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.
- 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
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.
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.