Ale bonding

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 1994, 12:00am

The English Pub: A History by Peter Haydon Robert Hale $425 WHAT is nowadays commonly called the English pub has existed for the past 2,000 years and so has the basic liquor it serves. True, the original liquor was ale; beer only came in with the introduction of hops around 1400. Even then, the authorities were opposed to the addition of anything to the original ale ingredients of water, barley and yeast.

Throughout its history, the pub and its precursors have been subject to national or local government interference, for varying reasons, health, financial or - nearer our time - moral.

There used to be official testers, the ale-conners. In the 14th century, these men, according to tradition, were distinguished by their badge of office, leather breeches, just as any establishment selling ale signalled its purpose by driving in a stake outside the door.

The ale-conner 'would visit a house where a new ale stake was displayed and pour a sample on a stool,' Haydon writes.

'He would then sit on the stool, endeavouring not to move for half an hour, after which he would attempt to rise. If his breeches stuck to the stool there was too much residual sugar, the ale was deemed not fully brewed and not fit to drink.' The author half hints that this may be a myth; if it isn't true, it ought to be.

Although brandy was always popular among the rich, it had little impact on the common man. But then, by a quirk of history, William of Orange came to the English throne in 1688.

Being a Dutchman, he encouraged the Dutch drink, which was gin. He passed laws encouraging the distillation of gin in England, 'partly to provide a market for inferior barley and partly to encourage trade with Holland, but mainly to end the brandy trade with Catholic France'.

William was successful. 'By 1751 gin consumption had reached 7,049,822 gallons, and that was just the legitimately produced product. One in four houses in London was a dram shop and virtually the entire population was semi-permanently drunk.' Gradually, gin production decreased for social and political reasons, although it still lived on 'to strike again in the early 19th century'. Rum was encouraged as less damaging. Sailors in the navy were issued with a ration of 'a gallon of beer in home waters, a quart of wine in the Mediterranean and one half pint of neat rum on the West Indies Station, issued before noon'.

As it was decided that rum impaired the seamen's health 'ruined their morals and made them slaves to every brutish passion' the liquor was watered down.

This book is full of such details, although its main preoccupations are the social conditions and legislation which have produced the pub of today, an establishment about which Haydon has distinctly mixed views. The food may have improved but the atmosphere has not.

Interestingly, the author spends his working hours as an explosives engineer. But his leisure time is spent, according to the blurb, 'visiting 'countless pubs and carrying out extensive research'. He is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and the Campaign for Real Ale.

An interesting book, even if the author does, at times, get bogged down in the technicalities of legislation.