Ales and elegance
In the Georgian and Regency periods ale was drunk by everyone from labourers to the gentry. One reason for this was that water purity could not be guaranteed. Another was that at this time farms and country houses were brewing their own ales of different strengths. Small beer – a weak thirst-quenching brew - was a staple at harvest time when each man was allowed a gallon a day. Strong ales were brewed for the country gentleman’s table, often laid down and kept for several years in anticipation of a coming-of-age, wedding, or the birth of an heir.
Before the C16th household beer was drunk from horn cups. As most farms had horned cattle, the raw material was easy to obtain and making horn cups quickly became a recognised craft. Demand was high as they were light, strong, and easy to carry when travelling.
While the horn cups used by servants and labourers were simple in design, those made for the wealthy often had rims decorated with silver or pewter.
By the mid C16th glasses were becoming more popular among ale drinkers. Most were imported from Venice and made of soda glass. The milky appearance of this glass disguised the cloudiness of home-brewed beer and ale.
By 1670 not only were brewers developing methods that enabled them to produce clearer ales, George Ravenscroft had invented lead-based glass. This was much clearer and, swiftly growing in popularity, it soon replaced Venetian glassware.
C18th English ale glasses bore no resemblance to the chunky glass tankards of today. Because ales were much stronger the glasses were smaller. Only four or five inches high they held approximately two and a half ounces. They were also elegant, beautiful, and comparable in design and decoration to wine glasses.
Ale flutes appeared in the mid 1700s. Made of high-quality glass they had a narrow elegant bowl on a long decorative stem with a circular foot, and only an engraving of hops or barley on the bowl distinguished them from those used for champagne.
When a laid-down ale was served at a country-house celebration, the staff always prepared for extra work as guests who mistakenly believed ale to be less potent than wine were often discovered unconscious throughout the house and garden. Found and put to bed they returned home in the morning considerably wiser.