The Normality of Beer: Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay


At the European beer Bloggers’ Conference this past weekend there was a lot of talk about moving on from discussing the ingredients and statistics of beer and concentrating on the people. Beer is a social drink. It needs to be tasty, and that’s all; what matters is the company. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for a while now and have reached a conclusion that one of the problems beer has is that it’s not normal enough. There are lots of times when drinking beer would be a bad idea, but it struck me reading George Ewart Evans’s Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, that there was a time when beer held the same position in family life as tea or coffee does now, and that it has somehow become too special: not quite a luxury, but not a staple food either. By becoming a “leisure drink” beer has to compete with other drinks, such as WKD; drinks that make no sense at all outside a marketing meeting. In that context, trying to be “special” might not be doing beer any good.

Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay was compiled by Evans from interviews he conducted with the inhabitants of Blaxhall, Suffolk in the 1950s, and looks back a further 50 years or more from there, to the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Farming in postwar England was mechanising rapidly, changing both the work, and the culture of English villages. Evans believed it was important to record the memories of those who had lived and worked in such villages before these changes took place, to make sure that the customs and activities of an era in farming that had lasted several hundred years would not be lost forever.

The book covers many aspects of English village life, from the social structures of masters, servants and agricultural workers, to sheep shearing, bell ringing, superstitions, the church, and the old farming methods. What struck me, reading Evans, was how communal life was in the few decades before World War I, and how interdependent people were. That interdependence still exists of course, but it is less with our neighbours and more through formal infrastructures provided by corporations and governments. We pay our dues largely in cash, rather than sharing effort, and although we depend absolutely on the electricity supply and the stream of trucks supplying  the supermarket, it feels at least as if these things are not precarious. You take a can of beans from the shelf, and before long another will appear.

And that brings me to what Evans has to say about beer. The people he spoke to, mostly born in the late nineteenth century, made or grew almost everything they owned or consumed. What happened on the farm, or in the kitchens of cottages, affected everyone. Surrounded as they were by fields of barley, beer was the usual drink for most people in the village. Sometimes the farm brewed beer centrally for the men who worked there, but most families brewed beer too, a task that fell to “the wife” of the household. The yeast was shared between households, each brewing in turn and taking yeast from whoever had brewed most recently and had the freshest supply:

…home-brewing was an important event, demanding the utmost care and vigilance; for there would be a great loss to the household if the brew went wrong. Moreover, beer at that time was recognized as an essential part of the farm-worker’s diet; and at times of extra work on the farm allowances of hops and malt were made by the farmer to his men. Robert Savage, for instance, got a “lambing ‘lowance” of two bushels of malt and two pounds of hops so that Prissy often made two brews during the lambing season.

One lady from a nearby village remembers how, as a child, she hurried down with her brothers and sisters on the morning after brewing to see whether the crown of yeast had spread all over the top of the beer. The children that if they saw the welcome froth of yeast the brew had been successful; and they were glad …

Back in the nineteenth century the status of beer was different from what it is now; it was drunk by just about everyone. It was a drink for the workplace and the family table, and a staple part of the diet. Imagine the joy of seeing that “the beer was smiling” on the morning after brewday, and knowing that the ingredients you had grown yourself, or shared with your neighbours, had not gone to waste. Quite a different experience from dropping a few bottles in a shopping trolley. What we gained in convenience we’ve lost in magic.

Curiously, beer was replaced as a family staple, according to Evans, not by another alcoholic drink, but by tea. Tea became cheaper in the late nineteenth century and was promoted by the Temperance movement. It is an intriguing idea that if things had gone differently commuters who now carry takeout tea and coffee might instead be toting mugs of bitter beer.

By Chris Routledge