Thursday, 22 May 2014

A brief history of Britain's beer! Part 2: 1600s - 1800s

Part Two: The 1600s to early 1800s

This is a post about the best beverage ever to be crafted from the fair hands of humans: Beer. Specifically it is a look at the evolution of technology and shifting cultures within Britain that have influenced this wonderful drink, and we'll be kicking off right where we left: the 1600s, with a bit of chemistry to boot.


Beer as we know it today in Britain is usually a golden fizzy beverage of around 4% ABV. It's mostly not very bitter, not too malty, not too heavy, and doesn't have much of an aroma - more's the pity. This was certainly not the case in the 1600s.

British beer at this time was split between strong dark porter-like brews, and the slightly lighter European influenced hop filled beers. But beer the world over was still very much a dark brown to black brew.

To understand why, we need to look at the main ingredient (other than water) of beer - malted barley. I mentioned in part one that beer was often brewed with any grain, but barley is the one which allows the most maltose (a chain of sugar), and accompanying enzymes, to be extracted when steeped in hot water. Any modern brewer will tell you that different grades of grain allow different amounts of maltose and enzymes to be extracted. This is called the diastatic power of the malt. Pale malts have a high diastatic power; dark roasted malts have next to none at all.

Pre-1600s, malt was kilned sporadically, by coal, wood, bracken, and gorse. This kilning made dark grains with varying diastatic powers, often with residual burnt and acrid smokey flavours that would carry through to the end product.

Coal is full of many impurities - like Sulfur (US spelling when talking science, UK spelling when describing it) which would also lead to off-flavours and increased acidity. In the 1500s, some clever chap came up with the idea of kilning coal to make coke - a pure Carbon fuel, and by 1640 the maltsters had started to use it. This was arguably the biggest technological breakthrough in the history of not just Britain's beer - but for the world. A pure Carbon fuel allowed for greater temperature control, and no residual solids or smokes like Carbon Monoxide or Sulfur compounds. Coke burns with Oxygen to form only Carbon Dioxide.

Dark malts - still used to add a toasted flavour and dark colour to beers.
Thus, pale malt was born. A sweet unsmoked grain with high diastatic power. This is Britain's beer legacy to the world. Today, the whole world over, there are very few malted barley beers that do not use pale malt as a majority for their grains - even dark porters and black stouts use mostly pale malts, darkening and flavouring them with more roasted grains to achieve the right taste and colour.

Pale Malt from Thomas Fawcett & Sons - malting in Yorkshire since the 1780s.
It goes without saying that the more malt you add to your beer, the higher the alcohol percentage is likely to be. This is because yeast feeds on the sugar, producing alcohol as a byproduct (thanks yeast!). The science of this would not be understood for a couple of hundred years. Beer was strong from well before the 1600s - right up until the early 1900s - frequently hitting highs of 12%. Some of you may be familiar with the term 'small beer' it comes up frequently in historical records, and it refers to beers brewed at a lower ABV for general consumption. This was especially important in large polluted cities like London, where sewerage was literally dumped into the drinking water.

A common technique from the 1600s onwards was to 'parti-gyle' mash. This involved steeping the malted barley in hot water, then draining off the sweet liquid to turn into a strong beer. Not all of the sugars left the malted barley, so to increase utility and efficiency, brewers would repeat the process with the same grains for a second and third time - the second and third runnings. Each running would make a different strength beer: Strong ale (or just ale), small beer (or small ale), and table ale - the weakest form to swig like water, or for the children - and people worry that we British have a binge drinking culture today?

In part one, we already discussed the wave of Dutch immigrants influencing the use of hops in English beers, and we said at that time English beer was split into two: unhopped English ales, and very hopped bitter beers. By the end of the 1600s the two styles seemed to meld somewhat, and brewers of ales were using hops too.

If you have ever sampled an American IPA, you'll know all about the power of the hop. You'll understand the aromatic punch your nose receives long before the bitter golden drop hits your tongue, and you've no doubt read upon some beer labels that hops became popular because of their antibacterial properties. The beer connoisseurs amongst you have also probably had your fair share of porters - low hopped malty dark beers from England's past. Any style guidelines will tell you that porters shouldn't have too much of a hop taste or bouquet. Those guidelines are wrong! At least they would have been from the late 1600s to the late 1800s, for when British brewers began to use hops, they began to use a lot of them.

Pound upon pound of hops were not only thrown into the boil - increasing the bitterness four-fold from the beers we know today - but were also packed loose by the handful into barrels for ageing, sometimes for a couple of years. When they were racked into smaller firkins for the publican trade or export, even more hops were added! Brewers had made a link between hops and the non-fouling of beers. Whilst at the time no one knew what bacteria was, they did know hops stopped beer from going off.

By the time of the Georgian era, a united Britain had amassed quite an empire - the New World, much of the Caribbean, parts of India, SE Asia, and more. From the War of the Spanish Succession onwards, Britannia truly did rule the waves. The British Army and Navy were well doused in beer and spirits - both which kept the working men happy, and served as a handy purified water - fresh water was hard to keep from fouling. Some records state a sailor's ration was a whole gallon of strong ale a day, on top of their spirit ration!
Drunken sailors - arrested.
With so much hops stuffed into all British beers, they kept on the long voyages to oversea interests, to keep the soldier happy, and our colonials with the comfort of a home drink.

By the mid 1700s, Britain had two very established types of beer - both extremely hopped - the pale ale, and the dark porter. The prefix 'stout' could be added to either, meaning 'strong', and it wasn't until much later it merely referred to a stout porter, and then just a stout. Breweries often defined themselves purely by the one beer they made: A porter brewery, or a pale ale brewery. Porters - using less of the expensive of pale malt - were far cheaper, and remained very popular with the working classes because of this.

As the East India Company spread its profit-driven influence over Asia, more and more British people followed in their wake, including the wealthy and the aristocratic.

British possessions - past and present.
It is a common misconception amongst beer enthusiasts and brewers alike that the wonderful IPA (India Pale Ale) was developed solely for those British residing in India, and was made extra hoppy to survive the long voyages to the Asian subcontinent. As we've already discussed - most British beers were highly hopped in the Georgian era, and would stay like that for nearly two centuries, so there goes that romantic story often printed on the back of beer bottles...

In fact, both porters and pale ales were shipped to all of Britain's territories, imported and exported by private merchants as well as by the East India Company itself. A great deal of this beer was imported solely for the private army of the East India Company, but other non-East India personnel wanted the taste of British ale.

As we discussed in part one, British beers were stored in barrels for years at a time before being served. This practice continued pretty much until the modern era. Brewers quickly realised that the ageing process for exported beers could be done on the merchant vessels themselves. Pale ales and porters brewed in London were aged for a few months before being racked into casks, stowed aboard, then shipped for around six months to India. 

Notes for this exported pale ale describe it as tart (no doubt from the infections of bacteria and wild yeasts), dry, flavoursome, bitter, and sparkling like the finest champagnes. They arrived at India in pristine condition to their intended audience of the British middle and upper classes. Drinking a pale ale - the expensive wine of the beer world - must have been seen as a classy thing, and must certainly have been far more refreshing in the Indian heat than a dark malty porter!

The British moving back to their homeland brought with them a thirst for the pale ale, and the market for the hopped pale beers on Britain's own shores began to increase. With the advent of steam power, pale ales became accessible to even the working classes - and so rose in popularity even more.

There were further changes to come of course, and even greater scientific discoveries, but they'll have to wait for Part 3...

If you've read through all of that, you definitely deserve a beer, so crack one open, and raise a glass for Britain's brewing history! Huzzah!

Miss Part 1? Find it here!
Part 3 available now.
Part 4 now available...

Enjoying a few pints for the Channel Islands' Liberation celebrations.