Tuesday, August 20, 2013

History Down the Pub: London, August 28th

Harvey Quamen: Using Digital Humanities Techniques to Study the History of Beer and Brewing

Three major questions—all difficult to answer—prompt this talk:
  1. what caused the sudden demise of porter around 1820?
  2. how did the style called India Pale Ale spread so rapidly?
  3. can we locate the historical London breweries?
Although surrounded in some mystery, these questions might be answerable using some techniques from the digital humanities. In particular, building a database of historical recipes will help us understand the movement and growth of beer styles (especially as those styles moved through homebrewing) and we can begin to track master-apprenticeship relationships with the use of propopographies, databases that serve as “collective biographies” of groups of people. Finally, using historical maps (like the Agas map digitized at the Map of Early Modern London project), we might begin to reconstruct the historical distribution of beer around the capital.

Harvey Quamen is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta, Canada. A longtime homebrewer, Quamen spent the 2009 academic year as a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London. Drinking with KCL and UCL friends began his foggily remembered interest in the history of London brewing.

This lecture is the inaugural event of the History Down the Pub series, and will be held in the Plough, 27 Museum Street, London (opposite the British Museum: see https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=WC1A+1LH), at 6pm on Wednesday August 28th 2013.

All welcome.


  1. "what caused the sudden demise of porter around 1820?"

    Nothing - there WAS no sudden demise of porter around 1820. Porter remained the dominant beer style, certainly in London, until well after 1850, albeit under increasing pressure from Mild Ale and, to a much smaller degree from circa 1840 and only at the top end of the market, from pale bitter ale.

    Martyn Cornell

  2. Indeed, this is part of the mythology that I am hoping to talk about and one that Martyn Cornell details nicely in his book. (Glad it caught your eye!) There are so many mythologies about brewing history that perhaps some new digital techniques can help us to learn more.

    The stories are elaborate and fascinating, including, in part, the rise of various technologies (the saccharometer, the invention of the 'black patent' technique in 1817, for example), the rise of new sciences (Louis Pasteur's work on the microbiology of yeast), and economic forces (the repeal of the glass tax in 1845), all of which contribute to the history of beer and brewing in London.

    But collecting definitive accounts from sparse historical material has always been challenging and that's why new digital tools like prosopographies might be an effective means of tracing the social networks of brewing.

    Harvey Quamen