Beer history homebrewing

The Temperance Spectrum

Triggering tipsiness is one much-valued feature of beer, but not the be-all-and-end-all.

A first, beer and ale were thought preferable to gin because gin made you bad at holding babies, while on beer, you could simultaneously catch up on some reading, spend quality time with your other half, and balance fish on your head:

Details from 'Gin Lane' and 'Beer Street' by William Hogarth.

Then, in the 19th century, people got excited about lager because there was a belief that, unlike British beer, it didn’t really get you drunk, or make you rowdy.

Meanwhile, temperance folk and Methodists chugged down fermented herb, fruit or vegetable ‘beer’ with quiet consciences because, in the words of one commentator, they ‘believed — or made pretence of believing — that it was non-intoxicating’. A typical recipe might include a couple of pounds of sugar and call for the brew to be fermented for a few days in the cauldron, before continuing to work in the bottle until the cork was ready to fly. We haven’t crunched the numbers but we’d guess most of these came out at 2-2.5% alcohol by volume.

Then there were drinks which really were barely fermented at all — just enough to give them a bit of fizz, and perhaps to see off the bugs. Here’s a description from the marvellous 1877 book Street Life in London:

[Three] pounds of ginger are generally used for nine gallons of water, and will make altogether a gross of ginger-beer. The poor who make ginger-beer do not, however, possess stew-pans that will hold nine gallons ; and, therefore, do not scruple to resort to the copper. This disgusting habit of boiling ginger in the same vessel which serves for washing the dirty linen of several families is, I fear, extensively practised… When the strength of the ginger has been extracted by boiling, a little lemon acid, some essence of cloves, loaf sugar, and yeast have to be added. The mixture can then be bottled, and should be left to stand twenty-four hours.

Dirty socks aside, it probably tasted a bit like those posh glass-bottled ginger beers found in museum gift shops and English Heritage cafes, which is what we tend to turn to on really hot summer’s days when there isn’t a pub at hand.

Somewhere along the line, though, we seem to have lost almost everything else between 0% and 3% ABV, which is a shame.

Main image: ‘Ginger Beer Makers and Mush Fakers’ from Street Life in London.

8 replies on “The Temperance Spectrum”

I used to make ginger beer with a ginger beer plant as a kid – you ‘feed’ the yeast with ginger and sugar for a week, then strain the water it’s sitting in and add it to about a gallon of water (probably other ingredients at this stage). One year something went slightly wrong (presumably we didn’t filter the yeast out properly) and most of the batch fermented while we were away on holiday. To my early-teen tastebuds it just tasted weird, but it had a definite alcoholic kick to it. I’d recommend it, the next hot summer we get.

In its non-alcoholic form it did taste a bit like (e.g.) Fentiman’s ye-olde ginger beer, but less sweet. Fermented, the closest thing to it I’ve come across was Brendan Dobbin’s bottled alcoholic ginger beer – perhaps it actually was fermented ginger beer, unlike the (ginger) beers Marble & others produce these days.

I enjoyed West Coast Ginger Beer in cask in my own boozer which I had driven to Manchester to collect from ‘the estate’. I have now given up trying ginger beers because the beers never, ever come close to Dobbin. My go to summer drink is a ginger beer bitter shandy.

In a hotel and bar management book that I read from the 1960ish period I recall that ginger beer was the original shandy and lemonade at that time had become the popular choice. The author was asking that staff were to ask the patron for clarification.

A friend’s father was mortified to be served a ginger beer with lemonade when he had asked for a ginger beer shandy.

What would they mean by ‘gaff’? Odd word.

The loss of these styles seems to be pretty recent – at Christmas, my Great Aunt mentioned how she used to make ginger beer, until she left it in the garden on a hot day and the bottles exploded. I guess that would have been 1960s.

These days, I guess it’s only really practical for homebrewing, since they’re mostly partially fermented.

15 years ago when I was home brewing at a great pace, I would make a 1.5% Jamaican ginger beer taken from the book “Clonebrews” – very tasty stuff.

Many of the original temperance drinks are now kids soft drinks, and have evolved sweeter recipes, being cheaper to produce and more acceptable to parents and teachers if formulated rather than brewed. Vimto remains the greatest drink known to man and I take it with me in my luggage to foreign parts along with yorkshire gold tea bags, parma violets and cadbury dairy milk.

There is demand out there for drier adult soft drinks but I would expect them to conform with modern health concerns.

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