Why Shakespeare liked ale but didn’t like beer

The trademark registered by Flower's brewery of Stratford upon Avon

The trademark registered by Flower’s brewery of Stratford upon Avon

An old friend of mine gained a PhD in the relative clauses of William Shakespeare, with particular emphasis on the later plays. Ground-breaking stuff, she told me, and I’m sure that’s true. My own contribution to Shakespearian studies is rather less linguistic and more alcoholic: I seem to be the first person in centuries of scholarly study of the works of the Bard of Avon to point out that his plays clearly show Shakespeare was a fan of ale, but didn’t much like beer.

To appreciate this you have to know that, even in the Jacobean era, ale, the original English unhopped fermented malt drink, was still regarded as different, and separate, from, beer, the hopped malt drink brought over from continental Europe at the beginning of the 15th century, 200 years earlier. It was made by different people: Norwich had five “comon alebrewers” and nine “comon berebrewars” in 1564. In 1606 (the year Macbeth was performed at the Globe theatre) the town council of St Albans, 25 or so miles north of London, agreed to restrict the number of brewers in the town to four for beer and two for ale, to try to halt a continuing rise in the price of fuelwood.

This separation of fermented malt drinks in England into ale and beer continued right through to the 18th century, and can still be found in the 19th century, though the only difference by then was that ale was regarded as less hopped than beer. Even in Shakespeare’s time, brewers were starting to put hops into ale, though this was uncommon. In 1615, the year before Shakespeare died, Gervase Markham published The English Huswife, a handbook that contains “all the virtuous knowledges and actions both of the mind and body, which ought to be in any complete woman”. In it, Markham wrote that

“the general use is by no means to put any hops into ale, making that the difference between it and beere … but the wiser huswives do find an error in that opinion, and say the utter want of hops is the reason why ale lasteth so little a time, but either dyeth or soureth, and therefore they will to every barrel of the best ale allow halfe a pound of good hops

.

The book’s recipe for strong March beer included a quarter of malt and “a pound and a half of hops to one hogshead,” which may be three times more hops than Markham was recommending for ale, but is still not much hops by later standards, though Markham said that “This March beer … should (if it have right) lie a whole year to ripen: it will last two, three and four years if it lie cool and close, and endure the drawing to the last drop.” In his notes on brewing ale, Markham said: ” … for the brewing of strong ale, because it is drink of no such long lasting as beer is, therefore you shall brew less quantity at a time thereof …. Now or the mashing and ordering of it in the mash vat, it will not differ anything from that of beer; as for hops, although some use [sic] not to put in any, yet the best brewers thereof will allow to fourteen gallons of ale a good espen [spoon?] full of hops, and no more.”

Markham was writing in the middle of a battle fought for more than two centuries to try to keep ale still free from hops, and separate from hopped beer. In 1471 the “common ale brewers” of Norwich were forbidden from brewing “nowther with hoppes nor gawle” (that is, gale or bog myrtle). In 1483, the ale brewers of London were complaining to the mayor about “sotill and crafty means of foreyns” (not necessarily “foreigners” in the modern sense, but probably people not born in London and thus not freemen of London) who were “bruing of ale within the said Citee” and who were “occupying and puttyng of hoppes and other things in the ale, contrary to the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used.”

Andrew Boorde, who hated beer

Andrew Boorde, who hated beer

Almost 60 years later, in 1542, the physician and former Carthusian monk Andrew Boorde wrote a medical self-help book called A Dyetary of Helth which heavily promoted ale over beer. Boorde, who declared in his book: “I do drinke … no manner of beere made with hopes,” said that “Ale for an Englysshman is a naturall drynke,” while beer was “a naturall drynke for a Dutche man” (by which he meant Germans), but “

of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men; specially it kylleth them the which be troubled with the colycke, and the stone, & the strangulion; for the drynke is a cold drynke; yet it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appear by the Dutche mens faces & belyes.”

(There is a great story suggesting why Boorde hated beer so much: a rival writer named Barnes said that when Boorde was studying medicine in Montpelier he got so drunk at the house of “a Duche man” [which probably meant a German rather than someone from the Netherlands], presumably on the Dutchman’s hopped beer, that he threw up in his beard just before he fell into bed. Barnes claimed that when Boorde woke up the next morning, the smell under his nose was so bad he had to shave his beard off. For Boorde, the loss of his beard, in a period when a lengthily hirsute chin was the essential badge of every intellectual and scholar, must have been enormously embarrassing.)

A century on, another English writer, John Taylor, in Ale Ale-vated into the Ale-titude, “A Learned Lecture in Praise of Ale”, printed in 1651, agreed that “Beere is a Dutch Boorish Liquor, a thing not knowne in England till of late dayes, an Alien to our Nation till such time as Hops and Heresies came amongst us; it is a sawcy intruder into this Land.” Earlier, a poet called Thomas Randall, who died in 1635, made the same point, in a poem called “The High and Mighty Commendation of a Pot of Good Ale” that

“Beer is a stranger, a Dutch upstart come
Whose credit with us sometimes is but small
But in records of the Empire of Rome
The old Catholic drink is a pot of good ale.”

Mermaid TavernShakespeare, being a far subtler writer than Boorde, Taylor or Randall, never made such obvious statements about his preferences. But he was a Warwickshire boy, country-bred, and he brought his country tastes with him to London. In 1630 a pamphleteer called John Grove wrote a piece called “Wine, Ale, Beer and Tobacco Contending for Superiority”, in which the three drinks declared:

Wine: I, generous wine, am for the Court.
Beer: The City calls for Beer.
Ale: But Ale, bonny Ale, like a lord of the soil, in the Country shall domineer.

Shakespeare’s country-born preference for ale, and disdain for the city’s beer, pops up across his plays. Autolycus, the “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, makes his appearance in The Winter’s Tale singing:

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge,
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.

By which he means that he can steal the sheet someone has left out to bleach in the sun, and exchange it for a quart of excellent ale in a nearby alehouse (which were, alas, sometimes places where stolen goods could easily be disposed of). But if ale is a dish fit for a king, small beer, according to Prince Hal – soon to be a king – in Henry IV, is a “poor creature”, and he asks Poins: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” Similarly the malicious Iago, in Othello, declares that the perfect woman is fit to do nothing more than “suckle fools and chronicle small beer”.

Nor was Shakespeare impressed by strong beer, judging by the fate of the villainous Thomas Horner, the armourer, in Henry VI, written around 1590-92, who is so drunk on sack, charneco (a wine from Portugal) and double beer given to him by his supporters (“Here’s a pot of good double beer, neighbour: drink it and fear not your man”) that his apprentice, Peter Thump, is easily able to overcome him and kill him in their duel.

What was double beer? The 17th century writer William Yworth, in a book called Cerevisiarii Comes or The New and True Art of Brewing, published in London in 1692, said double beer was “the first two worts, used in the place of liquor [water], to mash again on fresh malt”, so that, in theory, the wort ended up twice as strong.

Certainly double beer was strong enough to keep well. Yworth gave a typical 17th-century pseudo-scientific explanation that the double wort “doth … only extract the Sweet, Friendly, Balsamic Qualities” from the fresh malt, “its Hunger being partly satisfied before.” He continued that double beer “being thus brewed … may be transported to the Indies, remaining in its full Goodness … whereas the Single, if not well-brewed especially, soon corrupts, ropes and sours.” (Ropey beer has a bacterial infection which results in sticky “ropes” appearing in the liquid. Note, incidentally, the implication that strong beer was being exported to hot climates even in the 17th century.)

Shakespeare pub signThe opposite of doubele beer was single beer. A recipe for 60 barrels of single beer printed by Richard Arnold in 1503, during Henry VII’s reign says: “To brewe beer x. quarters malte. ij. quarters wheet ij. quarters ootes. xl. lb weight of hoppys. To make lx barrell of sengyll beer”, that is, 10 quarters of barley malt, two quarters of wheat and two quarters of oats, plus 40lbs of hops, to make 60 barrels of single beer. It is very unlikely this would have produced a beer of anything less than 1045 OG, or four per cent alcohol by volume. A modern-day brewing to this recipe by the home brew expert Graham Wheeler, using modern yeast, modern malted barley (which would probably have given a higher extract than 16th century brewers could have achieved), malted oats and Shredded Wheat, came out at 1065 OG and 6.7 per cent ABV.

Unfortunately, this guide to the strength of single beer is completely contradicted by a declaration from the authorities in London in 1552, during the reign of Edward VI, regarding the amount of malt that should go into double and single beer. For “doble beare”, they said, a quarter of “grayne” should produce “fowre barrels and one fyrkin” of “goode holesome drynke”. To make single beer, twice as much drink should be brewed from the same quantity of grain. This would have produced double beer with a strength of around 1047 OG at the bottom end, perhaps 1058 at most (barely five per cent ABV), while the single beer could not have been stronger than around 1025 OG, less than two per cent alcohol.

Both these strengths seem far too low – indeed, they seem to use exactly half the malt one might expect, given Arnold’s recipe for single beer, and evidence from other writers. Recipes from the 17th century show beers of around 1035 to 1045 OG being described as “small beer”. Gervase Markham called a beer of approximately 1045 OG “ordinary beere”. Perhaps the London authorities in 1552 were deliberately trying to force the city’s brewers to make weaker beers.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Tudor ale was stronger than Tudor beer. Elizabethan commentators believed you could make twice as much beer from a quarter of malt as you could ale, because the hopped beer did not have to be as strong as ale to stop it going sour too quickly. Reynold Scot in 1574 said a bushel of “Mault” would make eight or nine gallons of “indifferent” ale but 18 or 20 gallons of “very good Beere”.

In London in 1574 (when Shakespeare was 10) there were 58 ale breweries and 32 beer breweries. But the ale brewers consumed an average of only 12 quarters of malt a week, while the beer brewers were on average consuming four times as much. The average Elizabethan London beer brewer’s output in pints was thus probably on average eight times larger than the average ale brewer’s production. Even the biggest London ale brewer was smaller, on this calculation, than the smallest of the capital’s common beer brewers. The biggest Elizabethan London beer brewer consumed 90 quarters of malt a week, enough to make around 14,000 barrels of beer a year, very roughly, which would be a medium-sized brewery even in the 18th century.

It is difficult to be precise without knowing what proportion of grain went into single ale and beer, which used less malt per barrel, and what proportion went into double brews. But very roughly, again, it looks as if, even though there were nearly twice as many ale breweries in the capital, Londoners were drinking four times as much beer from the common brewers as they were ale. Some ale and beer would still have been made by alehouse and inn brewers, but their output probably made little difference to the ratio of ale to beer drunk in the capital. When John Grove said in 1630 that “The citie call for Beere”, it looks as if beer was the city of London’s favourite since at least the 1570s.

It was drunk, generally, from hooped wooden mugs: Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, promising his supporters great bounties when he is ruler of England, declared that as well as seven halfpenny loafs for a penny, “the three-hooped pot shall have 10 hoops.” The wealthy used something grander than wood: the Frenchman Estienne Perlin, a visitor to London in the 1550s, wrote that the English drank beer “not in glasses but in earthenware pots with silver handles and covers”.

Many of the beer brewers were still immigrants from the continent. In St Olaph’s parish, Southwark in 1571 there were 14 Dutch brewers. One, Peter van Duran, who had emigrated from Gelderland 40 years earlier, employed nine servants whose nationalities were given as “Hollanders, Cleveners [from Cleves, on the German/Dutch border] or High Dutchmen [that is, Germans]”, and who included a brewer, three draymen, three tunmen and a boatman.

The size of the London brewing industry was causing pollution problems: in 1578 the Company of Brewers wrote trepidatiously to Queen Elizabeth saying that they understood Her Majesty “findeth hersealfe greately greved and anoyed” with the taste and smoke of the sea coal used in their brewhouses. The brewers offered to burn only wood, rather than coal, in the brewhouses closest to the Queen’s home, the Palace of Westminster.

Flowers IPA labelThe Queen herself was a considerable brewer: like her father, Henry VIII, she had both a beer brewer, Henry Campion, who died in 1588, and ale brewers, two men called Peert and Yardley. (Campion’s brewery, according to John Stow’s Survey of London in 1602, was in Hay Wharf Lane, at the side of All Hallows the Great church in Upper Thames Street, which puts it on the same site as the Calverts’ later Hour Glass Brewery.)

Elizabeth also had naval and military brewhouses in operation at Tower Hill, Dover, Portsmouth and, probably, Porchester by 1565, to supply the army and navy. The first royal beer brewery in Portsmouth was built by Henry VII in 1492, and its operations were enlarged by Henry VIII in 1512/13 at a cost of more than £2,600 to enable it to produce more than 500 barrels of beer a day. It seems quite possible this was one of the biggest breweries in the world at that time. But the beer consumption of the Tudor navy was enormous: perhaps 3,000 barrels a week. It was calculated that a ship of 100 tons, carrying 200 men for two months, needed 56 tuns of beer, (that is, around a gallon a man per day, one tun being equivalent to six 36-gallon barrels), 12,200 pounds of biscuit, three tons of “flesh” and three tons of fish and cheese. Water would turn brackish and unhopped ale would go off: beer would last the tour.

The Tudor army certainly ran on beer. In July 1544, during an English invasion of Picardy, the commander of Henry VIII’s forces complained that his army was so short of supplies they had drunk no beer “these last ten days, which is strange for English men to do with so little grudging.” Relief arrived a couple of days later with 400 to 500 tuns of beer from Calais and ten of “the king’s brewhouses” (presumably mobile breweries) together with “English brewers”.

Thje last insult: used to advertise keg bneer

The last insult: used to advertise keg bneer

Whatever soldiers liked to drink, Shakespeare’s opinion of the hopped drink was so low, if we can assume he was putting his own thoughts into the mouth of Hamlet, that he could think of nothing more depressing than being used after death to seal the bunghole in a cask of beer. Referring to the practice of using clay as a stopper in a barrel, the gloomy Dane tells his friend:

“To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole? … follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam (whereto he was converted) might they not stop a beer barrel?”

In Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, Launce lists as one of the virtues of the woman that he loves the fact that “she brews good ale”, and tells Speed: “And thereof comes the proverb, ‘Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.’”

Centuries after his death, Shakespeare was adopted as a trademark by Flowers, the biggest brewer in his home town, Stratford upon Avon. (Flowers was founded, incidentally, by Edward Fordham Flower, who had emigrated to the United States, aged 13, in 1818 with his brewer father Richard. The Flowers settled in southern Illinois, near the Wabash river, on what later became the township of Albion – family legend says they turned down a site further north on the shore of Lake Michigan, believing it to be too marshy. Others were less fussy, and the city of Chicago was eventually founded there. Edward and Richard returned to England in 1824 and Edward began brewing in Stratford in 1831.) Fortunately nobody ever pointed out to Flowers that Shakespeare wouldn’t have liked the hoppy brew they were selling.

(A much shorter version of this piece appeared in Beer Connoisseur magazine in 2009. Other parts have been adapted from Beer: The Story of the Pint, published 2003, with additions

India Session Ales – tremendous new trend or oxymoronic category fail?

“All the IBUs, half the ABV” is how the American beer writer Brian Yaeger describes the newest (?) beery trend in the United States: the “India Session Ale”.

10 Barrel ISAAs you’ll have gathered, the ISA is meant to have the flavours of an American-style IPA, but at a more “sessionable” gravity. “Sessionable” is in the eye of the beer holder: I’d curl my lip at any beer over 4.2 per cent describing itself as “sessionable”, but to many Americans the term means anything under 5 per cent. However, what worries me most is the idea that a beer with 50 IBUs, and hopped with at least six different and powerful varieties, including Warrior, Columbus, Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo and Chinook, even if it’s only 3.5 per cent alcohol, like Ballast Point of California’s Even Keel can in any way be regarded as a session beer. Indeed, at least one “India Style Session Ale”, from the 10 Barrel Brewing Co in Oregon, is 5.5 per cent ABV.

As I wrote in this space nearly four years ago, I love session beers, but to me an essential part of what makes a good session beer is its restraint. To quote myself:

A great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention … A good, quaffable session beer should have enough interest for drinkers to want another, but not so much going on that they are distracted from the primary purpose of a session, which is the enjoyment of good company in convivial surroundings.

I’ve not, unfortunately, had the opportunity to try any of the India Session Ales (also known as “American session ales”, “Session IPAs” and “Light IPAs”) Brian Yaeger talks about in his piece, but in April I did get to try something I suspect may be similar, DNA New World IPA, the collaboration beer made by blending concentrated “essence of Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA” shipped over from Delaware with beer brewed at the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford. Continue reading

How long have English brewers been using American hops? Much longer than you think

How long have British brewers been using American hops? Far, far longer than you might have guessed: for around two centuries, in fact.

HopsThe earliest evidence I’ve collected so far of hops from the United States in England is from exactly 196 years ago: May 1817, when the Liverpool Mercury newspaper carried a notice of the arrival in the city of a ship from New York, the Golconda, carrying 417 bales of cotton, 319 barrels of flour, 1,322 barrels of turpentine – and two bags of hops. Rather more came across the Atlantic a few months later, in November, when two ships arrived, the Pacific from New York and the Triton from Boston, with cargos including 49 bales of hops and 30 bags of hops respectively. An even larger consignment, 185 bales (a bale being 200 pounds), arrived the following month, December, from Boston on board the ship Liverpool Packet.

Not coincidentally, these imports of hops from the United States were arriving in Britain right after the famous (to climatologists) Year Without a Summer of 1816, itself the result of the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history (with the possible exception of the putative proto-Krakatoa), when Mount Tambura in Indonesia blew up on April 10 1815 with a roar heard 1,600 miles away, sending 50 to 100 cubic kilometres of rock into the air and dumping tens of millions of tonnes of sulphur and ash into the stratosphere via a column of smoke and fumes 27 miles high, covering the northern hemisphere in a sulphate veil. Temperatures in North America and Europe dropped by as much as 3C for at least two years, rainfall rose by as much as 80 per cent, and agriculture was badly hurt.

The year after the eruption, the hop harvest in Britain, in particular, was hammered. Newspapers from September 1816 onwards engraved a picture of misery. The Hereford Journal reported that locally “the hops have nearly all been destroyed by the inclement season.” At Worcester fair, the Morning Post said, “there was not a pocket of new hops”. At Stourbridge Fair, just outside Cambridge, normally one of the country’s biggest hop marts, “the supply of hops was very small, not more than half a load.” In Farnham, Surrey, the hop cones were “uncommonly small”, and the harvest was set to be no more than a quarter of its usual size. At Weyhill fair in Hampshire in October just over 700 pockets of hops were on sale, down from 3,000 the previous year. Continue reading

The Graveney Boat, a hop history mystery

In the history of brewing in Britain, the Graveney Boat is an archaeological anomaly almost as great as finding the skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon warrior with a hole in his skull that could only have been made by a 17th-century musket ball.

The boat – actually a clinker-built cross-channel cargo vessel, reconstructed as some 44 feet (13.6 metres) long, 11 feet (3.4 metres) wide and just three feet  (one metre) in draught – was abandoned more than a thousand years ago. It was discovered in 1970 under six feet of soil, during the widening of the Hammond Drain, a silted-up ancient natural water course linking Graveney village, a small settlement near the coast between Faversham and Whitstable in Kent, with the Thames estuary.

Dendrochronology suggests the Graveney Boat was about 55 years old when it was abandoned, since it was built from oak timbers cut in the mid-890s, and it had apparently been left to settle into the mud some time close to 950AD. When archaeologists analysed the boat and its immediate area, searching in particular for plant remains, they found evidence that pointed strongly towards it having carried a cargo of hops.

The Graveney Boat being excavated in 1970

Yet at the time the boat was stuck up a Kentish creek, (at a period when there was still a separate Viking King of Northumbria, contending with the King of England), English brewers were not using hops to flavour their ale – or at least, there is no good evidence at all that they were doing so. Hops stay unmentioned in the history of English brewing (apart from one brief and almost equally mysterious pop-up in the 12th century, to which we will return) until the 1500s, almost 400 years later, when immigrant brewers from the Low Countries started making the upstart Continental hopped drink bere, a rival to unhopped traditional English ale. So why were there hops on board the Graveney cargo boat?

Continue reading

So what DID Pliny the Elder say about hops?

What did Pliny the Elder actually say about hops? Not what you’ve been told, probably – and quite possibly he said nothing about hops at all.

Thanks to the chaps at the Russian River brewery in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California, who named their extremely hoppy, strong “double IPA” after him, the Roman author, lawyer and military man Gaius Minor Plinius Caecilius Secundus, who died in AD 79 from a surfeit of scientific curiosity after getting too close to the exploding Mount Vesuvius, is now probably better known than at any time in the past 1,900 years.

Russian River named their beer Pliny the Elder because he is supposed to be the first person to mention hops in writing, in his great survey of contemporary human knowledge, Naturalis Historia. (They named an even hoppier, stronger “triple IPA” after his nephew and heir, Pliny the Younger.

The hop, from Leonhart Fuchs’s De historia stirpium commentarii insignes

But the plant that Pliny the Elder wrote about, which he said was called lupus salictarius (which translates as “wolf of the willows”, salix being the Latin for willow tree*) may not have been the hop: there’s certainly no completely convincing evidence in Pliny’s own writings to confirm that lupus salictarius and hops are the same thing.

The first person to identify Pliny’s lupus salictarius as the plant that Italians call lupulo, the Spanish lúpulo, Germans Hopfen and English-speakers hops seems to have been a 16th century Bavarian botanist called Leonhart Fuchs, in a book called De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, or Notable commentaries on the history of plants. But Fuchs (after whom, apparently, the fuchsia is named), had made a big effort to try to match up “modern” plants with those mentioned by classical authors, and may have made a mistake in deciding that lupulo was derived from, and identical with, Pliny’s lupus salictarius. At least one writer has suggested that the word lupulo, far from being derived from the earlier term, may simply be an Italian error for “l’upulo“, via the French for hop, houblon, and nothing to do with lupus salictarius.

What did Pliny actually say about lupus salictarius? He mentions it, briefly, in Book 21, chapter 50 of his Natural History, which is a short section about wild or uncultivated foods. After talking about the wild plants eaten in Egypt, he then says:
Continue reading

Two horsey beers and a short kipple

I know it's nothing to do with the beer, I just like the poster

I was lucky, I think, in having my first pint of Bengal Lancer IPA, Fuller’s latest offering, in the Prince Blucher in Twickenham, where it was in excellent condition: a couple of subsequent trials elsewhere in West London haven’t been quite as good, so to borrow an Americanism, “your mileage may vary.” But I don’t think I’ve ever made such lengthy tasting notes about any beer, a tribute in itself.

The first impression is of a BIG hit of hops on the nose, with passion fruit noticeable immediately. It’s a hop-filled mouthful, with a good oily feel, and one of those beers where you’ll find something different in every swallow. Indeed, teasing apart the different taste strands is one of the pleasures of Lancer: it’s a beer for sitting and appreciating. I was getting a hint of blackberry, something earthy in the background, peppermint, the “signature” Fuller’s orange note (though less strong than in many of their beers), all with honey maltiness underpinning the floral hops and a lovely long follow-through.

I’ve seen the beer criticised as being too sweet, but to me any apparent sweetness is more an artefact of the amount of “high note” hop flavour coming through that anything real, and while the emphasis is definitely on hop aroma rather than bitterness I found it ultimately quite dry: I’d be interested in seeing the attenuation figures. Certainly, if you watch the video available here from Fuller’s, the company’s brewing manager, Derek Prentice, implies it’s a well-attenuated brew.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A short history of hops

One of the great unanswered questions in the history of beer is why it took 9,000 years or so after brewing began for brewers to start using hops.

Today there are very few beers made without hops. They give beer flavour and, most importantly, they keep it from going off. The shelf life for unhopped ale can be as short as a fortnight or so before it starts to spoil and sour. Hopped beer can last for years. But it took many millennia for brewers to discover this, though they had been using a huge range of other plants to flavour their ale in the meanwhile: the bushy, aromatic moorland shrub bog myrtle, for example, the grassland weed yarrow, the hedgerow plant ground-ivy, even rosemary and sage.

The first documented link between hops and brewing comes from Picardy in Northern France, in 822, where Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in the Somme valley near Amiens, wrote a series of statutes on how the abbey should be run. The many rules covered areas such as the duties of the abbey’s tenants, which included gathering of firewood and also of hops – implying wild hops, rather than cultivated ones. Adalhard also said that a tithe (or tenth) of all the malt that came in should be given to the porter of the monastery, and the same with the hops. If this did not supply enough hops, the porter should take steps to get more from elsewhere to make sufficient beer for himself: “De humlone … decima ei portio … detur. Si hoc ei non sufficit, ipse … sibi adquirat unde ad cervisas suas faciendas sufficienter habeat.”

It is important that the Corbie statutes should link hops with beer brewing, because hops had other uses they might have been collected for: to make dyes, for example (brown dye from hop sap and yellow dye from the leaves and cones). The stems can also be used to make ropes, sacking and paper. Thus any mentions in old documents of hops being collected from the wild, or even cultivated, does not mean automatically that the hops were going into beer

But Adalhard’s statutes do not say whether the hops were being used to preserve the beer, or merely to flavour it (the way brewers today dry-hop their beers). Proof that hops were being used the way they are today, as a preservative, does not come for three more centuries, at another Benedictine establishment at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, in the Rhineland. About 1150, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), mystical philosopher and healer, published a book called Physica Sacra, which translates best as “The Natural World”. Book I, Chapter 61, “De Hoppho”, or “Concerning the hop”, says of the plant: “It is warm and dry, and has a moderate moisture, and is not very useful in benefiting man, because it makes melancholy grow in man and makes the soul of man sad, and weighs down his inner organs. But yet as a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer.”

By itself this does not prove hops were used in beer, just “in drinks” (in potibus in Hildegard’s original Latin). But in a later chapter, on the ash tree, the abbess wrote: “If you also wish to make beer from oats without hops, but just with grusz [gruit], you should boil it after adding a very large number of ash leaves. That type of beer purges the stomach of the drinker, and renders his heart [literally ‘chest’ or ‘breast’] light and joyous.” Clearly Hildegard knew about brewing beer with hops. The passage also suggests that Hildegard knew about boiling wort, without which just adding hops is not much help in keeping away “putrefactions”.

What probably kept the usefulness of hops from being discovered for so long is that the bittering, preserving resins in hop cones are not very soluble, and the hops need boiling for a long time, around 90 minutes, for what is called isomerisation – the physical change in the hop acids to a more soluble form of the molecule – to take place. Nobody would have boiled hops that long, and thus discovered the isomerisation, without a prior good reason (it takes a lot of fuel, a precious commodity when you have to gather wood by hand, to boil quantities of water for an hour and a half). How was it found out that a good long boil improved both the flavouring and the preserving ability of hops? One possibility is that a dyer, boiling hops to dye cloth, made the discovery that the dye water had a pleasant bitter taste, and told her friend the brewer. But this is just a guess.

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Hopping mad at bitter untruths

Actually, I’m not mad so much as grumpy and depressed, after reading an article by a beer writer I know and admire that contained this piece of nonsense about the hop:

In 1079, the Abbess Hildegarde of St Ruprechtsberg in Baden referred to the use if [sic] hops in beer.

No she blahdy didn’t, because as the American writer John P Arnold pointed out in 1911, when this error was already being repeated, the Abbess was not yet alive in 1079: she was born in 1098 and died in 1179, something that is very easy to check. And actually, as I wrote in Beer: The Story of the Pint six years ago, the Abbess didn’t talk about hops in beer, she talked about using hops “in potibus“, “in drinks”, to prevent putrefaction. And while there are several variants of the name of her religious settlement near Bingen, in Germany, the usual German version is Rupertsberg.

Unfortunately the internet is the most efficient method of disseminating bollocks ever invented, and what depresses me is that my attempts to stem the tide of inaccuracies are wrecked by people like the writer referred to above, and like Laurie Gilchrist of Crush, “Southwest Florida’s leading food and wine magazine” (fill in your own sarcastic comment here). Earlier this year Laurie wrote an article about hops now up on the net and ironically headlined “The Bitter Truth”, which is full of untruths about hops, picked up by Laurie out of whichever book or article he (?) plagiarised to write his piece and now stuck on the net for the next plagiariser to come along and steal and repeat. Laurie’s regurgitated errors include the following completely mistaken statements:

“The first recorded instance of hops being used in the making of beer was documented by Jewish slaves in Babylon around 400 B.C., who believed that the resulting drink was a cure for leprosy.”

No – this is a misunderstanding of something actually written in the 11th century AD, and the original plant referred to was not the hop, which would be at the very limit of its growing range in Babylon anyway.

” Hop plants have been cultivated since at least the 8th century.”

There’s no evidence for this at all, despite this claim being made frequently.

“The Germans began using hops to replace other beer additives in 1079 A.D.”

See above. Note how the original claim that something was talked about in a particular year has now become a claim that something actually began in a particular year. Why is Laurie Gilchrist so unthinking, or ignorant of history, to believe that we could possibly know exactly which year something like using hops began, especially since we’re talking about events that supposedly took place over a millennium ago?

“Medieval brewers in other European countries were skeptical about the hop plant, calling it a ‘wicked and pernicious weed’.”

I tried to kick this myth to death here, which is actually the top hit if you bother to Google “wicked and pernicious weed”.

“The English … deemed [beer] a ‘saucy intruder’ and the plant was even banned for use in brewing in some parts of that country.”

Another long-standing myth that I tried to squash here, which is the number two hit on Google for the words hops ban England. (I’m kept out of the number one searchslot by a commentary piece on the possible ending of the ban on liquids in containers over 100ml in aircraft passengers’ hand luggage, which uses “hop” as a verb.)

Anyway, to try to make myself feel better, I’ve stuck up Six More Myths About Hops in the “FAQ – False Ale Quotes” section of this blog, in the hope that future Laurie Gilchrists will Google first and write later. Some time in the next few hours I’ll also be putting up a short history of hops, which should give the plagiarisers something more accurate than most sources on the net to nick from.

Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

I just caught up with BBC 4′s Food Programme from last Sunday, which was about the British hop industry, and as a side issue, IPA in a couple or so of its current incarnations – there are just two days left before it disappears from the BBC website, so if you’re quick, and you’ve got RealPlayer or similar installed on your computer, you can catch it here (oh, and you have to be in the UK, or be able to fool the BBC’s website that you’re in the UK, or it won’t let you listen – sorry.)

Anyway, I though it was a fair treatment of the subject, with a quick scamper through what hops do for beer (flavouring and preserving – but you knew that), and interviews “in the field” with David Holmes, head brewer at Shepherd Neame; Tony Redsell, a Kentish hop grower; and Dr Peter Darby of the National Hop Collection at Queen Court Farm, near Faversham, who talked about the more than 300 different oils found in hops, and the different flavours that, singly and in combination, they bring to beer, from mint to passion fruit.

Back in the studio, the presenter, Sheila Dillon, talked to Roger Protz, and to Martin Dickie, brewer and co-owner of Brewdog Brewery. In a quick tasting, bottles were opened of Brewdog’s Punk IPA, made with Chinook and Ahtanum hops from the US and Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, and Atlantic IPA (which spent two months in cask on a fishing boat being rocked by North Atlantic waves and will cost you £10 a bottle), and, for contrast, Meantime Brewery’s IPA, flavoured with nothing but finest English Fuggles and Goldings. It was excellent to hear Sheila Dillon saying “Wow, that’s good!” as she tried the Punk IPA, and expressing surprise that, at 65 or 70 units of bitterness, twice as much (at least) as, say, a best bitter, it didn’t pucker your mouth, as Roger and Martin explained that this was because the bitterness was balanced by the alcohol, at 6.5 per cent by volume. Continue reading