Medieval Brewing Myths

Beer and ale were made differently to how they are now and didn’t keep more than a few weeks
Despite what is written on the Internet, early modern people used top fermentation in sealed fermenters with rudimentary air-locks and followed with secondary bottle fermentation (sealed with corks!) using wheat grains, raisins, honey or even cane sugar as the sugar source. Small ale was ready to drink in four to five days; strong ale should be left for at least a year in the keg (tun) and no more than two. Honey ale made at Michaelmas would be ready for drinking at Lent. Bottled beers and ales were considered “exceeding quick and pleasant” (Digby).

The only difference between ale and beer is the hops
Ale can be brewed with hops, and many of the existing ale recipes state that a quantity of hops should be added. The quantity specified increases in more recent recipes as hops becomes cheaper and more available. The main difference is that ale uses a top-fermenting yeast and beer a bottom fermenting yeast.

There were no beers before the 17th century
This one is partially right; Richard Somer was selling Flemish ale (ie. beer) in Norwich in the late 13th century. This was, however, a special case; the next record of the selling of beer was not until some hundred years later, with merchants along the eastern and southern coasts of England starting to import and sell beer in the 1370s. (Bennett, p. 79)

Before the 18th century, all beers were pale coloured
There’s a couple of brewing websites that claim that there was no way darker beers and ales could be brewed before the introduction of the rotary dryer to produce dark roasted malts. The London and Country Brewer gives several recipes for Porters and other dark brews, a good 50 years before the introduction of the device.

They drank small ale because the alcohol sterilised the foul water
Having been through the process, I suspect the reason that small beer was safer than water wasn’t the disinfecting effect of the low concentration of alcohol, but the hours of boiling in preparation.

Beers, ales and ciders were still (flat) and always kept in barrels
Markham recommends bottling with “corks tied strongly”. Digby suggests when bottling, to add split raisins to ales (top fermenting yeasts) and bruised wheat grains to beers (bottom fermenting yeasts) to add sparkle. We found four large split raisins in each 750ml bottle to be about right.

Bottleing is the next improver, and proper for Cider; some put two or three Raisns into every Bottle, which is to seek aid from the Vine. Here in Somersetcire I have seen as much as a Wal-nut of Sugar, not without cause, used for this Country-Cider.

Evelyn, Sylva

…put into each bottle a little piece of white Sugar, about the bigness of a Nutmeg, and this will set it into a little fermentation, and give it that brightness which otherwise it would have wanted.

Sir Paul Neil’s Discourse of Cider, pp. 35-6

The Cider made and sold here in London in Bottles may have that windiness with it as Bottle-beer hath…

Of Cider, Capt. TAYLOR pp48-50

Historical drinks were invariably served warm

I tried some Bottles all a Summer in the bottom of a Fountain; and I prefer that way where it may be had. And tis somewhat strange if the Land be neither dry for a sand-house, nor fountainous for this better expedient.

Evelyn, Sylva


Anonymous, The London and Country Brewer, 1736
Bennett, J., Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England (Women’s work in a Changing World, 1300 – 1600), 1996 Oxford University Press
Digbie, K, The Closet of the eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, kt., Opened…, 1669
Evelyn, J., Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions. As it was Deliver’d in the Royal Society the xvth of October, [MDCLXII]…To which is annexed Pomona; Or, An Appendix concerning Fruit-Trees in relation to CIDER; The Making, and severall wayes of Ordering it, published by order of the Royal Society in 1664
Harrison, W., The Description of England (from Hollinshed’s Chronicles published in 1577.)
Markham, G., The English Housewife, Best, M. ed., 1986 McGill-Queen’s Press (originally published 1615, 1623, and 1631.)
Sambrook, P., Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900, 1996.


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