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First bottled beer

The birth of bottled beer seems to have been the result of a ‘happy accident’ on the banks of a picturesque river in Hertfordshire, England, in 1568.

The story goes that a certain Alexander Nowell, who was Dean of St Paul’s cathedral at the time (an impressive wooden version pre-Sir Christopher Wren’s iconic stone London landmark), was out fishing. Some reports say he was on the Thames, near his church, but it was almost certainly the River Ash in the parish of Much Hadham, about 35 miles away, where he had a manor.

To give a bit of a backstory, Nowell was a fanatical fisherman. I mean, he loved it almost more than preaching sermons. Izaak Walton sums it up best in his ‘Life of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul’s’ by Ralph Churton (published 1809), when he says:

“[he is]…noted for his meek spirit, deep learning, prudence, and piety… This good man was observed to spend a tenth of his time in angling… and to bestow a tenth of his revenue, and usually all of his fish, amongst the poor who inhabited near to those rivers”.

But what’s fishing got to do with bottled beer, I hear you cry? Well, Nowell would have packed everything he needed for a day of sitting and casting on the riverbank. Amongst his victuals was a bottle that he’d filled with his own household’s home-brewed beer and stoppered with a cork. The beer that was common in this early Elizabethan period was known to be flat and not very strong. We will never know the exact type of ale it was, but beer was commonly made from malted barley, water and spices in the sixteenth century. Those made with hops could be stored longer but tended to be surprisingly light in ABV (beer was even drunk by children instead of water, which they thought carried diseases like cholera).

At some point during the day, presumably as he walked up and down the river, he lost his bottle of beer. This is where Thomas Fuller, an English churchman, historian and prolific writer, picks up the story in his famous book The History of the Worthies of England. Admittedly, it was published in 1662, just under 100 years after the event, but it is the main reason why Nowell is attributed with the ‘invention’ of bottled beer.

“…that leaving a Bottle of Ale (when fishing) in the Grasse; he found it some dayes after, no Bottle, but a Gun, such the sound at the opening thereof: And this is believed (Casualty is Mother of more Inventions than Industry) the Original of bottled-Ale in England.”

This momentous day was said to be the 13th July 1568 (not that anyone really knows for sure). Of course, what had happened was that his beer, in the days after being lost, had undergone a natural secondary fermentation in the bottle. This carbonation process led to a build-up of carbon dioxide that needed to escape, hence the explosion of noise when it was uncorked again. This would almost certainly have surprised Nowell, who was more used to a bubble-free beer, but he is no inventor. Just a man who observed, and presumably documented and talked about, the phenomenon – and thereby establishing his place firmly in beer folklore.

It wasn’t until the mid- to late-seventeenth century that commercial beer bottling started to take place in earnest – and only really because glass manufacturing had become more sophisticated and the glass stronger. Up until then, most bottles exploded when filled with a liquid undergoing carbonation.

But what became of Alexander Nowell? He went on to live a long and happy life, full of fishing and beer no doubt, before passing away on 13th February 1602 at the age of 85 (44 years of which he was Dean of St. Paul’s church).


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