Shakespeare’s Beer

I think it may finally be summer. It’s consistently warm, we’ve seen a few vicious thunderstorms already, and the evenings are long and light. If you’re looking for something to do on these warm summer nights, we’re hosting the Humber River Shakespeare Co. on July 16, 2014, for a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Black Creek takes on a special beauty in the evenings; the setting goes with Shakespeare like…well, an India Pale Ale and a hot day!

Speaking of beer (as we do here on the Growler), you can try some of our heritage-inspired beer in the Pavilion before the show and during intermission. A summer night, Shakespeare, and beer…sounds like a trifecta to me!


And Shakespeare himself has some connections to beer. In England, the Assize of Bread and Ale was passed ca. 1267—it regulated the price, weight, and quality of bread and beer, tying the price to the market value of corn. Not corn like maize, remember—in Britain, corn refers to cereal grains: wheat, barley, oats, etc. To ensure that brewers and alehouses were abiding by the Assize, a special job was created: that of the “ale-conner,” or “ale-taster.” They travelled around, checking prices and testing the quality of the ingredients used. A very trying, wearying job, to be sure—but one which was in fact held by Shakespeare’s own father. John Shakespeare was an ale-taster for Stratford during Shakespeare’s childhood, so we can assume that young Will knew a thing or two about brewers!

But what was the beer like in Shakespeare’s day? Generally speaking, due to the malts used, it was likely fairly dark and sweet, and not as heavily hopped as beers today. In the Elizabethan era, a distinction was still drawn between unhopped “ale” and hopped “beer.” Although dates get a little slippery, it seems that immigrants from the Low Countries were brewing beer with hops in England from the early 1400s, although serious attempts at cultivating English hops didn’t happen until the early 16th century. By Shakespeare’s time, initial English resistance to hops seems to have largely died down, and the distinction between hopped/unhopped brews, while still present, was fading. The term “ale” may have shifted to represent a milder brew, whereas “beer” was bitterer.

Except his beer probably wouldn’t have had such a pronounced head. Whatever. We’ll roll with it!

Certainly, Shakespeare uses both terms in his plays. “Ale” is mentioned some fourteen times, while “beer” gets five mentions, reminding us what an important place beer occupied in the Elizabethans’ general life experience. Interestingly, when Shakespeare mentions beer specifically, he adds a prefix: it’s either “small” or “double” beer. This likely results from the two general classifications of Elizabethan beer: single and double. Logically, double beer was twice as strong as single beer. There was, however, a point at which brewers created a very potent, unauthorized “doble-doble.” Admittedly, this makes me smile.


By the Victorian age, the use of hops was taken for granted and brewers were exploring lighter malts as well. I wonder what Shakespeare might have thought of our historic ales? I like to think that upon tasting our Brown Ale, he would have quoted himself:

“…a quart of ale is a dish for a king.”


PS. If you’re interested learning more about the Humber River Shakespeare Co.’s performance of Romeo and Juliet and/or purchasing tickets, please click here!