Early Mediaeval Brewing
Beer is a very simple drink to produce. In its simplest form it is quick to produce, but almost unpalatable to modern tastes!
Before I describe how the beer is made, here are a few background details:
Correctly any beer made in our period should, in fact, be referred to as Ale. The word Beer used to refer to a brew containing hops, or Beor (honey). Hops were not used in this country until much later. The first record of their use being 1236 A.D.
This is the name given to the cereal (nearly all cereals can be used in brewing) once it has been "Malted". Malting is the process by which the grain is soaked over a few days and then laid out to dry. Once it starts to germinate, it is very roughly crushed or ground so that the husks are just starting to break away from the grains. This ensures that as much as possible of the food contained is available for fermenting.
No not the potato variety! Mash is the name given to the mix of malt and gruit which are allowed to ferment together.
The name given to the flavouring. It is well known that nowadays we use almost exclusively the hop flavour for beer, but in Saxon times many other things were used, such as: Bog Myrtle, Honey, Yarrow, and Cinnamon, to name but a few. Sometimes a mix or blend was used often incorporating a blossom. Blossoms can add additional yeast to the brew.
Normally yeast would not be added to the "first brew", instead , it would rely on natural airborne yeast to "infect" it. Before final straining of the brew any yeast that had grown would be removed and added to the next brew at the start of the next fermentation. Some extra yeast can be obtained from certain gruits. The purpose of yeast in the brew is to create alcohol. As some of you may have noticed this is a particularly popular ingredient in any beer.
How to Brew
I will assume we are starting afresh.
Using, if possible, a copper cauldron as it adds a bit of flavour, simmer (bring it to the boil and keep it gentle boiling) the malt in soft water (hard waters can alter the taste of some ales) for around two hours (some brews may need more, some less). Transfer to a wooden barrel or similar container and leave to cool down to a temperature of around 16°C (around 60°F).
Add the gruit and leave to ferment in a warm location. After about six to eight hours cover with a thin cloth. Apart from the occasional stir there is no need at all to touch the mash and looking at it every five minutes will not increase the speed of fermentation!
Leave to ferment for at least 24 hours but no more than three days. The final strength of the beer will be affected by the length of time the brew is left. (the alcoholic content of Saxon beers was probably low, but the point of the process was to produce a safe and pleasant drink with any intoxication being a bonus) . Other factors such as ambient temperature contribute to the end result. Now you can strain the mash. This can be done with a fairly course sieve as a second and third straining are always needed to remove the yeast. By now you will (should) have a wooden container full of an insipid yellowish opaque liquid and a sieve full of mash. Do not throw the mash way, as this contains a lot of yeast and can be used to make bread. The liquid should now be left to stand for a further hour or so to let the sediments drop to the bottom of the container. It is quite drinkable at this point, but may cause wind amongst those who drink it.
For the second straining a fine weave cloth may be used as this retains a great deal of the yeast. Leave again for an hour and repeat. If a second brew is anticipated keep this and add it to the start of the fermentation of the next brew. By this method the same strain of yeast can be kept alive for a long period. In Belgium , one abbey, where brewing takes place, have been using the same yeast for over eight hundred years.
After the third and final straining the ale should be ready to drink. It must be drunk quickly, after a day or so it begins to go off and after a week would possibly cause an upset . One Saxon writer of the time wrote "...after two days only the bravest or silliest men of the village would drink the ale, but usually it was only fit for pigs." The stale brew was often fed to the pigs as it was said to improve the flavour of the meat (and also gave rise to the saying "as drunk as swine").
At Preston we had an attempt at brewing and I am pleased to report that the brew was a complete success. It was called Dennis and here is the recipe.
- Malt - Wheat pre malted
- Gruit - Locally collected Elderflower blossom
Boiled for one and one half hours and allowed to ferment. Straining took place over two days and a good time was had by all those that assisted in this later process. Some of the cooks on duty that day took the mash and made a very nice, but slightly flowery tasting bread which they named Denise.
Since I first penned this article further brews have been produced using such flavourings as Apple & Honey, Bogmyrtle, Elderberry & Honey with Barley malt.
Bringing things right up to date, an old type of beer, similar to our saxon style brewed today is Lambic. The main difference being the addition of hops ( albeit so dry that they add no flavour, their purpose being to stop the beer going off quickly ) but the process would be familiar to our saxon forebears.
Postscript: Beer and other brewed fluids had quite possibly another more hygienic task to do. The key to this is the fact that all beer production involved boiling and simmering of the brew, rendering it fairly sterile. Whilst the Anglo-Saxon gut was far more robust than ours is today, (which is always a keen talking point as to whether we are indeed weaker to the bugs in the soil etc.), good drinking water was a luxury. Especially in the towns and cities that were evolving a thousands years ago. Digs from York and elsewhere, demonstrate that our ancestors back then had little concept of public works, with wells and cess pits or toilets situated within feet of each other. So beer, held few dangers other than intoxication.
Many of the large cauldrons that have survived were in all likelihood intended for the production of vast amounts of beer for feasts and celebrations, rather than boiling up pork and other meats, not that they couldn't be pressed into being expensive saucepans as well. Toasting and swearing of oaths were probably far more meaningful with a belly full of beer.
With thanks to: Sue Levick, Tim Hague, Betty Hale, Andrew Whiting, Camra, and all others who helped me with the brewing.
Original article by John Shulver, 1992