Category Archives: Booze


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.


© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Booze Custom Dining Etiquette Family Household School

If spitting chance to move thee

These fragments, on etiquette and manners, come from a little book entitled The School of Vertue (1619). Intended primarily to be read by children, it also contains wise child-rearing advice for parents.


Laying the cloth, and making ready the table:

Be sure to be ready, the bord to prepare
at times: as accustom’d with diligent care:
the table cloth first see fairely spread.
faire trenchers, cleane napkins, the salt & the bread,
let glasses be scoured, in country guise,
with salt and faire water, and ever devise
the place most convenient, where they may stand,
the safest from breaking and neerest at hand.

The Nose:
Not imitate with Socrates,
to wipe thy snivelled nose
upon thy cap, as he would do,
nor yet upon thy clothes.
But keepe it cleane with handkerchiefe
provided for the same,
not with thy fingers or thy sleeve
therein thou art to blame.
Blow not allowd as thou shalt stand
for that is most absurd,
Sniffing like a broken winded horse
is to be abhorred.
Nor practise snufflingly to speake,
for that doth imitate
the brutish Stork and Elephant
yea and the wailing cat.
If thou of force do chance to sneeze
then backwards turne away
from presence of the company
wherein thou art to stay.

To laugh at all things thou shalt heare,
is neither good nor fit,
it shewes the property and forme
of one with little wit.

If spitting chance to move thee so
thou canst it not forebeare,
remember do it modestly,
consider who is there.
If filthinesse, or ordure thou
upon the floore do cast,
tread out, and cleanse it with thy foot,
let that be done with haste.

If thou to vomit be constrain’d
avoyd from company:
so shall it better be excus’d
if not through gluttony.

Privy members:
Let not thy privy members be
layd open to be viewed,
it is most shameful and abhord,
detestable and rude.

Urine or wind:
Retaine not urine nor the winde,
which doth thy body vex,
so it be done with secrecie
let that not thee perplex.

And in thy sitting use a meane
as may become thee well,
not straddling, no nor tottering,
and dangling like a bell.

Observe in curtsie to take
a rule of decent kinde,
bend not thy body too far forth,
nor backe thy leg behind.

How to order a childe in his diet for [alcoholic] drinke:
For a childe to make the beginning of his dinner drinke is a good way to breed him up to drunkenesse. Especially if he take it for wanton custome, and not for necessity of thirst. It is dishonest to be suffered and anoysome to the body of a childe. Let not a childe drinke after he hath supt hot broth, immediately upon it; much lesse if he hath been fed with milke. Let not a childe drinke above twice or thrice at the most at one meale, and that gently, and not without reason: who bestoweth wine and beere on his childe beyond reason, defameth and abuseth him more by dishonouring his reason and provoking him to an unreasonable diet.’

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Booze Entertainment Men Music Women

The delights of the bottle

These rather charming snippets, on the delights of women and booze, come from a song entitled The Delights of the bottle, or, The town-galants declaration for women and wine being a description of a town-bred gentleman with all his intrigues, pleasure, company, humor, and conversation … : to a most admirable new tune, every where much in request (1675)

The Delights of the Bottle, & charms of good wine,
To the pow’r & the pleasures of love must resign,
Though the night in the joys of good drinking be past,
The debauches but still the next morning doth last;
But loves great debauch is more lasting and strong,
For that often lasts a man all his life long.
Love, and Wine, are the bonds that fasten us all,
The world, but for this, to confusion would fall;
Were it not for the pleasures of love and good wine,
Man-kind, for each trifle, their lives would resign;
they’d not value dull life, or wou’d live without thinking
Nor Kings rule the world, but for love & good drinking.

For the Drabe, and the Dull, by sobriety curs’d,

That would ne’r take a glass, but for quenching his thirst
He that once in a Month takes a touch of the Smock ,
And poor Nature up-holds with a bit and a knock.
What-ever the ignorant Rabble may say,
Tho’ he breaths till a hundred, he lives but a day.
Let the Puritan preach against wenches, and drink,
He may prate out his Lungs, but I know what I think;
When the Lecture is done, he’ll a Sister entice;
Not a Letcher in Town can Out-do him at Vice;
Tho’ beneath his Religion, he stifles his joys,
And becomes a Debauch without clamour or noise.
‘Twixt the Vices of both, little difference lyes,
But that one is more open, the other precize:
Though he drinks like a chick, with his eye-balls lift up,
Yet I’ll warrant thee boy, he shall take off his cup:
His Religious debauch, does the gallants out-match,
For a Saint is his Wench, and a Psalm is; his Catch.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Booze Death Vice

A Warning-Piece To All Drunkards

These snippets come from a 1682 publication warning readers of the dangers of excessive boozing. As well as a general admonition against the bewitching nature of drunkenness, the authors provide plenty of examples of the worst kinds of fate met by irresponsible imbibers.

The bewitching, besotting nature of Drunkenness: It doth not turn men into Beasts, as some think, for a Beast scorns it: I do not know that ever I saw a Beast drunk (unless it were a Swine) in my life. But it turns them into Fools and Sots, dehuminates them, turns them out of their own Essences. Drunkenness is the general Rendezvouz of all sin, the common Parent of the greatest Provocations. Even the worst of men when they are drunk, do that which if they were sober they would blush to be found guilty of. Men naturally quiet, good humor’d, moderate in sinning, as one may say, when they are themselves; are by Drunkenness metamorphos’d into such Extravagancies, you would not think them to be the same men.

Two Servants of a Brewer in Ipswich, drinking for a Rump of a Turkey, struggling in their drink for it, fell into a scalding Cauldron backwards; whereof the one died presently, the other lingringly and painfully, since my coming to Ipswich.

A man eighty five years old, or thereabout, in Suffolk, overtaken with Wine, (though never in all his Life before, as he himself said a little before his fall, seeming to bewail his present condition, and others that knew him, so say of him) yet going down a pair of stairs (against the perswasion of a woman sitting by him in his Chamber) fell, and was so dangerously hurt, as he died soon after, not being able to speak from the time of his fall to his death.

At Tenby in Pembrokeshire, a Drunkard being exceeding drunk, broke himself all to pieces off an high and steep Rock, in a most fearful manner; and yet the occasion and circumstances of his fall were so ridiculous, as I think not fit to relate, lest, in so serious a Judgement, I should move Laughter to the Reader.

At Bungey in Norfolk, three coming out of an Ale-house in a very dark Evening, swore they thought it was not darker in Hell it self: One of them fell off the Bridge into the water, and was drowned: the second fell off his Horse, the third sleeping on the Ground by the Rivers-side, was frozen to death: This have I often heard, but have no certain ground for the Truth of it.

One T. A. of Godmanchester, being a common Drunkard, was intreated by a Neighbour to unpitch a Load of Hay: And being at that time drunk, the Pitchfork slipt out of his hand, which he stooping to take up again, fell from the Cart with his head downward; and the Fork standing with the Tines upward, he fell directly upon them, which striking to his heart killed him immediately.

A Vintner that accustomed himself to swearing and drunkenness, as he was upon the Lords day standing in his door with a pot in his hand to invite guests, there came suddenly such a violent Whirlewind as carryed him up into the Air, after which he was never more seen.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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