by Lord Corwin of Darkwater
“…made out of barley and water in which honey-combs have been washed out…”
– Diodorus Siculus, Biblioteca Historica (1st century BC) This is the earliest written reference to brewing that I have ever seen (not counting the Babylonians and Egyptians, who ate fermented barley cakes). As far as being a useful reference, it isn’t much, but it does establish the use of barley and honey as brewing sugars.
“The grain is steeped in water, and made to germinate: it is then dried and ground; after which it is infused in a certain quantity of water, which, being fermented, becomes a pleasant, warming, strengthing, intoxicating liquor.”
– 5TH century manuscript
Here we find some more references to the malting process, but nothing that we can really use.
“The monks of St Paul’s Cathedral brewed 67,814 gallons of ale using 175 quarters of barley, 175 quarters of wheat and 708 quarters of oats.”
– Domesday Book (1086)
Finally, a brewing reference with some hard data! A quarter is defined as a unit of weight equal to 2 stones, or 28 pounds. It is also defined as a unit of dry volume equal to 64 gallons. Since 1 gallon of grain weighs about 4 pounds, we have a quarter being equivalent to 256 pounds of grain.
Pounds of grain used is good to know, for we can then estimate the strength of period brews. Malted barley is about 80% fermentable sugar, and malted wheat is about 75%. I don’t have a figure for oats, but it should be in the neighborhood of 70%.
Restating things a bit, “The monks of St Paul’s Cathedral brewed 67,814 gallons of ale using 196,314 pounds of sugars”, or 2.9 pounds per gallon.
Brewing formula number one: The specific gravity (SG) of a sugar solution is equal to 1 + 0.039 times the amount of sugar (in pounds) divided by the volume of water (in gallons), thus:
= 1 + 0.039 * 2.9
Brewing formula number two:
The alcohol produced by fermentation lowers the Specific Gravity of a brew. The difference between the SG before fermentation and the SG after fermentation, times 135 gives the percentage of alcohol by volume of a brew. Using the SG of plain water (1.000) as a reference, the maximum strength of the monks ale would be:
(1.113 – 1) * 135 = 15% alcohol
Now this is a brew! However, take into consideration that complete conversion of grain starch to sugar during malting, and complete fermentation of the sugar into alcohol, has been assumed. The alcohol content of St. Paul’s Ale was probably much less. Then again, Beer and ale were one of the staples of Medieval life, and consider as well that without the preservative effect of hops, ales of less than 12% alcohol are prone to spoilage, so this estimate may not be too far off the mark.
“Ale shall now my engage my pen to set at rest the hearts of men First, my friend, your candle light; next of spiced cake take a bite Then steep your barley in a vat, large and broad, take care of that; When you shall have steeped your grain and the water let out – drain, Take it to an upper floor, if you’ve swept it clean before; There couch and let your barley dwell, till it germinates full well. Malt you now shall call the grain, corn it ne’er shall be again Stir the malt then with your hand, in heaps or rows now let it stand; On a tray then you shall take it to a kiln to dry and bake it. The tray and eke a basket light will serve to spread the malt aright. When your malt is ground in mill, and of hot water has drunk its fill And skill has changed the wort to ale, then to see you shall not fail”
– Walter de Biblesworth 13th century
Still more detail concerning the malting process, but no hard numbers. Besides, you can never trust a poet.
“To brewe beer; 10 quarters malt. 2 quarters wheat, 2 quarters oats, 40 lbs hops. To make 60 barrels of single beer.”
– Richard Arnold, Customs of London (1503)
More hard data! Ten quarters of malt (assume barley) gives 2048 pounds of sugar. The wheat and oats together yield 742 pounds of sugar. A barrel of beer in the 16th century contained 36 gallons (a barrel of ale held only 30 gallons), so that gives us 2790 pounds of sugar in 2160 gallons of water for a Specific Gravity of 1.050, and a beer that was 6.75% alcohol, and had 1.5 ounces of hops per five gallons of beer.
Note that this is a beer, not an ale. Beer, at this point in time, had hops added whereas an ale did not. Also, because of the hops, a beer could be made weaker and still keep in storage.
The term “single beer” meant that the beer had been cooked once in preparation of the brew. A “double coyt” or twice cooked beer was much darker and stronger, as more water was boiled off before fermentation began.
“6 quarters Malt and 6 pounds of hops, making 12 hogsheads of beer. Every hogshead contained 48 gal, which totals 576 gallons.”
Six quarters of malt (again assume barley) yields 1229 pounds of sugar in 576 gallons of water gives a Specific Gravity of 1.083 and a beer having 11% alcohol. Hop concentration was just under 7/8 ounce per five gallons.
They take wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats, either one kind (for good beer can be prepared from all these cereals) or two or three together; they steep them in a fresh spring or good running water or (which is even better) in boiled hop water, until the grain bursts out. Then the water is run off and the grains dried in the sun. The water in which the grain is steeped is kept; when the grains are dry they are ground in the mills and the meal put into the aforementioned steep water. It is let boil for 3-4 hours and the hops added and all boiled up to a good froth. When that is done it is filled into other vessels. Some put a little leaven into it and this soon gains a sharp biting flavour and is pleasant to drink.
“The English sometimes add to the brewed beer, to make it more pleasant, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and other good spices in a small bag.
– Tabernaemontanus (Jacob Theodor von Bergzabern), Herbal (1588)
Not much hard data here. The use of rye for brewing is interesting (spelt is just another variety of wheat), as is the reference to spiced beer.
“Sir Thomas Gower makes his pleasant and wholesome drink of ale and honey thus: Take forty gallons of small ale, and five gallons of honey. When the ale is ready to tun, and is still warm, take out ten gallons of it; which, while it is hot, mingle with it the five gallons of honey, stirring it exceeding well with a clean arm till they be perfectly incorporated. Then cover it, and let it cool and stand still. At the same time you begin to dissolve the honey in this parcel, you take the other of thirty gallons also warm, and tun it up with barm, and put it into a vessel capable to hold all the whole quantity of ale and honey, and let it work there; and because the vessel will be so far from being full, that the gross foulness of the ale cannot work over, make holes in the sides of the barrel even with the superficies of the liquor in it, out of which the gross seculence may purge; and these holes must be fast shut; when you put in the rest of the ale with the honey; which you must do, when you see the strong working of the other is over: and that it works but gently, which may be after two or three or four days, according to the warmth of the season.
“You must warm your solution of honey, when you put it in, to be as warm as ale when you tun it; and then it will set the whole working afresh, and casting out more foulness; which it would do too violently if you put it in at the first of the tunning it. It is not amiss that some seculence lie thick upon the ale, and work not all out; for that will keep in the spirits. After you have dissolved the honey in ale, you must boil it a little to skim it; but skim it not, till it has stood a while from the fire to cool; else you will skim away much of the honey, which will still rise as long as it boils. If you will not make so great a quantity at a time, do it in less in the same proportions.
“He makes it about Michaelmas for Lent.
“When the strong beer grows too hard and flat for want of spirits, take four or five gallons of it out of a hogshead, and boil five pounds of honey in it, and skim it, and put it warm into the beer; and after it has done working, stop it up close. This will make it quick, pleasant and stronger.”
– Sir Kenelme Digby, The Closet of . . . opened (1669)
Small ale was a term used for a very weak ale. Typically, after most of the sugar had been dissolved out of a quantity of malt, a second batch of ale was made using the used malt. Naturally the sugar available for the second, “small” ale was substantially less than that of the original batch. A reasonable estimate would be 2-3% alcohol. This ale was usually drunk fresh.
Let’s say that the small ale here began with an SG of about 1.020, which is to say 20 pounds of sugar in 40 gallons of water. Five gallons of honey contains about 48 pounds of sugar, so we can estimate that Sir Thomas Gower’s Ale with Honey began with a Specific Gravity of 1.060, and produced an ale that was 8.0% alcohol. Maturation time for the ale was 4-5 months.
The last paragraph shown from Digby is a different recipe (did you note the change between ale and beer?). For a strong beer, assume a Specific Gravity of about 1.060 (8% alcohol) and 1 ounce of hops per five gallons. That gives us 72 pounds of malt sugar plus 4 pound of honey sugar (honey is about 80% sugar) in 48 gallons of water yielding a Specific Gravity of 1.062 and a beer having 8.4% alcohol.
H. S. Corran, A History of Brewing
(London: David & Charles, 1975)
Gerhard Herm, The Celts
(New York: St. Martins Press, 1977)
H. A. Monckton, A History of English Ale and Beer
(London: The Bodley Head, 1966)
Ken Shales, Advanced Home Brewing
(Andover: Standard Press, 1972)
Andre’ L. Simon, How to Make Wines and Cordials – From Old English Recipe Books
(New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972)
Lord Corwin of Darkwater Scribe for Brewers Brewer for Scribes Thescorre, AEthelmearc, East Douglas Brainard, Rochester, NY
Ale for an Englysche man is a naturall drinke. – Andrew Boorde, 1542