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Artillery Row

The sparkling revolution

How the way we manufactured glass changed the world of alcohol

I had a brush with fame last summer when I was asked to be on Greg Wallace’s BBC programme Inside the Factory talking about the history of sparkling cider. To my elder daughter’s disappointment – she likes nothing better than to critique my cooking in his unique style – I didn’t meet Wallace himself. Instead, I spent a day with historian Ruth Goodman. Despite my lack of TV experience, everything went well until we visited a glassworks in Bath where I was supposed to explain how a new strong bottle was created that could take the pressure of sparkling cider. I thought the glass was stronger because coal-fired kilns were hotter; the glassmaker disagreed. It all got a bit awkward. Thankfully my segment was only six minutes so the awkwardness was left on the cutting room floor.

Before Digby’s time, bottles were much too fragile to take the pressure of fermentation

I wish I’d read Stephen Skelton’s splendid new book The Knight who Invented Champagne. The man in question, Sir Kenelm Digby, though the inventing sparkling champagne bit is poetic licence, Skelton argues that without Digby fizzy wine would not be possible because he perfected the strong glass wine bottle. Before Digby’s time, bottles were much too fragile to take the pressure of fermentation (which in modern champagne is something like the pressure of a London bus tyre). This toughened glass didn’t just make sparkling wine a possibility but meant wine and other drinks could be transported and stored in bottle, revolutionising the booze business.

Skelton’s book is a portrait of a rich and relatively obscure period in English history between the reigns of James I and Charles II. The crucial date is 23 May 1615, when James I decreed that coal had to be used to make glass instead of wood which was needed to build ships for the navy. As Skelton puts it: “With the stroke of his quill, the king started the industrial revolution…” Sir Robert Mansell, a Welshman and veteran of the Spanish Armada, was given the monopoly of this new coal-fired glass.

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665) (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Previously kilns were nomadic, following the source of wood, mainly in Kent and Sussex. Now they could be permanently sited near sources of coal like Newcastle or the Forest of Dean. Coal gives off a lot more heat than wood but it wasn’t the higher temperature that made the glass stronger as I thought. The strength came from the annealing process where the red-hot glass was cooled. The slower this takes place, the stronger the glass. In a temporary wood-fired kiln there would be no excess heat but with coal, there was enough to warm a separate oven where the glass could be cooled slowly. This is part of the mystery of Digby’s bottle that Skelton has solved.

Well, I say Digby’s bottle but Skelton doesn’t conclusively prove he invented it. There is circumstantial evidence linking Digby to the glassworks at Newnham-on-Severn but the strongest argument is a court case of 1662 against John Colnett, a Huguenot glassmaker, who tried to patent the wine bottle. He was challenged by four glassmakers who claimed to have been employed by Digby: Edward Percival, William Sadler, John Vinion and Robert Ward. The Attorney General ruled in their favour naming Digby as the inventor, stating: “The making of glass bottles is no new invention, for it has been of trade and public use for nearly thirty years.” It’s good enough for Skelton but hardly a smoking gun or, rather, a smoking bottle.

Digby wrote extensively including an autobiography and a book of recipes. The snappily-titled The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, which was published posthumously, contains the first mention of bacon and eggs for breakfast in English, but nothing about inventing the wine bottle.

Incidentally, the word bottle comes from the German word for scrotum, beutel – what a lovely image

Nevertheless, you can see why Skelton picked Digby (whose dashing portrait by Van Dyke graces the book’s cover). Digby is sexy. His father – a staunch Catholic – was hung, drawn and quartered for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. Digby had a varied career as a soldier, a privateer and an alchemist. As a young man, he claimed to have been propositioned by the Queen of France, Marie de Medici. A founder member of the Royal Society, he corresponded with scientists such as Galileo. He later married one of the great beauties of the time (Lady Venetia Stantley, whose portraits by Van Dyke sits opposite Digby’s in the National Portrait Gallery) and was devastated when she died. In recent years Digby has inspired a novel by Hermione Eyre, a biography by Joe Moshenka, my own book Empire of Booze and a brand of English sparkling wine.

Whoever was behind it, and it’s more likely to have been an evolutionary process, by the 1630s, strong glass bottles (now known as a globe and shaft bottle because of the shape) were being mass-produced in England. Incidentally, the word bottle comes from the German word for scrotum, beutel. What a lovely image.

This is where the story gets interesting because the French didn’t have this glass, so could not possibly have made fizz. Therefore, the myth of Dom Perignon as the inventor of sparkling champagne comes from an 1821 book by Dom Grossard from the abbey at Hautvillers.

It has long been noted that wine would stop fermenting when the winter came and then begin again when things warmed up, giving off a gas, later identified as carbon dioxide. It’s even in the Bible, Matthew 9:17: “Neither do men put new wine into old skins; else the skins break.” But only the English had a way of harnessing these bubbles. In Closest Opened, Digby writes of methods for making sparkling cider, by corking bottles tightly and keeping them cool to prevent explosions.

It seems certain that before there was sparkling champagne, there was sparkling cider

By the 1660s, other members of the early Royal Society (founded in 1660), were experimenting with bottle fermentation. The equivalent would be today if NASA had a home brew division. The big step came when it was noted that adding sugar would fuel a second fermentation. It’s well known now, thanks to the work of champagne expert Tom Stevenson, that it was an Englishman, Christopher Merret, who first wrote about this. But Merret mentions coopers – not bottles  in his paper to the Royal Society of 12 December 1662. Two days earlier, however, another paper to the society by the Reverend John Beale tells of adding “a walnut of sugar” to bottles containing cider rather than wine. This is around 20g, almost the exact amount used to make champagne today.

In his paper Beale writes as if adding sugar to cause fermentation was not a new thing. A forthcoming book, Cider Country: in Search of a Forgotten History by James Crowden, contains recently discovered letters written by Beal in the 1650s talking about sparkling cider.

This was what I was on Inside the Factory to talk about: a brief flowering of high-quality cider caused by wars with France and the Dutch disrupting the wine supply. The bible of the cider revolution was Pomona by John Evelyn published in 1664. In it he writes: “Our design is relieving the want of wine, by a succedaneum [substitution] of Cider.” Aristocrats like Viscount Scudamore in Herefordshire were making high strength, over 10 per cent ABV, ciders that owed more to wine than the sort of thing drunk by rural labourers. John Worlidge’s 1678 “Treatise on cider”, Vinetum Britannicum, tells of how a barrel of Redstreak was worth as much as the finest Canary sack. Yes, there are a lot of Johns in this story.

Putting it all together: the modern glass bottle was invented sometime around 1630 – possibly by Digby. Twenty years later it was common for these to be used to create deliberately sparkling cider and wine, this includes champagne imported in cask from France. The French aristocrat Charles St. Evremond introduced the wines of the region to the court of Charles I. Taittinger’s Kent vineyard, just down the road from me in Faversham, is named Domaine Evremond in his honour.

The first mention of sparkling champagne in English is in Etheridge’s 1676 play, The Man of Mode. The first mention in French isn’t until the 1690s. According to Skelton, the first patent in French for bottles “à la manière d’Angleterre” wasn’t until 31 January 1709, and sparkling champagne only really took off after the death of Louis XIV in 1715, incidentally the same year Dom Perignon died.

It seems certain that before there was sparkling champagne, there was sparkling cider. Sadly, these wonderful creations didn’t last long. The wine shortage was solved by port in the 1690s. Bottle-fermented cider was made again in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Bulmer’s used to offer a Super Champagne Cider de Luxe. But cider was industrialised after world war two. Bulmers of Hereford, where Gregg Wallace filmed Inside the Factory, uses apple concentrate. But there’s a quiet revival going on in the countryside. Ironically, just as England is making wine to rival champagne, producers such as Find & Foster in Devon or Tom Oliver in Herefordshire are reviving the sort of ciders made by Beale, Worlidge and Digby. Yet it is a story that is still almost unknown. Perhaps someone could interest the BBC in a series.

The Knight who invented Champagne by Stephen Skelton will be published April 2021 (self-published).

Cider Country by James Crowden will be published August 2021 (Harper Collins).

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