Category Archives: History of beer

A short history of beer and food

The history of beer and food in Britain is easy to summarise: we all, men women and children, used to drink beer with every meal, from breakfast to supper. Then, some time between around 1860 and 1914, due to changes in attitude and culture not easy to find a simple explanation for, we slowed and stopped. Drinking beer with your meals went from being so natural as to be unremarked to something alien and déclassé. Today, despite more than 30 years of campaigns to get Britons to appreciate the joys of beer and food pairing, you’re still not likely, at most dining tables, to see beer treated equally with wine.

Rowlandson’s late 18th century depiction of a slap-bang shop, so called because rather than wait for your bill, the waitperson slapped down your food and you banged down your money. Note that behind the lass with the grub is the guy with the liquor.

That won’t fill half an hour of exposition, though, so when I was invited to speak on the historical angle to beer and food pairing at the Beer Meets Food seminar organised by the Guild of Beer Writers in Bristol earlier this month I had to hunt out some illustrations of the popularity of beer with food in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best example came from an observer from abroad. This is out of the New York Tribune in 1843:

Every body drinks beer in England. I have astonished waiters, in two or three instances, by asking for water. When you seat yourself at table in a “Coffee Room” or “Steak House” for dinner, and have ordered your “joint” or “steak,” or “chop,” the waiter enquires, “Hale, porter, or stout, sir?” If in place of either of these national beverages you reply water, he either laughs in your face or turns away wondering where such a wild chap could have been caught … The drinking of hale, porter and stout is universal here, with the females of the poorer classes, when they can get it, and with those of the better classes of mechanics, females, people and shop-keepers. While at dinner at Birmingham, it was observed by all of us that the ladies (a dozen) at table drank porter as if they were thirsty, and as if it did them good.

The universality of beer drinking at mealtimes for everybody is demonstrated most clearly by the records of English public schools. Winchester College had its own brewery, like other schools, hiring an outside brewer to make the beer, which was stored in a cellar measuring 30 feet eight inches by 24 feet three inches. In 1709 the schoolmaster and fellows (ie teachers) were reckoned to drink 10 to 11 pints of small beer a day each, the servants six pints a day and the 70 pupils, or scholars, and 16 choristers three pints a day. Beer, brewed at three bushels of malt to the hogshead, which would have given an OG of around 1045 to 1055, was available to the scholars at breakfast, dinner and supper, with “beavor-beer”, or bever beer, “bever” being a term for a small repast between meals, available around 3:30pm and, in the evening after supper, with bread and cheese (in 1839 a revolution occurred, when the afternoon bever-beer was replaced by tea). The school had a “butler of beer” among its servants, who was paid two shillings by each new child upon the child’s joining the school. The boys ate at three long tables, with the beer arriving in “gispins”, large leather pots or jacks, one to each table, and the junior boys at the ends of each table serving their fellows.

The masters, meanwhile, drank with their cheese at the end of dinner an extraordinarily strong, well-hopped beer called “huff” (short for “huff-cap”, a term for strong ale dating to the 16th century), brewed at the college in March every other year at the frankly unbelievable rate of 14 bushels of malt to the hogshead. An analysis of a 10-year-old bottle of huff published in 1906 found it to have had an OG of 1116.67, a final gravity of 1008.73 and an abv of 14.46 per cent. It was served in small glasses “similar to a dock wine glass”. The last brewing of huff was in 1904, which seems to have been around the time that brewing of any sort ended at the college.

Eton College also had its own brewery, as did any large establishment, and when Charles I was held as a prisoner in Windsor Castle in 1647 the college brewery supplied his beer. The college beer was “very good” when Samuel Pepys drank it on a visit to Eton in 1666. However, the small beer provided with the dinnertime meal of roast mutton and “excellent” bread in the early 1830s was described as “so bad that no boy ever drank it”. By the early 1870s the college was buying in beer from the big Burton brewer Samuel Allsopp (at least two sons of Henry Allsopp, who was in charge of the firm at the time, went to Eton), and in 1881 the college brewery equipment, including a 36-barrel copper with furnace, an oak mash tun, a 28-barrel oak working or fermentation vat and 48 barrels and hogsheads, was put up for auction.

Beer for breakfast, lunch and supper was the fuel that kept the ordinary working man going too, of course, not just the scholars of Eton and Winchester. Around 1875 an “aged labourer” described the typical routine during harvest time on a farm in Sussex when he was a young man, in the 1830s or so:

“Out in morning at four o’clock. Mouthful of bread and cheese and pint of ale. Then off to the harvest field. Rippin and moen [reaping and mowing] till eight. Then morning brakfast and small beer. Brakfast – a piece of fat pork as thick as your hat [a broad-brimmed “wideawake“] is wide. Then work till ten o’clock: then a mouthful of bread and cheese and a pint of strong beer. ‘Farnooner’s-lunch’ [ie ‘forenooner’], we called it. Work till twelve. Then at dinner in the farm-house; sometimes a leg of mutton, sometimes a piece of ham and plum pudding. Then work till five, then a nunch and a quart of ale. Nunch was cheese: ’twas skimmed cheese, though. Then work till sunset [ie about 8:30pm], then home and have supper and a pint of ale.”

Despite the seven or eight pints of beer, at least, drunk during the day, the old man told his interrogator that “I never knew a man drunk in the harvest field in my life.” He himself, he said, could drink six quarts, and believed that “a man might drink two gallons in a day,” which since it’s very possible to lose 10 litres – nearly 18 pints – of water working in a hot environment, is only putting back what your body needs to function. (This sounds like long-vanished history: life as lived by the rural poor 180 years ago. But I knew a man who knew a man who was that farmworker: my great-great grandfather, John Cornell, an “ag. lab” living in Cherry Hinton, just outside Cambridge, would have been 17 in 1840, sweating those 15 or 16-hour days, reaping fields of barley or wheat under the hot harvest sun, losing a gallon or more of water in perspiration that those pints and quarts of beer helped replace. He died in 1900, when his grandson, my grandfather Harry, was 14, and I was 17 when Harry died.)

A potboy, and an advertisement from the 1840s that borrowed his cry

The great institution of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was the “ordinary”, a meal provided for a set price at an inn or tavern. The “ordinary” available to “young gentlemen” in Edinburgh in 1742 for four pence a head was “a very good dinner of broth and beef, and a roast and potatoes every day, with fish three or four times a-week, and all the small beer that was called for till the cloth was removed.” The “ordinary”, where the choice was effectively as non-existent as it would have been for those Winchester or Eton schoolboys, was eventually replaced by the innovation of the menu, a word not found in the English language (unless the OED is lying) until the 1830s.

If you did not have the time or money to spend on an “ordinary” or in a newly menued-up restaurant, there were other innovations: in the early 1840s Crowley’s brewery of Alton in Hampshire, where the water was similar to the gypsum-impregnated wells of Burton upon Trent, opened a chain of luncheon bars across London, known as Alton Ale Houses, where a glass of ale or porter and a ham or beef sandwich for four pence were advertised by signs outside. This was supposedly the first time beer had been widely paired with sandwiches. (The Alton Ale Houses were parodied in a production of Aladdin at the Lyceum Theatre in 1844, where the opening scene showed a small Chinese refreshment shop with a sign outside announcing: “Cup of tea and a bird’s nest – 4d”.)

For those dining at home who could not afford to buy, or had no place to store, a firkin or pin of “family ale”, beer was brought round by the potboy. This was a young apprentice barman who set out from the local pub carrying handled wooden trays bearing pewter pots filled with ale or porter around the streets at midday and in the early evening, shouting the while: “Beer-oh!” Householders, or their servants, would hail the potboy and purchase the contents of one or more of his pots to accompany the family meals. The empty pots would then be hung on the spiked iron railings outside the house, for the potboy to return and collect later. Inevitably, many were stolen: and in 1796 Parliament discussed banning potboys from roaming the streets with beer, on the grounds that the temptation of pots hung on railings should not be put in the way of those who combined light fingers with weak wills. It was claimed that pots to the value of £100,000 were being stolen every year, while opponents of the Pewter Pot Bill counter-attacked by declaring that 3,000 potboys would lose their jobs if the Bill were passed. The opposition also declared that banning the potboy would threaten the morals of children and female servants, who would now have to go to the public house themselves to obtain the beer needed to accompany the household’s meals. The Pewter Pot Bill eventually failed to get a second reading, and potboys remained part of the street scene for another six decades.

What finally killed off the roaming potboy was Gladstone’s reforms of the licensing laws in 1861, which allowed shopkeepers to purchase an “off-licence” to sell wine (in particular) and other alcoholic drinks for consumption off the premises. Servants could now be sent out to buy drink for the household meals without any risk to their morals from being exposed to the sight of the interior of a pub. Increasingly, too, take-home beer was available in bottles, rather than jugs, and bottled “dinner ale” became a product every brewer had to advertise.

Gladstone’s reforms also allowed “refreshment houses” to sell wines with meals, and by 1879 a witness to a parliamentary select committee was speaking of the increasing use of wine in cafes and restaurants as an accompaniment to food. But beer continued to be by far the country’s favourite alcoholic drink, with consumption per head actually increasing almost 28 per cent between 1860 and 1899, to 31.4 gallons a year, while wine was up only 18 per cent in the same period, to less than two and a half bottles per head a year, and spirits sales remained essentially flat. It was not, in fact, until the 1980s that wine began to seriously challenge beer in Britain. And while wine was increasingly available in eateries, in the 1890s those looking for good dining in London could still hie to somewhere like Simpson’s Chop House, just off Cornhill, and salivate over “a bountiful selection of most inviting and appetizing-looking chops and steaks … mutton chops and pork chops, loin chops and chump chops; steaks – succulent, juicy rump steaks, point steaks – fit for a bishop, large or small, for lunch or dinner,” all available with pints of porter in pewter.

London was also still the home of the boiled beef house, where rounds of beef weighing between 28 and 40 pounds were salted and then boiled, before being sliced and served hot with carrots, suet dumplings and potatoes – and porter. According to the Daily Express in 1900, the quality of the porter found in a boiled beef house was equalled only by the beer on sale at a brewery tap.

Where did it all go wrong: the Victoria, Banstead, Surrey, in the 1950s, when the curly sandwich was the acme of public house dining. (More interesting than the food is the sign announcing that Courage Burton was arriving: sadly, it would be totally disappearing within a few years)

The ties between beer and food were being cut, though, and for a host, probably, of little reasons: the increasing feeling that under-18s should really not be drinking alcohol three times a day meant that families (and schools) had to provide something else for them than beer; the growth in popularity of alternatives to beer, such as tea and coffee; the increasing mechanisation of working life, which made any possibility of befuddlement potentially lethal (you could steer a horse-drawn cart while several pints to the wind, for example, but not a motor-powered “lurry”); the growing association of wine with aspiration, class, tone, while beer in contrast was dropping down the social scale: in 1902 Arnold Bennett could begin a novel, The Grand Babylon Hotel, with the premise that it would not be possible to order a steak and a bottle of Bass pale ale for dinner at a five-star London hotel.

By 1955 the Scottish cookery writer Elizabeth Craig, in a too little remembered book called Beer and Vittles, could justifiably complain:

“If there is one form of cooking that has been neglected more than another in Britain, it is beer cookery. You have to go abroad to find housewives cooking freely with beer and taking trouble about what they serve it with. There are plenty of books telling you how to introduce wine to fare, but few extolling the flavour of beer; plenty of inns serving excellent beer, but not enough taking pains with its accompaniments.”

Unfortunately, in the past 63 years very little has changed. And yet, as Craig’s American-born husband, and fellow-journalist, Arthur E Mann wrote in the same book:

“There is a unique quality about beer, in that it both soothes and stimulates. In its infinite variety, from the lightest of the light lagers through the noblest of bitters and stouts to the heaviest of ales, a choice can be made which will please any palate, suit any climate, fit any occasion, and blend with any dish.”

Indeed: and this was admiably demonstrated with the excellent meal put together by the kitchen at Wild Beer Co’s restaurant at Wapping Wharf in Bristol, served up for the audience at the seminar, which took as a theme the five “tastes”, combining beers and foods to highlight each of the five in turn.

The only pairing that didn’t work for me was the pickled cucumber and the beer flavoured with the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu, meant to be demonstrating umami: personally I find umami much more easily in a young but heavy ale, and even more I don’t believe anything over-vinegary does anything for beer: too much clash. But that apart, the combinations were excellent, in particular the Gose with lemon tart and the sour beer with cheese. I don’t know what plans Wild Beer Co has to repeat this menu, but as a demonstration of how versatile beer can be with a host of different flavours in a way that wine would struggle desperately and unsuccessfully to match, it was tremendous.

How long have UK brewers been using American hops? 200 years, you say …

I’ve written before on how American hops were being imported to the UK in the late 1810s, after a couple of years of dreadful summer weather wrecked the English hop harvest, but this is the first time I’ve come across a specific advertisement by a brewer for American hops. This is from the Belfast Newsletter in April 1818: Belfast, of course, was a major port for the North Atlantic trade, so it was natural that hops from New York would arrive there by ships, though normally the high import tariffs then imposed on foreign hops would keep them out. Can we assume Clotworthy Dobbin was using some of those American hops in his own porter and pale ale? I think we can.

(Incidentally, I wonder if the Hesperus, the ship that, according to Dobbin’s ad, brought the hops to New York to Belfast, was the schooner whose sinking in 1839 partly inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write the poem The Wreck of the Hesperus? Hmmm …)

Dobbin’s first name, though weird-looking in the 21st century, is surprisingly common in 18th century Ulster. (There was a haberdasher’s business in Belfast in the 1790s run by Clotworthy Birnie and Clotworthy Faulkner, for example.) It comes from the surname of Sir Hugh Clotworthy of Clotworthy in Devon, High Sheriff of Antrim in the early 17th century, and more particularly Sir Hugh’s son John Clotworthy, a militant Presbyterian who, nevertheless, was on good terms with King Charles II and became the first Viscount Massereene in 1660 (Massereene being the name of an area on the eastern shores of Lough Neagh). So basically being called Clotworthy was like wearing a T-shirt shouting: “I AM A PRESBYTERIAN!”

When Dobbin entered the brewing business is a little blurry, two centuries later. He pops up in 1812 as the partner in a wine and spirits business in Hercules Street, Belfast, with John Bell, selling Cork and Dublin whiskey, Jamaican rum and Spanish red wine. Bell was also a brewer, probably from at least January 1808, when he was at 51 Hercules Lane, and advertising for a maltman “who has a perfect knowledge of his business and can be well recommended for Sobriety and Honesty,” and certainly by 1809, when he was one of four brewers to advertise in the Belfast Newsletter that they were putting up the price of their ale to 48 shillings a barrel, “in order that we may be able to make Ale of a sufficient strength to encourage its consumption, for which purpose we are now using a greater proportion of Materials in the Manufacture of that Article; and are determined to make it of such Strength and Quality as cannot fail to give general satisfaction. Table and Small-Beer to remain at the former Prices.”

In July 1813 Bell and Dobbin ended their partnership, with Bell announcing that he would be continuing to carry on the spirits business at his brewery in Hercules Street, while Dobbin had moved to new premises in North Street, where he continued to sell whiskey, rum, red wine and pickling vinegar. In December 1814, however, Dobbin formed a partnership with John Wandesford Wright to acquired the Belfast Porter Brewery in Smithfield, Belfast.

That concern looks to have been in operation by 1802, when Kennedy, Seed, Hyndman & Co were advertising that they paid the highest price for good barley at their brewery in Smithfield. It was known as the Belfast Porter Brewery by 1806, when it was being run by Forbes Anderson & Co (there had been an earlier “new Porter Brewery” in 1789 in Barrack Street, about 500 yards away, which had become a distillery by 1799). The Belfast Porter Brewery advertised regularly for barley, “for which a fair price will be given”, with, in 1809, James T Kennedy & Co of Rosemary Lane given as one of the contacts.

Then in February 1810 the Belfast Newsletter carried an announcement for “Dissolution of the partnership and sale of the Belfast Porter Brewery”. The announcement said the brewery was “in perfect working order and capable of turning out 6,000 barrels in the season”, and included a pale and a brown malt kiln, while the premises were “abundantly supplied with excellent Spring Water.” Would-be purchasers were told that “as the Porter heretofore made by this Company has given general satisfaction, and as the natural demand is greater than the Buildings on the Concern are at present capable of supplying, it is an object highly deserving the attention of such as may be inclined to enter into the Business more extensively, there being ground sufficient on the Premises to enlarge the Buildings to any extent.” They were also told that the current brewer, Mr Donovan, “whose knowledge of brewing Porter, and making and preparing Malt for the same, has been fully proved,” was willing to remain “for a time” with the purchasers “on proper terms”.

The Belfast Porter Brewery was advertising its porter for sale in May 1810, and “a large quantity of Pale and Brown Malt”, plus porter “delivered in Belfast, provided it is paid for in Bank Notes,” the same July. Then in the October of that year proposals were invited in writing for the brewery and all its fixtures and utensils, to be sent to James Kilbee of the Belfast Sugar House. It does not look to have sold, because it was on offer again in May 1812, including “breweries, malt houses, Etc Etc … capable of Brewing 10,000 Barrels of Porter annually, with a never-failing supply of most excellent Spring-Water,” along with “a few Bags Hops, growth 1809”, 50 barrels of porter, “remainder of the unsold”, “a large quantity of Porter Barrels and Half Barrels” and other items, “for particulars apply at the offices of Greg & Blacker or James T Kennedy & Co.” No buyer was again apparently found and the brewery was once again on sale  in December 1812, with “coppers, coolers, kieves [the Irish term for a mash tun], working tuns, vatts [sic] … pale and brown malt-kilns”.

After their acquisition of the brewery in 1814, Dobbin and Wright promised the public ale and beer in barrels and half-barrels “which they hope (from CD’s practical knowledge of the Brewing Business, and their determination not to use anything but Malt and Hops of the very best Quality) will be found equal to anything offered here,” suggesting that Dobbin had been brewing alongside Bell in Hercules Street. Their advertisement in the Belfast Newsletter was dated “the 15th of 12th mo. 1814”, a clue that Wright, at least, was a Quaker, since not using the names of the days or months was a practice of the Society of Friends.

The Mountain Brewery, Glen Road, Belfast, drawn by Maurice Oliphant: the last big brewery in Northern Ireland before it closed in 2005, its roots can be traced back to the Belfast Porter Brewery, founded in or shortly before 1802

Not quite 18 months later, in May 1816 Wright and Dobbin announced the end of their own partnership, with Dobbin declaring that he would be continuing on his own as a brewer of double brown stout porter, common porter, strong ale and table beer. Before the partnership broke up, there had been a fire at the brewery which resulted in a claim of £1,840 against the Atlas insurance Company – equivalent to perhaps £1.4 million today. The insurance company refused to pay, claiming that the premium had not been paid, and the case went as far as the High Court in Dublin before the insurers handed over the money.

Dobbin’s business went through a dodgy patch in the early 1830s which saw him insolvent at one point, but he pulled everything together and eventually paid off all his creditors at 20 shillings to the pound, plus interest – a performance which earned him the presentation of a valuable set of silver plate from several English finance houses with whom he had done business, and a thank-you dinner in December 1835 attended by 80 Belfast merchants and dignitaries.

What sort of employer Dobbin was we may be able to tell from the fate of one of his unfortunate draymen, James McFerran, who was fined six shillings plus costs at Belfast Police Court in July 1852 after being found guilty of desecration of the Sabbath, for collecting beer barrels with a horse and dray on a Sunday evening. In mitigation, McFerran told the court that he could not collect as many barrels on a Saturday evening as would be required on a Monday morning, and he was “afraid of losing his situation, as Mr Dobbin was out of town, and he had no person to get directions from.”

The brewery in Smithfield eventually passed to Dobbin’s son-in-law Thomas Caffrey, a Dubliner. In 1897 Caffrey began moving operations to a new brewery on the Glen Road in Andersonstown, west Belfast, which opened officially in 1901 as the Mountain Brewery. After Caffrey’s death the concern was run by his son, and then by his grandson. In the 1920s it defended itself against rivals by boasting that its Treble X stout was the “strongest stout brewed in Ireland” (not strictly true, since Guinness FES was a lot stronger, but that wasn’t sold in Ireland at the time) and pitching itself as the price-conscious pint, at 6d (six pence) a pop. For the even more price-conscious it sold a stout called “Caffrey’s 4d Pint”, which was knocked on the head when the Second World War started and rises in the tax on beer in the UK made it impossible to brew a stout that could be sold for 4d. The brewery also played on local loyalties, declaring that its beer was “brewed by Ulstermen for Ulster people”, and inventing a little bowler-hatted Ulsterman character called “Mr Treble X”.

A casualty of war: Caffrey’s announces the end of its 4d stout, October 1939

Caffrey’s finally went under in 1950, but stayed shuttered for only four months before being acquired by a consortium of Ulster-based pub owners and reopened as the Ulster Brewery Company. In October 1960 the Ulster Brewery Co agreed to be taken over by Northern Breweries, the growing empire put together by the Canadian entrepreneur Eddie Taylor to provide outlets for his Carling Black Label lager in the UK, though by the time the deal was completed Northern Breweries had become United Breweries. United merged with Charringtons of East London in April 1962 to form Charrington United Breweries, and two months later work started on a new brewery in West Belfast, built in front of the old one, at a cost of £500,000 , which opened in November 1962. Charrington United then merged with Bass, Mitchells & Butlers in July 1967 to form Bass Charrington.

The Ulster brewery remained part of Bass, and in 1994 it was used as the base to roll out a new “nitrogen-serve” or “smoothflow” keg bitter under the Caffrey’s name. Caffrey’s ale was hugely successful when it first launched, with 150,000 barrels sold in its opening year. Then, in 2000, Bass sold all its brewery holdings to Interbrew. Since the Belgian giant already owned Whitbread, Interbrew was forced by the British government, after Competition Commission inquiries and court cases, to sell most of the former Bass empire, including the Caffrey’s brand. But it kept hold of the Ulster brewery (and the Bass brand, which it has subsequently managed to royally screw up). However, the loss by the Ulster brewery of a €9 million contract to bottle Lucozade, of all things, led Interbrew in August 2004 to decide to shut down the Belfast operation, after failing to find a brewer, and it closed the following year.

A rather cheeky ad for Caffrey’s Treble X stout from the Northern Whig newspaper in 1927 showing the Minstrel Boy apparently waving the trademark of another well-known stout maker

Brewer accused of getting excise men drunk in order to avoid paying tax

A few days since, two Excise Officers came to Mr Harwood’s Brew-house near Shoreditch to Gage the Liquors, but instead thereof, finding several of his Men drinking hard therein, sate down with them, and tipled so heartily with them, as to be thoroughly fudled. In the meantime the Surveyor came, and finding a Guile of Beer not set down in their Accounts, made a Report to the Commissioners, that Mr Harwood had caused his Men to make their Officers drunk, in Order to defraud the King of his Duties; So that a Tryal is likely to ensue thereupon, which may be very expensive to Mr Harwood, and be Instructive to others of the same Occupation.

Parker’s London News, or the Impartial Intelligencer, Friday September 4 1724, p5

Isn’t that a wonderful story? I found it (serendipity is marvellous) while looking for something else entirely. Unfortunately, as yet, I’ve been unable to discover any follow-up stories, so I don’t know if Harwood was actually taken to court for getting the revenue officers drunk, and if so, what happened to him. Updates may follow …

Beer history geeks will recognise Mr Harwood, brewer of Shoreditch, East London as Ralph of that ilk, the man identified, incorrectly, by John Feltham in 1802 as the supposed inventor of porter “about the year 1722” (ie two years before the adventures detailed above) as a replacement for a mixed drink called three-threads. It’s a story that went round the world.  As early as 1812, German beer lovers were being told that ‘Der Brauer Harwood brauete den ersten Porter.’ In fact Ralph did nothing of the sort, and porter wasn’t developed to replace three-threads … but you knew that.

Still, that’s not as mangled as something you can still find on dozens of different sites all over the interwebs, which seems to be sourced from a book written for American home-brewers in the late 1990s:

Porter was the first commercially brewed beer. It was named for the train porters who were its original servers and consumers , and became hugely popular in 18th & 19th century Britain.

Train porters in the 18th century …  and nobody was brewing commercially before then … sometimes I wonder why people like me and Ron Pattinson even bother.

Fjord fiesta: the Norwegian farmhouse ales festival 2017

In Hornindal, in beautiful remotest Western Norway, if you tried to explain to the locals the fuss being made about cloudy New England IPAs, they would laugh, or look bemused. There are around a hundred or so people in the area who make beer, in a tradition going back hundreds of years. All of it is cloudy, and it likely always has been. This is partly, probably, because Hornindal is one of the centres of “raw ale”, rå øl in Norwegian, where the wort stays unboiled before fermentation. That is far from the only difference between what is called locally kornøl, literally “grain ale” (to differentiate it from other farmhouse brews such as birch sap beer – bjørkesevjeøl – or beer made just from sugar). All the beers are made with water that has had juniper branches boiled in it (but never the berries – too bitter). Hops are used lightly, if at all: a small bag of hops will be hung in the vessel that collects the wort. Perhaps most importantly, the yeast, known as kveik (a word that goes back to Old Norse kvikur, and seems to be related to the English word “quick” in the sense “alive”), will have been collected and dried from previous brews, and will give flavours quite unlike those from yeasts used by “mainstream” brewers. These are beers that push out the boundaries of the ale experience.

Now the rural brewing traditions of Norway are becoming more widely known, thanks in considerable part to the hard work of Lars Marius Garshol, whose writings have made him the Michael Jackson of gårdsøl (“farm ale”). Yeast companies are studying, and selling, kveik yeast, and commercial brewers in Norway are starting to make gårdsøl-style ales. The movement now has its own shop window, the Norsk Kornøl Festival in Hornindal, which has just been held for the second time, and I was privileged and honoured to be invited by the organisers to come and report on the event.

Continue reading Fjord fiesta: the Norwegian farmhouse ales festival 2017

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 …

Albert Le Coq is NOT a famous Belgian

It’s a small error, as they go, but it has been around for at least 40 years, and it appears everywhere from Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer to the labels on bottles of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout, so let’s try to stamp it to death: Albert Le Coq was NOT a Belgian.

An advertisement for A Le Coq’s Imperial Extra Double Stout published in Estonia in the 1920s or 1930s

Le Coq is remembered as a 19th century exporter of Imperial stout from London to St Petersburg, whose firm eventually took over a brewery in what is now Tartu, in Estonia to brew Imperial stout on what was then Russian soil. The brewery is still going, it took back the name A Le Coq in the 1990s, and an Imperial stout bearing its brand has been brewed since 1999, though by Harvey’s of Lewes, in Sussex, not in Estonia. But every reference to the company founder, Albert Le Coq, apart from in the official history of the Tartu brewery – which is almost completely in Estonian – says he was a Belgian. He wasn’t.

In fact the Le Coq family were originally French Huguenots, who had fled to Prussia in the 17th century from religious persecution in their home in Metz, Lorraine, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. They prospered in their new home, operating mostly as merchants, though one, Paul Ludwig (or Louis) Le Coq, (1773-1824), the great-grandson of Jean Le Coq, born in Metz in 1669, rose to be chief of police in Berlin. It looks as if Paul had a brother, Jean Pierre Le Coq (1768-1801), born in Berlin, who was a merchant in Hamburg, and his branch of the family also became wine merchants, owning a winery in Kempten, near Bingen, on the borders of the Prussian Rhineland.

The year before Jean Pierre died he had a son, born in Berlin (although some sources say Bingen), called Jean Louis Albert, who became better known under the German version of his name, Albert Johann Ludwig Le Coq. Plenty of sources going back to at least 1939 claim the family company was founded as A Le Coq & Co in 1807, when Albert was just seven years old: there seems no documentary evidence of this, however. Nor is it clear when, and by whom, the wine business in Kempten was acquired. At any rate Albert was living in Kempten in 1827, when his eldest child, Andreas August, was born there. Continue reading Albert Le Coq is NOT a famous Belgian

Snug beers and snug bars

Young's Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond earlyb this am
Young’s Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond early this am

Autumn, season of mists and mellow, fruity ales, as John Keats might have written, if he hadn’t been more of a blushful hippocrene, beaker of the warm South man. As the early evenings darken, and the leaves and the temperatures fall, it’s one of the joys of the season that we can start drinking strong, dark beers again, sitting by the fire in the snug – or by the fire in your own home, if you prefer. I often do. I have a place at one end of the sofa, close enough to the fire that I can toast my toes, with an old oak blanket box alongside that I rest my beerglass on, where I sit and read, or listen to music, while whatever the weather is doing outside can be ignored.

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929
An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

If you have been looking at national newspaper feature pages recently, you will not have been able to avoid articles discussing hygge, the Danish word meaning something allegedly untranslatable in between and greater than “cosy” and “comfortable” and “safe” that is the condition all Danes allegedly seek to attain. Of course, we actually have a perfect translation of hygge in English, or at least a word that describes the equivalent state of warmth and comfort and safety Britons desire: snug.

More than 230 years ago the poet William Cowper wrote: “There is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fire-side in the Winter.” He wasn’t wrong. And outside the home, some pubs provide us with a room where this blissful level of being can be achieved, a room generally only to be entered from inside the pub, with no street windows or doors, private and secure, almost always small enough that half-a-dozen will be a heaving crowd, and ideally with its own servery hatch to place orders at the bar. This room of happiness is actually named for the state of safe comfort, like the bug cuddled down deep in the protective tufts of his rug, that we seek between its enclosing walls: the snuggery or snug. Continue reading Snug beers and snug bars

When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

In a shiny 12-storey building in Bishopsgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, is a company that represents the last faint echo of a time when one family ran the two biggest breweries in the world.

colb-brown-stout-labelThe City of London Investment Trust is, today, a £1 billion business with investments in everything from pharmaceuticals to mining, and power supply to media, and a record of increasing its dividend every year for the past half-century. But the firm started in 1860 as the City of London Brewery Co, and its roots lie in the brewing industry as far back as the 15th century.

The family that dominated the early history of the concern were the Calverts, landowners from East Hertfordshire, who married into ownership of, first the Peacock brewhouse in Whitecross Street, by the Barbican, on the northern side of the City of London, and then the Hour Glass brewhouse, three quarters of a mile away off Thames Street, by the river. In the middle of the 18th century these were the two biggest porter breweries in London, and, therefore, the biggest breweries in the world.

However, the Calverts today are much less well known than their rivals, such as Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins, in part because the family name was taken off the business in the middle of the 19th century, partly because no physical trace remains of their brewing sites and partly because the firm they founded did not quit brewing so much as drift away from it. But one big reason for the Calverts’ current obscurity is the extreme difficulty involved in untangling the dense thicket that is their family tree, as the descendants of Felix, Thomas and Peter Calvert, the three sons of Felix Calverd (sic) the family’s 17th century patriarch, spread out and multiplied down the years.

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge
The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The common habit of using the same first names down and across generations means that after the first Felix Calvert, or Calverd, was born in 1596 there were 12 Felix Calverts, seven William Calverts and seven Peter Calverts in the 17th to 19th centuries. Thanks to cousin marriage, one Felix Calvert, 1729-1764, a partner in the Peacock brewhouse, had a father also called Felix Calvert, and both his grandfathers were called Felix Calvert as well, while his great-grandfather’s great-nephew, Felix Calvert 1735-1802 (who also had a son called Felix Calvert), was a partner in the rival Hour Glass brewhouse.

The result is that there has not been a book or article mentioning the Calverts and their breweries that does not have major facts wrong. One book from 2011 has six errors in one six-line paragraph. Another recent publication called a high-profile member of the clan, Sir William Calvert, “the grandson of Thomas Calvert”, adding: “though there is some confusion in various books”. Indeed: Thomas was actually the one son of Felix Calverd that Sir William was not descended from. Cousin marriage meant his father (another William) was the son of Felix junior while his mother Honor was the daughter of Felix junior’s and Thomas’s brother Peter. The Museum of London Archaeology managed to invent a completely fictitious member of the family, “Henry”, and get the date the family acquired the Hour Glass brewhouse totally wrong.

calvert-book-coverHurrah and thrice hurrah, then, for Patricia Richardson – herself a tenth-generation descendant of Felix the patriarch – who has pulled apart all the different Calvert strands and published a book that is a readable, illuminating and fascinating telling of what could more than easily have been an extremely confusing story. She has solved the problem of tracing all those Felixes, Williams, Peters and the rest by labelling the families of Felix Calverd’s three sons A, B and C, and then numbering each new bearer of an old first name consecutively within the stream, so that, for example, Felix Calvert 1729-1764 of the Peacock brewery is Felix Calvert B3, his grandfathers are Felix Calvert B1 and C1 respectively, and his distant cousin at the Hour Glass brewery, Felix Calvert 1735-1802, is Felix Calvert A4.

Continue reading When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

Stock (ale) answers from Goose Island and Ron Pattinson

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale
Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Let’s get one potentially controversial point out of the way first: this is a £20 bottle of beer. If that shocks you, you’ve not been paying attention to what’s happening in the market: there are more expensive beers than that. Some of Thornbridge’s sour creations sell at £15 for a bottle half the size. And £20 is barely leaving the foothills in the Land of Wine: even my local corner offie, which will sell you 24 cans of Foster’s for £20, has half a dozen wines for sale at that much a bottle or more.

This is also a very rare bottle of beer: Goose Island has brewed not much more than a couple of thousand litres, around 3,600 (UK) pints, of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale, and only 600 bottles have made it to the UK, where they are on sale in fewer than a dozen London outlets, including The Rake by Borough Market (where it was launched last Thursday), Mother Kelly’s, We Bought Beer, the White Horse in Parson’s Green and Clapton Craft.

So: is it worth it? Certainly the bar has been raised once again in the “authentic old beer reproduction” high jump, after Carlsberg’s effort earlier this year in brewing an 1883 lager with revived 1883 yeast. And BYSPA is a considerably more complex drink than Carlsberg’s straightforward 19th century sipper.

The back-story first: Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s “brewing innovation manager”, decided early in 2014 that he wanted to reproduce an old British ale of some sort, one that involved ageing in oak barrels and finishing with Brettanomyces. A great many people make the sign of the cross when Goose Island is named, believing that, since it is now owned by AB InBev, all its works bear the Mark of the Beast. But for me, any company that lets one of its managers say: “Hey – I’m going to spare little expense in recreating an obscure beer from 140 years ago” cannot possibly be totally bad. Continue reading Stock (ale) answers from Goose Island and Ron Pattinson

London’s earliest named brewer – or London’s earliest named maltster?

It looks as if the history of brewing in London can now be taken back to the very earliest decades of the city’s existence, with the discovery of what is claimed to be the city’s – and Britain’s – earliest known brewer, named on a writing tablet from nearly two millennia ago, found in waterlogged ground on a building site 500 yards to the east of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The writing tablet, used as a letter, was one of 15,000 artefacts found when the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) put 50 archaeologists to work betwee 2010 and 2014 digging through thousands of tons of wet mud on a three-acre site between Queen Victoria Street/Bucklersbury and Cannon Street during the early part of the construction of a new European HQ for the media company Bloomberg.

The site, which was previously the home of a 1950s office block, is on the course of the Walbrook, the long-buried river that runs from the border of Hoxton and Shoreditch down between Ludgate Hill and Cornhill to the Thames. Although much of the modern river’s flow is culverted, enough water still soaks the ground to leave it anaerobic, which stops wood, leather and other organic materials from rotting away. More than 400 writing tablets in total were found in the mud and debris of the site, 87 of which still carried legible writing scratched into the wood. The gems included one from around AD65 to 75 addressed “Londinio Mogontio”, “To Mogontius in London”. This is the earliest known mention of London by name, up to half a century before the previous earliest known mention, when Tacitus included the city’s name in his Annals, written around 115-117AD. Another tablet, from around AD80-90/5 has been hailed as the first record of a brewer in London.

The 'Tertius Braciarius' tablet from AD 80-90/95. The inscription left in the wood actually says TııRTIO BRACIA RIO, since in Roman handwriting an E was represented by two vertical (or slightly angled) strokes.
The ‘Tertius Braciarius’ tablet from AD80-90/95. The inscription left in the wood actually says TııRTIO BRACIA RIO, since in Roman handwriting an E was represented by two vertical (or slightly angled) strokes.

There is one small problem – the tablet is addressed Tertio braciario, “to Tertius the braciarius“, and while MOLA has happily translated bracearius as brewer – that is what the word meant in Medieval Latin – it comes from the Celtic word braces, which means either “grain for malting” or, more likely, just “malt”. Archaeologists, apparently over-awed by the authority of the Roman writer Pliny, who referred to braces as the Celtic name for a specific variety of grain, spelt wheat, seem reluctant to accept that he was wrong, and braces probably meant malt in general, made from any grain. Today, in modern Irish, the word for malt is braiche, and “maltster” is braicheadóir while the modern Welsh word for malt is brag, and “maltster” bragwr, all words clearly derived from braces. Braciarius may thus be better translated as “maltster” rather than brewer.

Continue reading London’s earliest named brewer – or London’s earliest named maltster?