Monday, June 26, 2017

When English Ale became English Beer

by Anna Belfrage

To modern people, ale and beer are more or less synonymous, their difference lying in their etymological roots rather than in any basic difference in the beverage. Ale is a word derived from the Old English ealu and bears a distinct similarity to the present day Scandinavian word for beer, öl. Beer, on the other hand, is an imported word. Well, if we’re going to be correct there is an Old English version of this word as well, but it was rarely used—until the 15th century when England first began importing beer from the Low Countries. It is thought beer derives from the Latin word bibere which means to drink.

For the discerning 15th century Englishman, ale and beer were two different beverages. Ale was the traditional drink without hops while beer was brewed using hops. The English were, as a rule, distrustful of hops. Or maybe they simply preferred the fruiter flavour of ale.

No matter what we call it, beer has been around since many thousands of years. Take some barley, add water and a yeast agent, and you’re well on your way to making a rudimentary beer. Spice things up with some honey and you get that sweeter variety our ancestors called mead. Parties in the long-halls of old, whether for Vikings or Anglo-Saxons, would have required enormous quantities of this rather potent brew.

While humanity has been quaffing beer for thousands of years, the addition of hops is a relatively new invention. In the early ninth century the French developed a partiality for using hops instead of gruit (the traditional bouquet garni of beer making, including such delicacies as dandelions and marigolds—and fruit) as a flavouring and preserving agent, but at the time our French brewers were in the minority. So essential were hops to the French beer-making process that most monasteries tended to have hops gardens so as to ensure a steady supply of this key ingredient.

As so often in history, France set some sort of standard. By the 12th century, German brewers had embraced the new fad, switching between hops and gruit depending on which was taxed the highest. Hildegard of Bingen was not a fan of hops, expressing a dislike for their bitter taste—but she did give hops credit for its preservative qualities, saying that if added to a drink it would stave off putrefaction. Always a good thing, IMO, to avoid putrefaction in your beer—and a major plus for the usage of hops. In difference to beer (with hops), ale (with gruit) did not keep well. Once fermented, it had to be drunk within a couple of days or it would spoil.

Now, while hops had not been used for making beer, they had been used for other purposes. Hops were considered calming, and anyone suffering from insomnia was recommended to add hops to the stuffing in their mattress or pillow. Hops were also used to treat wounds and cure infections, this due to its anti-bacterial properties.

Some of our tenacious hops tendrils
In our country house we have a hops plant that had been growing on the same spot since 1842. That year, someone made a detailed inventory of the garden, and the hops plant was described as thriving. What we have today is a vigorous monster of a plant that defies all attempts to bring it under control, shooting long tendrils overnight to compensate for what we may have cut back during the day. That’s the thing with hops—it grows so fast you can actually see it grow, easily growing 30 centimetres (12 inches) between sunrise and sunset.  It is also extremely hardy and very invasive, which may go some way to explaining why it was labelled “a wicked and pernicious weed” in the early 16th century.

Anyway: back to the 15th century and the impact of imported frothy beverages on the domestic English ale market. With the influx of imported beer, it became important for the English brewers to uphold the distinction between their traditional ale and this new-fangled beer. Accordingly, in some places laws were passed forbidding the use of hops when brewing ale. Norwich passed such a law in 1471, not so as to forbid beer, but so as to protect the uniqueness of ale. Late 15th century English brewers fell into two categories: those that went for hops and produced beer, or those that stuck to tradition and brewed ale. No brewer was allowed to brew both types.

In 1516, the brewers in Bavaria implemented the “Reinheitsgebot”—the most famous of the German Purity Laws—which stipulated that beer was to be made with water, barley, yeast and hops. No gruit. Nope, not anymore. This did not please the Catholic Church which effectively controlled the medieval gruit trade.  After Martin Luther’s break with Rome in 1517, those who adhered to the new Protestant faiths therefore took pride in only drinking beer made with hops. Selecting your beverage had thereby become a statement of faith.

In England, ale still held its own. Henry VIII enjoyed both ale and beer and had both brewed at his court (by different brewers)—at least until he broke with Rome over his marital issues. Once Henry VIII had appropriated the Catholic lands and incomes (including the profitable gruit production) ale production returned to normal and the traditionally-minded English could heave a sigh of relief at having their precious ale back.

The English clung to their ale. When Henry VIII joined forces with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the 1540s (and I can’t help but wondering how these two gents avoided discussing the HUGE elephant in the room, i.e. Henry’s shoddy treatment of Charles’ aunt, Katherine of Aragon. Maybe it helped that Katherine was long since dead...) and invaded Picardy, his men-at-arms were quite horrified when they realised they were out of ale and had to subsist on beer for ten whole days. May seem like quite the non-issue for us modern people, but at the time average consumption was somewhere around fifteen pints per week, which made the lack of ale a major, major problem.

Over time, ale and beer merged. Already by the 17th century we see the first of the pale ales, which were rich in hops. After all, hops came with the huge benefit of ensuring the beer could be drunk for weeks after it was brewed, thereby making it much easier to produce, store and transport. Just the thing for a nation eager to explore—and conquer—the world. How else to still the thirst of the sailors manning the ships that crossed the seas?

These days, hops are grown all over the world. Unsurprisingly, Germany is the biggest hops producer, followed by the US, where I suppose the huge influx of German settlers introduced this versatile beer-making plant. In England, where commercial hops cultivation began in 1428, hops are still grown, principally in Kent and Herefordshire. And yes, it is still used to make beer—and ale!

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons


Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Edmund of Woodstock appears quite frequently. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, was published in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!


  1. Ale is such a fascinating subject. It's interesting that, in England, at least, we've gone back to using 'ale' when we're referring to certain types of beers. We have a 'real ale' movement. Real ale is still made from water, barley, hops and yeast, but has a secondary fermentation in the cask and is served without the aid of additional carbon dioxide.


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