Old British Beers

At my first Queensland Amateur Brewing Competition (QABC), I volunteered as a steward. Upon arrival I was asked to judge, which scared the hell out of me (and still does). Fortunately I was paired with a very forgiving judge who mentored me for the day. I set out to shut up and learn something, a plan I got half-right. More importantly though, on that day I fell in love with English beers. Later I found a book of old English beer recipes. I bought it expecting to be brewing what I’d tasted. It was nothing like it. What you get from a centuries old recipe is not what you’d expect from a modern beer. The evolution of British beers over the last 300 years has been a roller coaster, expanding exponentially thanks to specialty malts, studies into enzymatic activity and yeast, and then copping it in the shorts due to modernization and war.

A Little History

british beers in casks

many beers are still served in casks, at a low volume of CO2 rather than kegs.

Around 300 years ago different styles sprung up according to requirements (March/October beers) or even passing fads (Tonic Ales, typical marketing – with no Food and Drug Administration you could say “Hops make you healthy”, so they said just that). Starting around 1850 there was a reduction in beer varieties. The introduction of refrigeration meant that there was no longer a requirement for ‘Keeping” beers. Anything that had been brewed fortified enough to last the Summer could now be replaced with beers that would be kept fresh in cold storage. The excises levied in 1914 to fund the war effort didn’t miss the brewing industry either, as alcohol by volume became a coffer-filler for the government, and many beers over four or five percent were dropped as they were no longer viable.

As commercial breweries got larger in the 20th century a lot of smaller breweries were bought up. This meant that the continuation of a brand or style was now a decision for the boardroom rather than the brewery. Fortunately nowadays we’re seeing a reversal of this as craft breweries gain popularity and private brewers like ourselves experiment. So, when looking at old recipes, you’re pretty much best off going pre-1850.


british beers - esb in glass

ESB photo by Mscg4u

Ingredients were simple enough to decide on back then. Grain choices were limited so for the most part; Pale and Maris Otter will suffice when recreating. Wheat and sugar were also used from time to time. While there were some hop varieties around centuries ago that have disappeared since, Fuggles and East Kent Goldings seem to be the historical favorites. There’s not a lot of available info on the yeast selection for historical beers, as most available recipes pre-date the period when when Louis Pasteur did his thing and got everyone excited about fungus, so your preferred English Ale yeast will like suffice here.

Water chemistry wasn’t something given much thought back then, and you worked with what you had. As a result, it dictated which beers were more successfully brewed in the North (pale ales) versus the South (a good London porter). For pale ales, export ales, strong ales and barley wines you can go up to 1,000 ppm in ion content. How you get there is up to your preferred spreadsheet, website, hallucination etc, but in general, go higher in calcium and sulfate and drop the sodium and chloride. For dark beers like mild ales, brown ales, stouts and porters, drop the total content down to around 350 ppm and go the opposite way with the mix, that being more sodium than calcium and more chloride than sulfate. If you still miss your pH target there’s also the occasional dash of magnesium (just a dash, mind – there’s a fine line between beer and laxative).

Brewing Process

Next comes the mash. Parti-gyle brewing was popular in Britain. It was seen as an economical way to extract the most from the grains available at the time. For those unfamiliar with the term it’s simply getting multiple batches out of the same grain bill. In England up until the mid-1800s when strong ales were brewed for keeping it was eventually deduced that the leftover grains still had some use after the mash, so a very strong beer was made in the traditional method, then water was added to the grains again and another mash was produced. Obviously since most of the sugars had left the grist in the first runnings it was a much lower gravity wort produced the second time around. The beer produced, having a significantly lower octane rating than the norm for the times, was known as a ‘small’ beer.  The first batch of strong beer was put aside to mature, often for a year or more, and the small beer was consumed fresh either on its own or blended with a strong beer from a previous brewing season. This meant you could adjust your alcohol percentage to suit whatever gave your particular market’s nether regions a tingle.

Often modern parti-gyle brewing involves only drawing off a portion of the wort and topping up. There are theories, formulas, and tables available if you want to go look for them. I find the modern method problematic, mostly because I’m not particularly intelligent. Finding something to hold one wort in my abomination of a shed while I brew another and not confusing the two would mess me up, and knowing my luck I’d knock the bloody things over.

The method used centuries ago is a little more fluid and straightforward. Complete your first mash, recirculate, sparge, lauter, whatever the hell takes your fancy, just get it into the kettle. Then, while you’re boiling, throw some more water into your mash tun and start again. If you’re using a strike water calculator remember your grains will be a lot hotter than ambient. Parti-gyle brewing has its advantages. One is that you get more bang for your buck. Additionally, you don’t need to make the second running into just a kid brother of the first. You can throw some specialty grains into the second batch or spice it up with a different hop addition.

For the 2013 Queensland Homebrewing Conference, I brewed a fairly strong English bitter from a recipe dating back to the late 1800’s. The OG was 1.078. I changed the hop bill for the second runnings from Fuggles to Pride of Ringwood, tossed in a handful of dry malt extract at the end of the boil and came up with a very pleasant ‘lawn mower beer’ for home, which suited me fine because the boss had coughed up the cash for the grain bill.

Making old English beers is an interesting way of getting a historical feel for brewing, and it can be fun.

old british 1

Things to Keep in Mind

• Unless you were around 300 years ago, grab a recipe book. Then choose a beer with the ‘Wow!’ factor. I did an amber small beer and it was lovely. But for the time I spent at the kettle I think I got more time-value out of the stronger beers.

• Be forgiving. You’re making an old beer. It’s not going to stand up to the complexity of a beer that’s had another two hundred years of malt and hop development. Model T’s don’t outrun Mustangs (unless I’ve worked on the Mustang).

• If you decide to parti-gyle, don’t expect to get a good small beer out of the second runnings unless you’re planning something nice and beefed up for the first. Aim for 1.070 OG and higher for the first runnings.

• Start small on the ethereal ingredients. You can do a perfect 5 gallon batch of, say, a Welsh ale from the 1300’s, but there’s no guarantee it will be to your taste. Firstly there are no hops and it’s spiced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and white pepper. The taste is reminiscent of the first time you split your lip. Who wants 5 gallons of that? Go to your home brew store, grab a demijohn, bored bung and airlock and you have a 1 gallon fermenter right there.

Initially I found myself comparing the beer to bitter ales that I’ve made myself recently. I didn’t think the choice of hop was enough to give a pronounced bitterness, but I had to keep dragging myself back to the fact that this was all they had at the time, and I was trying a historic beer rather than the result of hybrid hops and American IIPA brewing insanity, for which we’re all grateful.  Plus it’s satisfying to make something that dates back centuries and share with your friends.

Good luck!


12 Responses to “Old British Beers”

  1. JKaranka on

    I’d disagree a bit and say that beer post-1850 and pre-1940 is very exciting! Specially around 1880-1900 there is a plethora of styles and ingredients and the post-war tax hikes hadn’t hit yet. Plus the recipes and beers are well documented through record keeping. You can find a whole lot of strong milds with different formulations and ranging from OG of 1.040 to 1.150. Stock ales (K ales) and stock beers (keeping stout) are still kicking around with their Brett derived excitement. Plus the malts from the end of the 1800s haven’t vastly changed (arguably Amber malt has changed more than Brown malt), most malts had been introduced (e.g., Crystal malt shows up when… 1870s or so?). There extensive use of brewing sugars from the 1880s as well, bringing a good range of different flavours. Dry hopping is common to all beers from milds to pale ales and porters. And all those 1800s beers are bitter as hell, which is great.

    When nowadays people look back and think that IPA or porter were strong… how wrong they are! Absolutely average strength beers for the time… just like ordering a Carling down the local…

  2. CarlosTheGerbil on

    This was a great read, thanks. I too am passionate about the historic beers of the land of my birth, so I bought the following book:

    The Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer: Rediscovered Recipes for Classic Brews Dating from 1800 to 1965 by Ron Patterson.

    It’s an excellent resource for those looking to make historic British ales with modern ingredients.

    Hope that helps.

    • Dean Tummers on

      It does, Carlos. Thanks heaps. I’ll be on the lookout for it.
      From there, I just need to learn to read…

    • Jim on

      Yup, the wife got me that one for a present – I also have the Old British Beers book by Durden Park Circle – got some great recipes if you’re willing to invest the time (which I do)!

  3. Tactical-Brewer on

    Awesome Article! Great Lay-man’s terms reading, just the way I like it!

    I had wondered what parti-gyle brewing was when I’d the word spread around here and also watched a video about a home brewer getting two 5 gallon batches off the same grain bill and almost asked if anyone had done this haha, glad I read your article and saved myself the embarrassment of looking like a complete rookie! Thumbs up dude!

  4. EricSanJuan on

    Really enjoyed this one. I’m a big, big fan of exploring historic beer styles. Also of embracing the seeming simplicity of yesteryear’s beers, something many new to the craft scene are often unwilling to do.

    And the funny, conversational style of writing certainly helped! Cheers!


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