Alewife for a Day: A Guide to Medieval Home Brew

“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

 photo breakfast-stout.jpgI 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

Animal house
Source: http://coolspotters.com/files/photos/99888/john-belushi-and-jack-daniels-gallery.jpg

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.

photo credit: Strong Ale via photopin (license)
photo credit: Strong Ale via photopin (license)

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

photo credit: Hops 2009 - Spalt via photopin (license)
photo credit: Hops 2009 – Spalt via photopin (license)

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.

Some Definitions:

Ale Ingredients

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.

The Experiment:

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.

Grain hopperI 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

I ended up removing about half the malt shown here
I ended up removing about half the malt shown here

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.

Foamy malt
Foam collecting at the top of the pot

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

GruitOnce 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.

Borage Plant photo credit: borage 005 via photopin (license)
Borage Plant
photo credit: borage 005 via photopin (license)

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.

Fermenting mash
If you closely, you can see all the bubbles

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.

First StrainAfter 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

Cheese cloth strainAfter 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.

The Results:

Ale

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.

Medieval Ale Recipe
Print Recipe
A quick home-brew made the medieval way
Prep Time
20 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
2 hours 24-72 hours
Prep Time
20 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
2 hours 24-72 hours
Medieval Ale Recipe
Print Recipe
A quick home-brew made the medieval way
Prep Time
20 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
2 hours 24-72 hours
Prep Time
20 minutes
Cook Time Passive Time
2 hours 24-72 hours
Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Add malt to a stock pot and fill with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for two hours.
  2. Remove from heat and cool to 60 degrees.
  3. Add yeast, honey, and borage (or whatever flavoring you choose)
  4. Cover and let ferment in a warm location for at least 24 hours and no longer than 72 hours. The longer you let it ferment, the stronger it will be. Stir occasionally.
  5. Strain in a colander. After at least an hour (preferably longer) strain through a fine mesh like muslin or cheese cloth. Wait another hour (preferably longer) and repeat.
  6. Drink within two days.
Recipe Notes

There are inherent risks associated with home fermentation. Make sure all utensils are sterilized before use. Use common sense and great caution. 21timetraveler.com is not responsible for any illness or injury that may occur following this recipe.

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18 thoughts on “Alewife for a Day: A Guide to Medieval Home Brew

  1. so i must confess, this was educating, even though sourcing for this ingredient in my home country could pose some serious challenge. all that said, i will bookmark this page probably to be able to one day, recreate this at home

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m hoping to put an amazon shop on my page with all the ingredients I list on it. Hopefully that will make it easier for people to try things out. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I am going to be writing a novel set in the middle ages soon and all this kind of information is good. It may not be relevant to the plot, but it does give me some kind of feel for the background. Thanks for the info. I may even try it sometime!

    1. All the research has been really helpful for my novel, just thinking about the day to day life and things a person would interact with. Good luck with your writing!

  3. Oh, this is great. I have to say this is one of the most informative blogs I’ve come across. And I like beer, so I’ll have to try this. I live in a town where it seems like everyone and their brother is opening a brewery, so I could probably get some whole barley, and I could definitely get some malt!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog! Just be careful when brewing, there’s always risk when messing with fermentation. But if you do make some, let me know how it comes out!

      1. Yeah, that’s the one reason I have never tried homebrewing — the possibility of poisoning myself! Also, I don’t have anything big enough to hold even half a batch. But I might give it a try with, like, an eighth. And then be afraid to drink it.

  4. Do you suppose wild berries would have ever been used as gruit? What would have been historically correct, besides honey? I’m just curious.

    1. Literally anything could be used. Wild berries wouldn’t be out of the question at all. Cinnamon is referenced quite often, but there are others I’ve come across that would be really unusual for a modern pallet, like rosemary for instance.

  5. Dear Sarah,
    This is post is wonderful. I would be honest by saying that I could not follow the recipe as I would not be trying it but the introduction I enjoyed a lot. The history of English people and how they used to drink ale more than water fascinates me.

    Though I did not understand your point about the “play dates” as jokes. Could you please tell me what it meant?

    You put a lot of research into your articles. Thanks 🙂

    Anand

    1. Anand, Thank you for the kind words! Today we take great care in making sure our kids have scheduled time to play with their friends. We take time out of our days to meet up with other families all for the sake of our kids having fun. This would have been an insane idea to a medieval person. The day revolved around work for them. Children weren’t pampered the way they are today. They were expected to contribute to the family’s survival. Play was a luxury and one parents wouldn’t have inconvenienced themselves to provide. They loved their children, but they were very practical and expected more from them in terms of responsibility. I hope that makes sense 🙂

      1. Now I clearly understand it Sarah. I feel it was because technology was not present and life expectancy was low so a lot of man power was needed to earn a living. Thanks for explaining it Sarah 🙂 🙂

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