You are here

Liquid Legacies: Beer and Brewing at the Queen's College

The following is an online version of an exhibition which was on display in the Upper Library between June 2017 and January 2018. This exhibition looks at the history of brewing at the college and was curated by Robin Hobbs. 

All images are copyright The Queen’s College and may not be reproduced without permission.

Beer in College culture

Beer has long been at the heart of many traditions and customs at Oxford. One of the most famous examples is that of Ivy Beer. On the morning of Ascension Day every year the door between Brasenose and Lincoln is opened to allow Brasenose members to enter Lincoln and receive free beer. The origin of this custom is said to be that centuries ago a Brasenose man was fleeing a mob from the town and sought sanctuary in Lincoln. Lincoln refused to open their gates and the student was killed. The annual gift of beer is Lincoln’s permanent penance. However, the beer is traditionally tainted with ivy supposedly to discourage Brasenose students from taking advantage of their hospitality. Perhaps less well known is the role beer played in the daily life of most colleges. A retired fellow of Queen’s once quipped: “Taken from milk, air and exercise, to tea, beef, and a sedentary life in College, most of those who reside much become nervous and low-spirited. Assistance is sometimes sought from the bottle…” (Hodgkin 1949 p.160), and nowhere was this assistance better provided than at The Queen’s College. Closing in 1939, the brewhouse at Queen’s was the last surviving college brewery by over fifty years and Provost Hodgkin maintains that Queen’s students were far more likely to boast about their brewhouse than their library. Judging by the strength and quantity of brewhouse production, Queen’s could definitely be considered a ‘strong-drink college’, particularly compared to the likes of All Souls who produced as much ‘small’ beer as they did ‘strong’. One of the more common uses to which beer was put at Queen’s was the tradition known as sconcing. Students who misbehaved during mealtimes were made to drink two pints of ale in a go and if they were successful their peers had to then drink a pint. Sconcing was abolished the same year the brewhouse closed, as College Ale was considered too good to be used as a punishment and supplies were now limited. Queen’s used to possess a three pint tankard dating from 1700 which had a series of pegs to denote a pint for each successive drinker and is said to be the origin of term to ‘take down a peg’.

The Oxford Sausage: or, Select Poetical Pieces Written by the most Celebrated Wits of the University of Oxford

Thomas Warton, 1777

T. Warton, A Panegyric on Oxford Ale

“All-pow’rful ALE! whose sorrow-soothing Sweets,

Oft I repeat in vacant Afternoon,

When tatter’d Stockings ask my mending Hand,

Not inexperienced ; while the tedious Toil,

Slides unregarded” (p.58)


Warme Beere, or a treatise wherein declared by many reasons, that Beere so qualified is farre more wholesome then that which is drunk cold. With a confutation of such objections that are made against it; published for the preservation of health

Henry Overton, 1641

“[I] will only relate unto you what I have found true by long experience. First, heretofore when I did alwayes drink cold beer, and now and then a cup of wine, I was very often troubled with exceeding pain in the head, which did much distemper me; also with stomache-ache, tooth-ache, cough, cold, and many other Rheumatick diseases: But since my drinking my beer (small or strong) actually hot as bloud, I have never been troubled with any of the former diseases, but have alwayes continued in very good health constantly (blessed be God)” (quoted from the preface)


An Act prohibiting to Brew for Sale any ALE or BEER above Ten shillings the Barrel, besides the Excize

Parliament, 1649


By the Queene. A Proclamation forbidding the transportation and carriage of all manner of graine and Beere out of the Realme, to endure vntill the next Michaelmas hereafter following

Elizabeth I, Queen of England, 1590


By the Protector. A proclamation Commanding a speedy and due Execution of the Laws made against the abominable sins of Drunkenness, profane Swearing and Cursing, Adultery, Fornication, and other acts of uncleannesse

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, 1655


A Taste of Ale: in prose, verse and song

Roy Palmer, 2000

“The terms ale and beer are now interchangeable but the two beverages were formerly distinct. Both were normally brewed with malted barley – and an ear of barley appeared on a coin of Cunobelin, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, as early as the first century – but ale was flavoured only with such herbs as ground ivy or rosemary, and even heather or broom. Its supporters fiercely resisted the alien hops which started to arrive from the continent in the fifteenth century and turned the ale into beer. Paradoxically, beer in due course became the national drink, to be strongly championed in its turn against foreign wines. Beer and Britannia were synonymous. Beer became part of the fabric of life…as the drink, so those who brewed it and those who purveyed it, together with the places where it was consumed – alehouse, inn, tavern, hostelry, hotel, public house, bar, vault – inspired a vast literature of books and ballads, plays and poetry, not to speak of social commentary and sociological controversy”. (p.5-6)


The drinking horn of the founder, Robert Eglesfield.
The Frog Cup

There is a frog inside this china cup which is said to perform a practical joke on whoever quaffs the last of its contents. As the mug was drained the frog filled with beer and when almost empty the frog would gurgle and shoot the dregs into the face of the drinker.

Brewing at The Queen's College

The Queen’s College Brewhouse Production

In 1341 the founder of Queen’s College, Robert Eglesfield, gave instructions in the College Statutes that brewing was to be done on the premises. The statutes of 1341 contain three clauses that state that Queen’s will have ale brewed on site, a brewer, and a horse-mill. However, these rulings were not fully complied with. There was no dedicated brewer initially, with brewing performed by the cook and under-cook, and no evidence of a horse-mill. A college horse-mill would have been unnecessary given the numbers of college members in the medieval period being far fewer than Eglesfield envisioned – the statutes were designed for a very large establishment. Former Archivist J.M. Kaye (1995) observes that the history of brewing in Queen’s can be viewed in three identifiable periods. The first runs from the founding of the College in 1340 to the 16th century. There is very little surviving information on early brewing at Queen’s, but during this time the College likely brewed what was originally termed ale, a liquor brewed from malt alone without any hops. The second period identified by Kaye spans the 16th century to 1690. During this time beer was not brewed on site but bought from commercial brewers in town. It is not known why the College stopped brewing in the 16th century, though Kaye speculates that it could be due to a rise in College members making brewing impractical without taking on more members of staff, or it could be that the introduction of hops into brewing would have made new equipment necessary and cause the process to take up more time. The third period is one of continuous brewing that stretches from 1690 to 1939. It is unknown precisely what prompted the resurrection of the Queen’s brewhouse, but a potential explanation is dissatisfaction with the commercially brewed beer brought in from town - in 1676 the Vice-Chancellor is noted to have observed that commercial brewers ‘have not of late years made the beer and ale of equal goodness with that of former times’ (Kaye 1995 p.26).

Queen’s originally brewed only two types of beer, variously referred to over the centuries as ‘small’ and ‘strong’, ‘middle’ and ‘double’, and ‘single’ and ‘double’. By 1860s records show that four distinct beer styles were brewed by the College brewhouse, referred to as ‘extra’, ‘bitter’, ‘ale’, and ‘small’. ‘Extra’ is almost certainly Chancellor Ale, although the name Chancellor doesn’t appear until 1867. ‘Ale’ most likely refers to College Ale, the College brewhouse’s main brew, while ‘bitter’ appears to be a more heavily hopped variant of College Ale. Over the years the brewhouse account books show a steadily increasing proportion of hops to malt was purchased, indicating a shift in preference for more hoppy beers among college drinkers. ‘Small’ refers to less alcoholic beers produced by performing a second mash with the malt used for a regular strength brew. Additionally, the accounts for 1862 make reference to a ‘stout’, although whether this was a trial brew by the Queen’s brewhouse or something bought in from commercial breweries is unknown. The average stock in the beer cellar during the 19th century was 150 gallons of Chancellor Ale, 100 gallons of College Ale, 90 gallons of bitter, and 10 gallons of cider. The highest level of beer stock was recorded in 1867 with 150 gallons of Chancellor Ale, 422 gallons of College Ale, and 100 gallons of bitter.

The Brewers

  • Very little is known about the early brewery, but in place of a dedicated brewer early brewing at Queen’s is thought to have been carried out by the cook and under-cook
  • In 1690 the brewer was likely a specialist hired in for each brew from a town brewery
  • From 1694 the brewer was one John Blackwell
  • Mr Owen, the butler, was brewer from 1860 to 1890
  • J.F. Hunt gradually took over from 1870 to 1927 having been involved in Queen’s College brewing for 56 years
  • George White, one of the gardeners, acted as brewer from 1927 under the supervision of Louis Gunter from Morrell’s Brewery

The Brewhouse

All the beer brewed at Queen’s over the centuries was done on the same spot, the site of the present day Carpenter’s Workshop next to the Shulman Auditorium. The date of its original construction is unknown but features such as the roof beams suggest a great age. The original mash tun was a copper tank built into a high brick structure with a furnace below, which was more than twelve feet high and was accessed from a flight of wooden stairs. Water, known as liquor in the brewing process, was held in a wooden tank and raised into the mash tun using a pump consisting of a wooden bucket and lead pipes, which was built around 1500. The facility for cooling the wort after the boil was a series of shallow wooden troughs which were two inches deep and large enough for the whole brew, which was approximately 9 barrels. During the 1920s a new cooling system was used which consisted of a copper coil connected to a cold water supply and inserted into the wort. Queen’s brewhouse was hired out to New College and All Souls from 1691 to 1697 for an annual sum of £25 and All Souls even made an entrance in the wall separating All Souls and Queen’s for the very purpose.

Brewing Procedure

The brewing methods used at Queen’s were practically no different from the monastic breweries of the Middle Ages and remained fundamentally unchanged in over 400 years of operation. The only modern pieces of equipment used in the College brewhouse were the thermometer and coolant coil introduced in the early 20th century. In this way Queen’s brewery is of unique historical interest as an example of ancient British brewing, particularly so, as for the last 52 years of its life it was the last remaining among Oxford colleges. Brewing started at 5am with the heating of 10 barrels of water to 80 degrees before being run into the mash tun. For the standard College Ale, 28 bushels of malt were then added and mashed with an oar before the wort (a term for the mixture that will become beer prior to fermentation) was left to stand for two hours and then run off. The aim of the mashing process is to the extract the sugars from the malted grain which will later be fermented. A second mash is then performed using the same malt which naturally yields a far smaller amount of sugars and is used to produce much less alcoholic beers known as ‘small beers’. The two worts were then boiled separately for two hours and with 10 lbs of hops added to each boil. Next the worts were cooled separately in shallow wooden coolers and transferred to the wooden fermenting vessels. Yeast was then pitched to each of these 9 barrels and they were left to ferment overnight. The beer was then ladled by hand into barrel-sized casks with the bung-hole left open allowing the yeast to bubble out and into yeast troughs, a system which can be considered a forerunner of the Burton Union yeast system. Over the next three days, as yeast bubbled out of these vessels beer was ladled back in to ensure they remained almost full. Two handfuls of hops were thrown in to add flavour and aroma, a process known as ‘dry hopping’, before the casks were sealed up and rolled into the beer cellar. These were stood for two to three weeks at a steady temperature before broaching in order to allow for conditioning, a phase of the fermentation process that enhances the flavour and the clarity of the beer.

The Beer Cellar

The beer cellar with an assortment of wooden coopered casks and buckets.

Location of the brewhouse

Map taken from Hodgkin, Six Centuries of an Oxford College, 1949. The brewhouse was located in the present-day carpenter’s workshop.

Chancellor Ale, as recreated by beer archaeologists

The difficulty of beer archaeology, beyond piecing together historical recipes, is that the raw materials often cannot be exactly replicated. The types of malt, varieties of hops, and yeast strains may no longer be available, or might have different characteristics today than they once did. It is also extremely difficult to ascertain details such as yields from the mash. Changing techniques in brewing further complicate faithful reproductions of historical beers, for example sparging (a process whereby hot water is run through the grain after the mash to extract the malt sugars) has taken the place of the double-mash (the recirculation of the water back into the mash tun for a second mash). Chancellor Ale is a rare case in which a fairly detailed account of its production survives as it was produced by the College brewhouse up until 1937, although it is uncertain how close the 20th century recipe is to that of the 18th and 19th centuries.


7.7 kg pale malt
43g Target hops (bittering hops)
28g Fuggles hops (finishing hops)
2/3 tsp. Irish moss
White Labs WLP007 English Ale Yeast


  1. Mash in at 64–65.6 °C, using about 3 litres of water per kilogram of grain
  2. After 90 minutes, run off the first 2 gallons (7.6 L) and set aside
  3. Sparge to collect a further 5 gallons (19 L)
  4. Combine with the first wort
  5. Boil vigorously for an hour or so, then add the bittering hops (43g of Target) and boil for another hour
  6. Add the Irish moss 10–20 minutes before the end of the boil.
  7. As you turn off the heat, add the finishing hops (28g Fuggles)
  8. Top up to 3 gallons with cold, sterile water if required
  9. Cool to 21 °C, transfer to primary fermentation vessel, and pitch the yeast
  10. Allow a week for primary fermentation to complete, then transfer to a secondary fermentation vessel
  11. Leave to mature in a cool, dark place for a year
Chancellor Ale

 ‘Some may question its flavour, but none its potency’

                             J.M. Kaye, The Queen’s College Record, 1936

The Queen’s College brewhouse produced two main beers: College Ale and Chancellor Ale. College Ale was brewed monthly (except in summer when it was too warm) and made up the vast majority of beer brewed and consumed at Queen’s. Writing in The Brewers’ Journal in 1927, H. Lloyd Hind wrote that College Ale ‘had a good malt and hop flavour’ and reported it to be 6.6% ABV. The college’s special brew, however, was the renowned Chancellor Ale. Chancellor Ale was brewed once a year and, in the early 19th century at least, followed the same brewing method as College Ale except it uses twice as much malt (50lbs instead of 25lbs), was boiled for three hours with 20lbs of hops, and was stored for a year before broaching. Legend has it that Chancellor Ale used to be made by modifying the brewing process by substituting water for College Ale. However, this rumour likely stems from the practice in the early 19th century of brewing Chancellor Ale by using the liquor run off from the first mash of College Ale and mashing it again with fresh malt. The doubling of the malt would have produced a beer more in the style of a barley wine, a notion which is corroborated by accounts from those who have tasted it. A visitor to the college in the mid-nineteenth century described the Chancellor Ale as ‘like port wine’ (Peaty 1997 p.51) and Hind describes it as ‘wonderfully vinous and pleasant’, noting in his analytical report its potency of 10.71% ABV. It is no wonder that in medieval times barley wine was simply known as ‘strong ale’. Chancellor Ale was so potent that the Dean forbid anyone from having more than a pint and it was commented that two glasses was more than enough to intoxicate anyone. Chiang Yee in The Silent Traveller in Oxford recounts being given half a pint of Chancellor Ale, noting that ‘it tasted stronger than ordinary beer’ and describes feeling the effects almost immediately (Yee 2003 p.123). Chancellor Ale was only drunk on festive occasions, such as a gaudy or when a student received a ‘blue’, and from special tall slim glasses. The beer holds a unique place in the history of The Queen’s College, and as an anonymous author wrote in The Brewers’ Journal, ‘it would be a thousand pities if this magnificent beverage passed out of knowledge’.


Brewing at The Queen’s College ceased at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, this is thought to be due to the poor condition of the brewing equipment rather than a labour shortage. Brewing vessels were reported to be decayed and beyond repair in a quote for new equipment from Wilson and Scotchman Ltd of Somerset, dated 21 November 1941. The original quote for the replacement equipment was £72 plus £9 labour but no action was taken and by 1945 the quote had risen to £160 plus £20 labour. Estimates for the costs of brews were made in 1945 but these never came to fruition. In 1949 Mr. C.K. Mill, the managing director of Arthur Guinness and Son, offered to rebuild the brew vessels after his son, a student at Queen’s, reported that college brewed ale was no longer available. Estimates for the costs for brews were again made in 1953, but despite an estimated profit margin of £24 the governing body decided against reinstating the brewhouse. The old brewhouse was converted into the Carpenter’s Workshop in 1958.