A brief history of beer
For the sake of argument references to ‘beer’ and ‘ale’ are synonymous. Strictly speaking ale is beer without hops. The significance of this will become apparent later.
5000 years ago the Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq, wrote down recipes for brewing beer. Archaeological evidence from Africa and China suggests that forms of brewing existed long before the Sumerians recorded it. The ancient Egyptians held beer in high regard and it was significant enough to be buried with the Pharaohs and used as an offering to the gods. They flavoured it with herbs and spices and thought of it as a medicine. The beer tradition in Egypt still survives with a brew called bouza.
Once the cultivation of grains became established, the brewing of beer spread to Europe. It proved particularly popular with tribes in the North and West, where grains grew well. Beer became deeply engrained in their culture and was integrated into religious ceremonies, a central feature to their way of life. In Norse mythology, warriors who died in battle went to Valhalla and were entitled to drink as much ‘ealu’ (ale) as they wanted.
Don’t drink the water
Centuries later, the importance of beer hadn’t waned. Water in villages and towns was often tainted by human and animal waste. Population growth and industrial processes had also led to pollution of rivers and wells. In medieval England, beer was safer to drink than water and was seen as a wholesome, healthy drink. Boiling the water in the brewing process and its alcoholic content, had a sterilising effect.
Beers of different strengths were brewed according to their use. For everyday drinking a weak or ‘small’ beer was produced, a stronger brew for leisure and the strongest for religious or ceremonial occasions. Most of the beer produced was drunk ‘fresh’ and flavoured with herbs and spices.
In the Middle Ages brewing was seen as women’s work. They would brew beer as naturally as baking bread. Some brewed more than they needed and sold the excess. These women were known as ‘alewives’ or ‘brewsters’, they were usually poor, often widows trying to make ends meet, brewing when they had enough money to buy the ingredients. It was not until the early industrialisation of brewing that men became involved.
Until then, the only men who brewed on a regular basis were monks. Monasteries not only brewed beer for themselves, but also for travellers and pilgrims. Monks became so successful at brewing they sold their beers to help fund their monasteries. In Europe some monasteries still have brewing businesses, a few with million dollar turnovers. In England the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII put an end to all that. Henry also had a direct influence on the ale consumed.
Hops and lager
Two significant landmarks in beer production were the introduction of hops and the invention of bottom fermentation.
In Europe hops were known to have been grown as early as the 8th century and it is assumed they were added to beer, but it would be another 700 years before hops were widely used in England. Hops add bitterness and aroma to beer, but just as crucially act as a preservative. English ale, brewed without hops, was sweeter and stronger than beer and was flavoured with herbs and spices, but it soured easily.
When Flemish weavers settled in England in the 14th century, they brought with them not only their skills, but their beer too. It was their preference for hopped beer that began the large scale introduction of hops into England. The growing popularity of hopped beer was not universal; Henry VIII banned its use in his ale and many saw it as a poisonous adulteration. Nonetheless the hop was here to stay; crucially it was favoured by many brewers as a means of more reliable production, less waste and therefore more profit. Ale was still produced but it wasn’t long before the terms beer and ale became interchangeable.
The brewing process is a simple chemical reaction. However, without careful hygiene and temperature control it can be easily ruined, even with the use of hops. If too cold the brewing process will not start or may stall, too warm and the results can be explosive.
Bavarian monks developed a process using bottom fermentation. Brewing took place in cool cellars, which slowed the fermentation process and caused the ingredients to sink to the bottom of the vessel. This was only possible because of particular strains of yeast that worked at lower temperatures. This meant the brew had to be stored longer but was less likely to fail. The German word for storage, is ‘lagerung’.
Using the lager method did not produce the clear, light-coloured lagers we know today. This was developed in the nineteenth century in the Czech town of Plzen (better known by its German name Pilsen) using a particular type of malted barley and very soft water, which did not leach out the colour. Around the same time Czech glass makers mass-produced drinking glasses, which enabled the drinker to see the clarity of the beer.
The Industrial Revolution transformed England from a rural agrarian nation into and industrial urban one. The development of roads and canals, the mechanisation of farming and technological advances such as steam power led to industrial beer production on a massive scale. The big brewers began to dominate the pub industry, buying up pubs or lending money to publicans in exchange for a monopoly of their market. Many of the big brewing families of the industrial revolution are still household names today.
Two notable beers were produced in the 18th & 19th century which changed English brewing forever, they were Porter and India Pale Ale.
There are many theories and disputes about Porter and its origins, that it was not one particular beer at all but a loose style which evolved over a century, produced by many and all differing in taste. The most cited theory is that Porter was so called because of its popularity with porters at London’s Smithfield and Billingsgate markets, but before this was ‘three threads’.
In the early 1700’s a drink known as ‘three threads’ was hugely popular, it was a mix of an old well hopped brown ale, a young brown ale and an expensive pale ale; these three beers were mixed in the tankard and served. It was labour intensive for the publican, the beers usually being dispensed from the cellar rather than the pub itself.
In 1722 a brewer in Shoreditch hit upon a brew he called ‘Entire’ which had all the flavour, bitterness and strength of ‘three threads’ but without the hassle of mixing it. Entire, or Porter as it was to become known, was very dark, near black in colour, had a heavy bitter hopped taste, was strong in alcohol and kept well. It also leant itself to mass production and was brewed in vast quantities of up to 20,000 barrels (5.76 million pints) compared with 3,000 barrels for regular beers.
Whatever the truth about Porter, it was the first mass produced beer. It was not only popular with porters but nationwide and was exported all over the world. Publicans liked it too because it could be served soon after delivery; and brewers liked it because economies of scale produced cheap beer and big profits. Brewers such as Whitbread, Truman, Parsons and Thrale made their fortunes from Porter. Its popularity lasted for a century until taxation, higher costs and changing tastes in favour of light pale ales.
"Lacock Abbey 16th century brewhouse "
Pale ales have been brewed for centuries and the term merely referred to beers brewed from pale malts. In contrast to the heavy dark beers favoured in London and the metropolises, the country squires, who often had breweries on their estates used the paler malts, these tended to be more expensive but were usually for ‘home’ consumption or used as a form of payment to their staff.
By the 18th century the British Empire was expanding across the globe and with it went trade. The East India Company needed a beer to export to the colonies, in particular India, to quench the thirsts of its ex-pats. An East London brewer George Hodgson was the first to produce India Pale Ale around 1780, which evolved from his pale October beer. His IPA was exceptionally heavily hopped and very alcoholic by today’s standards, but It was the hops and alcohol which made the beer survive the three month passage to India. The journey mellowed the taste of the hops and intensified the alcohol, which made it much more palatable.
Hodgson’s hold on the trade with the East India Company ended and other brewers, particularly those from Burton on Trent were already producing remarkably similar ales to his. Modern IPA’s are usually nothing more than pale bitters, despite claims to a long heritage. Some craft brewers have tried to reproduce the classic original such as Meantime Brewery’s IPA at 7.5% ABV, history in a bottle.
Keg or the real thing?
English brewers continued to use the traditional ‘top fermentation’ method. Although this produces beers of great depth and character, it can be unreliable and is a more expensive process. This traditional or ‘real ale’ is a living product which continues maturing in the barrel. It needs careful handling and good cellarmanship to keep it in peak condition and has a limited shelf life.
In the 1960’s consolidation of the brewing industry meant dozens of small brewers were swallowed up by larger ones. The new ‘super brewers’ wanted beers that were consistent, easy to dispense and would keep.
By pasteurising beer, the bacteria which makes fermentation possible but eventually causes it to sour, are killed through heating. The beer is then stable, has a better shelf life and does not need skilful handling. The trade off for this consistency is a characterless and flat beer, made gassy by adding carbon dioxide.
These ‘keg’ beers were heavily marketed and for a time were the ‘trendy’ drinks; Watney’s Red Barrel led the Red Revolution and Double Diamond ‘worked wonders’, but not for long. The new products became old and were replaced with numerous, long forgotten substitutes. Some traditional ales were turned into keg beers, keeping the name but not the taste, a step too far for some.
Those who knew their beer were appalled at the flavourless fizz and were angry that their traditional beer was being replaced with this pale imitation. In 1971 the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was launched and became so successful that even some of the big brewers began to produce traditional beers again. Today CAMRA has more than 100,000 members.
Real ale has had its ups and downs. The big multinational brewers prefer to concentrate on high turnover drinks, whatever’s in them. Many regional real ale brewers are doing well and there has been an increase in the number of producers, albeit some on a very small scale. Despite innovations and increased interest in real ales, beer consumption overall is declining.
This website supports real ale and gives details of those sold by the pubs wherever possible, but cannot guarantee the quality of the beers on sale. Some are included in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide or have been awarded the Cask Marque, an independent trust which inspects pubs for their beer quality.
To brew beer you need water, malt, yeast and hops. You mash them all together, boil them up, cool them down, strain them and you get beer. Well, not quite.
The basic ingredients may be similar, but the choice of varieties, quantities and brewing method can have a drastic affect on the taste, colour and strength of the beer produced. Lager, stout, porter and barley wine are all beers but vary wildly in appearance and taste.
Water – straightforward enough, but its mineral content will have a crucial affect on the flavour and colour of the beer produced. It must also be of a consistently high quality if used commercially.
Malt – grains such as barley and wheat are soaked, germinated and baked. Starches released in the grain turn to sugar, which react with the yeast. Subtle differences in malted grains will produce completely different tasting beers. Again quality is everything.
Yeast – is the spark that makes the brewing process work. Yeast is a fungus, it digests the sugars in the malt and secretes alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast forms a foamy head at the top of the brewing vessel (top fermentation method) but can be hard to control. Lager yeast works at cooler temperatures and is more reliable.
Hops – are added during the brewing process as a preservative and add bitterness and aroma. Real ales often have more hops added to the barrel before it is sealed to add flavour, this is known as ‘dry hopping’. There are dozens of different types of hops, each with their own character and flavour.
Other flavourings – used in addition to hops or occasionally instead of them, beers can be flavoured with herbs, spices, fruits and even heather.
Adjuncts – these are added to the brewing process in addition to or instead of malt. Rice, oats, maize and sugars may be used to give flavour or texture to a beer, such as oatmeal in stout or rice in lager to reduce maltiness.
If you would like to know more about beer, how it’s brewed and even get to try some too, The Beer Academy
runs courses in most English regions.
Or if you prefer you can brew your own.
How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right for the First Time by John Palmer will help you on your way. (amazon link)
Alternatively you could just let others do the work and buy Roger Prott’s authoritative book on beers of the world 300 Beers To Try Before You Die. There are tasting notes to make sure you don’t miss anything. (amazon link)