The Long Boil: Recipes for Ale and Beer in late Seventeenth-century England

By Elaine Leong

I read Marieke’s recent post on beer as medicine with great interest. Like many of you out there, I’m a lover of all things ale and beer and was cheered both to learn about medicinal beer and to find ever more reasons to visit our local biergarten. Coincidentally, I have also been spending my time learning about early modern beer brewing. My entry into this adventure was via a recipe found in the correspondence of Edward Conway, second Viscount Conway and Colonel Edward Harley. In 1651, Harley send his uncle a recipe to brew ale which requested the maker to boil water on its own for three hours.

Intrigued, I embarked on a journey to try to understand why any early modern householder might utilise their resources in such an um… interesting way. My research took me a number of different directions from learning more about drinking water and water quality to mineral spas and baths to iatrochemical theories. Along the way though, I also read recipe after recipe after recipe for home brews.

The brewery at Charlecote Park, Warwick. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

The seventeenth century was, of course, the heyday of English country house brewing.[1] Like the production of medicines and foodstuffs, the brewing of ale and beer was seen to reside firmly within the purview of the early modern English housewife. Indeed, Gervase Markham, one of the most frequently quoted early modern conduct book writers, devotes an entire chapter to the art of brewing in his The English Housewife.[2]

Given that many of the surviving manuscript recipe books were produced within the homes of well-off landed gentry, many of whom resided in large countryside estates, it is not perhaps surprising that recipes of ale and beer are common features in these texts. From ‘cock ale’ (on which Joel Klein so engagingly wrote last year) to ‘heath beer’ to ‘laxative beer’ to ‘Doctor Ffryers beere for ye Scurvy’ to an ‘Ale by Dr Willis when sharp Humours in the Blood cause convulsive motions in the joynts’, instructions to make all kinds of ales and beers abound in early modern English household recipe books. In general, these can be separated into two groups.

The first deals with the actual brewing of ale and beer. That is, it offers readers suggestions for the proportions of malt to water to hops and instructions on the different steps of brewing. The second group of recipes involve boiling or seeping a variety of herbs in ready-brewed ale or beer. Willis’ recipe mentioned above is good example. There, the compiler (in this case, Johanna St. John), advises the maker to boil in 4 gallons of ale 4 handfuls of fur or pine tree and 6 orange peels and ¼ of a pound of yellow dock roots if brewing in the winter or male peony roots and 2 ounce of chine root if brewing in the summer. The ale here serves a dual function – both as medicine and as a liquid carrier for the herbs infused within.

The other group of recipes for ale and beer concern the brewing process itself and provide fascinating insight into ‘brewing science’ in the early modern household. Thanks to James Sumner and Otto Sibum, we are well aware of the range of knowledge and techniques required of commercial or common brewers.[3] As with recipes for other medicines and foodstuffs, there is a great deal of variation in the ‘recipe archive’. Two recipes particularly stand out and I aim to share both with you over my next two posts.

The first recipe is for strong beer and is recorded in at least three contemporary manuscript recipe books (here, here and here). This version, to make two hogsheads of beer, uses malt, wheat, dried ‘pease’, oates and hops. Interestingly, the recipe suggests that the ‘brewer’ boil the liquor for two hours – revealing both who is actually doing the brewing (unlikely the recipe compiler) and the country gentry’s preference for the ‘long boil’ which so irked later writers such as Thomas Tryon and Jeffrey Boys.[4]

Johanna St. John, a frequent subject of posts on this blog, also preferred the long boil. In a letter to her steward, she gave very specific instructions for the stocking of her cellar. This included the preparation of two sorts of strong beer and an ale which she ‘would have it boyled for 4 to 5 howers at the least’.[5] There might be many reasons for seventeenth-century gentlemen and gentlewomen opted for the ‘long boil’. Given that this step might have been performed in an open-copper, this step must have affected both the taste and the strength of the finished drink. The fashion for the ‘long boil’ faded by the eighteenth-century when brewers preferred shorter boils of around an hour. An example can be seen in Joseph Boys’ Directions for Brewing in which the recommended boil lasts only an hour or an hour and a half, depending on the kind of beer brewed (p. 15).

All this talk about beer has weakened my resolve to write, lured by the early summer sunshine and some good German heiferweizen, I think that I might just go visit that local biergarten. I haven’t, though, forgotten about the second intriguing beer recipe. It’s one to make strong ale and I promise to talk more about it in my next post.

[1] Pamela Sambrook, Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900 (London and Rio Grande, OH, 1996).

[2] Chapter 8, Of the Office of the Brew house, and the Bake house, and the necessary things belonging to the same. Gervase Markham, The English House-wifes in The Way to get Wealth (London 1631), 243.

[3] Heinz Otto Sibum, ‘Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat: Instruments of Precision and Gestures of Accuracy in Early Victorian England’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 26.1 (1995): 73-106 and James Sumner, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880 (London, 2013).

[4] Thomas Tryon’s A New Art of Brewing (London 1690) and Jeffrey Boy’s Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700)

[5] Brian Carne, Some St. John Family Papers. Reproduced, with corrections and additions, from the Report of the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz, 27, 28 and 29 (1994-6), 95.


3 thoughts on “The Long Boil: Recipes for Ale and Beer in late Seventeenth-century England”

  1. “4 handfuls of fur …”

    Sound more like the hair of the dog …

    I’m not sure I’d agree the 17th century was the heyday of country house brewing – I’d be inclined to plump for the period 1740-1840, when they were brewing the incredibly strong coming-of-age ales designed to age for two decades and drunk at the 21st birthday party of the heir to the estate, of the kind George Eliot mentions in Adam Bede.

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