How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong. Continue reading

Micropubs: revolution in the making or just five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space?

The micropub movement – numbers now past 40 and rising, with new examples seemingly opening every week – seems to have avoided any sort of critical backlash so far, probably because it’s still very, very tiny (like the pubs themselves). But I fear it won’t be long before a definition of “micropub” appears based on a TripAdvisor review of the “original” micropub, the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent: “Five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space”.

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

I say this as a card-carrying member of the Grumpy Old Man demographic myself, but that is the surprising aspect of the micropub “mini-boom” – it turns on its head every recently received wisdom about the way forward for the British pub, about how the wet-led boozer catering for old gits who are only interested in pints and chat is on its Last Orders, about how those pubs which fail to gastro-reinvent themselves are doomed to end up as supermarkets or blocks of flats.

The facts are, sadly, there to show that, across the board, places that stick to “LADs” – long alcoholic drinks – as their main attraction are putting up the shutters. It’s not just pubs: between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of social clubs in Britain fell by 417, or 3.1 per cent, a closure rate of eight a week (and with no help or hindrance from the pubcos, you’ll notice: you do NOT have to be a pubco tenants to find the current climate extremely chilly. ). But pubs are suffering, of course: over the same period, “wet-led” or drinkers’ pubs fell by almost 600, or 2 per cent, a rate of just over 11 a week. Many of those were town centre pubs, which are particularly feeling pain. Food-led pubs, meanwhile, nudged up slightly, from 11,334 to 11,357, while restaurants shot ahead, with a net gain for the year of 1,470 outlets. In other words, for every wet-led pub that closes, two and a half new restaurants open. That trend looks set to accelerate: between now and 2018 it has been predicted that the number of “wet-led” pubs will fall by 10 per cent, or about 2,900 boozers, while food-led pubs will increase in numbers by 7 per cent and restaurants by 5 per cent. (All figures from CGA Peach.)

Now, all the micropubs in Britain added together right now still don’t beat one month’s “wet-led” pub closures. But since a micropub – food-free, no keg offering, the sort of beer-only alehouse that was already disappearing before the Second World War, typically filled with unaccompanied men over 50, often in or near town centres – is a reversal of everything else happening in the pub market right now, we may eventually have to ask: “Is this just a few hobbyists, or have the big pub operators actually missed a trick?”

Indeed, the micropub movement looks to have produced its first home-grown entrepreneur, with James Mansfield, owner of the Medieval Beers brewery in Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, opening a third micropub under the name “Beer Shack”, in the town that shares his name, to follow the first two Beer Shacks in Hucknall and Burnley respectively.

Could this be the sign that micropubs are moving from what could, even a few months ago, be dismissed as an eccentric hobby into the mainstream of British hospitality? There are, apparently, so many people now looking to open a micropub themselves that the Micropub Association has declared that “the micropub revolution is going bonkers”, and put a warning on its website that “due to the sheer numbers of enquiries we get from potential micropub owners, we are unable to give you any individual advice [or] enter into individual email discussions regarding the viability of the setting up of your micropub.”

The Association has just restated its definition of what a micropub is, moving from a declaration that it had to be small, in size, a conversion of an existing premises, primarily selling real ale, with “NO lager whatsoever”, and filled with “lively banter and chat with no music”. Today the Association says that “a micropub is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

Is the micropub as a route to running your own pub business a threat to the traditional pubco tenancy? As the Micropub Association’s website points out, the would-be micropub landlord has a fair number of advantages over those looking to start up a “traditional” pub. The small size of a micropub means low costs and maximum use of space; no music means no costly music licences and no expensive sound system to pay for; no food means less work, fewer skills required, less space needed, no hygiene exams to pass, no additional costs because of the potentially expensive oversight by environmental health officials, and no “scores on the doors” rigmarole to deal with; no keg lagers or other keg beers means no complicated equipment and no need for bar space; the potential for low rates due to being rated as a shop rather than a pub; from that, low water rates, which are traditionally based on the rateable value; and if you keep turnover below £75,000 a year, the chance to save on 20% VAT. What’s not to like?

We won’t, I don’t think, be able to tell if the micropub movement really is a revolution or a fad until micropub numbers get into at least low triple figures, and we don’t see a rash of closures. But the fact that the movement has gone from a very slow start – the Butcher’s Arms opened in 2005, there were no more micropubs until 2009 and still only a dozen by the end of 2012 – to what looks like a (still small) rocket surge suggests that something extremely interesting may be happening.

How will it affect the rest of the pub business if micropubs really do become mainstream? Well, it could certainly cut back on the number of people looking to run a pubco tenanted pub, if they think they can start up a micropub all of their own for, probably, less money than acquiring a tenancy would cost. But a pub that takes in a year what the average JD Wetherspoon outlet takes in a fortnight is probably not going to worry too many big operators. And the big operators – and most other pubs – probably won’t be losing much business to the micropubs anyway, since the customers micropubs seem to be attracting look to be those who stopped going out to “ordinary” pubs 20 years ago, and stayed at home instead.

On the other hand, since the micropubs seem to be proving that there is a demographic out there which is not currently being served properly by the “mainstream” pub industry, and since new business is always welcome, it may be that big operators start to consider the advantages of running micropubs themselves. In just the way that Tesco, having captured the “big destination shop” supermarket sector, moved into town centres with smaller Tesco Metro stores to mop up what remained, could we see someone like Wetherspoon, having captured so many high streets, decide to move into the suburbs with a chain of “Spoons Local” micropubs?

(A variation of this article appeared on the Propel Info site)

How much is a pub worth? The Lib Dems don’t know

I don’t like people telling me what to do: very probably you are the same. I don’t just get angry at people telling me what to do: I also get angry when people try to tell other people what to do, arrogantly and without cause, people like James Watson, who holds the position of East London Pubs Preservation Officer for the Campaign for Real Ale.

I live in a nice Edwardian house that has a covenant in the original deeds which declares that it can never be used as licensed premises. Do you think that’s wrong? I think that’s wrong – it’s my house, and within the limits of the law, I should be able to do what I like with my own property. If I want to turn it into a freehouse called the Duck and Dive, then – provided I don’t inconvenience my neighbours more than is reasonable – that should be my right.

Turn that covenant on its head, and any major restriction on my right to do what I like with my property within the bounds of the law applies just as much – that is to say, if there were a covenant on this dwelling saying it could only ever be used as a pub, that it must be a pub for all time, that would be just as wrong. It’s mine, I own it – don’t tell me what to do with it.

James Watson, however, disagrees. A gentleman called Sandeep Johal has bought an old Victorian pub called the Prince Edward, in Wick Road, Hackney. I’ve never been in it, but from the outside it looks like a pretty typical East End boozer. Mr Johal wants to knock it down, and build a five-storey block of nine flats in its place. He owns it – it’s his property, and within the law, surely he should be permitted to do with it what he likes. Nine flats in Hackney – sit down now if you’re reading this outside London, but flats in E9 can go for anywhere between £500,000 and £750,000 each. I’d guess that even after the cost of acquisition and building, Mr Johal would be looking at a profit of £3 million or more, minimum. Is anyone going to pay him £3 million more than it cost him to acquire the Prince Edward, just to keep it open as a pub? Is he going to make £3 million in rent in any time under 30 years if it continues to run as a pub? (Clue – no, twice.)

Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters

Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters

Mr Watson says otherwise. He told the Hackney Citizen “The only reason [Mr Johal] wants to bulldoze this pub and build flats is for short term financial gain for himself” – James, you’re saying that as if it’s a bad thing – “at the expense of this community, and as a representative of a consumer rights organisation that champions responsible drinking, I think that stinks.” As a member of that same consumer rights organisation, and as a strong supporter of responsible drinking, I can’t see what either consumer rights or responsible drinking have to do with someone’s right to do with their own property what they want to.

According to the Hackney Citizen, Mr Watson then went off on a rant against hipsters, apparently based on the fact that the Prince Edward’s customers are largely working class and, in considerable part, of West Indian origin. The Citizen quotes Mr Watson as saying: “The problem with gentrified hipster Hackney is that you leave other people behind. You leave behind working class, dare I say poor, downtrodden people. [You may dare say, James, but I fear you sound like a pretentious, patronising prat for so daring] These are salt of the earth people who are not going to pay £5.50 for a bottle of craft beer. They want to be in a place where they recognise the food offering. Many of these people’s parents and grandparents have been coming here and marking their life events here for years. They are almost the forgotten people of Hackney, but these people are council tax payers and they have been here a lot longer than the hipsters.” There you are, Mr Johal: the rights of the people to eat sausage, egg and chips and drink cheap beer trump your right to do what you want with something you bought.

I love pubs, and I hate pub closures just as much as James Watson hates pub closures. (I quite like hipsters, though – I like the way they’ve brought the dimpled beer mug back into fashion.) I’m as sorry as James Watson is that the people of Hackney look like losing a place that has been a part of their lives since the 1860s. But the idea that because a building is or has been used as a pub, that makes it special and privileged, and deserving of protected status is nonsense. It’s just the same nonsense that saw the self-styled “pro-pub party”, the Liberal Democrats, pass a motion at their spring conference in York a couple of weeks ago under the title “A Better More Sustainable future for British pubs”, proposing to give pub tenants the right to buy their freehold at an independently assessed market value if their pub company puts the site on the market. But “market value” as what?

A premises might have a market value of £500,000 as a pub, since the returns on its usage as licensed premises would only support that valuation, but a value much more as a supermarket, if the returns on its use as a supermarket supported that value, and a value of millions if it was a suitable site for conversion into a block of flats. If the law the Lib Dems want brought in says the tenant can only buy his pub’s freehold at a price that reflects its higher value as a supermarket, or a block of flats, then if he buys it, he is going to struggle to cover his costs trying to run it as a pub. If, on the other hand, under the Lib Dem proposals, he can buy it at its value as a pub, but it is still worth more as a supermarket, or a block of flats, the first thing any smart tenant will do is flog the pub to Tesco, or a property developer, himself, thus (1) transferring hundreds of thousands of pounds of value from pubco to tenant and (2) still losing the “community” an “asset”. Is this really what the Lib Dems want?

The debate about “protecting” pubs from closure is conducted as if there were only a finite number of sites capable of ever being pubs, and every pub that becomes a supermarket, or a private home, or even a coffee bar means a permanent reduction in the number of pubs there could ever be. But this is total nonsense, of course: even in the days when it was much harder to open a new pub than it is now, Tim Martin, to name just one entrepreneur, was putting up his signboards on premises that had all sorts of previous uses: banks, cinemas, shops, post offices, and the rest. The same process is still going on, all around the country: the micropub movement, for example, has seen pubs open in premises that were formerly, to pick just a few examples at random, a butcher’s shop, an antiques shop, a taxi firm’s offices, a hairdresser’s, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a tattoo parlour, a kitchen showroom, a bookshop, a launderette, a bakery, a health food shop … you are, I’m sure, getting the picture. There are even a couple of micropubs opened up in premises that had been pubs originally, but which had closed 80 or 100 years ago. If the will, and the demand, is there, pubs can spring into being almost as easily as nail bars and tattoo parlours, kebab outlets and coffee shops.

Pubs don’t need their existence protecting by legislation because, as has been demonstrated hundreds of times over the past couple of decades alone, if the demand is there a pub will arise, and if the demand isn’t there, a pub will close. People get emotional when they read headlines that say “Village loses its last pub”, but almost every time the pub is closing because villagers aren’t using it in sufficient numbers – and if there really is genuine demand, there is little or nothing to stop a village entrepreneur opening a new pub, micro or otherwise, to replace the one that is closing. A pub is not an irreplaceable asset, the way a Norman church is.

If a pub is truly an “Asset of Community Value”, as defined by the Localism Act of 2011, then the community will be showing how much it values that asset by walking through the door and spending enough money every week to dissuade any pub owner from closing it. Truly thriving pubs, pubs that make more money as pubs than they would do as anything else, don’t need protection. It will be argued that many pubs would thrive without the overheads of the pubco on their backs: but this ignores the very considerable support, visible and invisible, the pub receives from the pubco, and the fact that any tenant buying a pub from a pubco won’t be getting that support and will now have the overheads of his new mortgage-provider on his back instead. It will be argued that some pubcos, desperate for money because their bondholders are putting the squeeze on, will sell even a thriving pub to a supermarket if it can get that quick hit of much-needed cash from the sale. But again, just as nobody will run a pub if they can make more from it as a supermarket, a supermarket operator isn’t going to run a supermarket in premises that would genuinely make more as a pub.

It will also be argued that in places like Hackney, the price of property is a threat to every pub, that the money to be made from redeveloping each and any pub site into blocks of $500k-a-pop flats means even the most thriving pub is in need of protection. That may be true, though I note that even around Oxford Street, where rents are truly shocking (this is no hyperbole – I saw a room full of experts literally gasp a couple of weeks ago at the news that the rent on an Oxford Street restaurant site was £2.3 million a year), pubs still manage to stay open. But I still don’t believe that if a building is a pub, it must be a pub for ever: I cannot see how somewhere that was operating as a nail bar, for example, suddenly becomes privileged because it has been turned into a pub. And I strongly believe that the only results of the Liberal Democrats’ new policy would be either to persuade some pub tenants suddenly able to buy the pub a pubco wants to sell to try to keep unviable pubs going at their own expense, with every likelihood of failure, or to rob pub owners of much of the value of their pubs and hand it to tenants for nothing, while still ending up with a closed pub.

(Parts of this rant appeared on the Propelinfo.com site on March 14 2014)

Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

Imperial stout blurredIs Fuller’s Imperial Stout the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months? It didn’t stir a lot of enthusiasm when it appeared last autumn: much muttering about the beer being too sweet, very little character, “a bit anonymous”, not drinking to its 10.7 per cent abv, not worth its £7-plus a bottle, not worth buying again. An air of disappointment settled down around it, a feeling that an Imperial Stout from the Griffin brewery, with its reputation for terrific tasty brews, really ought to have been much more of a sock-fryer than this beer was.

Fair? I tried the Imperial Stout myself when it first came out in September (IIRC it was a free bottle actually given to me by John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer) and yes, it was over-sweet and shallow. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though: this was a strong, dark, bottle-conditioned beer that had only been brewed four months earlier, and was barely out of the maturing tanks. To expect it to be anything other than one-dimensional at that age was like expecting a still-sopping newborn to show the depth and maturity of a 40-year-old. There was no reason to think this beer would not improve considerably as it aged, and the yeasts in the bottle munched away at those heavier sugars that were currently making it taste so sweet. So, feeling flush just before Christmas, I invested in a case, to see if this ugly duckling would turn into a black swan.

My feelings had been strengthened when John Keeling himself tweeted in November about the Imperial Stout: “Hang on to it – it will be better in 6 months”. That’s this coming May, at which stage it will be a year old. But how’s it tasting now? Already a lot better than it was in September, is my opinion. It’s still sweet, but there’s a complexity starting to appear, with thoughts of liquorice toffee, golden syrup and plain chocolate digestive biscuits. (Rose buds? If you say so.) There is still little hint that you are drinking a 10.7 per cent abv brew, but it’s a very smooth sipping beer with a full, slightly peppery mouthfeel. It’s also a beer that needs to breathe a bit, at least at this stage of its ageing: the complexity becomes more apparent the longer the beer is in your glass. It’s also still clearly, to me, a beer that will happily benefit from yet more time being left alone in a darkened room.

If you have a bottle of Fuller’s Imperial Stout, my advice is not to open it until at least the end of May – and I don’t think it will do you or the beer any harm to wait until November. If you have two bottles, try one this April or May and the other next April or May. If you’ve been put off buying it by the bad reviews in some places, I’ll tell you what: buy two bottles, drink one in May, if you don’t like it, I’ll buy the other one off you.

The big problem has been, I think, that we’re not used to beers that don’t deliver their best as soon as we buy them. We understand ageing in other foods: cheese, for example, or meat. I know a restaurant in Hong Kong, the Blue Butcher in Hollywood Road, Central, that has a glass-walled meat store lined with Himalayan pink salt bricks, visible from the tables, where you can ask for your own personal virgin female Japanese wagyu beef steak to be dry-aged for an extra six weeks until it and you are ready. But we’re not yet up to walking into a bar and saying: “I’d like an Imperial Stout, please, aged for another nine months: I’ll be back in December to drink it.” Instead, brewers have been mostly ageing their beers that require ageing for us – Fuller’s keeps some of its Brewer’s Reserve series literally for years before releasing them on to the market when they’re ready. With Imperial Stout it didn’t, to the confusion of many.

Another problem, for some, is the price: £7 a bottle on the Fuller’s website right now. That’s the same as three bottles of Chiswick bitter. But it’s no coincidence that a bottle of 10.7% abv Imperial Stout contains the equivalent amount of alcohol as those three bottles of 3.5% abv Chiswick: you’re getting just the same alcoholic bang per penny whichever you buy. Which gives you more pleasure, only you can reveal.

More great lost Guinness art: new evidence for the genius of Gilroy

If we didn’t already know John Gilroy, creator of so much iconic beer advertising, was a genius, then the latest images to surface from the mysterious “lost” art archive of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson would surely convince us: marvellous pastiches of other iconic works of art, sadly unseen for the past 60 or so years.

I’ve already talked here about the mysterious stash of 800 or more pieces of Gilroy advertising artwork that disappeared, existence unknown to Guinness experts, on the sale of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson in 1971, and how items from the collection began to turn up for sale on the American market from 2008 onwards. These are oil paintings, done by Gilroy to be shown to Guinness for approval: if approved, a final painting would then be made which the printers would use to make the posters. Now they are being sold by a couple of art dealers in the United States on behalf of their anonymous possessor for tens of thousands of dollars each. It has been estimated that the 350 or so paintings sold so far have gone for a total of between $1 million and $2 million.

Van Gogh by John Gilrou

‘I’d give my right ear for a pint of stout’

Much of the stuff that has been turning up was never actually used in advertising campaigns, for various reasons. There was a series of posters featuring Nazi imagery, for example, commissioned from Gilroy because Guinness was thinking of exporting to Germany in 1936.

This week, David Hughes, who has written an excellent just-published book, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, about Gilroy that includes some 120 reproductions of artwork from the “lost” stash, gave a talk at the St Bride’s Institute in London on Gilroy and Guinness. During the talk he revealed that he had recently been shown something new from the Benson collection, too late to include in his book – a series of 21 takes by Gilroy on “Old Master” paintings, copies with a Guinness twist  of works by painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Michaelangelo, that had been commissioned in 1952 with the intention that they would hang in the Guinness brewery at Park Royal in London. They were never used, however, and instead ended up hidden in the SH Benson archive, vanished from (almost all) human ken.

Picasso by Gilroy

From Picasso’s ‘Brown (stout)’ period …

Now the paintings are on sale as part of the general disposal of the Benson Gilroy collection, they are being swiftly grabbed by eager collectors with thick wallets: the “Michaelangelo” went for $20,000. I would love to own the “Van Gogh” – somehow Gilroy has captured the essence of the mad Dutchman’s art even as he subverted it with a bottle of Guinness on the chest and a pint of stout on the chair – a humorous homage, done, I am sure, with love and affection. Note Gilroy’s signatures on that and the “Picasso” – cheeky takes on the originals.

A few others are in the “great but not fantastic” category, but the “Toulouse-Lautrec” really does look as if little Henri himself had been commissioned to design an ad for la fée noire. I haven’t seen any of the other 21 apart from those here, but they would have made a superb series of advertising posters, and would be as much loved now, I am sure, as Gilroy’s toucans, sea lions and men with girders. It’s a huge pity they never went into proper production. (Some of the reproductions on this page – the obviously rubbish ones – are from photos taken by me off the giant screen David Hughes was using at the talk, subsequently poorly “tweaked” in Photoshop – my apologies, but I thought you’d be more interested in at least seeing something now of these marvellous illustrations than waiting an unknown time until you could see them reproduced perfectly.)

In the audience for the talk was Edward Guinness, 90 this year, the last member of the family to hold an executive position on the Guinness board, and a man to whom brewery historians owe a huge debt: it was while Edward was chairman of the Brewers’ Society that the Society commissioned Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson to write their mammoth history of brewing in Britain from 1830 to 1980, a massive resource. He also helped ensure Guinness the company supplied the money to make John Gilroy’s last few months comfortable, after it emerged that the artist who had done so much to promote the Guinness brand was seriously ill and could not afford private health care. It appears that David Hughes is helping Edward Guinness write his reminiscences – bugger, that’s another Guinness book I’m going to have to buy.

Michaelangelo by Gilroy

The ceiling of the Sistine Saloon Bar – don’t you love the strategically placed shamrock?

Millais by Gilroy

Gilroy’s take on John Everett Millais’s Boyhood of Raleigh of 1871: “Sod the potato, bring the world stout!’

Mondrian by Gilroy

Piet Mondrian’s hugely influential ‘Composition in Black and White’, painted after his death in 1944

Vermeer by Gilroy

Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pint of Guinness”

Toulouse-Lautrec by Gilroy

Henri ‘Half-Pint’ Toulouse-Lautrec advertises Guinness in the Paris of the 1890s

Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth

Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):

“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,

“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign [1237], were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”

The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.

St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen

But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.

She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”

In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”

Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.

Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that

“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”

The well on Ockley Green, DorkingSo: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.

On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.

The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.

Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging

Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

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