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 and, to a lesser degree, Wales.

I visited Britain about 20 times over a 25 year period, in different parts mostly in England. In this time, I ate in a wide variety of restaurants and visited many markets, but also ate at people’s homes.

I also have a decent library of U.K. cookery and food history tomes, and have read fairly widely in the area.

Based on this, it is my view that beer plays a relatively minor role in English cookery. Beer dishes there are, of which Welsh Rabbit is probably best known. As well there is Gloucester cheese and ale, a variation on this theme. Jane Grigson gave a good version, or Jamie Oliver.

Beer sometimes appears in Christmas pudding, in a couple of beef dishes, and (largely disused) cures of ham. A Yorkshire beef-and-beer dish employs cloves, mace, and other spices that recalls Middle Ages meat cookery. Books by Dorothy Hartley and Elizabeth Ayrton offer good examples.

Sussex Stewed Steak, a braise involving stout (or other beer), port and vinegar, appears in many English cookbooks, sometimes under variant names. Elizabeth David offered the classic recipe in her literate Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970). Venison cooked in molasses or sugar with beer appears in some regional compilations.

An 1838 recipe, from The Family Handbook, states “some people” baste a hare in “old beer”. The same page notes that ale can be added to the cooking liquid. In both cases the suggestion has a ring of the tentative. English hare is usually cooked with port, red wine, or both, not any form of beer.

Maria Rundell counsels a beef heart with sugared and spiced beer. The approach might be thought an established way with the cheaper cuts, but not so it appears.

Beer is occasionally used for batters, fish and fruit especially, as across Europe.

Pies and puddings that combine meat with mushroom or oyster, usually beef, seem to eschew beer. Ditto the famous northern hotpots. (Guinness in Irish stew is, I believe, a modern innovation). Water and stock are more usual, occasionally red wine.

I’ve not encountered an English counterpart to the Belgian/ French carbonade à la Flamande, or their coq à la bière. The spiced and sugared braise of Rundell gets half-way there, perhaps.

A recipe for pork with beer appears in Mary Norwak’s 1970s-era The Best of Country Cooking. A roast of pork is coated in salt and pepper, flour, and powdered ginger, baked, and basted in beer. It is quite good, possibly a family one-off, or inspired by a foreign recipe, but not characteristic of English ways, in my opinion.

To my knowledge there is no beer soup, or beer sauce, in the English repertoire at least as handed down. In former times a morning caudle combined ale, grains of some kind, and eggs.  A similar preparation in the Scottish Highlands was oats and whisky mixed, Atholl Brose.

I cannot find many recipes for fish or poultry with beer in English cooking. This 1856 book, Every-Day Cookery For A Family, has herring baked with small beer and vinegar. Perhaps the technique survives in Yarmouth or other delimited areas.

A few recipes exist for coarse fish with beer – roach, chub, carp. See e.g. Richard Dolby’s 1830 tavern cookbook. Charlotte Mason used small beer for a carp sauce in her The Lady’s Assistant (1805). Small beer also appears in a sauce for steak and braise for hare in the book. Mason seems to have favoured it beyond the detectable norm.

In a late-1950s booklet, Cooking With Dow, Canadian food author Jehane Benoit writes that sole is cooked with beer in Scotland. I have never seen this, but herring with beer is a kind of analogue.



Looking to the further past, Renaissance recipes frequently called for ale in cooking. See Richard Unger at pg. 130, here (“a common ingredient in Renaissance kitchens”. The context is western European in general).

The landmark Forme of Cury, which collected 14th century recipes, includes ale in a number of recipes, e.g. for capon.

I think there are two reasons why beer later fell away in the English kitchen. First, it became increasingly hopped from the late 1400s. Earlier, ale properly so termed had no hops – perhaps other herbs and spices, but not the bitter hop.

Once hops became generalized in beer the use in cooking likely withered due to the bitter tang, especially as in former times pronounced bitterness was generally thought the mark of poison.

In Welsh Rabbit the richness of cheese hides, or perhaps matches, the beery taste. Ditto for Christmas pudding, in which strong beer makes an infrequent appearance, to boot. But in soup and other cooking where a few ingredients must shine, the bitter cannot be disguised.

All beers are much less bitter than in Victorian times but in gastronomy once a custom is established often only heaven and earth can change it.

Finally, wine was – still is – the classic alcoholic medium in professional cooking, for which France set the norms well into the last century. Beer is almost never used, two or three recipes apart. Escoffier has one for beef carbonnade, but little else in his work mentions beer.

The many other French recipes that employ beer are regional, the north and east, mainly. They only came to light in the later 1900s with the rise of interest in regional cookery.

Numerous works on how to cook with beer have been published in Britain since the 1970s. They are salutary and will help to revive a much older tradition.

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 image was sourced from Wikipedia Commons here and appears public domain. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.


*Barring special techniques in their use.