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How beer came to medieval England

Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in the United Kingdom. It might be a surprise to some readers to know that this beverage was only introduced to England in the latter half of the fourteenth century, and that it arrived thanks to Dutch immigrants.

The story of beer in medieval England is told by Milan Pajic in his recent article “‘Ale for an Englishman is a natural drink’: the Dutch and the origins of beer brewing in late medieval England.” Pajic was able to find new evidence to show that beer was being drunk in southeastern England as early as the 1350s, decades earlier than previous research has suggested.

Ale was the most popular drink in England throughout the Middle Ages, having been brewed for centuries and consumed regularly by adults and children. Until near the end of the medieval period, the brewing of ale was a widespread activity, often done by women. Meanwhile beer was brewed in northern and eastern continental Europe, and during the fourteenth century was becoming widespread in the Low Countries.

Pajic explains that beer was introduced to England by Dutch immigrants. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would see more and more people coming across the English Channel to settle in London and other towns, especially in the southeastern part of the country.  The England’s Immigrants Database records that were over 64,000 immigrants living in England between 1330 and 1550, with the Low Countries being one of the main areas that they were coming from.

When these Dutch immigrants came to England, their thirst for beer did not subside, and they were soon importing barrels of the beverage for themselves and to sell to others in the immigrant community. Pajic was able to find scattered references to beer by the 1350s, spotting them in various civic and court records. For example, in 1358, Margaret fan Outraght claimed in a lawsuit that she left six barrels of beer left at the house of Mace fan Rotterdame in Great Yarmouth, but they had gone missing.

There were also records of shipments of beer coming from the Low Countries arriving in ports such as London, Great Yarmouth and Hull. During the latter half of the fourteenth century the amount of beer being imported into England was growing rapidly. Pajic was able to find a consignment of 432 barrels of beer went to Newcastle from Arnemuiden in the year 1380.

He also notes that by the last quarter of the fourteenth century even native-born English people could be found selling beer. One of the reasons for the growing taste for beer in England was that English soldiers fighting in the Hundred Years’ War had experienced the drink while on the continent, and were eager to have more of it.

Until near the end of the fourteenth century we know that people were drinking beer in England, but that all of this beverage was being exported from the Low Countries. The Dutch, in fact, were becoming major suppliers of beer in Europe, with hundreds of breweries exporting their products. However, Pajic explains that a new change was occurring:

The first evidence of someone brewing beer comes from 1398–9. Peter Woutersone, Ducheman, was fined for buying ‘wheat in the market in order to produce beer, to the great damage of the same market’. The very wording of the fine suggests that the authorities were not keen on allowing beer to be brewed. This is the earliest official evidence found so far of beer production in England, that is, slightly earlier than the previous studies have suggested.

We can soon see more evidence of Dutch men and women coming to England to work as beer brewers – for example, sets of local records from the fifteenth century show that you could find six beer brewers in Great Yarmouth and 12 in Colchester. In the country’s capital, several beer brewers were admitted into the city’s brewers guild. Overall England’s Immigrants Database finds that there were 117 individuals whose occupation was stated as beer brewer who came to England between 1350 and 1490, most of them from the Low Countries. Pajic notes that this number rises to 333 if we also include people who most likely were brewers based on their last name. Pavic believes that many of the brewers decided to come to England because they saw opportunities to serve the local market and bypass the overseas trade.

A sixteenth century brewery depicted by Jost Amman

What can be seen in the fifteenth century is a steady increase in the number of beer brewers, and presumably a growing market for their beverages throughout England. However, there were moments when the English people did not appreciate the Dutch and their beer. For example, in 1436 there was deep suspicions of Dutch residents in London because of actions on the continent during the Hundred Years’ War – this would manifest into accusations that beer was being poisoned and led to attacks on several breweries.

Despite incidents like this, the popularity of this drink continued its rise. Pajic writes:

The diffusion of beer brewing in England and its rise in popularity was a relatively slow process. It took almost a century from the moment it was introduced as an imported commodity and consumed largely by immigrants, before it came to be produced on English soil and accepted by the natives. By the sixteenth century, beer had become an even more popular drink than ale and numerous Englishmen were engaged in its production.

Even today, beer remains the top alcoholic drink in Britain. One might want to raise a toast to those Dutch immigrants who first brought the drink across the English Channel.

Milan Pajic’s article “‘Ale for an Englishman is a natural drink’: the Dutch and the origins of beer brewing in late medieval England,” appears in the Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 45:3 (2019). You can access the article through Taylor and Francis Online. Milan Pajic is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, where he works on immigrants and tradesmen in medieval England. You can follow him on Academia.edu.

Top Image: Pixabay / Wikimedia Commons

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