Ale Houses. The term “ale” comes from the Danish and Saxon öl and ealu, words implanted on the English by invaders from mainland Europe and Scandinavia. In Anglo-Saxon times, from the 5th century CE, brewing was a domestic pursuit. But the demand for ale was enormous—it was drunk at every meal, celebration, and funeral—and often outstripped supply. Some households built a reputation for the quality of their ale and began to specialize in brewing. When a new brew was ready, a member of the family would tie a branch or part of a bush to a pole placed through the door or a window.
The spread of ale houses was slow at first as a result of the domination of the Church. Christianity dampened some of the wilder excesses of Anglo-Saxon times, but ironically the Church not only attempted to regulate drinking but also to corner the production of ale. Monasteries offered accommodation totravelers and created their own brew houses to supply them with drink. The clerical establishment looked down on common ale houses, as can be seen by the instruction issued by Ecbright, Archbishop of York, to his bishops and priests in the 8th century to provide their own hospices for pilgrims and travelers, and to provide them with home-produced ale and food. As impoverished pilgrims were given extremely weak ale in monasteries, they made use of ale houses en route to partake of stronger brews. (Until it was converted into apartments in the 21st century, there was an ale house in St. Albans in Hertfordshire called the Mile House that stood exactly one mile from the great abbey founded to commemorate the first Christian martyr in England. Pilgrims enjoyed some strong ale there before walking the final mile to the abbey and the more meager offerings of the monks.)
Brewing and retailing of beer have for centuries attracted the attention of tax gatherers. In the 13th century in England a tax known as a “scot” was levied on beer sold in ale houses, using the familiar argument that the tax was needed to combat drunkenness. The tax applied only to ale houses in urban areas or those that stood on open, cultivated land. As most of England was covered by thick forests at the time, it was not difficult to set up rudimentary alehouses that were beyond the reach of the tax man. With wry humor, the beer sold in these illicit ale houses was known as “scot ale,” while customers were said to drink “scot free.” (The word “scot” is of Germanic origin and has no connection with Scotland.)
To further enforce the law, the post of ale-conner was created. He was an early version of the excise office, whose task was to visit every ale house with a brewery attached to it in order to judge the quality of the product. According to legend, the ale- conner would ask the brewer to pour some of his or her fresh brew onto a bench outside the alehouse. The conner would then sit in the puddle and after a certain time would rise. If his breeches stuck to the bench, then the ale was considered of sufficient quality to drink. It is more likely that the conner preferred to taste the ale rather than sit in it, as a rhyme of
The first licensing of ale houses dates from the reign of Edward VI, who brought in two Acts in
The English Reformation of the 16th century broke the power of the Church over brewing and led to the rapid growth of commercial or “common” brewers. Commercial brewers were based mainly in urban areas and for many centuries brewing continued to take place in ale houses. It seemed that both beer drinking and its manufacture would be inhibited as a result of the rise of Puritanism in the late 16th century, with frequent loud attacks on ale houses as dens of iniquity. Philip Stubbes in the Anatomie of Abuses (1583) recorded that
Every county, city, town, and village and other place hath abundance of ale houses, taverns, inns which are so fraught with malt worms [drunkards] night and day, that you would wonder to see them. You shall have them sitting at the wine and good ale all day long, yea, all night too, peradventure a whole week together, so long as any money is left; swilling, gulling, and carousing from one to another, till never a one can speak a ready word. And a man once drunk with wine or strong drink rather resembleth a brute than a Christian man, for do not his eyes begin to stare and be red, fiery, and bleared, blubbering forth seas of tears? Doth he not froth and foam at the mouth like a bear? Doth not his tongue falter and stammer in his mouth? Are not his wits and spirits as if were drowned?
In spite of this fearful diatribe, the period of the interregnum in the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell ruled a republic between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, did not lead to any great repression of ale houses, though tax on brewing was increased. The fact that Cromwell had been a farmer in eastern England, the major barley-growing area of the country, made him aware of the importance of brewing to the economy and the well-being of the people. He often stayed in ale houses and inns during his military campaigns. Not surprisingly, ale houses that bore the names of monarchs were encouraged to change their signs, while any suggestions of immodest behavior or “Popery” were frowned upon. The ale house name “Bacchanales,” commemorating a riotous drinking festival, thus became the “Bag o’ Nails,” while “God Encompasses Us” was refashioned as the “Goat and Compasses.” “Catherina Fidelis” (a reference to Catherine of Aragon) was turned into the “Cat and Fiddle.” Signs that bore a reference to the Virgin Mary, whose emblem was a bowl of lilies, became the prosaic “Flower Pot” while the “Salutation,” an early religious sign that referred to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, changed to the “Soldier and Citizen,” a powerful Cromwellian symbol of the New Model Army.
Ale houses went into decline in the 18th and 19th centuries for political and economic reasons. An epidemic of gin drinking in England in the late 17th century killed thousands of people and led to misery and poverty for many more. Beer was seen as a healthier alternative, as depicted in William Hogarth’s savage illustrations of Gin Lane and Beer Street, one a shocking portrait of dissolute behavior, the other of cheery bonhomie.
English society was changing at a fast pace. The Industrial Revolution created factories and an urban class of workers with insatiable thirsts. Early in the 18th century, the development of a new style of beer called “porter” created such demand that commercial brewers, such as Samuel Whitbread in London, built substantial breweries that produced only porter and its stronger version, stout.
The pressure on ale houses was intensified in the 19th century with the arrival of pale ale. The first light-colored beer, made possible by new technologies that allowed paler malt to be produced, was more expensive than darker beers such as porter. Pale ale appealed to the emerging and more affluent middle class who shunned the coarser ale houses and instead frequented the fancy “saloon bars” of more opulent and respectable public houses.
The modern pub became deeply rooted in British society at the turn of the 20th century, when powerful brewers developed large estates of pubs. These “tied houses” sold only the beers made by the landlords.