hist-brewing: Age, Clarity, Smoke in Medieval Beers

Dennis Walker ansel at hom.net
Sun May 18 11:36:00 PDT 1997

Ansel to all, Greetings

	I have read with interest the various posts about age, clarity, 
and smokiness in Medieval beers. I know I used to think that medieval 
beer was drunk green, nobody cared about clarity until at least the 
seventeenth century, and it had to be smoky since it was kilned over 
fires, didn't it? Lately, though, I've begun to think that Medieval 
brewers and drinkers did care about these aspects and addressed them.
	I have found references to glass drinking vessels in England as 
far back as the thirteenth century. Margaret Wade LaBarge, in _A Baronial 
Household of the Thirteenth Century_, 1965, citing _Forme of Cury, a Roll 
of Ancient English Cookery_, ed. S. Pegge, 1780, found glass cups in use 
in 1273, and that two cost 5d, a price she calls 'modest.' L.F. Salzman, 
in _English Industries of the Middle Ages_,1923, cites examples of 
glassmaking in medieval England from the thirteenth century onward. 
Although Salzman notes that overall, glass was made more for window 
glazing than drinking vessels, he found a reference in 1380 to a glass 
maker paid 6d for _every hundred_ of glass vessels made. William 
Harrison, in his _Description of England_, 1577, writes of drinking 
vessels: "As for drink, it is usually filled in pots, goblets, jugs, 
bowls of silver in noblemen's houses, also in fine Venice glasses of all 
forms, and for want of these elsewhere, in pots of earth of sundry colors 
and molds....It is a world to see in these our days, wherein gold and 
silver most aboundeth, how that our gentility, as loathing those metals 
(because of the plenty), do now generally choose rather the Venice 
glasses, both for our wine and beer, than any of those metals or stone 
wherein beforetime we have been accustomed to drink..."
	So it seems perhaps, at least among "gentility", glass drinking 
vessels were available and apparently preferred, before 1600. Period 
writers also commented on the desirability of clear beverages: 
	Andrew Boorde, in his _Dyetary of Helth_, 1542, (1870 Furnivall 
edition) says of choosing wine: "Chose your wyne after this sorte: it 
muste be fyne, fayre, and clere to the eye..." Of ale, he says "...Ale 
must haue these propertyes: it must be fresshe and cleare, it must 
not be ropy nor smoky..." Of beer he writes: "If the bere be well serued, 
and be fyned, and not new, it doth gualyfy the heat of the lyuer". 
	Harrison writes of beer: "The beer that is used at noblemen's 
tables in their fixed and standing houses is commonly of a year old, or 
peradventure of two years' tunning or more, but this is not general. It 
is also brewed in March and therefore called March beer; but for the 
household it is usually not under a month's age, each one coveting to 
have the same stale as he may, so that it be not sour..." [stale 
enough to be not sour...could this mean, old enough the yeast has 
	I know Doug Baden mentioned the passage in Boorde about "Ale 
shuld not be drunk vnder .v. dayes olde...", yet from these other 
passages it seems perhaps that the drink was wanted at least old enough 
for the yeast to have settled, ie, "fresshe and cleare"?   
	Harrison describes the malting process as well; the passage is 
lengthy but in short the grain is soaked for three days, drained, spread 
in round heaps "until it be ready to shoot at the root end", spread 
thinner and thinner over "one-and-twenty days at the least", being turned 
four or five times a day, "the workman not suffering it in any wise to 
take any heat". In kilning, "they give it gentle heats (after they have 
spread it there very thin abroad) till it be dry, and in the meanwhile 
they turn it often, that it may be uniformly dried. For the more it be 
dried (yet must it be done with soft fire), the sweeter and better the 
malt is and the longer it will continue..." Perhaps an effort to get a 
uniformly light malt?
	As to smokiness, Harrison writes: "In some places it is dried at 
leisure with wood alone, or straw alone, in other with wood and straw 
together, but, of all, the straw-dried is the most excellent. For the 
wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of 
color [so they prefered a light color?], it doth hurt and annoy the head 
of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke. Such also as use 
both indifferently [wood and straw?] do bark, cleave, and dry their wood 
in an oven, thereby to remove all moisture that should procure the 
	This seems like a fairly clear intent to avoid smoky malt. It 
also sounds like _fully modified_ malt to me, lengthy germination period, 
low (gentle) heat kilning, so that no protein rest would be needed. 
	They were also concerned about the resultant color, as noted by 
Harrison: "The best malt is tried by the hardness and color, for if it 
look fresh, with a yellow hue, and thereto will write like a piece of 
chalk after you have bitten a kernel in sunder in the midst, then you may 
assure yourself that it is dried down..."
	[As an aside, the business about marking like chalk was an early 
test which effectively measured starch content. More mealy, starchier 
barley would leave such a mark while flintier, thick-skinned barley with 
less ratio of starch would not--Peter Mathias, _The Brewing Industry in 
England 1700-1830_, 1959]    
	Harrison goes on to give a lengthy description of brewing 
household beer. He refers to the "excellent color" at least twice. I 
recently duplicated his recipe (on a smaller scale) as best I could; 
basically the grain is cracked and boiling water is added and drained 
three times, and hops were added to the liquours which were boiled for at 
least an hour and a half. When I did this using the same proportions I 
got an infusion at 154F, just about ideal, eh?, with subsequent 
'spargings' in the 170-180F range. And the beer clears naturally with no 
extra steps required other than waiting for the yeast to settle. 
	Dennis Walker

To unsubscribe from this list, send email to majordomo at pbm.com containing
the words "unsubscribe hist-brewing". To contact a human about problems, send
mail to owner-hist-brewing at pbm.com

More information about the hist-brewing mailing list