The patron saint of English brewers

The patron saint of brewers is usually given as St Arnold of Flanders or his near-namesake St Arnould, bishop of Metz. But English brewers have their own (unofficial) saint: Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated in the 12th century in his own cathedral by four knights acting on the supposed instructions of King Henry II.

Thomas Becket, martyr, saint and brewer

Thomas was born in or about 1118 – quite probably on December 21, St Thomas the Apostle’s Day – in a house in Cheapside, London, between streets that are today called Ironmonger Lane and Old Jewry. His father, Gilbert, a wealthy former merchant and property owner, was born in the village of Thierville in Normandy. Whether Becket was the family name, or a nickname given to Thomas, sources disagree: in his own lifetime Thomas called himself “Thomas of London”. (The style Thomas à Becket, incidentally, seems not to have been used until after the Reformation).

In 1139 Theobald of Bec, who was also from the Thierville area, became Archbishop of Canterbury, and his patronage undoubtedly helped the young Thomas of London. However, the 13th century historian Matthew Paris, a monk at St Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire, said Thomas was given his first post in the Church by the Abbot of St Alban’s, Geoffrey de Gorron (or Gorham). Geoffrey supposedly made the young Thomas the priest at St Andrew’s church, Bramfield, a small village about five miles north of Hertford, an appointment some historians say took place in or around 1142.

While at Bramfield, its village historians claim, Thomas brewed ale using water from the old vicarage pond. This was described in the 19th century as “a little bricked-in muddy pond in the vicarage farmyard”, and it is still known as Becket’s pool or Becket’s pond. If this sounds unhygenic (particularly as tradition also says Becket and his monks used to wash in the pool), using pond water to brew ale and beer was a very common practice. The farmer-diarist John Carrington, whose son ran the Rose and Crown at the nearby village of Tewin, took water from his farm pond at Bramfield to make his harvest ale with as late as 1800. The village clerics also drank home-brewed ale for hundreds of years – one history of Bramfield says the vicar still brewed his own beer until the 19th century.

Unfortunately for Bramfield, other sources put Thomas as a student in Paris from the mid-1130s or so until around 1140 or 1142, not in Hertfordshire. After that, it is said, he was then working in London as a clerk for a kinsman with the wonderful name of Osbert Huitdeniers, or Eightpence. Osbert seems to have been what passed in the 12th century as a banker. By 1146 Thomas had won a place in the household of Archbishop Theobald as a clerk, presumably through his father Gilbert’s Thierville connections (Gilbert had apparently, by this time, lost all his wealth, possibly in a fire). As evidence in favour of the Bramfield connection, however,, shortly before Thomas was killed in the cathedral at Canterbury, he is said to have reminded the then Abbot of St Alban’s that it was his monastery that gave the Londoner his first “honour”, the “ecclesiola” (“little church)” at Bramfield, when he was young and poor.

It is quite possible Thomas was given the appointment, and with it the priestly income, when he was working for Theobald, but a deputy stood in for him to perform the actual duties of the priest at Bramfield. On the other hand, after Thomas’s assassination, when he was made a saint, a Saxon well at Bramfield church was renamed the Holy Well of St Thomas, and attracted pilgrims for its reputed healing powers, again suggesting a close connection between the saint and the village.

In 1154, after six or more years in Theobald’s service, Thomas was appointed by the Archbishop as Archdeacon of Canterbury, a post worth around £100 a year. This was a substantial sum in 12th century England and showed that Thomas, now in his mid-30s, was highly regarded by the Archbishop. His new post did not last long, and he had clearly impressed the right people: just a few months later the newly crowned Henry II, then only 21,pulled Thomas from the Archbishop’s staff and made him Chancellor, one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom.

For eight years Henry and Thomas worked together, developing a close friendship. At one point, in 1158, Thomas visited France on Henry’s behalf to demand the hand of the French king’s daughter for the English king’s eldest son (who was only three – though the sought-after bride herself was just a few months old). Thomas took with him a deliberately extravagent cavalcade designed to proclaim the glories of England. It included 250 footmen singing anthems in English, 28 packhorses bearing gold and silver plate, English-bred mastiffs, greyhounds and hawks, grooms holding monkeys dressed in English livery and, according to a widely-quoted passage supposedly from a contemporary chronicler, two chariots “laden solely with iron-bound barrels of ale, decocted from choice, fat grain, as a gift for the French, who wondered at such an invention, a drink most wholesome, clear of all dregs, rivalling wine in colour and surpassing it in flavour”.

The passage is significant in suggesting that ale before hops could travel, and could keep the fortnight or more it must have taken in the 12th century to get from England to the French king’s court. It also shows that, on special occasions at least, ale casks were hooped with metal.

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The Hunting of the Stout

In February 1961, 47 years ago, Guinness paid the London brewer Watney Combe Reid £28,000 – equivalent to more than £400,000 today – to discontinue brewing its Reid’s Stout. It was part of the Irish firm’s drive to put its newly perfected nitrogen-serve Draught Guinness into as many pubs as possible: Watney’s also had a draught “container stout”, presumably using the keg system that powered Red Barrel, and the Dublin boys were happy to pay to eliminate this potential rival.

Reid’s, whose original brewery was in the aptly named Liquorpond Street, near Hatton Garden, before it merged with Watney and another London firm, Combe’s of Covent Garden, had been one of the great stout brewers of the 19th century, The journalist Alfred Barnard wrote in 1889: “Who has not heard of Reid’s stout? And what better accompaniment to a dozen of oysters could be found?”

With the demise of Reid’s, and all the other once-famous stout brewers of England’s capital, such as Meux, which once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the title of “sole big stout brewer” fell to Guinness.

Effectively, the only sort of stout still brewed in England was the sweet Mackeson-style version that had become popular in the 20th century. London’s formerly enormous role as a centre for brewing the original, 19th century-style, stout became forgotten, so that Michael Jackson could assert, in his first Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1982,

English stouts are sweet … Irish stouts are dry.”

Surviving English stouts were, in 1982, pretty much in the sweet Mackeson-type style only. That certainly hadn’t been true 20 or 30 years earlier.

But if Watney’s had turned down the Irish brewer’s money in 1961, and Reid’s had continued as a rival to Guinness, a living example of the beers once made by all the biggest London brewers, would we, today, be talking about “Irish stout” as the synonym of not-sweet stout? Is there actually such a thing as “Irish stout”? Would Guinness and Reid’s not be known as two examples of “stout”, geography unstated? If a tighter description were needed, to differentiate the Mackesons from those stouts not made with unfermentable lactic sugars, should it not be the retronym “dry stout”, to include all the English versions alas, no longer with us?

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Stout v Porter: a northern perspective

What does it tell you about the world that if you want to access the electronic archives of The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of the planet’s great campaigners for raw capitalism, you can do so for free, via your local council’s website; but if you want to access the electronic archives of The Guardian, spiritual home of soggy left-wing whingers and anti-enterprise social workers, you have to pony up £7 a pop?

I was doing some research for a piece I was being paid for the other day, however, so that £7 could be claimed as “expenses”, and in the 24-hour window The Guardian allows you to rummage around in its archival drawers for the equivalent cost of three pints of ale I ran some searches on beery terms in pre-1850 editions.

The paper then, of course, was the Manchester Guardian, and its advertisements reflected its Manchester base and the demands and availabilities of the Manchester market. Burton ale, for example, which could be shipped from Staffordshire to Lancashire by canal from 1771, is advertised from the beginning: in June 1821, just a month after the newspaper was founded, Nightingale and Worthy were advertising on the front page “excellent SCOTCH and BURTON ALES, in bottles and small casks, for families”.

This is, incidentally, the year before the Burton brewers had their Russian market taken away from them by the introduction of prohibitively high import duties. The move by the Russians prompted the Burtonites to turn to the Indian market instead, by imitating the pale ale then being successfully exported to the East by Hodgson’s brewery in Bow, Middlesex; it also forced them to pay more attention to the home market,

According to J Stevenson Bushnan, writing in Burton and its Bitter Beer, published in 1853, the collapse of the Russian market led Samuel Allsopp in March 1822 to advertise the beer he could no longer sell to the Baltic in a circular delivered around the UK, and “the effect of this circular was the introduction of Burton Ale to the London and English market … immediately after the issue of this circular ‘Burton Ale houses’ sprang up.”

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The forgotten story of London’s porters

It’s a mark of the low status given to working class history that the role in London’s life and economy played by the city’s thousands of street and river porters, the men who gave their name to the beer, is almost completely forgotten, only 70 or so years after the last of the porters died.

Almost no modern books on the history of London mention the Ticket Porters and their rivals the Fellowship Porters, not even Weinreb and Hibbert’s 1,000-page London Encyclopedia (which does, however, manage to mangle a nonsensical story about ale conners and the Tiger pub at the Tower of London).

The exception is Peter Earle’s A City Full of People, subtitled Men and Women of London 1650-1750, published in 1994, which leans for its scholarship about the subject on Walter Stern’s The Porters of London, written in 1960.

This lack of general knowledge about the people who played an irreplaceable role in London’s economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries, one that was the equivalent of white van delivery driver, motorcycle courier and postman rolled into one, meant confusion for beer writers in the 1970s when they came to write about porter the drink.

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