Age, Clarity, and Smoke in Medieval Beers

A posting from the historical brewing mailing list:

Date: Sun, 18 May 1997 11:36:00 -0700
From: Dennis Walker <> 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". [fyned?]

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 settled?]

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 fume..."

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.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir