By Kristen D. Burton
Master’s Thesis, Oklahoma State University, 2010
Abstract: This paper examines the impact of hopped beer on the brewing trade in London between the years 1200-1700. Prior to the arrival of hopped beer, traditional, un-hopped ale reigned as the most popular drink throughout England. This brew, though widely consumed, was an unstable commodity, as it spoiled quickly and brewers could only produce a limited amount. Though the ale brewers of London resisted hopped beer, their product could not compete against the commercial advantages offered by beer. Once accepted by English drinkers, beer became a staple supply to the English army, and London became the primary exporter of beer on the international market. These factors resulted in the greater commercialization of beer in London, paving the way for the rise of industrial brewing in the eighteenth century.
Introduction: The introduction of hops into the brewing trade in London established the foundation of industrial English brewing. Before the use of hops, the trade relied upon un-hopped ale, a brew that spoiled quickly resulting in limited commercial growth. Hopped beer proved to be more resilient and lasted for months, whereas ale lasted little more than a week. In an area generally covered by historians as a part of the overall narrative, this thesis will show how the arrival of hops into London allowed brewers to gain more capital, which they invested in larger equipment, leading to the industrialization of brewing. The resilience of beer made beer brewers wealthier and allowed them greater social prestige than ale brewers ever experienced. Due to the use of hops, the beer trade in London quickly supplanted the ale trade and resulted in a more sophisticated, commercialized business. London was not the first location for the arrival of hops in the British Isles, but it did grow into a commercial center for brewers who became the primary exporters of European beer by the seventeenth century.
The use of hops in brewing created beer as known in the modern sense. Before hops, the traditional brew was ale, a fermented beverage that contained yeast, malted grain, and water. While ales exist today, all beers contain hops, but the distinguishing difference depends upon the type of yeast used in brewing. During the high and late medieval period, when hopped beers became an internationally traded commodity, ale referred to un-hopped brews, beer to the foreign beverage that contained hops.
London drinkers initially resisted beer, as they preferred ale’s familiar sweet flavor to the bitter taste added by hops. The social perception of beer as a foreign import also worked to its disadvantage. Over time, taste preferences changed and beer grew in popularity, but it was the brew‟s greater marketability that allowed it to gain superiority over ale. Hops not only imparted the bitter flavor, but the resins contained within hops provided protection against bacterial infection, resulting in a more durable brew. This allowed beer to keep for months and made an international trade possible. Beer brewing also required a smaller amount of grain, and brewers could produce output in much larger quantities than ale brewers could. By the seventeenth century, these advantages caused beer to dominate London brewing, and the practice of brewing ale ultimately fell out of favor.