The Importance of Beer Brewing in the 1800s

The grandfather of self-sufficiency argues tea can’t compare to beer — it’s not as nutritious or good for you as beer, it costs more money, wastes your time, makes your daughters unmarriable and your children lazy. Follow his argument within the context of the importance of beer in the 1800s.
By William Cobbett
January 25, 2013
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“Cottage Economy” by William Cobbett is the founding bible of self-sufficiency from way back in the 1820s. Reread this old story still relevant today on the notion that once upon a time, people knew a better way of doing things that should not be forgotten. 
Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing
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First published in the 1820s, Cottage Economy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000) by William Cobbett was written with the aim of instructing country laborers in the arts of “brewing beer, making bread, keeping cows, pigs, bees, poultry and others” and promoting his personal philosophy of self-sufficiency, which he viewed as the foundation of family happiness. Written with Cobbett’s typical wit — and bulldog curmudgeonliness — it deserves its reputation as the founding bible of self-sufficiency and one of the greatest rural reads of the English language. Stay tuned as we dust off this classic and post, chapter by chapter, the entire Cottage Economy online. The following excerpt is taken from the first chapter, “Brewing Beer.”  

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Cottage Economy.

Beer Brewing: The Importance of Beer for the Common Laborer

Before I proceed to give any directions about brewing, let me mention some of the inducements to do the thing. In former times, to set about to show to Englishmen that it was good for them to brew beer in their houses would have been as impertinent as gravely to insist, that they ought to endeavour not to lose their breath; for, in those times, (only forty years ago,) to have a house and not to brew was a rare thing indeed. Mr. Ellman, an old man and a large farmer, in Sussex, has recently given in evidence, before a Committee of the House of Commons, this fact; that, forty years ago, there was not a labourer in his parish that did not brew his own beer; and that now there is not one that does it, except by chance the malt be given him. The causes of this change have been the lowering of the wages of labour, compared with the price of provisions, by the means of the paper-money; the enormous tax upon the barley when made into malt; and the increased tax upon hops. These have quite changed the customs of the English people as to their drink. They still drink beer, but, in general, it is of the brewing of common brewers, and in public-houses, of which the common brewers have become the owners, and have thus, by the aid of paper-money, obtained a monopoly in the supplying of the great body of the people with one of those things which, to the hard-working man, is almost a necessary of life.

These things will be altered. They must be altered. The nation must be sunk into nothingness, or a new system must be adopted; and the nation will not sink into nothingness. The malt now pays a tax of 4s. 6d. [equal to $1] a bushel, and the barley costs only 3s. This brings the bushel of malt to 8s. including the maltster’s charge for malting. If the tax were taken off the malt, malt would be sold, at the present price of barley, for about 3s. 3d. a bushel; because a bushel of barley makes more than a bushel of malt, and the tax, besides its amount, causes great expenses of various sorts to the maltster. The hops pay a tax of 2d. [equal to 4 cents, nearly] a pound; and a bushel of malt requires, in general, a pound of hops; if these two taxes were taken off, therefore, the consumption of barley and of hops would be exceedingly increased; for double the present quantity would be demanded, and the land is always ready to send it forth.

It appears impossible that the landlords should much longer submit to these intolerable burdens on their estates. In short, they must get off the malt tax, or lose those estates. They must do a great deal more, indeed; but that they must do at any rate. The paper-money is fast losing its destructive power; and things are, with regard to the labourers, coming back to what they were forty years ago, and therefore we may prepare for the making of beer in our own houses, and take leave of the poisonous stuff served out to us by common brewers. We may begin immediately; for, even at present prices, home-brewed beer is the cheapest drink that a family can use, except milk, and milk can be applicable only in certain cases.

The drink which has come to supply the place of beer has, in general, been tea. It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards. At any rate it communicates no strength to the body; it does not, in any degree, assist in affording what labour demands. It is, then, of no use. And, now, as to its cost, compared with that of beer. I shall make my comparison applicable to a year, or three hundred and sixty-five days. I shall suppose the tea to be only five shillings the pound; the sugar only sevenpence; the milk only twopence a quart. The prices are at the very lowest. I shall suppose a tea-pot to cost a shilling, six cups and saucers two shillings and sixpence, and six pewter spoons eighteen-pence. How to estimate the firing I hardly know; but certainly there must be in the course of the year, two hundred fires made that would not be made, were it not for tea drinking. Then comes the great article of all, the time employed in this tea-making affair. It is impossible to make a fire, boil water, make the tea, drink it, wash up the things, sweep up the fire-place, and put all to rights again, in a less space of time, upon an average, than two hours. However, let us allow one hour; and here we have a woman occupied no less than three hundred and sixty-five hours in the year, or thirty whole days, at twelve hours in the day; that is to say, one month out of the twelve in the year, besides the waste of the man’s time in hanging about waiting for the tea! Needs there any thing more to make us cease to wonder at seeing labourers’ children with dirty linen and holes in the heels of their stockings? Observe, too, that the time thus spent is, one half of it, the best time of the day. It is the top of the morning, which, in every calling of life, contains an hour worth two or three hours of the afternoon. By the time that the clattering tea tackle is out of the way, the morning is spoiled; its prime is gone; and any work that is to be done afterwards lags heavily along. If the mother have to go out to work, the tea affair must all first be over. She comes into the field, in summer time, when the sun has gone a third part of his course. She has the heat of the day to encounter, instead of having her work done and being ready to return home at any early hour. Yet early she must go, too: for, there is the fire again to be made, the clattering tea-tackle again to come forward; and even in the longest day she must have candle light, which never ought to be seen in a cottage (except in case of illness) from March to September.

Now, then, let us take the bare cost of the use of tea. I suppose a pound of tea to last twenty days; which is not nearly half an ounce every morning and evening. I allow for each mess half a pint of milk. And I allow three pounds of the red dirty sugar to each pound of tea. The account of expenditure would then stand very high; but to these must be added the amount of the tea tackle, one set of which will, upon an average, be demolished every year. To these outgoings must be added the cost of beer at the public-house; for some the man will have, after all, and the woman too, unless they be upon the point of actual starvation. Two pots a week is as little as will serve in this way; and here is a dead loss of ninepence a week, seeing that two pots of beer, full as strong, and a great deal better, can be brewed at home for threepence. The account of the year’s tea drinking will then stand thus:  

Visit the Image Gallery for a chart of Cobbett's financial breakdown of a year in tea drinking. 

I have here estimated every thing at its very lowest. The entertainment which I have here provided is as poor, as mean, as miserable as any thing short of starvation can set forth; and yet the wretched thing amounts to a good third part of a good and able labourer’s wages! For this money, he and his family may drink good and wholesome beer; in a short time, out of the mere savings from this waste, may drink it out of silver cups and tankards. In a labourer’s family, wholesome beer, that has a little life in it, is all that is wanted in general. Little children, that do not work, should not have beer. Broth, porridge, or something in that way, is the thing for them. However, I shall suppose, in order to make my comparison as little complicated as possible, that he brews nothing but beer as strong as the generality of beer to be had at the public-house, and divested of the poisonous drugs which that beer but too often contains; and I shall further suppose that he uses in his family two quarts of this beer every day from the first of October to the last day of March inclusive: three quarts a day during the months of April and May; four quarts a day during the months of June and September; and five quarts a day during the months of July and August; and if this be not enough, it must be a family of drunkards. Here are 1097 quarts, or 274 gallons. Now, a bushel of malt will make eighteen gallons of better beer than that which is sold at the public-houses. And this is precisely a gallon for the price of a quart. People should bear in mind, that the beer bought at the public-house is loaded with a beer tax, with the tax on the public-house keeper, in the shape of license, with all the taxes and expenses of the brewer, with all the taxes, rent, and other expenses of the publican, and with all the profits of both brewer and publican; so that when a man swallows a pot of beer at a public-house, he has all these expenses to help to defray, besides the mere tax on the malt and on the hops.

Well, then, to brew this ample supply of good beer for a labourer’s family, these 274 gallons, requires fifteen bushels of malt and (for let us do the thing well) fifteen pounds of hops. The malt is now eight shillings a bushel, and very good hops may be bought for less than a shilling a pound. The grains and yeast will amply pay for the labour and fuel employed in the brewing; seeing that there will be pigs to eat the grains, and bread to be baked with the yeast. The account will then stand thus:  

Visit the Image Gallery for a chart of Cobbett's financial breakdown of a year in home beer brewing. 

Here, then, is the sum of four pounds two shillings and twopence saved every year. The utensils for brewing are, a brass kettle, a mashing tub, coolers, (for which washing tubs may serve,) a half hogshead, with one end taken out, for a tun tub, about four nine-gallon casks, and a couple of eighteen-gallon casks. This is an ample supply of utensils, each of which will last, with proper care, a good long lifetime or two, and the whole of which, even if purchased new from the shop, will only exceed by a few shillings, if they exceed at all, the amount of the saving, arising the very first year, from quitting the troublesome and pernicious practice of drinking tea. The saving of each succeeding year would, if you chose it, purchase a silver mug to hold half a pint at least. However, the saving would naturally be applied to purposes more conducive to the well-being and happiness of a family.

It is not, however, the mere saving to which I look. This is, indeed, a matter of great importance, whether we look at the amount itself, or at the ultimate consequences of a judicious application of it; for four pounds make a great hole in a man’s wages for the year; and when we consider all the advantages that would arise to a family of children from having these four pounds, now so miserably wasted, laid out upon their backs, in the shape of a decent dress, it is impossible to look at this waste without feelings of sorrow not wholly unmixed with those of a harsher description.

But, I look upon the thing in a still more serious light. I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age. In the fifteen bushels of malt there are 570 pounds weight of sweet; that is to say, of nutricious matter, unmixed with any thing injurious to health. In the 730 tea messes of the year there are 54 pounds of sweet in the sugar, and about 30 pounds of matter equal to sugar in the milk. Here are 84 pounds instead of 570, and even the good effect of these 84 pounds is more than over-balanced by the corrosive, gnawing and poisonous powers of the tea.

It is impossible for any one to deny the truth of this statement. Put it to the test with a lean hog: give him the fifteen bushels of malt, and he will repay you in ten score of bacon or thereabouts. But give him the 730 tea messes, or rather begin to give them to him, and give him nothing else, and he is dead with hunger, and bequeaths you his skeleton, at the end of about seven days. It is impossible to doubt in such a case. The tea drinking has done a great deal in bringing this nation into the state of misery in which it now is; and the tea drinking, which is carried on by “dribs” and “drabs;” by pence and farthings going out at a time; this miserable practice has been gradually introduced by the growing weight of the taxes on malt and on hops, and by the everlasting penury amongst the labourers, occasioned by the paper-money.

We see better prospects however, and therefore let us now rouse ourselves, and shake from us the degrading curse, the effects of which have been much more extensive and infinitely more mischievous than men in general seem to imagine.

It must be evident to every one, that the practice of tea drinking must render the frame feeble and unfit to encounter hard labour or severe weather, while, as I have shown, it deducts from the means of replenishing the belly and covering the back. Hence succeeds a softness, an effeminacy, a seeking for the fire-side, a lurking in the bed, and, in short, all the characteristics of idleness, for which, in this case, real want of strength furnishes an apology. The tea drinking fills the public-house, makes the frequenting of it habitual, corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the tea-table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel. At the very least, it teaches them idleness. The everlasting dawdling about with the slops of the tea tackle, gives them a relish for nothing that requires strength and activity. When they go from home, they know how to do nothing that is useful. To brew, to bake, to make butter, to milk, to rear poultry; to do any earthly thing of use they are wholly unqualified. To shut poor young creatures up in manufactories is bad enough; but there, at any rate, they do something that is useful; whereas, the girl that has been brought up merely to boil the tea-kettle, and to assist in the gossip inseparable from the practice, is a mere consumer of food, a pest to her employer, and a curse to her husband, if any man be so unfortunate as to fix his affections upon her.

But is it in the power of any man, any good labourer, who has attained the age of fifty, to look back upon the last thirty years of his life, without cursing the day in which tea was introduced into England? Where is there such a man, who cannot trace to this cause a very considerable part of all the mortifications and sufferings of his life? When was he ever too late at his labour; when did he ever meet with a frown, with a turning off, and pauperism on that account, without being able to trace it to the tea-kettle? When reproached with lagging in the morning, the poor wretch tells you that he will make up for it by working during his breakfast time! I have heard this a hundred and a hundred times over. He was up time enough; but the tea-kettle kept him lolling and lounging at home; and now, instead of sitting down to a breakfast upon bread, bacon, and beer, which is to carry him on to the hour of dinner, he has to force his limbs along under the sweat of feebleness, and at dinner time to swallow his dry bread, or slake his half-feverish thirst at the pump or the brook. To the wretched tea-kettle he has to return at night, with legs hardly sufficient to maintain him; and thus he makes his miserable progress towards that death, which he finds ten or fifteen years sooner than he would have found it had he made his wife brew beer instead of making tea. If he now and then gladdens his heart with the drugs of the public house, some quarrel, some accident, some illness, is the probable consequence; to the affray abroad succeeds an affray at home; the mischievous example reaches the children, corrupts them or scatters them, and misery for life is the consequence.

I should now proceed to the details of brewing; but these, though they will not occupy a large space, must be put off to the second number. The custom of brewing at home has so long ceased amongst labourers, and, in many cases, amongst tradesmen, that it was necessary for me fully to state my reasons for wishing to see the custom revived. I shall, in my next, clearly explain how the operation is performed; and it will be found to be so easy a thing, that I am not without hope, that many tradesmen, who now spend their evenings at the public house, amidst tobacco smoke and empty noise, may be induced, by the finding of better drink at home, at a quarter part of the price, to perceive that home is by far the pleasantest place wherein to pass their hours of relaxation.

My work is intended chiefly for the benefit of cottagers, who must, of course, have some land; for, I purpose to show, that a large part of the food of even a large family may be raised, without any diminution of the labourer’s earnings abroad, from forty rod, or a quarter of an acre, of ground; but at the same time, what I have to say will be applicable to larger establishments, in all the branches of domestic economy: and especially to that of providing a family with beer.

The kind of beer, for a labourer’s family, that is to say, the degree of strength, must depend on circumstances; on the numerousness of the family; on the season of the year, and various other things. But, generally speaking, beer half the strength of that mentioned will be quite strong enough; for that is, at least, one-third stronger than the farm-house “small beer,” which, however, as long experience has proved, is best suited to the purpose. A judicious labourer would probably always have some ale in his house, and have small beer for the general drink. There is no reason why he should not keep Christmas as well as the farmer; and when he is mowingreaping, or is at any other hard work, a quart, or three pints, of really good fat ale a-day is by no means too much. However, circumstances vary so much with different labourers, that as to the sort of beer, and the number of brewings, and the times of brewing, no general rule can be laid down.

Before I proceed to explain the uses of the several brewing utensils, I must speak of the quality of the materials of which beer is made; that is to say, the malthops, and water. Malt varies very much in quality, as, indeed, it must, with the quality of the barley. When good, it is full of flour, and in biting a grain asunder, you find it bite easily, and see the shell thin and filled up well with flour. If it bite hard and steely, the malt is bad. There is pale malt and brown malt; but the difference in the two arises merely from the different degrees of heat employed in the drying. The main thing to attend to is, the quantity of flour. If the barley was bad; thin, or steely, whether from unripeness or blight, or any other cause, it will not malt so well; that is to say, it will not send out its roots in due time; and a part of it will still be barley. Then, the world is wicked enough to think, and even to say, that there are maltsters who, when they send you a bushel of malt, put a little barley amongst it, the malt being taxed and the barley not! Let us hope that this is seldom the case; yet, when we do know that this terrible system of taxation induces the beer-selling gentry to supply their customers with stuff little better than poison, it is not very uncharitable to suppose it possible for some maltsters to yield to the temptations of the devil so far as to play the trick above mentioned. To detect this trick, and to discover what portion of the barley is in an unmalted state, take a handful of the unground malt, and put it into a bowl of cold water. Mix it about with the water a little; that is, let every grain be just wet all over; and whatever part of them sink are not good. If you have your malt ground, there is not, as I know of, any means of detection. Therefore, if your brewing be considerable in amount, grind your own malt, the means of doing which is very easy, and neither expensive nor troublesome, as will appear, when I come to speak of flour. If the barley be well malted, there is still a variety in the quality of the malt; that is to say, a bushel of malt from fine, plump, heavy barley, will be better than the same quantity from thin and light barley. In this case, as in the case of wheat, the weight is the criterion of the quality. Only bear in mind, that as a bushel of wheat, weighing sixty-two pounds, is better worth six shillings, than a bushel weighing fifty-two is worth four shillings, so a bushel of malt weighing forty-five pounds is better worth nine shillings, than a bushel weighing thirty-five is worth six shillings. In malt, therefore, as in every thing else, the word cheap is a deception, unless the quality be taken into view. But, bear in mind, that in the case of unmalted barley, mixed with the malt, the weight can be no rule; for barley is heavier than malt.

Read more: We're resurrecting instructions for brewing small beer, ale and porter in Brewing Beer at Home in the 1800s.


This excerpt has been reprinted from the public domain. Buy this book from our store: Cottage Economy.


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