Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A brief history of Britain's beer! Part 1: Prehistory - 1600s.

Part One: Prehistory to the 1600s

Anyone writing authentic Historical Fiction will attest that research is constant and endless to ensure events, locales, and real figures are portrayed accurately; but quite often it's the minor details - such as food & drink - that really help bring the world to life.

I discussed in another post the importance of authentic sword fighting, but this post is all about brewing and beer. One of my hobbies is brewing and drinking beer, that coupled with my science background, I'd like to say I know a thing or two. So if your tipple of choice is a strong Baltic porter, a heavy hopped IPA, an English mild, or just a can of lager, and you want to know how it all came about... then fill your glass, and read on...

Beer is an ancient alcoholic beverage, and in its simplest form is a liquid fermented from the sugar of malted grains by a fungus called yeast. It has existed in Britain since prehistoric times. Our Celtic ancestors traded with their Roman Overlords (what have they ever done for us?), and was done so by many agricultural communities and families with little organisation. Those close to the Roman road network set up Roman-style taverns for the travelling merchants and soldiers, thus the first British pubs were born!
Froach - by the William Brothers in Scotland claim they use the oldest pub sign in the world for their logo.

Post-Roman Britain saw the influx of Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the Germanic countries, and they too carried on brewing in Britain. Roman writers describing the beer of Celtic Britain and Saxon Germany compare how similar they were. Clearly crafting a basic brew was an old enough tradition as this stage, and common throughout the Northern countries.

The beer at this time was fermented from mainly malted barley, but also wheat and oats or other 'corns' (corn would not refer to maize until many centuries later). With the absence of hops, beers would have tasted very different. Notes from the Anglo-Saxon times reveal that plants like sweet gale (or bog myrtle), yarrow, fruit blossoms, and imported cinnamon were used as bittering or flavour additions. This was called ealu (later ale). It's interesting to note the modern Scandinavian word for beer is still 'ol'.

Home-brewing an un-hopped ale with heather, camomile, wood germander, and yarrow.

Brewing in the Saxon times was primarily a role of women, or 'alewives' as they were known. Those with excess amounts, or wishing to make some extra coin from their neighbours or passing travellers, would hang evergreens from poles outside their buildings, or in the centre of their small communities. And so we have our second ancestor of the eponymous British public house. Note that beer - so entwined with British history - was not just a drink of pleasure; it was nutritious, kept for many years compared to flour, and also served as a cleaner alternative to the river waters around the larger populated towns and cities.

When William the Bastard successfully claimed the English throne in 1066, a new wave of European Christianity spread through the isles. Brewing became more organised, and like the rest of Europe, was often done in monasteries. This is not to say alewives ceased brewing...

Whilst the use of plants no doubt continued at this time, ale is most often described in the Middle Ages as mainly a product of malted barley and water. With the absence of plants to bitter these ales, they could well have been a lot sweeter than our modern drinks, but more than likely they were so infested with bacterias and wild yeasts that they were sour. Most ales had to be aged for a long time (some ales of Scotland were aged twenty one years!) to reduce the effects of lactic acids produced during slow fermentations by these contaminants. There was also the issue of the extreme smokiness of the crudely malted grains.

Quite often, newly tapped beers would be mixed with younger ones to create a more palatable drink. This practice continued in Britain to the late 1800s, and carries on today in Belgium with their sour lambics.

Despite the early organisation of breweries, brewing did revert in popularity to the common folk, large country estates, and inns. No doubt this was helped by the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Notes from beers at the time still describe them as either tart or sweet, being primarily barley at the time. Although I have seen recipes to non-barley beers brewed with wheat, oats and beans. The beers would have been far darker than most of what we see today. We know Elizabeth I enjoyed a pot of strong dark ale for her breakfast daily!
Hop cones.
There has been much debate when hops were first used in English beers, with some sources claiming it was before the 1300s. I think this is a small detail. What we do know is that hopped beers did not become commonplace in England until the 1500s, and were a result of immigrants bringing their brewing addition of choice with them from Flanders and Holland. They probably brought with them the word 'beer' too, and that's the word used by most of Europe at the time and now.

Hops are a plant with flowering cones containing many wonderful oils and acids that affect the flavour, bitterness and aroma of beer. They also have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties - useful for a drink infested with sour bacterias and wild yeasts...

England now had two drinks - an aged un-hopped ale, and a hopped bitter beer. The former remained the most popular with the English for some time. I read somewhere that Londoners threatened riots when their traditional ale became noticeably hopped!

But like it or not, things were changing in the 1600s. The advent of coke - a purified coal - brought a cleaner fuel for malting the barley, one which resulted in the absence of the acrid smokiness present in coal or bracken dried barley that had been the characteristic of all our beers until this date. This also led to the development of pale malts - arguably the largest transition from our native dark beers, to the modern common lagers and IPAs we have today...

From the East India Trading Company to the Industrial Revolution, and two World Wars... not to mention the discovery of bacteria, yeasts, and the development of water chemistry, look out for Parts Two and Three. In the meantime, grab yourself a pint or three... I know I will be.

Part Two: the 1600s to 1800s available here.
Part Three: the 1800s available now! 

Enjoying a couple of pints of British real ale. The end of summer, Island of Jersey.