One of the biggest mysteries in the history of beer concerns a drink called three-threads, and its exact place in the early history of porter. Three-threads was evidently a mixed beer sold in the alehouses of London in the time of the last Stuart monarchs, William III and his sister-in-law Anne, about 1690 to 1714. For more than 200 years, it has been linked with the development of porter: but the story that said porter was invented to replace three-threads was written eight decades and more after the events it claimed to record, and the description that the “replaced by porter” story gave of three-threads early in the 19th century does not match up with more contemporary accounts of the drink from the late 17th century.
So what exactly was three-threads? Well, I now believe that enough people have dug out enough information that we can make a firm and definitive statement on that.
Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.
Normandy, 70 years ago, and one of the biggest concerns of the British troops who have made it over the channel, survived the landings and pushed out into the bocage against bitter German resistance is not the V1 flying bomb blitz threatening their families back home, nor the continued failure to capture the port of Cherbourg – but the lack of beer in the bridgehead. On 20 June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Reuter’s special correspondent with the Allied Forces in France wrote to newspapers in the UK that all that was available in the newly liberated estaminets a few miles inland from the beaches was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”
It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth
Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):
“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”
He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:
“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.
It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,
“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign , were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”
The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.
But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”
Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.
She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”
In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”
Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.
Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that
“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”
So: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.
On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.
The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.
This week’s letter comes from a Mr R Protz of St Albans, who writes:
I took a snap of the clip for ‘E’ in the National Brewery Centre Bar y’day. I’ve included it in 300 More Beers … in the Best Bitter section but I notice it’s now labelled Burton Ale. What are your thoughts? Thanks,
The answer, of course, is that Roger is completely correct, Worthington ‘E’ is a pale ale or bitter with a strength that puts it in the “Best Bitter” category, and NOT a Burton Ale, which is a different style of beer altogether– darker and sweeter. (Nasty clash of 1920s and 1970s typefaces on that pumpclip there, too, but let’s move on …)
Indeed, back in the 19th century, Worthington ‘E’ was described as an India Pale Ale, as these two ads below from the early 1890s show. Apparently to distinguish themselves from all other brewers, Worthington labelled their brews with a strange and not particularly logical naming system. Their Burton Ales, strong, bitter-sweet and rather darker than an IPA/best bitter, were called G (the strongest, equivalent to Bass No 1), F (the second-strongest) and D (the third-strongest, in the 20th century sold as a mild) – they’re the ones called “strong ales” in the ads. It looks as if the beers, mostly, go up in strength from A mild through B and C and up to G – but what about M light dinner ale, and S and SS, which to most brewers would mean “stout” and “single stout”, but to Worthington mean their cheapest mild and their cheapest light dinner ale, respectively. And XE IPA looks to be weaker than the E … Continue reading Worthington ‘E’ is NOT a Burton Ale→
It’s #IPADAY again, and time for some more IPA mythbusting. Despite the best efforts of many, an amazing amount of inaccurate, made-up rubbish continues to be perpetuated about the history and origins of IPA, or India Pale Ale. All the myths below are genuine statements culled in the past few weeks from websites that claim to be experts on beer.
Myth 1“The original IPAs had strengths close to 8 to 9 per cent alcohol by volume”.
Rubbish: records show early IPAs rarely went much above 6 or 6.5 per cent abv.
Myth 2“Historians believe that IPA was then watered down for the troops, while officers and the elite would savour the beer at full strength.”
Complete cobblers’ awls. No historian has ever believed that. There is NO evidence IPA was ever watered down, and the troops drank porter anyway.
Myth 3“Porters and stouts were not suitable for the torrid Indian climate.”
More unresearched rubbish. Considerable amounts of porter – far more porter than IPA, probably – were exported to India, from at least the second half of the 18th century right through to the end of the 19th century. The East India Company actually used to ask brewers to tender for suppliers of porter to India.
Myth 4“North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.”
Not true. North American IPAs – excellent though many of them are – use hop types completely unknown to 18th and 19th century British brewers, and major on floral, citrussy flavours and aromas in their IPAs, which are designed to be drunk comparatively young. Early British IPAs were designed to be drunk aged anything up to nine months or more, and while they were certainly bitter, they would have lost most of any hop aroma that they originally had. In addition it is becoming increasingly clear that early British IPAs would have showed at least some Brettanomyces character, from their long ageing in cask. Apart from both containing lots of hops, and being similar colours (except for the black ones) modern North American IPAs and early British IPAs could not be much more different.
Myth 5 “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century for the colonies East of India such as New Zealand and Australia.”
If you’re reading this, DB Breweries of New Zealand, perpetrators of this dreadful piece of marketing fackwittery in connection with Tui East India Pale Ale, “the East Indies” was the term for the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia, including the archipelagos of maritime South-East Asia, a name used to contrast the region with the West Indies. Trading companies that did business in this part of the world included the East India Company of London, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or United East India Company. East India Pale Ale is simply a synonym for India Pale Ale, pale ale brewed for India/the East Indies. It has nothing to do with “East of India”, or Australasia. However, since a year or so back Tui East India Pale Ale won the Brewers Guild of New Zealand award for best New Zealand Draught, an amber lager style, it appears the beer is as accurate in style as the history is as accurate in its facts.
(Addendum: I’ve only just noticed, after several readings of the original quote, that it also says “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century …”. “Last century” was, of course, the 20th century. They presumably meant the 19th century. Which is wrong anyway, as highly hopped pale ales for India were first sent out from England to India in the 18th century …)
You can read last year’s #IPADAY mythbusting from the Zythophile blog here. Have a good one.
Is there a brewery business with more books written about it – is there any business with more books written about it – than Guinness? Effectively a one-product operation, Guinness has inspired tens of millions of words. Without trying hard, I’ve managed to acquire 18 different books about Guinness, the brewery, the people, the product and/or the advertising (four of them written by people called Guinness), and that’s not counting the five editions I have of the lovely little handbook that Guinness used to give to visitors to the brewery at St James’s Gate, dated from 1928 to 1955. There are plenty more books on Guinness I don’t have.
Despite all those volumes of Guinnessiana, however, you can still find a remarkable quantity of Guinness inaccuracy and mythology, constantly added to and recycled, particularly about the brewery’s earliest days. The myths and errors range from Arthur Guinness’s date of birth (the claim that he was born on September 24, 1725 is demonstrably wrong) to the alleged uniqueness of Guinness’s yeast: the idea that the brewery’s success was down to the yeast Arthur Guinness brought with him to Dublin is strangely persistent, though the brewery’s own records show that as early as 1810-12 (and almost certainly earlier) St James’s Gate was borrowing yeast from seven different breweries.
Most accounts of the history of Guinness also miss out on some cracking stories too little known: the homosexual affair that almost brought the end of the brewery partnership in the late 1830s, for example; the still-unexplained attack of insanity that saw Guinness’s managing director, great-great nephew of Arthur Guinness I, carried out of the brewery in a straitjacket in 1895; and the link between the writings of Arthur Guinness I’s grandson Henry Grattan Guinness and the foundation of the state of Israel (which takes in the assassination of Arthur Guinness I’s great-great grandson in Egypt). Continue reading Guinness myths and scandals→
You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.
It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:
“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”
Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”
If there is one blessing the Oxford Companion to Beer has brought us, it’s the beginnings of a much better, and myth-free understanding of the origins of the world’s most popular beer style, pale pils lager, and the brewery that first made it, Pilsner Urquell, which is in what is now the Czech Republic. We didn’t get this new understanding from the OCB itself, obviously, but from Evan Rail, who lives in Prague, who writes with insight and erudition about Czech beer, Czech beerstyles and Czech brewing history, and who knows the number one rule about writing history: go back to the original sources – an apt commandment here, since “Urquell” – “Prazdroj” in Czech – means “original source”.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his latest blog post adding, clarifying and correcting the OCB’s Czech-related entries.
Evan has done something few, if any, writers in English about the origins of Pilsner Urquell, the “world’s first pale lager”, have bothered doing. He has uncovered, and read, the document in 1839 which effectively founded the brewery in Pilsen, the “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brewhouse”, made by 12 prominent Pilsen burghers. He has also read the brewery’s own history, written for its 50th anniversary, Měšťanský pivovar v Plzni 1842-1892.
Among the fascinating facts that Evan has revealed so far, the following seem particularly worthy of note:
The town of Pilsen was already being “flooded” by bottom-fermented “Bavarian-style” beer in 1839, the 12 would-be founders of the new brewery declared, and it seems one big reason why they wanted to build their own new brewery was to fight back against imports of lager beers from elsewhere, by making their own bottom-fermented brews in Pilsen.
The builder of the new brewery, František Filaus “made a trip around the biggest breweries in Bohemia which were then already equipped for brewing bottom-fermented beer,” while in December 1839, the brewery’s architect, Martin Stelzer, “travelled to Bavaria, so that he could tour bigger breweries in Munich and elsewhere and use the experience thus gained for the construction and furnishing of the Burghers’ Brewery.”
The yeast for the new brewery was certainly not “smuggled out of Bavaria by a monk”, as far too many sources try to claim (did anybody with their critical faculties engaged ever believe that?), nor even, apparently, brought with him by Josef Groll, the 29-year-old brewer from the town of Vilshofen in Lower Bavaria who was hired to run the new brewery. Instead, “seed yeast for the first batch and fermented wort were purchased from Bavaria,” according to the 1892 book. (The Groll family brewery, incidentally, no longer exists, but another concern in Vilshofen, the Wolferstetter brewery, still produces a Josef Groll Pils in his memory.)
The maltings at the new brewery were “dle anglického spůsobu zařízený hvozd”, that is, loosely, “equipped with English-style malt kilns”, according to an account from 1883. That meant indirect heat: the same 1883 account says the kilns were “vytápěný odcházejícím teplem z místnosti ku vaření“, which looks to mean “heated by heat from the boiler-room”. Indirect heat makes it easier to control the heating, and easier to produce pale malt, which is just what the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery did to make its pale lager.
That still leaves THE big mystery: if the burgher brewers of Pilsen wanted to compete against Bavarian-style bottom-fermented lagers, which would still have been quite dark (think “Dunkel”), why did they make a pale beer? Were they attempting to imitate English pale beers? Since pale bitter beers were only just taking off even in Britain in 1842 (although pale mild ales had been around for a couple of centuries), I don’t personally find that particularly likely.
However, Evan has promised “more on the origins of Pilsner Urquell coming up”, and I am hugely looking forward to reading additional revelations. I was delighted to read that Stelzer had toured the big breweries of Munich before the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery was built, because I suggested in an article for Beer Connoisseur magazine in the US two and a half years ago that he must have done. In Munich he surely met Gabriel Sedlmayr II, of the Spaten brewery, who had been round Britain looking at the latest brewing and malting techniques being practised in places such as London, Burton upon Trent and Edinburgh, and Sedlmayr would have been able to tell him about English malting techniques. Munich, at that time, was becoming a magnet for brewers in Continental Europe because of the advances in brewing methods being made by Sedlmayr, as he perfected the techniques of lager brewing.
Sedlmayr wasn’t, at that time, making pale malts: however, the man who accompanied him to Britain on one of his trips, Anton Dreher of the Klein-Schwechat brewery near Vienna, DID come back and start producing paler English-style malts, allied with Bavarian-style lagering, which resulted in a copper-brown beer, the first “Vienna-style” lager. Vienna was then, of course, the capital of the Austrian empire, of which Bohemia (and Pilsen) were still a part: it would not be surprising if Stelzer, a citizen of the Austrian empire, also visited Vienna and met Dreher (whose name, it always amuses me to note, translates as “Tony Turner”), and talked about malting techniques, but there seems to be no evidence as yet that he did so.
I’d also love to know why Josef Groll was hired (apparently by Stelzer) to run the new brewery: Vilshofen, while nearer Pilsen than Munich is, is a comparative backwater, and if Stelzer had been to Munich, why did he not bring a Munich brewer back with him to Bohemia? This site claims (on what authority I know not) that Groll studied under both Sedlmayr and Dreher, but both allegedly complained about his rudeness, obstinacy, stubbornness and lack of self-control. If that’s true (I have no idea), it doesn’t look as it Stelzer bothered checking up on Groll’s references before he hired the young brewer …
The announcement last week that W&Y was bringing back Courage Imperial Russian Stout genuinely excited me, and not just because it’s a fantastic beer. It showed that the Bedford company has a shrewd understanding of the sort of niche a medium-sized brewer can exploit with the right brands, and it has cottoned on to the growing desire of drinkers in the UK, the US and elsewhere to drink authentic, heritage beers again. McEwan’s and Younger’s have plenty of heritage – Younger’s No 3, for example.
But I’d like to make it clear, now, that if I notice ANY references by the brand’s new owners to Younger’s being “established in 1749”, I shall be driving up to Bedford and administering a few slaps. Because it wasn’t. This claim of a 1749 foundation date has been around since at least 1861, making it 150 years old, or more, and it still regularly pops up. Only yesterday the Scotsman newspaper printed this rubbish
“William Younger founded Edinburgh’s historic brewing industry when he set up his firm in Leith in 1749.”
There are two big errors in that one sentence: Edinburgh’s brewing industry is, of course, far older than 1749: the city was stuffed with breweries long before, so much that its nickname, “Auld Reekie” (“Old Smoky”), is sometimes said to have come from all the smoke that came out of the brewery chimneys. In addition, William Younger never started a brewery in Leith, in 1749 or any other year. In fact he was almost certainly never a brewer at all.