Hops, Hogsheads & Horsepower


A Highly-Selective History of Beer
By Adrian Teal.

“What two ideas are more inseparable than Beer and Britannia?”
Reverend Sydney Smith (1771-1845)

The words ‘beer’ and ‘ale’ are interchangeable these days, but there was a time when the two were very different beverages. Ale was made with malt, and had a consistency a bit like porridge. In fact, you had to strain it, and Anglo-Saxon cemeteries often yield remains of well-to-do ladies with ‘sieve-spoons’, which were status symbols. Beer (from the Latin ‘biber’, meaning ‘a drink’) was much stronger – perhaps having one-fifth alcohol content – and was a sweetish drink brewed with additional ingredients, which might include dandelions, burdock, rosemary and thyme. When over-wintered in casks, the water content in the beer would often freeze, the frost-resistant alcohol would separate and purify, and the resulting brew served out would be flammable. Even so, beer and ale were the safest drinks of the Middle Ages, because the boiling action used in brewing them eliminated many contaminants in the water.

Saxon ale-houses displayed a branch outside to attract punters, which was also used to stir the contents of the ale-casks. In the later Middle Ages, ale-houses used a sign consisting of a long projecting pole with a bush at the end, known as an ‘ale-stake’. The length of these poles obstructed horses in the streets, so an Act of 1375 ordered that ale-stakes in towns should not extend more than seven feet over the public way. Marketing didn’t stop at street-signs, and Medieval beers had some curious names, including ‘huffe cap’, ‘the mad dog’, ‘angel’s food’, ‘father whoresonne’, ‘lift leg’, ‘stride wide’, ‘go by the wall’, and ‘dragon’s milke’.

In the 14th century, London ale was the strongest, and more expensive than others. Quality-control was taken very seriously, and every ward in the city elected a group known as ‘ale-conners’ (from the Old English ‘cunnian’, meaning ‘test’) who judged whether each batch of ale brewed was as ‘good as it was wont to be’. In addition to tasting they would test the brew by donning leather trousers and sitting in a puddle of beer on a stool  for half an hour. If their bottoms were stuck to the seat when they tried to arise, the beer contained too much residual sugar and didn’t meet the required standard. Shakespeare’s father was an ale-conner, and ale-conning ceremonies are still performed in London today.

Medieval society was structured around festivals known as ‘ales’, and there were many kinds, including midsummer-ales, church-ales, and bride-ales. (In fact, the words ‘bride’ and ‘brew’ have their origin in the verbal root bru-, meaning ‘cook’, ‘brew’, or ‘make a broth’, in the early continental language known as Proto-Indo-European.) The mothers of medieval brides-to-be were expected to make beer for the forthcoming nuptials. Another tradition was ‘groaning-ale’: the local ale-wife brewed a beer which would be ready for drinking by the time an expectant mother was due to go into labour, known as the ‘groaning’.

The biggest change made to beer was the introduction of hops into the brewing process. Hops are from the same family as cannabis and nettles, and give beer its aroma and bitterness. They grow incredibly quickly: up to six inches per day. They also contain oils and resins, such as lupulin, which clarify, preserve and disinfect the beer, so it no longer had to be powerfully alcoholic to keep for long periods. They were first used by Bavarian monks in the 8th and 9th centuries, but were only brought to England in around 1400 by Dutch traders operating in Kent and Sussex. The Dutch might also have given us the word ‘hogshead’ via their words ‘hukeshovet’ or ‘hoekshoot’. A hogshead is a quantity of booze measuring 63 gallons, or a beer-cask holding 63 – 140 gallons, which possibly resembled a hog’s head, or might have been branded with a hog’s head logo. However, there’s much debate about the precise origin of the word, and it may be that the use of variations of  ‘oxhead’ – such as ‘oxhooft’ in Dutch, ‘oxhufvod’ in Old Swedish, and ‘oxhoved’ in Danish – were corrupted to ‘hogshead’ in English. The measurement was first standardized in England by an Act of Parliament in 1423.

The acquired taste of hops aroused strong feelings in England, and many thought of the hop plant as ‘a wicked and pernicious weed’. Henry VIII ordered his court brewer never to use them. Foreign royals weren’t so prejudiced, however, and in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) Good King Wenceslas – he of Christmas carol fame – prized them so much that he made the export of hop cuttings punishable by death.

In keeping with every cliché about student boozing, Trinity College, Cambridge, and Brasenose College, Oxford, were famous for their potent beers, and Brasenose had its own brewery. In fact, ‘Brasenose’ itself is a corruption of ‘brasenhuis’, meaning ‘brewhouse’ or ‘brasserie’, which comes from the Latin ‘brasinium’, and the college was built on the site of King Alfred’s brewery.

Beer was enjoyed by some big celebrity names in the 16th and 17th centuries. Queen Elizabeth I used to quaff a quart for breakfast, but others used it to drown their sorrows. Mary Queen of Scots had dark beer brought to her at Fotheringhay Castle, Northants, before she went to the block. Sir Walter Raleigh enjoyed a beer and a smoke on the morning of his execution, and Hugh Latimer sank spiced ale with his last meal, the night before he was burned at the stake for heresy.

The most popular beer of the 18th century was porter, which was the powerful tipple of choice of the porters in London’s markets, hence the name. A great deal of hops was used in its manufacture, and the malt was burned, making it a dark brew. Porter caused the terrible Horse Shoe Brewery disaster of 1814. The Meux’s Company had wooden vats at their premises on the Tottenham Court Road, London, which held around 1 million pints of porter. One of the vat’s iron hoops cracked, and the fermenting porter exploded with such force that it could be heard five miles away. This caused the second vat to erupt too, and the beer, escaping under high pressure, destroyed a wall 25 feet high and hit the streets like a tidal wave. People were drowned, poisoned by fumes, flattened by rubble, drank themselves to death in the gutters, or were crushed in the stampede to do so. Drenched casualties who were taken to hospital stank of beer, and the other patients rioted when they thought free booze was being denied them by the medical staff. Many of the dead were laid out in a nearby house, and people curious to see the bodies were charged admission. There was such a large crowd crammed into the premises that a floor collapsed, adding significantly to the death toll.

The early nineteenth century saw a number of huge breweries spring up in London, and by 1911, Meux’s premises at Gray’s Inn had a vat so vast (176 feet in circumference) that 400 people were able to hold a party inside it. From the 1780s, the larger breweries were among the first to use the famous steam engines of James Watt, whose commercial interests were developing beyond his revolutionary water-pumps employed in Cornish tin mines. The steam engines replaced horses, and Watt had to work out a way of calculating his royalties. By his estimation, one horse could raise 33,000 lbs of water 1 foot per minute from the brewery wells, and ‘horsepower’ as a unit of measurement was born.

The largest London brewery was the firm of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co., which gets a mention in David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, and the Madness song The Liberty of Norton Folgate. Theirs was the Black Eagle Brewery in Brick Lane, which covered an area of six acres, had a well 850 feet deep, and employed around 1000 people. It was famous for the good pastoral care it showed its workforce. The head of the company, Thomas Buxton, was made a baronet for his services to the abolition of the slave-trade. Benjamin Truman was knighted by George III, and Sampson Hanbury was made Master of the Puckeridge Hounds for 35 years, a huge honour for someone outside the landed gentry. Many peers found the ennobling of beer magnates distasteful, and referred to them as ‘The Beerage’.

The Allsopp family, based in Burton-on-Trent, started exporting their beer to Russia, and it was a favourite of Catherine the Great and her husband. When the Russians later imposed heavy taxes on imported English beer, the Allsopps focused on selling beer to the ex-pat Indian market, and came up with ‘India Pale Ale’. This beer was taken on 19th-century polar voyages, as its high hop content meant it kept for long periods.

The 1830 Beerhouse Act was intended to create alternatives to the notorious gin shops by allowing anyone to sell beer if they paid a small excise fee. Within a few years, there were 45,000 new beer shops, and the inns tried to force new competitors out of business by slashing prices. Beer shops responded by watering the beer down to make it go further, and added various drugs to give it a head and the illusion of strength. Hops and malt were replaced with substances like harts-horn, chalk, oyster shells, cloves, coriander-seeds, orange powder, ‘grains of paradise’ (an opium-based narcotic), chalk, treacle, liquorice, and cocculus indicus, which contains a nasty poison called picrotoxin.

During World War II, Winston Churchill – an enthusiastic boozer himself – understood the importance of beer to the morale of the British people, and front-line troops received a ration of four pints per week. Supplying our boys with a pint became such a priority that immediately after D-Day, Spitfires were flown into France with beer in their spare fuel tanks, or with kegs of ale attached to the underside of their wings. This practice was not officially authorized, however, so the pilots hoodwinked the bureaucrats by signing off their precious cargoes as ‘XXX Depth Charges’. Barley for brewing became scarce as the war progressed, so alternatives were sought. Oats weren’t a huge success, and neither were potatoes. Greene King abandoned brewing with spuds when their customers complained the beer was giving them chronic flatulence.


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  • October 18, 2010 - 11:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks very much!

  • October 17, 2010 - 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Nice post and nice pictures. This reminds me of old times. Cool blog, by the way.

  • September 15, 2010 - 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Nicely done Ade. I was in Brick Lane recently and much of the old Truman brewery estate is still visible. It’s huge.

    Beer was also (a little bit) responsible for taming the Soho cholera epidemic in the 1840s. Part of Dr John Snow’s supporting evidence (that public water supplies carried the bug) was the fact that the Soho brewers didn’t get ill. The hops in their beer, which they drank at work in preference to water, killed the bug.

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