The History of Beer

Dr. A. Slator in the chair.

The following paper was read and discussed:—

by John F. Gretton.

Wine Made from Barley.—In these days of startling inventions it is hard to conceive that astonishment should ever have been caused, though thousands of years ago, by the discovery of how to make beer.  Nevertheless, we find ancient explorers exclaiming that the wondrous skill of man had actually found a means of turning barley into “wine”—it was described as being “wine” because the word wine was once used in all languages to describe alcoholic beverages, including beer.  It included beer because we learn that the ancient peoples of the earth drank preparations which were made from cereals, or which partly contained cereals such as barley, wheat, millet, rice, etc., and were not, therefore, “wine” in the modern meaning of the word, but a kind of beer.

Up to a short time ago Egypt was supposed to be the oldest beer-brewing country of the world. However, the modern explorer, Dr. Huber, states that according to his latest researches the Egyptians obtained their knowledge from the Babylonians, the oldest inhabitants of the Euphrates and Tigris Plain.  Dr. Huber also claims that this ancient nation brewed beer in 7000 B.C.

Agriculture gave Birth to Beer.—Beer made from cereals is as old as the cultivation of corn, and the history of beer is bound up with the beginning of agriculture, because beer made from cereals cannot have existed earlier than the cultivation and production of the ingredients used for its manufacture.  Dr. Huber’s book is, unfortunately, written in German, and as I do not understand that language I am not in a position to explain on what his evidence is based.  In any case, do not let us waste time examining the claims of one nation over another to be the oldest brewing country, but let us devote our attention to what we know about both, in so far as they contribute to the history of beer.

It might be thought that agriculture has always been practised, but so far is this from the case, there still exist in India, Central Africa, North America and Australia, communities which do not practise this craft.  The explanation is that agriculture has always been the first important step towards civilization, and the foundation of all countries and nations of the world.  Before man practised this craft, he was in what is known as the “food gathering” stage.  He plundered nature of its fruits which grew wild, without any idea of working the soil to produce food for himself.  It was only at a later stage, with the increase of the local population, and difficulties caused by the decrease in the supply of Nature’s wild food, that man first showed his intelligence by attempting to grow food for himself.  There were, however, many difficulties which had to be overcome, and the process of evolution was consequently slow.  It is also unlikely that agriculture commenced in other than favourable areas.  In this respect, the two countries which interest us most are Egypt and Babylon.

Egypt and Babylon.—Both these countries possess several natural advantages, including the fertility of a soil which was periodically irrigated by the flooding of the River Nile in Egypt and the Tigris in Babylon.  Recent research shows that both in Egypt and Babylon barley grew wild and in each case, barley preceded wheat.  In connection with this statement it may be interesting to make one or two observations.  Some 26 or 28 years ago, Professor G. Elliott Smith examined certain human bodies which, buried in the hot dry sand, had been naturally preserved; and from the intestines he recovered the meal before death.  Their gut contents were examined and it was found that in nearly every body husks of barley were present, while in 10 per cent, millet was found, but in no instance was there any wheat.  These bodies had lived in the early pre-dynastic periods and the inference is that these crops, therefore, were raised in Egypt between six and ten thousand years ago.  The reason why we should not expect to find wheat in the intestines of these Egyptians is because it did not grow wild in Egypt, but was imported at a later period from Asia where it still grows wild in Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, it has been found that although wild wheat is always accompanied by wild barley, wild barley is sometimes found growing alone.  This may be explained by the fact that barley needs the least amount of water and is able to persist in alkaline soils where the other cereals such as wheat cannot survive.

Lastly, there is the instance of one of Joseph’s dreams, in the old Testament which indicates the kind of crops then being grown in Canaan.  (Gen. XXXVII., v. 7).  It is where Joseph says to his brothers, “We were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold your sheaves stood around about and made obeisance to my sheaf.”  In other words, Joseph’s sheaves which stood upright, were wheat, whereas his brother’s sheaves which drooped before ripening were barley.  The story itself is in the form of a parable as is so often the case in the east, but it does give a very good instance of how it is known what kind of crops were being grown in those faroff days.

The Bakers were Brewers.—With the cultivation of barley and wheat there developed the production of grain, and as both bread and beer depend upon grain and yeast fermentation for their manufacture, the evolution and development is the same in both cases.  In support of this statement, we find that the bakers of ancient Egypt and Babylon were also brewers of beer, and vice versa.  Four thousand years ago the Egyptian peasant and landowner drank beer as did the craftsman, soldier, merchant, and king.  Today the “fellah”, or Egyptian peasant, not only drinks his beer in the same fashion, he also makes it in the same way.

“A Sketch from Life in an Egyptian City,” by G. Maspuro is a modern interpretation, but it will serve to illustrate how Egyptian beer is made, and also show the number of varieties which exist and must have existed.  “Beer,” he says, “has always been the favourite beverage of the people (Egyptians.)  It is made in a mash tub of barley steeped in water and raised by fermented crumbs of bread.  When freshly made it is soft and pleasant to taste, but it is easily disturbed and soon turns sour.”

Sweet beer, iron beer, sparkling beer, spice beer, cold or hot, beer of the sticky millet, like that prepared in Nubia and amongst the negroes of the Upper Nile.  The beer houses contain stores of as many varieties of beer as of different qualities of wine.

How beer was used in Egypt.—Beer was not only used as a beverage in the ancient Egypt, but it also played an important part in sacrifices, and in this connection we read that King Rameses III offered for sacrificial purposes during his long reign, no less than 466,303 jugs of beer.  Assuming that a jug of beer contained but one gallon (and it probably held a good deal more) it is estimated that the annual contribution of beer must have been some 15,000 gallons or about 500 barrels.  In any case, the quantity of beer brewed for sacrificial purposes was undoubtedly large.

Egypt being a hot country, it is interesting that the method employed for storing beer in B.C. 1500 was to keep it in skins and leather bottles placed in water to keep it cool.  This we know from an inscription which states that thieves entered the store of a citizen and stole bread and ornaments, and “sucked the beer from the skin which lay on the water,” while the owner was out visiting.  Beer was also used in medicines, as in the following examples.  The fruit of the dgam tree (olive?) in beer was recommended for indigestion and Tehvi mingled with beer was said to be good for colic.

A Beer House 4,000 Years Ago.—The oldest recipe for the brewing of beer is Babylonian, in which country they made 18 different varieties of beer, and as long ago as B.C. 2200 there were beer houses and wine taverns in Babylon.  These places were managed by women, and the laws and regulations which governed them seem to have been very strict.  There was a code of laws which stipulated that payment could only be made in corn, which in itself had a price fixed by statute.  The guests drank “upon trust” and the score of each one was settled after the harvest.  Grain thus took the place of coin, and the amount of grain due to be paid corresponded to the amount used in the brewing of the beer consumed.  If the manageress could be proved to have asked for money with an advantage to her, and in circumstances where corn had sunk in price after the harvest, she was summoned and, if convicted, the penalty was death by drowning.

The Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans.—We must next mention those nations which learned the art of brewing from the Egyptians, the Jews, and the Greeks.  The Jews learned how to make beer during the time of their captivity in Egypt.  However, it never played the important part with them in Palestine which it did in Egypt, because the grape vine flourished, and dates and palms from which they were able to make wine.  This supports the theory, and it will be found to be true that in those countries where the soil is not particularly suited to the growing of the vine, beer always becomes the chief beverage.

The Greeks, who learned the art from the Egyptians, in their turn taught the Romans, and in the days of Julius Cæsar, beer was served as a ration to his Roman soldiers.

Ancient Britain.—When Britain was invaded, Cæsar found that the ancient Britons drank chiefly mead—a drink made from honey—as well as their own kind of beer, and under the influence of the Roman occupation they soon learned to make and like the Roman beers.  Vines were grown and wine made in Kent, and no doubt wine was important, but beer was the popular drink.

The antiquity of ale in this country is shown by the fact that alehouses were in existence as early as 721, and are mentioned in the laws of Ina, King of Wessex, while the custom of drinking to “pins” or “pegs” is said to have been invented as a temperance reform by King Edgar who reigned between the years 958-975.

One of the earliest references to English ale being exported abroad took place in the 12th Century, when Thomas a’Becket took two waggons laden with beer in iron-bound casks as a present to the French, because, it is said, ” they admire that kind of drink.”  The Druid priests were the brewers of ancient Britain, and beer was used instead of wine at their feasts and gatherings.

The Ale Feasts.—The same custom was also observed by the early Christians.  These feasts took place at certain times every year, such as at Christmas and Whitsuntide.  Even to this day Christmas is sometimes referred to as Yuletide, which really means Aletide, and dates back to the love feasts of the early Christians.  It was a strict rule of these festivities that they should be rendered innocent by the giving of alms.  Accordingly, presents of malt were given to the Church wardens with which to brew the beer for the feast, and on the appointed day, whether at Christmas or Whitsuntide, they would assemble together from all over the neighbourhood.  To quote from one account of these gatherings: “The afternoons are consumed in such exercises as old and young folk (having leisure) do accustomly wear out the time with all.”  The young people amused themselves, “dancing, bowling, and shooting at butts”, while the ancients, we are told, sat gravely by and looked on.  When the feast was ended, the profits made out of the occasion provided a fund for the poor of the parish, and this existed in one form or another until the present Poor Law was instituted.

Church Ale Feasts.—In later times there developed “church ale” feasts in connection with the local parish churches, a record of one of which is as follows:—An old indenture made before the Reformation states:—”The parishioners of Elveston and Oakbrook in Derbyshire agreed jointly to brew four ales, and every ale of one quarter of malt betwixt this and the feast of St. John the Baptist next come.  Every inhabitant of the said town of Oakbrook shall be at the several ales, and every husband and his wife shall pay twopence, every cottager one penny, and all the inhabitants of Elveston shall have and receive all the profits and advantages coming of the said ales to the use and the behoof of the said church of Elveston.  And inhabitants of Elveston shall brew eight ales betwixt this and the feast of St. John the Baptist, to which ales the inhabitants of Oakbrook shall come and share as before rehearsed.  And if any be away at one ale to pay the other ale for both.”

Bride Ale.—A special ale was also brewed for early Christian weddings, and this was called “bride ale,” from which the present word “bridal” is derived.  These feasts known as bride ale feasts, later as bridal feasts, and latterly as bidden weddings were at one time very popular in Cumberland and Westmorland.  In return, however, for the hospitality offered, the guests were expected to make a contribution towards the cost of their entertainment and the profits were handed over to the newly wedded couple as a nucleus towards furnishing.  In those instances where this occurred the weddings were known as “penny weddings.”  Here is a form of invitation to one of them, taken from the “European Magazine” of July, 1789.

“A Bidden Weddings.”
“Suspend for one day your cares and your labours,
And come to the wedding, kind friends and good neighbours.”
Notice is hereby given that the marriage of Isaac Pearson with Frances Atkinson will be
solemnized in due form in the Parish Church of Lamplugh, Cumberland, on Tuesday next, the Thirtieth of May, inst., after which the bride and bridegroom, with their attendants, will proceed to Lonefoot, in the same parish where the nuptials will be celebrated by a variety of rural entertainments.

“Then come one and all,
At Hymen’s soft call,
From Whitehaven, Workington, Harrington, Daan,
Hail Ponsonby, Blainz, and all places between,
From Egremont, Cookermouth, Parton, St. Bees,
Cint, Kinnyaide, Cimber, and parts joining these,
And the country at large may flock in if they please,
Such sports there will be as have seldom been seen,
Such wrestling, and fencing and dancing between,
By horses and asses and dogs will be run,
That you’ll go home happy, as sure as a gun.
In a word, such a wedding can ne’er fail to please,
Nota Bene: You’ll be pleased to observe that the day
Of this grand bridal pomp is the thirtieth of May,
When ’tis hoped that the sun to enliven the sight,
Like the Flambeau of Hymen will deign to burn bright.”

A Give Ale.—Another kind of ale, which differed from those already mentioned, was known as a “give ale.”  These were the legacies of individuals, and from that circumstance entirely gratuitous.  An instance is provided by the will of one William May, dated 24th of May, 1512. He directed that “his wife make every year for his soul an obit; in bread she was to take six bushels of wheat, and in drink ten bushels of malt, and in cheese twenty pence to give to poor people for the health of his soul; and he ordered that after the decease of his wife his executors should continue the said obit before rehearsed for ever more.”

A curious example of this form of charity is recorded in an old magazine:—”Two women left two acres of land to Paddington Church, in commemoration of a particular charity by which they had been relieved when in distress.  Every year bread and cheese were to be thrown out of the church steeple, and ale was to be distributed amongst the spectators.  In some cases it was directed that casks of ale were to be placed on the public highway for the free use of all travellers using the road.  An instance of this existed at Rickmansworth and was still attended to in 1850.  The cask was placed every morning at the foot of the hill leading out of the town on the road to Watford.

Condiments.—The flavour of ales throughout the ages and in this country from the time of the Ancient Britons up to about 150 years ago cannot now be anticipated, when an extraordinary variety of condiments’ were used (including wormwood, bay berry, ground ivy, pine and willow bark, cascarilla barb, broom, extract of aloes, capsicum (guinea pepper), and colocynth (bitter apples).

Hops were employed, but evidence of their general use diminishes after the Norman Conquest, a change which may have been influenced by the French invaders who preferred a sweeter drink.  We hear of hops again in the 16th century, on account of the opposition to their use “in regard that they would spoyle the taste of the drinks and endanger the people.”  Considerable opposition came from the brewers of un-hopped ale, but at the same time there was also a certain amount of genuine agitation on the part of the public against their use.  In spite of this, and the fact that we are told that King Henry VIII would have none of it in his royal ale, immigrating Flemish, who settled in Kent in 1524, in the end, gave an impetus to beer brewed with hops.

Before mentioning the various ingredients used for flavouring beers, it is necessary to draw attention to the lack of knowledge which existed concerning the keeping qualities of beer.  For instance, the art of brewing in the past was not known by this title alone, but was always accompanied by the prefix, “The Mystery or Art of Brewing.”  The foundation of the mystery was the cause of fermentation in beer and this lent itself to all kinds of superstition about the intervention of witches spoiling the ale if the brew itself was a failure, or, if later, it failed to keep.  In the 18th century the cleverest men of the day thought that fermentation was due to some electrical influence, and, as we know, it was not until comparatively recent times, that Pasteur made his discovery concerning the properties of yeast.

For an instance of superstition in Saxon times, there is an old Leech Book, which gave the following instructions :—

“If the ale be spoylt, take lupins, lay them on the four quarters of the dwelling and over the door and under the threshold and under the ale vat.  Put the ale into the vat with holy water.”

Then again in comparatively recent times, in the year 1793, a Scotch brewer advocated :
“I throw a little dry malt which is left on purpose, on top of the mash, with a handful of
salt to keep the witches from it, and then cover it up.”

A general remedy for preserving, fining and relishing malt liquors, is as follows :—
“Take one pennyworth of treacle, the powder of dry chalk bean flour, wheat flour, oyster shellpowdered, pebble stone powdered, of each a handful; one quartern of French brandy, and two ounces of powdered ginger; knead together into four or five dumplings and put into a butt ofstrong brown beer.”

In order to prevent injury from thunder, the placing of a piece of iron on each cask or an iron pad over the bunghole was recommended, and so on, until we are told that these various prescriptions would differentiate one brewer’s skill from another and “please customers.”

This brings us to those ingredients which were undoubtedly used to produce flavours for the purpose of pleasing customers; for medicinal prescriptions, and very probably to produce new flavours in competition with imported wines which rapidly gained favour with those who could afford to buy them.

Foreign imported wines made their appearance in this country at about the following dates :—Sack, 1536; sherry, 1608; brandy, 1622;  port, 1691.

To give an instance of beer which has been treated in such a way that it can be appreciated in comparison with wine, there is the old prescription for elderberry beer :
“To a hogshead of the strongest wort a bushel of picked elderberries was added.  After it had remained in cask about a year it was bottled.  A most rich drink resulted called Ebulum, which, it is said, was often preferred to the imported Port Wine on account of its pleasing taste and healthful quality.”

Beef and Beer.—A favourite custom in the Midlands and North of England was to introduce beef into the vats of fermenting liquor, usually strong ale.  The origin of this custom seems to have originated from beer called “Morocco,” which was brewed at Levens, near Milnthorpe, Westmorland, from a recipe found wrapped up in lead near an evergreen in the old garden near the house.  The exact recipe for brewing “Morocco” beer was kept strictly secret, while there is a legend which says that the original recipe was brought to this country by a Crusader named Howard.  During the time of the Civil Wars, it is said to have been buried where it was found towards the end of the last century.

Ale the National Drink.—To show what a large part ale played in the daily life of every man and woman of this nation, it is interesting to examine the daily menu of King Henry VIII. and the nobility of his day, when both the Court and the people drank ale at every meal.  Witness the allowance given to Lady Lucy, a maid of honour.

Breakfast: A chine of beef, a loaf, a gallon of ale.
Luncheon: Bread and a gallon of Ale.
Dinner: A piece of boiled beef, a slice of roast meat, a gallon of ale.
Supper : Porridge, Mutton, a loaf and a gallon of ale.

So, too, in the Household Book of Henry Algernon Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland, at his castles of Wressil and Lechonfield, in Yorkshire, in the year 1512.

“Breakfastis for Flesch days to be, for my lorde and my lady, First a loaf of brede in trenchers, two manchetis, one quart of bere, a quart of wine, half a chyne of mutton or ells a chine of beef  boiled.”

“Breakfastis for the nursery, for my lady Margaret and Mr. Ingrain Percy, item, a manohet,1 one quart of bere, and three mutton bonys boiled.”

“Breakfastis for my lady’s gentlewoman, item, a loaf of household brede, a pottoll of beire, and three mutton bonys boiled, or ells a piece of beif boiled.”

1 (A roll or small loaf of the best bread.)

In the Middle Ages, between the years of 1000 and say 1600, we find that the brewers for the most part were women, and surprising as this may seem the explanation is very simple. Ale was brewed in the home in the same way as bread was baked in the kitchen ovens before there were bakers of bread for sale in this country.  Women even made the malt and the word maltster was the feminine of malter, in the same way that women were brewsters and the masculine form was brewer.  Later the brewsters retailed the ales which they made, and they then became known as ale wives.  The following lines were written on one Eleanor Rummyng, an ale wife of Leatherhead :—

“She breweth nappy ale,
And maketh thereof a sale,
To travellers, to tinkers,
To sweaters and swinkers.2
And all good ale drinkers.”
2 (Labourers)

The Romance of a Successful Ale Wife.—During troubles in the reign of Charles the First, a country girl came to London in search of a situation, and not succeeding as she had anticipated, applied to be allowed to carry out beer from a brew house.  Women who followed this occupation were known as “tub women.”  The brewer, observing our heroine to be a good-looking girl, took her out of her low situation into his house and afterwards married her.  In a short time he died while she was comparatively young and left her a very large fortune.  She never relinquished the brewery, and for the proper settlement of her husband’s affairs was recommended to a Mr. Hyde, an able lawyer and practitioner, whom she afterwards married.  This gentleman later became the Earl of Clarendon.  From his marriage he had issue one daughter who was betrothed and became the wife of James the Second, the mother of Mary and Anne, both subsequently queens of England.

The Abbey Beer.—The monks were the other great brewers of mediaeval times, and had been ever since the Christian era.  The duty of hospitality being one of the first functions of the monks, the post of cellarer was an important one, and not infrequently the .cellarer was appointed Abbot.  Burton Abbey beer was sent quite long distances, even in the times of the Norman kings.  In 1630 Burton beer was regularly on sale in London at the Peacock Inn, Gray’s Inn Lane.  London has had regular supplies ever since.

On the dissolution of the monasteries, brewing went into the hands of publican brewers, who brewed beer to sell in their own inns.  Some of these are still in existence, and still brew their own beers.  The oldest dates back to the twelfth century.

An inn sign which has a bearing on this period is that of the “Barley Mow,” meaning “an inn which had attached to it a barn for storing barley,” the end of the barn where the barley was stored in the straw before being threshed, being called the Barley Mow.

Speaking of barley, we have already said that in Egypt and Babylon barley preceded wheat.  This is also probably equally true of this country.  A reason for believing this, is that in early Saxon times the principal building of a farm was the barn (from “Baere” meaning “barley” and “era” meaning “house,” i.e., barley house.)  This was also the case in Anglo-Saxon times.  It is therefore significant that we do not find any corresponding word for “wheat house.”  A local village near Burton-on-Trent which must once have been a landmark for growing barley is that of Barton derived from “Baere” and “Tun” (modern word “town”) which probably meant the barley enclosure.

To Toast.—A very old English custom is that of giving a toast.  The verb “to toast” originated from the practice of putting a piece of toast into a jug of ale.  This custom originated from an objectionable habit which the Danes had of stabbing, or cutting the throats of the English whilst they were drinking their spiced ale.  In order to guard against such a contingency it became a practice to request some friend to protect you while you yourself were drinking.

“Skjold.”—In contrast to this, there was the custom of the Vikings.  When they had killed an antagonist, they retained his skull, which they carried suspended from their belts, and used it as a drinking cup when drinking a friend’s health; they filled one of these suspended skulls with liquor and clinked the skull with that of a friend’s and exclaimed “Skjold.”  This is probably the reason why, today, we clink our glasses, when drinking a friend’s health.  The word “skull” itself is a Norwegian one, and is still much used, and corresponds to our “good health.”

A Bumper.—The word “bumper” (as used in the toast, “friend of my heart, here’s a bumper to thee”) arose from the custom of Catholics drinking the health of the Pope at the conclusion of a feast;  “aubon Pe’re.”  If these words are said quickly with an English accent the corruption soon becomes apparent.

Among the many toasts which existed in the past, the following are interesting :—

“A fall tumbler to every good follow—a good tumble to every bad one.”
“Old English customs, may modern refinement never introduce habits less healthful.”
“May a quarrelsome toper be compelled to be a teetotaller.”
“May riotous monks have a double Lent.”
“Merry hearts to village maidens.”
“The times when each village home was never without good beer.”
“The merry days of England, may her merriest be yet to come.”
“Woman: may she ever remain the guard of man’s virtue.”
“May the lover’s pride be succeeded by the husband’s truth and affection.”
“May the ladies never be caught like bees, by mere noise.”
“Lots of Beef, oceans of beer, a pretty girl, and a thousand a year.”

Wassail.”—It has been mentioned that the early Christians used to have ale feasts which they held at certain times every year.  One of these, as we have seen, was at Christmas, or “Yuletide,” which later meant “Aletide.”  The custom of handing round the Wassail or health bowl, is said to have dated back to the feast of Yale.  The wassail bowl itself is of Saxon origin and its history is as follows:—”Vortigern, Prince of Silures, fell in love with Rowena, niece of Hengist.  She presented him with a bowl of spiced ale, saying, in Saxon, ‘Waes heal Hlaford Cyning,’ which means, ‘Be of health, Lord King.’  Vortigern afterwards married Rowena, and his kingdom fell to the Saxons.  Waesheil thus became the name of the drinking cups of the Anglo-Saxons.”

In the west of England in the Middle Ages, Wassail is described as a drinking song of Twelfth Night, part of the ceremony of which was to throw toast on an apple tree, in order to have a fruitful year, while in the south, labourers poured a small quantity of beer on the ground before drinking, as a libation to Mother Earth.  The actual procedure varied to some degree in different counties, and in Yorkshire about the year 1700, we learn that on the twelfth eve of Christmas it was the custom for many families to invite their relations, friends and neighbours to their houses for supper.  After supper the wassail bowl was brought in, of which each one partook by taking with a spoon out of the ale, a roasted apple which they eat.  The health of the company was then drunk from out of the bowl, everyone wishing each other a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”  At Christmas time we still observe this custom of drinking the health of our friends, and wishing them ”A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

This, in ancient times, would have been drunk from the wassail or “good health” bowl.

An interesting discussion followed the reading of the paper in which the Chairman, Messrs. R. J. B. Storey, H. E. Field, C. G. Matthews, W. H. Giles, R. McCreath, R. T. Robinson, H. E. Dryden, C. J. Flamen and F. Sims took part.

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