By Martyn Baguley
Above the end aisle in my local supermarket is a sign ‘Ales and Beers’. The stock on the shelves is bewildering for the casual drinker. Beer/ale aficionado readers will know the difference between ales and beers (it has to do with the way they are made), but for most of us the words beer and ale are synonymous.
Beverages brewed from grain and flavoured with a wide variety of herbs, but not hops, are mankind’s oldest manufactured drinks. It was a popular tipple in ancient Egypt and, called zythos, a daily drink of the Greeks in 700BC. It was the daily tipple for Julius Caesar’s soldiers.
As the Roman legions invaded Europe and eventually Britain the taste for barley brew travelled with them. The Saxons, who settled in Britain after the Romans left, were prodigious ale quaffers; the name ‘ale’ derives from the Anglo Saxon ealu.
Using brewing methods learned from the Romans they sprouted, then dried (malted) barley, flavoured it with spices and herbs like marjoram, ground ivy, broom, meadow sweet and bog myrtle, then boiled it and left it to ferment. The process made it relatively bug free and much safer as a daily drink than water.
The earliest records of hops being used for brewing in Britain are in 1412. Long before then brewers in Germany and Flanders had discovered the advantages the addition of hops brought to what was called bier or beer, particularly in extending its drinkable life.
There is good evidence that hops were being grown commercially in North Germany in the 1200s to supply breweries in the Hansa towns from which beer was exported at least as early as the 13th century.
Surprisingly biére, as the English King Henry VI called it in the 1400s, was resisted by the ale-drinking English. There was resistance to adulterating good English ‘ale’ with ‘foreign’ hops. But hop-brewed beer was imported from abroad to quench the thirst of the many Dutch weavers who had settled in East Anglia and the southern counties to work in the wool-weaving industry.
The English brewers didn’t have an easy time. There was considerable opposition against the use of hops for brewing and violent reactions by both ale brewers and drinkers against the use of them by beer brewers from the Low Countries. Between 1440 and 1540 various authorities forbade ale brewers, who remained distinct from beer brewers until at least the 17th century, from putting hops in their ale.
Who would have thought that a humble climbing hedgerow plant could have caused so much trouble?