Sunday, 26 June 2011

Medieval Beer

An enjoyable foray into brewing !

Ale is mentioned a fair bit in the various books I have of the Tudors so I wanted to look into this in a little more detail, here are my findings;

In Tudor England the most common drink was ale which, during this period was a drink made from malted grains, water and occasionally spices (but not hops) these were all fermented with yeast. The malted grain would be crushed and then hot water would be added and the mixture allowed to work, finally the liquid was drained off, cooled and fermented.

Beer on the other hand was a little different as it contained hops which added bitterness to the drink and also acted as a preservative but this was something still rather peculiar to the continent and rare in England during the early sixteenth century but it would have been available during the campaign as Flemish beer is known to have been victualled.

The ration for an English soldier in the 1513 campaign was 8 pints of ale a day and this was a very important part of the Tudor supplies as it was a source of clean water and kept the troops happy. They were also quite fussy about their ration;

The victualling commisioners in Plymouth reported to the Privy Council in May 1513 that the Lord Admiral had ordered that no more ale was to be brewed in the West Country as the soldiers preferred London beer, particularly if it had been brewed in March. Not only was this a matter of preference but the latter actually kept better as it was brewed from barley rather than oaten malt.

Ideally the preference was to drink ale as soon as it had been fermented (see the demi-john photo above) but it could be kept for up to six months provided it was stored in good quality oak casks.

The above information intrigued me as being somewhat ignorant to the subject I did not appreciate firstly the difference between ale and beer and secondly the difference in the appearence of a traditional beer now to that of those made 500 years ago.

Luckily I have a close friend who has been brewing his own beer for many years and over a few of his wares we agreed to conduct an experiment using a late fifteenth century recipe;

8.5 gallons water
3kg crushed malted barley
2.5kg malted wheat
750g pale barley
250g flaked wheat
wheat yeast

There are a lot of variations to the recipe and in essence this is not too different to modern recipes other than the abscence of hops, the water is not boiled before it is added and the relatively short fermentation of around 2 weeks.

The result?

Well, I tried the ale just after fermentation (see second image) this was know as 'fresh ale' and it tasted like........liquid alcoholic bread ! Without casking it would go off after a few days. Fresh ale was something which the soldiers would have been used to at home, with casked ale being something of a campaign staple, this was the taste I was hoping to re-create so after leaving it for another 10 days and chilling it (i appreciate that could be cheating a little!) the appearance changed quite dramatically to that of the final image and in honesty it tasted great, not disimilar to a blonde wheat beer with an abv of approximately 6.4%. The only thing missing is a name - all suggestions welcomed !

This is by no means an indication of all ales of the time as variation in the grains used will give an entirely different result, for comparison the next brewing foray at some point in the futre will be a darker ale, but I shall intersperse this with some painting.



  1. Stuart
    A fine posting and what a worthwhile experiment! In Australia, ales are not common but I have always preferred real ale and have myself recently brewed a darker northern drop. I'm new to brewing myself but what a sense of satisfaction you get from drinking successful ales you made!

  2. Fascinating post Stuart. Reminds me that the museum at the Bosworth battle site also mentions that ale was preferred by more local soldiers while beer was favoured by soldiers from the south east as hops became more available from Flanders.


  3. Thank you, all hail to the ale !

    I had a lot of fun,learened a fair bit and - i hope - caught a glimpse of the day to day taste of a medieval soldier.

    And if not, this ale was fantastice and quite easy all things considered - my habits in purchasing beer have made a positive step away from the supermarket.

    I have another batch just bottled - the hardest bit is waiting another 2 weeks.

  4. Hmm quite the conundrum too late for Bosworth Brew and too early for New Model Ale...

  5. Hi,

    Sorry, a bit of a Johhny-come-Lately but I just found your blog. A man after my own heart, brewing and Tudor armies! I'm deeply jealous of your painting skills, absolutely awesome. If I may be so bold as to venture something small, if you ever decide to have a go at brewing a Tudor style ale again you may want to try adding a small amount of darker malt to it. Malting kilns were fired by coal at this time which would've given the finished product a much darker colour and a smokier flavour than modern pale malts. Most home brew shops now sell a smoked malt similar to what German brewers use in modern Rauchbiers and that'd probably give you a good indication of colour and flavour. You wouldn't want a lot and it's quite a startling thing if you're used to modern paler ales! Truly superb blog here sir, please keep up the good work because it'll motivate me to finish some of my projects! :-)

    1. Hello there

      Glad to have you along and thanks for the info regarding the beer, something which I think I shall have a foray with later in the year.