Friday, 12 October 2012

Medieval Ale - Homebrew Historic Ale

It is almost impossible to recreate true medieval ale, but this is an attempt to provide a recipe that resembles an historical brew by adapting ingredients readily available today and to give an idea at how an un-hopped, un-boiled ale might have tasted. It is also an exercise in producing ale with a nod to some historical techniques and to try and appreciate brewing without accurate measurement. The malt bill is based on achieving an OG greater than 1.070 and uses oats which appear in contemporary brewing texts as ‘dredge’ which is a combination of oats and barley. The ingredients will make a final total of about ten litres of ale in two batches.

3.6kg Maris Otter Pale malt, crushed
- 0.6kg Pale malt, crushed and roasted (see below)
- 1 kg rolled oats
- 15 litres liquor (main batch)
6.5 litres liquor (second runnings)
- Brewer’s Yeast of choice (e.g. Nottingham Ale)
Roast the 0.6kg of pale malt in the oven at 180degC for 60 minutes, stir the malt occasionally, this smells wonderful as it cooks! You can vary the roast times and temperatures to adjust the colour and flavour of the ale, also you can opt to not stir the malts to give a more irregular and probably more authentic roast. If you want to take it a step further, then roasting some of the malt over a wood chip BBQ would add a smoke flavour.
Prepare the liquor by boiling about 15 litres of water for the first runnings. Do not add any water treatments or salts. Mix together the pale malt, oats and roasted malts in a dry bucket.
Fill the mash tun with enough boiling water to cover the false bottom or grain filter, depending on what equipment you have. Now pour in the grains in stages and ladle in about one litre of hot liquor at a time allowing it to fall from some height. Finally pour in the rest of the hot liquor and mix to porridge. The higher the mash temperature, the sweeter the resulting beer will be. It should be sufficiently hot that you can only stand to dip your finger-tips into it for about a second or two.
Next close and cover the mash tun and allow it to rest for thirty minutes. Then open and stir the goods well, now close it up again and let it sit for three to four hours. Due to the higher temperatures, the mash will need a longer time in order to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. Leaving the mash for 30 minutes before a thorough stirring gives a more diverse temperature range, a kind of medieval decoction mash?
Shortly before the end of your mash time, prepare the liquor for the second runnings by boiling six and a half litres of water. Sanitise collection vessel number one and get it ready below the mash tun outlet. Run the wort slowly out of the mash tun and into the collection vessel. When you have collected all the wort, cover up the vessel and set aside.
Sparging is a process developed much later than the medieval period so for this brew we use the draining method. Double or triple infusion mashing was generally used by early brewers. After the first infusion is completed and the wort all drained off, a second batch of hot liquor is poured over the mash and allowed to steep again. This second batch is drained off and fermented separate to the first.
When the second batch of liquor has reached the boil, pour it over the damp grains left in the mash tun. Close it up and leave again for another half an hour or so. Sanitise and prepare a second collection vessel and when the second mash time is complete, place the collection vessel number two under the mash tun again and collect the second runnings into that.
The wort now needs to cool. Traditionally it was probably left overnight, but for a bit of modern cheating to speed up the process it could be crash cooled with an immersion coil, or the vessels dunked in a cold bath. This shouldn’t affect the flavours, other than to reduce the risk of infection.
When the wort has cooled, prepare the yeast as normal for the type you are using, and add it proportionally to the two vessels. Aerate the wort mixtures with a sanitised paddle. Traditionally ale would probably have used the same yeasts as for the baking of bread, indeed the two processes were most likely performed together. You could try adding a proportion of baker’s yeast to the brew. To take it another step further you could also add the yeast dregs from a lambic ale.
Now cover the vessels and allow to ferment.
Traditionally casks made of oak would have been used to store and age ales. If you wish to simulate some of that oak flavour that may have been picked up, you could boil a handful of oak chips in water, and then add the water to the fermenting wort.

Observations and Considerations

The mash temperature, after jugging the boiling liquor over the grains and before the stand time, came out to 70degC and the pH at 5.5 which is closer to the ideal levels than would have been expected. First rather cloudy wort runnings of 7 litres came out at 1.084 and the second at 1.064.Checking these is for interest only and shouldn’t be allowed to affect any stage in the brew. You will notice that this is not a very efficient use of the grains.
Very slow fermentation which took quite a bit of rousing to get going, eventually lots of CO2 but no yeast head created. Day four racked out of the fermenting bins into demi-johns with air locks. Tasted during racking and it looks like a glass of Baileys, with quite an extraordinary flavour, a bit like a very alcoholic oat cake mix with a lingering bitter sweet aftertaste. A chewy liquid bread. Despite some trepidation in the first sip, the taste is actually quite appealing.
After ten days it was still gently fermenting in the demi-johns and it was time for another taste. This time the ale had dropped most of the heavy oaty cloudiness and was now a gold amber colour with a big protein haze. The sample was tried in a shot glass and it had dried out quite a lot, becoming a sort of malt wine, and surprisingly refreshing, its intriguing taste calling you back for more. I bottled the ale at this stage into standard brown bottles.
The medieval brewer wouldn’t have known about sanitation, but for the purposes of this experiment it is best to leave that variable out, an off beer is an off beer after all and it’s a lot of grain to waste. It is best to sanitise your equipment as you would normally.
A month after bottling I attempted another tasting. After pouring a glass of the Ale I was spitting blood and teeth! The dam thing had dropped bright and was a lovely deep ruby colour, with a nice level of condition! All the effort and time I spend in making my modern beers clear and bright, this recipe had stuck a determined finger up at them and shown me. The taste was something else. Imagine going off to some unmapped region of Belgium, and selecting the local ‘special ale’. Well this was it. The taste was very fruity, oddly bitter sweet, a great big fruity bread meal in a glass. I think this ale will age quite well in the bottle, I look forward to trying it over the following months and years.
The malts are obviously modern with the slight nod to authenticity with the oven roasting. To really get the historic taste we would need to try and grow a strain of barley appropriate to the time and follow a medieval malting process. This may end up with such different ale, our soft modern palate would find hard to accept.
Attempting to brew without a thermometer ended up with reasonably close temperatures, but consistency is impossible, and of course with no saccharometer you are blind to your brewing efficiency and ultimate ale strength. The ale in this test never gave much of a yeast head, but fermented more like a wine and indeed the taste and process was more reminiscent of homemade wine.
I was certainly very surprised how this ale turned out. It was certainly not excessively sweet, and it also dropped out fairly clear and bright. I was happy to drink more than one glass and even my volunteer tasters were keen to try more. Having now tasted it over a period of three months and it seems to just keep getting better, so there is a third myth busted. However I am not sure if I would make it again, it’s a rather inefficient use of my ingredients and the method is fairly high risk to infection, I think I may have had beginners luck on this occasion. But it is a fascinating process and I have learned a lot about the tastes and possible methods used in brewing medieval ale.
Now I just need to find my leather trousers and work out how strong these ales are.....

1 comment:

  1. Tried one of these ales that I had set aside from the original brew. Very lively, but still a most interesting beer. Very fruity both on the nose and in taste. Fruity Horlicks drink. Keeps getting beter.