Category Archives: History of beer

How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

Spruce ale and tavern porterI live half-way between Richmond and Hampton – which gave a small but still slightly odd twist to my 3,000-mile journey last month to deliver a talk in another town halfway between Richmond and Hampton. Different Richmond and Hampton, of course: the pair in Virginia, not the ones in the western suburbs of Greater London†.

The talk was in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a terrific two-day event called Ales through the Ages featuring more than a dozen speakers from Europe and the United States, put on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until 1780, when capital status was transferred to Richmond, and the town went into a decline that lasted through until the first quarter of the 20th century. Ironically, its decline was its subsequent salvation. Since there was no incentive (or cash) to knock them down and rebuild them, many of Williamsburg’s original colonial-era buildings remained standing, albeit increasingly rough-looking. Eventually, in the late 1920s, with campaigners concerned that genuine American history was literally falling to pieces in front of them, John D Rockefeller jr, whose father, one of the founders of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world, agreed to fund what would become Colonial Williamsburg, a living reproduction of 18th century America. Today Williamsburg is a considerable tourist attraction with restored buildings, actors walking the streets dressed like 18th century colonials and, of course, demonstrations of the lifestyles and crafts of the 18th century. Naturally enough that includes food and drink, and naturally enough that includes brewing. Continue reading How to brew like an 18th century Virginian

A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

Jacques Cartier
Jacques Cartier supposedly pictured learning from a Canadian First Nationer how to save his men from scurvey: but the chap with the buckskin suit and the metal axe with the tepees in the background looks like a Plains Indian 1,500 miles and 220 years away from home rather than a Huron

Early European explorers in North America had to be shown the healthy properties of the spruce tree by the existing inhabitants. When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36 on his second visit to the land he had named Canada, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree was probably White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, a member of the cypress family, rather than spruce. But later French settlers turned to spruce trees, a better source of Vitamin C, and thus a better way to combat scurvy, the curse of long-distance voyagers, than cedars. The secretary to the new French governor of Cape Breton Island, Thomas Pichon, writing in 1752, noted that the inhabitants of Port-Toulouse (now St Peter’s) “were the first that brewed an excellent sort of antiscorbutic [“la bière très bonne” in the original French], of the tops of the spruce-fir”, “Perusse” or “Pruche” in Pichon’s French.

Continue reading A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?
Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Spruce beer is made from the tips of spruce trees. Except that the connection is not as simple as it appears: it is pretty much a coincidence that spruce beer and spruce trees have the same name.

There are actually two traditions of spruce beer in Britain: the older, the Danzig or Black Beer tradition, only died out very recently, while the other, which could be called the “North American tradition”, was hugely popular in Regency times, and included Jane Austen among its fans, but disappeared nearly 200 years ago on this side of the Atlantic.

The first mention of “spruce beer” in English is from around 1500, when Henry VII was on the throne, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament, in which a hung-over drunkard is persuaded to write his will. Colyn lists the drinks he wants served at his funeral, including more than a dozen types of wine, mead, “stronge ale bruen in fattes and in tonnes”, “Sengle bere, and othir that is dwobile”, and also “Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur.”

Norway spruce
Norway spruce

The fact that spruce beer and “the beer of Hambur[g]” were mentioned together is because both came from North Germany. The name “spruce beer” is an alteration of the German “Sprossen-bier”, literally “sprouts beer”, more meaningfully “leaf-bud beer”, since it was flavoured with the leaf-buds or new sprouts of Norway spruce, Picea abies, or silver fir, Abies alba. “Sprossen” was meaningless to English-speakers, but in early modern English the similar-sounding “Spruce” was another name for Prussia, from which country’s main port, Danzig, Sprossen-bier was exported. “Sprossen-bier” became in English the more understandable “Spruce beer”, meaning, originally, “Prussian beer”. (Chaucer called the country “Sprewse”, and it was being called “Spruce-land” as late as 1639.)

Meanwhile English had to wait more than a century and a half after the beer was named to get its own word for Picea abies, the tree known as Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. When the tree did get an English name, first mentioned by the naturalist John Evelyn in 1670, because it, too, like the beer, came to Britain via Prussia, it was called the “Spruce”, short for “Spruce fir”, that is, “Prussian fir”. Thus “spruce beer” is not actually named for the spruce tree, and “spruce beer” in English is around 170 years older as a phrase than “spruce tree”. (The adjective “spruce” meaning “neat” or “smartly dressed” probably also comes from “Spruce” meaning Prussia, via “Spruce leather”, leather from Prussia that was a favourite, it appears, among Tudor dandies.)

Continue reading A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

More frequently repeated beery history that turns out to be totally bogus

Bass No 5 signIt’s depressing and frightening, sometimes, if you start tugging at loose threads in the historical narrative, because the whole fabric can start unravelling. This all began with the Canadian beer blogger and beer historian Alan McLeod emailing me about claims that the “Hull ale” that was being drunk in the 17th century in London was really ale from Burton upon Trent, shipped down that river to the sea, and taking the Yorkshire port’s name on the way. Did I have any views, he asked?

I confess I’ve repeated the idea that “Hull ale probably really means Burton ale” myself, but Alan had several good points to make against it: Hull, like other ports, was known for its own ales, Burton lacked common brewers until the start of the 18th century, and in any case, until the opening of the Trent Navigation in 1712 it was not easy for Burton brewers to get their ales shipped out anywhere. So I hit the internets.

It all began to fall down with Peter Mathias’s reference in the otherwise magisterial The Brewing Industry in England (p150), written in 1959, to Samuel Pepys drinking Hull ale in London in 1660. Mathias wrote that “of course”, this Hull ale was “probably” from Burton upon Trent, with the town allegedly being “well known in the capital for its ale in the seventeenth century”, and the first consignment “reputedly” sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane London in 1623. However, once you start digging, these claims appear to be completely wrong. The reference Mathias gives, to back all this up, The history and antiquities of Staffordshire by Stebbing Shaw, published in 1798, Volume 1 p13, is only available in Google Books via snippet view but it appears not to give a specific year for Burton Ale being sold at the Peacock at all. What it says, talking about Burton, is:

“And so great is the celebrity of this place for its ale brewed here, that, besides a very considerable home consumption, both in the country and in London (where it was first sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, a house still celebrated for the vending of this liquor) vast quantities have been exported to Sweden, Denmark, Russia and many other kingdoms.”

– but with no date for when Burton Ale was first sold at the Peacock.

Almost a century before Mathias, William Molyneaux, in Burton on Tent: Its History, Its Waters and its Breweries (1869 ) claimed in a footnote (p223) that

“About the year 1630 Burton ale was sold at the Peacock inn in Gray’s Inn Lane and had even then acquired a high reputation amongst the famous ales of England.”

But Molyneaux offered no reference to back this up. This claim was subsequently repeated in several books. However, there is no evidence at all that the Peacock was even open in the 17th century. Continue reading More frequently repeated beery history that turns out to be totally bogus

A short account of the surprisingly long history of putting beer in cellar tanks.

Tank beer – “tankova” – may be a hot new trend in London, with Meantime in Greenwich and Pilsner Urquell delivering fresh unpasteurised beer to pubs in beautiful shiny big containers, but the idea of putting beer in cellar tanks to deliver better quality is, even in London, more than a century old.

The first “tank” beer system in the capital appears to have been introduced by Hugh Abbot, a brewer at Watney’s original Stag brewery in Pimlico, London, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. In 1913 he had three standing butts fixed up in the cellar of a Watney’s pub, and beer delivered in an old horse-drawn tank wagon of the sort that brewers used to transport beer to their bottling stores. The experiment was successful enough that by 1920 Watney’s had electric-powered tanker lorries, fitted with copper tanks, taking beer around to its pubs. It was still using electric vehicles in 1949, though by then tank deliveries to pubs were done using trailers mounted behind standard tractor units.

Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar
Large ceramic cellar tanks made by Royal Doulton in a Hull Brewery pub cellar

Another of London’s “big seven” 20th century brewers, Charrington’s, of the Anchor brewery in Mile End, was also delivering tank beer by the early 1920s, and a Charrington’s brewer, Alfred Paul, described the system to the Institute of Brewers in a talk in May 1922. Only “bright” mild beer, chilled and filtered, was delivered by Charrington’s tankers to its pubs, he said, although “experiments are being made with a tank for the bulk delivery of naturally conditioned beer.” The road tanks, made of copper lagged with iron, had a capacity of 24 barrels each, that is, 864 gallons, and the tanks in the pub cellars generally held three barrels each. “On arrival of the delivery tank, or road tank, at the house, the hose, is let down through the cellar-flap or any other available aperture, and the beer allowed to run down into the cellar tank. Should the fall from the street to the cellar be insufficient, a band-pump attached to the foot-board of the chassis could be used.” Charrington’s cellar tanks were generally made of earthenware, Paul said, being upright, cylindrical vessels, with a glazed inside, but ” experiments are now being carried out with aluminium and glass-lined steel.” The tanks, he said, “are carefully examined prior to filling, with a powerful electric torch. The men, who are carefully selected, are definitely instructed not to fill a tank unless, in their opinion, which by constant practice has become expert, the tank is scrupulously clean.”

Continue reading A short account of the surprisingly long history of putting beer in cellar tanks.

The IPA shipwreck and the Night of the Big Wind

The “IPA shipwreck” is one of many long-lasting myths in the history of India Pale Ale. The story says that IPA became popular in Britain after a ship on its way to India in the 1820s was wrecked in the Irish Sea, and some hogsheads of beer it was carrying out east were salvaged and sold to publicans in Liverpool, after which the city’s drinkers demanded lots more of the same. Colin Owen, author of a history of Bass’s brewery, called the tale “unsubstantiated” more than 20 years ago, and others, including me, being unable to find any reports of any such wreck, nor of any indication that IPA was a big seller in the UK until the 1840s, have dismissed it as completely untrue. Except that it turns out casks of IPA did go on sale in Liverpool after a wreck off the Lancashire coast involving a ship carrying hogsheads of beer to India, a shipwreck that, literally, became a landmark – though not in the 1820s – and the true story is a cracker, involving one of the worst storms to hit the British Isles in centuries, which brought huge destruction and hundreds of deaths from one side of the UK to the other.

The story of the IPA shipwreck first turns up in 1869 in a book called Burton-on-Trent, its History, its Waters and its Breweries, by Walter Molyneaux, who described how the Burton brewers began brewing beer for export to India from 1823. Molyneaux wrote: “India appears to have been the exclusive market for the Burton bitter beer up to about the year 1827, when in consequence of the wreck in the Irish Channel of a vessel containing a cargo of about 300 hogsheads, several casks saved were sold in Liverpool for the benefit of the underwriters, and by this means, in a remarkably rapid manner, the fame of the new India ale spread throughout Great Britain.”

Molyneaux’s story has been regularly repeated in the past century and a half. But no one has been able to find a wreck that matched up with his story. This turns out to be, not because the wreck didn’t happen, but because he was 12 years out with the date.

The year after Molyneaux’s book came out, a different version of the tale appeared in the “notes and queries” section of an obscure publication called English Mechanic and World of Science. The account was written by a man who gave himself the name of “Meunier”, and it said: “Forty years ago [ie about 1830] pale ale was very little known in London, except to those engaged in the India trade. The house with which I was connected shipped large quantities, receiving in return consignments of East Indian produce. About 1839, a ship, the Crusader, bound for one of our Indian ports, foundered, and the salvage, comprising a large quantity of export bitter ale, was sold for the benefit of the underwriters. An enterprising publican or restaurant keeper in Liverpool purchased a portion of the beer and introduced it to his customers; the novelty pleased, and, I believe, laid the foundation of the home trade now so extensively carried on.”

Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.
Ships off Liverpool in the Great Storm of 1839, painted by Samuel Walters.

The two clues – the ship’s name and the later date – together with the fact that large numbers of newspapers from the time have now been scanned and made available on the web make it easy to trace the story at last. The Crusader was a 584-tonne East Indiaman, or armed merchantman, described as “a fine large ship with painted ports [that is, gun-ports] and a full-length figurehead”, “newly coppered”, that is, with new copper sheathing on the hull to prevent attacks by wood-boring molluscs, and “a very fast sailer”, under the command of Captain JG Wickman. She had arrived in Liverpool early in November 1838 after a five-month journey from either Calcutta or Bombay (different Liverpool newspapers at the time gave different starting ports) with a cargo including raw cotton, 83 elephants’ tusks, coffee, wool, pepper, ginger – and opium, which did not become illegal in Britain until 1916. Captain Wickman and his crew were due to leave for Bombay again on Saturday December 15, after five weeks of roistering in Liverpool, with a cargo that included finished cotton goods, silk, beef and pork in casks, cases of glass shades, iron ingots, tin plates, Government dispatches – and India ale in hogsheads, brewed by two different Burton brewers, Bass and Allsopp, the whole lot being insured for £100,000, perhaps £8 million today.

Continue reading The IPA shipwreck and the Night of the Big Wind

The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

A Sot RampantOne 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.

Continue reading The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

In which I give more badly written beer history a good kicking

Why oh why am I still having to write lengthy corrections to articles about the history of India Pale Ale? Well, apparently because the Smithsonian magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution, is happy to print articles about the history of India Pale Ale without anybody doing any kind of fact-checking – and William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, appears to be one of those writers who misinterpret, make stuff up and actively get their facts wrong.

The article Bostwick had published on Smithsonian.com earlier this week, “How the India Pale Ale Got Its Name”, is one of the worst I have ever read on the subject, crammed with at least 25 errors of fact and interpretation. It’s an excellent early contender for the Papazian Cup. I suppose I need to give you a link, so here it is, and below the nice picture of the Bow Brewery are my corrections.

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Mueum of London
The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Museum of London

“The British Indian army” – most of the British troops in India in the 18th century were in the three private armies run by the East India Company. There was no such thing as “the British Indian army” at that time. Continue reading In which I give more badly written beer history a good kicking

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

Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look
The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

Continue reading Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA