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From Celts, Germans, and Flemings ... British Ale Doth Spring

by: HorstDornbusch on 08-22-2005
The origins of British brewing are mysterious-as are those of brewing almost anywhere else in the world. We do know, however, that the early Celtic Britons were making ales when Julius Caesar's legions paid them a visit and occupied the British Isles in 54 BC. But all the ales the British have made since the Celts, until about five centuries ago, differed from modern British beers in one key respect: They were all brewed without hops, though there is botanical evidence that wild hops had spread to Britain at least 5,000 years ago.

How the Brew Got to Britain in the First Place
The first Celts were immigrants in Britain. Their true origins are somewhere in central Europe. There, however, the Celts got into a bad conflict with another set of brewing tribes, the Germans. The altercation started around the beginning of the last millennium BC over who owned the patches of inhabitable land in the forests, and it took centuries of armed struggle to work things out. Eventually, the Germans were victorious and the Celts were seriously on the run from their grizzly enemies. Escaping the encroachment of the Germans, the Celts abandoned most of their holdings in Germany and first moved to the western edge of the Continent. Finally, they had to flee across the Channel, or they were assimilated by the overbearing Germans. By the second half of the fifth century BC, the first Celtic settlements began to appear on the British Isles. Because the earliest archeological finds of brewing on the Continent are Celtic, we surmise that the Celts took their brewing skills, which they shared with their Germanic adversaries, with them to Britain.

Only in the British Isles and in a narrow strip along the Atlantic coast of present-day France could the Celts remain the dominant cultural force for another millennium or so. The fleeing Celts, in turn, encountered the original British inhabitants and drove them into what appears to us nowadays as a shadowy and mysterious void, illuminated only by some massive and awesomely cryptic relics. We know very little about these early Brits, the most famous of whom were the builders of the Stonehenge circle, which stands on the Salisbury Plain, roughly eight miles north of present-day Salisbury and two miles west of present-day Amesbury. The circle is composed of massive slabs of dressed stone weighting up to fifty tons each, erected, incredibly, by Bronze Age people roughly 3,400 to 3,900 years ago.

Around the time of the Celtic exodus from the central part of the Continent, another shadowy culture, the Picts seems to have left the northern parts of the Continent. They, too, moved to the British Isles, to Scotland, perhaps also to get out of the way of the Germans. After their migration, the Picts effectively ruled Scotland until the ninth century AD. We do not know if the Stonehenge people brewed, but we know that the Picts did. They apparently made a heather-flavored ale, the forerunner of a brew now known by its Gaelic name of Fraoch. It is not clear if the Celts taught the Picts how to brew or if the Picts had discovered the trick of fermenting grain extracts all on their own.

The Celts and the Picts apparently coexisted side by side, but when the Romans showed up to lay claim to the British Isles, the ferocious Picts were none too happy. They mounted endless raids against the invaders, which is incidentally how they came by their name: The Romans called these pre-Celtic people pictii, or "the painted," probably because the Pict warriors tattooed their bodies.

The poor Celts, meanwhile, after having been expelled from the Continent by the Germans then occupied in their new home by the Romans, were in for worse...and again the menace was German. In the fifth century AD, the Celts were once again pushed aside by an invading force of Germanic-speaking people, the Angles from Schleswig near the current Danish-German border and their good neighbors to the south, the Saxons. Though not much stressed in the history books, the Jutes from the Danish peninsula, too, had come along for the invasion. The invading Angles and Saxons simply took over Celtic lands just as the Celts had taken over the lands of the Stonehenge people before. This is when the British Isles became Anglo-Saxon in language, custom, and culture-which, however, didn't hurt their beer one bit!

Only the Picts in Scotland held off the Anglo-Saxon invaders and defeated them, like the Romans, time and again. But, in one of the great mysteries of the ancient world, the Picts disappeared as a separate people around the tenth century, when they were being harassed by marauding Vikings. After several hundred years of perpetual strife with anybody who crossed their path, the Picts strangely faded away without leaving much of a trace.

Where There Is Beer and a Government, There Will Be Beer Regulation
It so happened that the new Germanic Britons, the Angles and Saxons, just as they were settling in, became also the first people outside Italy-together with the Irish next door-to be Christianized. As the Anglo-Saxon's faith changed from pagan to Christian, however, their Celtic-Germanic brews remained the same. The only difference: Their beer now became a topic for Germanic government rule making. In fact, the first legal code in any Germanic language was written in Britain, by King Ethelbert, the ruler of Kent, shortly before his death in 616. (All contemporary Germanic laws on the Continent, ironically, were written in Latin, not German.)

Having converted to Christianity and having made his capital of Canterbury a center of Christian learning, Ethelbert's laws not only contained a code of moral conduct that expressed his vision of a just social order, it also specified which behavior was not permitted in alehouses. One such stipulation listed the payments troublemakers had to make in restitution, if they caused anybody an injury while intoxicated. Likewise, King Ine of Wessex issued a code of laws in 694 in which he tried to contain the rampant spread of ale booths serving up inferior ales. Ine decreed that an offending alewife was to be punished by being dunked publicly into a trough of water, and her ale was to be given to the poor, free of charge.

With the spread of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Sussex, Kent, and Surrey, soon every monastery had its ale brewhouse, and contrary to the expectations of the Christian kings and their pious legal codes, hearty drinking was not looked upon as a vice. This we know from the English epic Beowulf, which was first composed by an Anglican bard in the early eighth century. The poem is a fusion of Christian and pagan thinking and it shows that serious boozing was an integral part of any banquet and was regarded almost as a religious ritual.

Things did not change much during the period of the Danish and Viking raids and eventual occupation of the British Isles in the last two centuries of the first millennium, around the time when the Picts exited history. In Ireland, too, starting in 795, the Vikings carried out hit-and-run raids on. They later even founded settlements there, which include many of Ireland's major towns today.

One of the more impressive finds bearing witness to Viking rampages on the British Isles is a hoard found in a cave in county Kilkenny, south of Dublin. It includes Viking bronze and silver ingots and conical objects made of silver wire as well as Anglo-Saxon coins dating from 940. There are records indicating that the cave had been used as a refuge for the local population and that the Vikings had massacred about a thousand people in that cave around the year 900. This and similar finds confirm that the Vikings maintained extensive settlements in both Ireland and England at the time, known in present-day Great Britain and Ireland as the period of Danish, or Viking, dominance, and that they were not reluctant to use terror to impose their rule. It was also during the Viking period that the Celtic term for beer, cwrw, began to be replaced by the Norse term öl, from which derives the modern English term "ale."

Near the end of the millennium, ale booths lined the old Roman roads of Britain and drunkenness became so rampant that King Edgar, who reigned between 959 and 975, decreed, on the advice of Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury, that any village or town was limited to only one alehouse. He also ordered that ale may be served only in drinking horns with pins fastened on the inside at prescribed intervals so that, the law read, "whoever should drink beyond these marks at one draught should be obnoxious to a severe punishment." But such royal interdictions all proved fruitless. By the time the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ascended the throne in 1042, ale was the common beverage of everyday life in the British Isles.

British Ale under Siege from a Bastard
But they Angles and the Saxons were far from having the last laugh in Britain, thanks to a French chap named William the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of one Duke Robert I of Normandy and the naughty Arlette, a tanner's daughter, born at Falaise sometime, we don't know exactly when, in the late 1020s. He had no title or claim to anything, but soon secured his own influence by fortitude as a soldier and luck. It seems he always fought on the right side. After he had married Matilde, daughter of the Duke of Flanders and guardian of the child-king Philip I of France, in 1053, raised an army, secured the blessing of the pope, organized a transport fleet, and invaded England, in 1066. He defeated and slew Harold, King of England, at the battle of Hastings, marched on London, received the city's submission, and was crowned King of England himself on Christmas Day. With the Norman Conquest complete, Billy the Bastard had become William I of England, the Conqueror.

After Norman Conquest, wine rather than ale became the drink of choice of the nobility in Britain. The ale was being relegated to the inferior role of quaff for the toiling lower orders of the vanquished Anglo-Saxons. Beer had to go underground, as it were, during Norman times. It continued to thrive mostly in the countryside, where the Normans had permitted monasteries to be established as self-sufficient communities with dwellings for the monks and nuns as well as farms and schools to care for the poor and sick among the wretched Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the land. And virtually all these communities had their own breweries, called cervisiarii in the old Norman records. Writes the contemporary scholar William of Malmesbury in the early 1100s, "Drinking in particular was a universal practice, in which they passed entire nights as well as days. They consumed their whole substance in mean and despicable houses, unlike the Normans and French, who in noble and splendid mansions lived with frugality...They became accustomed to eat until they became surfeited, and to drink until they were sick."

The Norman Conquest ushered in a tumultuous period in England with endless rebellions, insurrections, revolts, and wars. The French-speaking Normans hated the English-speaking Anglo-Saxons and vice versa; the family members of the Norman rulers all hating each other; the church under the bishop of Canterbury hated the crown, and vice verse; England, Wales, and Scotland were perpetually at war with each other; and France and England were involved in constant cross-Channel strife, including the drawn-out (and misnamed) Hundred Years War, which lasted for 116 years between 1337 and 1453. Amidst all the internal and external fighting, taxes were high and went higher, and life for the common folk was uncertain and harsh. There was much for them to forget during the English edition of the Dark Ages, and the only true solace for the ordinary people was a tankard of good ale.

British Ale Transformed
The first six to seven hundred years of the second millennium, roughly between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 resolved once and for all that England was better off not trying to be a continental power with possessions on the other side of the English Channel. The experiment of having one state with several languages on both shores clearly failed. But that period did leave behind one absolutely crucial legacy for British beer. It was during the 1400s, at the height of the Hundred Years War, that trade between England and Flanders (in present-day Belgium) blossomed. Raw wool and finished cloth were the most important trading commodities. Many Dutch-speaking farmers from Flanders even immigrated to England and settled mostly on the fertile soil of Kent.

These Flemish immigrants were almost certainly the first to introduce British brewers to hops, which they cultivated in Kent as they had done back home. And today, of course, Kent is still the home of what is perhaps the most famous of English ale hops, called East Kent Goldings. Before that time, British brewers (and many on the European continent as well) used to flavor their brews with just about anything they could find-herbs, seeds, berries, flowers, leaves, bark, mushrooms, rushes-often more to cover up bad flavors from infections than to add good flavors to the brew.

The hop plant is a clinging vine, whose origins are probably central Asia. From there-true to its Latin name Humulus lupulus, which means "wolf plant"-it migrated gradually to Europe and North America, traversing on its path some of the most forbidding lands and climates and even ocean waters. Given the hops' hardy disposition, it is not surprising that it has been grown wherever beer has been made...and that means: virtually everywhere. Before hops, brewers used any number of herbs to accomplish the same purpose. But, in the end, only the hop plant has evolved into a standard ingredient in beer, both because of its own biochemical properties and because of the proclivities of the human taste buds.

As best we know, the Germans and Bohemians (present-day Czechs) were the first to experiment with hops as a flavoring for beer. Records indicate that the Bohemians grew hops as early as the year 859 A.D.

The first documentary evidence of hops cultivation comes from the medieval Benedictine brew monks of Weihenstephan outside Munich, in Bavaria. These friars made explicit mention of their hop gardens as early as 736, only a dozen years after the founding of their monastery by the Franconian missionary Corbinian. It is extremely doubtful that these industrious fellows cultivated the vine just for its esthetic appeal. The first literary reference comes from Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), a brew nun, botanist, physician, and advisor to Emperor Frederic I (a.k.a. Barbarossa). In her book Physica sacra (Sacred World), she wrote in 1079 of the healthful properties of Humulus lupulus in beer. The legendary abbess drank beer regularly and lived to be 81 years old, which was a rare age for that time. She maintained that there was a connection between her longevity and her dedication to beer.

Documentary evidence of hops usage in the early Middle Ages is skimpy, but once the benefits of adding hops to beer had been discovered, the practice spread rapidly to all regions of the Continent. The French king, Louis IX, passed a law, in 1268, stipulating that, in his realm, only malt and hops may be used for beer making. We also know that hops were put into beer in the Netherlands by the 1300s. And in 1516, the Bavarian beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot) made hops one of only three allowable ingredients in beer (next to malted barley and water). All this suggests that, at least by the late Middle Ages, hops had become a common brew ingredient on the Continent, and that Britain was among the last of the major brewing centers to adopt it.

All the beer of the common folk in the England of the fifteenth century was brown. The "brownness" of British brown ales, in those days, was a direct result of unpredictable malting techniques. The malted grist was kiln-dried over open coal or wood fires, which caused all brewing grains to be somewhat dark, smoky, and roasted. Pale malt was simply not available then. The color of beer made from such medieval malt would invariably be some shade of brown. Once hops was introduced into this beer toward the end of the Middle Ages, the brew that emerged was the original brown ale, the foundation style for all other British ales. The lighter browns eventually evolved into mild ales; the darker browns, into stouts; blends of stouts and browns, into porters; and the paler, hoppier browns, into IPAs, bitters, and pale ales. Today, the typical brown ale is dark-amber in color, with a slight copper hue or ruby tinge.

Brown Ale and Beer: A Confusion of Terms
The introduction of hops in Britain, however, was apparently not without controversy. As we know form a 1440-manuscript, the new-hopped-ale became known as "beer" to distinguish it from the traditional un-hopped "ales." In fact, while hops were being legislated into beer on the European continent, it seems that, at least initially, hops were being legislated out of beer in Britain. In the 1530s, King Henry VIII-obviously taking time out from his strenuous philandering-forbade the use of hops outright at his court. He considered hops an aphrodisiac that would drive the populace to sinful behavior. Such is the pious duplicity of a ruler who, after all, managed to go through countless mistresses-not to speak of six wives, two of whom lost their heads in the Tower!

From Henry VIII's death in 1547 to the Glorious Revolution under William III of Orange in 1688, British politics-though now focused on internal matters and on becoming a sea power rather than a continental European power-underwent a new round of upheavals. There was Elizabeth I's long reign (1559-1603), followed by a series of civil and religious wars (1639-1651), Oliver Cromwell's dictatorship (1651-1658), and a Catholic restoration attempt under kings Charles II (1660-1685) and James II (1685-1688). In the end, though, Britain emerged with a functioning constitutional monarchy...and with a dominant ale that had a hoppy nose.

It seems that the English got themselves into a mess with a French William in 1066 and finally got themselves out of the mess exactly 622 years later with a Dutch William in 1688. By the time William of Orange died, in 1702, the term "ale" had taken on a meaning that is closer to our own. By then, it was used to denote a strong, hopped, top-fermented brew made from the first runnings of the mash. The term "beer" was reserved for a brew from the second runnings, while "small beer" was an even weaker brew, from the third runnings.

Considering this evolution of the concept of "ale," what was that literary genius, Samuel Johnson, thinking of, when he wrote his seminal Dictionary of the English Language, in 1775? In it we find the most famous, though already completely outdated, definition of ale as "liquor made by infusing malt in hot water and fermenting the liquor," and of beer as "liquor made from malt and hops." This is a most peculiar statement of Johnson's, considering that this otherwise so gifted poet wrote most his Dictionary while he and his friend Boswell were drinking copious quantities of hop-flavored brown ale in a London pub called The Anchor Inn, just around the corner from...the London Hop Exchange! The Anchor Inn, by the way, is now a wonderfully preserved historic pub. It is located, at Bankside, on Park Street, in the Southwark District, a stone's throw from the London Bridge. There is still "Johnson's Bar," where (hoppy) pints of good English ale are served in memory of the scribe who once wrote: "A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity."
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