Burton: NOT the first place in the world to brew pale beers

It’s tremendous news that the brewery museum in Burton upon Trent is to reopen, though my joy that Britain, one of the world’s four or five greatest brewing nations, may finally get the celebration of its beery history that it deserves was turned down a notch by a statement from one of the people who deserves maximum praise for campaigning on behalf of the museum’s future.

Burton, he said, and he really really REALLY ought to know better, “changed the face of brewing in the 19th century with India Pale Ale and then Pale Ale for the domestic market,” which were “the first pale beers brewed anywhere in the world.”

No they blahdy weren’t – absolutely, definitely, not not not. Pale beers were being brewed long before IPA: millennia before IPA, probably. The sun-dried malt that was most likely one of the raw materials for Sumerian beer must have been very pale. Odd Nordland, the great Norwegian brewing historian, collected records of beer being made from sun-dried malt in Norway, in places like Rogaland, on the south-west coast, which “produced a very pale ale”. If you can make sun-dried pale malt in Rogaland, you can make it anywhere in Britain, and I find it almost inconceivable that pale ales weren’t being brewed with pale sun-dried malt from the moment the first brewers arrived in these islands, which was around 6,000 or so years ago.

Now, sun-dried malt, particularly in not-so-sunny climates, is not going to be easy to make and probably wasn’t common: if you sun-dry sprouting wet grain you’re risking it going mouldy before it dries, or taking too long to dry and becoming useless to brew with. Very likely most malt in our northern lands was always dried using artificial heat. If you want something organic left dry, but pale, you’ve got to dry it slowly, over a low heat – think of trying to make pale toast. That’s not necessarily difficult with fires of wood, or straw, or furze, which is what pre-Industrial Revolution maltsters used, but then you have a smoke issue: the longer the time your green malt spends over the fire, the more smoke flavour it will pick up. Smoke flavour in ale was not what most people wanted, as commentators such as William Harrison in 1587 and William Ellis, author of the London and Country Brewer, first published in 1736, make clear.

It was possible to make pale malt dried over wood: here’s William Ellis in another of his many books, The Timber Tree Improved, published in 1744, talking about the hazel tree:

“I must not pass over one other Perfection of the Wood of the Hasel, and that is, what I learned of a Maltster, near Southampton, in 1738; who told me, this Wood, above all others, when cut two Years, will burn well, and dry Malt both pale and sweet, which no other Wood, as he knew of, would, because this Wood has so thin a Rind, and is of so soft a Nature, that it quickly burns away, without sending up that pernicious Smoke, as almost all others are incident to.”

But hazel trees do not produce much burnable wood. The answer was coke, that is, coal heated in the absence of oxygen so that all the unwanted gases, in particular hydrogen sulphide, are driven off. What is left will give heat, but little or no smoke to taint the malt. Coke was invented in the North of England (it appears to be a North Country dialect word, originally meaning “core”, as if the “coakes” were the “core” of the coal), apparently in the 17th century. Its use to make malt was first taking place in Derbyshire in the early 1640s, according to John Houghton, an apothecary and part-time journalist, who issued a weekly bulletin in the 1690s and early 1700s, price two pence, called A Collection for Improvement of Agriculture and Trade. In one issue in 1693 he talked about the coal miners of Derbyshire, and added:

” The reason of Derby malt being so fine and sweet, my friend thinks is the drying it with cowks, which is a sort of coal … ’tis not above half a century of years since they dried their malt with straw (as other places now do) before they used cowkes which made that alteration since that all England admires.”

If Houghton was right in his dates, “half a century of years” before 1693 puts the start of drying malt with coke in Derbyshire back to around 1643 or so. Being shrewd observers, you’ll have noticed that Houghton does not actually mention the colour of the malt made in Derbyshire by drying it with coke, so while it might be a reasonable guess to say some or all of it was pale, to leap to the conclusion that brewers using Derby coke-dried malt were definitely making pale ales in the 1640s would be wrong. However, another late 17th century writer, Mr Christopher Merret*, “surveyor of the Port of Boston”, fills the breach, though writing about Lincolnshire, not Derby. In a paper called “An Account of Several Observables in Lincolnshire, Not Taken Notice of in Camden, or Any Other Author”, presented to the Royal Society in 1695-97, he wrote:

“Here Cool are Charred and then call’d Couk, wherewith they Dry Malt, giving little Colour or Taste to the Drink made therewith.”

So pale ale was definitely being made in Lincolnshire in the 1690s from coke-dried malt. But it was the maltsters of Derby who were producing a product from their coke-fired kilns that gave the local brewers a great reputation: Nathaniel Salmon, writing in 1728, said: “Derby Town, famous for good Beer …”. Quite likely all or most of the production was pale ale: the county was certainly a centre for pale ale production by the middle of the 18th century. The London Magazine said in April 1752, in an article called “A description of Derbyshire”, that the people there “make great quantities of malt and are famous for their pale ale.” Derby was well ahead of Burton in its development as a brewing centre. The historian RA Mott, writing in 1965, said of the town:

“In 1693, when there were 694 family houses, there were 76 malt houses and 120 ale houses, so that malt-making and brewing must have been the dominant occupations. A list of those occupied in the wool, leather, wood, metal and stone trades and the normal supply occupations left room for some 200 maltsters and brewers. Much malt was carried to the ferry on the river Trent, five miles away, whence it could go by water to London; 300 pack-horse loads (each of 6 bushels which each contained 40lb) or 32 tons were taken weekly into Lancashire and Cheshire.”

Mott, who was writing a history of coke making, says it was the demand for coke to dry malt, rather than to warm houses or make iron, that led to the rise of “merchant” coke-makers.

The earliest mention of “pale ale” I have been able to find comes from Nathan Bailey’s Universal etymological English dictionary of 1675, in an entry on “slape ale” (“pale Ale, as opposed to Ale, medicated with Wormwood or Scurvy Grass”). [Correction: the metadata on this book turns out to be wrong, because of a typo in the frontispiece, where the publication date appears as MD CLXXV instead of the correct MDCCLXXV.] From the start of the 18th century, however mentions of pale ale become more frequent. A song in praise of Burton ale in a collection from 1709 called The Bottle Companions or Bacchanalian Club, being a Choice Collection of merry Drinking Songs and Healths, began: “Give us noble Ale, of the right Burton pale, and let it be sparkling and clear,” letting us know that Burton brewers, quite possibly buying their malt from Derby up the road, were brewing pale ale at least 300 years ago. One strange reference comes from a book published in 1713 called Whig and Tory, or Wit on both Sides, where among the satirical attacks is a poem that includes the lines:

“From Pale Ale with Lime in’t and Parsons’s Bub
From the Gang of Rogues at a Calve’s head Club
And the fiery Tryal of Burges’s Tub
Libera nos .”

“Parsons’s bub” – “bub” is strong drink – was probably a reference to Sir John Parsons, owner of the Red Lion brewery at St Katharine’s, near the Tower of London, later one of the great porter breweries, and the “Calve’s Head Club” was an association of radicals who met to celebrate the beheading of Charles I. Who Burges was I don’t know, although “tub” was an early 18th century slang term for a pulpit. But what’s this “Pale ale with Lime in’t”? Is this the earliest known reference to the twisted tastes that eventually led to Corona?

Whig and Tory was written at the end of the reign of Queen Anne, and it leads us on to a passage in the famous narrative by “Obadiah Poundage”, published in 1760, which said:

“Come we now to the Queen’s time … The gentry now residing in London more than they had done in former times introduced the pale ale and the pale small beer they were habituated to in the country and either engaged some of their friends or the London brewers to make for them these kinds of drinks.”

Assuming that Poundage was remembering correctly, this means that pale ale was actually being brewed in London, alongside the brown beer that was on its way to becoming porter, as far back as 1714 or earlier, and it was being brewed in the countryside, at the homes of the “gentry”, before then.

Certainly the making of pale malt appears to be widespread by the mid-18th century. The London brewer Michael Combrune An Essay on Brewing in 1758 gave a table that listed the different heats to get different colours of malt, from white, through cream, yellow, amber and “High Amber” to “Pale Brown”, “High Brown”, “Brown with Black Specks”, “Colour of Burnt Coffee”, and, finally, “Black”.  Londoners were now definitely brewing the paler article as well as the porter the city had become famous for: the London Chronicle in 1762 said that “Mr Miller, Pale-beer brewer in Shoe-lane” (off Fleet Street) had been elected a common-councilman for the ward of Farringdon without.

If we can believe the anonymous handbook Every Man his Own Brewer, written in 1766, outside the workers of London, in southern England drinkers preferred lighter-coloured brews:

“The beers brewed for domestic use are as various in their complexions and qualities as those for the market or as custom or fancy happens to dictate. In general the northern taste is Brown or Brown and Ambers mixt, the southern Amber, Amber and Pale mixt or Pale only …”

Certainly when Alexander Morrice published A Treatise on Brewing in 1802, he included several beers from southern England that had grain bills composed mostly or entirely of pale malt: Reading beer, for example, all pale malt; Amber beer, 40 per cent Herts amber malt and the rest a mixture of Herts pale and West Country pale; Table beer, 50 per cent Herts white malt, 25 per cent Herts pale and 25 per cent Herts amber (though Table beer also contained “Spanish juice”, or liquorice, which must have darkened it up); Hock, 70 per cent Herts pale and 30 per cent Herts amber; “Welch ale”, made by an elderly brewster in Caernarvon, about which Morrice said: “Their Malt was all Pale, but higher coloured than the Ware and equal to the best I ever saw”; and Windsor ale, all “best Herts pale malt”. Of Windsor ale, Morrice said:

“This Ale has experienced so great a Demand in London and its Vicinity for a few Years past as materially to affect the London Pale Beer Brewery [using “brewery” in its sense of “brewing industry”]. It is a Liquor better calculated for Winter than for the Heat of Summer. The London Brewers, however, were induced to brew upon the same Principle and in many Instances they excel the Original.”

Morrice’s use of the expression “the London Pale Beer Brewery” underlines an often ignored fact. The capital’s brewing industry in the 18th and early 19th century was divided into three classes: a mass of a hundred or more small brewers, who seem to have brewed all kinds of ale and beer; a dozen or so specialist porter brewers, all brewing on a scale somewhere between large and enormous, which included the names we are familiar with today, such as Barclay Perkins, Truman and Whitbread; and eight or so specialist ale brewers, generally smaller than the porter brewers at the beginning of the 19th century, but larger than their other, (mostly?) undifferentiated competitors. These ale brewers seem to have sold their product mostly “mild”, that is unaged, and (this is the killer point) their ale was made entirely, or almost entirely, from pale malt.

To quote just one source, Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts: in All the Domestic Arts, published in 1830, when brewing London ale, “For immediate use the malt should be all pale, but if brewed for keeping or in warm weather one fourth should be amber malt.” Nor was London the only place making pale ale: it was also being brewed in Scotland. David Booth’s The Art of Brewing, first published in 1829, said: “The distinguishing characteristics of Scotch ale are paleness of colour and mildness of flavour.”

To summarise, then, far from India Pale Ale being the first pale ale, and Burton the first place to brew it

  • It has been possible to brew pale ale for millennia
  • Pale ale was being brewed in England by the second half of the 17th century, at the latest
  • Pale ale was being brewed in London by the reign of Queen Anne
  • Pale ale was being brewed all over Great Britain, including Scotland and Wales, before the great rise in sales of Burton-brewed IPA.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

* A different man, evidently, to Dr Christopher Merret, 1614-1695, physician and writer on natural philosophy. Dr Merret, like John Houghton a Fellow of the Royal Society, has his place in the history of alcoholic drinks, however: he was the first person to describe how to make sparkling wine by inducing a secondary fermentation through adding sugar, in a paper to the Royal Society in 1662, more than 30 years ahead of the French.

8 thoughts on “Burton: NOT the first place in the world to brew pale beers

    1. Don’t bite your tongue. Speak out. That’s if you have anything substantial to back it up with in the first place.
      As a Burtonian I’m used to the loud, ignorant bores from up the A38 telling all and sundry how their middling provincial city is the centre of the universe. Albeit one with an indisputably lesser brewing pedigree than Burton; I’m sure that I once read somewhere that the county of Derbyshire didn’t have a single brewery within its borders at one point in the 1970s…

  1. All very interesting, Martyn. I think the reference to lime and ale means pale ale brewed with hard water such as Burton has, water with gypsum (lime carbonate) content, that is.

    That water tends to promote the clarification of ale, which might have been one reason for the fame of the original Burton, in pre-finings days.

    In one of the Charles Knight pieces in the mid-1800’s, he speaks of adding lime to ale but it is unclear again what is meant, except he states also there was an old practice of adding lime to “sack” to ensure its clarity. In what form this lime was I do not know. I wonder if at some point at any rate people added lime fruit to beer for the same reason. I have no idea if the fruit called lime has lime carbonate in it or promotes clarity in beer. If it does, this may be why people added lime fruit to beer originally, which may have evolved the shandy-gaff and later lager-and-lime and bitter tops.

    By the time lime was added to lager, the original motivation was probably long forgotten but folk practices often have a habit of outliving their original raison d’etre. If lime fruit does not clarify beer, though, clearly it was added for another reason, perhaps by seamen on ships to ward off scurvy, and the habit transferred to taverns in ports and thence into English bar habit generally.

    I had a pet theory for a long time that lager-and-lime, which seems to have gotten going in the 1950’s, was a way initially to recall the estery taste of the disappearing real beers. However, I now think its origin must be related somehow to the idea that lime was beneficial to beer quality.

    But why did the author of the poem feel we should be “liberated” from quality pale ale? And evidently too from Parson’s brown or perhaps pale stout? Perhaps he was anti-drink, the poem is hard to understand indeed.


  2. Follow-up: there is no excuse for not reading up on the mineral lime, whose sulphates and carbonates inhabit the hard water of Burton and some other regions, so I did. It appears to have nothing in common with any of the citrus fruits which are acid-based, whereas calcium oxide and a number of related compounds are the basis of the mineral lime.

    Therefore, the addition of lime fruit to beer must have an origin other than the wish to render it clear. (Although perhaps people mistakenly in olden days added it to beer, thinking it had the same effect as the lime-water of Burton, due of course to sharing the same name).

    The scurvy origin seems most likely to me now, or perhaps lime came into beer by transference from punches – citrus originated in India, incidentally, and punch is a Hindi word I believe.

    Or maybe people just liked the taste, that is certainly possible..


  3. I was at first astonished when I saw the redesign of Bass Pale Ale cases, which now bear the prominent claim, “World’s first pale ale.”

    After thinking about it, I wasn’t so surprised: After all, Bass is now owned by a corporation which makes a weak-kneed brew it nevertheless calls “The king of beers.”

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