The three-threads mystery and the birth of porter: the answer is …

A Sot RampantOne of the biggest mysteries in the history of beer concerns a drink called three-threads, and its exact place in the early history of porter. Three-threads was evidently a mixed beer sold in the alehouses of London in the time of the last Stuart monarchs, William III and his sister-in-law Anne, about 1690 to 1714. For more than 200 years, it has been linked with the development of porter: but the story that said porter was invented to replace three-threads was written eight decades and more after the events it claimed to record, and the description that the “replaced by porter” story gave of three-threads early in the 19th century does not match up with more contemporary accounts of the drink from the late 17th century.

So what exactly was three-threads? Well, I now believe that enough people have dug out enough information that we can make a firm and definitive statement on that.

It was a tax fiddle.

To understand what was going on, you need to know that from the time when taxes were first imposed on beer and ale, in 1643, during the English Civil War, and for the next 139 years the excise authorities recognised only two strength of beer and ale for tax purposes: “small”, defined as having a pre-tax value of six shillings a barrel, and “strong”, defined as having a value of more than 6s a barrel. To begin with, the tax represented only a tiny proportion of the retail cost, at less than a tenth of a penny a pint for strong drink and not even two tenths of a penny per gallon for the small stuff. But in 1689, when William III of the Netherlands and his cousin, wife and co-ruler Mary had arrived in Britain and pushed Mary’s father James II off the throne, the need to pay for the “war of the British succession” and the continuing Nine Years’ War against Louis XIV of France saw the duty on beer and ale bounced upwards, from two shillings and sixpence a barrel to 3s 3d. The following year, 1690, the tax was doubled, to 6s 6d a barrel on strong ale and beer, more than a farthing a pint, when strong liquor retailed at a penny-ha’penny a pint, or 3d a quart “pot”. The rise in the tax on small drink was proportionate, to 1s 6d a barrel, but still the total tax on small beer and ale equalled only a half-penny a gallon.

The flaw in the system was that extra-strong beer or ale paid the same tax as “ordinary” or “common” strong beer. Unscrupulous brewer, and retailers, could therefore – and did – take a barrel of extra-strong beer and two of small beer, on which a total of 7s 3d of tax had been paid, mix them to make three barrels each equal in strength to common strong beer, which should have paid tax of 14s 3d in total, and save themselves 2s 4d a barrel in tax. This may have been equal to only a fifth of a penny a pot, or thereabouts, but it was still 6% or so extra profit. (Incidentally, for those of you new to this, “ale” at the time meant a drink with less hops in, and generally stronger, than “beer”.)

The excise authorities were certainly wise to this fiddle, and laws banning the mixing of different strengths of worts or beers were passed by Parliament in 1663 and again in 1670-1, 1689, 1696-97 and 1702, with (in William III’s time) a fine of £5 per barrel so mixed. That certainly did not stop people. Some time between 1698 and 1713, on the internal evidence, a manuscript was written, now in the Lansdowne collection in the British Library, titled An account of the losse in the excise on beer and ale for severall yeares last paste, with meanes proposed for advanceing that revenue. It was probably produced by an anonymous Excise or Treasury official, because he had access to official tax data from 1683 to 1698, and it gives a fascinating account of the prices and likely strengths of beers and ales at the time. “Very Small Beer” retailed pre-tax at 3s a barrel, and paid (since 1693) 1s 3d a barrel tax. “Common Strong Beer and Ale”, made from “four Bushells of mault” – suggesting an original gravity of 1075 to 1085 – sold for 18s a Barrel and paid, at the time, 4s 9d a barrel tax. “Very Strong Beer or ale the Barrell being the Strong from 8 Bushells”, suggesting a huge original gravity, perhaps north of 1160, sold for £3 a barrel, but still paid the same 4s 9d a barrel tax as common strong beer or ale.

The fact that very strong brews paid the same tax as “common standard strong drinke” had “begot a kind of trade of Defrauding”, the anonymous author wrote, and he declared that “the notion thereof and Profitt thereby” of mixing very strong ale or beer with small beer and selling it as common strong ale or beer “has been of late & now is generally knowne”, and “the traders therein have turned themselves more and more to the practice of Brewing it,” “very strong Drinke being now Commonly a parte of the Brewers Guiles, and the whole of many who Brew nothing else.” The result, he said, was that “the Consumption of it is everywhere, which you have under several odd names, as Two Threades, 3 Threades, Stout or according as the Drinker will have it in price, from 3d. to 9d. the quarte.”

A Sot CouchantThat “3 threades” was a mixture of ordinary small ale or beer and very strong beer is confirmed by a publication called The Dictionary of the Canting Crew by “BE” (the “canting crew” being those who spoke in “cant”, or slang), published around 1697/1699. This called three-threads “half common Ale and the rest Stout or Double Beer”: both “stout” and “double beer” meant “extra-strong beer”, while “common ale” was the same as table ale or small ale, and brewed at one and a half bushels of malt to the barrel, giving an OG of around 1045. Mix a beer that was perhaps 10 or 11 per cent alcohol by volume with one that was only 4.5 per cent or so, and you’ll have a beer of around 7.5 per cent or so, of course, about the same strength of common strong ale: but one that gave the retailer a better profit that “entire gyle” strong beer did, because it had paid less tax.

In 1697 a tax on malt was introduced alongside the taxes on the finished product, at the bizarre-looking rate of six pence and sixteen 21sts of a penny a bushel. (My best guess on that odd sum is that it works out to not quite 4s 6d a quarter – but six pence and five eighths of a penny a bushel is 4s 6d a quarter exactly, so why the approximately 2% difference? If anyone has a good answer to this conundrum, I’d be grateful …) For the first time, the country’s very large number of private household brewers had to pay tax, if they bought their malt from commercial maltsters, while brewers were also now paying more tax when they brewed extra strong beer than when they brewed “common” strong beer, because of the extra (taxed) malt used. But even on double beer at eight bushels to the barrel, that only came out to around three farthings per gallon more tax, and it failed to stop brewers continuing to cheat the revenue by mixing small drink with extra-strong. A disgruntled former General Surveyor of Excise, Edward Denneston, “Gent”, who had been involved in inspecting breweries since at least the early 1680s, wrote what amounted to a 40-page rant in 1713 with the unsnappy title A Scheme for Advancing and Improving the Ancient and Noble Revenue of Excise upon Beer, Ale and other Branches to the Great Advantage of Her Majesty and the general Good of her Subjects. It claimed that the brewing profession had become rich solely because of the “Frauds, Neglects and Abuses” practised by the brewers to the detriment of the country’s tax take. Brewers, he said, were “Vermine … that eat us up alive” and he told them he wished them “all boiled in your own brewing Cauldrons, or drowned in your own Gile Tunns”.

Denneston was a man with a grievance: he claimed that when he was a General Surveyor of Excise in London, he had spent several hundred pounds of his own money uncovering fiddles at the royal brewhouse in St Katharine’s, by the Tower, which brewed beer for the navy. One such fraud cost the government £18,000 a year, and he had been promised a reward by the House of Commons for stopping it, which, he said, he had never received. He also claimed that the country was losing £200,000 a year in unpaid tax – equivalent, in relative terms, to more than £4 billion today – because of the wider fiddles practised by brewers and publicans, and declared: “before there was a Duty of Excise laid upon Beer and Ale, it was not known any Brewer ever got so much by his Trade as what is now call’d a competent Estate; but since a Duty of Excise was laid upon Beer and Ale, nothing is more obvious, amazing and remarkable, than to see the great Estates many Brewers in and about the City of London have got, and are daily getting.” This, he said, was because “the Brewers in general, ever since there was a Duty upon Beer and Ale, have been more or less guilty of defrauding that Duty in several Methods,” including bribing the excise officers (in October 1708, “T– J–, Brewer” was put on trial at the Old Bailey for allegedly giving 40s a week to four officers of the excise to ignore his mixing of small beer with strong, though he was found not guilty), illegally brewing with molasses rather than malt , like the brewer “lately and remarkably in Southwark”, who was “fined several Hundred Pounds, for using of Molossas in his Beer and Ale”, and, in particular, avoiding the tax on strong beer and ale by mixing extra-strong drink with small.

One such fiddle Denneston claimed to have uncovered when he was working for the Revenue in London as General Surveyor involved the publican at the Fortune of War in Well Close, Goodman’s Fields, just to the east of the Minories, and on the edge of the City. Denneston said that while visiting Well Close on official business, he spotted a sign outside the pub which said: “Here is to he Sold Two Thrids, Three Thrids, Four Thrids, and Six Thrids.” “My Curiosity up on this Subject, led me into the House,” Denneston said. “I call’d for my Host, desir’d to know what he meant by the several sorts of Thrids ? He answer’d, That the meaning was, Beer at Twopence, Threepence, Fourpence, and Sixpence a Pot, for that he had all sorts of Drink, and as good as any in England; upon which I tasted all the four sorts, and found they were all made up by Mixture, and not Beer intirely Brew’d ; upon which I order’d the Surveyor of that Division to go and search that House, where he found only two sorts of Drink, viz extraordinary Strong Beer, and Small, so that according to the Price he Mixt in Proportion; the same Fraud being more or less practis’d through the Kingdom.”

Denneston must have had an extraordinary palate to detect the difference between mixed beers and “intirely brewed” ones, but ignoring that, “Three Thrids” is obviously the same as three-threads, and Denneston confirms that it was a mixture of extra-strong beer and small beer, sold for three pence a pot, or quart, with two-threads costing two pence, four-threads costing four pence and so on. Why “threads”? One definition of “thread” is “a thin continuous stream of liquid”: the Elizabethan author Thomas Nashe wrote of “thrids of rayne”, while another writer in 1723 wrote of “fat Liquor” that when poured out would “go on in a long Thread whose Parts are uninterrupted”.

Three-threads is mentioned several more times during the 18th century, but by 1760 the practice of retailers mixing extra-strong and small beers and ales had evidently ceased, and “three-threads”, if talked about, had to be explained. In November that year a letter by someone calling himself “Obadiah Poundage” (“poundage” being another work for duty or tax) and claiming to be an 86-year-old clerk at one of the great London breweries, living at Newington Green, Islington, was published in the London Chronicle under the title “The History of the London Brewery since 1688” – “brewery” here being used in the sense “brewing trade”. Poundage was detailing the rise in the tax on beer and ale in the times of William III and Queen Anne, and how the brewers dealt with that. In a passage that was to become famous, he wrote: “Our tastes but slowly alter or reform. Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others what was then called Three-threads, at 3d per quart; but many used all stale, at 4d per pot. On this footing stood the trade until about the year 1722, when the Brewers conceived there was a method to be found preferable to any of these extremes; that beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public. This they ventured to sell at 23s per barrel, that the victualler might retail it at 3d per quart. At first it was slow in making its way, but in the end the experiment succeeded beyond all expectation. The labouring people, porters etc. experienced its wholesomeness and utility, they assumed to themselves the use thereof, from whence it was called Porter or Entire Butt.” (“Stale”, here, incidentally, means “matured”, not “off”, and it was the opposite of “mild”, or fresh beer: a mixture of old, matured, sharp beer and fresh, sweet, new beer was a favourite with many drinkers through to the 19th century at least.)

A Sot DormantThis was the first time that three-threads had been linked with the birth of porter, albeit obliquely, and with the two drinks apparently having nothing in common except the fact that they both retailed at 3d a quart. Poundage’s words were quickly plagiarised – they were reprinted, without acknowledgement in The Gentleman’s Magazine the same month, and reappeared in various publications over the next 40-plus years. More recently the pot has been muddied by the former brewer HS “Stan” Corran, who wrote A History of Brewing in 1975 and seems to have had access to a different version of Poundage’s letter, because he printed a lengthy extract from it in his book in which the line “Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others what was then called Three-threads, at 3d per quart” was replaced by “Some drank Mild Beer and Stale; others ale, mild beer and stale blended together [my emphasis] at 3d per quart.” Corran apparently found this alternative version in the archives of Guinness in Dublin: how it got there is not known and, alas, Guinness’s archivists cannot find it now. It has been suggested by James Sumner, to whom I am grateful for much of the research in this post, that it ended up in Dublin via the private papers of the 18th century Hampstead brewer Michael Combrune. If that alternative version, or another copy, was around at the end of the 18th century, it may have influenced what happened next in the narrative history of three-threads: because suddenly, decades after it disappeared, the drink was given a completely different description to the one Denneston gave it, and it was plugged firmly into the story of the development of porter.

Early in 1802 the Monthly Magazine printed a piece on the history of what was then easily London’s favourite beer which said: “The wholesome and excellent beverage of porter obtained its name about the year 1730 … [formerly] the malt-liquors in general use were ale, beer, and twopenny, and it was customary for the drinkers of malt-liquor to call for a pint or tankard of half-and-half, ie a half of ale and half of beer, a half of ale and half of twopenny, or a half of beer and half of twopenny. In course of time it also became the practice to call for a pint or tankard of three threads, meaning a third of ale, beer, and twopenny; and thus the publican had the trouble to go to three casks, and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor. To avoid this trouble and waste, a brewer, of the name of HARWOOD, conceived the idea of making a liquor which should partake of the united flavours of ale, beer, and twopennyy He did so and succeeded, calling it entire or entire butt, meaning that it was drawn entirely from one cask or butt; and as it was a very hearty nourishing liquor, it was very suitable for porters and other working people. Hence it obtained its name of porter.

There are many problems with that story: porter was actually first mentioned in 1721, and while Ralph and James Harwood were porter brewers in Shoreditch, theirs was a small concern compared to the giants such as Truman, Whitbread and Parsons, and there is no evidence from the preceding 80 years that they had anything to do with the development of the drink, apart from a couple of brief and obscure references which themselves said nothing about three-threads. Porter was indeed also known as “entire butt”, but not because it was a one-cask-only reproduction of a drink that had originally been served from three different casks. It was so called because it was brewed “entire”, the technical term at the time for a beer or ale made from a combination of all three mashes of the malt, instead of the first mash being used to make strong ale or beer and the others standard beer and small beer, as was usual, and it was then matured in butts, 108-gallon casks. There is no evidence at all that porter was brewed to replace three-threads; and most importantly to our story, the description of what three-threads was, a combination of ale, beer and “twopenny” from three casks, is totally at odds with what Denneston described being served at the Fortune of War nearly 90 years earlier under the name three thrids, a mixture of just two drinks, extra-strong and small. Just to undermine the Monthly Magazine‘s narrative some more, “twopenny” WAS ale, according to Obadiah Poundage in 1760, who described it as a pale ale retailed at four pence a quart, or two pence a pint, made by the London brewers in imitation of the beers the country gentry “residing in London more than they had in former times” were “habituated to” at home. So according to the Monthly Magazine, three-threads was a tautological mixture of ale, beer and ale – though, admittedly, if the second was pale ale, the first could have been brown ale.

Unfortunately, within a very short time the Monthly Magazine‘s version of history was being reprinted, first in a guidebook called The Picture of London, also published in 1802, and then dozens – hundreds – of times over the next two centuries. Occasionally there were variations: John Tuck, writing in 1822, in a book called The Private Brewer’s Guide to the Art of Brewing Ale, Stout and Porter, said that “a mixture of stale, mild and pale, which was called three-threads, was sold at four pence per quart as far back as 1720,” which, as we have seen, was wrong on both ingredients and price. But everywhere it became the accepted truth that three-threads was a mixture of three different drinks, and porter was brewed to replace it.

A Sot SaliantI hope I have shown that three-threads was not the drink the Monthly Magazine and almost every other writer on the subject from 1802 has said it was, and also that, fascinating though the story of three-threads is, it has nothing to do with the development of porter. If any beer did, in fact, it was the strong “twopenny” pale ale that the gentry brought a taste for to London. According to manuscript histories of the brewing trade written out by Michael Combrune in the 1760s, this pale ale became “spontaneously transparent” and the established London brown-beer brewers decided to try to match this by ageing their own product much longer than they had previously, adding more hops to help it keep. As it aged, it mellowed, and this mellow brown beer, “neither new nor stale”, as Poundage said, and retailing for 3d a quart, became the beer that porters quickly grew to love above all others.

Not everybody will agree with me. John Krenzke, whose PhD dissertation on the industrialisation of the London beer trade 1400-1750 I have leaned on for much of the information to be found in this post, believes porter to have been brewed specifically to imitate the taste of three-threads. I have the greatest respect for John’s scholarship, which uncovered far more facts about the early history of three-threads than I was able to. But I cannot go along with his conclusion: I see no evidence that porter was anything other than an improved version of London brown beer, and that three-threads was something completely different. No writer until the Monthly Magazine in 1802, in a story demonstrably wrong in many ways, ever said porter was a replacement for three-threads. It looks like my journalistic ancestor missed the true, and much better story – that with every slurp, the three-threads drinker was diddling the tax man

Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst: Continue reading

You won’t believe this one weird trick they used to fly beer to the D-Day troops in Normandy

Normandy, 70 years ago, and one of the biggest concerns of the British troops who have made it over the channel, survived the landings and pushed out into the bocage against bitter German resistance is not the V1 flying bomb blitz threatening their families back home, nor the continued failure to capture the port of Cherbourg – but the lack of beer in the bridgehead. On 20 June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Reuter’s special correspondent with the Allied Forces in France wrote to newspapers in the UK that all that was available in the newly liberated estaminets a few miles inland from the beaches was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”

Spitfire droptank fuelling

Tangmere, Sussex, July 1944: in front of a Spitfire IX of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron, a standard 45-gallon Typhoon/Hurricane ‘Torpedo’ jettison tank modified for use on the Spitfire (because of an expected shortage of 45-gallon shaped or slipper tanks) is filled with PA ale for flying over to Normandy while an RAF ‘erk’ writes a cheery message on the tank. The pilot sitting on the wing in this clearly posed government publicity picture is wearing a Norwegian Air Force cap-badge – something no one who has reprinted this picture seems ever to have pointed out. Is the man filling the tank a brewery worker? Surely. Is the beer from Henty and Constable’s brewery in nearby Chichester? It seems very likely …

Addendum: the pilot has now been identified as almost certainly being the Norwegian Spitfire ace Wing Commander Rolf Arne Berg, CO of No. 132 Norwegian Wing, who was killed a few months later, aged 27, in February 1945 while attacking a German airfield in the Netherlands.

It would not be until July 12 when “real British beer” finally officially reached the battling troops in Normandy, and even then the quantity was enough only for one pint per man. But long before then, enterprising pilots in the RAF – and the USAAF – had been engaged in shipping beer into Northern France privately, using what the troops called “flying pubs”. Continue reading

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.

Worthington ‘E’ is NOT a Burton Ale

This week’s letter comes from a Mr R Protz of St Albans, who writes:

I took a snap of the clip for ‘E’ in the National Brewery Centre Bar y’day. I’ve included it in 300 More Beers … in the Best Bitter section but I notice it’s now labelled Burton Ale. What are your thoughts? Thanks,

Ale fail: ‘E’ is NOT a Burton Ale.

The answer, of course, is that Roger is completely correct, Worthington ‘E’ is a pale ale or bitter with a strength that puts it in the “Best Bitter” category, and NOT a Burton Ale, which is a different style of beer altogether– darker and sweeter. (Nasty clash of 1920s and 1970s typefaces on that pumpclip there, too, but let’s move on …)

Indeed, back in the 19th century, Worthington ‘E’ was described as an India Pale Ale, as these two ads below from the early 1890s show. Apparently to distinguish themselves from all other brewers, Worthington labelled their brews with a strange and not particularly logical naming system. Their Burton Ales, strong, bitter-sweet and rather darker than an IPA/best bitter, were called G (the strongest, equivalent to Bass No 1), F (the second-strongest) and D (the third-strongest, in the 20th century sold as a mild) – they’re the ones called “strong ales” in the ads. It looks as if the beers, mostly, go up in strength from A mild through B and C and up to G – but what about M light dinner ale, and S and SS, which to most brewers would mean “stout” and “single stout”, but to Worthington mean their cheapest mild and their cheapest light dinner ale, respectively. And XE IPA looks to be weaker than the E … Continue reading

More IPA myths that must die on #IPADay

It’s #IPADAY again, and time for some more IPA mythbusting. Despite the best efforts of many, an amazing amount of inaccurate, made-up rubbish continues to be perpetuated about the history and origins of IPA, or India Pale Ale. All the myths below are genuine statements culled in the past few weeks from websites that claim to be experts on beer.

Myth 1 “The original IPAs had strengths close to 8 to 9 per cent alcohol by volume”.

Rubbish: records show early IPAs rarely went much above 6 or 6.5 per cent abv.

Myth 2 “Historians believe that IPA was then watered down for the troops, while officers and the elite would savour the beer at full strength.”

Complete cobblers’ awls. No historian has ever believed that. There is NO evidence IPA was ever watered down, and the troops drank porter anyway.

Myth 3 “Porters and stouts were not suitable for the torrid Indian climate.”

More unresearched rubbish. Considerable amounts of porter – far more porter than IPA, probably – were exported to India, from at least the second half of the 18th century right through to the end of the 19th century. The East India Company actually used to ask brewers to tender for suppliers of porter to India.

Myth 4 “North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.”

Not true. North American IPAs – excellent though many of them are – use hop types completely unknown to 18th and 19th century British brewers, and major on floral, citrussy flavours and aromas in their IPAs, which are designed to be drunk comparatively young. Early British IPAs were designed to be drunk aged anything up to nine months or more, and while they were certainly bitter, they would have lost most of any hop aroma that they originally had. In addition it is becoming increasingly clear that early British IPAs would have showed at least some Brettanomyces character, from their long ageing in cask. Apart from both containing lots of hops, and being similar colours (except for the black ones) modern North American IPAs and early British IPAs could not be much more different.

Myth 5 “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century for the colonies East of India such as New Zealand and Australia.”

If you’re reading this, DB Breweries of New Zealand, perpetrators of this dreadful piece of marketing fackwittery in connection with Tui East India Pale Ale, “the East Indies” was the term for the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia, including the archipelagos of maritime South-East Asia, a name used to contrast the region with the West Indies. Trading companies that did business in this part of the world included the East India Company of London, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or United East India Company. East India Pale Ale is simply a synonym for India Pale Ale, pale ale brewed for India/the East Indies. It has nothing to do with “East of India”, or Australasia. However, since a year or so back Tui East India Pale Ale won the Brewers Guild of New Zealand award for best New Zealand Draught, an amber lager style, it appears the beer is as accurate in style as the history is as accurate in its facts.

(Addendum: I’ve only just noticed, after several readings of the original quote, that it also says “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century …”. “Last century” was, of course, the 20th century. They presumably meant the 19th century. Which is wrong anyway, as highly hopped pale ales for India were first sent out from England to India in the 18th century …)

You can read last year’s #IPADAY mythbusting from the Zythophile blog here. Have a good one.

Guinness myths and scandals

Guinness on toast - nom

‘Guinness Marmite’ from the 1930s

Is there a brewery business with more books written about it – is there any business with more books written about it – than Guinness? Effectively a one-product operation, Guinness has inspired tens of millions of words. Without trying hard, I’ve managed to acquire 18 different books about Guinness, the brewery, the people, the product and/or the advertising (four of them written by people called Guinness), and that’s not counting the five editions I have of the lovely little handbook that Guinness used to give to visitors to the brewery at St James’s Gate, dated from 1928 to 1955. There are plenty more books on Guinness I don’t have.

Despite all those volumes of Guinnessiana, however, you can still find a remarkable quantity of Guinness inaccuracy and mythology, constantly added to and recycled, particularly about the brewery’s earliest days. The myths and errors range from Arthur Guinness’s date of birth (the claim that he was born on September 24, 1725 is demonstrably wrong) to the alleged uniqueness of Guinness’s yeast: the idea that the brewery’s success was down to the yeast Arthur Guinness brought with him to Dublin is strangely persistent, though the brewery’s own records show that as early as 1810-12 (and almost certainly earlier) St James’s Gate was borrowing yeast from seven different breweries.

Most accounts of the history of Guinness also miss out on some cracking stories too little known: the homosexual affair that almost brought the end of the brewery partnership in the late 1830s, for example; the still-unexplained attack of insanity that saw Guinness’s managing director, great-great nephew of Arthur Guinness I, carried out of the brewery in a straitjacket in 1895; and the link between the writings of Arthur Guinness I’s grandson Henry Grattan Guinness and the foundation of the state of Israel (which takes in the assassination of Arthur Guinness I’s great-great grandson in Egypt). Continue reading