Harbingers of wanton debauchery

homemade beer ingredients

Good beer needs quality dry ingredients - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lorraine Child guides us gently through history's pages

Cheese will be the undoing of me. Not those rubbery slabs of pretend cheese that accentuate the absence of the real thing; I’m talking strong, cave-aged Cheddar, sharp Blue Vinny, or buttery Brie de Meaux. Throw in a haunch of chewy sourdough, and I’m on my way to the artery-clogged promised land. However, I love cows and loathe their exploitation, so there’s my dilemma, on the horns of which I am well and truly speared. Fellow turophiles can blame the milk protein, casein, which contains mildly addictive casomorphins, causing us to salivate like Pavlovian dogs on hearing ‘grilled cheese toastie’. 

There is one substance I will never find addictive, and that’s beer, though annual UK sales of nearly £9 billion prove its appeal. Micro-breweries around the Cotswolds are run by people passionate about quality, crafted beers. No less impassioned are those in family-owned breweries handed down through generations. Arkell’s in Stratton St Margaret, Swindon, began as a steam brewery in 1861, set up by John Arkell, a son of Kempsford, born there in 1802. The business now has over 90 pubs. My family lived in the village for many years, and great-grandmother succumbed to ‘gin-drinker’s liver’ following the death of her son in the Great War. Somewhat ironically, Arkell’s George Inn was made available for an inquest, after 12 good men and true had witnessed the poor woman’s body. 

Another member of the illustrious Arkell family established a renowned business near Stow-on-the-Wold. Pressed into a lush, romantic landscape, Donnington Brewery has probably changed little in appearance since the mid-19th century. The original woollen mill was built to take advantage of the location, tucked into a bend of the River Dikler, providing power and water to wash copious quantities of wool. Later used as a corn mill and bakery, the buildings were purchased by Richard Iles Arkell in 1865. He brewed the first ale there 157 years ago this month, and the brewery now has 18 unspoilt pubs dotted around Stow.  

Good beer needs quality dry ingredients, and good water is essential, providing the right balance of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. The Dikler has these in abundance, and a nearby spring provides water all year round. In 1970, Donnington employees included Arthur Adams, Ned Hobbs, Cyril Lane, Cyril Hill, Michael Pheasey and Melvin Pearce. They had the brewer; all they needed was a Tom Cobley. Pleasingly, the carpenter was Mr Joynes; the delivery man, Terry Street. 

When the Romans arrived on these shores, they found hairy barbarians drinking ‘moistened grain’ and behaving with lustful abandonment. (I’ve been in that pub.) In the 12th century, Henry II dispatched an archbishop and settled a tax on beer, alienating the godly and heathen in one press of his seal. Up to the end of the 18th century, men, women and children drank beer, as it was safer than water or milk, then tea started to replace beer at mealtimes, which William Cobbett considered ‘a degrading curse’. The Beerhouse Act of 1830 allowed anyone with a purchased licence to brew beer at home and sell it, which ruffled the Temperance Movement, who believed it was a harbinger of wanton debauchery. (I know that pub, too.) 

Some years ago, I was admitted to hospital with severe abdominal pain. The curtain was thrown back with a decisive jerk that emanates only from a consultant’s wrist. ‘Do you eat a lot of cheese?’ barked the decisive jerk. This fallen wretch nodded, but the thought of renouncing the likes of Pommes Aligot was too depressing. Who needs a gall bladder, anyway?