An old friend of mine gained a PhD in the relative clauses of William Shakespeare, with particular emphasis on the later plays. Ground-breaking stuff, she told me, and I’m sure that’s true. My own contribution to Shakespearian studies is rather less linguistic and more alcoholic: I seem to be the first person in centuries of scholarly study of the works of the Bard of Avon to point out that his plays clearly show Shakespeare was a fan of ale, but didn’t much like beer.
To appreciate this you have to know that, even in the Jacobean era, ale, the original English unhopped fermented malt drink, was still regarded as different, and separate, from, beer, the hopped malt drink brought over from continental Europe at the beginning of the 15th century, 200 years earlier. It was made by different people: Norwich had five “comon alebrewers” and nine “comon berebrewars” in 1564. In 1606 (the year Macbeth was performed at the Globe theatre) the town council of St Albans, 25 or so miles north of London, agreed to restrict the number of brewers in the town to four for beer and two for ale, to try to halt a continuing rise in the price of fuelwood.
This separation of fermented malt drinks in England into ale and beer continued right through to the 18th century, and can still be found in the 19th century, though the only difference by then was that ale was regarded as less hopped than beer. Even in Shakespeare’s time, brewers were starting to put hops into ale, though this was uncommon. In 1615, the year before Shakespeare died, Gervase Markham published The English Huswife, a handbook that contains “all the virtuous knowledges and actions both of the mind and body, which ought to be in any complete woman”. In it, Markham wrote that
“the general use is by no means to put any hops into ale, making that the difference between it and beere … but the wiser huswives do find an error in that opinion, and say the utter want of hops is the reason why ale lasteth so little a time, but either dyeth or soureth, and therefore they will to every barrel of the best ale allow halfe a pound of good hops.
The book’s recipe for strong March beer included a quarter of malt and “a pound and a half of hops to one hogshead,” which may be three times more hops than Markham was recommending for ale, but is still not much hops by later standards, though Markham said that “This March beer … should (if it have right) lie a whole year to ripen: it will last two, three and four years if it lie cool and close, and endure the drawing to the last drop.” In his notes on brewing ale, Markham said: “… for the brewing of strong ale, because it is drink of no such long lasting as beer is, therefore you shall brew less quantity at a time thereof … Now or the mashing and ordering of it in the mash vat, it will not differ anything from that of beer; as for hops, although some use [sic] not to put in any, yet the best brewers thereof will allow to fourteen gallons of ale a good espen [spoon?] full of hops, and no more.”
Markham was writing in the middle of a battle fought for more than two centuries to try to keep ale still free from hops, and separate from hopped beer. In 1471 the “common ale brewers” of Norwich were forbidden from brewing “nowther with hoppes nor gawle” (that is, gale or bog myrtle). In 1483, the ale brewers of London were complaining to the mayor about “sotill and crafty means of foreyns” (not necessarily “foreigners” in the modern sense, but probably people not born in London and thus not freemen of London) who were “bruing of ale within the said Citee” and who were “occupying and puttyng of hoppes and other things in the ale, contrary to the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used.”
Almost 60 years later, in 1542, the physician and former Carthusian monk Andrew Boorde wrote a medical self-help book called A Dyetary of Helth which heavily promoted ale over beer. Boorde, who declared in his book: “I do drinke … no manner of beere made with hopes,” said that “Ale for an Englysshman is a naturall drynke,” while beer was “a naturall drynke for a Dutche man” (by which he meant Germans), but
“of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men; specially it kylleth them the which be troubled with the colycke, and the stone, & the strangulion; for the drynke is a cold drynke; yet it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appear by the Dutche mens faces & belyes.”
(There is a great story suggesting why Boorde hated beer so much: a rival writer named Barnes said that when Boorde was studying medicine in Montpelier he got so drunk at the house of “a Duche man” [which probably meant a German rather than someone from the Netherlands], presumably on the Dutchman’s hopped beer, that he threw up in his beard just before he fell into bed. Barnes claimed that when Boorde woke up the next morning, the smell under his nose was so bad he had to shave his beard off. For Boorde, the loss of his beard, in a period when a lengthily hirsute chin was the essential badge of every intellectual and scholar, must have been enormously embarrassing.)
A century on, another English writer, John Taylor, in Ale Ale-vated into the Ale-titude, “A Learned Lecture in Praise of Ale”, printed in 1651, agreed that “Beere is a Dutch Boorish Liquor, a thing not knowne in England till of late dayes, an Alien to our Nation till such time as Hops and Heresies came amongst us; it is a sawcy intruder into this Land.” Earlier, a poet called Thomas Randall, who died in 1635, made the same point, in a poem called “The High and Mighty Commendation of a Pot of Good Ale” that
“Beer is a stranger, a Dutch upstart come
Whose credit with us sometimes is but small
But in records of the Empire of Rome
The old Catholic drink is a pot of good ale.”
Shakespeare, being a far subtler writer than Boorde, Taylor or Randall, never made such obvious statements about his preferences. But he was a Warwickshire boy, country-bred, and he brought his country tastes with him to London. In 1630 a pamphleteer called John Grove wrote a piece called “Wine, Ale, Beer and Tobacco Contending for Superiority”, in which the three drinks declared:
Wine: I, generous wine, am for the Court.
Beer: The City calls for Beer.
Ale: But Ale, bonny Ale, like a lord of the soil, in the Country shall domineer.
Shakespeare’s country-born preference for ale, and disdain for the city’s beer, pops up across his plays. Autolycus, the “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, makes his appearance in The Winter’s Tale singing:
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge,
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.
By which he means that he can steal the sheet someone has left out to bleach in the sun, and exchange it for a quart of excellent ale in a nearby alehouse (which were, alas, sometimes places where stolen goods could easily be disposed of). But if ale is a dish fit for a king, small beer, according to Prince Hal – soon to be a king – in Henry IV, is a “poor creature”, and he asks Poins: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” Similarly the malicious Iago, in Othello, declares that the perfect woman is fit to do nothing more than “suckle fools and chronicle small beer”.
Nor was Shakespeare impressed by strong beer, judging by the fate of the villainous Thomas Horner, the armourer, in Henry VI, written around 1590-92, who is so drunk on sack, charneco (a wine from Portugal) and double beer given to him by his supporters (“Here’s a pot of good double beer, neighbour: drink it and fear not your man”) that his apprentice, Peter Thump, is easily able to overcome him and kill him in their duel.
What was double beer? The 17th century writer William Yworth, in a book called Cerevisiarii Comes or The New and True Art of Brewing, published in London in 1692, said double beer was “the first two worts, used in the place of liquor [water], to mash again on fresh malt”, so that, in theory, the wort ended up twice as strong.
Certainly double beer was strong enough to keep well. Yworth gave a typical 17th-century pseudo-scientific explanation that the double wort “doth … only extract the Sweet, Friendly, Balsamic Qualities” from the fresh malt, “its Hunger being partly satisfied before.” He continued that double beer “being thus brewed … may be transported to the Indies, remaining in its full Goodness … whereas the Single, if not well-brewed especially, soon corrupts, ropes and sours.” (Ropey beer has a bacterial infection which results in sticky “ropes” appearing in the liquid. Note, incidentally, the implication that strong beer was being exported to hot climates even in the 17th century.)
The opposite of doubele beer was single beer. A recipe for 60 barrels of single beer printed by Richard Arnold in 1503, during Henry VII’s reign says: “To brewe beer x. quarters malte. ij. quarters wheet ij. quarters ootes. xl. lb weight of hoppys. To make lx barrell of sengyll beer”, that is, 10 quarters of barley malt, two quarters of wheat and two quarters of oats, plus 40lbs of hops, to make 60 barrels of single beer. It is very unlikely this would have produced a beer of anything less than 1045 OG, or four per cent alcohol by volume. A modern-day brewing to this recipe by the home brew expert Graham Wheeler, using modern yeast, modern malted barley (which would probably have given a higher extract than 16th century brewers could have achieved), malted oats and Shredded Wheat, came out at 1065 OG and 6.7 per cent ABV.
Unfortunately, this guide to the strength of single beer is completely contradicted by a declaration from the authorities in London in 1552, during the reign of Edward VI, regarding the amount of malt that should go into double and single beer. For “doble beare”, they said, a quarter of “grayne” should produce “fowre barrels and one fyrkin” of “goode holesome drynke”. To make single beer, twice as much drink should be brewed from the same quantity of grain. This would have produced double beer with a strength of around 1047 OG at the bottom end, perhaps 1058 at most (barely five per cent ABV), while the single beer could not have been stronger than around 1025 OG, less than two per cent alcohol.
Both these strengths seem far too low – indeed, they seem to use exactly half the malt one might expect, given Arnold’s recipe for single beer, and evidence from other writers. Recipes from the 17th century show beers of around 1035 to 1045 OG being described as “small beer”. Gervase Markham called a beer of approximately 1045 OG “ordinary beere”. Perhaps the London authorities in 1552 were deliberately trying to force the city’s brewers to make weaker beers.
Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Tudor ale was stronger than Tudor beer. Elizabethan commentators believed you could make twice as much beer from a quarter of malt as you could ale, because the hopped beer did not have to be as strong as ale to stop it going sour too quickly. Reynold Scot in 1574 said a bushel of “Mault” would make eight or nine gallons of “indifferent” ale but 18 or 20 gallons of “very good Beere”.
In London in 1574 (when Shakespeare was 10) there were 58 ale breweries and 32 beer breweries. But the ale brewers consumed an average of only 12 quarters of malt a week, while the beer brewers were on average consuming four times as much. The average Elizabethan London beer brewer’s output in pints was thus probably on average eight times larger than the average ale brewer’s production. Even the biggest London ale brewer was smaller, on this calculation, than the smallest of the capital’s common beer brewers. The biggest Elizabethan London beer brewer consumed 90 quarters of malt a week, enough to make around 14,000 barrels of beer a year, very roughly, which would be a medium-sized brewery even in the 18th century.
It is difficult to be precise without knowing what proportion of grain went into single ale and beer, which used less malt per barrel, and what proportion went into double brews. But very roughly, again, it looks as if, even though there were nearly twice as many ale breweries in the capital, Londoners were drinking four times as much beer from the common brewers as they were ale. Some ale and beer would still have been made by alehouse and inn brewers, but their output probably made little difference to the ratio of ale to beer drunk in the capital. When John Grove said in 1630 that “The citie call for Beere”, it looks as if beer was the city of London’s favourite since at least the 1570s.
It was drunk, generally, from hooped wooden mugs: Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, promising his supporters great bounties when he is ruler of England, declared that as well as seven halfpenny loafs for a penny, “the three-hooped pot shall have 10 hoops.” The wealthy used something grander than wood: the Frenchman Estienne Perlin, a visitor to London in the 1550s, wrote that the English drank beer “not in glasses but in earthenware pots with silver handles and covers”.
Many of the beer brewers were still immigrants from the continent. In St Olaph’s parish, Southwark in 1571 there were 14 Dutch brewers. One, Peter van Duran, who had emigrated from Gelderland 40 years earlier, employed nine servants whose nationalities were given as “Hollanders, Cleveners [from Cleves, on the German/Dutch border] or High Dutchmen [that is, Germans]”, and who included a brewer, three draymen, three tunmen and a boatman.
The size of the London brewing industry was causing pollution problems: in 1578 the Company of Brewers wrote trepidatiously to Queen Elizabeth saying that they understood Her Majesty “findeth hersealfe greately greved and anoyed” with the taste and smoke of the sea coal used in their brewhouses. The brewers offered to burn only wood, rather than coal, in the brewhouses closest to the Queen’s home, the Palace of Westminster.
The Queen herself was a considerable brewer: like her father, Henry VIII, she had both a beer brewer, Henry Campion, who died in 1588, and ale brewers, two men called Peert and Yardley. (Campion’s brewery, according to John Stow’s Survey of London in 1602, was in Hay Wharf Lane, at the side of All Hallows the Great church in Upper Thames Street, which puts it on the same site as the Calverts’ later Hour Glass Brewery.)
Elizabeth also had naval and military brewhouses in operation at Tower Hill, Dover, Portsmouth and, probably, Porchester by 1565, to supply the army and navy. The first royal beer brewery in Portsmouth was built by Henry VII in 1492, and its operations were enlarged by Henry VIII in 1512/13 at a cost of more than £2,600 to enable it to produce more than 500 barrels of beer a day. It seems quite possible this was one of the biggest breweries in the world at that time. But the beer consumption of the Tudor navy was enormous: perhaps 3,000 barrels a week. It was calculated that a ship of 100 tons, carrying 200 men for two months, needed 56 tuns of beer, (that is, around a gallon a man per day, one tun being equivalent to six 36-gallon barrels), 12,200 pounds of biscuit, three tons of “flesh” and three tons of fish and cheese. Water would turn brackish and unhopped ale would go off: beer would last the tour.
The Tudor army certainly ran on beer. In July 1544, during an English invasion of Picardy, the commander of Henry VIII’s forces complained that his army was so short of supplies they had drunk no beer “these last ten days, which is strange for English men to do with so little grudging.” Relief arrived a couple of days later with 400 to 500 tuns of beer from Calais and ten of “the king’s brewhouses” (presumably mobile breweries) together with “English brewers”.
Whatever soldiers liked to drink, Shakespeare’s opinion of the hopped drink was so low, if we can assume he was putting his own thoughts into the mouth of Hamlet, that he could think of nothing more depressing than being used after death to seal the bunghole in a cask of beer. Referring to the practice of using clay as a stopper in a barrel, the gloomy Dane tells his friend:
“To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole? … follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam (whereto he was converted) might they not stop a beer barrel?”
In Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, Launce lists as one of the virtues of the woman that he loves the fact that “she brews good ale”, and tells Speed: “And thereof comes the proverb, ‘Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.'”
Centuries after his death, Shakespeare was adopted as a trademark by Flowers, the biggest brewer in his home town, Stratford upon Avon. (Flowers was founded, incidentally, by Edward Fordham Flower, who had emigrated to the United States, aged 13, in 1818 with his brewer father Richard. The Flowers settled in southern Illinois, near the Wabash river, on what later became the township of Albion – family legend says they turned down a site further north on the shore of Lake Michigan, believing it to be too marshy. Others were less fussy, and the city of Chicago was eventually founded there. Edward and Richard returned to England in 1824 and Edward began brewing in Stratford in 1831.) Fortunately nobody ever pointed out to Flowers that Shakespeare wouldn’t have liked the hoppy brew they were selling.
(A much shorter version of this piece appeared in Beer Connoisseur magazine in 2009. Other parts have been adapted from Beer: The Story of the Pint, published 2003, with additions