Cask Ale: Ancient and modern

Ever since the Angles and Saxons gave it to us, beer has been pivotal to our society. By Pete Brown

Saturday 27 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Now, this might sound outlandish. The kind of story a bloke down the pub tells. But I promise you it's true – you can look up the scientific paper on Google. Astronomers have detected the presence of vast clouds of alcohol in space, billions of miles across. One cloud – Sagittarius BN – is located near the centre of the Milky Way. Does this mean that booze is as old as time? Did alcohol literally arrive on earth from heaven? If you bear in mind that Jesus Christ's first alleged miracle was to turn water into wine, I wouldn't bet against it.

Hardly surprising, then, that brewing is as old as civilisation itself – indeed the cultivation of barley for beer may have been the impetus for the first settled communities to tie up the camels and build permanent dwellings.

That happened in Sumeria – a region now better known as Iraq. At that time Britain was heavily forested rather than farmed and we were drinking a lot of mead, but it's generally believed that when the Angles and Saxons appeared around the fourth century, they brought beer with them.

So Britons may not have been the earliest beer drinkers, but for much of our history we've been among the most enthusiastic. According to 12th century historian William of Malmesbury, beer cost us the Battle of Hastings. Malmesbury describes how the French spent the night before the battle fasting and praying, while the English "were accustomed to eat till they became surfeited, and drink till they were sick", which meant they attacked the French "more with rashness and precipitate fury than military skill".

But beer made up for this embarrassment by keeping us alive throughout the Middle Ages. Having been boiled during its manufacture and – later – having been made with hops (a natural preservative), beer was safe to drink when drinking water led to often-fatal diseases. By the 15th century, water was regarded as a sign of poverty, and was drunk only as an act of penance.

By Georgian times, beer was universally seen as the lifeblood of the nation. When the Prince Regent proclaimed "Beer and beef have made us what we are," he was boasting, not complaining. Beer was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, with brewers investing in transport infrastructure, pioneering steam power, and later biochemistry, using microscopes to understand yeast. During the Victorian era, brewing was a larger industry than any other, apart from cotton, and tax on beer accounted for a third of the exchequer's revenue. That you were probably not told this when you studied history at school is arguably the greatest victory of the Temperance movement.

And beer was the fuel of Empire. In British India, the life expectancy of soldiers and civilians working for the East India Company was about three years, with one of the major causes of death being arak, a highly potent homebrew. India Pale Ale, brewed to rigorous specifications, provided an alternative that was not only more pleasant to drink, but less damaging to the drinker. The distinctive red triangle of Bass – the most successful brand – was the UK's first ever registered trademark.

After Hastings, beer was again the scapegoat in the First World War, when drunkenness among munitions workers was blamed for ammunition shortages. This led to potent British beer having its sting drawn. Total prohibition was resisted on the grounds that it would probably have sparked a workers' revolution, but beer became weak and watery, and pub opening hours were slashed – setting the blueprint for beer drinking throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Beer redeemed itself in the Second World War, when Churchill perceived it as vital for morale both on the battlefield and the home front. It was never rationed, and pubs became symbolic of resistance to the blitz.

Beer is a constant in British life. Our attitudes and behaviour around it reflect the dominant social forces at any given time in our history. In the last decades of the 20th century, our tastes became more international as we switched to the lagers we'd enjoyed on package holidays. The biggest brands were defined by television advertising – at their time, probably the best ads in the world.

And now, as we demonstrate an increasing passion for interesting food and drink from artisanal producers, we're embracing traditional cask ale once more. But we're doing it in a very modern way. The most exciting beers build awareness through bloggers and Twitter rather than television, and there's a CaskFinder iPhone app that will help you find your nearest Cask Marque pub, tell you about the pint in your hand and give you more information about the breewers.

Pubs are closing and long term we're drinking less beer. But beer has helped define us as a nation through our entire history, and pubs have been the focus of British social life for a thousand years. It would be extraordinarily arrogant to suggest that all that is going to change in the next few years.

Come 2100, we may be wearing silver suits and flying electric cars, or reverted back to a more primitive oil-free state as we bake in a drastically changed climate. But one thing is certain: most of us will be down the local, pint in hand.

Find out more about the history of beer and pubs in Pete Brown's 'Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer', published by Pan Macmillan

Tasting: how to get the most from your beer

You can enjoy beer however you want, but if you're interested in getting the full flavour and character of the beer then, just like wine or whisky, there are some simple rules to follow:


Drink from the right glass – all the depth and complexity of what we call flavour actually comes from the aroma rather than the taste of food and drink. Drink straight from the bottle and your nose is getting no action at all. A wide-brimmed glass unleashes the aroma compounds to get your senses going.


Have a look – the beautiful burnished gold of a pale ale or the inky darkness of an Imperial stout give big clues of what to expect in the mouth.


OK, it might look pretentious, but do you want that full flavour explosion or not? Give the glass a swirl to release those aroma compounds, get your nose in and breathe deeply. Hops in beer give an array of citrus, grassy and resiny perfumes, while maltier beers tickle you with toffee, caramel, biscuit, coffee and chocolate.


Take a sip. Don't swallow yet: hold it in your mouth. The tastebuds that pick up sweet, bitter, salty and acidic tastes are on different bits of the tongue. Make sure they all get a go to bring out the full character of the beer. Breathe. Oxygen will reveal even more, creating something between taste and aroma, a magical flavour cloud hovering over your tongue.


You know how wine tasters spit? You'll be saddened to hear you can't do that with beer. The taste buds that sense bitterness tend to congregate at the very back of the mouth and top of the throat, so you need to swallow to get the crisp, bitter finish of an ale.

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