(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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