The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales Extracts Food and Drink

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), October 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales Extracts Food and Drink


Beer is the national drink of Wales. Down the centuries it has lubricated every social occasion, from funerals to rugby matches, and refreshed workers from the mines and the harvest fields, yet Welsh beer never gained a reputation to match Irish stout or Burton ales.

In part, this was because few Welsh breweries managed to sell their beer beyond Wales, most struggling to keep up with local demand during the industrial boom of the 19th century.

Another factor was the strength of the Temperance Movement, which forced most Welsh breweries to maintain a low profile.

No nation boasts less about its beer, although Welsh ale was once highly prized in Britain. King Ine of Wessex ruled in AD 690 that the food rent for 10 hides of land should include 'twelve ambers of Welsh ale'.

This was a heavy brew, laced with spices, often sweetened with honey; known as bragawd or bragget, it was almost as famous as that other Celtic drink, mead.

The considerably milder 'small' or table beer (cwrw bach) was the everyday drink of the people, brewed on a domestic scale in many households and every inn.

Farms were expected to provide beer for their workers.

The only large-scale business involved was malting, producing beer's basic ingredient from barley.

In 1822 Welshpool had 14 maltsters but no commercial breweries.

The Industrial Revolution overturned this rural economy, the hordes of workers in the ironworks and coalmines needing to quench their thirst. Publican brewers could not cope with the demand, and common brewers sprang up to supply the many new pubs allowed by the Beer House Act of 1830.

By 1848, Merthyr Tydfil had 12 breweries and 300 pubs.

While the Rhymney Iron Company set up its own brewery in 1839, most industrialists were opposed to strong drink, as drunkenness became rife.

The churches and chapels were appalled, and temperance preachers found a swelling audience.

This powerful movement forced through the Welsh Sunday Closing Act in 1881, and pressed for local prohibition.

It was in this hostile atmosphere that the Welsh brewing industry developed, and most of the beers produced were relatively weak milds - light or dark in colour - to satisfy both the raging thirsts of the workers and the demands of the Temperance Movement.

Stronger beers tended to come from Burton, though some brewers, such as SA Brain and Co of Cardiff, also produced premium pale ales.

Even the Welsh brewing capital of Wrexham, once famed for the strong ales from its 19 breweries, eased the strength of its brews.

When the Wrexham Lager Beer Company was established in 1882, boasting that it was the first lager brewery in Britain, its light Pilsener was promoted as a temperance drink which would 'diminish intoxication'.

Other notable developments included the Felinfoel Brewery to help the local tinplate industry, it became in 1935 the first brewery in Europe to can beer.

By the end of the 20th century, Felinfoel was one of only two remaining independent breweries in Wales, along with SA Brain and Co, which had taken over Crown Buckley of Llanelli in 1997.

English breweries had swallowed most of the famous names during the 1960s, from Rhymney and Evan Evans Bevan of Neath by Whitbread, to Hancock's of Cardiff and Swansea by Bass.

However, from the 1980s a new wave of local breweries began producing traditional ales.

Many soon disappeared, but a few survived into the new millennium, such as Bullmastiff of Cardiff, Plassey near Wrexham and the ambitious Tomos Watkin of Swansea, taken over in 2002 by the rapidly expanding Hurns Brewing Company which was founded in Swansea in 1888 as The Hurns Mineral Water Company.

All these are dwarfed to insignificance by the huge brewery at Magor on the M4, which makes international brews such as Stella Artois and Heineken. …

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