COUNTRY HOUSE BREWING
As a new exhibition opens in Yorkshire, curator Rachel Conroy explores the role of beer and brewing in the 18th century
During the long 18th century beer – a brewed concoction of water, malt, hops and yeast – was the drink that the masses used to quench their thirst. The tipple was consumed by royalty, workhouse inhabitants and everyone in between. Beer was vital at a time when poor sanitation meant that the safety of drinking water was unreliable. The brewing process involved boiling the water, so making it safe to drink. Moreover beer was comforting, nutritious, calorific and formed a central part of the diet, especially for the poor whose intake of food could otherwise be extremely limited.
In addition the health benefits of beer were widely recognised and it was used to treat a range of ailments and diseases, including dropsy, stomach upsets, jaundice and the King’s evil, a skin disease caused by tuberculosis. Recipes for healing possets, taken in the bedchamber and drunk from a special spouted vessel, often used warmed milk curdled with ale or wine as a base to which eggs, sugar and medicinal spices could be added.
At Temple Newsam, a country house near Leeds that was the seat of the Ingram family, Ann Scarburgh’s apothecary prescribed her “ingredients for Six Gallons of Beer” in 1749 alongside a wide range of comparatively unpleasant though more familiar-sounding medicinal fixes, including a bottle of gargle, stomach-purging tincture and pectoral mixture.
Roasted malt was used for beer, giving a dark colour and bitter taste, while dried malt tended to be used for ale, which produced a drink lighter in colour and with a sweeter taste. Both beverages were available in a wide range of varieties to suit every palate and
Beer was used to treat ailments and diseases, including dropsy, stomach upsets and jaundice
constitution. Small beer was an everyday refreshing brew, weak in alcohol and often drunk by women and children, and with meals. In 1820 tests of small beer published in Friedrich Accum’s A Treatise on the Art of
Brewing found strengths ranging between just 0.75 per cent and 1.28 per cent alcohol by volume. ‘ Two-penny’ or ‘amber’ was a cheap variety infused with botanicals. On occasion it was drunk warm in the morning and was then referred to as ‘purl’. Strong varieties included humming ale, so-called because it made your head hum, and porter, which was introduced in about 1720. This was developed to have a full, rounded flavour and was considered hearty and nourishing for working men – hence the name.
A birthday brew
Stingo, another strong beer, was favoured for special occasions. Within gentry families it was for a time customary to brew a special batch of beer on the birth of the first son, which was later drunk to celebrate his coming of age. At the 21st birthday party of Sir Robert Williams Vaughan, 3rd Baronet of Nannau in Wales, in 1824 most of the guests opted for homebrewed beer over imported wine. Some drank from a set of six little wooden cups carved in the form of acorns, with sparkling engraved silver mounts. The acorn shape reflected the fact that they were made of wood from Ceubren yr Ellyll, an ancient oak that was felled on the estate. However, the cups’ rounded bottoms also meant that the drink had to be imbibed in one go.
Historically, brewing was considered as part of the domestic economy and was almost exclusively the domain of women. Many female brewers, particularly those who were married, worked on a small scale and only when they needed to supplement their income. However, brewing became more commercial by the middle of the 18th century, at which point it was far more commonly undertaken by men.
Most large country houses operated their own brewhouses, usually located at a convenient distance from the main dwelling, as part of the domestic offices that might also include the laundry, dairy and other useful
spaces. In 1765 John Mills’s A New and Complete System of Practical Husbandry advised that “the brewhouse should be so situated as to face northerly, for shade and coolness. It should be as near as possible to the cellar, to save the labour and expence [sic] of carriage… The floor should be paved with hard bricks, or stone, and raised in the middle to give an easy discharge to the water, so as to keep the brewhouse always clean.” The brewhouses on country-house estates supplied both staff and family with a ready supply of small beer and stronger ales for special occasions. Servants received an allowance of beer alongside their meals as part of their wages. This was not only essential for quenching thirst, but was considered important for their wellbeing and contentment. In the fifth edition of his book The London and Country Brewer, published in 1744, William Ellis wrote that “a certain Nobleman…acted so generously as to brew above thirty Hogsheads of potent Drink for his Hay-makers and Harvest People, which so spirited them that every one thought himself happy if he could work for such a Master, and vie who should do him the best service: An Example worthy of Imitation!” (You can download this book for free from the Internet Archive at bit.ly/archive-brewer.)
Butler Thomas Poole was in full agreement
Beer was often intrinsically linked to patriotism, particularly compared with imported drinks such as wine or brandy
five decades later, writing in his 1793 work
A Treatise on Strong Beer, Ale Etc that every gentleman should “keep a good mug of beer at home, then we should proceed through our several duties with a merry heart and chearful [sic] countenance, and prevent vice and immorality”. Providing servants with a plentiful but measured supply of high-quality beer, Poole argued, made them happier in their work and less likely to frequent local taverns, or drink to excess.
Brewing took place for centuries at Temple Newsam. Brewers were mostly paid by the brew, which was not unusual for country houses, although they were very occasionally paid an annual salary or for several months’ work at once. The work was irregular, because not even the largest estates had enough demand to keep on a brewer full time, so they were usually brought in casually when supplies were needed. The rhythm of work was dictated partly by the seasons, with the cooler months between October and March thought to be the best months for ale production, but also to satisfy a demand for particular events or occasions, for which very large quantities of alcohol could be required. To celebrate the recovery of George III in 1789, for example, Lady Irwin of Temple Newsam released more than 1,366 gallons of ale from her cellars to be enjoyed by all on the estate, and spent over £110 roasting oxen.
A brewer’s work was extremely physically demanding, and not very well paid. It involved long hours, heavy lifting, managing and handling large volumes of boiling liquid, coping with extremely strong and unpleasant smells, and scalding and scrubbing equipment that needed to be kept scrupulously clean to stop the precious concoction from spoiling (often described as becoming ‘ropy’ or ‘foxy’). The brewing process itself was a long one, requiring concentration and close monitoring of the developing brew, meaning one or two nights with very little rest or no sleep at all. The brewer’s room at Temple Newsam, which joined onto the brewhouse, was sparse with only a ‘long settle’ for sitting and napping, and a range for cooking and keeping warm.
A patriotic drink
In the 18th century beer was often intrinsically linked to patriotism, particularly when compared with expensive imported drinks such as wine or brandy. The inhabitants of the back street depicted in William Hogarth’s Beer Street of 1751 are healthy, happy and industrious, and enjoy large tankards of foaming ale (see pages 66–67). A verse below the image implores the reader to “quaff Thy balmy juice with Glee, / And Water leave to France”.
The scene could not contrast more sharply with the misery afflicting those captured in its companion image, Gin Lane. This association lingered as late as 1840, when beer drinking had been largely replaced with tea, with an anonymous commenter saying that “there is no beverage so wholesome and invigorating as beer… it may, indeed, be justly considered as our national drink”.
The ubiquity of beer and its central role in 18th century sociability, both in and away from the home, is reflected in the richness and diversity of vessels made for serving and drinking it. In wealthy houses you might find fine handpainted porcelain or fashionable cylindrical creamware mugs, gleaming silver tankards, delicate glasses engraved with hops and even elaborate drinking horns, often mounted with precious metals and stones. The theft of drinking vessels from public houses was rife, and landlords were actively discouraged from furnishing their premises
with expensive materials. At the tavern or alehouse, customers were provided with robust pewter or stoneware mugs, but also with ceramic frog mugs and puzzle jugs that were used in drinking games.
The joy of the unexpected
The games’ entertainment value relied on the element of surprise, whereby you could glug down the dregs of your beer from an innocent-looking mug to find an ugly ceramic frog at the bottom, or be squirted with ale from one of several spouts encircling the rim of your puzzle jug.
Many mugs and jugs clearly proclaimed the political allegiance of their owner through their decoration, particularly those that used transfer prints from satirical sources responding to current events. Military figures were extremely popular subjects for the decoration of ceramics, and these vessels visually expressed the drinker’s support for a public figure while they toasted or sang to their health and success, and that of the country.
Furthermore the heavy taxation on the brewing and selling of beer – which raised over £3.3 million in 1775 – meant that drinking to the success of British armies and navies during the 18th century made a significant contribution to Britain’s coffers.
Country-house brewing declined rapidly during the 19th century, and virtually disappeared. The life-saving improvements in water sanitation, a rapid growth of industrialised city breweries and the rise and spread of tea drinking all played a part in the decrease of private brewing and the shifting of beer from an all-day, everyday essential beverage, to one that tended to be reserved for social occasions.
In 1800 approximately half of the total annual production of beer could be attributed to domestic brewhouses, but by 1870 the proportion had shrunk drastically to a mere 2.5 per cent. However, there were a handful of notable exceptions. Brewing continued well into the 20th century at Hickleton Hall near Doncaster. It also endured beyond the Victorian period at the great houses of Longleat in Wiltshire and Lyme Park in Cheshire.
In 1800 about half of the total annual production of beer could be attributed to domestic brewhouses
This 1818 aquatint depicts brewers carrying a barrel
Who Do You Think You Are? This schematic of a brewhouse was published in a magazine in 1747 Pearlware puzzle jug, Leeds Pottery, c1800
A real-world Queen Vic: customers and staff at a public house in London during the Victorian era