A short history of brewing in Hertford

Traditional maltsters
Traditional maltsters

Hertford’s wealth was founded on the brewing industry. Local street names such as Barley Croft, Brewhouse Lane and The Maltings can be associated with none other than malting and brewing.

McMullens remain as the only large scale independent brewer in the area. Malting Houses, those that roasted the barley to create malt, had previously thrived on Hertfordshire’s pre-eminence within the brewing industry; their wealth was born out of a simple geographic alliance.

Londoner’s had always drunk beer; it was healthier than untreated water from the Thames. This demand was met by the brewers who had traditionally sourced malt, the raw material for beer, from three main areas; Surrey, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

Hertfordshire’s main crop was barley and it thrived in the light well drained soil producing the short, plump, thin-skinned variety that every maltster desired.

It was brought in from the fields to the maltings where it was soaked in water to convert the starch into sugar and then heated to arrest germination before the addition of yeast to produce alcohol. The temperature is controlled to give either a pale malt for which this area was renown or roasted to produce the dark malts for stout and porter – particular favourites of Londoners.

The maltsters of Hertford had one other natural advantage – the river Lea. It ran straight into the heart of London on the Thames, from where the great brewing names such as Whitbread, Perkins and Coombe built riverside warehouses to accept the continuous barges of malt.

Almost as soon as the Navigation Acts were passed allowing for the improvement of barge transport into Hertford, events were occurring elsewhere that were to threaten local trade.

East Anglia was establishing itself as a major source of barley and barges using the sea route from Norfolk to London’s Bear Quay were accounting for a higher proportion of London’s malt imports. The big brewers were establishing their own maltings and factoring houses not just in Hertford but in the newer territories and their dependence on local supplies was diminishing.

Local malting was dealt a mortal blow by the new industrial age – and in particular, the coming of the railways. The railway opened up the Midlands and its fields of barley. Burton soon became the new centre of the malting industry and as overseas exploration cast light on dark corners of the globe, it was Burton ale that was shipped to the colonies.

Ironically beer in bottles such as Indian Pale Ale (IPA) lasted the journey better; a discovery said to have been made in Hertfordshire by a parson from Much Hadham, Alexander Nowell. On one of his frequent fishing days he accidentally left a bottle of home brewed beer on the riverbank.

It was his custom to put a stopper in the bottle to prevent the contents being spilled and on his return a few days later he found that the beer in the stoppered bottle had improved greatly – and thereby, so tradition has it, invented bottled beer.

The dark brown beer called porter was said to have been invented by a Londoner. If this is so then it is safe to assume that the malt used to produce porter was developed in Hertfordshire, for this area was famous for its brown malts.

In much the same way the invention of stout first mentioned in 1677 is accredited to Henry Stout. He was a maltster at the White Lion in Back Street, Hertford (now Railway Street). In 1669 his daughter Sarah died in mysterious circumstances. Spencer Cowper was tried for her murder, acquitted and later became a High Court judge.

Henry Stout was a Quaker, and one of many Quakers who became involved in the brewing industry as this was one of the few trades that were still open to them. Henry was penalised in 1662 and 1664 for non-attendance at church, similarly was William Fairman who was sentenced in 1677 to be deported to Barbados. It is thought that he served his sentence in this country as in 1687 he provided liquor to the assizes to accompany the judge’s meal of ‘boyle beef, porch, rost beef and cheese’.

The White Lion may have disappeared but Fore Street was a popular venue for anyone with a thirst. Numbers 41 – 49, now all retail units,was a brewery, and number 42, the Turk’s Head Coffee House had a brewery in the yard and was situated in what is now known as Brewhouse Lane; numbers 72 – 74 was known as the Falcon between 1727 and 1731 and now houses a firm of solicitors. The Red Lion had a brewery behind the bar as long ago as 1621. In 1731 it was called the Half Moon and early in the 1800’s became the Dimsdale Arms. It is now the Pizza Express.

Why not sample some of Hertford’s historic brewing heritage with a visit to one of its pubs found in Camra’s Good Beer Guide 2017 available from Amazon books.

All evidence of a once thriving industry has all but vanished but on days when the wind is in the right direction the smell of hops still drifts over Hertford from McMullens brewery.

© John Barber. First published Hertfordshire Countryside, April 2001

Contact John Barber: moc.r1511127552ebrab1511127552nhoj@1511127552tcatn1511127552oc 1511127552