Books For Malt-Worms

Today, a light post, but still relevant to beer and brewing in the early 1700s, following my recent post on “Books of Secrets.”

Like all industries, beer and brewing are connected to both the industries that produce their raw materials, and spawn other industries as well. One of the more interesting industries that has been spawned by the beer business is the “beer book” business. Most homebrewers think of “beer books” as books on homebrewing–either style guides and recipes or technical manuals. Some beer history buffs will also think of books on beer history, of which a few great ones exist out there.

The former has been around for ages: indeed, the Hymn to Ninkasi (supposedly the oldest surviving written text in the world) is in part a beer recipe. The latter, to me, seems a bit newer, which is why beer historians have so much excavating to do these days for periods like the early 1700s, when people didn’t write so much beer history, because beer just sort of was a ubiquitous foodstuff that had always been around.

But what I’m thinking about is Beer Guides: books like LambicLand: A Journey Round the Most Unusual Beers in the World by Tim Webb, Siobhan McGinn, and Chris Pollard, or The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA: Brewpubs, Taverns, and Good Beer Bars by Stan Hieronymous and Daria Labinsky. I mean, the kind of book that tells you where to go to get what kind of beer, and what to expect when you get there.

In the early 1700s, of course, there were absolutely such beer guides, but they were a rather different beast from what we expect today. Two famous ones were titled A Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms, or, A Guide To Good Fellows (1716?) and A Guide for Malt-Worms (1720?). These were anonymous guides to the public houses of various areas of London, specifically what kinds of beers they served, and what kind of people frequented them.

Malt-Worms was a slang term for beer-drinkers, apparently originating in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. I suppose the modern (American?) equivalent would be “hop-heads,” or “craft beer geeks”? I’m not sure what the slang in other places would be.

Anyway, these books aren’t much like what you’d expect today: they were illustrated, for one thing–at least, the later reprint from the 1860s was, with images that suited each poem at the top of the page–and they were written in rhyming verse!

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 9.55.47 PM

As with many books from that time, it starts with a Dedication, this one aimed at brewers. The poem is quite amusing, too: basically, the author argues that brewers ought to take a few minutes away from their logs and record-books (in which they record all their endless profits) to read about where their profits, you know, actually come from.

But the salutations and honorable terms of address he1 uses are sometimes hilarious: “Sure men of BUNG-HOLES and of GRAINS” he calls brewers, and “Doughty sons of HOPS and MALT.” Sure, there are probably layers of funniness that have accreted in the intervening centuries–one sees jokes about bung-holes on homebrewing chat boards more than occasionally, these days–but even so, I think the author was going for a kind of bombastic comedy even then.

Here’s the whole dedication:


Then comes some material on different kinds of “sots” (drunks), described in terms taken from the language of heraldry. That is, using the language traditionally used to describe the positions and actions of animals in heraldric arms. (“A Lion Rampant” for example.) The author covers the Sot Rampant (a rowdy, bellicose drunk), the Sot Couchant (sitting, hammered but not passing out), the Sot Dormant (passed out drunk), and the Sot Saliant (the leaping drunk, who… well, I’m not sure of his point with that fella, but he seems to be a quick and hurried drinker).

Note the curved braces, which seem to be there to specify when the author has gone from rhyming couplets, to rhyming tercets. Presumably this was to aid in reading aloud, which a lot of people did in those days. (I imagine most of this books original “readers” were actually “listeners.”)

Then the guide proper begins, starting–notably–with a public house named Justice, in The Mint… probably not coincidentally, since The Mint was in Southwark and very near the Southwark Borough High Street, which is to say, very near Hops Central in London, as I’ve mentioned before.

(It’s also the part of London where debtors could hide beyond the long arm of the law, and is the setting for the first few chapters of William Harrison Ainsworth’s  historical novel about the notorious highwayman and “gaol-breaker,” eponymously titled Jack Sheppard. Not just in the Ainsley (who anyway based his descriptions of early Georgian London on other texts), but also in other accounts I’ve read, The Mint was actually a somewhat rough area of London. Whoever wrote this book the book therefore seems not particularly concerned with the linkage in some minds between alehouses and crime… or maybe the proximity to the city’s hop market just outweighed any such concern?)

The poem on The Justice Public House in the Mint is fun, but it’s the Other Houses of Note bit at the bottom of the page where the real amusement kicks in:

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 8.52.05 PM“A Bit of Old Hat” is so perfect a descriptor for many a pub I’ve visited…. but “a Parrot that swears as fast as a Dragoon”? I must confess, I wish that we had an alehouse in my neighborhood with one of those!

(I’m also amused by the presence of a “Magpye” Alehouse at the foot of a bridge–presumably London bridge? I half-recall that The Mint was in Southwark–for reasons anyone in the beer scene in Korea will appreciate.)

Here’s another page, from a little later in the book, on the pubs of Cheapside:


There’s a part two (I think by the same anonymous author), that was published a few years later. When it was republished in the 1860s, they were bound as a single book. (A book I’d love to get someday, in the 1866 edition, though it’s not cheap!)  The whole tour of London beer houses ends, amusingly, with a stop in a gin shop.

The value of this book goes beyond amusement, of course: it was published before the “explosion” of porter, and as beer historians note, it mentions over thirty types of beer available in London, giving us an idea of what was popular, as well as what kinds of mixtures of beer were popular, and a glimpse of some of the personages in London beer at the time. But it’s also pretty fun to read, and… well, it makes me wonder whether anyone’s tried to resurrect the guidebook-in-doggerel subgenre. Of course it wouldn’t work as a guidebook, not today, but as a medium for poetry, it could be an interesting experiment.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can download the whole thing over at the Internet Archive. You’ll want the PDF, as the other formats I’ve tried were unreliable when it comes to formatting and presentation. (The line breaks were linked in the poems, which made it a chore to read them, instead of the delight it should be.)

1. I’m assuming the author is a man, though it might not be the case… though it seems likely for a few reasons. If anyone’s curious, I can add more in the comments, or a new post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *