What Shakespeare Drank

Shakespeare resized.jpg

An old friend of mine is currently studying for a PhD in the relative clauses of William Shakespeare, with particular emphasis on the later plays. Groundbreaking stuff, she tells me, and I'm sure that's true.

My own contribution to Shakespearian studies is rather less  linguistic and more alcoholic: I seem to be the first person in centuries of scholarly study of the works of the Bard of Avon to point out that his plays clearly show Shakespeare was a fan of ale, but didn't much like beer.

To appreciate this you have to know that, even in the Jacobean era, ale, the original English unhopped fermented malt drink, was still regarded as different, and separate, from, beer, the hopped malt drink brought over from continental Europe at the beginning of the 15th century. It was made by different people: in 1574 there were 58 ale breweries in London and 32 beer breweries, while Norwich had five “comon alebrewers” and nine “comon berebrewars” in 1564. In 1606 (the year Macbeth was performed at the Globe theatre) the town council of St Albans, 25 or so miles north of London, agreed to restrict the number of brewers in the town to four for beer and two for ale, to try to halt a continuing rise in the price of fuel wood,.

This separation of fermented malt drinks in England into ale and beer continued right through to the 18th century and can still be found in the 19th century, though the only difference was that ale was regarded as less hopped than beer. Even in Shakespeare's time, brewers were starting to put hops into ale, though. In 1615, the year before Shakespeare died, Gervase Markham published The English Huswife, a handbook that contains "all the virtuous knowledges and actions both of the mind and body, which ought to be in any complete woman". The book's recipe for strong March beer included a quarter of malt and "a pound and a half of hops to one hogshead," which is not much hops by later standards, though Markham said that "This March beer … should (if it have right) lie a whole year to ripen: it will last two, three and four years if it lie cool and close, and endure the drawing to the last drop." In his notes from brewing ale, Markham said:

" … for the brewing of strong ale, because it is drink of no such long lasting as beer is, therefore you shall brew less quantity at a time thereof .... Now or the mashing and ordering of it in the mash vat, it will not differ anything from that of beer; as for hops, although some use [sic] not to put in any, yet the best brewers thereof will allow to fourteen gallons of ale a good espen [spoon?] full of hops, and no more."

In the same book Markham wrote that “the general use is by no means to put any hops into ale, making that the difference between it and beere … but the wiser huswives do find an error in that opinion, and say the utter want of hops is the reason why ale lasteth so little a time, but either dyeth or soureth, and therefore they will to every barrel of the best ale allow halfe a pound of good hops.”

Markham was writing, however, in the middle of a battle fought for more than two centuries to try to keep ale free from hops. In 1471 the “common ale brewers” of Norwich were forbidden from brewing “nowther with hoppes nor gawle” (that is, gale or bog myrtle). In 1483, the ale brewers of London were complaining to the mayor about “sotill and crafty means of foreyns” (not necessarily "foreigners" in the modern sense, but probably people not born in London and thus not freemen of London) who were “bruing of ale within the said Citee” and who were “occupying and puttyng of hoppes and other things in the ale, contrary to the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used.”

Almost 60 years later, in 1542, the physician and former Carthusian monk Andrew Boorde wrote a medical self-help book called A Dyetary of Helth which heavily promoted ale over beer. Boorde, who declared in his book: “I do drinke … no manner of beere made with hopes,” said that “Ale for an Englysshman is a naturall drynke,” while beer was “a naturall drynke for a Dutche man” (by which he meant Germans), but “of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men; specially it kylleth them the which be troubled with the colycke, and the stone, & the strangulion; for the drynke is a cold drynke; yet it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appear by the Dutche mens faces & belyes.”

A century on, another English writer, John Taylor, in Ale Ale-vated into the Ale-titude, "A Learned Lecture in Praise of Ale," printed in 1651, agreed that "Beere is a Dutch Boorish Liquor, a thing not knowne in England till of late dayes, an Alien to our Nation till such time as Hops and Heresies came amongst us; it is a sawcy intruder into this Land." Earlier, in 1642 a poet called Thomas Randall made the same point, in a poem called The High and Mighty Commendation of a Pot of Good Ale that "Beer is a stranger, a Dutch upstart come/ Whose credit with us sometimes is but small/ But in records of the Empire of Rome/ The old Catholic drink is a pot of good ale."

Shakespeare, being a far subtler writer than Boorde, Taylor or  Randall, never made such obvious statements about his preferences. But he was a Warwickshire boy, country-bred, and he brought his country tastes with him to London. In 1630 a pamphleteer called John Grove wrote a piece called Wine, Ale, Beer and Tobacco Contending for Superiority, in which the three drinks declared:

Wine: I, generous wine, am for the Court.
Beer: The City calls for Beer.
Ale: But Ale, bonny Ale, like a lord of the soil, in the Country shall domineer.

Shakespeare's country-born preference for ale and disdain for the city's beer pops up across his plays. Autolycus, the "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles," makes his appearance in The Winter's Tale singing:

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
        With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
      Doth set my pugging tooth on edge,
        For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.

By which he means that he can steal the sheet someone has left out to bleach in the sun, and exchange it for a quart of excellent ale in a nearby alehouse (which were, alas, sometimes places where stolen goods could easily be disposed of).  But if ale is a dish fit for a king, small beer, according to Prince Hal – soon to be a king - in Henry IV is a "poor creature", and he asks Poins: "Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?" Similarly the malicious Iago, in Othello, declares that the perfect woman is fit to do nothing more than "suckle fools and chronicle small beer".

Nor was Shakespeare impressed by strong beer, judging by the fate of the villainous Thomas Horner, the armourer, in Henry VI, who is so drunk on sack, charneco (a wine from Portugal) and "good double beer" (made by pouring the first mash back through the grain to extract more fermentable sugars) that his apprentice, Peter Thump, is easily able to overcome him and kill him in their duel.

Shakespeare's opinion of beer was so low, if we can assume that he was putting his own thoughts into the mouth of Hamlet, that he could think of nothing more depressing than being used after death to seal the bunghole in a cask of beer. Referring to the practice of using clay as a stopper in a barrel, the gloomy Dane tells his friend:

"To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole? ... follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam (whereto he was converted) might they not stop a beer barrel?"

In Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, Launce lists as one of the virtues of the woman that he loves the fact that "she brews good ale," and tells Speed: "And thereof comes the proverb, 'Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.'" For Shakespeare, it appears, ale was fit for kings and beer only for fools.

Centuries after his death, Shakespeare was adopted as a trademark by Flowers, the biggest brewer in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon. (Flowers was founded, incidentally, by Edward Fordham Flower, who had emigrated to the United States, aged 13, in 1818 with his brewer father Richard. The Flowers settled in southern Illinois, near the Wabash river, on what later became the township of Albion. Family legend says they turned down a site further north on the shore of Lake Michigan, believing it to be too marshy. Others were less fussy, and the city of Chicago was eventually founded there. Edward and Richard returned to England in 1824 and Edward began brewing in Stratford in 1831.) Fortunately nobody ever pointed out to Flowers that Shakespeare wouldn't have liked the hoppy brew they were selling .…

Martyn Cornell


superdedooperboy's picture

Well done, colleague!

The reason I say colleague is, besides the fact that I write about beer, I also completed a research paper this past semester (Fall 2009) on the very same subject. The paper focuses mostly on Shakespeare's views of alcohol as expressed in the play Othello, as my requirement for the paper was to keep focus on one play that was covered in the course (a survey course on Shakespeare), but my interest in the subject led me to venture outside of the play as well.

My studies in English Lit combined with my love for craft beer and deep interest in the history of alcoholic beverages has led all of my research of late to focus on alcohol and its place in English literature, and it has played an interesting role indeed! I currently write as the Augusta, GA Craft Beer Examiner on Examiner.com, and the Carbondale, IL Craft Beer Examiner alerted me to this piece of yours after I posted an etymological analysis of beer on my page.I don't know how the comment system works here on the BC website, but I'm quite interested in this piece in general and would love to have access to your sources (though I can tell that I'm well aware of some of them) and to possibly discuss anything related.

Nice work, indeed!

Lonnie C. Best
Augusta Craft Beer Examiner

daveklaus's picture

Interesting stuff!

Great article Martyn. I'm intrigued by the history of beer in general, and What Shakespeare Drank really fits the bill of interesting beer history I've come to crave. Regarding American history; In my own research on the internet, I've discovered letters written by John Adams to his wife Abigail where he speaks of her small beer fondly, and also talks about Porter, here is a quote from one of JA's letters from 1774: "A Gentleman, one Mr. Hare, has lately set up in this City a Manufactory of Porter", he was speaking of the city of "Phyladelphia". In that time beer was one drink, and Porter another. Now we've come to a point where beer has become a category of malt beverages that includes Lagers, Ales, and of course Porter . I'm also intrigued by how the brewing of beer was something that was often done at home by the wife. Of course, in that day and age I'm sure that the "Manufactory" of all things we now consider simply beer was far less common . If readers are interested in the writings of John Adams, you can research it for yourself here:  http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/aea/

Cheers, Dave Klaus
(Home brewer and beer lover)