JoAnna Carrozzino asked me to write a post about the kinds of period beer. Historical fermented beverage types…funny you should ask…I just whipped off a couple of very quick paper topics to the AHA for their grand convocation next summer. I am torn between thinking I had to get my ideas in soonest and wishing I’d taken a lot more time to flesh them out…but I panicked and sent in some pretty bare-bones proposals. Ergo I don’t know whether I will be chosen as a speaker despite my abundant charm and exhaustive and often very careful research.
OK, let’s talk pre-1600AD, in Europe – ye gods, that leaves a LOT to talk about. And sample. And brew. And if I don’t say enough about whatever it is you’re looking for, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to fill in the hole.
Historical fermented beverages cover a much broader scope than we often think of today, and people were a lot less particular about categories and distinctions. Picture a world before the Age of Enlightenment and scientific classification as we know it. Folks didn’t subdivide their drink categories as clinically as we do; you could have honey and strong spices in your ale, and mull it with a hot poker, and it warn’t no thang, so to speak. Some of our classifications are artificial, when discussing period beverages. People fermented together whatever they had, that seemed to taste good together. If you really want to re-create a period beer, the best thing you can do is go look at some of the extant recipes.
OK, so classifying away regardless: ale was malt and water, and possibly spices and herbs, but not necessarily hops. Ale was absolutely the standard in England until the fifteenth century, which is true in most of Europe as well. Don’t buy the nonsense about ale being thick and porridgy; you wouldn’t want to drink it that way, why do you think they did? Many ales clear themselves in the cask while fermenting, and ways of clearing ale had been known for more than two thousand years at that point. Since a lot of it seems to have been drunk pretty young, I can imagine a lot of beer and ale wasn’t precisely clear, but it probably wan’t all gruelly either. Sure, folks often had ale and nothing else for breakfast. Have you ever tried a rich, full-bodied beer first thing? It moistens and fills. Breakfast was not known for being the most important meal of the day, and most people seem to have only had one substantial meal, if they could afford that. Ale and ale alone for breakfast makes more sense than it initially seems to.
The ale in much of Europe was seasoned with all sorts of herbs and flowers, one of which might be hops (which grow wild almost everywhere) but often wasn’t. Gruit just indicates a particular spice mixture that could be mixed while brewing ale, apparently based on bog myrtle more often than not. The truth is, we don’t have a recipe for gruit, and it’s entirely possible it meant any combination of spices that were particularly good when brewed in ale. Or maybe it always had bog myrtle; we don’t know. If you browse pre-1600 recipes for beer or mead, the herb and spice lists can be longer than my arm. It argues for their having had a little bit of this and that at hand, and not enough of any one thing to make a real flavor statement – just enough to add some general flavor to the beverage.
Yes, there is a recipe for Cock Ale, which requires a bird; yes, it’s actually pretty good, though one tends to be careful to drink it very fresh.
I think we’re probably all aware of the ale-beer conflict, especially in England – just wrote about that for Tournaments Illuminated – anyway, where ale was made of malt and water, beer was malt and water and hops. It came to England from immigrants from the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, during an interesting bit of politicking and invasion by the Duke of Burgundy that made it worth their while to move. It was not popular in England, and fed into the xenophobia the sudden influx of foreigners spawned. It did result in a fair number of quality regulations, which eventually applied to ale too. The use of hops in beer seems to have started in Bohemia/Czech Republic, and hops are first known to have been cultivated around Hallertau, in Germany. Sour Belgian ales existed certainly by the Hundred Years War, and possibly earlier than that; regional differences were recognized, especially by invading armies.
Nowadays, of course, ale is a type of beer, also made with hops. Ale, ironically, can now be quite bitter, though it tends to have lower levels of hop flavor, and is often fairly low-alcohol-content.
Braggot– my personal love – is a honeyed ale, or hopped mead. It tends to have a balance of malt and honey characteristics, and very little hop addition, with almost no bitterness. By the twelfth century the Irish certainly knew about braggots, but the Welsh may have been there first – law records show a person of free rank had to give the king a vat of mead or two vats of braggot, or four vats of beer (according to the Llyfr Iorweth, a thirteenth century redaction of the tenth century laws Cyfraith Hywel). It was good to be king. You can find braggot recipes here, here, and here, and there are a few more on this site to.
If you get into meads, almost all the words we now have for mead styles were classical references originally; we never translated the words into any language other than Latin or Greek. Metheglin (mead with spices), melomel (mead with fruit), rhodamel (mead with roses), mulsum (honeyed wine) – the list goes on and on. Then there’s morat (mulberry mead) – must check into that one, it doesn’t have the Latin/Greek ring to it. But you get my point – meads have been around for about as long as we know human history, at least in the West and Middle East, and the language for them in the West hasn’t changed – which argues that there has never been a break in history when the same meads weren’t around. We’ve never had a chance to forget their names. (See my notes on beor, for an example of word interruptions in history.)
Now, there are some styles that were more common once upon a time. One of my favorites goes back at least to Romans – pyments, honey and grapes fermented together. When you get it right it’s a perfect balance between the two flavors. I’ve made it with white wine grapes (such as Riesling); I haven’t yet tried it with red wine grapes, but my friend Steve Cicirelli wants to try a pyment with muscat grapes. That will be one long slow bowl of mead. I’ve served award-winning pyment to people socially, and at round table tastings, and almost always gotten really puzzled reactions. It’s not a flavor combination we’re used to.
The word for cider comes from twelfth century French, in turn from Latin and Greek for ‘strong drink’. I can’t find an origin for cyser io sicer, apples and honey fermented together. They may be obsolete forms of the word for cider. You’d think apples would be sweet enough by themselves that adding honey would be overkill, but remember apples have been bred for that – more apples used to sour and crabapple-like. Mixing their juice with honey makes more sense, then.
And of course, there was wine. Wine has been around for something like seven thousand years in the Middle East, that we can prove. The date is limited by how long people were making and breaking pottery, for the shards to exist with residue for us to find and analyze. Wine was everywhere over Europe, over the classical world (Rome was famously a wine culture, and exported vines to what is now Germany and France). Even the Anglo Saxons in far, cold England-to-be had vineyards. Wine wasn’t used to refer to what we now think of as country wine – wine made of dandelions, or fruit, or flowers – until the fourteenth century. Before that it was made of fermented grapes, possibly sweetened or spiced.