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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.