Drinking with Shakespeare

Shakespeare Under the Stars

Shakespeare Under the Stars

Mendocino Brewing is a proud sponsor of the Marin Shakespeare Company, which has been celebrating Shakespeare under the stars for 25 years.  This season’s performances have already begun and will run through September 28—so there’s still time to get a summery dose of theater culture!  In honor of the bard’s contribution to letters (and as excuse to learn more about beer history) we delve into the drinks that helped hone William’s quill.

Beer in Shakespeare’s Time

The beer of Elizabethan England (1558-1603) was pretty similar to the beers we drink today, but definitely had some differences. Elizabethan beer was darkly colored, lightly hopped and probably quite sweet—which can be inferred from various brewer reports.  A London brewer during that time stated that he had made two-and-a-half barrels of beer from one quarter of malt, whereas that same amount of malt today would be used to make around ten barrels of beer.

Ale vs. Beer

During the 15th century, ale and beer referred to two distinct drinks. Ale—the earlier term for our favorite fermented beverage—originally did not contain hops. Hops were not added to the ingredient list until around 1400, and the English were not too sure how they felt about this new, hopped-up drink called “beer.” Eventually they accepted the new style, and during Shakespeare’s lifetime the words ‘ale’ and ‘beer’ were used to indicate the amount of hops added to the drink. In this way, a lightly-hopped brew became known as an ale, while a more bitter drink was called a beer.

If you buy the Bard a drink…

A quart of ale is a dish for a king.

A quart of ale is a dish for a king.

Being raised a country boy, Shakespeare probably had little taste for the new-fangled, hoppy beers that were becoming popular with the city dwellers.  His father was the mayor and official ale-taster of Stratford, so the young bard had grown up with plenty of exposure to a variety of ales.  We can also assume his bias toward ale through his writings, where he shares his preferences poetically. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s protagonist considers stealing a sheet for trade at the local alehouse, and waxes that “a quart of ale is a dish for a king.”  And, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the virtues of a woman is quoted as her ability to brew good ale.

As for beer, Shakespeare seemed to consider the drink a bit less to be desired. He states his feelings clearly through Hamlet, who moans the possibility of being used after death to create a stopper (made of clay in those days) for a beer barrel’s bunghole :

“To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole? … follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam (whereto he was converted) might they not stop a beer barrel?”

“I drink to the general joy of the whole table.” – Macbeth

Which Mendo beer would you like to share with Shakespeare? Would you stick to his tastes and go with Black Hawk Stout, or would you prefer to spur his muse with an offering of Talon Double IPA? Let us know in the comments below!

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