How to be a beer historian in just 10 books

Countless times I’ve been asked: “Martyn, how do I become a top-drawer beer historian like you and Ron? “Countless” meaning, of course, zero. But if I were putting together a course on the basics of British brewing history, here’s the ten books that would be top of the reading list:

1:Peter Mathias, The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, Cambridge University Press, 1959 (reprinted Gregg Revivals 1993)

More than 50 years on, this is still the book that all other studies of the brewing industry have to live up to. It’s basically “only” 600 pages on the big 12 London porter brewers (although it does take a look outside the capital, and at brews other than porter). It covers just 130 years, from just before improvements in the production of brown beer enabled those dozen players to grow to previously unheard of sizes, through to the year of the Beerhouse Act. The Act dramatically liberalised licensing laws, and it marks a convenient point to halt in the history of British beer drinking, since after 1830, probably coincidentally, the giant porter brewers would be slowly overhauled by their rivals. Matthias uses his sources brilliantly, marshalls his arguments superbly, and presents a book so definitive it is impossible to see why anyone would feel there was any need to tackle the same area again. Completely necessary reading to anyone interested in British brewing history, as well as a brilliant example of how to write well about a complex subject with a huge amount of statistical information where it would be dangerously easy to be dull.

2: Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson, The British Brewing Industry 1830-1980, Cambridge University Press, 1994

Another 600-pager: Gourvish and Wilson pick up the baton where Mathias left it leaning against the side of the mash tun, and cover a similar number of years in almost equal detail, this time ranging across Britain rather than concentrating mostly on London. They are excellent at picking up the recurring themes since 1830 in Britain’s beer manufacturing and retailing businesses, themes that are still with us three decades after their book’s narrative ended. You cannot, I think, understand the British brewing industry today without reading Gourvish and Wilson, and seeing how the five-way pull between brewers, retailers, consumers, legislators and social restrictivists has operated continually since the reign of William IV. Just as with Mathias, if you’re going to write about the history of beer in a British context, this book needs to be (a) on your bookshelf and (b) heavily marked up with highlighter pen.

3: Judith M Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England 1300-1600, Oxford University Press, 1996

Bennett, an American, looks at the history of brewing in medieval England from a feminist perspective: the subtitle is “women’s work in a changing world”, and her thesis is that as making ale and, after 1400, the new hopped drink beer became increasingly professional, so women were squeezed out of the brewing scene they had once dominated. If this seems a narrow line to plough, know that while presenting her arguments Bennett manages to supply easily the best coverage on medieval brewing in England currently available. If you don’t want to appear a fool when writing about the assize of ale and similar subjects, Ale, Beer and Brewsters is another vital volume.

4: Pamela Sambrook, Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900, The Hambledon Press, 1996

Sambrook details an aspect of the story of ale and beer that is often ignored: the enormous (until the 19th century) “private” brewing sector, when almost every home over a certain size, especially outside the south-east, would have its own brewery to supply ale and beer to family, servants and workers. It’s a fascinating read anyway, and it gives essential knowledge for a proper perspective on British brewing.

5: Max Nelson, The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe, Routledge, 2005

A long shelf of nonsense has been written about beer in the classical world, by people who didn’t speak classical languages and who relied on (often poor) translations by scholars who did not know enough about brewing to make sense of what they were reading. Nelson is a classicist who clearly has considerable knowledge about beer making, and The Barbarian’s Beverage is a currently unbeatable survey of brewing in the pre-Roman, Roman and immediately post-Roman eras. Some of Nelson’s theories are unconvincing: I don’t believe at all, for example, that the cerevisia and camum of the Romans were names for barley beer and wheat beer respectively. All the evidence I have seen suggests they were simply regional names for beer in general, each the equivalent of zythum in Egypt. But Nelson’s main theme, that the ancient Greeks are responsible for the lack of respect still given to beer, compared to wine, two millennia and more on is a likely-sounding and satisfying one.

6: Terry Gourvish, Norfolk Beers from English Barley, a history of Steward & Patteson, Centre for East Anglian Studies, 1987

Terry Gourvish’s history of the Norwich brewer Steward & Patteson is equalled as an example of the very best in single-brewer historical studies only by his fellow East Anglian brewing history academic Richard Wilson’s Greene King, a Business and Family History from 1983. It’s detailed, it’s thorough, it provides masses of invaluable information and it ties in the particular story to the wider events that were influencing the growth of S&P and its eventual takeover and demise. If you think you might like to write a history of your local brewery, read this and see how it should be done. (Unfortunately this now appears to be an extremely rare book and is currently available second-hand on the net only at the “you’re ’avin a larf” price of $245.)

7: John Bickerdyke, The Curiosities of Ale and Beer, Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1889 (reprinted Kessinger Publishing, 2009)

Any student of brewing history has to read at least one of the “antiquarian” books on beer, simply to see where so many of today’s myths have arrived from, and this is the best: lively, wide-ranging and entertaining. Charles Henry Cook, who wrote under the name “John Bickerdyke”, was a journalist who clearly believed in the newspaperman’s motto “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. Much of his writing wilts when the light of evidence-based historical research is shone on it. But you’ll have fun being misled.

8: Paul Jennings, The Local, a History of the English Pub, Tempus, 2007

You can’t study the history of beer without studying the development of the pub, and Paul Jennings, who produced an excellent book on The Public House in Bradford, 1770-1970, followed this up with a fine study of the pub in general and its relationship over centuries with its customers, its suppliers, the local community and the state.

9: Martyn Cornell, Beer: The Story of the Pint, Hodder Headline, 2003

I remember my tutors at university used to put their own works on the reading list (one told us he didn’t mind if we stole his books from the university bookshop, as the publisher would already have been paid …) and I’m big-headed enough to plug my study of brewing from the Sumerians to the start of this century because I still don’t think there’s a better, more comprehensive and more accurate general history of beer brewing in Britain available. And Mrs Zythophile agrees.

10: Martyn Cornell, Amber Gold and Black: the History of Britain’s Great Beers The History Press, 2010

It’s even more true that there isn’t, yet, another book covering the backstories of all the beers made in Britain, past and present, at all. AGB is the first ever comprehensive beerstyle history book, it delivers some dramatically different versions of the histories of major beer styles to the ones that almost all other books about beer put forward, and any student on the History of Beer course who reveals in their essays that they haven’t read it will be given an automatic F …

0 thoughts on “How to be a beer historian in just 10 books

  1. Great list Martyn. Mathias is always first on my list along with Gourvish and Wilson. A bit UK-centric of course.

    My contribution from Denmark would be ‘Beer and brewing in pre-industrial Denmark’ by Kristof Glamann (later chairman of Carlsberg), which is interesting as Danish brewing was closer to the medieval tradition at the time as the industrial revolution came much later.

    And my favourite in single brewery sources ‘Din Hengivne Jacobsen’ a collection of the letters between JC Jacobsen and his son, Carl. It gives a fascinating insight into the inferiority complex continental brewers had with British brewers.

  2. Interesting stuff and all essential reading, Martyn, although I would have included Brian Harrison’s ‘Drink and the Victorians: Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872’. It’s an incredibly insightful look at the brewing industry in a wider context and at a pivotal time in its history.

  3. My top three books about pubs and beer: Richard Boston’s ‘Beer and Skittles’ (worth it for his jokes alone), Andrew Campbell’s ‘Book of Beer’ for an overview of pubs and brewing in the 1950’s and Christopher Hutt’s ‘The Death of the English Pub’ (some wonderful photos amongst the impassioned writing).

    1. Thomas C. Cochran’s ‘The Pabst Brewing Company: The History of An American Business’ published in 1948 was the first in-depth study of its kind. Flawed, but ground-breaking and it’s still in print. An assessment of its impact by Professor K. Austin Kerr will appear in the Autumn issue of Brewery History. The two more recent books on US brewing worth reading are Maureen Ogle’s ‘Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer’ and Amy Mittelman’s ‘Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer’.

  4. Thanks for including my book on your list. I have enjoyed your work as well.

    I appreciate your kind endorsement but I do feel the need to defend my analysis of cerevisia and camum, to which you refer. I take it from your reference to Egyptian zythum that you are thinking principally of Pliny the Elder (Historia naturalis 22.82.164), who seems to say (though he is not explicit) that beer in a general sense is called zythum in Egypt, caelia and cerea in Spain, and cerevesia (or cerevisia, depending on the manuscript) among other names in Gaul (he does not mention camum). However, it seems clear, as I argue in my book, that words like cerevisia developed different meanings over time and in different authors, and while cerevisia came certainly to be used of beer in general, this need not have been the case originally or in all instances in surviving works (just as the word “beer” has changed its meaning over the last millennium). And in fact in the ninth century Greco-Latin glossary known as the Hermeneumata Montepessulana the Greek phrase “wheat beer” is translated as cerbesia (a variant of cerevisia) while the Greek phrase “barley beer” is translated as camum. Thus one medieval lexicographer supports my contention that at least sometimes cerevisia was used of wheat beer specifically and camum of barley beer specifically (you have reversed it); I have never claimed that each word had one, universal meaning over the many centuries of its use. I admit, however, that our ancient evidence is very spotty and much remains uncertain.

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