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Ale Brewing in Late Medieval and Early Tudor Times
An Article by Bruce Parker

Andrew Boorde was adamant about his ale. In his "Dietary" of 1542, Boorde made himself clear:

"Ale is made of malte and water; and they the which do put any other thynge to ale than is rehersed, except yest, barm, or goddesgood (SYNONYMS FOR YEAST - BP) doth sophysicat there ale. Ale for an Englysshe man is a naturall drinke. Ale muste have these properties, it muste be fresshe and cleare, it must not be ropy, nor smoky, nor it must have no wefte nor tayle. Ale shulde not be dronke under .V. dayes olde. Barly malte maketh better ale than Oten malte or any other corne doth...."

Boorde’s advice was not free of caveats:. "Yet it doth make a man fatte, and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appear about the doche (DUTCH) mennes faces and belyes." Boorde apparently felt that being mistaken for a Dutchman was an embarrassment that Englishmen should try to avoid at all costs.

A casual stroll down the beer aisle of most grocery stores serves up a reminder of the enormous variety of brews, from light beers to hearty ales and stouts, now vying for a warm place in the hearts and bellies of consumers. But what did late medieval and Tudor-era ale taste like? How different would that ale be from what we’ve become familiar with in our own time?

There is a slightly tenuous consensus among many traditionalist brewers that the ales of that age must have had less carbonation, perhaps a great deal less. But there is debate on that point. Fred Hardy, in a 1995 article posted to a brewing website, begs to differ: "As for carbonation, the Celts and Brits had the same pressure vessels as did the Burton brewers who shipped India Pale Ale around the world. They are called "barrels," and the coopers’ art was well-established in the British Isles before the Roman invasion."

Hardy also noted a more primitive method for producing a satisfying foam.

"........probably more than a few Brits and Celts would plunge a hot poker into the mug to release dissolved CO2 and produce accompanying foam. At a time when central heating was unknown, the alcohol and actual warmth of the drink were probably welcomed."

Whether hops were added to English ale, providing preservative qualities as well as the bitterness that modern drinkers have become accustomed to, is another contentious topic.

"Hops may have been first introduced into the British Isles in the early medieval period, but they were not commonly found in beer until the Reformation," maintains Tofi Kerthjalfadsson in an article on Elizabethan brewing. "Even through the 17th century, unhopped ales could be found. Hops were fairly expensive, and so were used in much smaller quantities than we would find in a modern India Pale Ale....."

It’s not difficult to imagine that the addition of hops to English ales, with their accompanying bitterness, took a bit of getting used to. But having poorly-preserved ale go sour could be a small-scale disaster, with a wasted product and disappointed, surly consumers to boot.

It is not surprising that yeast was regarded with awe and a sense of wonder in the sixteenth century. It took the studies of Louis Pasteur in the late nineteenth century to make yeast somewhat more comprehensible as a living, active organism. The Tudor-era brewer and baker didn’t have any idea why yeast worked the way it did, but the early synonym for it, "goddesgood" still speaks volumes about the high regard in which it was held.

It has long been posited that in the damp climes of England and much of northern Europe, relatively weak ales, referred to as "small ales," were often the everyday drinking fare, with stronger ales consumed on more festive or celebratory occasions, including the feast days of pre-Reformation England. Regardless of the strength of the ale on any given occasion, there is a fairly general consensus that ale was consumed in large quantities, in no small measure because the purity and healthfulness of water was suspect. Then, too, the very procedure of ale-making, with its boiling of ingredients and its subsequent production of alcohol greatly reduced a number of health risks.

At the same time, there are researchers who feel that it’s possible to overstate the amount of ale consumption in medieval and Renaissance England. Karl Hagen, in his study "The Economics of Medieval English Brewing" chose to look at the amount of land in England that would have had to be devoted to the production of barley and to a lesser extent wheat, oats and other grains of potential use in ale-making and came to the conclusion that ale-consumption in the land was considerable but could well be exaggerated by many historians. He concludes that there simply wasn’t enough land to support ale quantities that enormous, particularly in light of the demand for grains to produce bread to keep the population fed. And since a hungry population was sometimes a rebellious population, the consequences of poor resource management could be deadly.

But in times of relative plenty, almost every indication points to a variety of strengths of brew, from watery and relatively light to heavy, malty, and strong in alcohol content. The addition of herbs such as yarrow, marsh rosemary, sweet gale, and who knows what else, no doubt added to the variety of distinctive tastes the ales offered.

The fact that ale was not easy to transport, particularly over land, and was not an uncommon commodity points to the conclusion that it was primarily a locally-produced product, with many an "ale-wife" laboring over a batch of brew in the home. There is some speculation that as some of these home brewers inevitably became more highly regarded than others at making a tasty concoction, their homes became popular gathering places for people willing to pay to enjoy some of the brew. They essentially became "public houses," what we would regard as "pubs," the scene of many a laugh, many a fight, many a song since then.

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