Friday, 8 November 2013

The Good Old Days?

“Until the 18th century, or even later, beer was the staple drink of most men and women at all levels of society. Tea and coffee were expensive luxuries; while water might well carry disease. To supply the needs of both owners and servants, every country house with an accessible source of water had a brewhouse, usually close at hand."

“Country House Brewing in England 1500 – 1900” shows the role beer played in the life of the country house, with beer allowances and beer money an integral part of servant’s rewards. Generous allowances were made for arduous tasks such as harvesting. For celebrations such as the heir’s coming of age, extra-strong ale was provided. This book, which is heavily illustrated, is an important and original contribution to architectural, brewing and social history.”

I’m reading a very interesting book at present. It’s titled “Country House Brewing in England 1500 – 1900”. It was given to me back in the summer by a former customer of the Cask & Glass who, knowing my interest in all things beer, thought of me when he was having a clear-out at home. It’s a hardback book which runs to over 300 pages, by the time all the indices and appendixes are taken into account. Being what can only be described as a “learned treatise” it’s quite heavy going, which explains why I’m only just half-way through it, but given the amount of research that author Pamela Sambrook has put into the book, coupled with the astonishing amount of detail, this is hardly surprising.

The period covered by the book begins with the changes wrought by the dissolution of the monasteries. King Henry VIIIth's tour of destruction ended centuries of monastic brewing in England, and led to the establishment of breweries in large country houses, which themselves had evolved from former manor houses. As the nation slowly became wealthier, and conditions became more peaceful, the homes of the landed gentry were increased in size and became more and more opulent. The number of servants and retainers needed to run such establishments also increased, and large estates grew up to support these palatial piles.

Country houses were, by and large, self-sufficient in so far as they were supplied with foodstuffs from the farms on the estate. They also baked their own bread and, of course, brewed their own beer. Lots of beer, in fact, enough to satisfy the entire household and the myriad of servants employed therein. From simple beginnings, brewhouses attached to the local country pile slowly became more advanced, although they rarely matched the sophistication of their commercial counterparts. Even so, many of the larger establishments had separate and well-designed brewhouses capable of turning out substantial quantities of ale and beer. These quantities of course, varied according to the size and wealth of the house, but figures in the region of 400 gallons of ale and double this amount of beer every month, were not unusual!

Note the terms “ale” and “beer”. The former was a much stronger drink, produced from the first runnings from the mash tun, whereas the drink referred to as "beer" was produced from the second or third runnings, and as such was considerably weaker. Beer was the everyday drink of the household, and in particular that of the servants, whilst ale was the preserve of the lord/duke/squire etc and his family. Being considerably stronger, ale also required a much longer period of maturation before it was ready to drink.

Fast forward from the peak of country house brewing, during the latter part of the 18th and the early part of the 19th centuries, to the early part of the last century, and brewing in the remaining great country houses was in terminal decline. This dramatic fall-off was aided and abetted by drinks such as tea and coffee which were far easier to prepare, and which also had a far less soporific effect on household staff. Other factors, such as paying employees a proper living wage in cash, rather than a much lower remuneration which included a generous allowance of beer, also contributed to the decline. The effects of two devastating world wars were the final nail in the coffin of private brewing.

As I said I’m still halfway through the book, but the section I’m reading now which describes the faults and afflictions which could often arise in domestic beer, and some of the equally foul ways in which these defects were counteracted, makes me glad for modern, hygienic brewing practices, rather than any romantic notions I may once have entertained about beer in the “good old days”. Fascinating stuff, as they say, and there’s more to come. For anyone with more than a passing interest in domestic brewing, this is a volume which is well getting hold of.

 “Country House Brewing in England 1500 – 1900”. Author - Pamela Sambrook. Published by The Hambledon Press. ISBN 1 85285 127 9

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