The earliest evidence for brewing in Britain is found in the writings of several classical Greeks from around 300BC. They refer to Celtic beer, or curmi, a name which persists in the Welsh cwrw and the Irish cuirm. Barley beer is most often mentioned, but British beer brewed from wheat was noted in the first century AD.
In the later years of the Roman empire, the words ‘ale’ and ‘beer’ were both being used to describe drinks made from the brewed barley or wheat. The difference between the two terms at this time is not clear, although beer may have contained aromatic herbs while ale was made solely from the germinated grains, or malt. By the tenth century ‘ale’ was the common term for the alcoholic beverage, with ‘beer’ being used for the sweet almost un-fermented wort from which it was made.
The Anglo-Saxons were great ale drinkers. Ale houses became a feature of every village, and wayside taverns were set up near the old Roman roads by which travellers still moved about the country. As well as everyday ale, there was bright ale (its dregs well settled after long standing), mild ale, and extra strong twice-brewed ale. Some ales were made for medicinal purposes with rosemary, yarrow, betony, gale or bog-myrtle, and sometimes these and other herbs were added to normal ale to flavour and preserve it.
The Welsh Ale cwrw remained the drink of western Britain, made from kilned barley to give it a smoky taste and a glutinous texture. It was known in Saxon England by the seventh century, and continued to be made up to the end of the eighteenth.
In Norman Britain, ale maintained its popularity. All large establishments had their own brewhouses, and even in quite small households the housewife usually brewed at home. Taverns and village ale houses thrived, and in the towns, ale-wives sold their wares on the streets. In the 1267 Assize of Ale, the price of ale was fixed, like bread, on a sliding scale depending on the current price of grain. In London, the actual measures in which the ale was sold was also controlled, and to ensure the quality of the brew, a new official was appointed; the ale-conner.
The brewer or brewster (for there were many women in the profession) had to put up a stake outside the door of the ale house, and every time a brew was ready, a ‘bush’ (usually a bunch of ivy) had to be hung on the stake to show that the services of an ale-conner were required.
Tradition has it that the official spilt a little ale onto a wooden bench, sat on it for a time, and then made an assessment of the stickiness of the brew by whether his leather breeches had stuck to the seat or not. A sticky brew contained too much un-fermented sugar and therefore not enough alcohol, and the price was set accordingly.
In the south of England, ale was made from barley malt; in the north and west oats were used. Elsewhere, mixed cereals were common, with wheat and sometimes beans being added to the malt before it was mashed. Herbs and spices continued to be added; pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, ground ivy and rosemary were all used to improve the flavour and to disguise the fact that the easily spoiled sweet ale had soured.
In the fourteenth century, Flemish brewers settled in London, and brought with them the practice of adding hops to the ale as a preservative and to impart a distinctive bitter taste. This drink, which became known by the old name of ‘beer’, quickly gained ground, and in 1441 it too became subject to an assize.
In the north and west, however, the bitter hop taste was unpopular, and ale continued to be drunk. By Elizabeth’s reign, though, the superior keeping qualities engendered by hop oils and resins resulted in even ale being lightly hopped, although it was still very different to the heavily hopped beer of the south.
Beer and ale were drunk at all times of the day. In a typical well-off family, adults drank a quart of wine and a quart of beer with breakfast, while children only had beer. Noble houses consumed beer that was a year or more old, while the brews of ordinary households, who lacked the storage space, still kept their beer for at least a month before drinking, the staler the better.