hist-brewing: historical mashing/new "old ale"

bjm10 at cornell.edu bjm10 at cornell.edu
Thu May 14 17:47:47 PDT 1998

On Thu, 14 May 1998, Andrew M. Hartig wrote:

> 1) In reviewing early (i.e. 1500-1750) sources (i.e. those found in 
> Renfrow, _Sip Through Time_) for beer/ale brewing, the mashing process 
> that seems to be called for is bringing the water to a boil (or almost a 
> boil?) and then pouring it (softly/gently?) over the malts in another 
> tub.  This is then left to sit for 1-3 hours (or until the "second water" 
> is ready), and is then "let out" of the tub and off of the grains into a 
> boiling vessel where it is then boiled (or gently heated?).
> It doesn't seem that the idea of mashing at a controlled temperature 
> (i.e. with the use of a thermometer, @ about 160 deg. F) came about until 
> 1800 or so.  (BTW, when _was_ the invention of the thermometer?)

The thermometer was invented after 1900--or at least the portable one 
was.  I don't know about ungainly prototypes.  The hydrometer wasn't too 
far behind.  However, this does not mean that there was no temperature 
control, just that temperature control was based on other factors than 
modern thermometric techniques.  It is definitely known ("London and 
Country Brewer", 1758--ninth edition, so it may have first been published 
many years before) that at least some English brewers in the 18th century 
determined water temperature via the "obscuration method"--as soon as the 
steam obscures your face or stops obscuring your face (if you brought the 
water to a boil first), the water is at strike heat.  This same work 
refers to water as being either "blood warm" or "milk warm"--not 
interchangeably, the correct "heat" was different for different types of 

I have brewed using the obscuration method, it worked nicely.  Now, it 
just so happens that, at least at my altitude, this occurs around 70 
degrees celcius.  (I checked with a lab thermometer.)

Your recipe looks fine, but don't use honey instead of oats and wheat.  
Those grains were not chosen because of their sugars.  They were probably 
empirically arrived upon for the properties they imparted to the wort 
othe than simple fermentables.  From a modern biochemical perspective, I 
would say that the oats were chosen for protein and fats--both of which 
are more ample in modern barley (I am just guessing here) than in the old 
"bear" style.  The wheat was chosen mostly for proteins--to give it a 
good head, or "flower", as it was called in the 17th century.  The latter 
practice is still done. If you don't want to play with oats, go ahead and 
use some honey (or more malt), but keep the wheat in.  It will make a 

> How does this sound to others?  I tend to be a bit on the "lazy" (or 
> should I say "relaxed"?) side, so I am not interested in keeping a 
> careful watch over the mashing process (i.e. thermometers and controlled 
> heat), so I would much prefer to brew this using the "infusion" technique 

Let us not forget that the mashing vessels of earlier brewers were either 
wood (18th century) or lead(!) (I HOPE that I'm mis-reading Markham in 
this case).  Thus, they were well-insulated.  Your best bet with a 
totally modern system is the "Gott"-style "modified cooler" mash vessel.  
You can improvise one nicely by using any cooler of proper volume that 
has a drain valve at the bottom (and it lets your drain your wort out the 
bottom, too.)

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