Pea beer

The jokes write themselves with this one, so I’m going to try to keep it as straight as possible: brewing with peas is an ancient tradition, going back at least 400 years in Britain, and it still takes place in Lithuania, the United States and Japan.

There are no peas, I believe, in Eye Pea Ay

The earliest mention I have found for peas in beer is from Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, published in London in 1615:

Now for the brewing of the best March Beer, you shall allow to a Hogshead thereof a quarter [eight bushels] of the best Malt well ground, then you shall take a Peck [a quarter of a bushel] of Pease, half a peck of Wheat, and half a peck of Oats and grind them all very well together, and then mix them with your Malt …

This, Markham said, would make “a Hogshead of the best and a Hogshead of the second, and half a Hogshead of small beer, without any augmentation of Hops or Malt.” Even though the hop rate was just a pound a barrel, the strong beer, brewed in March or April, “should (if it have right ) have a whole year to ripen in”, Markham said, and “it will last two, three, or four years if it lye cool; and endure the drawing to the last drop.” That is probably more down to the strength of the beer – at some five and a half bushels of fermentables per barrel, the alcohol per volume was quite likely north of 11 per cent – than any magic the peas brought to the brew.

A few words about the word “pea”, incidentally: it began as “pease”, singular, with “peasen” the plural. By the 15th century “pease” was often being used as both the singular and plural, and as a “mass noun”, like rice or malt. Eventually , by the 17th century, “pease” was misanalysed as the plural of a singular “pea”. “Pease” and “peasen” survive today only in “pease pudding” and in place names such as Peasenhall in Suffolk.

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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.

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