An unusual use for ale

George Ewart Evans (1909-1988), British folklorist and oral history pioneer, has left a rich legacy of insight and information concerning rural life in England before the mechanisation of farming. His books and recordings are chock-full of golden nuggets, anecdotes and rustic remarks from ways of life that are increasingly beyond living memory.

Most of his work concerns East Anglia, but other parts of the country enter the narrative now and again. For example, in his great book Ask the fellows who cut the hay (Faber & Faber, 1956), he notes in passing an unusual custom which was apparently practised at a Southwark brewery, on the site of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre:

“…in the old days the customers, it is reported, poured some beer on to their chairs and sat on it in their leather-breeches. If a customer stuck to the chair he knew that the beer was of good quality.”

Ask the fellows who cut the hay (F&F 2018 paperback edition), p.65

For my part, I’m not tempted to try this at home, where the upholstering of my chair and the permeability of my breeches would undermine the whole process.

The story is comical enough that I’d like to believe that it really happened, but some practical questions remain to be answered. How long would a customer wait for the stickiness to take effect? Was a clean chair (or pair of breeches) required each time? Was the all-important stickiness provided by the ethanol from fermented malt-derived sugars, or were other sticky ingredients central to the desirability of a beer (or was it a measure of how watered-down the brew might be)?

And, besides all that, were Londoners really prepared to pour beer away in this fashion?

Whether or no, the context in which Evans relates this curiosity is fascinating in itself: in late 19th/early 20th century rural Suffolk, he writes, home-brewed beer not only quenched thirst but also washed hair, cured meat and (deliberately) stained furniture. The aroma of those villages must have been pretty malty at times, and maybe that was one of the better smells available, as they raised a glass and a gloss to John Barleycorn.

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