History of brewing

The production, serving and consumption of beer is a very important factor in the lives of all  our ancestors, not only from its use as a safe alternative to water but because so many of them were involved in its production.

Many farmers were also listed in census returns as brewers and how many of us have found an ancestor listed as a publican or barmaid?


“It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates”
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (The ETCSL Project), Oxford 1998.

These are the last two lines of the Sumerian poem 'A Hymn to Ninkasi'. Ninkasi was the Ancient Sumerian goddess of brewing. It was written in the 19th century BC and contains the oldest recipe for beer that exists, but the actual brewing of beer has been traced back to 4000 BC in Mesopotamia. Since then beer has popped up everywhere, in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, where it was considered a medicine, and in the bronze bowls of King Midas in Turkey, where it was enjoyed with a meal of spicy mutton. It first appeared in Britain probably around 3000 BC with the arrival of barley from the Near East.

These early beers, were in fact ales, as they did not contain hops until the 16th century. Their alcohol content was low, herbs and spices were added to improve their flavour and they did not keep well. Our word beer comes from the Old English for barley, which was the preferred grain of the brewers.

 In medieval times beer was the universal drink of old and young alike. Water was known to make you sick and milk was only thought suitable for the ill or young. That only left beer and it was drunk in vast quantities. The necessity of always having beer on hand to slake one’s family’s thirst meant that the would be medieval domestic goddess not only had to bake the family bread, make the family clothes starting at the wool spinning stage, but also to brew the family beer. It was such a simple process that it could be done in any home no matter how grand or lowly as long as there was a bright fire and a good supply of barley.

To make ale, the grain had first to be malted, which involved dampening it and leaving it in a warm place to germinate. Once the grain had sprouted it was roasted to stop the germination process. This malted grain was then added to boiling water (this is what made the ale safe to drink, unlike plain water, but it was a long time before anyone would recognize the significance of this) and herbs and spices were mixed in for flavour. When hops were introduced they were added at this point in the process and the result was beer. Finally the liquid was placed in barrels and yeast added for fermentation. The addition of hops increased the strength of the beer and also allowed the malted barley to be used three times to make firstly, a very strong beer, secondly a slightly less strong beer and finally what was known as small beer, which was the everyday drink of the family, the other two being kept for special occasions.

“The roots and herbs beaten and put into new ale or beer and daily drunk, cleareth, strengthen and quicken the sight of the eyes”
Nicholas Culpepper

Brewing was largely women’s business, except in the monasteries where the monks brewed beer for themselves and their pilgrim visitors ensuring a regular income for the order. When formal licensing for alehouses was introduced in the middle of the 16th century they were often issued to widows, as brewing was one of the few respectable ways for them to make money. In fact many families sold their surplus production to supplement their incomes. Licensing had probably already existed on a local scale for some time before the 1552 act, but with a perceived rise in the level or drunkenness and the disorderly behaviour that went with it, a national law was felt necessary.

Standards for the quantity, quality and pricing of ale were already controlled by a 13th century statute called the 'Assize of Bread and Ale'. This saw men called ale-conners visiting alehouses, tasting the ale, checking the measures and making sure the prices corresponded to the set price based on the price of cereals. This set pricing was later abandoned in the 15th century for being too cumbersome and unjust. If the ale-conners found fault with the alehouse they could report the owner to the court-leet, the forerunner of the magistrate’s court, where fines and punishments were meted out.


© Georgette 2008


The Victorian Public House ~ Richard Thames

Consuming Passions ~ Judith Flanders

The Tudor Housewife ~ Alison Sim

Real Ale and Beer ~ A brief History, Traditional and Historic London Pub Guide

Dictionary of Victorian London

Temperance Society

The Brewery History Society

Pub History

Pub History Society

Pubs Galore