In Search of the Medieval Pint

"It is my design to die in the brewhouse, let ale be placed in my mouth when I am expiring" – The 7th-century Irish saint Columbanus (allegedly)

It sounds reasonable enough, but, in fact, no one is really sure what an early medieval ale tasted like. It may have been awful, the last thing you would want swilling around your tongue as you breathed your last. Beer histories wax lyrical about the drink’s ancient and illustrious lineage, but it has been a long evolution from ancient Sumarian bread-beer to a crisp pint of lager. Would we even recognise what Columbanus was drinking as beer, let alone like it? How would a medieval ale compare with, for example, a modern IPA?

I would like to find out and to help me I enlist the help of Dr Kristen Burton, a researcher at the University of Texas who has written on, amongst other things, beer in England in the middle ages and early modern period. She kindly supplies me with a recipe and instructions based on her research, and a bit of a briefing on the ins and outs of medieval beer.

The first thing to be clear on, she explains, is that, in the middle ages, ale and beer were totally different drinks. In today’s usage, 
‘ale’ typically means a beer which is ‘top-fermented’ – as opposed to lager, which is ‘bottom-fermented’, with a different kind of yeast. For medieval English drinkers, however, ‘ale’ was a traditional drink flavoured with herbs, and ‘beer’ an innovation from the continent flavoured with hops.

This apparently small detail had a huge impact. For a start, Burton says, adding hops gives “radically different flavours”. Today, almost all beer styles are hopped, even those, such as Mild, which are not particularly bitter. It’s therefore difficult for us to imagine how an unhopped ale might taste, but we know that the difference was significant because evidence shows the English initially rejected ‘beer’ when it began to appear in the 1400s. Hops also contain preservative resins, which prevent the beer from souring, potentially for months. An unhopped ale, in contrast, had to be drunk within a couple of weeks.

Brewing records also suggest that beer required much less grain than ale – while one bushel of malt would typically produce around eight gallons of ale, the same amount could be stretched to up to twenty gallons of beer. Beer was, consequently, an economically superior product, lending itself to large-scale production, storage and even export. Ale, which had typically been brewed up in the home in small batches, could barely compete.

This is probably why beer eventually went on to eclipse ale. English drinkers, in spite of their initial grumbling, soon became used to and acquired a taste for hops, and as the sun set on the middle ages, humble, traditional, kitchen-brewed ale began to disappear. Now, six centuries later, it is but a faded footnote in history. Can we resurrect it?

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Detailed written records about domestic brewing are relatively scarce and Burton warns that a lot is not known. The gaps have necessarily been filled in with supposition, based on what we know was available. Even so, the instructions seem ludicrously simple. Far from the world of contemporary home brew, with its boilers and mash tuns and wort chillers and hydrometers and temperature control units, all that is needed is a big pot, a stove, a bucket and a bag. It seems so easy. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing to come to terms with is a total lack of sterilisation. With no concept of microbes or bacterial contamination, looking clean was clean enough, and a scrub with a brush and some hot water is all that’s allowed. For a contemporary home brewer, for whom sterilising solution is the near constant companion, this is some mental hurdle to clear. My scepticism is doubled when I see the ingredients list – a barley-heavy mix, with a bit of wheat and rye thrown in, weighing in at just 2.5 kilos, for a batch of 20 litres. A modern-day recipe for homebrew would use more like between four and seven kilos. It’s a struggle to imagine how the ale is going to be anything other than watery and rancid.

But then comes the exciting part. Before hops boringly conquered the beer world, brewsters apparently improvised with just about whatever they could find in order to enhance, or maybe mask, the flavour of their ale. In his book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Richard W. Unger gives a list of known additives which would give the most attention-seeking ‘experimental’ craft brewers a run for their money: ginger, cumin, mint, sage, acorns, bay leaves, ground ivy, thistles, wormwood, juniper and tree bark, among others.

The most common additive, however, was ‘gruit’, a specific mixture of herbs, which remains a mystery to this day. Medieval documents are full of references to gruit, which was so important that they even introduced a gruit tax, but no one knows exactly what it was – Burton says that individual recipes were prized, and a closely guarded secret. Bog myrtle is thought to be one important ingredient, along with rosemary and yarrow, although no one knows for sure.

Burton recommends using these three herbs in equal parts, mixing them up with the grain in a mesh bag. The bog myrtle – which turns out to be surprisingly difficult and expensive to get hold of – has a pungent, musty smell. It reminds me of mistletoe. Yarrow smells a bit like tea. And rosemary smells like a Sunday roast. None of it smells like anything I would want to put in a beer.

My big bucket of murky, lukewarm gravy sits in the corner of the kitchen, as sad and as still as a stagnant pond

Undeterred, I heat up a huge pan of water to boiling point, drop in my mesh bag, filled with grain and herbs, and leave it to steep, like a giant teabag, for a few hours. In conventional modern brewing, the grains would be heated up in a ‘mash’ to an optimal temperature to release the enzymes from the malt, which convert its starches into sugars, and the resulting ‘wort’ would then be boiled. This not only clears the beer but, most importantly, kills off bacteria.

However, Burton says that this practice appears to have been introduced with the arrival of hops, which need to be boiled to release the resins. Ale brewsters apparently didn’t waste their fuel with such fancy, fangled, foreign faff, and so instead I just leave the bag to soak, and watch with trepidation as the water turns first yellow, then khaki green, until finally, after three hours, it settles on muddy-puddle brown. It looks and smells not like beer, but like herby gravy.

After four hours, when the wort has begun to cool, it’s time to transfer it to a plastic bucket. Since yeast wasn’t discovered until the 17th century, the pitching of yeast is not allowed. Instead, I’m instructed to leave the pot uncovered to allow the wild yeast – and any other bacteria that happen to be floating in the air – to casually drop in.

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I can’t help but be nervous and when I come back to the bucket after four more hours, my fears seem to be confirmed when absolutely nothing has happened. My big bucket of murky, lukewarm gravy sits in the corner of the kitchen, as sad and as still as a stagnant pond. It’s not until around six or seven hours later that what look like little flecks of spit start to accumulate on the surface. Twelve hours later, they are joined by two dead flies. When I lean in to fish them out, I notice that the gravy smell has completely disappeared and in its place is a little whiff of alcohol and some tangy, sour tones. Tiny, tiny bubbles, almost too small to see, are discreetly popping at the surface. Yet even this modest activity appears to die down over the course of the day, and the pot returns to its glum, silent state.

Disappointment begins to seep in – with a batch of modern homebrew, there would be a thick cushion of froth on the surface by this stage, and rich, yeasty smells filling the room. The experiment appears to have been a failure.

Two weeks later, however, when I glumly dip in a glass beneath the surface – which is by this point covered with many more dead flies, lots of dust and a few stray hairs – the ale has transformed from muddy-puddle brown to amber. Even more bizarrely, it smells a bit like ginger beer. Encouraged, I decide to bravely take a sip. And, admittedly on the basis of very low expectations, I am pleasantly surprised. Strangely, it doesn’t taste anything like it smells. The initial flavour is delicate, dry and lemony, with a slight tang. And then comes a powerful herby aftertaste, that spreads across my whole mouth and up my nose.

It is not an exaggeration to say it is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. Sampled alongside a modern IPA, the difference is dramatic. Without a doubt, the ‘medieval’ ale is more subtle and more aromatic, and the startling differences between the smell, first taste and aftertaste are confusing. The modern beer is more two-dimensional, but the flavours that it does have are clearer and more pronounced.

Do I still empathise with Columbanus’s last request? I am mostly just impressed that the ale doesn’t smell and taste as if it might make me ill. Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the knowledge of the many flies that have festered in the brew and, even if it tastes okay, I can’t quite completely convince myself that it won’t make me sick. The flavours are also a bit too unfamiliar for my 21st-century palate. In short, no, it’s not something that I would want to drink a pint of.

Yet modern beer is an acquired taste for most people. Perhaps the ale would grow on me, just as beer eventually won over our ancestors. There is, however, another kind of pleasure to be had from drinking it – in the idea of experiencing something, the banal taste of everyday life, which has been lost for centuries. Brewing up this ale feels like creating a tiny wormhole into our distant past. And that, at least, is pretty cool.