Life in Elizabethan England Next

Brewing ale

Good English Ale

Hops and heresy, bays and beer
All came to England in one year.
                 — old rhyme

Ale is made from barley, but it can be flavored with just about anything, including pepper, ivy, rosemary, bilberries, and lupines, among many other things. When it's flavored with hops, it becomes beer.

Andrew Boorde (c. 1452) tells us that "Ale is made of malt and water, and they the which do put any other thing to ale … except yeast, barm, and God's good doth sophisticate their ale…" He does not mean "sophisticate" as a good thing.

Hops were added to ale in England for the first time in the early 16th century, to keep it from going off.

Caxton tells us that "beer was made in England by beer brewers who were Flemings and Dutchmen." By now, we've pretty much stopped whinging that it "tastes foreign" and that it isn't "good English ale".

Neither drink is any more than slightly carbonated so no frothy head to blow off, no bubbles to speak of.

Ale is the sweeter drink, but when it goes off it becomes syrupy and nasty. Hops make it bitter but also make it last longer in the barrel.

At market fairs, the ale-conner is an officer appointed by the steward of the Fair (and in larger towns by the leet court), to review the wholesomeness of bread, ale, and beer offered for sale, and ensure that it is sold at a fair price.

Beer's natural effects often lead to colorful names. The last two of these surely refer to the aftermath of too much time at the ale house.

  • Huffcap
  • The mad dog
  • Merry-go-down
  • Angel's food
  • Dragon's milk
  • Go-by-the-wall
  • Stride wide

Beer drunk too soon is sour. Sour beer that has also suffered from the vagaries of weather, heat, and time is just vile. On Progress one year, the local brew was so awful that the Queen refused to drink it, and sent back to London for her own brewmaster.

In gentlemen's homes, brewing is usually done in March; thus references to March beer. The best beer is about a year old, and has had time to mellow.

Most other people are content to make beer once a month on brewing day. This small beer has less alcohol, but the hoppy bitterness is reduced enough to be a pleasant drink.

Now bring us in good ale, good ale, and bring us in good ale.
For our blessed Lady's sake, bring us in good ale.
                   — 15th century carol

Brewing is traditionally women's work. In a great house, the stillroom maid and sometimes the lady of the house take responsibility for providing beer for the household.

A housewife brews once a month for her own household's use. Her costs (in the 1570s) come to about 20 shillings for 3 hogsheads yield. If she does this for a living, as many widows do, she is an alewife.

The fermenting liquor is stirred with a besom (bundled broom). When it is hung out to dry over a door or window, it shows the neighborhood that the new batch is ready. The "bush" in pub names like "The Bull and Bush" refers to this broom.

Other uses: Hops give a good yellow dye, and the young tops can be cooked with butter and eaten.

Chappell: The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time
Harrison: Description of England 1577
Hartley: Lost Country Life
Beer & Real Ale: A Brief History at
Workshop: Angela Grimes

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22 March 2008 pkm