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Recreating Medieval English Ales

(a recreation of late 13th - 14th c. unhopped English ales)
(designed and brewed by Tofi Kerthjalfadsson, Sept. 23rd – Dec. 28th, 1998)
In medieval England, ale was an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast. The difference between medieval ale and beer was that beer also used hops as an ingredient. Virtually everyone drank ale. It provided significant nutrition as well as hydration (and inebriation). The aristocracy could afford to drink wine some of the time as well, and some times the poor could not even afford ale, but in general ale was the drink of choice in England throughout the medieval period.

These recipes are a modest attempt to recreate ales that are not only “period”, i.e. pre-17th century, but is actually medieval. These ales are based on newly available evidence from the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

Not only was beer significantly different some three hundred years ago, in 1700, in comparison to today, ale was significantly different around 1300 than either ale or beer was in 1600. The primary reason for this difference in the product is a seemingly small difference in technique: for an ale, the wort, the liquid containing sugars and protein extracted from the grain, was not boiled prior to fermenting. For a beer, the wort had to be boiled with the hops. This seemingly small difference was in fact a change in technology that had long-reaching consequences for the preservation, as well as taste and nutritional value of the beer.

To make these ales I’ve tried to use only medieval techniques and appropriate equipment. I have not used the most egregiously modern tool, the thermometer. The first batch I did not even measured my results with a hydrometer (a tool used by modern brewers to measure the quantity of sugars dissolved in a liquid). The efficiency of a batch - the extent to which starches in the grains have been turned into sugars disolved in the liquid - can be measured with this tool. Also by comparing the hydrometer measurement from prior to fermentation with the post-fermentation measurement, the alcohol content of a brew can be deduced. Although I did measure the results of the second batch with a hydrometer, I did not adjust or an any other way alter this batch on the basis of these measurements.

First I will present the main sources for these recipes, then my actual recipes for these ales, and finally a discussion of the recipes. This discussion starts with a brief summary of ale and ale brewing in medieval England, and then discusses my choices of ingredients, the quantities and proportions involved, and finally the methods used to make the ales. This discussion section is critical to the appreciation of the recipe, since some of the methods differ substantially from modern, or even 16th–17th C. beer brewing methods.

Main Sources

These two recipes are primarily based on evidence in Judith Bennett’s recent book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England. This book has a wealth of information on brewing in medieval England, including many quotations from medieval records, and is well worth reading.
These two recipes are based on two pieces of information from Bennett’s book:

Our most direct evidence of domestic brewing comes from elite households. In 1333–34, the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, brewed about 8 quarters of barley and dredge each week, each quarter yielding about 60 gallons of ale. Brewing varied by the season of the year, with vast amounts produced in December (when more than 3,500 gallons were brewed) and quite restricted production in February (only 810 gallons). The members of the Clare household drank strong ale throughout the year, imbibing with particular gusto during the celebrations of Christmas and the New Year.
[Bennett, p. 18]

… In 1282, when Robert Sibille the younger was presented at the court of Kibworth Harcourt for selling his ale at too high a price, the stipulated price left him little room for profit. Having paid 2s. for 4 bushels of malt and required to sell 5 gallons of ale for 2d., he would have had to draw 60 gallons from his malt just to recoup his investment. His ale, in other words, would have been very weak indeed and his profits very low.
[Bennett, p. 21]

These two recipes are based on these quotes (and other information). The first, Weak Ale, recipe is based on the Clare household grain mix, but at the cost-break-even strength of Robert Sibille the younger.

The second recipe is a recreation of the Clare household ale, at full strength, and correcting several minor details in the ingredients.

Many of the details of these recipes are different than a modern all-grain brewer might expect; I have endeavored to explain the evidence and reasoning behind all of the choices in ingredients and techniques in the discussion section below.
Recipe 1: Weak Ale

For 2 1/2 gallons of ale:


4 2/3 lbs., Hugh Baird brand English Pale malt
1 1/2 lbs., oats (rolled)
13 qts., water
1 pkt, Danstar brand Nottingham ale yeast
1 pkt, Danstar brand Windsor ale yeast
results as of batch 4 (Dec. 3 1998) indicate that this is the best yeast mix after all.
1/4 oz., Light Oak chips
I would leave this out for future batches - see below about Oak

FYI - The second part of this thread is located here:

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