Friday 7 September 2007

Obadiah Poundage's letter of 1760


I have a plan. It may not appear so, but I do. Purpose, perhaps, is more accurate. I want to improve the quality of debate about the history of beer styles. Because, let's be honest, the standard is mostly pretty crap.

It isn't laziness that prompts me to post big chunks of my source material (though that is a happy side effect). I want you to be able to weigh the evidence and come to your own conclusions. It's boring debating with yourself. If a few of you can be arsed to read this stuff, maybe I won't have to any more.

One of the few contemporary sources that discuss the origin of Porter, Obadiah Poundage's letter has unfortunately been much misinterpreted. Yet analysed correctly, it's a goldmine of invaluable information. As an insider in the brewing trade, he certainly knew what he was talking about.

Here's how I interpret the letter:

  • many drinkers liked the taste of aged beer, to get this they drank either all old beer or old beer mixed with young
  • before Porter, breweries sent out all their beer young and to get old beer publicans either had to age beer themselves ("start butts") or buy it from middlemen
  • brewers had the idea of a partially-aged beer themsleves to:
    • generate greater profit
    • make life easier for landlords
  • the first Porter was Brown Beer aged for 4 or 5 months
  • by 1760 customers and publicans expected Porter to be clear
Note that there is no mention of "three threads" anywhere in the letter. That story appears to be a 19th century invention.

Here's the text. See what you think.

Obadiah Poundage's letter


I believe I may say I am the oldest acting outdoor Clerk at present in the brewery. I served in the trade when Tom Tryon (a student in physick) whom I new very well, occasioned no small bustle among us by advising the not boiling of our worts for fear that our ales should taste raw. This, as near as I can recollect, was about the time of the Revolution as proves in how much need the trade stood of further improvement.

[missing section]

...In the beginning of King William's reign [1689-1702], whose memory be ever blessed, the duty on strong beer and ale was 2/6 per barrel and small beer was made from the same grains and sold for 6/- per barrel. Both the ale and beer was fetched from the brew-house by the customers themselves or at their charge, and paid for with ready money; so we entertained but few servants, fewer horses; we had no stocks of ales and beers in store, of casks but a trifling quantity and money in the Compting House before either duty or malt was become due. The Victuallers then sold this ale for twopence the quart.

But soon after our wars with France occasioned Further duties on this commodity -- I set them down from memory alone -- ninepence per barrel more in 1693 was laid on strong ale, an additional threepence per barrel in 1694. The whole duty amounted to four shillings per barrel on ale and one shilling per barrel on small beer at this period. Ale rose in price to 18/- and 19/- per barrel and the victualler sold it for twopence halfpenny per quart.

Now we come to the Queen's time [Anne 1702-1714], when France disturbing us again, the Malt Tax, the Duty on Hops and that on coals took place, besides one shilling per barrel more on strong beer and ale and fourpence per barrel more on small beer, owing to old Lewis's ambition. Our duties on strong beer and ale amounted to 5/- per barrel and on small beer 1/4 per barrel. May he receive his reward, say I, for about the year 1710 his machinations embarrassed us much. However, at last, it was realised that the duty on malt surpassed by much the duty on hops, from whence the Brewers endeavoured at a liquor wherein more of these last should be used. Thus the drinking of beer came to be encouraged in preference to ale. This beer, when new, was sold for £1/2/- per barrel, but the people not easily weaned from their wonted sweet heavy drink, in general used ale mixed with beer, which they purchased from the Ale draper at twopence halfpenny, and twopence three farthings per quart.

About this time the Gentry residing in London more than they had in former times, for them was introduced the pale ales and pale small beers they were habituated to in the country and many of the Brewers took to making drinks of this sort. Affluence and cleanliness promoted the delivery of them in the brewer's own casks and at his charge. Pale malt being dearer than brown malt, the brewer being loaded with more and greater taxes, the price of such small beer was fixed at 8/- and 10/- per barrel and that of the ale at £1/10/- per barrel; the latter was retailed by the victuallers at twopence per pint or fourpence per quart under the name of twopenny.

This incroachment on the consumption of the drinks which London had always been habituated to, excited the brown beer[1] brewers to produce if possible a better sort of commodity in their own way, than heretofore had been made. To their honour I say it, my old Masters were foremost in this attempt and thus much let me add, I approved of the undertaking. They began to hop their mild beer more and the Publican started[2] three, four, sometimes six butts at once, but so little idea had the brewer or his customers incurring the charge of great stocks of beer, that some moneyed people made a trade of purchasing their hopped beers at the first hand, keeping them sometime and when stale to dispose of the same to Publicans for £1/5/- per barrel and £1/6/- per barrel. Our tastes but slowly alter or reform. Some drank mild beer[3] and stale mixed, others ale, mild beer and stale blended together at threepence per quart, but many used all stale a fourpence per pot.

On this footing stood the trade until about the year 1722 when the Brewers conceived there was a method to be found preferable to any of these extremes; that beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public. This they ventured to sell at £1/5/- per barrel that the victualler might retail at threepence per quart. At first it was slow in making its way, but in the end the experiment succeeded beyond all expectation. The labouring people, porters etc. experienced its wholesomeness and utility, they assumed to themselves the use thereof, from whence it was called Porter or Entire Butt. As yet, however, it was far from being in the perfection which since we have had it. I well remember for many years it was not expected, nor was it thought possible to be made fine and bright[4], and four or five months was deemed to be sufficient age for it to be drunk at.

The improvement of transparency has since been added to it by means of more and better workmanship, better malt, better hops and the use of isinglass; but this more perfection has brought with it numberless charges, greater stocks, long credit, more casks, more cellarage, more servants etc. and if at this time Porter is not fine, it has brought also this casualty of being returned on the Brewers' hands as being unfit for use.

[missing section]

...For a last objection, the Gazeteer has said, by a rise of 3/- per barrel a certain great brewhouse will be benefitted by £11,000 per annum. Perhaps is the Brewhouse I have the honour to belong to, and perhaps it may be so much advantaged. Sir, I desire to be allowed to know somewhat of this matter, if such be the profits they make, it will be the first profits they have seen these five years. Their capital stock is not less than £120,000 and this sum in the public funds would make £6,000 per annum; remains £5,000 out of which at least one half must be taken for so much as under the circumstances of a rise on beer, it will be made of better quality; the result then is that 2 per cent would be paid by the victualler for carrying on the most laborious manufacture in England.

There is then a necessity for a rise on this commodity and if it did not take place when the late additional duty on malt was imposed and when liberty was granted to the Distiller to go on in his profession, the reason was this: The London brewers willing to try what could be done in support of this charge by weakening their commodity, acted in consequence thereof and how did the event prove? Why, their beers were small and bad to such a degree that it became a fashion with the people to drink one half twopenny and one half porter at threepence halfpenny the pot.


your very humble servant,

Obadiah Poundage.

  1. "Brown beer" was the direct ancestor of Porter.
  2. "Start" meant something very specific in 18th century brewing. "Starting a butt" has usually been interpreted in this letter to mean "tapping a barrel". It really means laying down a barrel of beer to mature. This section is talking about publicans having to mature multiple barrels in their own cellars to meet the public's taste for aged beer.
  3. "Mild beer" means something completely different from "Mild Ale". In the period when the letter was written Beer and Ale were still two very different drinks. Beer was hopped at about four times the rate of Ale. In this context "mild" simply means "unaged". You can read more about the difference between Ale and Beer here.
  4. In this context "fine" means "clear". From the use of the word "once" in this sentence, it's obvious that by 1760 (despite what some claim) Porter must have been clear. In fact, the way the sentence is phrased implies that Porter had been clear for many years at that point.

2 pints = 1 quart, 8 pints = 1 gallon, 36 gallons = 1 barrel (for beer) 32 gallons = 1 barrel (ale)

1/- = 1 shilling = 12 pence, 20/- = £1


Alan said...

You admonished me once for not appreciating the connection between mild and ale as distinct from beer. I reorted that Unger had indicated a gap of maybe 1650 to 1850 (very roughly) for references from ale to mild but here is clearly a description of a 1710 "sweet heavy" unhopped ale. But there is that reference, too, about storing this 1710 "ale" which I am presuming. if it were truley unhopped mediieval style ale, would not go lambic and sour but would spoil utterly.

Guidance please.

Ron Pattinson said...

My main source on Ale and Beer is "The London and Country Brewer" of 1736:

It makes a clear distinction between the two and always uses the term "malt liquor" when referring to both.

By the 18th century Ale had been hopped (in London at least) for quite a while. The difference with Beer was that the hopping levels were much lower for Ale - around a quarter.

These are the hopping rates per 36 gallons:

Strong Brown Ale 0.75 lb
Pale Ale 0.94 lb
October or March Brown Beer 3 lb
October or March Pale Beer 6 lb

(page 73 of "The London and Country Brewer" I've adjusted the figures to take into account the different barrel sizes for Ale and Beer)

My impression is that standard practice was to use at least some hops in all Ales in the 18th century. I somehow doubt that the beer of 1710 he refers to was truly totally unhopped, but I could be wrong.

You'll note that Obadiah Poundage uses the words Ale and Beer very carefully, too.

Ron Pattinson said...

Alan, apologies for my last reply. I was about to leave work and in a hurry. I didn't read your comment carefully enough.

Poundage doesn't say unhopped, he just says Ale. Which by this time meant "lightly-hopped" rather than unhopped.

There are other examples of styles moving from unhopped to very lightly-hopped. Keute is a case in point. As brewed in Münster, it was an old, gruit style than managed to survive the introduction of hops. The lightly-hopped version survived several centuries, finally dying out in the late 1800's.

"The London and Country Brewer" has pretty detailed information about the makeup of early 18th century London styles. It also states that when Ales were to be kept for long periods they were hopped more heavily, though still at nothing like the rate of Beers.

I hope I've managed to answer your question this time. If not, my apologies.

Alan said...

No problem, very informative and something I am trying to work through in my own mind, not as a matter of debate.

But that difference between 1350 ale and 1700 ale may be a point that needs making...and may be associated with my thoughts about anyone carrying on with claims of ancient brewing involving years of storage as you get in the sour beers. Now, I am clear in my mind through Unger that hops were available in the low countries in the early Renassance (and in some ways helped trigger it through the revenue from the trade in beer). But a early industrial hopped ale, even relatively lightly, is a different thing with different incredibly short life expectancy from old school ale.

My half-baked thought, then, is still not really about ale in England in the 1700s. It's just about what people were making and consuming at a practical level before, say, commercial brewing. If most malt went into old style ale, and most of that did not go into long terms storage, I am still unclear where and when the "ancient" aspect of the sour beer heritage comes from. My pet theory is that they were younger and more tangy than sour as there were no resources available for holding beers for more than a year or even over a hot or cold season. Not so much based on a GOTCHA as the practical point that people did not generally involve themselves in luxurious allocation of resources required for long term (souring) storage until, say, the later Victorian, though shorter term tanging storage seems to have started around 1700.

Question: am I nuts?

Ron Pattinson said...

Alan, you're not nuts.

Where do I start? First, long storage of beer. They were already ageing beer for 12 months plus in early 18th century England. That's what I've seen evidence for. It isn't described as if it were particularly new then, so I assume the practice goes back to at least the 1600's.

In the early 1700's it wasn't the breweries who aged beer. It was the "private brewers", people brewing not for sale but for their own household. At the time a considerable amount of beer was brewed this way. "The London and Country Brewer" has a description of October Beer as brewed privately. If I remember correctly, it suggests March and October beers be matured for at least six months.

I don't know what was going on in Belgium at this time. But brewing didn't industrialise until much later than in England. Like British domestic brewing, much was carried out in farms.

Assuming storage was in cellars, summer isn't really a problem. The temperature will stay constant thoughout the year. It isn't like lagering. A steady temperature of 12º C (you're Canadian so I can use centigrade) should be fine. There were two types of long-storage English beer - October Beer and March Beer. The latter must have been stored through the summer.

What am I trying to say? I don't know if Belgian beers were really stored for several years before 1850. Was it possible? I would say yes. Was the beer really sour? Quite possibly. The way of immediately "ageing" Porter was to add sulphuric acid to it. That implies to me that aged Porter was pretty sour. My guess - that they probably didn't age the beer more than 12 months.

Interesting questions, Alan. You've made me do some hard thinking. Take a look at "The London and Country Brewer". It will give you a feel for what was possible in 1736.

GenX at 40 said...

Thanks for taking the time with this. What I have no confidence in is any argument that places storing of beer beyond a one year cycle in a pre-industrial setting without some hard evidence in the records or the archeology. Why would they? And if that is the case, where did the piercingly sour beers come from? And when?

In Markowski's Farmhouse Ales (an excellent US take on it I am drinking right now - Bam Biere) he says biere de garde as we know it is a post-1965 or so innovation. Yet people suppose its current form as a malty 7% thing of beauty is more venerable. There is absolutely nothing wrong with modern or 20th century innovation. We should just don't cover it up. Smacks of the snob.


Zythophile said...

Fascinating stuff as usual Ron - in fact the "three threads" reference comes in the plagiarised version of Poundage's letter which appeared the same month in The Gentleman's Magazine, which you've inspired me to blog about here

Alan, as Ron said, private brewers were storing their beers for a long time pretty soon after hops took off in England. William Harrison, a parson from Essex, writing in 1577, said the March beer served at noblemen’s tables “in their fixed and standing houses is commonly of a year old” and sometimes “of two years’ tunning or more”.

I was very interested, Ron, to read your comment on keute becoming a hopped beer, for reasons that will be clear in a blog I hope to post shortly ...

Ron Pattinson said...

Alan, if you look at beer as a way of storing grain long-term, I can see a point in perhaps keeping it more than 12 months. If you have a good harvest one year, make beer with the surplus grain to be used in poor years. That seems to be the origin of Kriek: a way to preserve a glut of cherries.

Most beer styles are of far more recent origin than is usually thought. There's virtually nothing brewed in Britain that is like beer from before WW I. Harvey's Russian Stout. That's about it.

Zythophile, I have a history of Pinkus-Müller that has some good stuff about Keute. I was amazed how long it survived.

I noticed the post you made about three-threads. Very good. I hadn't known there were two versions of the Poundage letter. Your other post about Ralph Harwood was interesting, too.

GenX at 40 said...

That is interesting, Z., and it reminds me that at the time in question the storage of casks of sherry and porter was quite commonplace for those who could afford it - see Julian Jeff's book Still, it would be good to have some archeology of the capacity of these storage rooms as well as some sense, from grain consumption/brewing/taxation records or even great house inventories, say, of what percentages these staled beers constituted of over all consumption.

Ron must have these figures and sources laying around.

GenX at 40 said...

Oops - beer on my mind. I meant sherry and port.

GenX at 40 said...

Whilst Europe sleeps, I have been doing a little more reading in Hornsey on later 16th c. beer.

[who really needs to figure out how to stick to one username]

Ron Pattinson said...

". . what percentages these staled beers constituted of over all consumption"

That's another good question, Alan. One I'm not sure I can answer that well. Certainly in the period 1750-1850 a high percentage of Porter was aged. They constructed enrmous tun rooms specifically for this purpose. I know as well from the logs, because the running and keeping versions of Porter were different. From what I recall, around 50% of brews were the keeping version. Loftus, writing in the 1860's, suggested a minimum of one third aged Porter in the blend of beer to be sold to pubs. And this was a time when the aged taste was starting to go out of fashion.

It's much harder to get an idea of what was happeneing in private house brewing. My guess is that only a small number of special brews would have been stored and that most of the beer for the household would have been some sort of small beer.

"Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900" by P. Sambrook should help out here. Do you have a copy? I can take a look this evening and see if it has anything about this.

GenX at 40 said...

Excellent. I have not found Sambrook. Hornsey's bibliography is also a source of great jealousy.

Ron Pattinson said...

Alan, whoops, I was thinking of another book - "You Brew Good Ale. History of Small Scale Brewing." by Ian Peaty. I don't have a copy of "Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900". Not yet, at least. I just ordered a copy.

I know what you mean about bibliographies. I went through the one in "Beer: a History of the Pint" and bought just about everything I could find.

My biggest problem is finding somewhere to put all my books. I filled up the shelves long ago and I'm now starting to run out of floor space.