Beer on the English Table

Droit and Dining

The Original was a periodical issued by the English writer Thomas Walker (1784-1836). It was reprinted numerous times including in 1850. Walker was a lawyer and magistrate who wrote on diverse topics outside his profession including health and gastronomy.

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

On beer, Walker showed a decided Georgian sensibility by considering table-beer suitable for dining. This was provided it was of high quality, which probably meant not sour or stale. This type of beer, also called small beer and small ale, went out of fashion after Walker’s death. Perhaps the increasing use of tea, and wines of all types, caused the decline.

Then, too, customs just change, finally, for some reason.



Table-beer was weak in alcohol, from 1 to 3% abv. From Elizabethan times until the early 1800s it had importance in domestic and social life, one hard to appreciate today. Shakespeare dismissed small beer in a quip* but it was no less important for that.

(It occurs to me that the penchant of Americans to drink cold water at meals may be an adaptation of a custom popular when the Mayflower sailed).

Walker thought such light beer suitable to accompany food, with two or three glasses of “first-rate ale” taken after. This was strong ale, Burton, Dorchester, Kennett, Scotch, etc. This approach to the liquid side of dining is quite different to anything today.

The strong ale probably served as a kind of dessert, or in lieu of post-meal fortified wines such as port and Madeira.

Walker was writing too early for India Pale Ale, which was still new in England, and anyway its strong hop quality would not have recommended itself for meals, except in India (tiffin and dinner).

Walker’s advice to have an occasional “malt-liquor day” prefigures modern gastronomic beer appreciation. That he felt confident enough to suggest this shows dry wine hadn’t yet ousted beer completely on the English table.

Thomas Hardy wrote 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 in 1956 took its place in this slim history (e.g. brown ale with apple pie), but he had no great influence until the 1970s, when consumer beer writing really took off.

Another lawyer interested in the table, Abraham Hayward (1801-1884), gave Thomas Walker a fillip by incorporating extracts of The Original in his Art of Dining; or, gastronomy and gastronomers (1853). An example:

The figure shown is advocate Hayward, withal ascetic-looking for a gastronomic student. Apparently he was nonplussed by the success of his food and wine writing. Like many authors, he felt the public overly appreciated writing he felt lesser.

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


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