“Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.” — Queen Victoria, English Monarch, 1819-1901
I love the moxie of this photo. An adorable toddler advertising stout–priceless! But if you were living in the Middle Ages, the joke would have been lost on you. Why? Because this kid would have been nursing ale all day long. So would his parents, his siblings, and his little baby friends he met on medieval playdates. Just kidding about the last–the concept of a playdate would have been funnier to a medieval person than this pic. But the point is, medieval people drank all day long, young and old alike.
There was no AA in the Middle Ages
I remember being dumbfounded when I first learned how much ale medieval people drank. It was in 7th grade history. Our teacher, a medieval enthusiast, explained the necessity of drinking ale in the Middle Ages: Water made people sick, ale didn’t. That made sense. Still, how could a society full of drunks function? In my mind, it was like a scene out of Animal House, only more chaotic because there were a bunch of drunk babies crawling around, too.
Turns out, I have an overactive imagination. The ale medieval people drank throughout the day was weak. So weak that if you drank some today, you might think you accidentally grabbed an O’Douls…a very flat O’Douls. Now don’t go canceling your plans to spend spring break in medieval Europe just yet. Not all the ale was weak. Take a stroll through any medieval burgh, and you’ll be sure to find an Alehouse with a strong brew.
Or better yet, learn to brew it yourself…
This is an especially good idea if you are a woman. Everybody loves a good ale, and your medieval neighbors are willing to pay for it. It’s one of the few ways you can make some pocket change of your own as a woman.
Just make sure to put a sign outside of your house if you’re going to sell ale. It’s the law. This sign will likely not have words, but be something more symbolic, typically a pole or rod of sorts. According to George Redmond’s book Names and History: People, Places, and Things, in Scotland, “a wisp of straw on a pole informed the thirsty traveler that he was outside an alehouse”
Ale is NOT beer
A word of caution before I go further. Ale is not the same thing as beer. Beer has hops. Hops are what give beer it’s bitter quality and long shelf-life. In 1396, the year my book, Beneath the Destined Stone, takes place, hops hadn’t yet made its way over to Britain. So if you want real beer, set your time machine on course for Germany instead.
Medieval ale was also not carbonated. It has not gone flat. It was brewed flat. Do not expect foamy bubbles. You will be disappointed.
Malt: Grain (barley for this recipe) that has been soaked, sprouted, dried, and crushed.
Gruit: The flavoring. This can be anything. I used honey and borage, but feel free to go wild.
Mash: The combination of malt and gruit. This is what you’ll leave out to ferment.
Yeast: Magical air spores that turn mash into alcohol. For this recipe, we’ll just buy some brewing yeast.
I followed the procedure for medieval ale brewing outlined by regia.org. They gave a detailed list of instructions, but no information on the amount of ingredients to use, so I had to do a lot of guess work.
Step 1: The Malt
I intended to make the malt myself. I really did. But as Robert Burns says, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley.” To make my own malt, I needed whole barley. Not pearl barley, or hull-less barley, or any of the other types of barley you can find in hipster, whole food shops. I scoured the Toledo area, but I couldn’t find it. So instead I went to a local brew supply shop and bought some barley malt.
I told the guy at the shop I wanted to make two really small batches, and that I’d be cooking them in soup stock-pots. He suggested 10 pounds. Then he was kind enough to crush the malt for me in this really cool machine.
Step 2: Boil the Malt
This is supposed to be done in a copper cauldron. I didn’t have a copper cauldron, and I’m too cheap to buy one. So I made do with stock pots. I quickly realized that ten pounds was too much. Way too much. If I had filled both my stock pots to the top, I’d still have had some left over. I wasn’t sure how much to add, so I just filled the pots half way with grain. Later, I realized that this was still way too much. If I try this again, I’ll probably reduce it to no more than a pound per batch.
I added water and set it to boil. It took awhile to reach a boil, but once it got there, it maintained a simmer at very low heat. The top became very foamy.
After awhile, it started to do this weird sort of volcanic explosion, which you can see in this video:
I think this was because I had too much malt. I scooped some out and the volcano went dormant.
I let the malt simmer for two hours. During this time, my whole house was filled with this amazing aroma. My kids thought it smelled disgusting, but what do they know? It’s not an easy smell to describe, sort of sweet and grainy, like brown sugar oatmeal. I dipped my finger in, and it tasted just like it smelled. It was sweet as honey from all the sugar being released from the grain, which is good, because yeast love them some sugar.
Step 3: Cool the Ale
After two hours, I took the ale off the burner. At this point, I was supposed to transfer it to a wooden barrel. I didn’t have any wooden barrels laying around, and as we’ve already discussed, I’m cheap. So I decided to just let it cool in the stock pots.
This took forever! It probably would have been faster if I had transferred it to a new container, but I didn’t have any that were big enough. The liquid needed to cool to somewhere around 60 degrees. I didn’t have any cooking thermometers that went this low, but sixty degrees is roughly room temperature, so I did my best to guess.
Step 4: Add the Gruit and Yeast
Once it cooled to what I hoped was around 60 degrees, it was time to add the gruit. I chose honey, because I knew it was widely available in the Middle Ages, and borage because blossoms can add additional yeast.
If you’re not familiar with borage, it’s a pretty plant with leaves that taste like cucumber and sweet blue blossoms. I grow it in my garden because bees love it and it’s a great companion plant for tomatoes and strawberries.
I had no idea how much to add, so I just collected all the open borage blossoms and picked the arbitrary amount of a 1/2 cup of honey. I stirred this in along with the yeast. I had one packet of yeast and divided it equally between the two stock pots.
Step 5: Wait
I covered my mash with a cheese cloth. If this was the 14th century, I’d have left it near the hearth to keep warm. Since I don’t have an ever-burning fire in my house, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice air conditioning for this experiment, I turned on the oven light and stuck it in there.
If you want a weak ale, It needs to sit for 24 hours. The longer it sits, the stronger it will get. But three days is the absolute maximum amount of time you should let it sit.
I checked it the next morning. It looked a little crusty on top and didn’t seem to be doing anything. Then I gave it a stir, and suddenly it was fizzing and bubbling all over the place. Fermentation success!
Step 6: Strain it.
After 24 hours have passed (or more if you’re going for the strong stuff) you can strain it. This first strain is just to remove the malt. I used a regular old spaghetti strainer. The resulting liquid is a milky yellow.
Step 7: Strain and Strain Again
After your first strain, the directions say you’re going to want to wait at least an hour and strain again, this time using fine mesh, like muslin or cheese cloth. Then after another hour, strain a final time. I found that an hour between strains was not long enough. If you can, give it several hours.
Step 8: Drink
You’ll want to finish your brew fast. After two days, it will be no good. There are no preservatives, so please be wary and look for signs of spoilage.
Appearance: Initially the ale was a milky golden color. After sitting overnight and letting the yeast settle, it cleared and resembled modern beer more closely.
Smell: Heavy yeast smell
Taste: Here’s where I admit something I’m not proud of…I don’t like beer. I wish I did, but I’ve just never been able to get used to the taste. I actually preferred the taste of this ale, but it still tasted too beerish for me to truly enjoy. For a more unbiased report, I decided to enlist some beer-drinking taste testers.
All testers had the same response: An expression of surprise/confusion, followed by a head nod, and then the announcement, “It’s not bad!” All agreed that despite the yeasty smell, it did not taste like yeast. All noted lemon/honey undertones. My dad compared it generically to wheat beer and more specifically to Blue Moon. All found the lack of carbonation disconcerting.