a short beer history of Ware

Ware – like every old town in Britain – has had its share of brewers, breweries and notable inns. But this post is going to bypass them and focus on one aspect in particular – the industry which for just under seven centuries embodied Ware: malting.

In fact, for an age Ware was the malting capital not just of Hertfordshire, England, Britain or Europe – but of the whole world.

Existence of the sale, production and selling of alcohol is often revealed to archivists through records of fines and taxes – malt production is no exception. Malting as an occupation in Ware is first recorded in 1307 when a maltster had to pay just under 15 pence in tax.

The barley came from the fields of East Anglia to be processed into brewing malt. Ware brown malt also came to be referred to as Ware Brown or Hertfordshire malt. For generations it was produced for London’s porter brewers by drying the malt over hornbeam or oak faggots. To get extra flavour, it was sometimes scorched much like modern day chocolate malt. 

As the number of maltsters (also referred to as ‘malsters’) grew, so did the traffic to feed this enterprise. The wheels of horse-drawn carriages laden with grain crashed through the medieval streets churning the thoroughfares into pits that re-opened as fast as they could be filled back in. When it rained, these wounds became dangerous quagmires. 

‘Malster’ statue by sculptor Jill Tweed

To finance the upkeep of the highways, Ware’s original answer was to erect tolls at each approach. This response goes back a very long way – in fact, right back to Anglo Saxon times when ‘felst’ related to customs tax and ‘aletol’ was a tax levied from the brewing of ale (whatever the historical research, the taxman and the prostitute predate all other callings). Though the new tolls created revenue, they didn’t actually solve the problem so the burghers looked towards the Lea river – a move that would prove revolutionary.

Today, the distance along the Lea between Hertford and Ware is a favourite of walkers, joggers and cyclists. People pilot longboats along it for pleasure. But a few hundred years ago it was as busy as any modern A-road from riverine traffic. The real benefit was that on water, there was no upper weight restriction, or to put it another way, the cargo would have to be heavier than the water the boat displaced – something that could never apply to transporting barley malt.

The construction of the Lee Navigation (confusingly, the river is known both as the Lea and the Lee) in the 1760s eased the journey from Limehouse to Ware by ploughing a new channel that avoided Bow Creek – an infamous twised coil of the natural river that constipated nautical traffic. Once completed, the haulage of malt by barge increased, the journey time shortened and the roads throughout Ware recovered.

One needs to remember that many Hertfordshire towns are intimately linked with London. One of the reasons Ware was wealthier than Hertford historically (though not in modern times) was because vessels arriving up the snaking Lea from east London reached Ware first. Ware commanded first trading dibs before Hertford could get a look in – including putting toll ‘staunches’ (locks) across the water itself. 

Kibes Lane, Ware. The kiln hoods are of the Charles Wells design to turn with the wind.

Barges and malthouses combined to form a perpetual machine – the bargemen didn’t need to disembark, nor the malsters exit their malthouse lofts. The lucams (little pulley rigs like you see on old mills or Dutch town houses) projecting over the waterfront would lower the sacks of malt onto the decks and hoist materials (including spent malt from London breweries recycled as pig feed) back up. The barges would then crawl back towards the capital on their endless shuttle, as others came the other way delivering fresh supplies.

Ware brown malt was also a cash cow for the government when it came to breading foreign wars. This was evidenced during the American war of independence (from us!):

‘(….) Ware maltsters would have been providing something like 0.37% of the national revenue. Every 370th frigate or Hussite mercenary – or musket or grenade – in the war against the Americans and French was paid for by the Ware malt tax.’

David Perman – The Malthouses of Ware, 2012

In the early 1830s, an industry threat came following a change in national palate. The taste shifted from the dark, sweet and roasted to the sparkling and pale. Burton-on-Trent grew ever larger on the map of Britain and the world as an exporter of pale ale and India pale ale. Its secret was in the gypsum-heavy waters of East Staffordshire. 

As well as Britain pushing its empire across the globe, it was also starting to connect itself up in ways it had never done before. The arrival and roll-out of the railway networks made long journeys across the country more common so business and trade became less parochial. London breweries like Truman and Hanbury and Buxton even set up shop in Burton to get in on the production of pale ale. Ware, with its brown malt, wasn’t invested in any of this despite its close proximity to London. The fetor of obsolecence suddenly hung about it.

The inclusion of a cat in Jill Tweed’s statue isn’t arbitrary – cats were extremely valuable for the pest control of rodents. We’re talking buildings filled with grain!

Though these changes might have been a glimpse of the future, the trade was far from over. In 1869 (coincidentally, also the year Britain’s pubs reached their highest recorded peak in numbers), the town still contained the largest malting establishments on the planet.

In 1880 there were over one hundred malt kilns in this little town – possibly as many as 140. Every local inhabitant owed their living to the production of malt. Publicans of Ware’s many small ale houses would open as early as five o clock in the morning to offer liquid sustenance to the maltmakers on their way to light the kiln fires.

Late in the nineteenth century, the industry was pushed forwards by an innovative metalworker called Charles Wells (no relation to the Bedfordshire brewing giant, alas – it was just a common name).  

Mr Wells owned the Falcon Works on the high street. He was a farrier, blacksmith and engineer who pioneered two new technological trends in the malting process. Being skilled at wire-work, he developed a new kind of suspended malting floor which aerrated and dried the malt much more efficiently. 

His next invention was a new kiln hood. Because of unpredictable changes in wind direction and air pressure, smoke from malting hoods could sometimes be ‘re-ingested’ causing the malsters to choke. (anyone brought up in a house with a hearth might remember this phenomenon – the chimney would occasionally ‘suck’ the smoke back into the lounge). 

One of ‘Chaz Wells” plates – these were fixed into the external walls to keep the wire malt floors taut.

Wells’ hoods were actually moveable – they were guided by a weathervane that projected out like a paddle. The Ware roofscape would have been an amazing sight: the thronged vanes being waltzed by the wind – gleaming cones rotating in unison. They must have seemed almost sentient as they turned together like a spectating crowd with rosaries of smoke being exhaled towards the Essex border.

But the wars of the new age would change everything. The first world war proved debilitating for any industry connected with brewing or distilling. A steep drop in beer consumption was caused by a whole generation of young men – often every male member of a family – being wiped out. There was also an increase in beer duty. 

In 1922 malting companies were working at half their previous capacities. In 1929, Kelly’s Directory for Hertfordshire showed that the number of malting businesses had fallen from eleven to four.

Within two decades, the second world war caused as much devastation to the industry as the first and trade continued to dwindle; across the town, smoke belched from fewer and fewer kiln hoods.

In the 1950s, an old phenomenon enjoyed a resurgence: business takeovers (see this post about Watford). In 1946 the Maltsters’ Association had 89 members. By 1975 this had shrunk to sixteen through mergers and acquisitions. 

This building and mews on the high street was once Charles Wells’ foundry and workshop

In 1963, construction of a new state-of-the-art fully mechanised malting was begun by Harrington Page Ltd (already an amalgam of maltsters from Ware and Hertford) who then needed to be bought out by Pauls Malt of Ipswich to complete the project. The Wanderhaufen malting became the biggest building ever in Ware and represented the final hurrah for the trade in the town. At its peak, it had a capacity of 20,000 tonnes and would be staffed 24 hours a day in continual production.

In January 1994, it closed ending seven centuries of recorded malting in Ware. The managing director blamed the the downturn in beer and whisky production (which also requires malt) and the world recession.

Walking around the town today, you can still see plenty of its malthouses repurposed as dwellings. Many of the plates bearing the name Charles Wells are still in place as well as myriad mews and yards with ‘malting’ in their name. The old rivalry with Hertford survives into the present day too – the respective football and rugby teams are fiercely competitive.

2 Comments

  1. A brilliant, brilliant article. I used to live in Ware 30 years ago and knew a little bit about its brewing tradition, tho’ not as detailed as your article. However, I am delighted by by your photograph of Charles Wells foundry and workshop which is the entrance to Water Row where I used to live. The story from the estate agent was that the maltings (which you have identified as his foundry and workshop) had been converted into mews houses in the late 70’s by a developer who had used the piece of land adjacent to the river to build a detached 4 bed. house in a modern style. The individual residents of the mews houses had access round the back of this house to the river and a small landing stage, the big house had a gazebo overhanging the river, something Ware is famous for.
    Happy memories of that mews house which has been completed by your brilliant research into the history of brewing in Ware

    • I’m delighted you liked the article and thanks for sharing that memory. The best book on the subject (and the main source for the information in the post) is the Malthouses of Ware by David Perman which can be bought on Amazon as well as in Ware Museum. I really recommend that for a fuller history.

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