hist-brewing: Gruit and unhopped ales

adam larsen euphonic at flash.net
Thu Apr 27 23:37:46 PDT 2000

    My final posting concerning general production methods shall contend
with  yeast selection, fermentation and aging recommendations.  Future
posts will contain actual recipes, sources for unusual ingredients and
responses to any inquiries.  To the greatest extent possible, i will
endeavor to include any relevant ethnographic information relating to
the origins of the beverage in question.  If  the readership have any
questions regarding my postings up to this point please tell me and i'll
do my best to provide any additional clarity i can.

Yeast Selection and Fermentation

    In my estimation, the selection of yeasts and fermentation
conditions appear to be the most difficult aspect of making ales that
approximate those of antiquity.  During my research i've come across
references to two different yeasts that were previously unknown to me.
    While going through Donnsby's old family recipes i've found several
comments regarding the desirability of   "Northerndown yeast".  This
yeast is reputed to be "buttery in taste and easy to preserve".  While I
assume "Northerndown" is a particular strain i'm at a loss as to it's
actual identity.   The second is referred to as "tawny yeast" which
apparently is made into a starter with either molasses or treacle in
combination with whater,  hop leaves, an egg white and bread crumbs.  In
both cases the recommended pitching rates seem to translate into 2-4
quarts per quarter barrel depending upon the recipe.   Unfortunately,
i'm unable to discover any additional information regarding these two
kinds of yeast.  Perhaps the readership may be able to shed some light
on this topic.
    One aspect of the brewing process, as recommended by Sykes,  which
appears odd to me is the recommendation that all of  the trub from the
boil vessel be placed into the fermenter.  He then suggests that the ale
be racked 2 days after the yeast is pitched.  Half  the trub is then to
be saved as you would yeast and reintroduced into the ale after it
completes fermentation with roughly 2 ounces of  an  unspecified, but
spiced, distilled liquor and 2 quarts of  fresh cream per 5 gallons.
The brewer then instructed to wait two days and then rack the ale into
the aging vessel. The ale is then left until consumption is recommended.

    Although i've been assured that this procedure produces fine ale i
can't help but to think that large amounts of trub present during
fermentation and unnecessary racking can't help but to produce poor
results.  I'm also quite worried about introducing cream into ale under
any circumstances.   As a result, i've lacked the fortitude to attempt
the fore mentioned procedure. Perhaps the more adventurous elements of
the readership could attempt such a procedure and  inform me of  the
    I have also observed a Nordic practice whereby the fermentation
takes place in a ceramic pot or churn rapped in blankets which are
soaked by melting  ice.  I assume the intention is to provide
evaporative cooling .  Although i've been told that is practice is quite
ancient i'm unconvinced because  i've seen no mention of it in any any
vintage text and, as a result,  believe this to be a recent practice .
    Another interesting element of these ceramic vessels is  that that
they often have affixed to them a home made airlock which is inserted
into a wooden lid .  It appears to be constructed of  two short wooden
tubes that differ in diameter by about 1/2".  The smaller of the two is
placed in side the larger and  a hole is drilled through the both of
them which are then held  to together by a dowel. A donut shaped piece
of wood is fitted to the bottom of  air lock between the two tubes.  A
thimble like object is placed on top of  smaller tube and the assembly
filled with bitterly spiced water.  A piece of cheese cloth like
material is then affixed to the entire assembly.
      Unlike the evaporative cooling arrangement described earlier, some
conclusions regarding the vintage of this airlock design can be made.
I've seen hand written notes, circa 1880's,  describing the construction
method and a diagrams in a carpentry text of similar vintage.

Aging Recommendations

    In my experience, ales that have no gruits, hops or boiled shavings
typically should be consumed quickly, i.e. in less then a week.  These
ales are best consumed flat as they seem to go off  after two or  more
weeks in a bottle.  Such ales can be quite good but do to their lack of
staying power i'd  recommend  preparing very small batches.
    As an aside, i've noted  a curious soda like beverage in Iceland
that has great similarity to to the unspiced ales of old.  I've been
told that it's production method is similar to making wort.  Instead of
hopping the sweet wort is apparently left unfermented, filtered, forced
carbonated and canned.  Having sampled this strange soda I can safely
say that it tasted like a light bodied, unhopped sweet wort.  If anyone
has attempted to make such a beverage i'd be delighted to hear about it.

    Contrary to the advice of  other brewers who have made shavings ales
i've found that  they are best drunk no less then 1 month, preferably 2,
after being bottled.  Younger shavings ales, regardless of  the wood
used,  are quite harsh with unpleasant, to me at least, after tastes.
Typically, shavings ales benefit from a long, 2-3 weeks, secondary
fermentation period during which the yeast  is "feed" one to three sugar
cubes each day.  I'm not sure why this improves the flavor but it does
make for a better balanced ale.
    Gruit based ales have no general prescription for aging.  instead,
the herbs that compose the gruit and method of spicing determine how
long it should be stored prior to consumption.  As a result, i'll give
my  aging recommendations  for the recipe in question if  i've got
actual experience.  When such  ground truth is lacking i'll simply
provide the recommendations of the recipes' author.

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