Boozy Nation: A (Brief) History of Beer in the United Kingdom

Evidence of beer brewing in the UK goes back as far as 3000 BC. Although, the prehistoric beer brewers of Orkney in Northern Scotland probably wouldn’t appreciate your pint of Carlsberg. Palaeontologists have discovered evidence that they brewed a rudimentary beer using plants such as hemlock and deadly nightshade. Bottoms up!

By 50 BC, when the Romans first arrived on the British Isles and began writing down what they saw, the native Celts were already brewing honey beer and mead. In fact, the first recorded mention of a named brewer was set down around this time –  Atrectus the brewer. Tablets found at Chesterholm in Northumbria, indicate that Roman soldiers ordering beer from Atrectus was a regular occurrence.

However, it wasn’t until nearly 800 years later, in 822 AD, that hops first entered beer production in Northern Europe. Abbot Adalhard of Corbie Monastery in Normandy recorded harvesting wild hops for use in brewing. Over the next several hundred years the cultivation of hops for use in beer making, as opposed to the ales that had come before, became widespread.

As we reach 1342, the Brewer’s Guild was established in London, helping move brewing out of the hands of the Monasteries. In fact, in the 13th century the Old St Paul’s Cathedral was the epicentre of London ale brewing – producing nearly 70,000 gallons of ale a year.

By 1350 British drinkers were importing hopped beer from the continent. The earliest records of beer being shipped to the British Isles come from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, at the estuary of the river Yare. However, hops remained unpopular and continued to be the beverage of choice for British drinkers for many years.

In 1436 much of Holland was at war with Britain. Nationalistic ale brewers took this is an opportunity and began circulating rumours that hopped beer from the continent was unfit for consumption. In response, King Henry VI declared to his London lieutenants that ‘all brewers of biere within their bailiwick to continue to exercise their art as hitherto, notwithstanding the malevolent attempts that were being made to prevent them.’

If we look at 1525, hops-based beer had even gained approval for royal production. Henry VIII had no less than two personal brewers, who made 13,000 pints a week at Hampton Court Palace. By 1570 the number of breweries popping up around London was said to have attracted the personal ire of Queen Elizabeth the I. She might have been happy to know that, less than 100 years later in 1666, over 15 breweries were completely destroyed by the Great Fire of London. 1790 saw a brewer from Bow (in what is now East London) called Hodgson inventing the first pale ale – a longer lasting brew made for troops travelling to India. His innovation soon spread across the country, and the first IPA was born. In 1881 the Austro-Bavarian Pilsner company opened the first lager brew house in London. Finally, by 1914, when the British Government outlawed super strength home brewing operations, the scene was set for the modern British beer culture.

We’ve come a long a way since 3000 BC – cheers to that!