The Importance of Beer in British Society

The importance of beer in British society evokes more history than may be imagined by the casual observer. True, the Public House or ‘pub’ has for generations been an important gathering place and focal point of British communities great and small, and beer was for years the staple product of the pub, but what accounted for the rise in popularity of beer was not a sudden change in the British taste, but manipulation of the British working classes by both government and industry.

When at the end of the seventeenth century, the French government took action to curb brandy consumption in France, manufacturers started to export the spirit to England. Until then distilling was a relatively unknown science to the British, but it did not take long, after the new (Dutch) king William III feuded with France and banned imports (1688), for the British to experiment with the distillation of grain and aniseed (then preferred to Juniper) and begin to produce their own gin.

In 1690, a law passed by the British government removed strictures on distillers, putting them in a privileged and less regulated position than brewers and resulting in an influx of cheap available gin to the British working classes. Gin was consumed by all, men, women and children, and in no small measure. Working life was no picnic, and by the 1730s, gin consumption was regarded as an escape mechanism available to the masses, but which brought with it its own problems. Georgian medical writers of the 18th Century were wise to the effect of excessive alcohol consumption as a trigger for madness, even though they do not seem to have grasped its addictive properties.

Employers, it would seem, were not so reticent. Seeing the effect that gin consumption was having on workers, they lobbied government hard, and by the early 1800s, licensing and taxation had ensured that gin evolved as the more expensive (and now juniper-based) upmarket drink, while beer once more became the drink of the working classes. Not only this, but the beer of the farm labourer of the 1700s which had weighed in at a hefty 10 percent alcohol content by volume, was now replaced by a weaker brew, of between five and six percent on average.

For the next hundred and fifty years, British breweries continued to thrive, quenching the thirsts of generations of Britons. In the past fifty years, Britain has seen a large growth in the market for lager beers from Europe, Australia and the United States and the so-called speciality beers from India, Mexico and Japan to the detriment of some of the smaller British breweries which have been forced into mergers and takeovers.

Nonetheless, beer remains stubbornly at the forefront of Britain’s alcohol sales particularly among men, and until global warming becomes such that British territory is reliably warm enough for the regular production of wine grapes, there is little indication that change is on the way.

Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason Warner, Jessica Random House Trade Paperbacks (2003)

“The Drinking Man’s Disease: The Pre-History of Alcoholism in Georgian Britain” Porter, Roy Addiction’ Volume 80 Issue 4 Page 385-396, December 1985

Warner, Jessica. “The Naturalization of Beer and Gin in Early Modern England.” Contemporary Drug Problems 24 (Summer 1997), 373-402.

Muldrew, Craig The Diet of the Labouring Poor in England 1550-1750′
Presented at the Economic History Society’s annual conference at the University of Leicester, 8th April, 2005.