John Wesley Letters on Beer

This post is a continuation of my writings about John Wesley and his experiences with beer. For the two previous posts, please see, John Wesley Budweiser Beer Ad, and Responses to John Wesley Budweiser Beer Ad.

John Wesley penned the letters included below when he addressed several letters to the editor of the Bristol Gazette.

According to the Wesley Center Online, in the autumn of 1789, John Wesley penned several letters to the editor of the Bristol Gazette in regards to his opposition to several public opinions in favor of the bitter herb, hops, as being beneficial to good health. In John Wesley’s day, hops were used to turn ale into beer. John Wesley clearly pointed out that he disagreed with several contemporary, erroneous opinions.

John Wesley pointed out that as far back as King James I, Parliament had outlawed hops as a poisonous herb and that the act up to the time of John Wesley was never repealed. His frustrations pen clear as he argues that over time the ills of this poisonous weed were forgotten. John Wesley disdained the contemporary opinion that the herb was wholesome and greatly promoted good health. In addition, he rebutted the common opinion of the day that malt drink would not keep without the use of hops. His lengthy letter dated September 7, 1789, is below:

To the Printer of the ‘Bristol Gazette’

BRISTOL, HORSEFAIR, September 7, 1789.

  1. In the reign of King James I an Act of Parliament was made prohibiting the use of that poisonous herb called hops. It does not appear that this Act has ever been repealed. But in process of time it has been forgotten, and the poisonous weed introduced again. It has continued in use ever since; and that upon a general supposition, (1) that it was very wholesome, greatly promotive of health, and (2) that malt drink would not keep without it.
  2. On these suppositions the use of it has not only continued, but much increased during the present century. ‘I have lived in this town’ (Whitechurch in Shropshire), said a gentleman to me sometime since, ‘above forty years, and have all that time brewed much malt drink. I use just the same quantity of hops that I did forty years ago; but most of my neighbors use four times as much now as they did then.’
  3. Nearly the same has been done in other counties, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in particular. Forty years ago, I well remember, all the ale I tasted there had a soft, sweetish taste, such as the decoction of barley will always have if not adulterated by bitter herbs. So it had two or three thousand years ago, according to the account in Ovid, who, speaking of the manner wherein Baucis entertained Jupiter, says, Bibendure Dulce dedit, tosta quod coxerat ante polenta [Metamorphoses, v. 450; of the old woman and Ceres: ‘She gave her something sweet to drink which she had prepared from parched malt.’]; whereas all the ale in Yorkshire as well as in other counties is now quite harsh and bitter.
  4. But may it not be asked ‘whether this is not a change for the better, seeing hops are so exceeding wholesome a plant’ Are they so Why, then, do physicians almost with one voice forbid their patients the use of malt drink, particularly all that are infected with the scurvy or any distemper related to it Do not they know there is not a more powerful anti-scorbutic in the world than wort — that is, unhopped decoction of malt What a demonstration is this that it is the addition of hops which turns this excellent medicine into poison! And who does not know that wort, unhopped malt drink, is an excellent medicine both for the gout and stone But will any physician in his senses recommend the common malt drink to one that is ill of or subject to those diseases Why not Because there is no drink that more directly tends to breed and increase both one and the other.
  5. ‘But whether hops are wholesome or no, are they not necessary to prevent malt drink from turning sour’ I never doubtedofit for fourscore years. And there are very few that do doubt of it. It has passed for an incontestable truth ever since I was in the world. And yet it is as absolute palpable a falsehood as ever was palmed upon mankind. Any one may in a short time be convinced of this by his own senses. Make the experiment yourself. Brew any quantity of malt, add hops to one half of this, and none to the other half. Keep them in the same cellar three or six months, and the ale without hops will keep just as well as the other. I have made the experiment at London. One barrel had no hops, the other had. Both were brewed with the same malt, and exactly in the same manner. And after six months that without hops had kept just as well as the other. ‘But what bitter did you infuse in the room of it’ No bitter at all. No bitter is necessary to preserve ale, any more than to preserve cider or wine. I look upon the matter of hops to be a mere humbug upon the-good people of England; indeed, as eminent an one on the whole nation as ‘the man’s getting into a quart bottle’ was on the people of London.
  6. ‘However, are they not necessary on another account — namely, to advance the public revenue Does not the tax upon hops bring in two orthree hundred-thousandpounds yearly into the Exchequer’ Perhaps it does. And yet it may be not an advantage but a loss to the nation. So it certainly is if it breeds and increases grievous and mortal diseases, and thereby destroys every year thousands of His Majesty’s liege subjects. May not gold be bought too dear Are not one hundred thousand lives worth more than two hundred thousand pounds Each of these men, had this poison been kept out of his reach, had he lived out all his days, would probably have paid more yearly in other taxes than he paid for leave to put himself out of the world.

Oh that someone had the honesty and courage to inform His Majesty of this! Would the most benevolent Prince in Europe desire or consent to barter the lives of his subjects for money Nay, but in fact, it is selling them for naught, and taking no money for them; seeing it is evident, upon the whole of the account, that nothing at all is gained thereby. For it is certain more money is lost by shortening the lives of so many men (seeing the dead pay no taxes) than all the hop tax through the nation amounts to.

  1. ‘But do not many physicians, most of whom are now alive, and some of them of considerable note, affirm hops to be exceeding wholesome and that both in their conversations and writings’ They certainly do; but who can imagine that they believe themselves when they talk so If they did, would they deny, would they not prescribe malt drink to their gouty or scorbutic patients But they do not; because they know,howevergood wort might be for them, add hops to it and it commences poison. Deny this who dare. With what face, then, can any man of character affirm them to be wholesome But, whether they are necessary for raising money or no, certainly they are not necessary for preserving drink. This will keep for six or twelve months just as well without hops as with them.
  2. Yet we must not suppose that any arguments whatever, which ever were or can be used, will have any weight in this case with the planters or sellers of hops or those that are connected with them. They have a ready answer to the strongest reasons that can be advanced on this head (although they may not always see it expedient to speak out): ‘Sir, by this means we get our wealth.’ And is it not easy for them to procure ingenious men to plead for them when the craft is in danger When, therefore, we make observations of this kind, all which can be expected is that a few sensible men, who are neither blinded by interests nor carried away by popular clamor, will attend to the voice of reason, and be persuaded to save their money and preserve the health of their families.

This letter, as well as the letter of September 25 and October 3, shows Wesley’s concern for the health of his dear England. His point that many of the fields currently being used to produce hops could revert back to producing wheat, thus preventing the obnoxious periodic shortages of bread.

From the Wesley Center Online letter page is the following: “His experiment in London bears witness to the pains that the veteran took to make good his position; and the spirit in which the controversy was conducted in the Bristol Gazette reflects credit on all parties. Wesley’s letters on October 12 and 31 to Adam Clarke show what importance the old evangelist attached to the correspondence. We owe the copies of the three letters to the good offices of the Rev. Charles Feneley.”

In John Wesley’s letter of September 25, he responds to the candid correspondence of one who rebutted John Wesley’s original letter to the Bristol Gazette. In John Wesley’s response to this rebuttal, Wesley points out that: “He justly observes that ‘unfermented Malt drink is not fit for common beverage.’ But it may be fermented without hops full as well as with them. The fermentation (to which I have no objection) is caused not by the hops but the yeast. I believe the other ingredients in porter correct the noxious quality of the hops and make it very wholesome drink to those with whose constitution it agrees.” John Wesley clearly has no objection to the process of fermentation, but he is adamant that the use of hops introduces a “noxious quality” to the brew.


To the Printer of the ‘Bristol Gazette’

BRISTOL, September 25, 1789.

SIR, — I am obliged to your ingenious and candid correspondent for his late remarks. He justly observes that ‘unfermented Malt drink is not fit for common beverage.’ But it may be fermented without hops full as well as with them. The fermentation (to which I have no objection) is caused not by the hops but the yeast. I believe the other ingredients in porter correct the noxious quality of the hops, and make it very wholesome drink to those with whose constitution it agrees.

The last paragraph of this gentleman’s letter I heartily subscribe to, and wish it were inserted in every public paper throughout the three kingdoms: ‘If good malt liquor could be made without hops’ (nay, it is made; as good as any in England), ‘the saving in this respect would be such as would very well enable the brewer to pay an additional duty on his beer equal to five times the annual revenue arising from hops; and the hop grounds might be converted into excellent corn land.’ This is a stroke indeed! And deserves to be well considered by all lovers of their country.

John Wesley’s third letter to the Bristol Gazette clarifies his position that to those who are susceptible to the noxious effects of hops, “that hops are pernicious… to those that are inclined to stone, gout, or scurvy.” In this letter John Wesley also responds to a brewer in Bath who challenges John Wesley to “engage him for five-hundred pounds…” John Wesley advises that the man must have taken a drink of his “well-hopped beverage.”

To the Printer of the ‘Bristol Gazette’

BRISTOL, October 3, 1789.

SIR, — I am much obliged to your last correspondent also for the candor with which he writes. ‘Mr. Wesley,’ he observes, ‘had cautioned us against the use of hops on account of its poisonous quality. But the authority on which he grounds this is only an old obsolete Act of Parliament. He has not informed us of its mode of operation on the animal frame.’

‘Tis very true. I leave that to the gentlemen of the Faculty, for many of whom I have an high respect. Meantime I declare my own judgment, grounded not only on the Act of Parliament, but first on my own experience with regard to the gravel or stone, and secondly on the opinion of all the physicians I have heard or read that spoke on the subject.

I do not apprehend that we need recur either to ‘the Elements of Chemistry’ or to the College of Physicians on the head. I urge a plain matter of fact – ‘that hops are pernicious.’ I did not say to all (though perhaps they may more or less) but to those that are inclined to stone, gout, or scurvy. So I judge because I feel it to myself if I drink it two or three days together; and because so I hear from many skillful physicians; and I read in their works.

I cannot but return thanks to both your correspondents for their manner of writing, worthy of gentlemen. As to the gentleman brewer of Bath that challenges me to engage him for five hundred pounds, I presume he had taken a draught of his well-hopped beverage, or he would not have been so valiant. So I wish him well; and am, sir,

Your humble servant.

The last two letters of John Wesley on the subject of beer are addressed to a young man who is a faithful Wesleyan follower of Jesus. Adam Clarke, years later, will pen a highly respected commentary on the Bible. John Wesley was asking Adam Clarke to send him a copy of the three letters which John Wesley had penned to the Bristol Gazette.

To Adam Clarke

LONDON, October 12, 1789.

My DEAR BROTHER, — I took away this by mistake, which I suppose to be the key of your bureau. I must desire you to send me a copy of those three letters on hops which I published in the Bristol Gazette. I intend to print them both in Lloyd’s Evening Post and in the Magazine. I am rather better than worse since I came to London. So to-morrow I am to set out for Norfolk, from whence I hope to return hither in nine or ten days’ time. Let us work while the day is! — I am, with much love to Sister Clarke, dear Adam,

Your affectionate friend and brother.

To Adam Clarke

LONDON, October 31, 1789.

MY DEAR BROTHER, — I have little more to say on the subject of hops. Only I still insist upon two things: first, that they are hurtful to such and such persons; secondly, that they are not necessary to keep malt drink from turning sour. Let them beat me off this ground that can.

Even irregular, ill-conducted prayer-meetings have been productive of much good. But they will be productive of much more while they are kept under proper regulations.

You have reason to praise God for restoring your little one. If so, it will be time for Sister Clarke and you to break his spirit. Peace be with your spirits! — I am, dear Adam,

Your affectionate friend and brother.

According to the Wesley Center Online, “The letters on Hops do not seem to have been printed in the Evening Post or the Magazine.”


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