Brewing – Mrs Harrison’s Ale (1577)

This post is a rehash of some brewing notes I’d put together for the 2009 Australasian Historical Conference. Using equipment bodged together from household scraps and plumbing fittings, our intrepid team made a number of ales and beers from 16th and 17th century recipes using ingredients as close to the originals as possible. Despite our best efforts, we managed to produce some passable results. The aim of this series is to provide tips and recipes for the valiant experimenter to begin their own barley-fuelled voyage of historical discovery. I’ll discuss equipment and techniques more completely in another post.

This first one is Mrs Harrison’s Ale from The Description of Britain, written in 1577 by William Harrison. I’ll give Harrison’s recipe first and then briefly discuss how we made it work.

I had assumed the Elizabethan writers would include all sorts of “traditional” steps that were done because they were always done and served no purpose, so we more scientific types would be able to dispense with them. I was stunned to find there’s a valid, scientific reason for every step, from activating the enzymes in the barley, breaking down the starches to sugar, sticking the proteins together so they can be more easily removed, activating the yeast and aerating the wort. They even used the same sterilising agents as us, the delivery method was just a little different.

Following the 16th century process results in the optimal temperature for each reaction, every time. The wooden vessels they used retain the temperature for much longer (up to 90 minutes are needed for some steps and many of the reactions have a window of less than 10° C in which they’ll happen) than our high-tech plastics, which need blankets and other forms of insulation wrapped around to even come close.

As the Harrisons ground their own barley to save the payment to the miller, the amount of grain was much less than the other contemporary recipes use for the same amount of water. To compensate, all three runs of water through the mash were used in the brew, rather than preserving the later runs for making small ale.

Harrison gives a very thorough description of the entire brewing process, he tends to waffle a bit but I’ve reproduced the section it in its entirety so nothing of relevance gets lost.

…Our drink, whose force and continuance is partly touched already, is made of barley, water, and hops, sodden and mingled together, by the industry of our brewers in a certain exact proportion. But, before our barley do come into their hands, it sustaineth great alteration, and is converted into malt, the making whereof I will here set down in such order as my skill therein may extend unto (for I am scarce a good maltster), chiefly for that foreign writers have attempted to describe the same, and the making of our beer, wherein they have shot so far wide, as the quantity of ground was between themselves and their mark. In the meantime bear with me, gentle reader (beseech thee), that lead thee from the description of the plentiful diet of our country unto the fond report of a servile trade, or rather from a table delicately furnished into a musty malthouse; but such is now thy hap, wherefore I pray thee be contented.

Our malt is made all the year long in some great towns; but in gentlemen’s and yeomen’s houses, who commonly make sufficient for their own expenses only, the winter half is thought most meet for that commodity: howbeit the malt that is made when the willow doth bud is commonly worst of all. Nevertheless each one endeavoureth to make it of the best barley, which is steeped in a cistern, in greater or less quantity, by the space of three days and three nights, until it be thoroughly soaked. This being done, the water is drained from it by little and little, till it be quite gone. Afterward they take it out, and, laying it upon the clean floor on a round heap, it resteth so until it be ready to shoot at the root end, which maltsters call combing. When it beginneth therefore to shoot in this manner, they say it is come, and then forthwith they spread it abroad, first thick, and afterwards thinner and thinner upon the said floor (as it combeth), and there it lieth (with turning every day four or five times) by the space of one and twenty days at the least, the workmen not suffering it in any wise to take any heat, whereby the bud end should spire, that bringeth forth the blade, and by which oversight or hurt of the stuff itself the malt would be spoiled and turn small commodity to the brewer. When it hath gone, or been turned, so long upon the floor, they carry it to a kiln covered with hair cloth, where they give it gentle heats (after they have spread it there very thin abroad) till it be dry, and in the meanwhile they turn it often, that it may be uniformly dried. For the more it be dried (yet must it be done with soft fire) the sweeter and better the malt is, and the longer it will continue, whereas, if it be not dried down (as they call it), but slackly handled, it will breed a kind of worm called a weevil, which groweth in the flour of the corn, and in process of time will so eat out itself that nothing shall remain of the grain but even the very rind or husk.

The best malt is tried by the hardness and colour; for, if it look fresh with a yellow hue, and thereto will write like a piece of chalk, after you have bitten a kernel in sunder in the midst, then you may assure yourself that it is dried down. In some places it is dried at leisure with wood alone or straw alone, in others with wood and straw together; but, of all, the straw dried is the most excellent. For the wood-dried malt when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke. Such also as use both indifferently do bark, cleave, and dry their wood in an oven, thereby to remove all moisture that should procure the fume; and this malt is in the second place, and, with the same likewise, that which is made with dried furze, broom, etc.: whereas, if they also be occupied green, they are in manner so prejudicial to the corn as is the moist wood. And thus much of our malts, in brewing whereof some grind the same somewhat grossly, and, in seething well the liquor that shall be put into it, they add to every nine quarters of malt one of headcorn (which consisteth of sundry grain, as wheat and oats ground). But what have I to do with this matter, or rather so great a quantity, wherewith I am not acquainted? Nevertheless, sith I have taken occasion to speak of brewing, I will exemplify in such a proportion as I am best skilled in, because it is the usual rate for mine own family, and once in a month practised by my wife and her maid-servants, who proceed withal after this manner, as she hath oft informed me.

Having therefore ground eight bushels of good malt upon our quern, where the toll is saved, she addeth unto it half a bushel of wheat meal, and so much of oats small ground, and so tempereth or mixeth them with the malt that you cannot easily discern the one from the other; otherwise these latter would clunter, fall into lumps, and thereby become unprofitable. The first liquor (which is full eighty gallons, according to the proportion of our furnace) she maketh boiling hot, and then poureth it softly into the malt, where it resteth (but without stirring) until her second liquor be almost ready to boil. This done, she letteth her mash run till the malt be left without liquor, or at the leastwise the greatest part of the moisture, which she perceiveth by the stay and soft issue thereof; and by this time her second liquor in the furnace is ready to seethe, which is put also to the malt, as the first woort also again into the furnace, whereunto she addeth two pounds of the best English hops, and so letteth them seethe together by the space of two hours in summer or an hour and a half in winter, whereby it getteth an excellent colour, and continuance without impeachment or any superfluous tartness. But, before she putteth her first woort into the furnace, or mingleth it with the hops, she taketh out a vessel full, of eight or nine gallons, which she shutteth up close, and suffereth no air to come into it till it become yellow, and this she reserveth by itself unto further use, as shall appear hereafter, calling it brackwoort or charwoort, and, as she saith, it addeth also to the colour of the drink, whereby it yieldeth not unto amber or fine gold in hue unto the eye. By this time also her second woort is let run; and, the first being taken out of the furnace, and placed to cool, she returneth the middle woort unto the furnace, where it is stricken over, or from whence it is taken again, when it beginneth to boil, and mashed the second time, whilst the third liquor is heat (for there are three liquors), and this last put into the furnace, when the second is mashed again. When she hath mashed also the last liquor (and set the second to cool by the first), she letteth it run, and then seetheth it again with a pound and a half of new hops, or peradventure two pounds, as she seeth cause by the goodness or baseness of the hops, and, when it hath sodden, in summer two hours, and in winter an hour and a half, she striketh it also, and reserveth it unto mixture with the rest when time doth serve therefore. Finally, when she setteth her drink together, she addeth to her brackwoort or charwoort half an ounce of arras, and half a quarter of an ounce of bayberries, finely powdered, and then, putting the same into her woort, with a handful of wheat flour, she proceedeth in such usual order as common brewing requireth. Some, instead of arras and bays, add so much long pepper only, but, in her opinion and my liking, it is not so good as the first, and hereof we make three hogsheads of good beer, such (I mean) as is meet for poor men as I am to live withal, whose small maintenance (for what great thing is forty pounds a year, computatis computandis, able to perform?) may endure no deepeer cut, the charges whereof groweth in this manner. I value my malt at ten shillings, my wood at four shillings (which I buy), my hops at twenty pence, the spice at twopence, servants’ wages two shillings sixpence, with meat and drink, and the wearing of my vessel at twenty pence, so that for my twenty shillings I have ten score gallons of beer or more, notwithstanding the loss in seething, which some, being loth to forego, do not observe the time, and therefore speed thereafter in their success, and worthily. The continuance of the drink is always determined after the quantity of the hops, so that being well hopt it lasteth longer. For it feedeth upon the hop, and holdeth out so long as the force of the same continueth, which being extinguished, the drink must be spent, or else it dieth and becometh of no value.

In this trade also our brewers observe very diligently the nature of the water, which they daily occupy, and soil through which it passeth, for all waters are not of like goodness, sith the fattest standing water is always the best; for, although the waters that run by clalk or cledgy soils be good, and next unto the Thames water, which is the most excellent, yet the water that standeth in either of these is the best for us that dwell in the country, as whereon the sun lieth longest, and fattest fish is bred. But, of all other, the fenny and marsh is the worst, and the clearest spring water next unto it. In this business therefore the skilful workman doth redeem the iniquity of that element, by changing of his proportions, which trouble in ale (sometime our only, but now taken with many for old and sick men’s drink) is never seen nor heard of. Howbeit, as the beer well sodden in the brewing, and stale, is clear and well coloured as muscadel or malvesey, or rather yellow as the gold noble, as our pot-knights call it, so our ale, which is not at all or very little sodden, and without hops, is more thick, fulsome, and of no such continuance, which are three notable things to be considered in that liquor. But what for that? Certes I know some ale-knights so much addicted thereunto that they will not cease from morrow until even to visit the same, cleansing house after house, till they defile themselves, and either fall quite under the board, or else, not daring to stir from their stools sit still pinking with their narrow eyes, as half sleeping, till the fume of their adversary be digested that he may go to it afresh. Such slights also have the alewives for the utterance of this drink that they will mix it with rosen and salt; but if you heat a knife red-hot, and quench it in the ale so near the bottom of the pot as you can put it, you shall see the rosen come forth hanging on the knife. As for the force of salt, it is well known by the effect, for the more the drinker tippleth, the more he may, and so doth he carry off a dry drunken noll to bed with him, except his luck be the better.

William Harrison (1534-1593): Description Of Elizabethan England, 1577

Harrison speaks of wheat and oats separately from the malt and refers to them as “sundry grain”, “wheat meal”, and “oats small ground”. In the proportion used by his wife, 16 parts barley malt to one part each wheat and oats, there is no chemical need for the wheat or oats to be malted as the enzymes in the fully-modified barley malt are capable of converting the starches in the small amount of unmalted grain.

It seems to have been a popular mix. Richard Arnold in his Customs of London of 1503 uses 5:1:1 ratio of malt to wheat to oats.

To brewe beer x. quarters malte. lj. quarters wheet ij. quarters ootos xl. ll weight of hoppys. To make lx barrell of sengyll beer

To make 60 barrels of single beer, use 10 quarters of malt, 2 quarters of wheat, and 2 quarters of oats, with 40 pounds of hops.

Arnold chron. (x-um 20), fol.xciv.r/b (r.i.r/b).

For the Harrison Ale, the grain had to be mashed three times with all three runs being used in the final ale. Hops were added to the first and third wort during the boil. The recipe calls for small amounts of wheat flour and long pepper to be added at the end, (0.0125 of a handful and 300mg respectively) so we used the approach of cooks everywhere and did the quantities by dead reckoning. As an ale, this brew uses a top fermenting ale yeast.

We avoided changing recipes to suit modern tastes, but did use modern home brewing equipment, and used peletised hops and dry yeast. Peletised hops are simply hop flowers compressed and packed in a nitrogen filled pouch, so keep at their peak condition. In the 17th c, the male flowers would also have been included in the measure of hops, which would have lowered the yield slightly. The yeast was rehydrated in advance, so we were adding liquid yeasts to the fermenter as the originals did. The other change was adding Calcium Carbonate to the water for the mash. We did this because Sydney water is very soft and we needed to replicate the sort of water London brewers would use. There is a reference in The London and Country Brewer (1731) to people who “live on the black sandstone” tipping chalk into the wells from which they drew their brewing water. Harrison also recommended using the hardest water you could get to improve the yield of the hops.

All the references we used highlighted the importance of maintaining temperature through the whole length of the mash and starting high so it was still in the right band for the enzymes at the end. Looking back at the process, we had absolutely no trouble getting the first mash at 70-65 degrees and probably should have used water at about 80 instead of boiling for the second and third mash, due to the amount of heat retained by the malt bed. The higher temperature probably cut the sugar yield by 10% on the last two mashes, but there wasn’t much sugar left after the first mash anyway.

The barley we used was a UK grown and roasted, pale roast two row barley, approximately similar to the seventeenth century grain but probably a different cultivar. The hops was East Kent Goldings, which goes back to at least 1700, and the yeasts were an English ale yeast. The ale yeasts are the wild grape yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (which is identified as “ancient”, possibly back to 3500-4000BC). Sterilising was done with a modern low residual mix (effectively lime water) which despite the modern packaging and artificial colour (bright pink!) gets a mention in London and Country Brewer, other acceptable methods were Sulphur Dioxide fuming or scalding. Markham’s in 1640 recommended bottling with “corks tied strongly” to improve ales and beers, as did Evelyn slightly later so we felt comfortable with using bottles for secondary fermentation without producing an ahistorical brew. Specific gravity at the start of fermentation was 1.0018 so the end result about 3.8% alcohol.

We bottled Mrs Harrison’s Ale one afternoon about a fortnight later. Bottling Mrs Harrison is a bit of a leap of faith, as Harrison’s description ends at the stage where the yeast is pitched.  For a secondary sugar source, there are two competing approaches for the practice in the period.  Sir Kenhelm Digby recommended the use of “bruised grains of wheat”  for secondary fermentation (specificity where a beer yeast had been used but if you don’t try you won’t find out) or split raisins. As per a scaled version of Digby’s instructions to suit 750ml bottles rather than quart he referred to, we used 4 large split raisins in each. We calculated 8-10 raisins on the sugar content of the fruit against the amount of cane sugar normally added for the secondary fermentation, but decided to be cautious.

Having a bet each way, we did 5 bottles with wheat, 5 with split raisins and left the balance without either.

Next post or so, I’ll to have a go at Digby’s “Small Ale for the Stone” to give us a comparative small ale made paradoxically from the first run through the mash. This would be an easy one for those without mash tubs to make from commercial malt extract.

6 thoughts on “Brewing – Mrs Harrison’s Ale (1577)

  1. Hi, writing from Toronto and was very interested in your experiment. You did not, from what I can tell,d describe the taste results. Can you give some indication of this? Did the beers differ much, raisin vs. wheat primed ones? How did each compare to a typical English-style ale of today at the same gravity? Would be most interested in your comments, thanks.

    1. Hi Gary,

      I couldn’t pick any difference in taste between the raisin and wheat primed ales or the unprimed ones. Secondary fermentation occurred in the raisin and wheat bottles and gave a similar amount of carbonation to the teaspoon of cane sugar we normally use in bottles of this size.
      I’m glad we erred on the side of caution with the raisins, modern ones must have a considerably higher amount of sugar than the seventeenth century ones, I’m sure we would have lost bottles if we had used more.

      We bottled on the lees, cloudy beers were normal during the period in question. I thought the raisin primed ales were clearer in the glass, but it was very marginal and most of the other people taking part in the test drinking couldn’t see it.

      We often use raisins in our historical brews now, the wheat works but needs more care when pouring, the raisins swell and tend to stay in the bottle rather than sneaking into the glass and geting caught in your throat unexpectedly.

      I’m in Australia, so I’m not familiar with all the English styles. This one is like a lightly-hopped version of some of the lighter English pale ales I’ve encountered, sort of like a Tetley’s English Ale with a dash of muddy water for the colour and texture. The long pepper was an interesting ingredient, it added a slightly musky warmth to the taste.



      1. Hi Wayne:

        That’s extremely helpful, thanks so much. I know I’ve seen “a few grains of rice” in some older materials for priming, related in this case to French Flanders and Belgium too if memory serves. I think you did very well, those are very interesting experiments! Thanks again. I’m sure they get pretty close to what people actually did drink then. As you may know, there’s a fair amount of information on abv for 19th century beers, e.g. Frederick Accum’s book and other 19th century sources. English ales then were pretty strong so I wonder if grains really changed in starch content all that much, i.e., between 1500s and 1800s but they may well have, that is a long period.

        Ron Pattinson, you probably know his name, has done a lot of work on 19th and early 20th century recreations, e.g.. on his Let’s Brew Wednesday feature at His book on Vintage Beers For Homebrewers is very useful. I don’t brew myself but am very interested in historical questions which I look at too, lately at some aspects of Trappist beer history.

        Best regards.


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