A Brief History of British Beer
The UK has a thriving beer culture that has been evolving for the past 4 thousand years or more. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date that our humble island first produced beer, but it’s believed that the Beaker People - warriors for whom drinking was so important they took their clay mugs to the grave - landed on British soil at around 2000 BC.
Evidence of pottery and jugs dating back to 2,000 BC - found on the Orkney Isles - were found to contain traces of a beer like substance made up of wheat, hemlock, nightshade and meadowsweet. Other evidence points to the Beaker People enjoying beers made from wheat and barley mixes, blended with herbs, spices and honey.
Indeed, the practice of beers produced with mixed grains and honey continued for many centuries. In 320 BC, Greek explorer ‘Pytheas of Massilia’ arrived in Britain to find the natives chugging just that!
By 43 AD the Romans had conquered much of Britain, but they couldn’t conquer British beer! About 50 years later, the majority of troops stationed in Britain were chugging beer rather than wine. A list of accounts discovered in modern Northumbria mention ‘Atrectus the brewer’ - the first named brewer in Britain.
By 500 AD the Anglo Saxons had arrived and conquered the British Isles. The social side of life for them revolved around beer halls, ale houses and drinking. With 3 recognized beer styles on tap - mild ale, clear ale and Welsh ale, beer was becoming more adventurous.
Ales of the Middle Ages
By the middle ages ales were preferable to water. Most brewing as done by females on a domestic level, who mashed, boiled and fermented among their other chores. Ale was enjoyed by all, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hops were yet to see widespread use and ‘gruit’ was the order of the day, bittered with a mixture of herbs often including bog myrtle and yarrow.
However, imported hopped beer from the continent started arriving at Great Yarmouth at around 1361. By 1410 British brewers had started experimenting with hops - mostly Dutch immigrants - causing a rift between good old fashioned English ale (gruit) drinkers and supporters of the new-fangled hoppy beers. It wasn’t long (1520) before hops were grown on British soil, more specifically in Kent.
In Tudor times, Henry the eighth employed two brewers at Hampton court palace, one for ale and one for English beer. His army were fueled by beer, while the royal household consumed in excess of 600,000 gallons of ale and beer a year. By the late 16th century any bittering agents other than hops were banned in the UK, marking the end of gruit.
The Industrial Beer Revolution
With the onset of the industrial revolution in 1760, British beer transformed from a small-scale affair to a commercial industry. The invention of the thermometer in 1760 and the hydrometer in 1770 enabled brewers to brew consistently for the first time. In 1779 the beer engines - or hand pumps - that are a common site in British real ale pubs to this day, were first invented.
By 1790, strong, hoppy pale ales from Burton upon Trent were making their way to India, laying the foundations for the craft IPAs we know and love today. The early 18th century also saw the introduction of aged porters - offering a new style of beer to a thirsty public. Matured and dark brown in colour, the beer was aged by brewers and ready to drink upon delivery.
Dark beers really came into their own however, with Daniel Wheeler’s 1818 invention; the drum roaster. Primarily used to roast coffee beans, it wasn’t long before malt was roasted, finally removing the acrid, charred and smokey taste from beers produced by malts roasted over an open fire. The drum roaster paved the way for ever darker malts, including the pitch-black patent malts that feature in craft stouts and porters to this day.