Category Archives: Beer trivia

What’s a brewer’s bucket? No, you’re wrong …

“He shall charge you, and discharge you, with the motion of a pewterer’s hammer, come off and on swifter than he that gibbets on the brewer’s bucket.”
Sir John Falstaff, Henry IV part 2, Act III, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare

Better brains that yours or mine have failed to identify what Falstaff meant by “brewer’s bucket”. It’s to do with carrying liquids, certainly, but unrelated to pails. And actually, you’ve probably seen illustrations of a brewer’s bucket, thought it would not have been called that in the captions. What is more, you’ve probably used the word “bucket” in the sense intended by Shakespeare, though I doubt you or anyone who heard you realised that.

The passage mentioning the brewer’s bucket occurs in a scene where Falstaff and his gang are raising levies among the Gloucestershire peasantry for the king’s army to fight against the rebellious Earl of Northumberland. The two likeliest-looking recruits, big sturdy men called Peter Bullcalf and Ralph Mouldy, bribe Bardolph, Falstaff’s deputy, with 40 shillings each and are allowed to sneak away home (Bardolph, of course, tells Sir John he was only given £3 to let them go) and Falstaff insists the three weeds he has left, Simon Shadow, Thomas Wart and Francis Feeble, will make cracking soldiers.

From Drinks Of The World by James Mew, published 1896, two 17th century brewers with bucket

Shadow, he says, is so thin the enemy gunners will not be able to hit him, Feeble will be suitably speedy in any necessary retreat, while Wart will “charge and discharge” (terms used by gunners – see page 39 of The Art of Gunnery by Nathanial Nye, published 1637) using the quick movements of a pewtersmith planishing the surface of whatever piece he is making, and “come off and on” (which look like swordfighting terms, as in “come on guard”) swifter than – well, what, exactly?

Continue reading What’s a brewer’s bucket? No, you’re wrong …

Strange Tales of Ale – ideal summer reading for the beach-bound beer fan

Of all the different styles of books about beer, the old-fashioned anecdotal ramble, as exemplified by John Bickerdyke’s classic Curiosities of Ale and Beer from 1889, or Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles from the 1970s, seems to be the rarest. I’m delighted, therefore, to be able to add to the genre with Strange Tales of Ale, a collection of 28 stories involving beer, brewing, breweries or pubs in some way.

Regular readers of this blog will have come across many – though not all – of the stories in Strange Tales of Ale here over the years, as the book is a bit of a “best of Zythophile” collected between hard covers. There’s the Great London Beer Flood of 1814, of course; the story of Spitfires ferrying beer to the D-Day troops in their fuel tanks; why England’s aristocrats brewed beer that was meant to be laid down and only drunk after 21 years; the mystery of the yard of ale; the true origins of the Red Lion as a pub name (with a picture of the attractive Art Deco innsign from the Red Lion, Fulwell, my local); the most notorious brewer in history; what to order in a Victorian public house; the history of the ploughman’s lunch; what Pliny the Elder really said about hops; how the Dove in Hammersmith got its tiny public bar; pea beer; the British National Dinner, and others that are among my personal favourites from the 300-plus posts, totalling more than 600,000 words, that I’ve stuck up here over the past eight years. There are a couple you might not have read even if you have been a Zythophile follower since 2007, on Dutch Schultz, the beer baron of Brooklyn (here’s a beer trivia question for you – which New York brewer, born in Leeds, was played on film by Bob Hoskins?) and on “the brewery that salami-sliced itself to death”.

If you’re looking for some beery holiday reading for yourself, or a birthday or Christmas present for someone you know likes beer, and reading, can I recommend STOA? Indeed, I’d hope you don’t even have to like beer to enjoy the book: the tales are in themselves engrossing, from the link between beer and bridal gowns to how the Jerusalem Tavern near Smithfield became the Trigger’s Broom of pubs to potboys in literature and art.

Strange Tales of Ale is published by Amberley Publishing, and costs £12.99 hardback, £7.80 as an ebook (unlike Amber Gold and Black, my last book, from a different publisher, I get rather less of a royalty on the ebook version of STOA than on the Finnish forest version, so I’m happier for you to go traditional …) You can support small businesses and buy it from my good friend Paul at Beer Inn Print here or if you don’t mind tax-dodging conglomerates you can put more money in my pockets by buying it though my Amazon Associates page here. (Or, if you’re in North America, The Dove(s), Hammersmith circa 1880

A rare picture of The Dove, Hammersmith – then still the Doves – when the landlord was Samuel Richardson Gamble, the name on the (birdless) signboard, some time between at least 1874 and January 1881, the month the licence was handed over to Henry Thomas Saunders. The window to what became the smallest public bar in Britain is on the right of the door. If you look at a modern picture of the pub, you can see the bracket for the innsign is still the same piece of wrought iron, albeit with a bit missing …

Eight per cent of British craft brewers have PhDs and other dubious statistics

I have a new book out, A Craft Beer Road Trip Around Britain, with snapshots of 40 of Britain’s top small breweries from Scotland to the South West. Don’t rush to try to buy it from Amazon/your favourite independent bookseller, however, because it’s only available via Beer 52, the craft beer club people, who are giving it away to people who sign up to their “case of beer a month” service. Putting it together was quite fun, but hard work: getting craft beer brewers to co-operate in supplying information about themselves and their beers turns out to be like trying to herd cats, and my deepest sympathy goes to anyone who has had to put together one of those 666 beers to try before you’re dragged off to Hell-style compilations.

Still, at the end I found I had ended up with a big enough stack of information about a sample of craft brewers in Britain to pull out some interesting, if ultimately probably dubious, statistics. If we take the 40 brewers I interviewed for the book as typical (and I’m sure we can’t), we can draw the following conclusions about the British craft brewing industry:

Eight per cent of British craft brewers have a PhD
Probably the dodgiest stat of the lot; but it’s a fact that at least three of the 40 brewers in the book, James Davies of Alechemy in Livingston, Scotland (PhD, yeast genetics), Gaz Matthews of Mad Hatter in Liverpool (PhD, criminology) and Stuart Lascelles of East London Brewing Company (PhD, chemistry) are entitled to call themselves “Doctor”.

35 per cent of British craft brewers wear black T-shirts/polo shirts with their brewery’s logo on them
If the uniform of the 19th century brewer was a white apron and a red stockinette cap, as sported by Mr Bung in the Victorian Happy Families card game, and the uniform of the 20th century brewer was a white labcoat with pens in the top pocket, worn over a dark suit, then the uniform of the 21st century brewer is a black T-shirt, jeans and industrial boots – possibly, if the woman from Health and Safety is visiting, coupled with a hi-vis jacket and goggles.

Weird beards
Gregg Irwin and Bryan Spooner of Weird Beard Brew Co – named for one of the distinguishing features of the British craft brewer?

48 per cent of British craft brewers sport a beard
The least surprising stat: while the craft brewers of Britain don’t normally go for the “big enough to hide several small birds and a couple of squirrels” face-bushes preferred by their American rivals, the bearded brewer has become almost a cliché, and almost half the brewers in the book had clearly not recently passed a razor over their chins.

35 per cent of British craft breweries have an address that begins with “Unit” followed by a number
Is it surprising that out of every 20 small breweries in the country, at least seven will be on an industrial estate? Probably not … Continue reading Eight per cent of British craft brewers have PhDs and other dubious statistics

More notes towards a history of the beer mug

Loved and disliked in equal parts, and enjoying an unexpected renaissance in hipstery parts, despite being more than 70 years old, the dimpled beer mug is undoubtedly an icon of England.

It was invented in 1938 at the Ravenhead glassworks in St Helens, Lancashire by an in-house designer whose name is now forgotten, and given the factory identity “P404”. Although the dimple has its enemies, who dislike its weight and its thickness, it soon became extremely popular, and at a rough guess some 500 million have been manufactured since it was born.

Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped 'Pint MxCC GR 29', for Middlesex County Council
Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped ‘Pint MxCC GR 29’, for Middlesex County Council

The dimple had much competition: even in 1938, many pubs still served beer in the pottery mugs that George Orwell praised in his “Moon Under Water” essay about his ideal pub, from the Evening Standard in 1946. Orwell declared that “in my opinion beer tastes better out of china,” but “china mugs went out about 30 years ago [that is, during the First World War], because most people like their drink to be transparent.” However, two documentary films made just before Orwell’s essay, The Story of English Inns, from 1944, and Down at the Local, from 1945, both show pint china mugs were still being used alongside glass ones, at least in country pubs. Orwell talked about the pottery beer mug as being strawberry-pink in colour, but they came in other shades (baby blue and a dark biscuit-beige, for example), all with white interiors and white handles, and also with transfer-print designs. The majority of pottery beer mugs, however, appear, in fact, to have been of the kind known as mochaware, invented around the end of the 18th century, which have tree or fern-like patterns on the sides, made by a drop of acid dropped onto the glaze of the mug while it was still wet. Most mochaware pint beer mugs seem to have been blue, or beige-and-blue, with black and white bands. Many were made by TG Green of Church Gresley, South Derbyshire, while the plain coloured mugs were the speciality of Pountneys of Bristol. TG Green stopped producing mochaware at the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was apparently the last company still making mochaware beermugs. It tried to revive the tradition in 1981, without success. The company closed in 2007.

Pewter mugs were pretty much obsolete by the middle of the 20th century, though Orwell claimed that “stout … goes better in a pewter pot”, and they were described as “old-fashioned” even in 1900, when it was said to have been replaced by the glass mug, “a thick, almost unbreakable article”. The problem, for publicans, was that their pewter pots kept being stolen, and they cost around ten times as much as china beer mugs. The better class of premises kept silver-plated pewter beermugs and, to guard against theft, carved the name and address of the pub into the base. Glass was also cheaper – and, it was claimed, the working man at the end of the 19th century liked to have his mild beer served in a glass so that he could see it was bright, and not hazy or cloudy.

Two men drinking from china pint mugs, from the film Down at the Local, 1945
Two men drinking from china pint mugs, one mochaware, the other transfer printed, from the film The Story of English Inns, 1944

Fortunately for the beer mug collector, after the Weights and Measures Act of 1878, drinking vessels used on licensed premises for draught beer or cider purporting to be a specific size – half-pint, pint or quart – had to bear an Official Stamp Number, either acid etched or sand-blasted through a stencil, a system that lasted, with tweaks, until 2007, and each district – county council, county borough and the like – had its own numbers, so that, for example, 19 was Derbyshire and 490 Bristol. They also carried the mark of the crown, and the initials of the reigning monarch of the time, something that had first been required by the Act “for ascertaining the Measures for retailing Ale and Beer” that had become law under William III in 1700. (That Act covered vessels “made of wood, earth, glass, horn, leather, pewter or of some other good and wholesome metal”, suggesting the variety of drinking vessels you could expect in a Stuart inn or alehouse, and it also only mentions quarts and pints, suggesting the half-pint was illegal – or at least extremely rare.) It is thus possible to tell roughly when an older beer mug was made, and roughly where, too. In 2007, when the CE, or “Conformitée Européenne” mark replaced the old system (leading to the Daily Mail to declare: “EU stealing the crown of the great British pint”), it became easier to tell when a glass was made, but no simpler to find out where and by whom. Alongside the CE on the glass will be an “M” and the last two digits of the year of manufacture, plus the identification number of the “notified body” that verified that the container was an accurate measure. To identify the notified body you have to go to the Nando website – nothing to do with peri-peri chicken, this stands for New Approach Notified and Designated Organisations.

Continue reading More notes towards a history of the beer mug

Twenty beer quotes that deserve to be better known

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.

12 cents! That's outrageous
Winston Smith buys an old prole a round of mild

Continue reading Twenty beer quotes that deserve to be better known

Rule Brettannia

I had my first all-Brettanomyces beer earlier this month: Evil Twin’s Femme Fatale, which was on keg at the Cask in Clerkenwell, and is apparently meant to be a “Brett IPA”. It was … “interesting”, but perhaps only if you believe it’s interesting to drink something that tastes like essence of sweaty old leather sandals.

A Brettanomyces yeast cell

All-Brett beers have been popular for several years now in the US, of course. But the point about Brett, I think, is that, rather like hops, it’s meant to be used as a “spice” in beer, not the only audible ingredient. An all-Brett beer is an orchestra where the timpani is so amplified, you can’t hear anything else. If you want to use Brett – and it’s been an influence in brewing for many centuries, albeit a mostly unrecognised one – then it needs to be used judicially, particularly as its effects, the aromas and flavours it gives to beer, vary considerably depending on just how great a role Brettanomyces yeasts have been given. A subtle suggestion of something funky can be fine in a strong, complex ale. Being battered about the nostrils with all the aromas of a rugby team changing-room after a tough match on a hot day – not so much.

(Incidentally, the next person who writes that Brett gives a “horseblanket” aroma to beers will be poked with red-hot branding irons: I doubt more than one in five hundred beer drinkers knows what a horse blanket smells like, and I bet very, very few beer writers who steal that description from Michael Jackson have ever sniffed a horse blanket either.)

My wrestle with Femme Fatale (which I left sitting on the bar after less than a third of a pint) was a good limbering-up, however, for a beer Ed Wray of the Old Dairy brewery in Kent sent me more than a year ago, his “homage” to Colne Spring Ale. CSA is another legendary beer, vanished many years ago yet still talked about. It was made by Benskin’s of Watford, the biggest brewery Hertfordshire produced; named after the River Colne, which flows through Watford on its way to the Thames; and famous for being one of the strongest beers in Britain until it finally vanished in 1970. Continue reading Rule Brettannia

An Imperial Stout cocktail and other titbits

I used to think Americans said “tidbit” because of some squeamishness over the word “tit”, but in fact “tidbit” is the older or original version, and it is the British who have been the lexical corrupters. (And in any case, if you believe the Oxford English Dictionary, which I’m not sure I do, “tit = breast” has only been in use since the 1920s.)

'Imperial double stout porter' from 1822

Anyway, here are some tidbits/titbits that don’t individually make up a full blog post on their own, including an excellent antedating for “Barclay, Perkins and Co’s imperial double stout porter, from the butt, ditto in bottle” from 1822 in the wonderfully named Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser on Saturday December 21, 1822. So now we know that a version of Imperial Stout, brewed by Barclay Perkins, was being exported as far away as Tasmania in the early 1820s.

I also tripped over a recipe for a beer cocktail including Russian Stout which, according to the Daily Express in February 1941, used to be served at Romano’s in the Strand, a once-famous London theatreland restaurant that opened in the 1870s on the site of what is now Stanley Gibbons’s stamp-collectors’ shop (or is that Stanley Stamp’s gibbon-collectors’ shop?), and where, it is claimed, Edwardian gallants really did drink champagne from a beautiful chorus girl’s shoe. If fizz flavoured with female foot was not to your taste, then Bendi, Romano’s head cellarman, had a favourite concoction he called “The Three Angels” – a mixture of Russian Stout, Bass No 1 barley wine and “ordinary bottled beer”, this last ingredient, I’m guessing, being pale ale, which must have given Three Angels an abv of about 8 per cent. King Edward VII, who was a regular patron at Romano’s when he was Prince of Wales, “loved a beaker of it”, according to the Express. Probably tasted better out of a chorus girl’s shoe than champagne, too. It was a batch of Bass No 1, of course, that Tedward helped brew when he visited Bass in 1902, and which was bottled as King’s Ale.

Continue reading An Imperial Stout cocktail and other titbits

The woman who served George Orwell pints of mild

Irene Stacey and the George Orwell beer mug

Sometimes you find stuff on the internet that is just so fabulously fantastic: this is Irene Stacey, who used to serve George Orwell pints of mild in that very jug, peeps, when she was landlady of the Plough in Wallington, North Hertfordshire and he was living next door with his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, in a tiny, narrow cottage.

That jug is a classic example of English mocha ware – there’s a good account of how the tree-like decorations on mocha ware were made here – and I possess an almost identical proper pint mocha ware beer mug of the sort that must have been common in country pubs and beerhouses right up to the Second World War. I wonder if the Plough also had the salmon-pink china beer mugs Orwell praised in his classic essay from 1946 on the “ideal” English pub, The Moon Under Water? Certainly he wrote in that essay that in his opinion, “beer tastes better out of china”.

The beer Orwell would have carried home in that jug was Simpson’s dark mild from the little market town of Baldock, a few miles from Wallington. The Plough had been owned by the brewery from at least 1799, when the brewery itself was owned by the Pryor family, relatives of the Simpsons – one branch of the Pryors owned Harwood’s old brewery in Shoreditch, and later became partners in the big London porter brewery Truman Hanbury & Buxton in Brick Lane. Simpson’s lovely old Georgian-fronted brewery was acquired by Greene King in 1954, and closed in 1965 (and demolished soon after, a crime against fine architecture).

I knew the Plough – itself closed now, woe – from when I was chairman of North Herts Camra all of 30 years ago (and Colin Valentine was probably still drinking Irn Bru). It was one of dozens of little pubs that served the quiet, isolated villages of North Herts, a part of England that is astonishingly rural, despite being only 30 miles from central London, and you could still get dark mild there, albeit from Greene King’s Biggleswade brewery.

Continue reading The woman who served George Orwell pints of mild

Bride ale – too many of you are getting this wrong

Just one day into six months or more of continuous “royal” wedding bollocks, and already I’ve made the first sighting of the claim that “the word ‘bridal’ is a corruption of ‘bride-ale’ – a special beer brewed for weddings.” No, it isn’t, all right? I don’t care how many sources you can find that say this – it’s not true.

“Bridal” does come from “bride-ale”, in Anglo-Saxon brýd-ealo, but “ale” was being used here in its secondary sense of “a festival or merry-meeting at which much ale was drunk” (just as “tea” means both the drink and – as in “afternoon tea” or “high tea” – the meal). By the 14th century “bridal” had come to mean the whole proceedings of the wedding or marriage, and it eventually became used, through misanalysis of the “-al” element, as the adjective for things to do with brides, as in “bridal gown”. But until Elizabethan times, or a little later, “ale” still mean “festival” or “celebration” as well as alcoholic drink, and “bride-ale” still meant the whole wedding shebang.

When Queen Elizabeth I visited Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, home of the Earl of Leicester, in July 1575, for example, among the entertainments put on for her, ranging from fireworks to feasting, was a “country bryde ale” that included a bride and bridegroom picked from the local peasants, the traditional wedding sport of “running at the Quinting” or quintain, that is, tilting on horseback with lances at a pole set into the ground, and “Morrice dancing”.

Now, very probably special ales would be brewed for weddings: bride-ales could be expensive, and sometimes the bride or bridegroom brewed a wedding ale to sell. With all the drinking, things could get out of hand, and though one Elizabethan writer noted with satisfaction that there had been an improvement in his time in people’s behaviour and “the heathenish rioting at bride-ales are well diminished,” the authorities sometimes took pre-emptive action.

Continue reading Bride ale – too many of you are getting this wrong

Mr Du Boung the Brewer


Beer and great literature: they’re found together more often than you might think. One of the enormous benefits of the growing power of the internet is that it makes certain sorts of research almost trivially easy. Earlier this year the chaps at Beer Connoisseur magazine asked me to write a piece about breweries in novels. Before the intertubes this would have meant weeks of sitting in a good library surrounded by several small and growing hills of old books by great authors, each with pieces of paper sticking out that marked relevant passages. Today, Project Gutenberg has all the classics digitised, and the excellent Anacleto search engine makes finding key words in old literature simples.

Too simples, in fact: I ended up with more information than I could use. Big lumps had to be left out about some more Championship-level novelists so that we could feature the brewers and breweries that turn up in books by Premier League writers, such as Havisham’s Brewery in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the Three Mariners, a home-brew pub mentioned in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, “a house in which the twelve-bushel strength was still religiously adhered to by the landlord in his ale”, and the sly reference to the Kronenbourg brewery in Henry James’s The American (the hero’s friend is mortally wounded in a duel by someone called Stanislas Kapp, “the son and heir of a rich brewer of Strasbourg”: the biggest brewery in Strasbourg, later known as the Kronenbourg brewery, was actually owned for centuries by a family called Hatt. Ho ho, Hank)
Continue reading Mr Du Boung the Brewer