Tag Archives: James Sumner

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.

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The long battle between ale and beer

How long did ale and beer remain as separate brews? Most* drinkers, I think, know that “ale” was originally the English name for an unhopped fermented malt drink, and beer was the name of the fermented malt drink flavoured with hops, a taste for which was brought to this country from the continental mainland about 1400. Some might be able to tell you that ale and beer then existed alongside each other as separate drinks for some time: but that eventually ale started being brewed with hops as well, and finally any difference between the two drinks disappeared, with “ale” and “beer” becoming synonyms. But when did that happen?

I used to think that their merger into synonymity was pretty much complete in Georgian England at the latest, agreeing with the historian WH Chaloner, who wrote in 1960, reviewing Peter Mathias’s great book The brewing industry in England, 1700-1830: “By the end of the seventeenth century the terms ‘ale’ (originally a sweetish, unhopped malt liquor) and the newer ‘beer’ (a bitter, hopped malt liquor) had come to describe more or less identical products following the victory of the latter drink.” But as I read more and more, I slowly realised that this was untrue: that in English, “ale” and “beer” maintained differences through until the 20th century that were, ultimately, from their origins as unhopped and hopped drinks respectively (and nothing to do with the modern American habit of referring to all “top-fermented” beers as “ales”, regardless of their histories and origins).

Beer geekery warning: if teasing apart the knotted and tangled threads of brewing history is your bag, stick with me for the next 2,500 words as we range over five centuries of malted liquors and watch meanings mutate: if you’d rather read something contemporary, Rob Sterowski, alias Barm, at I Might Have A Glass of Beer is always an interesting and often a provocative read, and he maintains an excellent list of other beer bloggers as well.

For those of you still with me: here’s a quote on ale and beer from 1912, less than a century ago, from a book called Brewing, by Alfred Chaston Chapman:

“At the present day the two words are very largely synonymous, beer being used comprehensively to include all classes of malt liquor, whilst the word ale is applied to all beers other than stout and porter.”

Why weren’t stout and porter called ales? This is a reflection, 200 years on, of the origin of porter (and brown stout) in the brown beers made by the beer brewers of London, rivals of the ale brewers for 500 years, ever since immigrants from the Low Countries began brewing in England with hops.

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Three-threads get more unravelled

James Scarlett, the world’s greatest expert on Scottish tartans, who died in May this year aged 87, once said: “I never believe anything I see in print, even though I wrote it myself.” I know how he feels. James Sumner, another historian, who knows, probably, more about the origins of porter than anyone else, has been in touch to point out that in my piece on three-threads, the drink that was claimed to be one of the early 18th century precursors to porter, I made one of the worst mistakes anybody with any pretensions to being a historian can perpetrate: I failed to go back to the original sources.

The problem was that I was contrasting the famous letter that appeared in the London Chronicle in November 1760 from “Obadiah Poundage” that gives the earliest details of porter’s origins with the version of Poundage’s narrative that appeared soon after in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and quoting from the copy of the London Chronicle letter that appears in HS Corran’s A History of Brewing. The point I was making is that the Gentleman’s Magazine version mention’s three-threads, whereas the version quoted by Corran doesn’t.

But Dr Sumner, who is lecturer in history of technology at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester, did what I should have done and went and read the London Chronicle. There he discovered, the version Corran quotes isn’t the one that actually appears in the Chronicle. In fact, the Chronicle‘s version does mention three-threads, whereas Corran’s version substitutes the words “ale, mild beer and stale”.

Continue reading Three-threads get more unravelled