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
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,