A Multifaceted View of English Drinking Customs
Richard G. White was a notable journalist, editor, essayist and author in mid-century America. That’s the 19th century, one of our frequent haunts here.
White was Manhattan-born, descended from the proverbial old New England family. (He was the father of ill-starred Stanford White, the famous architect).
Biographical material abounds, e.g. this Wikipedia sketch. White is pictured below, via this link.
He studied both medicine and law but elected law as a profession. After some years practising he devoted most of his time to writing. Among his specialties were Shakespearean scholarship and both musical and literary criticism.
His book England Without and Within, from 1881, described his travels there, in the time-honoured fashion of American pilgrimage of that period.
By pilgrimage, I mean, not just a visit to an influential (obviously) nation in American history, but by someone of that ancestry, who felt a pull to visit.
The opening lines of this book explain well this yearning:
… [I had] a great interest in a land beyond the sea, but within ten days’ steaming, where my forefathers had lived for about eleven hundred years, [and so] I went to England; to visit which had been one of the great unsatisfied longings of my life. I found there even more to interest me than I had looked for, although I saw less of the country and of my many friends within it than I had hoped to see. It was almost inevitable that a man who had written about matters much less near to him than this was to me should tell the tale of such a journey; and hence this book, which, although an honest one, I believe, and written in a candid spirit, is truly a labor of love.
His work had been published in London well before his visit, so he was a known quantity on arrival. This facilitated his visit in many ways.
Our interest here is mainly on the beer. He devotes many passages to this subject, indeed a full chapter on what he called the National Vice. He was somewhat measured, indicating, as do other sources, that unabated drinking was in decline by the later 1800s.
Nonetheless he made clear his distaste for what he felt was excessive consumption.
First, while he states the labouring classes were seriously afflicted by over-drinking, he exempts not others in the English mosaic. I say English, not British, as his remarks I saw pertained to England: London, but also other parts including Cambridge, Birmingham, and Stratford.
He is very specific for example on water-drinking, by noting its virtual absence. He added, perhaps this was due to people receiving so much of the stuff externally. American humour.
He states even for normal (not festive) dining, both mid-day and evening, no one drank water, but rather beer or wine, although his dining seems to have been limited to restaurants and prosperous hosts. Only once did he see at dinner water being drunk, by the nephew of his host.
The host remonstrated with the young relation for doing that, which seems hard to believe today, but there it is.
He was struck how females drank, of all backgrounds again, often combining different drinks in an evening. The American pattern was quite different as he notes numerous times, although he makes clear that the English model obtained at an earlier period in American history.
He depreciates beer in American drinking customs, stating it was regarded as “coarse”. Lager, he notes, was now more widespread but he gives it little attention.
By beer, he meant the ale and porter heritage the British had bequeathed to America. He states that such beer, so ale and porter made by the surviving East Coast breweries, mainly, was available here and there but its social rank clearly put him off.
The surviving old-school breweries were in fact respected institutions especially in New York, White’s home base, but he seems not to have been aware of this. More likely, he didn’t care.
He states when leaving college he had not exceeded drinking three pints of beer in his whole life. Whereas in England, for many this was simply a daily tally.
The style of writing is typically Victorian, somewhat ornate and with a rhythmic pattern to the clauses and sub-clauses typical of the time. Still, flashes of the American insouciance appear.
Writing to his American audience he states, to those liable perhaps to think ill of England on account of the vice noted, “I’m looking at you”.
He was saying, don’t be too judgmental: you share the same ancestors.
Despite all this, it would be a mistake to think White wrote a temperance tract. And in fact, he exhibited, rather trop I thought for one seemingly chary of drink, a liking for English beer!
At Trinity College he was much impressed with its ale (then brewed at the college), and expressed this to his host. So enthusiastic was White, the host bade him to drink Trinity’s very special “audit ale”.
The dean of beer writers, the Briton Roger Protz, described well this historic beer style in this blogpost a few years ago. He links the old tradition to contemporary expressions of the style, which makes it even more relevant.
In fact, Protz refers to White, not by name, but by noting a 19th century taster compared the audit ale to Chateau d’Yquem, the French Sauternes of renown.
This is part of White’s more extended remarks:
… such a product of malt and hops had never passed my lips before. It was as mighty as that which Cedric found at Torquilstone, as clear as crystal, and had a mingled richness and delicacy of flavor as superior to that of the best brewage I had ever before tasted as that of Chateau Yquem is to ordinary Sauterne.
He goes on for another page, it has to do with quadrangles, elegant chambers lined with books, and trying a bottle he took home.*
Coarse it wasn’t, whatever the quality of the American ale White’s circle evidently devalued in mid-century New York.
Finally, on porter, the noblest of English beers in my opinion, if you get it exactly right, he wrote:
I was surprised not only at the quantity that I could drink at any time and at all times with impunity, and with apparently good effect, but at the eagerness with which my whole body seemed to imbibe it. I shall never forget a certain place — it was in Fleet Street, I believe … It is well known for the quality of its tap, and a friend took me to it one day… We had just had a hearty breakfast; but as I turned up my glass of this black fluid I seemed to absorb a good part of it on its passage down my throat. It was of delicious flavor, cool without being cold, and of an inexpressible lightness, notwithstanding its thick, heavy look … In “America” I should as soon think of drinking pure alcohol directly after breakfast as a glass of porter.
These material and consequent physiological conditions should always be considered in judging English habits of drinking.
Yes, they should Mr. White. Taking all with all, one wonders if you ended rather on the positive side of the alcohol ledger, but bowed to period rectitude by including the “Vice” chapter. On the other hand, maybe you would protest that it’s all a question of the just mean. If so, I suppose I would agree, Sir.
*It didn’t quite evoke the magic of the College tasting. Just as today, no one is sure if beverages change with travel or being on mundane home turf explains why “it tasted better there”.