Country Matters by Arrowsmith: Burp – How Alcohol Came to Cirencester

A cask of ale.

Ten million years ago our ancestors – the apes which became chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas – were having a high old time on alcohol.  They weren’t manufacturing it back then, but consumed it when, short of fresh ripe fruit, they ate fermented and rotting food.  It was a fortunate genetic modification that was found in the anthropoid apes, but not in other animals, such as monkeys, which could eat and digest unripe fruit but couldn’t tolerate alcohol.

As evolution progressed, with the arrival of modern humans, people all over the world started to ferment their own alcohol. Variants of wine and beer began to leave traces in archaeological finds from Egypt, South America and almost every continent worldwide, dating back to around seven thousand years ago.  Of course, once the Greeks and Romans got hold of Egyptian winemaking technology, they began to spread it around the world, planting vineyards wherever they could, including Gloucestershire.  So that’s another thing the Romans did for us.

Along with wine – it is claimed – the Romans introduced the farming of apples for the production of cider. Apparently, prior to that the Celts possibly made a form of cider from crab-apples, but after the fall of the Roman Empire it wasn’t until the Monasteries revived orchards and cider making in the seventh century that English cider began to flourish once more.  After 1066 the Normans introduced the champagne-like French style of cider, but in agricultural communities, labourers tended to drink the less fizzy varieties produced locally on the farms themselves.  By the 1700s it was common for agricultural workers to receive part of their wages in cider of which they would drink up to three gallons per week. But the practice of paying wages in this way was banned in 1887.

Beer was brewed in Britain from the earliest days of agriculture, and neolithic farmers grew grain which enabled ‘small beer’ to be produced which was much safer to drink than water, especially as population growth in towns and cities reduced the availability of clean, uncontaminated water. The Dutch brought hops to Britain in the 1400s, which led to the brewing of stronger beer, but subsequently Henry VIII banned beer made with hops from his court.  Since the days of the Anglo-Saxons alehouses had supplied beer as part of the provision of social meeting places, mainly for local residents, but by the 1600s travellers’ Inns provided services for anyone wanting food, drink and accommodation, and the idea of ‘public houses’ began.

In 1830 the English Beerhouses’ Act licensed any householder to brew beer and cider to sell to the public on their premises, on payment of two guineas – about £200 at today’s values.  Commercial breweries had been operating since the early 1700s.  At that time more than 20,000 breweries were operating in London alone!  There was another concern socially as Hogarth showed in 1751 in his depiction of ‘Gin Lane’ which gave a vision of drunkenness on the streets when a pint of gin was as cheap as one penny.

In 1869 the government tightened up licensing laws, both attempting to control problem drinking and collect taxes on alcoholic drinks. The laws haven’t changed much since then, although the taxes and prices have increased tremendously.  During World War One the government took the Brewery in Carlisle into state ownership to try to control the drinking of munitions workers, and after the Second World War the growth of the big commercial drinks companies almost destroyed traditional craft producers.

Now, of course, we see a welcome revival of smaller independent brewers, cider-makers and vineyards, together with distilleries producing spirits with extraordinary and imaginative names and ingredients. Even though I’m not as drink as thunkle peep I am, I wouldn’t attempt to taste them all.

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