Beer on the English Table

The Table – Does Beer Belong?

The Original was a periodical of general interest authored by the Englishman Thomas Walker (1784-1836). It was popular enough to be reprinted numerous times including in 1850.

He was a lawyer and magistrate who wrote on diverse topics outside his profession, including health and gastronomy.

His comments on beer with food are of some interest. They follow some deft remarks on wine, still applicable today in the main.

On beer, Walker showed a decided Georgian sensibility by vaunting table-beer as suitable for dining, provided of high quality, which likely meant not sour or stale.

Table-beer, sometimes called small beer or small ale, was a weak beer, between one and three per cent alcohol. It went out of fashion by the mid-19th century. Perhaps the increasing use of tea, and wines of all types, caused the decline.

Then too customs can change for whatever reason, and it is hard to know exactly why this weak beer fell out of favour. Maybe better quality water became more generally available.

Below is a rare modern example of table beer, from the estimable Anchor Brewery in San Francisco.



From Elizabethan times until its Victorian demise table-beer had importance in domestic and social life. Shakespeare dismissed it in a quip,* but it was no less important for that.

Walker thought such extra-light beer suitable to accompany food, with two or three glasses of “first-rate ale” taken after. So he switches there to rather strong ale: Burton, Dorchester, Kennett, Scotch, etc.

Typically this was heady, not too bitter, often sweet. Such ale probably served as a kind of dessert, or in lieu of fortified wine such as port or Madeira.

Walker was writing too early for India Pale Ale, aka bitter beer, which was relatively novel still in Britain. Anyway its assertive hop character might not have suited British dining except in India, where its use for meals is well-documented.

Walker’s advice for diners to have an occasional “malt-liquor day”, as against wine that is, prefigured the modern gastronomic appreciation of beer. That he felt confident enough to suggest it shows dry wine hadn’t quite ousted beer as the standing drink of the table.

Author Thomas Hardy famously wrote – famously in beer circles – that the minor Dorset gentry loved strong ale more than wine. Yet by the time the Trumpet Major appeared and until recently, beer on the damask was uncommon, despite periodic claims for its place.

Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer, published in 1956, takes its place in this slim literature, e.g. suggesting brown ale with apple pie, but the book had no great influence until the 1970s, when consumer beer writing first took flight.

Another lawyer interested in gastronomy, Abraham Hayward (1801-1884), reproduced extracts of The Original in his Art of Dining; or, gastronomy and gastronomers (1853). An example:

The figure above is legalist Hayward, rather ascetic-looking for a student of gastronomy, I thought.

He seems to have been nonplussed by the success of his food and wine writing. Like many authors, he felt the public miserly in appreciation for writing he felt of greater value.

Note re images: the first image above is sourced from the Anchor Brewery’s website, the second via HathiTrust, and the third from Wikipedia’s entry on Abraham Hayward. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

  • “… I will make it a felony to drink small beer.”, Henry VI, Part II.