Brewing on the Dark Side

Lord Corwin of Darkwater
(Reprinted from Scum #6)

The Dark Ages

In the beginning, there were no dark beers. Indeed, the wonderful variety of dark lagers, brown ares, stouts and porters that we enjoy today are a relatively recent innovation in brewing. Interestingly enough, dark beers are an indirect result of the growth of civilization in western Europe.

Beer, of course, is made from malt (see Making Malt, by Countess Marieke van de Dal, Scum #6), and malt is nothing more than grain, sprouted and dried. Early maltsters sun-dried their malt - a gentle process that preserves all of the fermentable sugars produced in the malting process. Ale made from this malt would have been fairly light in color by modern standards, there being no caramelized sugars to darken the ale. That ale would also be very high in terms of nutrition - an important point for a staple in the diet of every man, woman and child.

But there were problems inherent in this method of malting. You needed several warm, sunny days in a row. If the weather didn't cooperate, you lost some (or all!) of your malt to any of a number of ills. The growing population, all of which were thirsty, only exasperated the problem. The solution, of course, was to dry the malt with fire.

Alas, as the malters discovered, you can't rush Mother Nature. Malt dried too long, or too hot, will caramelize. The sugars in the malt closest to the heat source darken and are no longer fermentable into alcohol. But progress is inevitable, and malters sought a balance between production, profit, and malt quality. Kiln dried malt became the status quo, and beer and ale darkened as a result. How dark is perhaps impossible to say, but one account, that of Archdeacon Becket in 1158, claimed that "Two of these chariots were laden solely with iron-bound barrels of ale, decocted from choice fat grain, as a gift for the French who wondered at such an invention - a drink most wholesome, clear of all dregs, rivalling wine in colour, and surpassing it in savour."


So was there no diversity to be found amongst Medieval brews? Hardly! Small beer and small ale were consumed in large quantities as thirst quenchers, fairly weak beverages that were intended to be drunk instead of water. Next in strength were the single coyt beers, called such because they were cooked once by the brewers. Twice as strong were the double coyt beers - cooked twice while brewing, and consequently twice as strong. Finally, brewers were also producing a kind of barley wine. According to Queen Elizabeth I, "a kynde of very strong bere calling the same doble-doble-bere".


By the 18th century, it had become popular to blend two or three varieties of ale, such as pale ale, new brown ale, and stale brown ale,together, and call the combination `three threads'. Now, pale ale was a clear, light colored, highly hopped ale that was made largely for export to India. New brown ale was hopped as well, and stale brown ale was hopped and aged (and despite the modern connotations of it's name, was considered a better drink than the new ale). The creation of porter has been attributed to Ralph Harwood who, in 1722, produced an ale that would displace the popularity of `three threads'. The brew was called `Mr. Harwood's Entire', and became very popular with the porters and laborers of London, and was subsequently named after them. In a few years, porter had become very popular indeed, with a number of taverns and public houses serving porter exclusively (along with another specialty, the porter house steak). The first written reference to porter can be found in a letter written by Cesar de Saussure in 1726, "Another kind of beer is called porter . . . because the greater quantity of this beer is consumed by the working classes. It is a thick and strong beverage, and the effect it produces if drunk in excess, is the same as that of wine; this porter costs 3d the pot."


The earliest known reference to stout is in a manuscript written in 1677, "We will drink your health both in stout and best wine." Although this predates the introduction of porter, at the time stout did not refer to any particular kind of beer, but rather to any strong beer. Stout did not become a distinctive style of beer until the beginning of the 19th century, when a stout porter produced by Arthur Guinness of Dublin became quite popular.

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