When you’re writing an historical novel it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by the many fascinating tidbits of information you unearth during the research stage. Well, I say ‘research stage’, but, in fact, for me that stage runs alongside the writing and editing stages too, as I check and double check on historical details.
I can’t remember when I came across this little trifle about the supposed invention of bottled beer. I suspect it was when I was looking for information about Cheapside, which features at the end of ‘Witness’ and is where I begin my sequel, ‘An Act of Treason’.
I was interested in what a late 16th century St Paul’s would have looked like, and stumbled across the name of Alexander Nowell, who held the deanery of St Paul’s for much of Elizabeth I’s reign.
The bishops of London had a country house in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, which gave them rights to fishing in the River Ash and Nowell, an ardent angler, indulged regularly in his favourite pastime there.
One very hot day. Nowell is reputed to have taken a bottle filled with beer and stoppered with a cork to the riverbank. To keep it cool he tied a string around it and lowered it into the river and then forgot all about it. No-one knows why. Perhaps he caught an exceptionally large fish which distracted him, but whatever happened the result was that this beer, presumably home brewed, was left on the riverbank. Nowell returned a week later to fish in the same spot, came across the string and remembered his bottle of beer. Pulling it out he took a drink, and was pleasantly surprised to find the beer much changed and even improved, describing the sound of the cork coming out as that of a gun.
The changes he noticed would probably have been it turning fizzy, as Elizabethan ale was generally fairly flat. Secondary fermentation in the bottle probably caused a build-up of carbon dioxide, which would account for the loud pop when Nowell pulled the cork out.
The whole incident is reputed to be the accidental discovery of the benefits of bottled beer, though it is likely that brewers were experimenting with storing beer in glass bottles in the latter half of the 16th century. It’s lucky that Nowell came across his string within such a short time though, as the yeast in the beer would continue to ferment, causing the bottle to eventually explode.
Finding this snippet of information sent me on one of my many distracting research sessions. I liked the idea of the dean of St Paul’s inventing bottled beer and wanted to include it somewhere in the book. I decided to have my actors presented with a crate of bottled beer, but was not sure would have been possible. What would it have been bottled in? Part of the problem was that the hand-blown glass bottles of the time would not have been able take the pressure of all that fizz.
In 1615, the English poet Gervase Markham wrote ‘The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman’. In this he advised housewife brewers that when bottling ale they “should put it into round bottles with narrow mouths, and then, stopping them close with corks, set them in a cold cellar up to the waist in sand, and be sure that the corks be fast tied with strong pack thread, for fear of rising out and taking vent, which is the utter spoil of the ale.”
So would my crate of bottled beer need to be a box of sand, and would the bottles be blown glass or stoneware?
You’ll have to read ‘An Act of Treason’ to find out whether I decided to include bottled beer or whether this was one of those details which fell by the wayside!