Regular readers will no doubt be familiar with the antique glass rule of thumb which dictates that if there’s any sort of fruit or other crop on a particular vessel – engraved, applied, enamelled or otherwise – it generally refers to whatever beverage it is that the glass was intended to contain. As a quick run through of the more usual examples by way of a refresher: wine glasses have grapes and vines, beer glasses have hops and barley, cider and perry glasses have their apples and pears, gins may have juniper, and ales – well – they can have pretty much anything, from nuts to wheat ears*, star anise and chamomile.


It’s to one of these last examples that we turn for today’s example – a late 18th century ale glass. It’s a very standard piece in almost every respect, diminutive size, conical bowl, short knopped stem and a conical foot; what does set it apart, however, is the nature of the engraved image.


At first glance, there are simple bunches of grapes, which should – of course – prompt immediately raised eyebrows – grapes on an ale glass, what on earth’s going on here? In addition, the general ability of the craftsmen who decorated antique glasses should be taken into account. Some were outstanding, some were very good, some merely competent and some, of course, truly awful but what they could all do is manage to give at least the general impression of what they were trying to illustrate – even the crudest of hop cones on a beer glass, for instance, can be seen to be just that, especially in combination with the leaves and tendrils that accompanied them. In this instance, therefore, you’d like to think that if we were looking at bunches of grapes, that the leaves which appear would at least look vaguely like an approximation of vine leaves – that most common of engraved foilage, the iconic, broad, lobed leaf that has been so faithfully reproduced on so many artistic endeavours throughout history. What we don’t expect to see is a set of narrow, pointed leaves that are very clearly nothing like vine leaves whatsoever.


So – let’s assume that we’re not supposed to be looking at grapes at all, which is much more sensible a proposition for an ale glass after all. The berries are wholly uncontentious, if distinctly unhelpful in their lack of definition. If we were fortunate, we’d find exquisitely detailed medlars, bifurcated apricots or apples and codlin moths by way of a more obvious solution, but no such luck – we’ve just got bunches of very uninteresting berries. That said, there are not very many plain, round berries that grow in fairly open bunches, so this in itself helps to build the picture.


Now – what about the leaves – slender, pointed and very un-vine like indeed. I’m no horticultural expert (antiquarian expert might be pushing the boundaries a bit, too, to be fair) but what I am is a dyed in the wool country boy, having grown up and lived on a farm for many years (and thankfully having moved back to a similar idyll fifteen months ago). And as a result, what I do know is what grows in hedges that you can eat – and there’s one round-berried, slim, pointy leaved example of wild fruitage which fits the bill rather well – the elderberry.  


The general perception of the elderberry as a constituent in the hands of a brewer or distiller is that it was used to make a wine or cordial but, rather splendidly, at a time commensurate with the year in which our glass was made, there is the first appearance in (English language) print of the methodology behind making elderberry beer, a singularly dark preparation which was also known as ebulum. The 1793 tome ‘The Practical Distiller’ by Samuel M’Harry is the source of this finery, which is simply a case – during the standard brewing process – of steeping ‘a bushel of picked elderberries, full ripe’ for each hogshead of strong wort, which is the malted mash into which additional hops are then added to effect their usual preservative and bittering magic. As a finishing touch, M’Harry also espouses the inclusion of a ‘small bag of bruised spices’. So, there you have it, elderberry beer is a thing – both at the time our glass was made, and in the present day, as it would appear to be a favourite of the current posse of artisan, hipster brewers as they ply their somewhat dubious craft. 


Unfortunately, this elucidation can only be conjecture (although I like to think it is at least in part well-informed conjecture), but an ale glass bearing elderberries and their leaves is at least a theoretically viable option. Or at least, it is when we address one last matter; as the procedure detailed includes the addition of hops, M’Harry quite properly refers to the product of his labours as Elderberry beer, rather than ale – I must solicit the powers that be to change the title of our catalogue entry accordingly! 


* one last snippet of country lore for you (and one of my absolute favourites to be fair) having mentioned ‘wheat ears’. There is a migratory British bird known as a wheatear which, during the course of the 18th century, was trapped by shepherds on the South Downs of Sussex and provided to local restaurants in bulk as a delicacy along the lines of the French ortolan bunting.  You may think that the name derives from a proclivity of the bird to rest and eat amidst ears of wheat after its migratory arrival, or because it has a golden-orange flush to its breast similar to ripe wheat. But no – in a triumph for plain English, and to reflect another distinctive feature which is a bright white rump, the name is merely a more polite iteration of the folk name for the bird – which was ‘white arse’.


Click here to see the Engraved Georgian Ale glass

Click here to see other ale glasses