The History of the Amber Nectar
Beer is almost as old as civilization itself the very first written evidence of its existence date back to the records of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as the 5th millennium BC. People in this age are thought to have drunk it from large containers using straws as the brew produced was cloudy and unfiltered, and the straws stopped them form swallowing some of the very bitter fermented grains.
By 2nd millennium BC the Babylonians had developed around 20 different types of beer and its popularity quickly spread throughout Egypt and the Mediterranean basin. In fact so important has beer and brewing become to the Egyptians that scribes invented new hieroglyphs to document them and even the pharos were buried with yeast and barley in their tombs so that they could have a pint or two in the afterlife.
As the Roman Empire became the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean wince was becoming the alcoholic drink of choice in these warmer areas where grapes were easier to grow. Beer however was still being brewed at the fringes of the Roman territory in what is now the UK, Germany and Eastern Europe. It was this association with the ‘fringes’ of civilization that led it to be considered as a ‘barbarian’ drink by the Romans themselves.
By the time the Romans arrived in Britain in 55 BC, brewing in the form of ale was well established and despite the wine-drinking Romans were thoroughly unimpressed, the practice is something that last still to this day and is an integral part of British and German culture.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages saw the production of beer go from a purely male craft to becoming a household duty and consequently passing into the domain of female ‘brewsters'. Beer was a stable part of the family diet as bacteria killing quality of the alcohol contained within it meant that it was much safer drink than water, even children would drink it. 'Table' or 'small' beer soon became the everyday drink for most people as they were far weaker versions of the strong ales which were reserved for special occasions or for keeping.
As Europe became ravaged by decades of plague and ensuing famines, over half of its population was wiped out. As a consequence it was left to the men of god to pick up the task. As part of their religious duties monks began brewing beer, mead and wine and built breweries to provide pilgrims with food, drink and shelter. These breweries were the blue print for the very first taverns and beer halls.
Early Modern Age
By the 15th century, the first 'hopped' beers arrived in Britain from Holland. Initially they were met with disapproval, and the use of hops in brewing was banned by the monarchy until repealed by Henry VIII more than a century later. By then, it was widely acknowledged that hops improved the flavour and longevity of beer, so most brewers had adopted them.
However not wishing their fine brews to become tarnished with outlandish ingredients the Germans laid down their own purity standards for brewers. The 1506 ‘Reinheitsgebot’ (beer purity law) stated that only four ingredients could be used in the production of beer; water, malted barley, malted wheat and hops. Although it was never inscribed into law, yeast was also acceptable as it was considered and essential ingredient in the brewing process. The Reinheitsgebot is still in force to this day.
Making beer had become a profitable activity, so when Henry dissolved the monasteries, men became the principal brewers in each community and a commercial guild was formed. Since most brewers were publican brewers at this time, the number of alehouses grew and taxes were introduced. Private country brewhouses became common with the servants and workers of large estates regularly receiving beer as part of their wages. These were the first purpose built breweries and although few of the originals survive to this day, they provided the foundations upon which all the big brewers to this day are built upon.
The Modern Age
The industrial revolution brought significant improvements in efficiency and consistency, thanks in no small part to the invention of the thermometer and hydrometer. As towns and cities grew larger so the demand for beer increases prompting breweries to increase in size and capacity in order to meet demand.
In the early 18th century, porter became a hugely popular drink, particularly in London. By the 19th century paler ales had become more fashionable. Many major brewers whose names have become synonymous with British beer established themselves during this period including Bass, Courage, Guinness, Whitbread and Worthingtons.
For centuries ordinary people had brewed their own beer or acquired it from a small local producer. Now for the first time in history, beer was becoming 'mass produced'. Annual production rose to over 40 million barrels; nearly half a pint for every man, woman and child and more than we produce today!
During the Victorian era, the temperance movement grew in popularity as groups such as the Liberals, the Quakers and Salvation Army sought to curb drinking. With the support of the soon to be prime minister David Lloyd George, the Defence of the Realm Act was passed. Pub hours were restricted by license and the levels of taxation were increased. Unfortunately this act followed by the outbreak of the Great War was the final nail in the coffin for many small independent publican brewers who were forced to close.
Britain never implemented an American-style prohibition law, but of the 6,500 breweries operating in 1900, fewer than 600 remained by the outbreak of the Second World War. Afterwards, the industry consolidated even further, with a stream of mergers, takeovers and closures, leading to the majority of the nation’s brewing industry being owned by only 6 companies.
By the late 1970's small breweries had been bought and closed down and nearly all pubs were tied to one of ‘the big six’ or to a regional brewer like Boddingtons. Lager and processed keg beer rapidly replaced traditional cask ale.
In 1971, the 'Campaign for Real Ale' (CAMRA) was formed to fight for the survival of cask ale. Their membership grew quickly and in 1989, backed by CAMRA Lord Young introduced the 'beer orders' to release the stranglehold held by the big six. This limited their pub estates to 2000 each and forced them to allow landlords to stock one 'guest ale'. Though well-intentioned it did little to help their cause and resulted in a beer market dominated by only four major brewers and a handful of pub-owning companies.
Since then however CAMRA have continued to play a major role in bestowing the benefits of craft-beer and encouraging the growth of microbreweries. In 2002 they helped bring in new laws that provide favorable tax breaks to smaller brewers and with the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) they have finally begun to open the door to the tied-pubs.