Tag: Beer history

| Beer, Brewing, Water, Yeast

What is beer? No, seriously.

I’ve been writing about it for twenty years and drinking it for forty. But after a mind-bending dive into beer history, I’m not even sure what it is any more.

Last weekend I was in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, at the Ales Through the Ages Conference. I was honoured to be giving the keynote speech, which was titled “The Highs and Lows of Researching Beer History.” (You can see the full speech and slides if you sign up for my Patreon.)

In the speech, I questioned some of our assumptions about history. I basically took 45 minutes to say what Hilary Mantel said far more elegantly than I ever could in a couple of sentences: “History is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.”

And that record changes. As new technologies evolve and new discoveries emerge, the picture we have of the past changes: history changes. The past doesn’t change – obviously – but our understanding and knowledge of it does.

In a stroke of great fortune, these thoughts dovetailed perfectly with the opening speech of the conference proper. Travis Rupp, “The Beer Archaeologist,” spoke on the subject of “Defining Beer in the Ancient World.”

When I first started writing about beer, the consensus was that brewing began around 3000BC in Sumeria, because that’s how far the oldest evidence dated back. Within a couple of years, new carbon dating technology had pushed this back to around 7000BC. Then, in 2018, the whole ancient history of beer was rewritten once more.

Archeo-botanical evidence shows that the Natufian people of the Levant were fermenting grains 13,000 years ago, most likely to produce a drink for honouring the dead.

Does this make beer the oldest drink in the world?

Going into the conference, I’d followed the belief that mead must be older, because honey just got made in hives that hung around in forests. But Rupp completely disagrees. “It was very difficult, and very expensive, to gather enough honey to brew mead,” he says.

What about wine? Well, if we’re talking about something made from 100% grape juice, that’s pretty recent too. Wine was given a great press (so to speak) by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but before then, beer seems to have been dominant. New discoveries suggest the ancient Egyptians had commercial breweries capable of 5,000-gallon brews – way bigger than most craft breweries today.

But when we get back as far as the Natufians, we have to ask whether what they were making could technically be called beer. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’re ignoring the obsolete Middle Ages distinction between “beer” and “ale.” Hops were a very recent addition to beer across the total sweep of its history.)

I’ve always had a very simple distinction. All fermented drinks are based on sugars that yeast converts to alcohol. If those sugars come from fruit, the drink is wine (real cider is, effectively, apple wine.) If those sugars come from grains the drink is beer (which is why Japanese sake is technically rice beer rather than rice wine.) The domestication of grasses such as barley and Emmer wheat is pretty much the earliest marker for stable, permanent communities as opposed to nomadic wandering.

Ah. Says Rupp. But of the starches in the Natufian beer, only 34.2% came from grasses. The rest were a mix of starches from a wide variety of plants including lentils, tubers, leaves, even flowers. Fruit was likely added not primarily for flavour, but because the yeast on the skins would have started the fermentation.

So is this still beer?

For Rupp, it is. The key difference between the fermentable sugars in fruit and those in other plants is that the sugars in grains and tubers are stored as starch. Sugars in fruit will start fermenting as soon as yeasts can get to them. Starch needs to be modified in some way before yeasts can start to ferment. That’s why we malt grain in the brewing process, and why the evidence of Natufian brewing involves the grinding of both grains and tubers.

So for Rupp, “beer” is a drink that has been through a process we can loosely call brewing: it’s probably grain-based, but it has been mashed and heated in its production, before fermentation.

As the present changes the past, so the past changes the present. Just when you thought craft brewers had added everything imaginable to beer, let’s look forward to lentil, potato, rose and wheat beer…

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Some thoughts on writing about beer history

As I emerge from the British Library, blinking like a mole in the winter sun, I see Martyn Cornell has been doing what he enjoys best, demolishing a passing historical claim that someone else has made.

There was a spat before Christmas about the excellent Oxford Companion to Beer.  Many in the beer blogosphere were queueing up to find errors and cite them as proof that the book is worthless, or at the very least, deeply flawed.  This turned into a rather worrying witch hunt where almost any positive mention of the OCB online was rooted out and lambasted (one beer writer was even attacked on his Facebook page for posting that he was looking forward to reading it).

My response to this was along the lines of ‘of course there are errors – but if you take the thing as a whole, it’s a great piece of work’.  This was (mis)interpreted by some as me saying that errors didn’t matter, and the pursuit of truth, of fact, in beer history was unimportant.

That is not what I meant at all.  If I did mean that, I wouldn’t, for example, have spent all day yesterday in the London Metropolitan Archives reading through letters sent between brewers Flower & Sons and their lawyers regarding their taking over the lease of the George Inn, Southwark – something that will surely take only a line or two in my new book, but which I took a thousand words of notes on, because I want to make sure I get it absolutely right.

What I do think, though, after spending nearly a year doing research that is as forensic and detailed as I can possibly do on the history of coaching inns, pubs in general and one pub in particular, is that some who are interested in the history of beer are in danger of strangling the study of it by imposing standards that are too strict, that are tighter than any proper academic historian would insist upon.

If you’re not that bothered about the study of beer history, please stop reading now, because you’re going to get really bored if you don’t.

First, a few caveats:

One, I greatly admire the work that people like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson do.  I know from great experience myself that it’s not exactly easy, fun or rewarding to trawl through historical documents in search of the truth.  It’s much easier to simply cite what some bloke said in a book eighty years ago without checking where he got it from.  Standards of beer scholarship are improving, and people like Martyn and Ron are playing a significant role in this.

Two, I don’t want to excuse errors – where they are in fact errors, as opposed to differing interpretations.  And I’m not here to defend the OCB’s entry on the yard of ale.  I actually agree with Martyn that the original yard of ale entry in OCB looks like it’s wrong, though I believe that it’s the result of a simple confusion with the ‘stirrup cup’, which is a similar shape to the yard, but smaller – still wrong and in need of correction, but not exactly the biggest controversy ever to rear its beery head.

Three, although this post was prompted by Martyn’s latest, it shouldn’t be read (just) as a criticism of Marytn – he makes points similar to those below towards the end of his post, and I agree with a lot of what he says there.  What follows has been inspired by Martyn’s post – and other comments he’s made previously – rather than being a direct rebuttal.  I’m sure he would agree with much of what follows.

With those out of the way, my main beef is this: there seems to be a growing view that if there isn’t definite, written, primary source proof of something, than we cannot assert that it is true in an historical context, and we shouldn’t be saying it.

I’m sorry, but that’s just not right.  If real historians behaved like this, we wouldn’t have any history at all.

Having come fresh from the coalface, here’s how written historical sources work: since the mid-twentieth century and the age of mass communication, you can find lots of references to pretty much anything if you know where to look.  The biggest problem facing future historians looking at the early 21st century will be too much material relating to any subject, not too little.

Go back to the nineteenth century, and it’s a bit harder.  There are newspapers and magazines – quite a lot of them – and if you’re lucky enough to find databases that have them as word-searchable PDFs, you can fillet all mentions of your chosen subject from tons of last century’s chip paper within minutes.  The trouble is, you know how now, the mainstream press don’t write much about beer?  Well, they didn’t much then, either.  For example, over 99.9% of the 16,000 mentions of ‘India Pale Ale’ in the Burley Collection of 18th and 19th century newspapers are in the classified ads section, and while the first few you look at are very revealing (that’s where I discovered the earliest actual mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ for example) after that, they’re all the same.

Go back before that, and most of the population were illiterate.  Newspapers die out altogether when you reach the seventeenth century.  Now it gets trickier.  There’s the odd diarist whose work has survived, which is why if you read anything historical about the seventeenth century (including my new book) you will unfailingly discover what John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys thought about the subject at hand.

Before that, anything that the Church had direct involvement in, you’re laughing, because they kept copious records of everything.  Anything the monarch did, you’re on safe ground.  But social history?  Stuff that everyday people did?  That gets tricky.  There are legal records if your subject got into trouble.  But unless the Church or the law were interested, written records start to become very thin on the ground.  You’re relying on diarists, the odd pamphleteer (who usually had a particular view on his subject – many of our best descriptions of Elizabethan alehouses come from Puritans who thought they were the ‘nests of Satan’) and the occasional, isolated traveller or chronicler, and you kind of have to go with what those individuals say.

In terms of tangible fact, this is then supplemented by archaeological evidence.  This is incredibly useful.  But foodstuffs, clothing and almost anything else soft and perishable haven’t survived.

Our accurate record of what Elizabethan theatres looked like inside rests on a one page description and a drawing done by a Swiss traveller in 1594 – the rebuilt Globe Theatre relied on this, and the partial foundations of the original.  There are three surviving portraits which we think are William Shakespeare, and scant references to him in legal documents.  There isn’t even a definitely agreed version of his complete works, as whole plays were rarely copied.  Bill Bryson set out to write a book on Shakespeare that just stuck to the known facts.  It’s less than 200 pages long, and he’s padded it out with all sorts of more general stuff about Elizabethan England.  And this is Shakespeare – not some pub, brewery or drinking custom.

So when primary source stuff gets thin, what do you do?

You do not ‘make things up’.

But you do become flexible.

Martyn regularly pours scorn on historical claims that are made long after the fact.  But the first real account of the Battle of Hastings (leaving aside the Bayeux Tapestry) was written by William of Malmesbury over a century after to happened, and historians accept it as definitive.  Historians haven’t always provided academic references and footnotes – that doesn’t mean their work is invalid.  Also, when most people were illiterate, much history was handed down orally before someone put it to paper.  Inevitably, this introduces an element of Chinese Whispers.  But it’s that or nothing – and academic historians, while not always accepting such accounts as gospel (now there’s an interesting example) will usually at least take the gist of it to be true, or use it as a guide.  So while I’m not saying (because I don’t believe) that the yard of ale was invented for stage coach drivers, I am arguing that the fact that this claim wasn’t made until the 1950s is not on its own sufficient grounds to dismiss it.

Martyn’s other maxim is along the lines of ‘the first law of history is don’t assume’.  I’d like to see where these universally agreed laws of history are written down, and have a look at what the others are, because in the history I’ve been reading – mostly books written by academics who work in history departments in reputable universities – educated, reasoned assumptions are being made all the time.  ‘Could’, ‘might’, ‘perhaps,’, ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ are some of the most popular words in academic history.  Where I would agree with Martyn 100% is that if it is a ‘could’ or a ‘might’, any writer – especially one working on something as illustrious as the OCB – has an obligation to make this clear rather than writing ‘was’ or ‘did’, and this is a sin of mine that I’ve now resolved to fix. But I’d argue that this is the main area where standards need to be improved.  The simple ‘there’s no written evidence so we must assume it’s wrong’ approach simply is not how history works.

These issues have particular relevance for the study of beer and pubs, because at the time, a lot of this shit just didn’t get written down.  Whenever the yard of ale was invented, and for whatever purpose, no one whose work survives thought it worth recording.  So what are you going to do?  It obviously was invented by someone, at some point, so we are not wrong to speculate on what did happen.

If we don’t, we reduce history to virtually nothing.  And we have to look in a broader context.  That first mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ came at least seventy years after strong, hoppy pale had been exported to the Indian market – so how can we assert when this beer called ‘IPA’ first appeared?

The now pretty-much dismissed claim that George Hodgson began exporting pale ale to India in 1785 is based on this being the date it was first advertised in the Calcutta Gazette.  But the reason it wasn’t advertised before then is not that the beer didn’t exist in India, but that the Calcutta Gazette didn’t.  So when did Hodsgon first export his beer?

Another useful example for me is the story that IPA was first introduced to Britain in 1827 when a ship bound for India was shipwrecked off Liverpool, the casks washed up on the beach, and were auctioned by the ship’s insurance company, and the locals loved the beer and started demanding it at home.  Martyn has dismissed this as ‘myth’ because the claim was made fifty years after the fact, and it’s not mentioned anywhere else.  He says it never happened. Now, if we’re talking about how IPA was introduced to Britain, I totally agree.  A quick look at Peter Matthias’s brilliant brewing history shows that Bass and Allsopp were advertising pale ales domestically in the early 1820s.  In the 1830s, IPA became popular in Britain among families returning from India.  Hodgson, while being squeezed out of the Indian market, saw an opportunity back home and started advertising his beer as the taste of India.  But to say the shipwreck never happened?  That’s an even bolder claim than the original assertion.  Visit any Cornish coastal pub, for example, and you’ll find walls decorated with facsimiles of posters advertising auctions of cargo from shipwrecks from the early nineteenth century.  They happened all the time – surely at least one of these auctions would have included India-bound beer.  I’m certain that the 1827 shipwreck did happen, that India-bound beer was sold to Scousers and that they loved it.  After all, why would anyone simply make up such a story from their imagination?  But this is not how IPA was introduced to Britain.  It’s an important distinction in how we read historical data, how we interpret it.

Writing history is all about interpretation, and we have to make assumptions, especially when studying the history of the beer and pubs.  For example, I will be claiming that inn-yard theatre happened in the George Inn, Southwark, despite a complete lack of evidence that it did.  Why?  Because there are records of it happening in inn-yards across London and all over the country.  It often happened when there was a big fair.  It happened in larger inn-yards.  The George had  a large inn-yard.  Southwark Fair was one of the biggest fairs in the country.  Plays happened in the yard of the Queens Arms just down the road.  Therefore, I can assume, with a high degree of confidence, that plays also happened in the George.

One final point – and forgive me if this sounds defensive.  As a historian, you have an obligation to be as thorough in your research as you can be.  But as a writer aiming at a mainstream audience, you have an obligation to be as readable and interesting as you can be.  For the mainstream writer, in any discipline, it’s a balance between the two, and Bryson’s Shakespeare is a perfect example of how to do it brilliantly.  Just because the detail isn’t on the page in front of you, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

At the end of Martyn’s yard of ale post he gives a brilliant acknowledgement that we cannot research every single last fact back to primary sources, so I don’t think we’re that far apart in the overall scheme of things.

But please – even on the big stuff, sometimes, just because there is no primary source, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Sorry, but that’s not how history works.


If you’ve read this far, then you’re obviously pretty interested in beer history.  So I’d just like to give a plug to the Brewery History Society.  Membership is only £15 a year, and you get a lot for your money. Martyn is on the editorial board so he would definitely agree with me on this!

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The Rules of Drinking

There’s light at the end of the tunnel.  Switching metaphors at the points, if it were a loaf of bread, you’d just be able to see it start to rise.
It’s been a very long three months, but on NYE I printed off a rough, shaky first draft of my next book.  The chapters that aren’t quite finished are bloody awful.  The chapters that are finished are pretty good – or at least, my long-suffering editor and wife think so.  And I have two weeks left to kick, bitch-slap, coax, polish, persuade, trick and massage the rest of it into shape.
This week, then, represents a partial return to the blogosphere.  Don’t try to pretend you missed me, now.
I’m ashamed to say my first post-book post is a shameless plug, but it is for something I think you’ll like.  
Last May I spent an afternoon in the Jolly Butchers with a BBC film crew.  I’d just about forgotten about it, and then I got a call this morning to say that the programme is finally going out this week.
It’s a Timeshift documentary called The Rules of Drinking, and it charts our relationship with booze, particularly since the Second World War.  Me and a chap called Iain Gately, whose book on the History of Drink you should have on your shelves, are the two main contributors, only you’re spared having to watch much of me by some fantastic archive footage they’ve found to go over the things we’re talking about.
Here’s the blurb, from BBC4:
Timeshift digs into the archive to discover the unwritten rules that have governed the way we drink in Britain.
In the pubs and working men’s clubs of the forties and fifties there were strict customs governing who stood where. To be invited to sup at the bar was a rite of passage for many young men, and it took years for women to be accepted into these bastions of masculinity. As the country prospered and foreign travel became widely available, so new drinking habits were introduced as we discovered wine and, even more exotically, cocktails.
People began to drink at home as well as at work, where journalists typified a tradition of the liquid lunch. Advertising played its part as lager was first sold as a woman’s drink and then the drink of choice for young men with a bit of disposable income. The rules changed and changed again, but they were always there – unwritten and unspoken, yet underwriting our complicated relationship with drinking.
The waspish and lovely Grace Dent gave the programme a fantastic write-up in the Guardian last Saturday,  acknowledging that there is such a thing as binge drinking, without being judgemental about it or trying to build it to a point of hysteria.  She concludes:

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Barnsley man fails in quest to revolutionise pub, but gets credit anyway

Just writing a feature about the innovation that’s happening in cask ale dispense right now, with new hand pumps from Greene King, Bombardier, Black Sheep and others. And I just found out something that absolutely delights me.

The invention of the beer engine or handpump is commonly credited to one Joseph Bramah, a hydraulic engineer and locksmith who invented the hydraulic press, a decent toilet, a money printing press, and lots of other stuff.
On 31st October 1797 he successfully gained a patent for a manually operated beer-pump which he believed would have tremendous advantages for “the masters of families and publicans’.
Because there’s no previous patent, he is cited everywhere as the inventor of the modern beer engine. But the truth is that his device bore no resemblance to the modern (i.e. traditional) hand pump, and never dispensed a single pint of beer. Whereas hand pumps depend on pressure from the beer engine on the bar to create a vacuum that draws the beer up the line for the cask, Bramah’s sketches show a system of pistons inside casks, weighted with heavy bags of sand. The piston pushes the beer down inside the cask, through an opening in the bottom, and up the pipe to a simple tap at the bar.
There were two impracticalities here: one, pub cellars didn’t have the height to set up the pulleys and weights required. Two, we all know what beer casks look like. They have curved sides – making them utterly useless for any kind of internal piston action. The publican would have had to transfer beer upon delivery into special containers the piston could work with, which would have been far more work than just getting the pot boy to run down to the cellar and dispense the beer manually, which is what the system was meant to replace.
The story is confusing because the beer engine that actually worked was in widespread use just a few years after Bramah registered his patent. But whoever came up with the successful idea, there is no record of them – and it wasn’t Bramah.
Anyway, that’s all fine. But the thing that caught my eye is that while Bramah may have been a rubbish beer inventor, he was from t’Tarn! Joseph Bramah was born in Stainborough Lane Farm in Wentworth, South Yorkshire, just outside Barnsley. Of course, Wentworth is the wrong side of Barnsley – it’s out towards Rawmarsh. He may have been within walking distance of Jump, home of Percy Turner’s legendary pork pies, but south of Barnsley is still south of Barnsley. Anyway, in 1783 he made up for the error of his birth by going on to marry Mary Lawton, who came from Mapplewell – the village I grew up in!
He probably had a pint in the Talbot. He probably met Mary while going round tarn on a Friday night, maybe in Ye Walkeabout.
Anyway, the couple soon moved down south, to That London.
Well, they had to. If you tried being an inventor in Barnsley they’d just laugh at you and say “Thee and thi fancy hydraulics. Backbreaking labour in the white heat of the world’s first industrial revolution, man and machine chained together as one not good enough for thee and thi posh mates, is it?”
Two centuries later, I feel a certain bond with this man from Barnsley who tried to change the face of beer, failed, but is still remembered for something he didn’t actually do.
Detail on Bramah’s rubbish beer pump and the emergence of one that worked are from Peter Mathias’ excellent Brewing History in England 1700-1830. A bible to any beer historian since 1959.

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The campaign for real ale is almost two hundred years old!

Where does the term ‘real ale’ originate?

Any CAMRA member or beer historian will tell you that in the early seventies, four discontented beer drinkers founded the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, before amending this to the snappier Campaign for Real Ale, coining a term to differentiate cask conditioned ales from what they saw as worthless, ersatz fizzy brews.

Whatever disagreements I’ve had with CAMRA in the past, I’ve always said that this was a PR masterstroke. So I was astonished to discover this loaded term being used long, long before CAMRA’s hated keg beers were even a twinkle in some demonic corporate brewer’s eye.

On April 13 1809, the Calcutta Gazette carried countless ads for beer. Most of these were for pale ale (not yet referred to as India Pale Ale), the majority promoting “HODGSON’S very best PALE ALE, Brewed for this Climate and warranted of a Superior Quality.”

But one ad was different. I couldn’t make a copy of it, as the paper would have disintegrated, but it read: REAL ALE
To be sold by Public Auction
By Williams and Hohler
At their Auction-room
On MONDAY next, the 17th April 1809,
ONE Hundred and Forty-three Dozen
of excellent REAL ALE, warranted
good, the property of an Up-Country Trader,
leaving of business. For the convenience of Purchasers, it
will be put up in lots of Three Dozen. So what was the ‘false’ ale they were seeking to differentiate from? Well, maybe keg ale, or something similar to it, is older than we thought too. W L Tizard, a Professor of Brewing, wrote the following in his account of how to brew beers for export in his 1843 book Theory and Practice of Brewing: “It is imperatively necessary that all extraneous vegetable matter which forms the yeast, lees &c. be removed; because the agitation during the voyage would otherwise produce extreme fretting, leakages and premature acidity.”
So ‘real ale’ is beer that still has yeast present in the cask, whereas other beers have the yeast removed. If IPA and other nineteenth century beers had all their yeast removed, does that mean they were not technically real ales at all, but the forerunners of the dreaded keg? And could the ad above therefore be evidence that some CAMRA hardliners have perfected time travel and gone back to protest against what might be an uncomfortable bit of trivia for anyone who thinks the only decent beer is one that is carrying on a secondary fermentation in the cask? Or is the fight for cask beer older than we thought?