"And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale."
—"The Secret People"
In 1136, Bishop Henri de Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, founded the hospice of St. Cross, in Hampshire, to provide for "thirteen poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can hardly or with difficulty support themselves without another's aid." It is the oldest almshouse in England. Its charter requires it not just to provide shelter and sustenance to its residents, but to offer food and drink, at least, to such poor wanderers as might call and ask for it. This "wayfarer's dole," as it is known, is made up of two traditional elements: a portion of bread and a horn of ale. For "good ale," wrote George Borrow, who spent much of his own life wandering the roads of England many centuries later, is "the true and proper drink of Englishmen. He is not deserving of the name of Englishman who speaketh against ale, that is good ale."
Ales and beers continue to be a source of refreshment and a focus of sociability for the English, of course. But the 12th-century brethren of St. Cross would not recognize many of the brews of today as beers at all, and the 19th-century taste of George Borrow would have found all too few of them "good." For the traditional beers of England,...