Moor Beer – now there’s a sentiment that many folk will appreciate especially when the beer and ales are actually brewed on Dartmoor. Having sampled many of them in-situ so to speak I can verify that the art of brewing is still alive and kicking on the moor. For many people there is nothing more enjoyable than a pint or two after a hard day spent stomping around Dartmoor in whatever fashion floats your boat. But just imagine the days when such home brewed refreshment was an everyday occurrence and probably the safest thing to drink after a day’s toil and sweat. In later days it was the custom for the various labourers to meet at the inn of their choice for a beer and some newsin’ which I suppose is the same today. I reckon its fairly safe to say that some of the ghostly and otherworldly encounters people have met over the ages where due to excessive amounts of ale and seen through beer goggles – this website if full of such examples. There is even one case where the Devil actually visited the Tavistock Inn at Poundsgate for a swift half or two much to the fear and trepidation of the locals.
It seems a fair assumption that with all the cider drunk in Devonshire beer consumption would be lower than other areas but this was not so. Old farm inventories for Devon show that there were 30 references to cider and 68 to beer and beer making. It must be remembered that at one time the only way of preserving food was by ‘salting’ and much of the butter and cheese was heavily seasoned with salt. Both factors meant people were often thirsty and the only available drinks to the average person was often contaminated water, cider or beer. In the case of beer, some farms had ‘brew houses’ and ‘malt houses’ which contained the coppers and dryes. The basic brewing process firstly entailed obtaining the malt which came from sprouting grain such as wheat, rye, oats and in some cases barley. The grain would be spread on a flat cloth made of hair known as the ‘haire drye‘ and a fire lit under it, this process was called the ‘raising of the malt’ and was normally carried out by the farmer’s wife. Once the grain had been malted it was put in then brewed in the copper. In the 15th century a well-known Devonshire brew was the ‘Oaten Beer’ of which John Hooker wrote:
“… yet in the north part thereof about Okehampton… the oats which they sow be all spoiled oats and the drink which they do make thereof is spoiled drink for it never so well prepared and dressed, yet what creature so ever do eat of taste thereof, be it man, horse or hogge, it will make him to vomit and, for the time, very sick; notwithstanding of that country, being used thereat, do endure the same very well.”, Stanes, p.54.
Another commentator described oaten ale to “wash that pigs had wrestled dryn!” Finberg notes how in the 15th century the farm labourers received at Christmas and Easter an allowance of ‘braseum capitale‘ otherwise known as ‘prime brew’. This was made from wheat malt as opposed to ‘braseum cursale‘ otherwise known as ‘common brew’ which was made from oats. She also says how from about 1460 onwards the large ‘black oat’ was malted to provide ale for the labourers who harvested Tavistock Abbey’s crops. By the 17th century the addition of hops to the brew was seen in some places which greatly improved the taste of the ale. As this practice became more common numerous hop yard were established in the warmer parts of the Devonshire lowlands by the 18th century. Finberg, pp. 96 -100.
The main source of beers and ales were in the local inns, taverns and brew houses dotted around Dartmoor many of which would brew their own ales that would greatly vary in quality. Today we have the National Trading Standards Department who oversee that all laws and standards are adhered to. However, in medieval times there was no such a body and so ordinary citizens were appointed or elected to oversee the various happenings of everyday life. Many of these positions were regarded with some degree of disdain as they were either unpopular with the rest of the community or simply onerous jobs. At Ashburton there was/is an annual gathering of two ancient courts who meet at the Chapel of St. Lawrence on the forth Tuesday in November. Here the various town officials were/are appointed by the Jury of the Court. These included: Viewers of the Market, Viewers of the Watercourses and Pig Drovers, Constables, Searchers and Sealers of Leather and Bread Weighers. Most of these positions involved hassle of one kind or another and were sometimes not too readily accepted apart from one other post, that of the ‘Ale Taster’. Pilkington, p.13. The definition of the Ale Taster is as follows: “A manorial official who tested the quality and measurement of ale and beer sold within the manor. He was the forerunner of the Inspector of Weights and Measures (later the Trading Standards Department). Alternatively called Alefounder and referred to in Latin documents as Gustator Cervus.”, Richardson, P.37. So basically the duties of the Ale Taster were/are to visit the inns and taverns to ensure that they are serving a good standard of beer in the correct measures. Originally the Ale Tasters would have to also inspect any house or stall selling ales during market days and fairs. It has been said that originally the visits of the ale tasters led to the tradition of all buildings where ales were sold having to display a sign above their doors in order for the ale tasters to know such was being served on the premises. Should any person be found to be selling poor quality beers and ales or short measures or refusing to let the Ale Taster sample their good then they would be put infront of the local court. Ashburton still celebrates the old tradition of the ‘Ale Taster’ and ‘Bread Weigher’ by appointing locals to those posts in a ceremony held at the end of every July. Having been appointed the Ale Taster will visit each public house and if the beers and ales are as should be issue them with a certificate and a sprig of evergreen to hang over the door. For times and dates of this event see – HERE.
Everyone likes a good party where the beer flows as freely as a moorland stream and at one time the moor folk found plenty of excuses to hold such an event. In most cases these celebrations were known as ‘Ales’ whose purpose was to raise funds for various local causes whilst having a proper knees-up.
“The churches much owe, as well we do know, For when they be drooping and ready to fall, By a Whitsun or Church Ale up again they shall go. And owe their repairing to a pot of good ale.”
Ale days were very much part of the medieval calendar and at various times became bones of contention for religious, moral and political reasons. In the main an ‘Ale’ or ‘Ale Day’ was a local event involving plenty of food, drink and entertainment many of which occurred in the Spring and Summer months. As noted above their main purpose was to raise funds chiefly for the local church but also for other good causes. In many of the Dartmoor church accounts evidence of ‘Ale Days’ can be found, Again taking Dean Prior as an example the following were important ‘Ale days’ which occurred throughout the year and described by Breton, 1990(a) pp. 94 -95 and 1990 p. 57 -58.
The Church Ale.
Also known as the ‘Whitsun Ale’ this event took place around Whitsuntide and was considered as being one of the main money spinners of the year. Church ales were held on a Sunday and consisted of a period of religious observance which was later followed by feasting and games which lasted well into the night. The church wardens were the ‘ale givers’ and would collect subscriptions from the parishioners with which they would buy the necessary provisions for the revel. The beer would have been brewed and stored in the church house which was where the festivities would take place. All the profits from this occasion would then go towards bolstering the church funds and go towards any repair costs to the church. The church accounts for Dean Prior include a couple of entries for ‘Church Ale’ days: ” 1567 – received of the church ale -xl iiijs 0d and 1569 – received of the church ale iiil iijs iiijd.”, Breton, 1990, p.95. Another important celebration for the church was the ‘wake’ which either marked the anniversary of the church’s dedication or on a saints day. These wake was usually held on the night prior to the significant day and involved people taking part in an open-air all night vigil. The festivities then took place the next day and in some cases these led to what could loosely be described as binge drinking parties. Richard Carew considered that such event comprised of; “vaine disports of minstrelsie, dancing and disorderly night-watchings.” There were also reports of ‘bastardies‘ which could be traced back to sexual encounters at the ‘Church Ales’ In Devonshire the tradition of ‘Ale Days’ came to an end in 1634 when a complaint was brought before the Lord Chief Justice Richardson at the Exeter assizes. It was claimed that a certain ‘Church Ale’ that was held on a Sunday was a ‘profanation of the Sabbath’. This led to a verdict which stated such events led to drunkenness, riot and immorality and in that light an ordnance was issued banning them throughout Devonshire. Cambell, Cambell, p.322. Over the centuries churches have resorted to more ‘sedate’ means of fundraising such as fetes, coffee mornings etc.
The Clerk Ale.
The wages of the Parish Clerk were never what one would consider as being generous and so to boost their incomes a ‘clerk Ale’ would be held. Here the profits from the festivities would be given to the clerk and sometimes they amounted to more than several year’s salaries put together.
The Bid Ale.
This revel was a kind of early benefit system as it would be held in support of some poor soul who had met with hard times. Hugh Breton gives a charming description of such an event at Dean Prior: “the bid ale was held when a parishioner had failed in his worldly calling, or to use a Dartmoor expression gone scat.” Other reasons for the ‘Bid Ale’ could be for someone who had met with an accident which left them unable to earn a wage on order to provide for their family. At ‘Bid Ales’ the profits would be given to the unfortunate subject of the revel who would then in return be expected to hold a feast of their own. Any monies remaining after their feast could be kept on used to live on until the crisis was over.
The Give Ale.
This revel would have been funded from a legacy left solely for the purpose by a deceased parishioner and much to the delight of the local population was totally free to attend. It must be said that such events did not occur as often as other ‘ale days’ as most folk had very little to leave in the first place.
The Bride Ale.
Here was an excellent way of a bride raising funds for her future needs by simply selling some ale on her wedding day. There would be no fixed cost for the ale and people would pay/donate as much as they deemed fit. In effect these profits acted as wedding gifts from family and friends much as they do today except any profits from the alcoholic drinks go in the licencees pockets.
The Foot Ale.
This was a celebration at which the ‘liquor flowed freely’ or in other words it was an opportunity for the guests to go on a bender. The ‘Foot Ale’ took place when anybody took up a new occupation and where the ‘newbie’ was expected to buy the ale for all his new colleagues at the end of his first weeks employment.
The Drink Lean.
Of all the ale days the ‘Drink Lean’ was probably the most unpopular as it was an occasion when all the tenants were expected to contribute towards a feats in honour of their lord or his steward. Prior to the revel a man and woman were chosen to be the ‘Lord and Lady of the Ale‘ and would preside over the proceedings. The true lord and lady would attend along with their various members of staff and the feasting would begin. Today this would be akin to an employer holding a staff party and getting them to pay for it.
Other lesser Ale days were; ‘Lamb Ales’ which would be held after the annual sheep shearing had taken place, ‘Soul or Dirge Ales’ held after funerals and ‘Help Ales’ which took place after the annual harvest and to which all those who assisted in ‘bringing in the sheaves’ were invited.
Today there are two main breweries producing beer and ales on Dartmoor; The Dartmoor Brewery and The Black Tor Brewery both producing a fine range of cask and bottled beers. The Dartmoor Brewery was first established in 1994 and was located at the back of The Prince of Wales public house. That same year saw the launch of their most popular beer – Jail Ale which in 1995 won the Society of Independent Brewers South West’s premium beers award. Since then the brewery has moved into new premises on the old Princetown railway yard with new fermenting vessels installed in order to cope with the growing popularity of their beers. The original Dartmoor Micro Brewery AKA the Scatter Rock Brewery located in Christow was sold in 2015 when it then became the Black Tor Brewery. This small family run business uses whole leaf hops, malted barley, yeast and pure Dartmoor water to produce their range of cask and bottled conditioned beers. Most of the beers produced in these two breweries can be sampled either in many of the pubs and inns around the moor or in the many local shops in the area.
Breton, H. 1990(a), The Forest of Dartmoor, Liverton: Forest Publishing.
Breton, H. 1990, Beautiful Dartmoor, Liverton: Forest Publishing.
Campbell Campbell, J. 1853. The Lives of the Chief Justices of England, Philadelphia: Blanchard & Lea.
Finberg, H.P.R. 1969 Tavistock Abbey, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.
Pilkington, F. 1989. Ashburton the Devon Town. Exeter: Devon Books.
Richardson, J. 1999. The Local Historians Encyclopaedia. London: Historical Publications.
Stanes, R. 2005 Old Farming Days, Halsgrove Publishing, Tiverton.