A three-threads thread

Corrected June 20 2008 to adjust for more accurate information – see this post.

The economic values displayed on eBay sometimes bemuse me. Last October a copy of the first, 1974, edition of the Good Beer Guide went after frenzied bidding from what I assume were completists wanting to own a full set of GBGs, for a frankly breathtaking £310 – not bad for something that cost 75p when it was published 33 years ago. Yet a couple of months ago I was able to buy on eBay one of the most important documents in the history of brewing, a genuine example of The Gentleman’s Magazine dated November 1760, for just £20.

The reason why this edition is so valuable to brewing historians is because it plagiarises large parts of a long letter written in a rival publication, the London Chronicle, in the same month by someone calling himself “Obadiah Poundage” on “The History of the London Brewery” (“brewery” used here in the 18th century sense of “brewing industry. , but with one small yet very significant difference.

In the London Chronicle version of the letter, Poundage, talking about the brews consumed in London between the years 1710 and 1722, wrote:
“Some drank mild beer and stale mixed, others ale, mild beer and stale blended together at threepence per quart, but many used all stale at fourpence per pot.”
However, The Gentleman’s Magazine‘s version of this sentence reads:
“Some drank mild beer and stale, others what was then called three-threads [my emphasis] at 3d a quart; but many used all stale at 4d a pot.”

Both versions of tThe letter then goes on to say that around 1722 London’s brewers developed “a method … preferable to any of these extremes” of brewing a beer that would keep until it was “mellow” rather than “stale” (that is, “stale” meaning beer that had stood long enough to become tart and acidic, like a Belgian Oud Bruin, not the sense of “off” than we mean by the word “stale” today). This beer was sold by the publicans at three pence a quart, and it eventually became popular with “porters”, “whence came its appellation of porter“.

This is, to my knowledge, the first mention of three-threads in a narrative concerning the development of porter. You might feel justified in inferring from the alteration The Gentleman’s Magazine made to the London Chronicle‘s narrative, that three-threads was identical to Poundage’s “ale, mild beer and stale blended together”. Later narratives have given different versions of what was supposed to have gone into three-threads: John Feltham in 1802, in a guidebook called The Picture of London, said it was “a third of ale, beer and twopenny”, twopenny being strong pale ale. John Tuck’s The Private Brewer’s Guide to the Art of Brewing Ale and Porter, published in 1822, said three-threads was something different again, “a mixture of stale, mild and pale” – and also said it sold for four pence a quart.

Feltham claimed that porter was devised to give “the united flavours of ale, beer and twopenny” and thus be a substitute for three-threads, “to avoid [the] trouble and waste” of publicans having “to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor”. Although almost everybody writing about porter since 1802 has repeated Feltham’s story, the idea that porter was a straight replacement for three-threads is not an inference that can be drawn from Poundage’s narrative, which says clearly that porter drove out all three types of drink popular in alehouses in Queen Anne’s time (mild beer and stale mixed; ale, mild beer and stale mixed; three-threads; and stale on its own) nor is it supported by what John Tuck said about the history of porter.

Unfortunately the only contemporary mention of three-threads I know of, in an anonymous rhyming guide to the pubs of London written around 1718 called The Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms (probably composed by the London tavern keeper and poet Edward “Ned” Ward), does not describe what the drink was made from, but says, under the entry for the Hole in the Wall pub, Hatton Garden:
“Joyous and glad, thy trade increasing see
and daily broach full casks of Threads call’d Three.”
The easiest interpretation of these lines is that three-threads came in full casks for dispensing straight away, rather than having to be mixed by the alehousekeeper or potboy in the tankard from three separate casks. (Though it’s possible, I’d concede, that Ward might have been wishing for them to have the happiness of actual casks full of three-threads, supplied ready-made, instead of the tedious reality of needing to mix it fresh every time it was ordered.)

The truth is, therefore, that we don’t really know what three-threads was, though the best guess, judging by the alteration The Gentleman’s Magazine made to Obadiah Poundage’s letter, which must have been done with some knowledge of what was served in alehouses 40 years before, is that it was a mixture of ale, mild beer and stale. For an excellent discussion of exactly what those terms meant, see this blog by Ron Pattinson (to whom thanks for inspiring me to write this), and for a thorough and illuminating discussion of Poundage’s letter, and different versions of it, I cannot recommend highly enough (and not just because he quotes me, nice man) the draft doctorial thesis by James Sumner, lecturer in history of technology at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), University of Manchester, to be found here in pdf form.

(Oh, and yes, I’m a sad GBG completist too, but a smug one, because my copy of the ’74 edition cost me £10. Admittedly it’s a copy number 465 of the (actually rarer) 1996 reprint, done to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of Camra, though my copy of the 1975 edition, the only one I didn’t have, was given to me for nothing a couple of years ago by a mate, rather than costing the £100-plus even the second edition of the guide fetches on eBay …)

2 thoughts on “A three-threads thread

  1. That would be the 1979 edition with drinkers outside Chris Holmes’s Old King’s Arms in Newark – Chris, of course, one of at least two ex-Camra chairman to go into running pub companies, is now boss of the Tynemill pub chain in the East Midlands, which also owns the Castle Rock brewery in Nottingham, a fine example of the sort of “reverse vertical integration” (as we holders of MBAs like to say) that happened several times in the Midlands in the 19th century, with owners of pub groups buying their supplier …

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