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Beer through the ages

8000 BC

In the Middle East, hunter-gatherers learn how to make beer from the wild wheat and barley they find growing in the foothills. They start actively growing the grain for their beer - thus, according to some historians, inventing farming and civilisation!

4500 BC

The first farmers, and, probably, the first beer brewers arrive in Britain from across the Channel. The beer is still some way from the product we would recognise today.

3000 BC

In Egypt, the standard diet for the poor is beer, bread and onions. Beer is so important that model breweries are left in tombs for individuals to enjoy in the afterlife. Neolithic farmers in Orkney are brewing beer with ingredients that included henbane, hemlock and deadly nightshade, which, if they did not kill you, would certainly give you powerful hallucinations.

2400 BC

Drinkers in Sumeria (modern Iraq) consume their beer through long reeds from a communal pot. In modern East Africa, drinkers still consume home-made sorghum beer in just the same way.

2000 BC

The Beaker People arrive in Britain, warriors for whom drinking was so important that their pottery beer mugs went into the grave when they were buried, along with archery equipment and a dagger. Fragments of pottery found on the islands of Orkney show that the jug had contained a beer-like drink including meadowsweet, hemlock, deadly nightshade and wheat. Honey beers were being brewed as well often mixed with wheat or barley or herbs.

320 BC

The Greek explorer Pytheas of Massilia (modern Marseilles) comes to Britain and finds the natives making beer from grain and honey.

20 AD

With the wine-drinking Romans just across the Channel, British tribes in what is modern Essex use coins bearing an ear of barley, to symbolise the British drink, beer, in contrast with rival pro-Roman tribes, who minted coins with a vine leaf on them.

43 AD

The Romans arrive in force and conquer most of Britain. By around AD 100 at the latest Roman soldiers based in Britain were drinking beer, and a list of accounts from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in modern Northumbria, mentions "Atrectus the brewer", the first named brewer in British history.

500 AD

The Angles and Saxons start arriving in Britain to conquer and settle. Their social life revolves around the beer hall and the ale house, and they seem to recognise three main types of beer, "mild ale" (fresh and probably quite sweet), "clear ale" (probably older and sourer) and "Welsh ale" (probably made from wheat and honey).

822 AD

Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in Picardy, Northern France, makes the first known mention of hops in connection with brewing beer. These were wild hops, gathered in the woods: over the next 300 years hops would be turned into a cultivated crop.

1188AD

Henry II introduced the so called 'Saladin Tithe' to pay for the Crusades – the first tax on beer.

1200 AD

Most brewing in Britain is done by female "brewsters", using their domestic pots and buckets and fitting the boiling, mashing and fermenting in around their other domestic tasks. Outside the cities, it has been estimated, one peasant family in 25 brewed for sale. Ale was drunk for breakfast, lunch and supper, and many people thought drinking water was actively dangerous: the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, in Germany, writing around 1150AD, said: "Beer fattens the flesh and lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person."

1350 AD

On the Continent, hops have now almost taken over completely as the flavouring in beer from gruit, a mixture of different herbs, depending on what was available locally, that included sweet gale or bog myrtle, Myrica gale, a moorland bush, and yarrow, Achillea millefolium, a grassland weed. The first known exports of hopped beer to Britain come to Great Yarmouth in 1361-62. At the end of the 14th century Great Yarmouth is importing 40 to 80 barrels of beer a month, while in 1397-8 Colchester import 100 barrels of beer.

1410 AD

Brewing of hopped beer, in contrast to unhopped ale, begins in Britain. The beer brewers are generally immigrants from the Low Countries (modern Belgium and the Netherlands) and for the next 200 years or more beer will occasionally be attacked as an alien drink not fit for ale-drinking Englishmen. However, at no point are hops ever banned in England.

1520 AD

Hops grow at home


After relying on hops imported from the Continent for more than a century, English beer brewers finally get a local supply when hop growing begins in Kent, with hops imported by Flemish weavers. Hops were originally viewed with great suspicion. They also avoided the taxes on spices levied by religious orders. By 1577 hop cultivation has reached Herefordshire.

1540 AD

Henry VIII has two brewers to supply the royal household, one for ale and one for beer. Hampton Court Palace, Henry's main residence, consumed 600,000 gallons of ale and beer a year, more than 13,000 pints a day. Even the lowest officer of the household receives four pints every evening; dukes get two gallons a day (presumably not all for themselves). The Tudor army runs on beer: in July 1544, during an English invasion of Picardy, the commander of Henry VIII's forces complains that his army is so short of supplies they had drunk no beer "these last ten days, which is strange for English men to do with so little grudging."

1570 AD

There are 58 ale breweries in London and 32 beer breweries, and Queen Elizabeth I is apparently "greately greved and anoyed" with the smoke from the sea coal used in their brewhouses, which drifted in through the windows of her palace. The Queen also complains that the brewers have stopped making "single" beer and made instead "a kynde of very strong bere calling the same doble-doble bere, which they do commonly utter and sell at a very grate and excessive pryce." In June 1588 the Corporation of St Albans, in Hertfordshire, hauls 14 persons before the mayor and charges them with brewing "extraordinary strong ale", which they sold by retail "against all good law and order".

1600 AD

Most brewing is still done by inn and alehouse brewers or "at home", especially in the country, where almost every farm and manor house brews its own ale and beer for the family and servants. But Britain has a drink problem. If beer is brewed in the summer, the heat makes it go off. This means that, between October and March, brewers have to brew beers that will endure the summer months. In order to keep, these beers have to be high in strength (7-12%), huge in hops (which acts as a preservative) and matured in large casks in deep, dark stone cellars. These "old ales" are often kept for several years and given to friends.

1790 AD

In India, the merchants and soldiers working for the East India Company develop a taste for hoppy, pale beers brought out from Britain by sailing ship on a four-month journey via the Cape of Good Hope, during which time it develops and matures much faster than the same beer would do left at home. A brewer called Hodgson, from Bow, on the outskirts of London, close to where the East Indiaman ships moor in the Thames, wins almost a monopoly on supplying India with beer, and Hodgson's Pale Ale becomes famous. Eventually, by trying too hard to maintain his monopoly, in 1822 Hodgson prompts rival brewers from Burton upon Trent to enter the Indian market. It turns out the water in Burton is ideal for making pale beers, and the Burton brewers eventually dominate the market for what becomes known – but only after around 1835 – as India Pale Ale, or IPA.

1842 AD

Inspired by English malting techniques, a brewer called Joseph Groll makes the first pale lager in the town of Pilsen, Bohemia, the forerunner of all "pils" or "pilsener" beers. However, it takes at least 50 years for the new pale lager style to start to outsell the original darker lagers.

1881 AD

Almost forty years after the first pale lager was brewed in Pilsen in the Czech Republic, the lager beer style was brewed in Britain. The first purpose-built lager brewery in Britain, the Austro-Bavarian Brewery of Tottenham, in London, opens its door. However, it does not last long, and for the next 80 years lager remains only a tiny percentage of beer sales in Britain.

1914 AD

The First World War brings in draconian restrictions on the brewing industry, with the strength of beer reduced dramatically and tax levels increased enormously. After the war, high taxes remain in place, and beer strength never recovers to its former levels.

1917 AD

Maximum prices introduced on the price of beer and strengths lowered to help the war effort.

1925 AD

Bottled beers begin to gain popularity, including new styles such as brown ale (frequently mixed with draught mild ale) and milk stout.

1933 AD

"Beer is best"


Launch of 'Beer is Best' campaign, a 30-year generic advertising campaign with a nationwide poster campaign and television advertising involving Bobby Moore and his wife Tina and the entire Liverpool football team. At its peak it was worth over AL1 million per annum in today's money.

1933 AD

British brewers were encouraged to cut the price of beer, increase the strength, increase output and use more home-grown barley by Government in return for a 35% fall in beer duty.

1960 AD

Mild ale finally starts to decline in popularity, its place taken by a rise in sales of bitter, especially in the form of "keg" bitter, described as "bottled ale in a barrel", pasteurised and served up under carbon dioxide pressure. They are easier to keep than cask beers and become ubiquitous. Lager is only two per cent of the British market. By 1970, 90% of British pubs were serving only keg beers.

1980 AD

Britain's taste for lager gets a second wind. Sales of UK-brewed and imported lagers surge, becoming the country's biggest selling style of beer by 1989. Lager now accounts for around 75% of beer consumption.

2002 AD

Small breweries' relief was introduced in 2002 and then expanded in 2004. This offers a reduced rate of duty to brewers producing less than 60,000HL annually. Alongside other factors this has led to an increase in the number of breweries, cresting 800 in 2010.

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