Category Archives: Beer history

Great Story, Shame It’s Not True

Lots of pubs have fascinating stories attached to them but it’s a shame so few of them seem to be true.

Take the Ostrich at Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire, which features in many of those ‘old inns of England’ books with variations on this fantastic story, as told on its website:

As with most historic buildings, The Ostrich has seen it’s fair share of murders and they say that over 60 were committed here. Most famous of all were those committed in the 17th century by the landlord of the time, Jarman, who with his wife made a very profitable sideline by murdering their guests after they had retired for the night.

Continue reading Great Story, Shame It’s Not True

BOOK REVIEW: Merrie England by Ted Bruning

This slim volume asks: at what point, and where, did the first establishment that we might recognise as a pub pop into existence?

Merrie England by Ted Bruning.

His definition of a pub reflects his background as a veteran writer and campaigner for CAMRA but is a good one nonetheless:

Broadly, we are talking about fully on-licensed, fully commercial businesses which are generally open, without charging membership or admission, to customers who need buy nothing more than a drink. 

He disqualifies clubs, restaurants, village halls and hotels, the latter on the grounds that their primary purpose is accommodation, with drink as an additional service, whereas some pubs offer rooms as a bonus rather than as a core part of the business.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that there have always been pubs because they seem so essential a part of the fabric of British society but Mr Bruning, drawing on previous heavyweight academic texts, popular histories and a number of primary sources, paints a picture of a pub-less England in the Middle Ages. Anglo-Saxon mead halls, for example, though they share certain features, were not pubs: there is little evidence of an organised trade in the sale of alcoholic drinks and booze was, ‘it’s fair to assume’, produced and provided as part of the communal diet. The roadside hostels that later became inns, which eventually merged into the pub tradition, did not sell alcohol except to travellers as part of their bed and board, and certainly did not build their business around it.

Bruning is methodical in breaking down steps towards the emergence of the pub: communal drinking led to commercial brewing which led to the brewery tap, in a weird pre-echo of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Those allergic to London-centricity will wince at the suggestion that it was the unprecedented size of that particular city, combined with an influx of alienated migrants in search of a substitute for the communities they had left behind, that brought about the particular circumstances necessary for the pub, as defined above, to emerge.

Throughout, he does a good job of exploring the etymology of various terms such as alehuse and tabernus, highlighting how fatally easy it can be to project a modern meaning on to an old word

Ultimately, however, because he is compelled by the lack of solid evidence to resort rather too often to ‘perhaps’, ‘surely’ and ‘we cannot say that’ (far preferable to make unwarranted assertions) the book’s punchline is rather disappointingly vague and interpretative.

The book isn’t long and seems rather padded out with appendices, but there is something to be said for the old-fashioned, single-minded monograph, and Mr Bruning’s prose style is both clear and engaging. The layout, with no paragraph indentations and with line spaces between paragraphs, takes a little getting used to. It is also perhaps a good job that judging books by their covers is so frowned upon.

On the whole, serious pub history geeks will want this intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking book in their libraries.

Bright Pen, £9.55, 163 pages.

Williams Bros: Craft Before It Was A Thing

The quintessentially Scottish brewery Williams Bros began its life in 1988 when an elderly woman walked into a home-brewing supply shop in Glasgow and approached the young man behind the counter with the recipe for a long lost style of beer with a legendary status – heather ale.

Main illustration above by and copyright © 2015 Rachael Smith who blogs about beer at Look at Brew and is on Twitter as @lookatbrew. Other images courtesy of Williams Bros.

A famous poem by Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story of how the Picts, defeated by a Scottish king, took to their graves ‘the secret of the drink’ – a brew ‘sweeter far than honey… stronger far than wine’, with semi-magical properties. It concludes:

But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.

Illustration from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.
Illustration from The Heather in Lore and Lay, 1903.

In a 1903 book The Heather in Lyric, Lore and Lay, Alexander Wallace considered various stories and tales of heather ale – ‘a liquour greatly superior to our common ale’ – dating back to 1526. If it had not died out, he concluded, then it had become hard-to-find, with only a handful of doubtful reports from people who claimed to have tasted it in the latter half of the 19th century, as brewed by ‘shepherds on the moor’. He also cited, for balance, the view of one authority that heather ale might never have existed at all.

And yet, there she was, the wise old woman, with the secret in her hand, and Bruce Williams, the young man behind the shop counter, was intrigued.

Continue reading Williams Bros: Craft Before It Was A Thing

Growing Hops in Cornwall

We had somehow formed the impression that Cornwall isn’t natural beer country, in large part because hops aren’t grown here. Because of an article we are working on, however, we needed to know for sure whether hops were commonly available in the 18th and 19th centuries, and so got digging.

In the stacks at the Cornish Studies Library in Redruth a helpful archivist (herself from Kent and dubious about the idea of hops in Cornwall) directed us to an 1811 book called A General View of the Agriculture of the Country of Cornwall by G.B. Worgan, written on behalf of the Board of Agriculture. And what do you know — it lists hops as a substantial Cornish crop.

HOPS… Have been much grown in Roseland, but the culture is on the decline: the duties increasing, and hops from Kent and Hampshire finding their way here, the Cornish hop-grower is discouraged; for except he can sell at 15d. per lb. it is a losing crop.

The author goes on to observe that growing hops in Cornwall is expensive, uses up a lot of the best manure, that the local soil produces a meagre yield, and that hops grown here are prone to mildew.

An 1839 report by the Statistical Society noted the availability of hops as far West as Penzance based on a clergyman’s accounts books covering the period from 1746 to 1770; they sold at around 1 shilling per pound — a touch more expensive than sugar.

Another helpful book, Lynda Mudle-Small’s What the Ancestors Drank (in Warleggan), compiles various bits of evidence for the cultivation of hops in Cornwall from 1595 onwards, and of the growing of barley for malting from the 15th century.

So, if not exactly natural beer country, Cornwall has certainly been trying its damnedest for a good few centuries.

Historic Beers for London

Ron Pattinson and Peter Haydon (Head in a Hat/Florence Brewery) are going to collaborate to produce around six historic beers a year, branded as Dapper Ales.

Their first beer will be ‘Doctor Brown’, a 4.1% ABV double brown ale from a 1928 Barclay Perkins recipe.

Ron’s knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of historic beer is second to none. We don’t know Peter Haydon personally but we’ve enjoyed the couple of Head in a Hat beers we’ve tried in the past, and know that he’s also paid his dues digging in the archives.

It’s no surprise, that, that their statement is refreshingly and reassuringly free of ‘inspired by history’ weasel words:

Peter has attempted to recreate the beer as faithfully as possible, going back to original boil times, and parti-gyling the wort streams. The original hops used were Pacifics, Bramling, Fuggles and Golding, and care has been taken to get as close as possible to this original bill. American Cluster are what would have been meant by Pacifics, so non-English hops make a rare appearance in an A Head In A Hat beer. The Bramling is no longer grown due to its disease susceptibility, but it’s daughter, Early Gold, is, so that has been used instead.

Doctor Brown will be on sale in selected Fuller’s pubs in March.