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A Potted History of British Real Ale

Compiled by the staff of Realale.com


In the Beginning


In Britain alone, there is evidence of brewing taking place from about 6000 years ago. A Neolithic site on Orkney has evidence of a 5000 year old malt kiln. On Hadrians Wall there is evidence of a brewer operating about 120AD.


Ancient brewing was the preserve of women and as religion permeated daily life a ritual dimension developed, represented by the cauldron. Their role as life givers combined with the magical power to transform cereal into an intoxicating, thirst-quenching beer must have been a potent form of feminine power!  Whether it was this power (!) or for some other reason we do not know, but in 975AD King Edgar reportedly tried to curb ale consumption.


At that time, when beer was often drunk from a communal wooden 4-pint pottle, wooden pegs were introduced to show one-pint measures - the maximum to be consumed by any one person. Such prohibitions were doomed to failure, but this arrangement supposedly gave rise to a saying we still use; ‘to take a person down a peg or two'.


The Tax Man Cometh

In Medieval times ale was brewed in both manor houses, which supplied local taverns and village ale-houses as well as in small households. Despite this widespread ‘home brewing' there were commercial brewers (fore-runners of today's micro-breweries) although their ales were approved and taxed by an ‘ale conner' (taster) before they were sold.

In 1267 the importance of ale, like bread, in the national diet was recognised by the imposition of a sliding scale price, according to the seasonal cost of grain, by the Assize of Bread and Ale.

Ale was taxed on its strength, but this was difficult to do due to a shortage of measuring devices. An alternative method was to test the amount of sugar in the wort before fermentation since the sugar produces the alcohol in the finished brew. The solution was imaginative. Wort was poured on to a flat surface and the ale conner sat in it (with a pot of ale in hand). The strength of the wort was determined by the degree of stickiness between the conner's leather breeches and the sugary surface, which was measured after a certain elapsed time. The stickier the wort, the higher the predicted alcohol content and the higher the duty.

Ale (Old English - alu, ealu, Old Saxon - alofat) was the name given to any fermented drink brewed from malted grain and water. Barley was most common grain used in the south of England, whilst oats were the usual grain in north and western Britain. Elsewhere, mixed cereals, including wheat, oats and even beans were used.


The Arrival of Hops

Although the terms ale and beer were originally used for the same drink, the term ‘beer' fell into disuse for a while until the 15th Century when it came to be used for brews in which hops were added. It may have been that soldiers returning to England after taking part in the Crusades in the early 1400s demanded hops in their ales. Whilst in Europe they had drunk ales similar to a modern lager.

Whatever the reason, hopped beer was introduced by traders from Flanders although it was regarded in some quarters as suspect on health grounds despite the recognition that it had preservative qualities. By the early 16th Century, hops were being cultivated in Kent, Essex, Worcestershire, Cornwall and Yorkshire, and beer was beginning to displace un-hopped ales.


In 1441, beer was made subject to an assize and the London beer brewers formed their guild. It was not long before some began to believe that hopped beers were, in fact, medicinally beneficial.

Like ale, beer was drunk for breakfast, dinner and supper.  Small households with limited storage brewed beer frequently (using early ‘home-brew' kits) whilst manor houses tended to brew mainly in March and October.

In Elizabethan times ale began to be hopped and the terms ‘ale' and ‘beer' once again became broadly synonymous. The popularity of hopped brews can be gauged by the fact that in 1577 a census of drinking establishments (presumably taverns and ale houses) recorded over 5,000 in Kent, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire alone.


It is possible that the current oldest brewery in Britain, Shepherd Neame of Faversham (Kent), which normally claims it began in 1698, had its origins as far back as 1527 or earlier. Beer was brewed in three strengths, single (or ‘small beer'), double (or ‘strong') and double-double (or ‘very strong'). Brewers concentrated on double-double strength which fetched the highest price.


However, Queen Elizabeth I, preferred single and in 1560 ordered that brewing of double-double be stopped and that production of single be increased substantially.

With beer in such high demand, it is not surprising that adulteration was a problem. Ale-wives were infamous for adding preserving resin or salt to their brews, despite this ruining the flavour. One writer of 1577, named some adulterated beers as Huffcap, Mad Dog, Father Whoresonne and Dragons' Milk. Adulteration of beer was punishable by fines but difficult to regulate. This difficulty meant that home brewing continued to thrive in households. (The exception was in the West Country and parts of Wales where cider ruled supreme.)

In 1637, a royal edict banned ale-house keepers, taverners and others from brewing their own beer and obliged them to obtain supplies from a common brewer, thus making it easier to levy a brewing tax. The Parliamentarians subsequently also imposed a duty on beer, later removed on domestic brewing.

With beer brewing in the 17th Century being still very much a ‘cottage industry' there were innumerable varieties of beer produced. Most were unique to each household, but some varieties became popular, such as herb-flavoured ‘physical ales', ‘buttered ales'(with butter, sugar and cinnamon but no hops), possets (sweet spiced hot milk curdled with ale), ‘Lambs Wool' (beer with soft baked apple) and ‘Cock ale' (as it suggests with chicken, and raisins). One herbal ale, ‘Mum' (originally imported from Germany but then made in England), became so popular that it was sold in special mum-houses. Fruit ales, commonly using elderberries and blackberries, as well as cowslip ale were common home-brews.


Competition from Beverages and Spirits


It was about this time in the mid 17th Century, when Britain and other European powers were opening up international commerce, that a great revolution in British drinking habits occurred. Wines and spirits (particularly brandy) became more popular, but most importantly coffee, chocolate and tea drinking became the rage, first as luxuries but with widening appeal as prices fell.

However, this widening appeal of non-alcoholic beverages did not filter down to the poor. In 18th Century England, whilst beer drinking was till substantial, raw spirit made from excess grain crops was being consumed in vast quantities; it was whisky in Scotland.

Although a licence to sell beer was well established, none was required for spirits (which attracted an excise duty of only 2d - less than 1p - a gallon). It has been estimated that in parts of London in the 1750s about 20% of houses were a gin shop. The sales pitch was ‘direct', with signboards announcing ‘Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two-pence; clean straw for nothing'.


The combination of government imposed taxes and increases in the prices of grain forced the public to re-discover the relative merits of beer drinking. In 1786, over 1 million barrels of beer were produced in London alone by the main breweries (and as much again was house-brewed). In the latter part of the 18th Century several of the large brewing companies, with names that are still familiar were established, such as Allsops, Bass, Charington, Courage, Guinness, Tetley, Whitbread and Worthington.


Revival, Quality Control and Distribution


The revival of beer consumption was also underpinned in 1830 when the Prime Minister, The Duke of Wellington passed the Beer House Act in an attempt to dissuade the consumption of spirits. The duty on beer was removed and any house-holder assessed for the poor rate could obtain an excise license for two guineas (£2.10) with the right to retail beer ‘on' or ‘off' his premises between 4am and 10pm. These beer-houses became very popular for both the beer and socialising. Much of the beer came from commercial brewers who had now had increasing availability of ice and had perfected cooling of the wort and fermenting rooms such that they could brew the whole year round.


The growth of railways which could reach distant markets also changed the fundamental structure of brewing. Then Louis Pasteur discovered yeast's fermentation role and along with pasturisation processes, beer became a commodity that could be distributed worldwide. In addition, as part of these more advanced brewing techniques, ales changed from being rather unattractive cloudy drinks and became clearer and more attractive to the eye. This was a catalyst to the change from wooden, pewter and ceramic drinking vessels to glass.




For the remainder of the 19th Century, British beer drinking habits had to contend with competition from gin palaces to the temperance societies. Then throughout the 20th Century, there was a general decline in the drinking of traditional ales, particularly after pub culture was undermined by legislation to control beer consumption, especially among munitions workers, during WWI. Also competition for the attentions of the palate continued from bulk produced beers, tea, coffee, wine and spirits amongst a greater cross-section of the population.


In 1971 The Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed as a consumer pressure group to arrest the decline in the number of public houses and to ensure the survival of real ales in Britain; success has been mixed.


A Bright (or Bottle Conditioned) Future?


This website, www.realale.com, is pleased to be able to support British micro-breweries by providing an outlet for their products beyond their normal local marketing areas. The success of this website, CAMRA and like-minded groups in ensuring a continuing vibrant history for British ales rests with you, the reader.

[A principal reference for this article has been:
Paston-Williams, Sara, 1996. The Art of Dining - A history of cooking & eating, 348 pages, Past Times, Oxford, England. ISBN 0-7078-0272-5.]

This article was published on Saturday 03 May, 2008.
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