Beer in English Cookery – Part I


The title should perhaps be “Beer in British and Irish Cookery” but I feel less confident to write about Scotland and Ireland than England and, well, Wales. First, I visited England about 20 times over a 25 year period, travelling in different parts although by no means “everywhere”. In this time, I ate in a wide variety of restaurants and visited many markets, but also ate with people at home. Second, I have a decent library of mostly English recipe and food history books, and have read widely in the area.

Based on this, I can say, or it is my opinion, that the English have a relatively minor interest in cooking with beer. Dishes there are, of which Welsh Rabbit is perhaps still best known. Jane Grigson has reported a Gloucester cheese and ale dish, as well. Check out Jamie Oliver’s version.

Apart from this, ale or other beer is sometimes used in Christmas pudding, in a couple of beef dishes, and as an element in some cures of ham. A Yorkshire beef and beer dish employs cloves, mace and other Middle Ages-sounding spices. The recipe can be found in the writings of Dorothy Hartley, Elizabeth Ayrton and other well-known authors on English food.

In addition, Sussex Stewed Steak, a braised dish involving port or another fortified wine, and stout or other beer, appears in many repertoires, sometimes under variant names. Elizabeth David gives a classic recipe in her Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970).

A dish of venison, molasses and beer appears in some regional compilations. And beer is used in fish or other batters sometimes, as across Europe. One 1800s recipe advises to baste a hare in old beer. Yet most jugged hare recipes I’ve seen use port or red wine, not beer.  Another recipe, from Maria Rundell, counsels to stew beef heart in beer that is sugared and spiced. One would think this last would be an example of an established way with beef in general. This seems not so judging by the available literature, not to mention contemporary practice.


When you look at recipes for beef and kidney pie or pudding, or beef and mushroom and other variations (oyster), beer almost never appears. In the famous hotpots too, only rarely. (The use of Guinness in Irish stew is, I believe, a modern innovation). In the sources I’ve read, it is water, stock, occasionally red wine or port, often a combination. There is no real counterpart to the Belgian/Northern French carbonnades de boeuf à la Flamande. Nothing on the order of coq à la bière. 

I can think of one English recipe with pork involving beer. It was from Mary Norwak in her The Best of Country Cooking. One coats a roast of pork in salt and pepper, flour, and powdered ginger. Then, you bake it in the oven and continually baste it with beer. It is very good, but is possibly a modern riff on some traditional ingredients.

There is no beer soup, no beer sauce, in England’s traditional food of today. In former centuries, a caudle which combined ale, grains of some kind, and eggs was eaten in the morning, but this fell away with modern times.  A similar preparation characterized the Highlands in Scotland, a kind of frumenty with oats and whisky mixed, called Atholl Brose.

Sometimes a gravy was made with an element of small beer (into the 1800s), but this was again a minor part of the English sauce repertoire.

I cannot find many recipes for fish and beer, or poultry and beer, in the English canon. I am not saying there aren’t any. I have somewhere a regional recipe series, it was small booklets, where beer does appear occasionally, in one, mixed with wine I think, for poultry. This 1856 book, Every-Day Cookery For A Family, mentioned herring baked with a mix of small beer and vinegar. Perhaps the recipe has survived in Yarmouth or similar areas.  A handful of recipes can be traced for coarse fish (roach, chub, carp again) – see Richard Dolby’s 1830 classic tavern cookbook – which seem not to have survived into the 1900s.

I have referred earlier to a late-1950s booklet by Canadian writer Jehane Benoit on cooking with beer. She states that sole is cooked with beer in Scotland. I have never found direct evidence of this, but the Victorian herring-and-beer dish does connect beer to fish cookery off the North Sea in Britain. Maybe some people used sole, or other sea fish, as a substitute for the more vigorous herring.


In terms of the general pattern though, what explains it when it is known that Renaissance recipes frequently advised the use of ale in cooking? See e.g., Dr. Richard Unger, at pg. 130, here. I think there are two reasons. As beer became increasingly hopped, the taste wasn’t wanted in food. Welsh Rabbit is different because the richness of cheese hides, or rather matches, the beer taste. Ditto in Christmas pudding. But in soup and most other cooking, there is nowhere to hide. Particularly when all beers were more hopped than now, this was probably a factor in the decline of beer cookery in Britain.

Second, since the 1800s at least, most cookery writers are women. Most probably did not drink beer, or drink it regularly, so it didn’t appear in their inventories. Perhaps lingering temperance sentiment affected this too. Finally, class prejudice about beer may have played a role.

I am not ignoring the many books written in Britain since the 1970s on cooking with beer. These are valid on their own terms but as on the Continent, have expanded the traditional range of dishes which use beer. I am speaking in this post of recipes received into the mid-1900s.

In Belgium, northern France, Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries in Europe, the ties between cuisine and beer, both older and newer, are stronger, or so I have gleaned after reading and talking to people about it for a long time.

Note re images used: the first image above is attributed as follows: By Leigh Last (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. It was sourced here. The second and third images were sourced here and here and are believed in the public domain or available for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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