Thursday, February 14, 2013

Real Ale, Medieval Style

The are a number of issues that relate to Medieval Brewing that bug me and seem to be missed or feintly addresses by recreationists. Whilst some seemingly scholarly work has been done replete with references here and there the problem at heart is one of not understanding the social dynamic in which the activities of brewing were taking place.

It is widely acknowledged that much of the brewing was carried out by womenfolk. That much is clear. What is not so clear is how alewives brewed, managed temperatures and times in the brewhouse, or if this was ever of any concern to them, in the first place? The reason for this, I feel is that most of the modern hobby brewers doing research into period brewing, like me are men, yet unlike me, they have no background in the household or kitchen arts. I believe such a background is essential for trying to unravel some of the brewing mysteries of the past.

The Brewers House
Lets take a look at some plates purportedly representing domestic brewing, perhaps, in the Middle Ages (medieval times)...

This first image depicts what is supposed to be a Master Brewer, who appears to be a man (monk?). Here there are a few point worth noting. First is the well outside; next is the smallish fire with chimney, which appears to heat part of the base of the tun; third the large tun appears to be mostly made of wood, and has a built in mash seive; then, there are what appears to be hops on the floor at the brewer's feet and distilling apparatus on the shelves behind. 

Such a sweet little arrangement don't you think? I want one!

So, here's a question, where are the buckets and the fermenters? Where is the fuel? Is the fuel wood or coal? Is this an accurate depiction of medieval brewing at all?

Is this next picture, the gender is right, AND I believe the arrangements are also accurate. Here we see a fire place. Next to it is a large tun and at its base what appears to be a metal pot. We know that these could have been made of bronze, copper, iron or pottery. This leads uy to the question, Is the tun directly heated by the fire, If so, how? Was the water heated in the pot and then added in periodic additions to the tun? Is this tun used for mashing at all? Or, is it just for grain storage? I suspect it is for grain storage, as indicated by the rake sitting on top of what ever is in the tun.

We also see the alewife tipping fluid into another tun. This appears to be a mash tun and the alewife appears to be making a hot water addition. Think about this for a minute. The boil kettle and the pail used to transfer the water to the tun are about the same size, but nowhere near the same size as the mash tun. To me this indicates a step mash process that is dictated by the size of the equipment on hand AND the ability of the alewife to lift and move volumes of water. It is my conjecture that the kettle and pail would have been not much more than 20L, roughly 5 gallons, in volume.

Next, we see in the foreground, a smaller tun with boards supporting a basket. this basket would have been used to separate the spent grain from the wort, and after cooling the wort would have been pitched with Barm and transfered to the open kegs for fermentation. What we don't see here is Hops, which indicates to me that this space was dedicated to the brewing of fresh ale.

Ale and Beer
Prior to the 1500's, in England, beer and ale were two decidedly different drinks. Both were made with malted grain however ale was generally made without the addition of supplementary flavourings, whilst beer tended to include various gruit (grout) concoctions in its manufacture. It seems also that another defining feature was that beer also tended to involve a post-mash boil, necessitating additional  equipment.

Another interesting fact seems to be that in the later part of the middle ages attempts were brought to bear to regulate Ale manufacture in-so-far as defining what could and couldn't be included in ale. This seems to mirror similar development in Europe, in relation to beer. It is worth noting that this led to a situation where ale brewers who sold product to the public were not allowed to brew beer and vice versa. It is unclear if this delineation also found its way into private manor houses although historic record seems to indicate that at least in the King's household, such division did exist.

Medieval Time and Kitchen Timings
One of the intriguing points often neglected by people curious about period brewing is the concept of time and how it was measured, if it ever was. We know that the concept of Time, its passing and the need to be mindful of it in the kitchen, existed well before the middle ages, but how did medieval cooks or brewers "know" how long to leave the mash so that a sweet wort could be extracted from the malted grains?

We know that such devices as Clepsydrae (water clocks), Sundials, candle clocks, and even sand-filled Hour Glasses did exist however, by and far, such devices were usually far too expensive for the typical brewer's house. We know that in many places there were churches or monasteries near enough that when they sounded the bells for Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, etc. the community would hear it. We also know that monks would often chant set prayers or psalms to mark of short periods of approximately the same time. It was well know at the time that the day was divided into 12 portions, so in combination of the church bells and a stick in the ground it would have been relatively easy to estimate the gross passage of time.

However, there were also other ways for kitchen cooks or brewers to calculate time. For example occasionally reference to a furlongsway (the time it takes to walk an eighth of a mile, 2.5 min) or a milesway (time to walk a mile, 20 min based on 3 miles to the hour) but such measurements are almost pointless near a fire unless you had a very practiced knowledge of the passing of such a portion of time or some hapless waif that was at your beck and call.

It is my conjecture that cooks knew how long it too to boil and egg, how long it took to bake a loaf of bread, how long it took to boil a set amount of water and that these would have been the reference measures that any good alewife or brewer of the times would have known like the back of their hand. Household brewing would not have occurred in isolation of the activities of the rest of the house, especially the kitchen.

Determining temperature without a thermometer
Another facet of interest that gets panhandled away is the concept of medieval step mashing and uncertainty in accurately assessing and hitting designated temperature steps AND why medieval brewers may have even bothered with this. 

From the picture above, it is clear that not all medieval brewers may have had access to a heated cauldron and crane in which they could gradually raise the mash temperature and control the exposure of the mash to heat. This concept in of itself is ludicrous, so much so that it would seem to be a very rational basis for discounting step mashing altogether. The question here is why would medieval brewers need access to such large equipment and precision control? 

The simple answer is that they didn't such equipment was far too expensive, not to mention unwieldy.  How many hobby brewers today, would think to use a crane to move a pot of hot liquid off of a fire and then back onto it, without spilling the liquid inside of it? Crazy? 

No, the smart answer is to move the fire. (Check this video to see how some northern brewers have solved this issue for their brewed over an open fire system.)

Given the equipment constraints of medieval brewers it is logical and sensible to consider an alternative brewing senario, that of a stepwise mashing schedule borne out of necessity and practicality. It is not too difficult to conjecture that brewers of old understood that by brewing in a certain way produced better ale and the better the process and the more diligently it was followed, the better the final product.

First, most detractors of this idea point out, rightly so, that in medieval times they did not have thermometers. But one doesn't need a thermometer to know heat and to estimate it with a reasonable degree of accuracy, at least for what was required in a kitchen or in an early brewery. What follows is a table of associations that anyone with a semblance of intelligence could determine for themselves.

Temp °C
Ice appears in the water or it is solid
Very Cold
noticeably cold to the touch
slightly cool to the touch
neutral, blood warm, warmth of mother's milk
slightly warm to the touch
uncomfortably warm, will turn skin red
too hot to touch without risk of injury
water surface begins to shimmer and move
Slow Boil
noticeable small bubbles forming and rising in the water
Rolling Boil
noticeably large and explosive bubbles rapidly rising to the surface

Now, can we comfortably say that brewers in medieval times had common knowledge of the benefits of resting at specific temperatures? Notably 40-45°C, 50-55°C, 62-65°c, 68-72°C and, 76°C.

No. No we can't, but we can't discount it either, just because it might have been based on undocumented, experiential trial and error knowledge. Let's face it, they did not know about Yeast per se but know that to get a ferment going they needed to pitch good, fresh barm into the cool wort, and if it was too hot, it didn't ferment. So here's where I open my mouth to change feet, so to speak...

Of the brewing and mashing of malted grain to make ale
What follows is my considered opinion on how an alewife would have typically made an ale using the tools available. Consider the following brewhouse...

From the picture above we have small water additions being made to a mash tun. While it is not entirely true that when you add two equal volumes of water to each other, volumes at different temperature, that the resultant temperature will be midway between both, because of temperature losses to the system and the surrounds, for our purposes here, we'll consider it thus.

Extenuating factors: in the brewhouse above there is a fire burning, gradually increasing the ambient temperature, and the temperature of all containers in the room. Most of the containers in the room are made of wood. Let us consider that the heat losses to the tun and other wooden utensils is less than 2-3°C especially with a good fire heating everything up along the way. 

Let us also define  the size of a bucket or pail as 3 imperial gallons, 13.6 (or so) liters, and that the ambient temperature of the grain is around 13°C - it's cold at night when there's no fire in the brewhouse.  Let us also consider the possibility that there's an old bucket hanging around that leaks a little and it runs empty in about the same time that it takes to bake a loaf of bread, or thers a stick outside with a nominally calibrated shadow path that somehow corresponds with the local church bells; (I like the leaky bucket idea myself.) 

So, let's begin:
  1. Draw one pail of clear water and set it to warm on the fire
  2. Into the tun place one pail of malted grain
  3. When the water is slightly cool and not quite blood warm, splash it over the grain in the tun to make thick gruel    --- (guesstimated temp should be somewhere around 24°C, Acidulation Rest)
  4. Draw a fresh pail of clear water and set it to boil
  5. When the water begins to leap and tumble, add one pail of roasted malt grain (amber) and the boiling water to the tun, stir well
  6. Allow the mash to steep, for the time it takes to bake a loaf of daily* bread, or for a double milesway    --- (guesstimated temp should be somewhere around 55°C, Protein Rest)
  7. After this, draw one pail of clear water and again set it to boil
  8. When the water begins to leap and tumble, add it to the gruel and stir well
  9. Allow the mash to steep, for the time it takes to bake a loaf of daily* bread, or for a double milesway    --- (guesstimated temp should be somewhere around 68°C, Amylase/Sacharification Rest)
  10. After this, draw one pail of clear water and again set it to boil
  11. When the water begins to leap and tumble, add it to the gruel and stir well
  12. Allow the mash to steep, for the time it takes to bake a loaf of daily* bread, or for a double milesway. The mash should now be too hot to touch    --- (guesstimated temp should be somewhere around 75°C, Mash Out/Denaturing Enzyme Activity)
  13. Arrange a wicker or reed basket over a small barrel, line with fresh clean straw and ladle the hot mash into the basket until the barrel is full
  14. Repeat until all the grain has been removed from the mash
  15. Cover with a linen cloth and set the barrels of young ale aside to cool
  16. When cool, add fresh barm to each barrel, mix well and transfer the young ale to barrels to age
  17. Check the barrels each day and collect the barm that rises to the surface
  18. When the barm stops rising the ale is ready to taste. If it is good it is ready to serve.
* just playing a little with words and images here, ignore the floury (sic.) bits if you wish.

A few final comments should be inserted here as well. The forst two steps, why would any alewife of medieval times bother with them, and not go directly to a higher temp? 

First, malted grains weren't as modified in medieval times as they are now, thus requiring more effort to manage the proteins. Next, some conjecture lies in the idea that without a boil, the proteins needed to be more readily available in liquid form to maximise the healthfulness of the drink. 

Thirdly, many cooks of old dealing with grains and and dried pulses knew the value of allowing them to steep in warm water prior to cooking as this directly improved the cooking process, thus it is not such a significant leap of faith to consider that low temperature steeping of the grain would have been considered a necessary first step, however above we have two grain additions, one steeped and one not It seems to be an accepted fact that roasted grain was used as well as unroasted grains in the mash. 

Its also quite possible that the water may have been heated to just warm, approx. 40°C placed into the tun and a second batch drawn and heated prior adding the whole grain bill then leaving it to steep. This is the great thing about experimentation with relatively unknown ye olde worlde processes. 

So there you have it, this is my personal interpretation and rationalisations around what might constitute a (early) medieval ale brewing process. 

Until next time,

It's Your Shout, Mate!

References (in no particular order)

Medieval Brewing accessed on 2013.02.10 accessed on 2012.02.13

Medieval Timekeeping

1 comment:

  1. Your article is the only one that actually describes the process enough to replicate it. Thank you.