Polishing horses hooves, scouring pots and pans and catching fish - there's more to ale and beer than the English preoccupation with just drinking the stuff...
So, the lights are dimmed, evening draws in, and all in the house is calm. You repair, as one does, to your study; faithful hound dozing in front of the fire, languidly raising an eyelid as you enter, merest flick of the tail to signal that your presence is to be tolerated. You place your chosen glass – carefully – on a coaster amidst the uncluttered expanse of your green leather topped, burred walnut pedestal desk, and regard your selection of bottled beers with the studious eye of the practised connoisseur. A firm, dark, porter – maybe something slightly livelier as spring is in the air – you settle for your tried and trusted favourite, take your pitted brass bottle opener and prepare to ease off the top, the familiar hiss of escaping CO2 heralding the moment when you can savour the heavily-hopped, bitter product of the expert brewer’s craft; but then – drink the stuff – no, no, no – nothing so tawdry and predictable – that’s not what it’s all about – just you hang on a moment !
Great Britain, as is common knowledge to all but the most earnest of dullards, has a history steeped in ale and beer. Not for us an insipid preoccupation with the vinous frippery of wines, the insubstantial effervescing gaiety of pressed-fruit libations or an insidious dependence on spirits or distillates (in spite of a passing dalliance with such things for a time, vis a vis London’s preoccupation with gin). We worship at the temple of intemperance, adorned with malted liquors in all their glorious variants, and have done so for centuries. Unsurprisingly, as is the case with all enduring relationships, we have slowly but surely demystified that which enthrals us, broadened its appeal, fortified the depths at which it is entrenched in our lives; we have determined far more uses for, excuses for, purposes, premises and principles for beers and ales than any haughty sommelier or vapid œnophile can begin to imagine that there may be for their preferred draught or tipple. In short, when it comes to the British and their beers, drinking ain’t the half of it.
Firstly, we should note that although we’re more than happy to champion the modern distinction between ale and beer (the latter being a variant of the former, flavoured specifically with hops) there was no such discrimination observed at the time that my source material was produced, so many of the following instances can equally apply to both, in spite of the contemporary inferences. It is also best to keep in mind that the vast majority of alternative antiquarian uses for ales and beers all share a degree of commonality, in that ultimately virtually all of them involve actually drinking the stuff at some stage – it would be a particularly dim-witted aficionado of ales who espoused anything that resulted in any unneccessary wastage !
Fortunately, however, there always seem to have been vast quantities of bitters, stouts, porters, nogs and ales to hand pretty much wherever you choose to look throughout our storied history, so practices which entailed uses other than straightforward consumption would not have resulted in a wastefully disastrous shortage. Witness the progress of kings about the realm during the twelfth century where the royal retinue – little short of a mobile village such was the quantity of vittles and manpower required to minister to the regal requirements – used to include vast bowsers of ale. Not only for the sustenance of the entourage, this ale was also used to clean the hooves of the horses in the cavalcade. This act of equine ablutionary peculiarity is noted to have persisted, albeit in less exalted circles, until the 19th century, when grooms, ostlers and the postilions on mail coaches were noted to use a mixture of oil, soot and ale to buff the extremities of their charges.
Anglers would also find good use for ale; witness this recipe for the production of a concoction “to stain your gut or hair lines a pale watery green and thus render them less visible to the fishes” as set out by Christopher North, angling writer of some renown during the first half of the 19th century: “take a pottle of dark ale and to one quart of this add one half-a-pound of soot, a small quantity of walnut leaves and a little powdered alum; boil the resultant suspension for half or three-quarters of an hour during which time you may choose to drink the remaining quart, and when the mixture is cold, steep the gut or hair in it for ten or twelve hours”. I love the requirement for twice as much beer as is actually required (a pottle being half a gallon), with the left-overs being put to good use during the otherwise fallow period as the boiling takes place. North, by the way, seems to have lifted this recipe from an earlier tome – The Treatyse of Fysshynge With An Angle – by Prioress Juliana Berners of St Mary at Sopwell, writing in the 15th century – not sure if she espoused the requirement for additional ale, though – probably not…
It’s not at all unusual for an ecclesiastical sort to be writing about fishing – many religious establishments of the early medieval period would have had their own carp ponds to provide for the Friday fast (a fast not necessarily implying complete abstinence but rather any strict diet, in this instance, one which dictated that Friday’s were appropriate for a fish supper !) Monasteries in particular would also provide ale for the sustenance of their tonsured topers, and it is noted that “raspins and chippins of bread, or almost any scraps, placed under a cask of strong beer or ale in such a manner that the drippings of the liquor may fall among them” would provide a resulting mash which was considered to be “excellent for the feeding of carps, providing for most plump and gleamynge fish”. It’s often noted that used barley grains secured from a malting are greedily consumed by most kept fish, and provide excellent groundbait for bream, roach and carp (of course). Equally, if “persons may be desirous of fattening their fowls quickly” they are recommended to feed them on a diet of rice, milk and sugar augmented by beer. It is not just in the dim reaches of our past that such by-products were used to sustain livestock, as to this day the used barley from the Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, East Sussex is packed in to a branded Marston’s trailer and shipped to the local agricultural college, where they are fed to the resident dairy herd.
On a slightly smaller scale of animal husbandry, a preparation of beer and brown sugar or honey can be used – applied with a whisk made of mint or other sweet herb sprigs – to brush the inside of a bee hive from which you are intending to harvest (more) honey. This is said to not only provide a “dressing most agreeable towards the taste and smell of the fruits of the wing’ed labourers’ travails” but to make them less likely to up sticks and move elsewhere. Sounds a bit curious to me, as I can imagine that – to an earnest brewery employee, for instance – the scent of the wort is less than appealing, or something to which one becomes utterly impervious, after a period of time, but then bees are curious things at the best of times… Away from animal welfare, the most multifarious uses of ales and beers are to be found in the kitchen; I’m sure you can each name half a dozen dishes at least which benefit from the addition of one or the other but – unsurprisingly - there are a number of slightly less mainstream uses which are recorded in the history books. As well as producing an alluring interior design finish for your beehive, for instance, a mixture of beer and brown sugar would produce “a capital sauce for pan-cakes”; one might like to steep one’s red herrings in beer before broiling them (and that’s broiling in the American sense from an English book of 1850’s vintage – so grilling, basically), and beer, vinegar and mushrooms (added “for conscience’ sake”, apparently) would make a formidable catsup for dressing seafood, without a tomato in sight.
On a less culinary tack – and harking back to the hoof-polishing of yore – stale beer and soot is said to make “capital blacking” for both kitchen ranges and shoes; when used in conjunction with plenty of elbow grease it was reputedly a fine furniture polish, and if you ever wished to properly wash the particularly delicate material made of silk or cotton, otherwise known as crape (which was to later lend its name to crepe paper), then it should be soaked in beer before being “passed through a mangle a number of times” and left to dry in “clean, fresh air to avoid the garment taking on the stench of the ale-house, although perfectly clean”. Beer which had gone so far beyond its best as to have started to become vinegary was the standard cleaning fluid for tavern flagstones and hearths, and – surprisingly – there is more than a little truth behind the modern-day advertiser’s apparent drivel that beer-enriched shampoo can make hair shiny – the unadulterated commodity was used to this effect before its lustrous property was reduced to an outwardly spurious gimmick in recent years.
Numerous medicinal preparations have called for the addition of beer or ale over the years, dating back to those set out the earliest Anglo-Saxon chronicles. Everything from lung disease, through fevers to lunacy can be surely cured – so it is said with earnest and informed intent - by various potions and potations which include beer, although I’m somewhat dubious about restoring someone’s mental faculties by forcing then to imbibe a preparation of beer whipped together with porpoise skin ! Hiccups, pain in the knees, jaundice, the common or garden cough – all miraculously eased by the application of beer-based infusions, but as a 17th century catalogue of such medicinal measures reached twelve volumes before declaring that “ale holds a high position as a cure for most of the evils to which unfortunate humanity is subject” it seems that it was perceived as very much a general cure-all without having any notably specific benefits. It was also applied equally liberally to debilitating veterinary woes, with sheep suffering from any general malaise, cows who were slow to give milk after calving and – specifically – a valuable race horse belonging to Mr Benjamin Truman (he of brewery owning fame) suffering from “influenza and congestion of the lungs such that it was nearly dead” all being restored to rude good health having been fed a diet of beer.
Beer had its role to play at both ends of of life’s eternal circle. On the one hand it was an oft-used calmative for mothers during the pain-wracked throws of delivery, and then prescribed as a mollifying tincture for particularly bothersome babies and disruptive children. It was also long-standing tradition for condemned prisoners to be offered a bowl of ale before the last journey to their place of execution – a court in St Giles’ High Street near Shaftsbury Avenue being known as the Bowl Yard as a result of the great many cutpurses, villains and ne’erdowells, who were despatched to Tyburn Tree having had sentence passed there. However, there was no little clamour for this last kindness to be withdrawn in the mid 1700’s after a number of instances where “great indecencies had been frequently committed through criminals becoming intoxicated”.
And lastly a couple of less prosaic uses for the malted liquors for which England has become renowned. No greater an historian that William Shakespeare retells a traditional tale in his play Henry V (iii; v) wherein Constable Charles d'Albret, Comte de Dreux is at the French Royal Court in the prelude to Agincourt (where he is destined to die), bemoaning the fact that the English soldiers have shown such courage and mettle during their forays in to the realms of the Dauphin because they are fortified by “their barley broth”, while the sanguinary tendencies of his countrymen are “spirited by wine” and seem “frosty” by comparison. Anything which infuses an English army with sufficient ardor as to ensure that they bring down the cream of the French nobility under an arrow storm and then individually butcher them by the thousand as they flounder in a fetid morass of their own making can, of course, only be a good thing.
Closer to home, there is an instance where London and its citizenry was saved from the consequences of a conflagration which may have gone on to rival the destructive nature of the Great Fire of 1666 when Pump Court Chambers just south of The Strand caught alight (twelve years after the signature event), but matters were controlled by the resident judiciary who, unable to draw water from the nearby River Thames which was frozen solid, instead extinguished the blaze using their own (not inconsiderable) repository of ale stored in barrels, in conjunction with the dexterous use of explosives which brought down surrounding buildings by way of a firebreak.
Some years earlier (1613 to be precise) The Globe theatre played host to a production of Henry VIII – a collaboration between Shakespeare and one John Fletcher. The firing of a cannon during the performance set light to the thatching on the theatre roof, and a shower of blazing straw and reeds “greatly inconvenienced the assembled throng”; Sir Henry Wootton, in attendance, noted in his report of proceedings to his nephew that “one man had his breeches set on fire that would perhaps of broiled him alive if he had not, by the benefit of a provident wit, put it (his blazing trousers) out with bottle’d ale”.
And so, should you be questioned as to the real purpose behind repairing to your sanctuary of choice and opening a bottle of beer (or ale) you may now be furnished with any number of wholly plausible responses, which will undoubtedly ensure that you are far more highly thought of than if it were to be the case that you intended to simply put away a few bottles and fall asleep – along with the dog; do enjoy your evening, though it's just possible that insisting the sole reason you have beer to hand is to extinguish your trousers should they be consumed by fire may not be met with any particularly kindly credulity…
Of course, our national predilection for the consumption of beer and ale have ensured that a great many glasses have been required over time to facilitate this pursuit; we always have a great many available for your edification and delight, and a few of the most interesting examples are shown below. Visit our website for the usual extended array of images and information
For more atricles about glass in a historical context, see the following links: