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An Herbed Ale to Brew at Home

Medieval Ales differ from the more modern beers and lagers in being un-hopped. (Hops give a completely different character, the methods used to brew are different and the hops vastly extend the “shelf-life” of the brew.) Ales were very complex and normally the mash was used three times: the first yielded a brew as strong as Barley Wine, the second a strong ale and the third a weak brew which was a thirst-quencher much safer to drink than water in those days.
To brew a truly authentic ale, you need to be an experienced brewer and know what you are about. Those who really want to try it should look at this website, which gives a modern brewer a chance to reproduce as nearly as possible an authentic flavour:
Medieval English Ale

For those who simply want to make a gallon of home brew which will give a rough impression of an early ale, this herbed ale recipe is an excellent place to begin:

First prepare your yeast. Medieval yeasts were very complex so the best way to obtain your yeast is to buy two or three bottles of different bottle conditioned ale, preferably from different breweries. Let the ale stand long enough for it to clear then carefully pour or syphon off the ale, leaving the yeast sediment and a little ale in the bottle. Add a teaspoonful of sugar, close the bottle with a plug of cotton wool and leave for 24 hours - this will activate the yeast and give you an excellent excuse for an impromptu ale-tasting!
Secondly you will need some brewing herbs. These are bitter herbs added to give flavour and improve the keeping quality. You can use them fresh or dried. My favourite is Costmary ot “Alecost” (Balsamita major / Chrysanthemum Balsamita) Another very common herb is Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) which you can find growing wild almost anywhere. There are some pretty garden varieties with variegated leaves. The spring-flowering ground ivy or “Alehoof” (Nepeta hederacea / Glechoma hederacea ) is another weed you’ve probably got in your garden or locally. The common stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) also makes an excellent ale.All your vessels must be clean and sterile. Four Campden tablets crushed and mixed with a teaspoonful of citric acid and a quart of water makes a good sterilising solution.

When your yeast is ready, pour half a gallon of almost boiling water onto 11⁄2 lbs of malt extract.
Stir well to dissolve it and add a handful of crushed or chopped brewing herbs.
Leave to infuse for about half an hour.
Strain the mixture into a sterile fermenting bucket and add a further half gallon of cold water.
When the mixture is lukewarm, pitch in your prepared yeast.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid or an airlock to exclude rogue yeasts and flies.
Allow to ferment for five days, stirring twice a day and skimming off the foam as the yeast crops.
Rack off the ale into a clean, sterile jar. The yeast may still be active so it’s best to keep it in a demi-john with an airlock.
This ale is not for long keeping - you must drink it up within a week.


But, if you are tempted to reproduce the recipes given on the medieval English Ale website, Francis warns:

You must realise that these recipes, although they are very good, still fall a LONG way short of tasting like medieval ale. This is because:

1) Water: Could be river water, rainwater, well water, spring water- the cleanest supply aailable to the brewer. All of these bring their own tastes into the equation, and any of these (I suggest) taste very different from chlorinated, flouridated tapwater, with a high copper content due to copper piping. How these chemicals affect the enzyme processes in the mash, and later, the fermentation, is anyone's guess.

2) Pale malt: Is heated very gently with gas or electric heat, to stop the thing sprouting without browning it. Modern brewers add purposely dark roasted grain/malt to adjust colour in a measurable, repeatable way. Medieval malt was wood fire roasted, so it would have been smokey, darker, probably much darker but this would be very variable. Also the malting was rather less precise, so enzymes in the grains would have been more variable, producing different sugar content and different suar breakdown in the mash tun. The medieval brewers malt could be certified organic, but may also have been stale, mildewed, and full of rat shits. Modern two row brewing barley is a totally different beast from the medieval grain, maybe as different as a sloe is from a plum, for example.

3) Mash tun: Medieval tuns were usually wood lined, so at first the brews would get infused with tannins, and as they were used up, other tastes from previous mashes would soak into the wood, and then out into the next mash, etc.

4) Mash filtration: Was commonly done with a bed of straw, evergreen branches, twigs, heather (yum!) or other things at the bottom of the mash tun to filter out the spent grain. Each of these could infuse its own particular flavour into the brew.

5) Mashing method: One mash was used up to four times by medieval brewers. The first was the strongest, the last was "small" -weak, and full of proteins, tannins and other waste washed out of the grain. This recipe does not wash the grain fully, so these substances never become a part of their ale- but they are probably the most important part of small, both nutritionally, and for flavour.

6) Mash size: Influences temperature. This mash would cool rapidly. because it is small. Medieval mashes, although not necessarily huge, would be much bigger, and so hold a more stable temperature. This affects the kind of sugars produced during mashing, in turn affecting sweetness, fermentability, and flavour.

7) Yeasts: The yeast samples used by medieval brewers would have contained a plethora of different strains of yeast, and probably many other bacteria- all of which have a huge effect on fermentation, and the flavours and congeners produced alongside the alcohol. The yeasts they suggest are isolated strains, chosen for certain properties and characteristics, and carefully grown in an environment where nothing else can get mixed up with them. Not only this, they have been freeze dried, which affects fermentation characteristics- freeze dried yeasts work slowly, but often more completely, than fresh yeasts. Mixing two modern brewing yeasts will only produce a more complete fermentation, to add to this.

8) Fermentation vessel: Not only is the shape of the vessel of great importance to the flavour of the beer (it affects circulation of working yeasts, sugar etc, exposure of wort to dead yeast lying on the bottom of the vessel, oxidation and reabsorbtion of working and dead yeast in the "crop"), but many medieval brewers fermented in an open tub- thus allowing their brew to be innoculated by every bacteria in the air that day, and filled with grain dust, and other matter. I can think of no homebrewers who would dare do this today- germ theory ate into all our minds, and we fear other bacteria.

9) Cropping: Did they crop this brew? Medieval brewers certainly did (because the baker next door wanted the yeast), if cropping is not done, a host of undesirable waste matter sinks back into the brew- this has a huge impact on flavour.

10) Fermentation temperature: Was this fermented in a house, at a constant temperature of rather warmer than proverbial room temperature, in a vessel so small and poorly insulated as to be unable to retain its own heat, and so is stuck at a constant temperature? Probably. The medieval brew sat in a woooden cask in the brewhouse, which got very hot during the day, especially when mashing in, and digging out the mash, and later got cold at night due to lack of ye olde double glazing. The brew would have heated itself up considerably, epecially in the early stages of fermentation (quite fierce). What is important here is that the medieval brew did not ferment at a constant temperature, producing all manner of "off" tasting compounds, dreaded by the modern brewer but perhaps largely accepted by the thirsty medieval peasant.

11) Storage vessel: Was this stored in wood? I suspect not, as they add oak "tea" to provide tannin, and make up for this. However, tannin is by no means the only thing in an oak cask, and in a well used cask, may be minimal. More important is what soaked into it from previous brews, and the casks "colony" of bacteria- which would vary from place to place, brewer to brewer, cask to cask, but is nevertheless important to the flavour.

12) Serving: Was it served from cask, bottle, keg or jug? Medieval ale was most commonly drawn into large jugs, and then later poured into cups. It would be a little oxidised, and almost completely flat.

13) Choice of cup: Ales taste so different if served in glass, pewter, pitch-lined leather, silver etc- try it! Porter is lovely from leather, rich bitter is best from pewter while pale ales are bet served in glass, with no smells or tastes to distract from the hop aroma.

So, their brew was pale, very tannic, not at all sweet, and with the fermentation flavours (esters, phenols, ketones etc) favoured by the scientists who breed modern ale yeasts and brought out by clean consistent modern brewing methods. Medieval small ale would be a little sweet (maybe), a little tannic, with high protein content (therefore diefinitely hazy), lots of suspended yeasts, and a plethora of congeners produced during the unstable fermentation, which could have done all sorts of things to the taste. I dont want to piss on their chips, but their brew is by no means authentic, in method or flavour, it cant be. However, its probably the best any homebrewer today can do- I can think of no brewers who would dare follow medieval methods to the letter, we just wouldnt dare- it would be a job for a real beast, a barbarian among homebrewers, with no fear for the consequenes. If you find that brewer, I'll lift my hat to him... and then eat it! Anyway, apart from that, we just don't have the resourc es- we have no medieval malt, no woodfired maltings, and no barn to store it in. There are a few breweries that have been rebuilt, eg at Kentwell, but we dont have that primordial stew of "Ale Balm" that the medieval brewer chucked in the start it off. Whats more, I dont think many modern drinkers, even re-enactors, even Hartleys (who can drink anything) would thank us if we did. Ah well, at least we can have a fresh pint of Shepherd Neame Spitfire, well kept, in a clean pub (soon to be smoke-free) from a clean glass, and have a good chat about the bad old days of brewing!

I hope this has been educational, and not too discouraging. The idea is that you now understand that "authentic" ales, no matter how well made, are probably far from it, and all the better for it.

Francis Greye - Master Brewer, Man-at-arms, scribe, herbalist, dandy, jack-of-all-trades.



Brewing a Medieval-style Ale