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Welcome to Episode 199 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best.

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Shakespeare references “beer” in his works 6 times, drawing attention to specific kinds of beer like “small beer” “double beer” and even one reference in Hamlet to beer barrels where the Prince of Denmark suggests that beer barrels had a stopper to keep them sealed. Drinking beer in Shakespeare’s lifetime was almost as regular as drinking water is today. So whenever you were thirsty, drinks like ale, beer, and spirits were popular choices. This beer drinking reality means that there was a strong economy for beer making and distilling in Elizabethan England, including unique storage methods, containers, and even some versions of beer like small and double beer that are obsolete today. To find out exactly what the state, varieties, and industry was behind beer for Shakespeare, we have invited our guest this week, Richard Unger, expert in the beer making of Elizabethan England, and author of the book “Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance” to help us explore the history of how beer was made for the life of William Shakespeare.Join the conversation below.

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Richard W. Unger was trained as an economic historian (Yale, 1971). He is now professor emeritus in the history department of the University of British Columbia where he taught for four decades. He has published extensively on the history of medieval and early modern shipbuilding and shipping, on the history of Renaissance cartography, energy consumption in Canada in the last two centuries and on medieval and Renaissance brewing in Europe and especially in the Netherlands and England. For example among other publications are, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004 (paperback edition 2007), and expected this year, “Beer and Taxes: the fiscal significance for Holland and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” TSEG – The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Richard Unger about :

  • What ingredients were used in making beer for Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • We know that alcohol was consumed copiously during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with drinks like ale or beer being known even as breakfast beverages to start the day in early modern England. When it came to providing this beer in these amounts, though Richard, who was primarily responsible for making the beer in the first place?
  • We know that tankards of ale were popular at places of business like a local tavern, for example, but for someone drinking beer at a local establishment, would they have drank their beer out of glass bottles or dipped their tankard into a beer barrel to dispense their beverage?

… and more!

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Books & Resources Richard Unger Recommends

Richard Unger’s book on Medieval and Renaissance Brewing

Bennett, Judith M. 1996. Ale, beer and brewsters in England : women's work in a changing world, 1300-1600, Oxford University Press.

Burton, Kristen D. (2013) ‘The Citie Calls for Beere: the introduction of hops and the foundation of industrial brewing in early modern London’, Brewery History. Vol. 15

Luu, Liên, 2016, “Beer Brewing,” in Immigrants and the industries of London, 1500-1700, London, Routledge,. 259-299 
(Cassidy Note: I am unable to find an online copy of this last reference, but if you ask your local librarian for a copy they are usually able to track down a version of academic publications for you to read.)

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