Beer, Ale and Cider

'Though I go bare, take ye no care,

I am nothing scold:

I stuff my skin, so full within,

Of jolly good ale and old.'

-William Stevenson,

Gammer Gurton's Needle, c. 1551


By the Middle Ages, ale was the supreme drink. The ales of this time were heavy and sweet tasting and spices were added to give an edge to their taste. One early writer described the manufacture of ale in this way, "The grain is steeped in water and ground; after which it is infused in a certain quantity of water, which being fermented becomes a pleasant, warming, strengthening, and intoxicating liquor" (2) By the 18th century ale was referred to by the name of the district that produced them. For example, "Oxford ale", which carried with it a reputation of being a "boon of immorality" for anyone who drank it (3) For three 18th century ale recipes click here.

Cider also became known to England at an early date. Cider is extracted from apples and, while it was not drunk as often as ale, rose into dignity at civic fests in the middle of the 18th century. In 1788 a tutor in Herefordshire observed that lage quantities of cider were being drunk in years where apples were abundant. However, cider was never consumed in enough abundance to make a name for itself aside from ale or beer. It was said that, at any feast during this time, cider was charged with beer and ale whenever billed for a party(4)

During the 15th century ale with a sharper taste was introduced from the Low Countries. It was called beer, and was flavored with hops. This drink differed from beer by strength and color. The term "beer" was later used in the 18th century to refer to the darker thicker beer that was most often brewed in the city. Beer was neither as strong nor as dark as ale. Many names were given to beer during this time that denoted their strength and flavor. For example, single-beer, 'small-ale', 'double-beer', double-double-double-beer, 'dagger-ale', 'mad-dog', 'angel's food' and 'dragon's milk' were nicknames for ale during this time (5)

In 1722 the brewing of porter was introduced into England. Porter differed from beer because it is made with a higher dried malt. At this time it was common for a customer in a tavern to order a pot of "half and half", which was half ale and half twopenny, or sometimes an equal portion of ale, beer, and twopenny, which was referred to as "three threads". Because each one of these liquors had to be drawn from a separate vat, a man named Harwood devised a plan of brewing a drink that would yield the same flavor as these three combined ingredients. It was called "entire" or "entire butt" because it was taken from one butt or vat. This drink was so often ordered by porters that it became known as "porter" (6)