The Saxon Vintage

Alphonse Esquiros is a name unknown to British beer studies, as far as I know, so I will remedy the omission here.

He was a Paris-born writer, radical politician, and teacher who lived in London between 1859 and 1869. To understand how this came about, this biographical sketch by C.D. Warner from 1917 is instructive. A sample:

For years he lived in England, where he made many friends and was for some time professor of French literature at [the military college at] Woolwich. He thoroughly investigated the different interests and industries of the country, the various forms of religion, the departments of government, the army and navy; and obtained a just and comprehensive knowledge of English life, which he embodied in serious and interesting studies which ran through a long series in the Revue des Deux Mondes. They were translated into English, and in book form, ‘L’Angleterre et la Vie Anglaise’ (England and English Life), and ‘Les Moralistes Anglaises’ (The English Moralists), were greatly enjoyed on both sides of the Channel….

For more detail on Esquiros, whence the illustration above is taken, consult this entry (in French) from Histophilo, a website on the history of French thought.

During his English exile Esquiros wrote essays on a wide variety of topics pertaining to English life and manners. This writing essentially was of a travel and journalistic nature, colourful and with many observations of interest. He wrote in French but, as stated above, the work was translated and published in various forms including his five-volume The English at Home. 

The work serves today as valuable and entertaining social history, on the lines of Jan Morris, Bill Bryson, or William Least Heat Moon.

From page 222 he devotes not less than 61 pages to the subject of English beer. He deals specifically with four topics: hop culture, malting, brewing, and public houses. Esquiros had a high appreciation for English ale and porter. His detailed description of these phases of “the Saxon vintage”, as he called it, is informed by having toured the hop and barley fields, breweries, and pubs described.

The brewing section consists mainly of a visit to porter-brewer Barclay Perkins capped by a tasting of its best in pewter. He termed it “rich” and superior due to the absence of ministrations by intermediaries, a common problem of the day.

As examples of observations of note, he describes porter fermentation as lasting two days and a night, i.e., before cleansing in rounds. Revivalists: take note.

His coverage of the hop fields and harvest work is picturesque and almost lyrical. An Irish girl is asked, in his presence, who fathered her child. She answers, as lyrically, “he is the son of the hop”. (She was speaking “in jest”, Esquiros supposes). The Irish hop-pickers are portrayed as especially witty and lively.

Hops are dried with charcoal fumes penetrating a porous roof of the kiln, lending weight to scientist Charles Graham’s observation (I related it earlier) that English beer had a “cooked” quality.

A portrait of the infamous Dirty Dick’s pub in Bishopsgate surprises by the statement that patrons were only allowed a single serving of “intoxicating liquor”, presumably gin or other spirits (not beer). This resulted from a tragedy when a drinker died due to over-serving.

Net net, one’s impression of the public house is not too much has changed except for the abolition of the division between the public bar and high-toned saloon sections. They were then termed the tap and parlour, respectively.

One affecting observation is how the brewers Truman Hanbury were especially attentive to workmen’s moral and intellectual needs, insisting that their staff have a minimum education. They provided a library of books for the workmen, which were well-used says Esquiros.

Finally, have you heard of “Havelock, Campbell, and Blücher”? “Bayard, Milton, Remus, and Nelson”? No? They were not a firm of solicitors, nor eminent accountants, nor brewery architects.

They were the names of huge dray horses which hauled beer to market from the breweries visited, horses that displayed to Esquiros a “brutal grace”. The Gallic writer has memorialized them.

I invite a brewer to issue a series of ales and porters so named, to honour the Frenchman’s love and admiration for the English, something not usual among French writers then, or perhaps at any time.





2 thoughts on “The Saxon Vintage”

  1. Hi Gary ,
    Two days and a night fermentation is ; as you quite rightly say , important .
    However ; I`d conject that it was also a matter for the individual brewery concerned , and a matter of Gyle Type ; comparative and relative gravities .
    IE An Imperial Stout might follow the methods used by Barclay – Perkins , but a running beer might be fermented for say 4 days then allowed about 2 days in a settler before being cast to a Racking Square/ Back and racked to Trade Casks ,
    Regards ,


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