Use of Sulphur in Medieval Brewing

modern sulphur candle

This is an email thread about how sulphur was used in medieval brewing, from an historical brewing list I’m on.  There’s some awfully interesting material in here about how sulphur was used to avoid oxygenation of brews in the Middle Ages, and as a keg disinfectant.  Nowadays we’d put it in a keg and use CO2 to force the O2 out.  Bottled CO2 under pressure wasn’t an option back in the day.  Please note I am not responsible for spelling or punctuation here, and some of the text did not transfer cleanly.  Still, there are rich details here, particularly if you’re interested in guild-ruled brewing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

I have the permission of all the authors to reprint their conversation here.  Anyone who preferred not to be here, isn’t here.

Posted by: “Carraig Mac Cosgraigh”   carraig1014

Tue Jul 19, 2011 7:12 am (PDT)

I’ll try to remember to send you my notes from home sometime this week after work.    In general, sulfur sioxide (SO2) is what protects wine from spoilage, oxidation, and browning.  Burning elemental sulfur produces sulfur dioxide.  It was standard practice for a hundred years or so (19th to 20th century) to put sulfur on a tray, set it on fire, and then lower the tray into a barrel to fumigate it with sulfur dioxide.  I have a reference from an author of many commercial wine-making books (University of Ca) that warns winemakers to be careful because the wood in the barrel can absorb a lot of SO2 and then it can hurt the wine.  So burning sulfur in barrels can certainly introduce SO2 into wine.    I have not seen the actual text of the 1487 decree, but I have read several books that reference this decree.  These books say that the process was to use “wooden wicks” covered in sulfur which were then burned inside the barrels.  I am assuming that this process was the origin of the 20th century practice of burning elemental sulfur on a tray in a barrel.  So my references indicate that the decree was intended to limit the number of wicks (and therefore the amount of sulfur) that could be burned in a barrel.    Potassium metabisulfite is just a vehicle for amateurs to get SO2 into wine.  When metabisulfite is disolved into wine, most of it turns into bisulfite and some of turns into sulfite and free SO2.  The ratio of bisulfite, sulfite, and free SO2 is dependent upon the pH of the wine.  At a typical pH of 3.5, you will yield about 2% fee SO2.  It only takes about 1/8th of a teaspoon of metabisulfite powder in a 6 gallon carboy of wine to achieve the proper concentration of free SO2 to protect wine at a pH of 3.5.  Most amateurs ruin their wine by adding as much as ten times that.    I have yet to figure out what the medieval practice of adding straight sulfur to wine actually does to the wine (I’m going to guess that some small fraction coverts to free SO2, but I just don’t know yet).     Best Regards,  Cionaodh

Posted by: “Carraig Mac Cosgraigh” carraig1014@ carraig1014   Date: Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:52 am ((PDT))

I go away for a couple of weeks and I missed all the cool discussions 😉  Sulfur was used as a disinfectant by the Romans (burning sulfur in amphorea and many other practices) who spread the practice throughout out Europe. However, this practice died out in Northern Europe as the Roman Empire collapsed.   Sulfur was rediscovered by the Germans by the 1400s (and buy ambien 10mg perhaps earlier). They burned sulfer in barrels (which would have protected against spoilage organisms), and they added raw sulfur directly to wine to inhibit fermentation (to produce sweet wines). However, wine yeasts are highly tolerant of sulfur, so very large quantities of sulfur would have been required to halt an active fermentation. Clearly this would have had negative effects on the flavor of the wine.

We can assume that the use (and abuse) of sulfur in German winemaking became pretty widespread during the 1400s, because multiple decrees were issued to ban or limit the amount of sulfur used in each tun of wine (and you only ban something after it has become a problem).  So the metabisulfite compounds we use today are clearly not period; however, they are a more a convenient way for amateur wine makers to achieve similar results to burning elemental sulfur in barrels (which is period in Germany for the last two centuries of the SCA time frame).   I have references at home, so if you want more information contact me at:  cionaodh@ballymacos

Prof. Dr. Lukas Clemens

Professor für Mittelalterliche Geschichte und Historische Hilfswissenschaften

http://www.vdqs. net/Working_ Papers/Text/ WP_2002/Clemens. pdf     (broken link)


(This paragraph is fractured.  My apologies.) During the 15th century  increase. Some sources dating from that time particularly call its use an century or Conrad Celtis who howeverth century, the method of; whereas a “Süßreserve” produced through using  For example, the decree from Nürnberg from the 15th century ths method a temporary innovation. The job title of “Schwefeler” found in  the income tax lists of Trier dating from the second half of the 14th century leads one to assume that these methods were already a little older.

On the one hand,  the wine barrels were cleaned and disinfected by burning sulphur in them and on the  other hand, the sulphur was added to the wine itself in order to stop fermentation and  in order to save the wine some residual sugar. During the 15  using sulphur was still differently judged and handled. Some municipal decrees as for  example the one in Schlettstadt from the years 1410 and 1462 as well as the one in  Nördlingen dating from 1468, forbade the use of sulphur. Not the least through the  pursuit of the town of Nürnberg, a certain dosage of sulphur was declared legal in the  second half of the 15th century as strictly forbidden. The wine decree which had been issued in  Rothenburg ob der Tauber in 1487 fell back upon the according standardisation,  granted a single sulphurisation of the barrels with a lot of sulphur per tun and ordered  the obligation to report any such treatment of barrels. A decree issued in Freiburg in  1498 confirmed the sulphurisation granted in 1487 and furthermore permitted half a  lot of sulphur for the transport. Since the issuing of these wine decrees the  sulphurisation of wines with controlled quantities, obviously not considered  unhealthy, was basically permitted. With this, an important innovation concerning  cellar techniques was legally sanctioned which created new possibilities of  preservation particularly for the white wines in German speaking areas. A long phase  of experiments had preceded in many wine cellars where experiences with unhealthy  amounts of sulphur or sulphurisation had been made.

The URL (none here) links to a document with two independent articles.  The article of interest is the second one in the file.  (the first article is by the wife of the author of the second)    The articles are were written for a symposium held by the Vineyard Data Quantification Society; European Association of Wine Economist.    

Best Regards, Cionaod



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