Well, I’ve finally finished studying Peter Mathias’ masterpiece of brewing history, The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830. It is regrettable in the extreme that this book is both out of print, and as difficult to obtain as it seems to be. (I was lucky, as I’ve mentioned in the past, to get help from a friend in Germany who aided me in dealing with online bookseller there; apparently the demand of Mathias’ book in Deutschland is less than in the English-speaking world, and I got it for a relative song.) I’ve mentioned the book in many a recent post, so I’m just going to say what it is, and what it is not, for those seeking a quick-capsule review of the text. The book is not a collection of fun and amusing anecdotes about the history of brewing. There are surely books that offer this–I haven’t gotten my hands on any as yet, but they are out there–but Mathias does not. He has interesting anecdotes, of course, but they are more mentioned in passing, than as the centerpiece of his world. Mathias was an historian–an academic historian–and specifically an historian of the English industrial revolution.
No, what concerns Peter Mathias is the process by which England’s brewing industry went from being dominated by between small “common brewers,” with only a few larger breweries here and there, to being dominated by large breweries operating on a massive, industrial scale. He’s interested in how this links to changes in agriculture, in shipping and transport, to specific changes in brewers’ practice (especially, of course, the adoption of porter, which opened the way to industrialized, large-scale brewing), to changes in laws and law enforcement, changes in bookkeeping, and more.
Basically, Mathias has a thesis, and a pretty compelling one, which is that brewers formed the vanguard of the industrial revolution; that once porter appeared on the scene, it became possible to industrialize beer, because of all the industries, the making of beer was the easiest of businesses to scale up to mass production. (This is obviously because the majority of labor done in brewing was unpaid: the work of horses, who had only to be bought and fed and worked to death, and yeast, which multiplied itself into a massive laboring population automatically. Laborers were needed in brewing, but not in a direct relation to the degree of scaling-up attained: it wasn’t like weaving or manufacturing.)
Some will find this book dry, and understandably so; but for an academic history, with footnotes and charts and so on, it is remarkably readable. Sure, the sort of homebrewer who skips the history sections in Brewer’s Publications books is pretty unlikely to derive much pleasure from it, but I think for those who want to know how brewing became a big business–or are interested in entering the brewing business–the Mathias book makes very interesting reading. Not essential, perhaps, but very interesting… and, it seems, especially in the history of the junior Thrale–who nearly killed the Anchor Brewery before it passed to the hands of the renowned Barclay and Perkins–there are more than a few cautionary lessons in it.
I should admit, also, that I came to the book with an agenda: I was researching brewing in the 1720-30s, and found that the book was slightly less than ideal despite this being within the historical range it covers. Mathias’ title isn’t misleading, exactly, it’s just that there scarcity of extant records in the early 1700s requires him to generalize a bit, or at times to just admit that certain aspects of brewing in that time seem to be mysterious. Some parts of the book do deal with the period, as well as the time leading up to it, but a lot of the book deals more with the 1750s-1830s. That’s not his fault: it’s a combination of the availability of records, plus the fact that this is the period when the most interesting things were in fact happening.
That said, I still think the book was an essential resource for me, and I will continue to refer to it anytime I am writing about historical brewing practices in England during the period. It’s a shame this book is out of print… if you’re a beer history buff, though, and especially if you’re interested in the evolution of English brewing I’d say it’s a must-have item, sort of the academic-history equivalent of Rob Pattison’s wonderful blog on English beer history, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.