The date of June 15th was designated National Beer Day in the UK to celebrate English ale. It was chosen because it was the date on which King John signed and set his seal to the Magna Carta in the meadows at Runnymede.
In the Middle Ages it was a staple drink of England, brewed and drunk everywhere and by all classes. It was drunk at every meal because it was safer than water - alcohol kills germs. Such is our historic acquaintance with it that we have an enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), to help metabolize it. Those who drank beer survived in greater proportion than those who drank water. In the Far East those who drank tea survived because it involved boiling the water. East Asians have a lower alcohol tolerance because they never drank it to survive, and did not inherit the enzyme.
Beer is quintessentially English. It is top fermented, and traditionally finished its fermentation in casks in the cellars of public houses. It contrasts with bottom fermented beers popular in Continental Europe, which include the light coloured pilsners that only became popular in Britain in the second half of the 20th Century.
Before the use of hops gradually became widespread from the 15th Century, an uphopped beer was called an ale, with the term “beer” reserved for those made with hops, and brewers could originally make either, but not both. Magistrates and officials were not interested in limiting the amount produced or the quantity drunk, but in ensuring it was of the appropriate quality and strength. A 1577 survey of pubs in England and Wales, done for tax purposes, lists 14,202 alehouses, 1,631 inns, and 329 taverns, representing one pub for every 187 people. The 1830 Beerhouse Act enabled anyone to brew and sell beer and cider, either from a pub, or from their own home. It led to hundreds of new pubs setting up. It was passed to reduce the excessive consumption of gin, “the quickest way out of Manchester.”
Public Health England has a more Puritan attitude, advising no more that 14 units of alcohol a week. This works out at about 5 pints a week of a cask-conditioned ale. The claim is that by choosing an absurdly low number they will prompt drinkers to limit their consumption, whereas the reality is that people just ignore the recommendation, knowing that it was plucked out of the air with no scientific basis to support it.
There are probably health risks associated with beer, as there are with most things, but there are positive aspects too. Beer promotes social interactions as people drink with friends, and it lowers levels of stress, which is reckoned to be among the causes of early death.
Beer has been part of our culture. It almost certainly sustained the archers who fought at Agincourt, and it was always a feature of what is appropriately named “Merrie England.” The nannies and killjoys disapprove, as they do of everything that brings pleasure, but on National Beer Day, we’ll drink a toast and wish good health to everyone else.