(Almost) Microbrewing in 1919

1914 Punch cartoon of a village pub.

Microbreweries as we know them today came into being in the 1960s or 1970s (see Brew Britannia for more on that) but did you know something along the same lines nearly emerged half a century earlier?

The Chelms­ford Chron­i­cle for 25 Decem­ber 1914 car­ried the fol­low­ing sto­ry under a head­line which gives us anoth­er term to throw into the jar­gon soup along with ‘craft’ and ‘arti­san’: REVIVAL OF COTTAGE BREWING IN ESSEX VILLAGES.

One result of the addi­tion­al tax of one pen­ny per pint on beer and ale has seen a revival in the cot­tage brew­ing sev­er­al Essex vil­lages. The extra tax was of course put upon beer to help to pay the cost the war, and there was direct author­i­ty that the increase should be car­ried to the con­sumer by an extra half­pen­ny per glass, one pen­ny per pint, on beer sold in licensed hous­es. This tax has inci­den­tal­ly led a notable return to the cus­tom which pre­vailed in many Essex vil­lages half a cen­tu­ry ago of cot­tagers brew­ing their own beer. By law a cot­tager whose house is assessed at £8 or under per annum — most of the gen­uine rur­al cot­tages are assessed at about half that fig­ure — can brew beer for his own con­sump­tion with­out pay­ing any duty… In a town like Brain­tree, for instance, home brew­ing is prac­ti­cal­ly unknown, but the coun­try there has been just enough brew­ing at cot­tages or farms to keep the indus­try alive. So far the impe­tus to cot­tage brew­ing has been chiefly observed in vil­lages Shal­ford and Stist­ed, where there are now sev­er­al brews of Essex ale matur­ing for Christ­mas!

The arti­cle goes on to quote a local expert:

I have actu­al­ly seen the brews being made in one place, and ascer­tained that there are eight cot­tagers wait­ing to use one cop­per which is sup­posed to make excep­tion­al­ly good beer. Of course the home-brewed beer is not so nice-look­ing as good brew­ery beer, for the art of brew­ing has reached high per­fec­tion. The cot­tage beer that I have seen lacks sparkle and bright­ness of a nice bot­tled beer, but there is no doubt it is full of strength, and con­tains what the farm labour­ers call ‘plen­ty of bite.’

Cot­tage beer is strong, hazy and a bit chewy. That sounds famil­iar. He goes on:

The arrange­ments pre­vail­ing in Essex vil­lages where I have seen ‘home’ beer being brewed is for the cot­tager to pur­chase malt, and hops, then to pay an expe­ri­enced man in the Vil­lage 5s. to brew the beer to fill the cask, gen­er­al­ly a hogshead.

That’s a fas­ci­nat­ing arrange­ment – like the shared oven mod­el for bread-mak­ing – but not quite what we’d recog­nise as micro­brew­ing, i.e. a new­ly estab­lished small brew­ery pro­duc­ing beer for sale to the gen­er­al pub­lic. A few years lat­er, how­ev­er, on 29 March 1919, the Licensed Trade News repeat­ed much the same sto­ry of East Anglian cot­tage brew­ing but with an added twist. Cit­ing an orig­i­nal arti­cle in the Evening Stan­dard that we haven’t been able to track down, they report­ed that one social club in the Lon­don sub­urbs had been inspired by the home-brew­ing craze to con­sid­er apply­ing for a licence to sell its own small batch, hand-craft­ed, arti­sanal prod­ucts. (Our words, not theirs.)

As far as we know this didn’t go ahead (the big brew­ers weren’t hap­py and they tend­ed to get their way, up to a point) but what would have hap­pened if 1919 had seen the first new com­mer­cial ‘cot­tage brew­ery’? Might there have been ten by 1925, and 150 at the start of World War II?

UPDATE 05:32 24/08/2016

This news­pa­per report is a gar­bled account of the found­ing of the famous clubs brew­eries, isn’t it? The con­nec­tion with East Anglian home­brew­ing is spu­ri­ous.

7 thoughts on “(Almost) Microbrewing in 1919”

  1. Good to see cot­tag­ing as a term reclaimed for some­thing less x-rat­ed. What kind of beer did strong, hazy and a bit chewy with low car­bon­a­tion remind you of? By today’s stan­dards, wheat beer, ESB or a heavy biere de garde sprang to my mind.

    1. Strong, hazy and a bit chewy” is exact­ly what the ‘good stuff’ was sup­posed to taste like when I was first get­ting into beer – I stum­bled on a pub serv­ing Young’s Win­ter Warmer one day in the ear­ly 80s & had a real shock of recog­ni­tion (“here it is at last!”).

    2. Oh, just a throw­away ref­er­ence to the sup­posed qual­i­ties of some mod­ern ‘craft’ (def 2).

  2. This sounds like a vari­ant on the ‘com­mu­nal brew­house’ arrange­ment once com­mon in places like Bohemia and some parts of Ger­many. I might be wrong but I seem to recall the *oth­er* Bud­weis­er, Budějovický měšťanský/Budweiser Bürg­er­bräu start­ed this way. You could argue, inci­den­tal­ly, that Ubrew in Bermond­sey is a mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tion.

  3. Cot­tage beer is strong, hazy and a bit chewy. That sounds famil­iar.” Of course in those days small brew­ers hadn’t the skills, nous or know how to make beer clear. Sound famil­iar?

    1. We wrote a bit for the CAMRA mag­a­zine on this which I don’t *think* has appeared yet.

      Short ver­sion: up to a cer­tain point, and in cer­tain con­texts, per­fect clar­i­ty is a sign of processed/industrial, while haze (see Phil’s com­ment) indi­cates whole­some home­made-ness. Hors­es for cours­es and all that.

      I’d prob­a­bly take the clear beer 9 times out of 10 but that’s a mat­ter of per­son­al taste.

  4. Agree about the per­son­al taste and the 9 out of ten. Not at all sure about the oth­er bit, but as you say ” in cer­tain con­texts”.

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