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The Pint

A History

Beer is the national drink of England, and it comes in pints. Not only will it forever do so, despite the gradual shift to metric units of measurement, but eventually it is all that will come in pints. Milk has gone metric in the shops. You might still be able to buy a pint of prawns at the seaside, but if somebody asks whether you’d like to go for a pint, you can be safely sure they aren’t talking about seafood.

Inside a country ale house
Inside a country ale house
© TopFoto.co.uk/Fotomas
So essential a staple of the English diet has beer been for the best part of two millennia that, in times when the purity of water couldn’t be guaranteed, it was the safe and nutritious way both of quenching thirst and providing sustenance. Queen Elizabeth I used to take strong ale with her breakfast, as did workers in the industrial towns of the 19th century. A boy who had 12 hours of factory work ahead of him was fortified against the rigours of the day with a pre-dawn cup of the local brew, often in the absence of any solid food. In the days before breakfast cereals, and if there wasn’t any bread, this would be how he got his B-vitamins, protein and carbohydrate.

Advertisement dating from 1909
Advertisement for Cain's Special Ales, 1909
© TopFoto.co.uk/Public Record Office /HIP
Like many another civilising influence, the production of beer on a significant scale began in England with the arrival of the Romans in 55 BC. The systematic brewing of malted grains is known to have been practised during the early Sumerian civilisation (the fourth millennium BC), and developed in tandem with the invention of bread. Compared with producing early versions of wine, it is a complicated process. Where fruit will obligingly spoil and ferment if left to its own devices, producing alcohol as it does so, grains (namely barley and wheat in the ancient world) need treating. They are soaked to make them germinate, and then roasted to bring out the fermentable sugars in them.

Brewing was largely women’s work in medieval England, being seen as a branch of cookery. Alewives made batches of beer during the grain harvest, and also at ceremonial times of the year from grain that had been carefully stored. Springtime ales and Christmas ales are venerable traditions, not mere modern-day marketing ploys. Otherwise, the monasteries were responsible for a great deal of brewing (as they were also for winemaking), offering food and beer to refresh pilgrims and other travellers.

An ale was also the name of the traditional festivity at which beers were drunk. “Church ales” in the rural areas might be three-day bacchanals of unruly excess, in which the ecclesiastical authorities encouraged what we would now think of as binge-drinking. This brought in funds for the church’s upkeep, and incidentally allowed people to let off steam in a context in which an eye could be kept on them.

Hop-picking in southern England, 1940s
Hop-picking in southern England, 1940s
© TopFoto.co.uk
The biggest change in the taste of ale was the introduction of hops in the early 15th century. The inspiration came from Flemish and Dutch brewers, who used them chiefly as a means of preserving beer for long storage, but the bitter, complex flavour they gave to the beer was also enjoyed. In time, these replaced the earlier flavouring additives that had been used, such as juniper berries and other fruits, herbs, spices and even flower buds. From now on, “beer” was ale that had been hopped. Hops became so important an agricultural crop that, by the late 19th century, 72,000 acres of southern and central England had been planted with them. They were an extraordinary sight as they had to be grown on wires supported by wooden poles 15ft high.

Early quality control and technology

It was only in the 16th century that beer-making began to be a commercial enterprise practised under royal licence, following the dissolution of the monasteries. In this era, the practice of “conning” (or quality-testing) beer was established, to make sure that there was no unfermented sugar, or other impurities, left in it. Among the various other trades he plied, Shakespeare’s father John was briefly a beer-conner, or ale-taster, to the borough of Stratford in the 1550s.

Another great advance was marked at around this time when it was discovered that if beer was bottled in glass containers and sealed with cork, it would keep better than it did in the cask. The discovery is credited to one Dr Alexander Nowell, the dean of St Paul's in Elizabethan times, who is reputed to have decanted some into a bottle to take with him on a fishing trip in 1568. He lost one bottle in the grass and, when he came upon it again quite by chance a few days later, found it was still perfectly drinkable.

Great strides were made in beer technology in the later 19th century with Louis Pasteur’s discovery that yeasts could be cultured, or grown, in laboratory conditions. No longer did fermentation depend on the action of wild, airborne yeasts. It could be started just when the brewer decided. Pasteur is also responsible for the invention of pasteurisation, the short sharp heat treatment that provided another means of giving beer a longer life.

A German brewery
A German brewery
© TopFoto.co.uk
Lager arrives

Arguably the greatest revolution in English beer taste since the arrival of hops occurred in the 1960s was when light, cool-fermented German beers known as lagers became a great commercial hit. A younger generation found the light, bland, unchallenging taste of lager more amenable to them than the stronger, richer flavours of cask-conditioned bitter ale, and older types of beer began to fall into disfavour. The German metal keg, with its easier hygiene and lack of impact on the beer’s taste, was now the container of choice.

The Campaign for Real Ale was started in the early 1970s to try to reverse this trend.

“Beer,” commented Benjamin Franklin, “is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”