The Culture of Beer Drinking


Fill with mingled cream and amber, I will drain that glass again. Such hilarious visions clamber Through the chambers of my brain. Quaintest thoughts–queerest fancies, Come to life and fade away: What care I how time advances? I am drinking ale today.
–Edgar Allan Poe

Excerpt taken from ‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Beer’

Every beer-drinking country has public places in which to drink the staple beverage. The reason why the English pub is always singled out as the quintessential environment in which to enjoy beer can be explained in one word: history. In most other countries, bars, bier kellers and cafes are modern buildings. They carry little historical baggage. But even though most English pubs go back no further than the late nineteenth century, and most are more recent, they have a direct lineage with the ale-houses, taverns and inns that date back as far as Roman and Saxon times. Even the design of the modern pub, with several rooms and corridors, replicates the earliest ale-houses, which were extensions of people’s homes, chosen because the ale wife or brewster made the finest ale in the village

What’s in a Name?

And while most bars in other countries carry the names of the owners by way of identification, the English pub comes with a fascinating variety of curious rubrics that delve deep into history. As the chain of ale-house spread through England, it was no longer sufficient for the ale wife to stick an ‘ale-stake’ through a window or hang a garland of evergreens above the door to show that fresh ale was available. Ale-houses became commercial propositions and needed clear identities. Elaborate signs appeared outside to further separate them and to attract customers.

As the people were largely illiterate, these signs had to be instantly recognizable. And as the people were frequently at war, many signs were taken from the crests of the ‘noble’ families that organized the fighting. Some famous pub signs still in use, such as the Red Lion (John of Gaunt), Bear and Ragged Staff (Earl of Warwick), and Eagle and Child (Earl of Derby), have heraldic origins. Some name pre-date Christianity, such as the Chequers, of Roman origin – the sign indicated both a wine shop and a place where money could be exchanged – and the Green Man, a pagan man who covered himself in greenery and then attacked villagers. Pubs called the Green Man that use an idealized image of Robin Hood on their signs are wrong by several centuries.

The impact of Christianity can be seen in pubs called the Crossed Keys (the insignia of St. Paul), the Mitre, the Lamb (a reference to Christ), the Bell, and the Hope and Anchor (Paul described as the ‘anchor of the soul’) while the Bull is a corruption of “bulla”, a monastic seal. New Inn is actually a very old name, a shortened form of Our Lady’s Inn, the common name given to taverns built alongside churches and monasteries. During the brief Cromwellian republic, all Popish names were banned. The Salutation, a reference to the annunciation of the Virgin Mary, became the Flower Pot. Austere taverns of the time given the firmly Protestant name of God Encompasses us were refashioned as the Goat and Compasses by opponents of Cromwell

Publicans were always quick to touch their forelock to the monarch of the day, hence the profusion of Queen’s and King’s Heads. But as capitalism developed out of feudalism, inns were often the meeting places of trade associations that allowed their crests to be used, hence the survival of the Baker’s Arms, the Dolphin (watermen), the Lamb and Flag (merchant tailors), the Three Compasses (carpenters), Noah’s Ark (shipwrights), and the Ram or Fleece (wool trade). In fact, in 1393 King Richard II brought in legislation that impelled landlords to erect signs to show they sold drink: “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale

Many pub names have a strong sporting theme, if fox hunting or cock fighting count as “sports”. Cricket is far and away the most popular subject, with countless Cricketers. The Bat and Ball at Hambledon in Hampshire staged famous matches and is regarded as the home of the modern game. It was a brewpub where the landlord’s ale “flared like turpentine”. The most famous of all English cricketers, Dr. W. G. Grace, has a pub named in his honor while The Yorker in London’s Piccadilly commemorates a particularly wicked type of bowler’s delivery. (There is no known American equivalent called The Spit Ball). Although football (soccer) has a bigger following than cricket, it has less support on pub signs. Nevertheless the Gunners (Arsenal), the Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur), the Hammers (West Ham), the Saints (Southampton) and United (the internationally-recognized shorthand for Manchester United) all have pubs named after them

Last Orders, Gentlemen, Please

If drinking throughout Britain often seems frantic compared to the more measured style of bars and cafes, it is the lingering effect of the country’s bizarre licensing laws that once restricted pub opening hours. The restrictions dated from the First World War when the teetotal Welsh politician David Lloyd George was convinced that drinking was harming the war effort. As part of the 1915 Defense of the Realm Act, pubs were only allowed to open for short periods around lunchtime and in the evening. Since the 1980s, many of these restrictions have been lifted and pubs can open all day from 11am until 11pm if they wish. Even Sunday pub drinking laws were liberalized in 1995. But the British have yet to get used to this bibulous freedom and still tend to quaff pints as though the shade of Lloyd George is about to descend and deny them their pleasure!

Excerpt taken from ‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Beer’, text Americanized by JT

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