A History of English Ale – A great tradition-and a living craft.

Written by Mark Taylor

Savouring some real English ale in a dedicated ale house is considered by all its fans to be one of life’s little pleasures. But you may not realise how much history lies behind the pint in your hand.

The first Ale House.
Our pagan Nordic ancestors whether Angle, Saxon or Jute shared our love of ale .In many ways it held the invading warrior bands together. Drinking in the Meadhall was an activity which bonded the chief to his followers. Normally women brewed and served the drinks, they were the barmaids of their day.

As with all skills, some were better at brewing than others. Those who made good ale sold it within their village, and beyond. The ale was sometimes consumed at the brewer's house and thus, the informal alehouse was born. However this arrangement was likely to be part-time or when the brewer had enough money to brew.

Dark Age light ale.
We know that as early as the seventh century the number of ale-sellers was restricted by Ethelbert, the King of Kent, so perhaps the population was becoming a little too skilful at brewing.

Three centuries later, another King of Kent, Edgar, regulated the size of drinking vessels, which suggests that ale was served and drunk at a particular location. Incidentally this drinking vessel was shared and each measure was marked by a peg, requiring the drinker to drink down to the peg and then pass the vessel on. However the drinker often drank beyond the measure...taking the next drinker 'down a peg or two' an expression which is still used today.

The spread of Christianity did nothing to lessen the English thirst for ale and many Pagan rituals which involved drinking, were adopted by the Christian church. Ales were sometimes brewed especially for church festivals or to raise funds, these were known as 'scot ales', and those who brewed secretly to avoid giving the church its share were drinking 'scot free'.

The meaning of the word ‘ale’.
This word has been used for over a thousand years in England and originally described an alcoholic beverage brewed with malted barley and water but without hops. The word is shared by the Nordic nations, and is øl in Danish and Norwegian.

Until 1400 the ingredients of ale consisted of malted barley, water and yeast. The ale was cloudy, full of protein and carbohydrate, making it a good source of nutrition for peasant and noble man. It is thought that in the fifteenth century a new version of ale was introduced to England by merchants from Flanders and Holland, with the introduction of hops. Hops added a measure of bitterness and were thought to help preserve the ale. The hopped variety was called beer and the unhopped drink, ale.

By the end of the century, beer had almost completely replaced the old English sweet ale, and was being exported to Europe. Records dating back to the 15th century show that almost half of the ships' cargoes taken across the North Sea and the Baltic Sea were barrels of beer.

Until the middle of the 16th century, beer making was mainly a family operation and had little commercial application. However, it was certainly an integral part of everyday diet.
Ladies-in-waiting at the court of Henry VII were allowed a gallon of beer for breakfast alone.
Queen Elizabeth, when travelling through the country, always sent couriers ahead to taste the local ale. If it didn't measure up to the quality required a supply would be shipped from London for her. William Shakespeare's father was an ale-tester or "conner". The "conner" tested the ale by pouring some upon a bench and sitting on it while drinking the rest. If there was sugar in the ale, or it was impure, their leather breeches would stick after sitting for half an hour or so.

Bottled Beer an English invention.
The Dean of St Pauls, in the 16th century, is credited with the invention of bottled ale. Dr Alexander Norwell put beer in a bottle when he went fishing and left the bottle in the grass. Returning some years later he found the cork came away with an explosion but the taste and quality of the beer was still good.

16th century onwards - The evolution of the Oast House
The main hop growing counties in England from the 16th century onwards were Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, and Worcestershire. A hop market was set up at Little Eastcheap in London to feed the voracious demand of that city's breweries. The hops gathered on a large scale required drying in the typically damp Autumn enjoyed by England, and thus the strange pointed red brick structure of the drying house evolved. These were heated by charcoal from below, with a drying room strewn with hops above. The earliest Oast house still in existence can be seen at Cranbrook, Kent. It was built about 1750.

Stout and dark malted beers
The invention of the drum roaster in 1817 by Daniel Wheeler allowed for the creation of very dark, roasted malts, contributing to the flavour of porters and stouts. Its development was prompted by an English law of 1816 forbidding the use of any ingredients other than malt and hops. Porter brewers, employing a predominantly pale malt grist, urgently needed a legal colourant. Wheeler's patent malt was the solution.

During the nineteenth century a growing population in the expanding industrial towns created a huge demand for beer, many of today’s famous breweries were stated at this time. Sadly as the mid twentieth century arrived the drive for standardisation and speed of manufacture led to the development at some of the giant breweries of some pasteurised and over processed beers, which, lacking potency and a poor shadow of the good ales of Old England drove better made producers out of business or took them over. By the 1970’s things had reached such a state that it was necessary to drink almost twice the quantity of beer to obtain the same effect formally produced by a traditionally made barrel conditioned ale.

Just as the drinkers of England believed it was all up for them and that the high reputation of our unique beers was in terminal decline, a miracle happened. In 1971 four men from the North of England on a mission created a Campaign For Real Ale, this was started as a protest against the insipid brews that were taking over the market.
It was not long before more and more pubs began to sport the CAMRA sign outside their doors as a mark of quality. Now numbering over eighty five thousand members and the most successful consumer group in Europe this campaign has received a phenomenal degree of success and there are now no areas of England where well conditioned real ales are not available to the serious drinker.

The Definition of modern English Real Ale- Why is it different?
What sets England’s real ale apart from other beers is that it’s technically alive when served. Unlike lesser brews which are pasteurised after production, real ales continue to ferment in the cask or barrel after they leave the brewery. As fermentation continues, carbon dioxide is produced dissolving into the beer. For the stamp of a true real ale, it should be hand-pumped before it’s served.

To find out more about the the great variety of real traditional ales produced by small independent breweries go to : CAMRA  

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