Does Canal Based Burton Ale Defeat Coastal Ales?

A detail from a 17th century map of Hull by
Wenceslaus Hollar. “K” to lower left is Brewer Street. Full map here

Dependencies. Things change in large part because other things have changed first. In the mid-1980s, change happens to beer because other things have changed that lay the groundwork first. Cable TV has brought Julia Child, The Galloping Gourmet, Jacques Pepin and then the Frugal Gourmet into the home. People drinking wine on TV in the middle of the afternoon. Imported beer brought different branding and tastes into the home which in turn lead to home brewing which is also dependent on 1970s home gardening and your mother baking bread. These changes are as important to the triggering of the start of micro brewing as social media was to the last ten years of craft. When I was researching and writing the period 1900-1984 for Ontario Beer I realized there was a fabulous marker right at the end of that span that helps understand where we were just before micro takes off.

There was one last display of pride in Canada’s industrial beer. For a few years Bob and Doug McKenzie were among the most well-known comedy duos in North America. As a regular feature of legendary sketch comedy programme SCTV, the McKenzie Brothers appeared on the CBC in Canada and then late Friday night on NBC across the United States. In each short episode, the brothers from a suburb near Toronto gave their drunken thoughts on a topic in the news while smoking, drinking and grilling back bacon for sandwiches. On the set, cases of stubbies from both Molson and Labatt were featured prominently next to an outsize map of the country. Played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, the skits spun out a top selling comedy album, a hit single featuring Geddy Lee from Rush, and a feature movie all largely centered on their love for and dependency on Canadian beer.

SCTV was big. It wins the 1982 Emmy for variety TV writing after gaining most of the nominations. The McKenzie Brothers skit was big – two knuckleheads and their love of macro. The movie, Strange Brew, comes out in 1983 to mixed review and the moment passes. No mention is made of microbrew despite the entire film and the entire schtick of the skit being about beer. Because it has not been caused yet even if the context has been prepared. We must obey chronology.

northd1After writing my notes about Northdown Ale yesterday, that premium ale from 1640s to the 1690s, I started thinking more about that grump and his complaints published in 1681 about the high price of the stuff. Here it is again. It’s from the 1681 treatise entitled Ursa major & minor: or, A sober and impartial enquiry into those pretended fears and jealousies of popery and arbitrary power, in a letter. The author advocates for the return of the dunking stool for corrupt brewers and in his litany of falsified ales he includes “Hull Ale”. Hull ale has been mentioned in recent writings. In Peter Mathias’s The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830 published in 1959 by the reputable Cambridge University Press it is stated that the Hull ale diarist Samuel Pepys noted drinking in the 1660s was probably really Burton ale. I am not sure this is correct because the context does not appear to me to exist in that particular decade and perhaps not for another half century. The notion is repeated in Pete Brown’s Hops and Glory while Mitch Steele takes a bit of a step back from that conclusion in his 2013 book IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale noting just the shipping port connection of Hull to the inland brewing at Burton. Here is what the chronology looks like to me. See what you think:

=> Records exist of brewing at Hull before the 1600s with plenty of activity from the 1630s to the 1690s.
=>The first consignment of Hull ale is sold in London at the Peacock, Grey’s Inn Lane in 1623 according to Mathias at page 150 with a specific footnote.
=> In the mid-1640s, Members of Parliament including the Speaker of the Commons are noted as being sent Hull ale by the municipal corporation as a bit of a thank you and a bit of a home town PR boost.
=> Pepys drank Hull ale in 1660. He also drank Northdown ale in the same year. And Margate ale. All strong coastal ales.
=> In his 1881 book Old Yorkshire, William Smith recites a line from a 1662 poem what is apparently proverbial “Hull cheese” and states “Hull in the days of yore was a noted place for good ale.”
=> Around the 1660s, the scientist Robert Boyle is studying freezing and uses Hull ale in an experiment.
=> In 1681, the grumpy guy makes his complaint about overpriced over strong Hull ale and does not list Burton among the fellow accused.
=> In 1708, Benjamin Printon became Burton’s first common brewer.
=> In 1711, George Hayne obtained the lease of rights to undertake the work of making the Trent river navigable between Burton and Wilden Ferry, to the southwest of Nottingham.
=> In issue 383 of The Spectator from 20 May 1712, Addison notes going out for the day in London with his pal Sir Roger. A couple of high society lads, they have a glass of Burton ale at an outdoor pleasure grounds, the Spring Garden at “Fox-Hall” or Vauxhall.
=> In Poor Robin’s Almanac of 1759, Hull ale is still included in a list of great British beers being compared to Canary wine. Burton is not.
=> Hull remains a significant and growing brewing center in the 1800s.

So, (i) if there was no canal access out of Burton until 1711 or 1712 and (ii) if there was no common brewer active in Burton until 1708 and (iii) if Addison notes it in 1712 as being in one of the trendier spots in London it is likely new at that point. If that is the case, Pepys’s Hull ale was not made in Burton at all but in Hull as one would expect. But that is not the end of it. Well, it is an end but another sort of ending. Remember in that passage from a travel guide called All About Margate and Herne Bay reviewed an 1865 magazine named The Athenaeumthat it states:

Quoting largely from the Rev. John Lewis’s account of Margate, written in 1723, he notices the once famous beverage, known to Charles the Second’s thirsty subjects by the names of “Northdown Ale” and “Margate Ale” of which drink Lewis says, “About forty years ago, one Prince of this place drove a great trade here in brewing a particular sort of ale, which, from its being brewed at a place called Northdown in this parish, went by the name of Northdown Ale, and afterwards was called Margate Ale. But whether it’s owing to the art of brewing this liquor dying with the inventor of it, or the humour of the people altering to the liking the pale north-country ale better, the present brewers send little or none of what they call by the name of Margate ale, which is a great disadvantage to their trade.”

See, that quip about “the humour of the people altering to the liking the pale north-country ale better”? That is Burton. In 1723, the Rev. Lewis linked the death of Northdown / Margate ale, the darling of 1600s Restoration London to the rise of Burton. In that time – that year of 1712 – did Burton have some sort of advantage over dominant the coastal Northdown / Margate ale and likely Hull ale to a lesser degree? €Price? Clarity? Rarity? I don’t know even if plenty has been written on its properties. But something caused change, that is for sure. There was change and the change was caused by making the Trent navigable to Burton in 1711-1712. Without that, there is no means for Burton to become so popular outside its local market. As cable TV cooking shows were to microbrewing, that canal work provided Burton its opportunity.

One thought on “Does Canal Based Burton Ale Defeat Coastal Ales?”

  1. [Original comments…]

    “The first consignment of Hull ale is sold in London at the Peacock, Grey’s Inn Lane in 1623 according to Mathias at page 150 with a specific footnote” – actually he’s talking about Burton ale being drunk at the Peacock, but he’s completely wrong: the reference he gives says nothing at all about Burton ale (or Hull ale) being drunk in London in 1623.

    And sorry to be difficult, but “pale north-country ale” is as likely in 1723 to be from Derby as from Burton: Derby ale was on sale in London around 1718, and probably had been for more than a century, and Derby, thanks to the pioneering use of coke by its maltsters, appears to have been a leading centre for making pale malts and pale ales.

    Alan – January 4, 2016 6:23 PM
    Hey! He was wronger than me!! Who is to br trusted if not Cambridge University Press? Plus his use of “this” leaves ambiguities. Unlikely anyone not in Burton was drinking in Burton in 1623.

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