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Literary Beer: Brewing in the Classics

The Ale-House Door, Henry Singleton, 1790
The Ale-House Door, Henry Singleton, 1790

Great novelists did not just write about strong beer. Take James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” for example, undoubtedly one of the great books of the 20th century. Here we find a name-check to Lord Ardilaun and Lord Iveagh, great-great grandsons of Arthur Guinness I, and learn how Guinness is made. At one point a character is brought:

“…a crystal cup full of the foaming ebon ale which the noble twin brothers Bungiveagh and Bungardilaun brew ever in their divine alevats, cunning as the sons of deathless Leda. For they garner the succulent berries of the hop and mass and sift and bruise and brew them and they mix therewith sour juices and bring the must to the sacred fire and cease not night or day from their toil, those cunning brothers, lords of the vat.”

Well, perhaps that’s not really how it’s done. But beer and brewing and breweries and brewers do pop up surprisingly often in the very best novels. For instance, you will discover in one of the great books of the 19th century, Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” an excellent recipe for homebrewed ale of the sort made in country pubs in the West County of England early in the 19th century:

“The Three Mariners was far from spacious, despite the fair area of ground it covered … this being at a time before home-brewing was abandoned by the smaller victuallers, and a house in which the twelve-bushel strength was still religiously adhered to by the landlord in his ale, the quality of the liquor was the chief attraction of the premises, so that everything had to make way for utensils and operations in connection therewith.”

“The twelve-bushel strength” meant 12 bushels of malt – about 500 pounds in weight – per imperial barrel (36 gallons) of ale. This would make for a heady brew indeed, upwards of 10 or 11 percent alcohol even at the reduced efficiencies a small-pub brewer in the time of the King George would be capable of. We know what the “strong-beer” of Casterbridge (the name Hardy gave to Dorchester, county town of Dorset) was like, because he describes it in another novel, “The Trumpet Major,” which reads:  

“It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady. The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised. Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.”

Another 19th-century novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell, reveals that these strong brews and others like them were capable of being laid down for exceedingly long times. In one scene in Gaskell’s novel “Wives and Daughters,” Squire Hamley has broached a cask of ale brewed at least 21 years earlier, at the birth of his first-born son, Osborne, and invites the local physician, Mr. Gibson, to try it in honor of his second-born son, Roger, who has been chosen to lead a prestigious scientific expedition to Africa:

“You must have a glass full. It’s old ale, such as we don’t brew now-a-days. It’s as old as Osborne. We brewed it that autumn and we called it the young Squire’s ale. I thought to have tapped it on his marriage but I don’t know when that will come to pass, so we’ve tapped it now in Roger’s honour.’ The old Squire had evidently been enjoying the young Squire’s ale to the verge of prudence. It was indeed, as he said, ‘as strong as brandy,’ and Mr. Gibson had to sip it very carefully as he ate his cold roast beef.”


“... old Jowler was always happy to have my company
at this meal; it amused him, he said, to see me
drink Hodgson’s pale ale (I drank two hundred
and thirty-four dozen the first year I was in
Bengal),” wrote William Makepeace Thackeray.


Jane Austen, another giant of 19th-century literature, evidently knew and appreciated a drink that was then more commonly associated with North America, and she put that liking in the mouth of the eponymous heroine of “Emma.”

“I do remember it,’ cried Emma; ‘I perfectly remember it. Talking about spruce-beer. Oh! Yes – Mr. Knightley and I both saying we liked it, and Mr. Elton’s seeming resolved to learn to like it too. I perfectly remember it. Stop; Mr. Knightley was standing just here, was not he? I have an idea he was standing just here.”

So spruce beer was drunk in southern England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Of course, the more regular brews were ale and porter, and in novels – as in life – ale was frequently drunk mulled and spiced. Here’s Charles Dickens describing the arrival of Thomas Codlin, proprietor of a travelling Punch and Judy show, at the Jolly Sandboys Inn in “The Old Curiosity Shop”:

“ … said Mr. Codlin, ‘fetch me a pint of warm ale, and don’t let nobody bring into the room even so much as a biscuit till the time arrives.’ Nodding his approval of this decisive and manly course of procedure, the landlord retired to draw the beer, and presently returning with it, applied himself to warm the same in a small tin vessel shaped funnel-wise, for the convenience of sticking it far down in the fire and getting at the bright places. This was soon done, and he handed it over to Mr. Codlin with that creamy  froth upon the surface which is one of the happy circumstances attendant on mulled malt.”

Instruments for mulling ale in a coal fire, looking a little like slippers made of copper, are still sometimes found in antique shops in more rural parts of England. One particular version of mulled ale was purl, hot beer flavored originally with wormwood and later with ingredients as diverse as juniper, horseradish, ginger, sweet sedge and “snake-root.” Here’s Dickens in “The Old Curiosity Shop” again:

“‘Did you ever taste beer?’ ‘I had a sip of it once,’ said the small servant. ‘Here’s a state of things!’ cried Mr. Swiveller, raising his eyes to the ceiling. ‘She never tasted it – it can’t be tasted in a sip!’ … Presently, he returned, followed by the boy from the public-house, who bore in one hand a plate of bread and beef, and in the other a great pot, filled with some very fragrant compound, which sent forth a grateful steam, and was indeed choice purl, made after a particular recipe which Mr. Swiveller had imparted to the landlord, at a period when he was deep in his books and desirous to conciliate his friendship.”

Much can be learnt about beer from Dickens, undoubtedly the beeriest of great novelists. For example, it was entirely unremarkable to give boarding school pupils as young as six years old table-beer to drink with their meals, as happened to Paul Dombey, in “Dombey and Son,” at Mr. Bimber’s school in Brighton:

“It was darkly rumoured that the butler, regarding him with favour such as that stern man had never shown before to mortal boy, had sometimes mingled porter with his table-beer to make him strong.”

Dickens was the novelist of inns, taverns and pubs – the Maypole Inn in “Barnaby Rudge,” for example, is almost one of the main characters in the book – and he references a number of well-known London brewers in his works. In “David Copperfield,” for example, Mrs. Micawber tells David:

“I have long felt the Brewing business to be particularly adapted to Mr. Micawber. Look at Barclay and Perkins! Look at Truman, Hanbury, and Buxton! It is on that extensive footing that Mr. Micawber, I know from my own knowledge of him, is calculated to shine; and the profits, I am told, are e-NOR-MOUS! But if Mr. Micawber cannot get into those firms – which decline to answer his letters, when he offers his services even in an inferior capacity – what is the use of dwelling upon that idea? None.”

The two firms who had refused to even answer Wilkins Micawber’s letters were numbers one and two among the giant London porter brewers for much of the 19th century. Dickens’s great rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, names another London brewery, Hodgson’s of Bow – pioneers of what became known as India pale ale – in one of his minor pieces, “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan,” set in India. It reads:

“… old Jowler [the colonel of the regiment] was always happy to have my company at this meal; it amused him, he said, to see me drink Hodgson’s pale ale (I drank two hundred and thirty-four dozen the first year I was in Bengal).”

This passage reveals that it was the officers and gentlemen (and indeed, gentle-ladies) who drank Hodgson’s, rather than the common soldiers. (We might suspect Thackeray of exaggerating for comedic effect in suggesting that Major Gahagan drank seven bottles of I.P.A. a day, every day, but not necessarily.) Thackeray must have been a pale ale fan. In his best-known novel, “Vanity Fair,” the East India Company employee Jos Sedley, who would certainly have drunk his share of Hodgson’s, is on his way from Southampton, where his ship has just landed, to London:

“At Alton he stepped out of the carriage at his servant’s request and imbibed some of the ale f or which the place is famous.”

Alton, in Hampshire, had water very similar to that of Burton upon Trent, the famed brewing center, and supplied a fair portion of London with pale ales from two separate breweries.

Barclay Perkins, mentioned in Charles Dickens’s
“David Copperfield,” was one of London’s
largest brewers in the 19th century.

Not all the name-checks for brewers by novelists are as upfront as the ones by Dickens and Thackeray. Henry James, for example, in his novel “The American,” has his hero’s French friend mortally shot in a duel by someone called Stanislas Kapp, “the son and heir of a rich brewer of Strasbourg” who was “making ducks and drakes of the paternal brewery.” This is James having a rare joke with – or at – his readers: the biggest brewery in Strasbourg, later known as the Kronenbourg brewery, was actually owned by a family called Hatt, rather than Kapp.

There are almost no works by the great novelists about breweries, sadly, one of the few being “Rachel Ray” by Anthony Trollope, which features a sub-plot that revolves around a brewery called “Bungall and Tappit” in the made-up Devon town of Baslehurst. Young Luke Rowan inherits a big slice of the brewery from his great-aunt Bungall and comes to Baslehurst determined to improve its frankly second-rate product, against the opposition of the elderly Mr. Tappit, who has run the brewery his way since Mr. Bungall died and is perfectly happy making a profit from something not much better than vinegar. At one point Luke is wandering the brewery feeling depressed at his inability to persuade pretty Baslehurst lass Rachel Ray to marry him and grumpy Baslehurst brewer Mr. Tappit to lift his game:

“'It would break my heart to be sending out such stuff as that all my life,’ he said to himself, as he watched the muddy stream run out of the shallow coolers. He had resolved that he would brew good beer.”

This suggests Trollope had seen a brewery in operation, including the wide coolships, the technology used by brewers to bring down the temperature of their wort in the time before refrigeration.

The finest novel involving a brewery, however, has to be Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” even if the brewery in it was no longer brewing. The hero, Pip, meets Miss Havisham, whose family brewery in Kent has remained silent and become covered in rust and verdigris since the day decades earlier when she was jilted on the morning of her wedding:

“No horses in the stable, no pigs in the sty, no malt in the storehouse, no smells of grains and beer in the copper or the vat. All the uses and scents of the brewery might have evaporated with its last reek of smoke. In a by-yard there was a wilderness of empty casks which had a certain sour remembrance of better days lingering about them. But it was too sour to be accepted as a sample of the beer that was gone.”

Dickens, however, being a much better novelist than Meredith, leads us up the brewery path, for while Pip thinks Miss Havisham’s beer-brought gold is paying for his education and his elevation, we learn that his benefactor is really …

Hold it. If you haven’t read the book — or completed a Liberal Arts degree and can thus pretend you have read the book — I shan’t spoil it for you. Do yourself a favor. Get hold of a copy and settle down with a good supply of beer.