Jane Austen, Home Brewer

Hulton Archive/Getty
Hulton Archive/Getty

When she wasn’t penning beloved novels, Jane Austen brewed her own beer. And she wasn’t the only Regency-era woman to try her hand at craft brewing, either. In fact, brewing beer was part of women’s lives for centuries, long before beer was branded as a beverage for dudes.

According to Jane Austen expert Laura Boyle, the Austen family was filled with “enthusiastic home brewers” who made their own mead, wine, and beer. Though technically part of the gentry, Austen grew up on a farm where her family produced everything except luxury goods. As an adult, she was intimately involved with housekeeping and food prep, a world that was seen as entirely feminine.

That world involved plenty of beer. Elizabeth Ham, a contemporary of Austen’s, wrote that “No one in these days ever dreamt of drinking water.” At the time, water supplies were fraught with health dangers, and brewing beer was seen as a way to create a safe drink that wouldn’t spread disease. Long before the epidemiology of diseases like cholera was understood, people realized that something about the boiling and fermenting process of beer made those who drank it less sick than those who sampled the often-tainted drinking water. Light or "small" beer with a low alcohol content thus became a staple for children and adults, who drank it with all meals and who often made it at home.

One of Austen's specialties was spruce beer, a kind of cousin of root beer that contained hops and molasses. In letters to her sister Cassandra, she told of making spruce beer: “It is you … who have the little Children,” she wrote, “and I that have the great cask, for we are brewing spruce beer again.” Sadly, Austen’s beer recipes are lost to time, though her family mead recipe still exists.

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, where Austen lived part of her life, has created a special Austen-themed brew along with the Bath Brew House in honor of the famed writer's 200th birthday. It’s called Jane Austen 200, and it’s being called “light, hoppy, and refreshing with added Earl Grey flavouring.”

The Center also offers a spruce beer recipe for those wishing to try their own Austen-inspired homebrewing projects:

Spruce Beer

5 gallons of water
1/8 pound of hops
1/2 cup of dried, bruised ginger root
1 pound of the outer twigs of spruce fir
3 quarts of molasses
1/2 yeast cake dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water

1. In a large kettle combine the water, hops, ginger root, and spruce fir twigs.
2. Boil together until all the hops sink to the bottom of the kettle.
3. Strain into a large crock and stir in the molasses.
4. After this has cooled add the yeast.
5. Cover and leave to set for 48 hours.
6. Then bottle, cap and leave in a warm place (70-75 °F) for five days. It will now be ready to drink.
7. Store upright in a cool place.

Austen didn’t just make beer—she wrote about it. You may think of her novels as portraits of a more proper age, but they’re full of drinking, as when hunky Mr. Knightley offers spruce beer brewing tips in the novel Emma or when Elinor drinks wine to heal her broken heart in Sense and Sensibility.

Unfortunately, women were eventually shut out of brewing as the practice moved from the home and into factories. Today, the beer industry—and even homebrewing—is often thought of as being male-dominated. Which would probably make Jane shake her head and grab for a bottle of booze.

Winston Churchill Once Got a Doctor's Note So That He Could Drink Alcohol in Prohibition-Era America

 Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Winston Churchill never went long without pouring himself a drink, even while traveling throughout Prohibition-era America. As producer and photographer Meredith Frost pointed out on Twitter recently, the future British prime minister and World War II leader got a doctor’s note in January 1932 which claimed he could drink an “indefinite” quantity of alcohol—federal laws be damned—to facilitate his “post-accident convalescence.” He had been struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York in December 1931, which caused him chest pain in the immediate aftermath. He also suffered bouts of depression amid the aftershock, and it reportedly took him two months to fully recover.

Unfortunately for Churchill, Prohibition didn’t end until 1933. In fact, last week (December 5) marked the 85th anniversary of the repeal. He didn’t let that stop him, though. He admitted he once went to a speakeasy—"as a social investigator," of course.

This wasn’t the only time that Churchill refused to play by the rules insofar as alcohol was concerned. Once, after being told he shouldn’t drink or smoke during a meeting with a Muslim king, he replied through an interpreter, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

However, several historical accounts have argued that Churchill's drinking was for show and that he wasn’t actually an alcoholic. “It has been said that Winston used alcohol as a prop to his persona, rather like the cigars and pet bulldog, and that he rarely got monkey-arsed, or reached the falling-down, slurred-words state,” author Robert Sellers writes in An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety. “Total inebriation was something he abhorred, which says much for what must have been a steel constitution.”

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER