Old-Time Brews of Rural England

From the Brewers’ Journal of London (c. 1938)

Mead, recently chosen by Queen Elizabeth (wife of George VI) as a “nice old-fashioned drink,” is but one of many brews for which rural England was famed in the past. Strange beverages, indeed, are still made in certain localities.

When the Queen drew attention to the merits of mead as an “old-fashioned drink,” at Norwich recently, she referred to a brew which is commonly regarded as a medieval one. Actually, however, this drink was fairly popular only 100 years or so ago.

Early last century, Jane Austen, the authoress, referred to a honey shortage and its probable effect upon the brewing of mead. Several other old-time drinks, though they are not prepared on the big scale common in the past, are still known in country districts today.

Metheglin and Syllabubs
Metheglin, known in some rural districts of Wales, is brewed in several ways, for those who prepare it have their own views about the “right” way to brew it. One old recipe includes wild sage, saxifrage, betony, wild marjoram, and thyme among the ingredients, and there are country housewives who say that this drink can only be prepared successfully if the whole plant, including the roots, is used.

Probably the best-known home-made ale of recent times, however, was syllabubs, a drink widely brewed until towards the end of last century. Even those to-day who have never tasted syllabubs will have heard of its being drunk by a generation still living, for it was at one time, not so very distant, brewed on the spot at fairs.

The recipe prescribes fresh, frothy milk and a bowl of mashed fruit, such as gooseberries. This concoction is then to be sweetened, and the final step is to add some wine, cider or ale. Ale was usually used, for the sake of cheapness, when syllabubs was prepared at fairs.

As far back as the eighth century, vines were cultivated in England for the production of wine from the grapes, and some of the abbeys had vineyards. But cider was the most popular drink in medieval times, and Wessex, in particular, has villages where this drink is still brewed in the rough and ready manner of past centuries. Cider also forms the basis of many old recipes, notably that for brewing hydromel. As with mead, honey was freely used in these concoctions.

“Lamb’s Wool” Brew
Wild fruits are mentioned in some of the old recipes, too. “Lamb’s Wool” was the name given to a brew made from good English ale and roasted crab-apples. Special brews were also prepared to fill loving-cups such as “copus”, made by mixing beer, wine and spice, and then heating them. This drink was popular at Oxford University.

Oxford again, had its special “night cap,” and it was drunk by students as recently as the last century. A popular recipe was based upon a mixture of bottle wine and egg yolk, though the less affluent students used home-brewed beer instead of wine. “Aleberry,” another University drink, consisted of boiled ale, sugar and spice.

Nottinghamshire Ale
The ale brewed by Nottinghamshire folk was at one period widely regarded as unequalled by that brewed in any other locality. It was made by allowing the ale to stand in the tub (often in the corner of a cottage living—room) for four or five days before it was put into a cask. Then it was thoroughly stirred twice a day, the “head” of yeast being beaten down during the process. This method was said to give an unusual but pleasant taste to the ale.

Burton ale, however, was a close runner-up for popularity. An old jingle says :—
Never tell me of liquors from Spain or from France
They may get in your heels and cause you to dance.
But the ale of old Burton, if mellow and right,
Will get in your heads and inspire you to fight.

Among traditions surrounding the old-time brews, one of the strangest was that which declared mortar mixed with ale to be unusually strong. Mortar thus prepared was fairly widely used in the building of some of England’s churches.

Strange Beliefs
One of the strangest ale customs was observed only a month or two ago, when Mr. Robin Bagot, of Levens Hall, Westmorland, gave his bride a curious wedding gift. It took the form of a secret recipe for making an ale known as “Morocco”, the details of which are passed down to the heir of his manor when he succeeds his father. Only one other person, the Lady of the Manor is traditionally entitled to know the secret recipe.

Morocco, which has a well-defined quality of its own, owes its distinctive flavour to the fact that it is kept for 21 years before it is drunk, as well as to the secret process by which it is brewed.

It was once a custom to brew a special ale on the birth of an heir to an English manor, and to drink it 21 years later. Some old and notable families still preserve the particular secret recipes, even if the ale is not brewed to-day.

Another secret drink is made every year at Barnstaple. For centuries it has been the privilege of the local senior beadle to make this ale, which is known as “Bragget.” It is brewed for the annual charter fair, and, though the process is guarded, experts who have tasted the ale are unanimous in their belief that it contains a substantial proportion of honey. 

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