Beer History

Beer through the ages

8000 BC
In the Middle East, hunter-gatherers learnt how to make beer from wild wheat and barley they found growing in the foothills. They started actively growing the grain for their beer – thus, according to some historians, inventing farming and civilisation!

4500 BC
The first farmers, and, probably, the first brewers arrived in Britain from across the Channel. Although recognised as the first beer, the invention was still some way from the product we would identify today.

3000 BC
In Egypt, the standard diet for the poor was beer, bread and onions. Beer was so important that model breweries were left in tombs for individuals to enjoy in the afterlife.
Neolithic farmers in Orkney were brewing beer with ingredients that included henbane, hemlock and deadly nightshade, which, if they did not kill you, would certainly give you powerful hallucinations.

2400 BC
In Sumeria (modern Iraq) drinkers consumed their beer through long reeds from a communal pot. In modern East Africa, drinkers still consumed home-made sorghum beer in just the same way.

2000 BC
The Beaker People arrived in Britain, warriors for whom drinking was so important that their pottery beer mugs went into the grave when they were buried. Remains found on Orkney showed that the mugs had contained a beer-like drink including meadowsweet, hemlock, deadly nightshade and wheat.

320 BC
The Greek explorer Pytheas of Massilia (modern Marseilles) came to Britain and found the natives making beer from grain and honey. Honey beers had previously been mixed with wheat, barley or herbs for a number of years, and this saw the creation of mead.

20 AD
With the wine-drinking Romans just across the Channel, British tribes, in what is modern Essex now, used coins bearing an ear of barley, to symbolise the British drink beer. In contrast with rival pro-Roman tribes, who minted coins with a vine leaf on them.

43 AD
The Romans arrived in force and conquered most of Britain. By around 100 AD at the latest Roman soldiers based in Britain were drinking beer, and a list of accounts from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in modern Northumbria, mentions “Atrectus the brewer”, the first named brewer in British history.

500 AD
The Angles and Saxons started arriving in Britain to conquer and settle. Their social life revolved around beer halls and ale houses, and they recognised three main types of beer, “mild ale” (fresh and probably quite sweet), “clear ale” (probably older and sourer) and “Welsh ale” (probably made from wheat and honey).

822 AD
Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in Picardy, Northern France, made the first known mention of hops in connection with brewing beer. These were wild hops, gathered in the woods: over the next 300 years hops would be turned into a cultivated crop.

Henry II introduced the so called ‘Saladin Tithe’ to pay for the Crusades – the first tax on beer.

1200 AD
Most brewing in Britain was done by female “brewsters”, using their domestic pots and buckets and fitting the boiling, mashing and fermenting in around their other domestic tasks. Outside the cities, it was estimated, one peasant family in 25 brewed for sale.
Ale was drunk for breakfast, lunch and supper, and many people thought drinking water was actively dangerous: the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, in Germany, writing around 1150AD, said: “Beer fattens the flesh and lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

1350 AD
On the Continent, hops had almost taken over completely as the flavouring in beer from gruit, a mixture of different herbs, depending on what was available locally. This included sweet gale or bog myrtle, Myrica gale, a moorland bush, and yarrow, Achillea millefolium, a grassland weed. The first known exports of hopped beer to Britain come to Great Yarmouth in 1361-62. At the end of the 14th century Great Yarmouth was importing 40 to 80 barrels of beer a month, while in 1397-8 Colchester imported 100 barrels of beer.

1410 AD
Brewing of hopped beer, in contrast to unhopped ale, began in Britain. The beer brewers were generally immigrants from the Low Countries (modern Belgium and the Netherlands) and for the next 200 years or more beer was occasionally attacked as an alien drink not fit for ale-drinking Englishmen. However, at no point was hops ever banned in England.

1520 AD
After relying on hops being imported from the Continent for more than a century, English beer brewers finally got a local supply when hop growing began in Kent, with hops imported by Flemish weavers. Hops were originally viewed with great suspicion and they also avoided taxes on spices levied by religious orders. By 1577 hop cultivation has reached Herefordshire.

1540 AD
Henry VIII had two brewers to supply the royal household, one for ale and one for beer. At Hampton Court, his main residence, 600,000 gallons of ale and beer were consumed a year, more than 13,000 pints a day. The lowest officer of the household received four pints every evening; whilst Dukes got two gallons a day.
The Tudor army ran on beer: in July 1544, during an English invasion of Picardy, the commander of Henry VIII’s forces complained that his army were so short of supplies they had no beer for 10 days. Adding that it was strange for ‘’English men to do with so little grudging.”

1570 AD
By this time, there were 58 ale breweries in London and 32 beer breweries. Queen Elizabeth I was said to be greatly annoyed by the air pollution from them rising up through the palace windows! This period saw the rise of stronger ales and beers being brewed across the country. In June 1588 the Corporation of St Albans, in Hertfordshire, hauled 14 people before the mayor and charged them with brewing “extraordinary strong ale”, which they sold by retail “against all good law and order”.

1600 AD
Most brewing was still done by inn and alehouse brewers or at home, especially in the country, where almost every farm and manor house brewed its own ale and beer. The rise in higher percentage drink was brought about due to the weather. This meant that between October and March brewers had to brew beers that would endure the summer months. In order to keep, these beers had to be high in strength (7-12%), high in hops (which acts as a preservative) and matured in large casks in dark stone cellars. These “old ales” were often kept for several years and given to friends.

1790 AD
A brewer called Hodgson, from Bow, on the outskirts of London, close to where East Indian ships moored on the Thames, started to supply ships with lighter ale for long journeys as it lasted longer than darker ones. They won a monopoly on supplying India with beer, and Hodgson’s Pale Ale became famous. Eventually, by trying too hard to maintain his monopoly, in 1822 Hodgson prompted rival brewers from Burton upon Trent to enter the Indian market. It turned out the water in Burton was ideal for making pale beers, and the Burton brewers eventually dominated the market for what became known – but only after around 1835 – as India Pale Ale, or IPA.

1842 AD
Inspired by English malting techniques, a brewer called Joseph Groll made the first pale lager in the town of Pilsen, Bohemia, the forerunner of all “pils” or “pilsener” beers. However, it took at least 50 years for the new pale lager style to start to outsell the original darker lagers.

1881 AD
Almost forty years after the first pale lager was brewed in Pilsen in the Czech Republic, the lager beer style started to be brewed in Britain. The first purpose-built lager brewery in Britain, the Austro-Bavarian Brewery of Tottenham, in London, opened its doors. However, it did not last long, and for the next 80 years lager remained only a tiny percentage of beer sales in Britain.

1914 AD
The First World War brought in draconian restrictions on the brewing industry, with the strength of beer reduced dramatically and tax levels increased enormously. After the war, high taxes remained in place, and beer strength never recovered to its former levels.

1917 AD
Maximum prices were introduced on the price of beer and alcohol strengths were lowered to help with the war effort.

1925 AD
Bottled beers began to gain popularity, including new styles such as brown ale (frequently mixed with draught mild ale) and milk stout.

1933 AD
British brewers were encouraged to cut the price of beer, increase the strength, increase output and use more home-grown barley, by the Government, in return for a 35% fall in beer duty.
The time also saw the launch of the ‘Beer is Best’ campaign, a 30-year generic advertising operation with a nationwide poster and television drive involving Bobby Moore and his wife Tina, as well as the entire Liverpool football team. At its peak it was worth over £1million? per annum in today’s money.

1960 AD
Mild ale finally started to decline in popularity. Its place was taken by a rise in sales of bitter, especially in the form of “keg” bitter, described as “bottled ale in a barrel”. It was pasteurised and served up under carbon dioxide pressure. They were easier to keep than cask beers and become ubiquitous. By 1970, 90% of British pubs were serving only keg beers. Lager at this point was only two per cent of the British market.

1980 AD
Britain’s taste for lager got a second wind. Sales of UK-brewed and imported lagers surged, becoming the country’s biggest selling style of beer by 1989. Lager accounted for around 75% of beer consumption.

2002 AD
The Progressive Beer Duty introduced by Gordon Brown, taxed smaller breweries at a lower rate than the bigger breweries that dominated the market. Small breweries’ relief was introduced in 2002 and then expanded in 2004. This offered a reduced rate of duty to brewers producing less than 60,000HL annually. Alongside other factors this led to an increase in the number of breweries, reaching 800 by 2010. As well as microbreweries becoming increasingly popular throughout the country, growing at a rate of about 50 per year.

2007 AD
The smoking ban, making it illegal to smoke in all enclosed work places in England, came into force on 1 July 2007 as a consequence of the Health Act 2006. There’s no doubt that the smoking ban hit many pubs hard, coinciding with a major recession and huge rises in the tax on beer, the ban contributed to pub closures in many areas. Traditional, ‘wet-led’ pubs that relied heavily on drinks’ sales, and perhaps didn’t have the site or opportunity to create a successful food led business, were the worst affected.

2008 AD
Chancellor Alastair Darling introduced the beer duty escalator. This saw the price of a pint rise 2% above inflation every year. By 2013, this was seen as a 42% tax hike, and almost 10 times the amount that European counterparts paid. It received wide spread criticism due to being deemed unfair on pubs, especially after the smoking ban and economic recession, which many said led to thousands of pubs having to close their doors.

2013 AD
After heavy lobbying the beer duty escalator, established in 2008, was abolished. The chancellor cancelled the 3% escalator and also cut duty by 1%, in what was to be the first of many cuts to beer duty aimed at getting people back into pubs. 7 out of 10 alcoholic drinks drunk in pubs at this point were beer, all other alcoholic tax duties were kept the same.

2015 AD
Chancellor George Osbourne cut beer duty by 1p, the third budget in a row in which beer duty was cut, making beer 10p cheaper than it would have been under the beer duty escalator. This reflected in rising beer sales for the first time in a decade and beer price increases in pubs at their lowest since the 1980’s.

2017 AD
In the March budget statement of 2017, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that the government would be sticking with previously planned upratings of duties on alcohol, meaning a 3.9% increase that equated to almost £130million on beer.
However, also introduced was specific help for pubs with a rate relief. £1,000 off rates for all pubs with a rateable value less than £100,000 was brought in to ease those struggling with the tax hike.

Further Reading