Amber, Gold & Black – Martyn Cornell

The real reason I run: I love beer. I love drinking beer, and I love talking about beer. And I love reading about it too. I love talking and reading about beer while drinking beer.

This book is a history of beers in Britain. I learned so much. There is a lot you can’t find out by looking at a lovely brown pint of beer. For example: bitter is a relatively new style – it’s only about 150 years old (not any specific pint, you understand – the concept of bitter as a style of beer). Before that, people drank mild, which really just means a freshly brewed beer. Or they drank stale ale (although, technically ale is un-hopped*) which just means “stored” beer. Or porter. And stout meant “strong” – some Imperial Stouts (sent to Russia) were 11% ABV!

Then there are the names – the old breweries, the old pubs (there’s an illustration of a pub called The Whistling Oyster – I’d drink there), the new beers (Summer Lightning named after one of Wodehouse’s Blandings novels; JHB – Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, named after Charles I’s wife’s court dwarf).

There are surprises – wheat beer used to be brewed extensively in Devon and Cornwall, before being virtually outlawed; lager was brewed on and off in the late 19th century in Scotland and England, although it never caught on (one journalist hit the nail on the head by saying that “except for about three weeks in the year, that beer seems ill-adapted to our climate”).

It’s all told in the style of a well-read friend talking knowledgeably down the pub (except the chapter on herb and flavoured ales, which is list-y) which is as it should be.

For the record, author’s blog is here, and is also well worth reading:


*See chapter 12 for other things used to flavour and/or preserve ales through history. There’s also a quote, from 1651, describing beer as “a Dutch boorish liquor… a saucy intruder into this land”


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