The Place of Beer on the English Table

The Original was a periodical authored by English writer Thomas Walker and reprinted numerous times including in 1850. Walker lived from 1784 to 1836. He was a lawyer and magistrate who wrote on numerous topics including health and gastronomy.

His comments on beer and dining are of some interest. They follow a deft précis on wine, which has a basic good sense and is still applicable today in the main lines.

On beer, he shows a decided Georgian influence by considering table-beer suitable for dining provided of course it is 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 French wine in some cases, caused the decline. 

Table-beer was a weak beer or ale, from 1 to 3% abv. From Elizabethan times until the early 1800s it had an importance in English domestic and social life which is hard to appreciate today (despite Shakespeare’s well-known slightings).

Walker thought this very light beer good to accompany food, with two or three glasses of “first-rate ale” taken after. This was strong ale of some kind, Burton, Dorchester, Kennett, Scotch, etc. This custom is quite different from anything today. Probably the strong ale served as a kind of dessert course, or in lieu of the fortified wines then popular 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 suited pre-dinner.

His advice to have an occasional “malt-liquor day” prefigures the modern era of gastronomic beer appreciation. With an article as old and in regular use as beer in England, it was doubtful to find Walker or many others giving extended éloge, but his semi-casual remarks show beer was not neglected in a gastronomic context. The European, especially French, cult of wine hadn’t quite ousted beer from a place on the English table, that is.

Thomas Hardy wrote that the minor gentry loved strong Dorset beer more than wine. This sentiment, expressed later in the century, gives further expression to the warm place beer has always held in English affections. Yet, even by the time of the Trumpet Major and until recently, beer’s grasp on the damask had become rather parlous despite the occasional claim made for its place in refectory. (See for example Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer from 1956).

Another lawyer and writer, Abraham Hayward (1801-1884), gave Thomas Walker’s gastronomical thinking a fillip by incorporating extracts in his Art of Dining; or, gastronomy and gastronomers (1853).The extract below is from that work but the book collects and extends articles Hayward wrote on Walker’s work in 1835-1836.

Beyond the purview of beer, these works show some Britons were concerned with matters of the table no less than the French greats whose names are too well-known to mention here. Elizabeth David, of whom I have often written here, and similar American figures (although never as eminent as she), were distant descendants of this tradition. It reflects as well in shorter pieces such as Charles Lamb’s encomium on roast pork, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Robbie Burn’s immortalizing of the haggis.

A history and compendium of British gastronomical literature needs to appear – unless it already has – we are grateful for recommendations.

The figure pictured is counsellor Hayward, withal rather ascetic-looking for a gastronomic explorer. It appears he was somewhat surprised and even rankled by the success of this part of his writing. Like many authors, he found that writing he considered relatively trifling found a greater audience than works he deemed more serious.

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