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A Brief Word About Historical Terminology

Just read a wonderful piece over at the excellent beer history blog Zythophile on the historical changes undergone by the terms “ale” and “beer”:

I used to think that their merger into synonymity was pretty much complete in Georgian England at the latest, agreeing with the historian WH Chaloner, who wrote in 1960, reviewing Peter Mathias’s great book The brewing industry in England, 1700-1830: “By the end of the seventeenth century the terms ‘ale’ (originally a sweetish, unhopped malt liquor) and the newer ‘beer’ (a bitter, hopped malt liquor) had come to describe more or less identical products following the victory of the latter drink.” But as I read more and more, I slowly realised that this was untrue: that in English, “ale” and “beer” maintained differences through until the 20th century that were, ultimately, from their origins as unhopped and hopped drinks respectively (and nothing to do with the modern American habit of referring to all “top-fermented” beers as “ales”, regardless of their histories and origins).

This is fascinating in terms of beer history and beer geekery: it’s also extremely unfortunate in terms of the novel I’m working on, which involves brewers in London (and abroad) during the Gin Craze.

Basically, at the time when my story is set, ale is unhopped (or less hopped) and sweet; beer was less sweet and more heavily hopped, by the standards of the day. Of course, the terms are in transition: pale ale was just around the corner, and porter was new. A fascinating time for a story to be set in, as my recent post on the economic and social context of beer industrialization in London suggests.

However, it leaves me with a bit of a dilemma: using the terms as we know them now seems lazy and cheap, but using them as they were used at the time is difficult since I don’t want to have to lecture readers on the differences, and their perceptions are likely to follow the terminology that Michael Jackson popularized–that all top-fermented beers are ales, and that ale is a subclass of beer. Millions of people use the word this way, but none of them lived in London in the 1730s.

To some degree, the easiest answer is to dance around the subject a little, and I can probably do so pretty effectively in parts of the book. But I feel it’s most likely I will use the historically accurate terminology, but (assuming the book achieves any kind of readership) I would prefer to so without attracting a crowd of American homebrewers showing up on my blog to explain that “Ales are a subclass of beer, stupid!” Which certainly contradicts a lot of what actually was going on in the 1730s, like for example the preference of drinkers to have mixtures of ale and beer. Back to Zythophile’s post:

“Obadiah Poundage”, the aged brewery worker who wrote a letter to the London Chronicle in 1760 about the tax on “malt liquors” (the general term used for ale and beer as a class in the 18th century), is usually mined for the light he threw on the history of porter, but he is also very revealing on the continuing difference between ale and beer. In Queen Anne’s reign, about 1710, Poundage said, the increase in taxes on malt (caused by the expense of the War of the Spanish Succession) caused brewers to look to make a drink with less malt and more hops: “Thus the drinking of beer became encouraged in preference to ale … but the people not easily weaned from their heavy sweet drink, in general drank ale mixed with beer.”

That’s going to change a lot about how beer is served and talked about in this book, it seems…

It makes me wonder if I will need to include some little note in the front of the book on my usage of beer terminology, the way authors of books set in (or about) places like China or Korea often have a little obligatory note about how the bizarre romanizations of those languages are to be pronounced…

Now, some of what I want to read now is available easily online, like this:

Daniel Defoe, writing in his Tour through the Eastern Counties of England, published in 1722, about the great hop fair at Stourbridge, just outside Cambridge, on the banks of the Cam…

Great! Hop! Fair! That so needs to go into the book!(Somehow.)

But mostly this discussion reinforces my sense that I really, really need to get my hands on Peter Mathias’s The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830. For example, I don’t know the demographics of ale vs. beer producers, but it seems pertinent to the story. Also, just knowing more about the trade i London in the 1730s would be so helpful. Sigh. If only there were an ebook version, or, at least, if only second hand copies were less expensive and rare than they are. Ah well…

Incidentally, it’s a sad coincidence that Philip Seymour Hoffman has just passed: I was just thinking he’s the actor I’d choose to play my brewer/alchemist protagonist, if he could do a proper Georgian London accent that is. A great loss to cinema and film lovers, I think, because he played characters who looked and felt much more like us regular middle class white schlub guys than anyone else in Hollywood. (There’s plenty of cinema made for middle class white schlubs, but very little that holds up a really clear, honest mirror for us to see ourselves in, warts and weakness and all, the way Hoffman often did in his best roles.)

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