and unceasing chatter.
Decadence (1925) by Maxim Gorky (1868-1936)
Gorky (who took his pseudonym from a word meaning “bitter” in Russian) was living in exile in Italy when he wrote Decadence, a novel tracing the history of a bourgeois Russian family from the time of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 to the Bolshevik revolution. Hands up, I’ve never read it, but when I was searching for quotes for the chapter on honey beer in Amber Gold and Black, it appeared in the results. Anyway, now you know what to say if anyone rings up and says: “I’ve got some honey beer” – “Popova!”
Suppose we go and try some lager-bier? … It is a new beverage, of German origin … you will not like it for some time, because it is quite different from Barclay and Perkins’s beer.
Ten Years in the United States: Being an Englishman’s View of Men and Things in the North and South, by David W. Mitchell, 1862
This is, I think, one of the earliest mentions of “lager” in a British publication, from a book which came out when the War between the States was a year old, as an attempt to propagandise the cause of the South in Britain. Mitchell was describing Richmond, Virginia when he introduced his readers to lager, telling them that: “It affords another instance of an acquired taste; nobody liked it at first, but most people who use drinking houses get used to taking it in surprising quantities. Germans have sworn to taking sixty glasses in an evening without being intoxicated.” Admittedly most lagers at the time were weaker than most British (and, probably, American) ales, but it is still odd to read in 19th century publications of the allegedly non-intoxicating effects of lager-bier.
But there are those who think that a cloud is rising which may yet overshadow the prosperity of Burton. And on the cloud they think they see written in letters whose outlines are still faint and dim, so faint and dim indeed that the Burton brewers, who of all men should be most skilled to discern the signs of the times, refuse to believe that the writing is there at all: the ominous words Lager Bier.
“Beer-town-upon-Trent”, Murray’s Magazine, Vol IV, No XXIII, November 1888 p646
In the quarter-century after Mitchell introduced Britons to the strange German drink, it made little or no progress in this country. All the same, at the end of a piece describing a visit to the Bass brewing complex, an anonymous writer for Murray’s Magazine felt obliged to issue a warning to Lord Burton and his fellow members of the Beerage about what lay in the future. He was right, of course, though it took another 90 years for the prophecy to be fulfilled.
“I’m getting rather hoarse, I fear,
After so much reciting:
So, if you don’t object, my dear,
We’ll try a glass of bitter beer –
I think it looks inviting.”
Phantasmagoria by Lewis Carroll, published 1869
Phantasmagoria is one of Carroll’s lesser-known works, but his longest poem, a conversation between a man and a (decidedly comic) ghost, in which the ghost explains all about the ghost world and then, becoming thirsty, demands that the man he set out to haunt brings him a beer.
You’d think he would have preferred spirits.