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:
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.