Previously, I spoke about my old little notebook containing scribbles on geeky beer facts which I’ve picked up along the way. I promised you more this week so here goes…
I’ll start off with the word “ale”. Ale is a word used to describe a beer flavoured with hops, rather than other ingredients like honey, heather and herbs. Hops are used for their bittering, aroma and antibacterial properties. But they’re a fairly new kid on the block in the brewing world and were only grown in significant quantities from around 800 AD. Not only were they used in beer, but they were also employed for medicinal purposes: hops are proven to ease anxiety, cure insomnia and resolve digestion problems (sounds like a win-win all round to me).
But it’s the word “ale” which interests me. Before Britain became an industrial force in the 19th century, we were a nation of farmers. Every village had a dedicated brewer, an ‘ale-wife’ responsible for brewing up a mash of beer for the farm workers returning from the fields. The strongest beer was reserved for the men, thirsty from long, laborious days spent toiling the land. The second, weaker mash, was for the women in the village. The third mash, low in alcohol was for children: safer to drink than water, yet not strong enough to turn them into binge drinking louts. This was called ‘small beer’.
The ale wife had many roles. If a woman in the village announced she was getting hitched, the ale wife brewed up a special batch of beer which was sold to passing travellers on the wedding day at a premium price. All the money collected went to form the bride’s dowry – it set her up for married life. This was known as ‘bride-ale’. This is where the word ‘bridal’ comes from today, it all stems back to beer, and that word ‘ale’.
Carrying on in this theme, a wife in the village became pregnant. The ale wife brewed a very special strong batch of beer to celebrate and it’s cracked open when the woman goes into labour. The ale wife was tasked with supplying this ale to the wife’s mother, and more importantly the woman in labour. The strong beer took away all the pain of giving birth (apparently) and was known as ‘groaning ale’. It’s the medieval version of gas and air.
We have lots of little beery phrases we still use today associated with this period in history. How many of you say you need to ‘wet your whistle’ when you’re thirsty? This comes from the vessels we used to drink beer out of. Our ancestors drank beer out of clay tankards, manufactured with a small hole in the rim. When you needed a refill of beer, you would blow into the hole causing a whistling sound indicating you needed another beer.
‘Mind your P’s and Q’s’ is another anecdote. If you were getting a bit lairy in a village tavern, the publican would remind you to ‘mind your pints and quarts’: in other words, behave yourself or you’re not getting another measure of beer.
Everything changed when we evolved into an industrial nation and we saw the development of IPAs, Porters, Stouts and lager. But that’s or another time…