Feature: Beer Britannia

Marc Zakian, Blue Badge Guide and Journalist, explores two thousand years of British beer making, uncovering the history of the country’s favourite alcoholic drink.

In 100AD Flavius Cerialis, commander of a Roman legion posted to the windy wilds of Northumbria, sent out a request: “My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent”. This is the first written reference in English history to ale, a keynote to a drink that has nourished the British people – from its armies to its infants – for thousands of years.

The wine-loving Romans developed a taste for British beer, constructing maltings and brewhouses throughout the country. A writing tablet from Vindolanda Fort on Hadrian’s Wall records the UK’s first known professional brewer: Atrectus. Beer-makers, it seems, were valued members of the community.


Ale kept medieval Britain alive. Local water supplies were often contaminated, but beer was boiled during brewing and alcohol killed dangerous bacteria, making it safer than the parish well.

It sustained the working people. In the 14th century half a worker’s wages were paid in ale. Peasants and labourers fuelled their toils with ten daily calorie-rich pints, while women and children drank five pints a day. So was this, literally, merry (drunk) England? Probably not. Medieval brewers made ‘small beer’, much weaker in alcohol than modern ales.

Women were the cornerstone of brewing. Brewsters (female for brewer) and ale-wives prepared and sold beer at home, tending the brew pot for many hot and sticky hours. Good ale-wives safeguarded their own recipes, adding flavour to beer to make their brew stand out. When it was ready they would place an ale-wand outside to let everyone know it was on sale – the prototype of the pub sign.



There were no controls on beer and poor quality brews passed off in short measures regularly sparked quarrels. Disputes were so widespread that England’s seminal human rights document – Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215 – includes a ruling on beer.

But a royal decree could not prevent bad brews. In 1355 at Oxford’s Swindlestock Tavern, two university scholars complained about the quality of their drink; after an exchange of words, the students threw their beer in the taverner’s face and assaulted him. Armed clashes between locals and students followed, leaving 63 scholars and 30 locals dead.

And so a beer police was born. Ale-conners were appointed to ensure the goodness and wholesomeness of ale and beer, and that it was sold at a fair price. To stop this becoming the most sought after job in medieval Britain, these ‘taisters of ale’ were instructed not to ‘fill their bellies, or drink overmuckle’ in case they lost ‘the discretion of tasting’.

Clergy also got in on the beer business. Local parishes held churchales, where brews were sold to raise money for church expenses and to help the poor; there were lamb-ales (held at lamb-shearing), Whitsun-ales and, when a parishioner married, a bride-ale. If the couple needed new clothes for their wedding, the beer sales covered the cost.

Bishops sometimes tried to stop drinking in church, demanding that “no priest be an ale sop”, but no  authority could separate an Englishman from his beer jug. Quaffing continued, celebrating almost any occasion – there were even ‘cuckoo-ales’ to mark the first birdsong of spring.


In 1428, the first hops were planted in England. This signalled the rise of beer. The words ‘beer’ and ‘ale’ are now interchangeable, but in Tudor times beer was made with hops and ale with barley. Beer lasted longer, and ale – which quickly went stale – had to be drunk within three days.

Kent became the heartland of English hop production. In the 1520s, the first hop farm was established near Canterbury and many of the county’s barns were converted to oast houses for drying harvested hop flowers. Salty mists that blow in from the Kent coast give local hops a unique, zesty flavour.


In the 1700s there was a craze for a new, dark ale: porter. Its name came from the ale’s popularity with London’s market porters.

This was the first ale to be aged at the brewery and dispatched in a condition fit to be drunk immediately. Beer that could be produced on an industrial scale heralded the arrival of modern brewing barons. Many of their names are still with us, including Samuel Whitbread , Benjamin Truman. Vast quantities of porter swilled though London, sometimes literally; the Meux brewery’s vats near Tottenham Court Road could hold over 5 million pints, and when one of them burst in 1814 eight people died in the deluge.


As Britain’s empire spread around the world, its soldiers and civilians craved the familiar taste of English beer. Bow Brewery in London cornered the market for ales that slaked thirst in the dusty British Raj.

Its factory was a short distance from East India Company’s Thames moorings; from here their ships exported thousands of gallons of ‘India Pale Ale’ – the original IPA.

In 1839 a railway line between London and Burton upon Trent was constructed. Now the town’s breweries could ship their ales speedily to London, Liverpool and around the globe. And Burton had a big advantage: its local water is rich in sulphates, natural salts that accentuate hops, giving a uniquely irresistible flavour. Bow Brewery floundered and Burton’s beer-makers became masters of light ales.

Britons at home also acquired a taste for pale ales. By late 19th century a quarter of UK beer production poured out from this Staffordshire town. Brewers became rich and powerful, they entered parliament and many were given titles – when brewing barons Allsopp and Bass joined the peerage, they were known as ‘the Beerage’.


By the middle of the 20th century long-cherished ways of making and serving beer were in rapid decline. Wooden beer barrels were replaced with artificially pressurised metal kegs, making redundant the traditional long-handled beer pump.

Watney’s Red Barrel beer symbolised mass-produced, commercial beer – promoted with a plastic red barrel that glowed from the bar. Pubs were tied into serving pasteurised, carbonated, sterile, keg beer that was easy and cheap to make and sold at a premium.

Any alternative to kegged corporatism was becoming increasingly difficult to find. At the start of the 20th century there were over 3,000 breweries in the UK. By 1986 there were 117. British beermaking was slowly dying, murdered by accountants and executives in the search for profits.

In 1971 a group of ale enthusiasts decided to fight back. Forming the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), they raged against bland brewery beer. Staging events around the country where drinkers could try traditional brews, they reminded people that lager – which by 1990 accounted for 50% of beer bought in Britain – was a foreign interloper.

Today Camra has over 160,000 members. It supports beer made with traditional ingredients, naturally carbonated and fermented, and served from casks and bottles. It campaigns for preservation of historic pub buildings. Four decades since its foundation, Camra’s Good Beer Guide 2014 puts the number of UK breweries at 1147, a 70-year high. They can justifiably claim to have inspired today’s British brewing renaissance.


From historic ale-makers to cutting edge craft-brewers, here is our guide to some of Britain’s best beer tours.


Tucked away on an industrial estate in one of the less-celebrated parts of Greenwich is one of the UK’s most influential new beer makers: Meantime. The brewery was founded in 1999 by south Londoner, Alistair Hook. Its mission: to bring quality beer to the people.

At the turn of the century times were mean for beer in London. The capital was down to its last brewery (Fullers in Chiswick) and the city’s pubs’ only offer was corporate, fizzy ales. Beer making was ruled by accountants, not brewers.

Meantime set out to change that. They insisted on quality ingredients: Yakima Valley hops from Washington State (there’s a three year waiting list to get hold of them) and Scottish malts (also used for fine whisky). They mature their brews in vats for six weeks (most commercial breweries allow just three days) and, most importantly, never add chemicals or pasteurize beers.

The brewery has revived traditional London ales, producing porter (which disappeared during the 1950s), pale ales (using traditional Kentish hops) and a London lager. The effort was rewarded with medals in the World Beer Cup and their first pub, the Greenwich Union, was lauded in the media.

In 2009, Meantime opened a threestory brew-house and restaurant in the Old Royal Naval College. The 17th century buildings in Greenwich had last seen brewing in 1860 and this revival was masterminded by Rod Jones – Meantime brewer and one of the UK’s 50 beer sommeliers. Every six weeks, Jones produced an original beer using traditional copper vats (one punningly named Hospital Porter) which was matched with chef Daniel Doherty’s food.

But if Meantime is on a mission to make the world take British beer seriously again, they want the journey to be a fun one. Brewery visits are hosted by Alex Morgan, a cockney banter-merchant whose motto is ‘A barrel of beer and laughs’. The comedy tastings are followed by a technical tour of the gleaming steel beer-making machines – the highlight being a robotic arm that lifts and twirls kegs as if they were thimbles.

In the fifteen years since Meantime was founded over 50 craft brewers have opened in London. This Greenwich brewer has inspired a generation.

To book a tour visit: www.meantimebrewing.com/brewery-tour




In 1997 the Marble Arch Pub was in trouble. To bring in sufficient revenue the owners had to choose between opening a karaoke room or a brewhouse. Fortunately the landlords decided on a brewery. Sixteen years later Marble Beers’ mix of traditional and innovative ales are a favourite with Mancunians.

Marble’s Dobber bitter was voted the best IPA in the UK, and tweets go out on social media when a new batch reaches the pubs. Choc Ginger is a dark-ale so rich in malts that even though it has no chocolate added, it tastes as if it does.

The Earl Grey IPA is flavoured with a dash of tea, and their Ginger Ale is made with fresh ginger and chilli. On the first Sunday and third Tuesday of the month, manager Gaz Bee runs tours of the brewery. Visitors see how Marble produces 20,000 pints of beer each week, as well as tasting the malts and hops and sampling the beers. www.marblebeers.com


Shugborough Estate is the ancestral home of the Earls of Lichfield. In the 1800s the title belonged to the Anson family. They preferred ale to wine, and had individual beers prepared to their taste: Lord Anson’s brew was a strong bitter, while Lady Anson supped a light stout.


The Staffordshire estate dedicated itself to satisfying its masters, with fields of hops and barley as well as huge brewing operations. Part of the staff’s salary was paid in ale, with each servant entitled to eight pints of ‘small beer’ a day (a 0.2% ale made from the final brewers’ batch). Nothing went to waste: leftover hops were fed to pigs and beer barrels were reused in the laundry. Shugborough’s Victorian, wood-fired, brick brew-house still works.

Visit the estate on the third Sunday of the month and this steamy building will be in full swing. Staff from the local Titanic brewery oversee the brews, and visitors can sample authentic aristocratic ales as well as servants’ ‘small beers’.  www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate


Burton is the heartland of British beer brewing. In recent decades many of its iconic breweries – names such as Bass and Worthington – have been swallowed up by multinational brands with no history in the town.

But the people of Burton are baptised in ale, and they took to the streets to prevent the Bass Beer Museum from being closed down. In 2008 it reopened as The National Brewery Centre. “Our daily tours take the visitor through the beer making process and recreate the life of workers and their families,” explains head guide Des Mconigle, who comes from a family of Burton brewery workers.

“We start with the story of malt and ‘Norkies’, men from Norfolk, who came to Burton to work in the maltings. In 1902 they were replaced by Saladin, a large, French malting machine. That same year King Edward VII visited Bass – the brewery named a mash tun after him, and produced a celebratory King’s Ale. We still produce royal brews for special occasions.

“Our working microbrewery is run by our head brewer and Jo the (female) brewster. It produces 6,000 pints in one batch, including Red Shield, a light ale that was created for the centre.


“In our Edwardian bar you can try 1920s pub games, such as shove ha’penny and ‘The Devil among the Tailors’ [skittles]. A polyphone machine plays music from the era. After that you visit a 1960s bar to see how pubs have changed.

“We’ve got some great vintage machinery. Every brewery had its own fire department, and we’ve preserved The Waterwitch fire-engine from Mitchell and Butlers. We have period lorries, a working threshing machine, steam engines from the Bass maltings and the White Shield bottle car from the 1920s. It is actually a Rover that still runs.

“There’s a nostalgia for the old ways of transporting beer. Joe our shire horse gets lots of attention. During the summer we hook him up to a dray for rides around the town centre. There’s a working model of the Bass railway system that delivered beer to the mainline stations, and the last remaining beer steam train. The visit ends with a tasting, where we try Burton beers and ales from around the country.” www.nationalbrewerycentre.co.uk


Little Scotney Farm is at the heart of the Weald, on the borders of Kent and Sussex. It is the only National Trust farm still involved in the production and processing of hops. Hop picking was an annual working holiday for the people of London, with some 80,000 Londoners coming to Kent every autumn. Many pickers slept in rough shelters next to the farms, and Scotney has preserved a group of hoppers’ shelters and kitchens for visitors to see.

The Scotney Oasts were built in 1871. Today they are the only traditional oast houses in the UK still used to dry hops in the traditional way. The hops are taken to nearby Westerham, where a micro-brewery turns them in Little Scotney Ale. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/scotneycastle


Shepherd Neame was born from the Kentish countryside. The Faversham fields team with trellises of tangy hops. When brewed together with mineral-rich water that percolates through chalk underneath their beer factory, the result is a zesty beer that has sustained the men and women of Kent since 1698.

Britain’s oldest brewery is still run by the Neame family. Proud of their heritage, when I arrive at the visitors centre – a 15th century hall house, complete with wooden beams and chandelier decorated with beer bottles – the weekly get-together for retired brewery workers is in full swing.

A tour of Shepherd Neame combines history and modern beer production. Alan, my guide, begins with a lesson in English brewing terminology. Water (known as liquor) is added to malted barley, mashed in a tun (Shepherd Neame’s centuryold giant oak cask) to produce a wort (liquid that makes beer). This is boiled in a large copper (container) where hops are added for flavour and yeast converts sugars to alcohol.


As Alan points out, “beer is a simple recipe: water, barley, hops, yeast. It’s how you mix them together that make the difference in the glass”. To illustrate the point he lets me taste different barleys; from a light, golden, biscuity malt to a heavily cooked, toasty brown grain.

After the malt come the hops. Kent is the original home of English hops and Shepherd Neame are guardians of the National Hop Collection – a field outside Faversham with over 250 different historic varieties. Alan asks if I’m sure that I want to try dry hops, pointing out that this is where beer gets its bitter flavour. As the bitter surge pricks the back of my tongue, I realise I should have heeded his warning.

Shepherd Neame’s history is preserved in its building: the Victorian malthouse, a collection of classic beer vans, and two 18th century gleaming green steam engines – no longer used but maintained in working order – are reminders that this was one of the country’s first steam-powered breweries.


The beers take their names from local history. Bishop’s Finger was one of the first strong ales to be brewed when wartime malt rationing ended in the late 1950s. It recalls the finger signposts that pointed pilgrims on their way to the tomb of the martyred Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

Spitfire Ale was first brewed in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and the famous fighter aircraft that once flew over Kent to face down the Luftwaffe. Any brewhouse that maintains and displays the cockpit section of a Spitfire is well worth a visit. To book a visit to Shepherd Neame: www.shepherdneame.co.uk

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