Category Archives: History of beer

Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

Here’s another titbit* from the Times archives: a report from 1840 on the hop harvest with some fascinating clues about what hops went into IPA (I was wrong, incidentally, in saying the archive is not available to the public – if you can use your public library card to access resources like the Oxford English Dictionary from your home computer, you can probably use it to access the Times 1785-1985 archive).

One of the reasons The Times carried hop harvest reports was because of the betting that went on over the yield of the hop tax. By the mid-19th century, according to Peter Mathias’s magisterial The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, as much money was being bet on the hop tax yield as on the Derby.

This was not simple gambling, however, but a way for hop growers and hop dealers to lay off, or hedge, the risks that came with involvement in a trade that could see prices triple one year and halve the next, as yields went down and up depending on the weather, outbreaks of pests and the like. If you were a hop buyer and you thought yields would be low, and the tax take (based on quantity) subsequently low as well, but the price high because of scarcity, you bet on a low tax take, and at least made some money as you paid top whack for your hops. If you were a seller and feared a big harvest and low prices, you bet on a high tax yield, and made up for the smaller amount you got for your hops by winning on the hop betting.

The most interesting part of the Times report from September 12 1840 on “Hop Intelligence”, however, is not the details of the bets being made on the size of the hop harvest, at 25 guineas or 50 guineas a time (huge sums when a guinea – 21 shillings – was as much money as a labourer might earn in a fortnight.)

Continue reading Kent hops, hedgers and Pale India Ale

Government ale

A mention over on Patto’s blog about Government ale reminded me of one of my favourite beer songs – Ernie Mayne’s Lloyd George’s Beer from 1917. Click that link and check it out – it’s fantastic.

Mayne was a 20-stone (that’s 280 pounds for Americans) music hall artist who died 70 years ago this year, aged 56, and who specialised in numbers such as You Can’t find Many Pimples on a Pound of Pickled Pork (“whether you come from China, Japan or Carolina, you can go to Pimlico and then go on to York but you can’t find many pimples on a pound of pickled pork”) and I Can’t Do My Bally Bottom Button Up (that would be all the pickled pork, Ernie).

Lloyd George’s Beer was, by the standards of the time, hard-hitting social commentary that undoubtedly deeply annoyed the government. Around the time the song came out, the Central Control Board, which was in charge of wartime brewing restrictions, and pub pricing and opening hours, banned brewers from using the term “Government Ale” on price lists for beers under 1036 OG, presumably because the government did not want to be associated so directly with watery pints.

But for the brewers, and the beer drinkers, the situation was rough. Under the impact of the U-boat campaign, which was badly affecting food imports from America, and making supplies scarce, in February 1917 all malting of barley was stopped by government order.

In April 1917 brewers were ordered to produce no more than a third of 1915/16’s “standard” barrelage, that is, the total actual alcohol produced had to be just a third of the year earlier – which meant if you wanted to make the same amount of beer, it had to be only a third as strong. As it happened, both strength and output suffered: the average strength of beer in 1917 was a fifth lower than in 1916, and only three quarters of the pre-war level, while production fell more than a third from 30 million bulk or “real” barrels in 1916 to 19 million barrels.

Industrial unrest in the summer of 1917, at least in part caused by the beer situation, made the government think again, and the restrictions were eased for the second half of the year. But no doubt a thirsty populace, taking solace in the music halls, cheered Mayne until the limelights shook when he sang:

“Have you read of it?
Seen what’s said of it
In the Mirror or the Mail?
It’s a substitute and a pubstitute
And it’s known as Government Ale
… or otherwise …
Lloyd George’s beer, Lloyd George’s beer,
at the brewery there’s nothing doing –
All the waterworks are brewing
Lloyd George’s beer.
Oh they say it’s a terrible war
And there never was a war like this before
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Was Lloyd George’s beer.”

Ales, churches and brides

I’m grateful to Knut Albert for bringing to my attention a review in The Economist on a new book by Sir Roy Strong, A Little History of the English Country Church. The review says that in the mid-1600s:

“the loss of income, particularly from banning the making and selling of church ales, meant that the buildings started to crumble.”

Either the reviewer, or Sir Roy, is confused here. Church ales were events, not drinks, fundraising happenings designed to raise money for the parish: similar fundraisers by newly married couples were called “bride ales”, from which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, our modern word “bridal” is derived.

 “Bridal”, now an adjective, was originally a noun, “bride ale”, meaning “wedding feast”, with “ale”, the drink word, taking on the extended meaning of “celebration”. The same semantic extension is seen in the Irish expression for feasting, “coirm agus ceol”, which literally means “ale and song” (well, what else does a celebration consist of?).

I won’t repeat here what I told KA about church ales – you can read much more about them, what they were used for and how they died out, on his blog.

Come-back for the Burtons

One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.

The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.

Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.

Continue reading Come-back for the Burtons

Pernicious myths and a ban on hops

When I worked on a local newspaper in one of Hertfordshire’s duller towns in the mid-1970s, the news editor rushed in from the pub one lunchtime frothing with excitement – he had just been given a story by a guy in the bar that was bound to make the week’s front page splash.

This man’s mate knew a young woman who was getting into her vehicle in the town’s only multi-story car park, when a little old lady appeared. The old lady asked if she could possibly be given a lift home. “Of course”, the young woman replied, getting into her car to let the old lady in. But as she lent across to open the passenger door, she noticed that the old lady’s hand, reaching out for the door handle, was extremely hairy …

Immediately the young woman slammed her own door shut, reversed out of her parking space and hurtled as fast as possible round to the town’s police station. A squad car shot off to the car park, our news editor was told in the pub, and though the old lady had gone, the police searched the area and found, behind a pillar alongside where the young woman’s car had been parked, a large axe …

Yeah, yeah, many of you will now be saying, and you’ll be unamazed to learn that when the newspaper sent a reporter, notebook ready, rushing round to the police station to check the facts and get a comment, Herts Constabulary said they had no record of this alleged “incident”. Meanwhile, of course, the news editor’s saloon bar informant could not give him a name or address for the young woman driver – our head newshound had fallen for a popular urban myth.

Continue reading Pernicious myths and a ban on hops

A three-threads thread

Corrected June 20 2008 to adjust for more accurate information – see this post.

The economic values displayed on eBay sometimes bemuse me. Last October a copy of the first, 1974, edition of the Good Beer Guide went after frenzied bidding from what I assume were completists wanting to own a full set of GBGs, for a frankly breathtaking £310 – not bad for something that cost 75p when it was published 33 years ago. Yet a couple of months ago I was able to buy on eBay one of the most important documents in the history of brewing, a genuine example of The Gentleman’s Magazine dated November 1760, for just £20.

The reason why this edition is so valuable to brewing historians is because it plagiarises large parts of a long letter written in a rival publication, the London Chronicle, in the same month by someone calling himself “Obadiah Poundage” on “The History of the London Brewery” (“brewery” used here in the 18th century sense of “brewing industry. , but with one small yet very significant difference.

In the London Chronicle version of the letter, Poundage, talking about the brews consumed in London between the years 1710 and 1722, wrote:
“Some drank mild beer and stale mixed, others ale, mild beer and stale blended together at threepence per quart, but many used all stale at fourpence per pot.”
However, The Gentleman’s Magazine‘s version of this sentence reads:
“Some drank mild beer and stale, others what was then called three-threads [my emphasis] at 3d a quart; but many used all stale at 4d a pot.”
Continue reading A three-threads thread

Pete Brown, Cape Crusader

When Coors decided to redesign the packaging for Worthington White Shield, they added a couple of florid paragraphs to the label declaring that this was one of the last surviving original 19th century India Pale Ales, and describing how casks of IPA would be taken out to India by sailing ship, around Cape Horn.

Ahem.

Continue reading Pete Brown, Cape Crusader

A short history of beer glasses

(Note: for a longer and more thorough treatment of this subject, go here)

I’m not, when I’m in a pub, a great worrier about what shape of glass my beer is served in, unlike my father, who would only drink out of a thin-walled straight glass – he said he couldn’t stand the feel of the thick-glass “mug” against his lips. The straight-sided, or slightly sloping-sided pint beer glass has been around from the early 20th century at least. But the authentic English “four-ale bar” (public bar) pint mug up to the end of the First World War was actually a china pot in a bizarre shade of pink with a white strap handle – see George Orwell’s classic “Moon Under Water” essay from the Evening Standard in 1946, where Orwell, always the inverted snob, complains that this working-class mug was getting hard to find.

The usual sort of glassware in Edwardian pubs was a handle-less sloping-sided, thick-walled “straight” pint mug (pewter was restricted to the saloon bar). Around 1928 the 10-sided or “fluted” handled glass pint mug came in, and this is the pint glass seen in all the “Beer Is Best” advertising put out by the Brewers Society in the 1930s (it is also, in this drinker’s opinion, the finest glass to consume English ale from).

Continue reading A short history of beer glasses