Sunday 8 May 2022

The decline in domestic brewing

At the start of the 19th century, domestic brewing was still very significant. The term covers everyone brewing not for sale, but for their own use. It was carried out by a widely disparate range of people, from agricultural labourers brewing in their cottages to the upper classes in their stately homes.

Domestic brewers did have one advantage before 1880: the restrictions on brewing ingredients to just malt, hops and, after 1847, sugar, did not apply to them. Recipes for such brewers often included all sorts of ingredients forbidden to commercial brewers, such as molasses, ginger, hartshorn shavings and coriander. 

The 1880 Free Mash Tun act for the first time required this class of brewers to hold a brewing licence. Though they were exempt from beer duty.

In the 18th and early 20th centuries, there was often little difference between a large domestic brewer and a small commercial brewer in terms of equipment and scale. But as brewing industrialised and was carried out on a larger scale, commercial brewers gained a distinct advantage. Domestic brewers just couldn’t compete in terms of efficiency and cost.

Another factor which didn’t help was the taxation system. Between 1830 and 1880, there was no tax on beer itself, just on the ingredients, that is, malt and hops. Which meant domestic brewers, unless they made their own malt, were effectively being taxed just the same as their commercial rivals.

Despite this, there were still more than 100,000 domestic brewers, compared to 15,774 commercial brewers.  The numbers collapsed in the 1890s and by 1915 there were fewer than 5,000 licences issued. However, this was still more than the 3,556 licences issued to brewers for sale.

Brewers not for sale 1881 - 1920
Year number
1881 71,876
1882 110,025
1885 88,007
1886 95,301
1890 25,281
1895 17,041
1900 12,734
1905 9,930
1908 8,481
1909 7,568
1910 7,006
1911 6,855
1910 7,006
1915 4,741
1917 5,217
1918 1,602
1919 1,879
1920 2,999
1912 Brewers' Almanack, page 157.
1922 Brewers' Almanack, page 117.




Michael Foster said...

Are there any numbers or estimates of homebrewers in the UK today? I get the impression that homebrewing is much more popular in America than the UK (or continental Europe for that matter), and I wonder if the 20th century was a slow and steady decline, particularly post WW2 when incomes started rising and imported beer become more varied and available.

Anonymous said...

Is there any indication how much was being brewed this way, or how many might be a large operation like an estate vs. someone brewing for just a household?

Ron Pattinson said...

Michael Foster,

homebrewing got a huge boost in the 1960s when the licence requirement was abolished. It was very popular in the 1970s, so much so that Boots (I was going tpo say the equivalent of Wahlgreens, but I think they actually own them now) sold home brewing equipment and ingredients.

You're looking at it very much in US terms. The motivation to home brew in the UK wasn't the lack of availability of good beer. It was all about price. People home brewed because it was way cheaper than buying beer. Imported beer was never more varied and better quality than UK beer. Most of the stuff that was imported was dull generic Lager.

Ron Pattinson said...


I was trying to find numbers for this, but couldn't. I think in the early 19th century domestic brewing accounted for as much as a third of all beer brewed.

Matt Boothman said...

I still proudly use a Boots' fermenter that was passed down from a relative; would I be right in saying there have been two home brew waves since the licence requirement was removed? The big one in the 1970s and a smaller one in the 2010s? Would be interested to see numbers on the homebrew scene, and especially how they correlate with economic dips at the time (I know my own interest in brewing at home was in an effort to cut costs!).