How to brew beer with a ‘paile of cold water’

By Elaine Leong

Der Münchner Taxisgarten bei Nacht by Martin Falbisoner. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The sun is shining brightly outside my window and the temperatures are finally (!) getting warm in Berlin. When this happens, Berliners all head out to the parks, terraces and to their beloved balconies for the ‘Balkonsaison’. Of course, we all associate different drinks with our terrace parties but one drink which always graces summer gatherings is some ice-cold beer. So, it is perhaps apt that we’ve been talking so much about beer on The Recipes Project in the last few weeks. Actually, it was Molly Taylor-Poleskey who first talked about beer in 2013. In her post, Molly told us about the curious beer soup enjoyed by Prince Freidrick Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia every morning. Joel Klein then wrote about cock ale as an aphrodisiac. Marieke Hendriksen started this summer’s strand on beer with her post on beer as medicine. Alun Withey and Annie Grey then enlightened us on how we might venture to replicate medicinal beers at home. My own previous post, if you recall, mulled over how early modern men and women preferred the ‘long boil’. I hinted there that I had found another curious beer recipe in the archives and I’d like to bring it to your attention here.

As I explained in my last post, beer and ale continued to be home-brewed in English country houses in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Many estates have dedicated brew houses (some of which are still extant, see here for example) and a team of brewers to produce the necessary drinks needed for the table. Now, I tend to spend my time reading manuscript recipe books produced by literate and wealthy early modern men and women. In that sense, while there are a number of recipes for brewing in these books, often times the recipes provide only a fairly thin description of the brewing process. That is, they provide some idea of the proportion of ingredients used, a list of the steps needed and the length of the boil. What most of them don’t tell you, somewhat crucially, is real trick to beer brewing – the mixing and combining of materials at the correct temperature.

Firstly, I want to start by confessing that my knowledge of beer brewing is entirely theoretical and historical. I’m sure that many readers out there are much more au fait with the process and experienced than I. As I understand it though, one key moment in the brewing process is the mashing step where one combines the malt with the hot liquid. Not only do mashing heats greatly affect the taste of the beer but if the temperature is too high the malt grains set and the entire batch of beer is ruined.[1] Householders and recipe compilers were well aware of this fact. In the same set of instructions sent by Johanna St. John to her steward Thomas Hardyman but intended for the brewer at Lydiard Park, where she askes for the long (4-5 hour boil), Johanna also instructs her helpers that ‘the water must not boyl but only be redy to boyl when [the brewer] powers it on the mault’.[2]

In fact, this step has long interested historians of Science. After all, before thermometers were widely available, how did brewers (and interested householders) gauge mashing heats? It turns out early modern brewers had various ways of gauging mash temperatures. James Sumner and Pamela Sambrook recount a range of different ways from the ‘hour-glass’ method (bringing the water to boil but leaving it to cool for a fixed time’ to putting one’s finger in the boiling (or near boiling) water. But like I said this kind of information tends to be absent in recipes for brewing in household collections. However, rather fascinatingly, this was not so in a recipe now in the Hartlib Papers. Titled ‘Mr Breretons Brewers Recipe for brewing Ale’, the recipe instructs the maker to ‘Let your water boyle and let it be cooled with the quantitie of a paile of Cold water’.

Image taken from Marjolein van Dekken, ‘Female brewers in Holland and England’,, May 7, 2013

To this reader, the title of the recipe is significant here. Since we’re talking about the Hartlib Papers, Mr Brereton here might refer to William Brereton, a contact of Hartlib’s who eventually bought the Hartlib archive. Yet Brereton is not the only person vouching for this recipe, rather this is recipe of his brewer. This is where I think this particular recipe differs from others in the ‘recipe archive’. Many of the examples in household recipe books are merely outlines of instructions to give to one’s experienced brewer. In her letter, Johanna certainly did not intend to brew the ale herself and nor did she expect her steward to do so. As I pointed out in my last post, one recipe, in a book associated with Bridget Hyde, specifically references the ‘brewer’ (a male brewer, in fact) as the maker of the beer rather than the actual recipe reader. The recipes for brewing Ale in the Hartlib Papers appears to have come directly from the maker himself. Perhaps this is the reason why practical information such as how to moderate or adjust mashing heats is included. Close readings of beer recipes, it turns out, can tell us much about who was doing the work alongside how one might do it.

[1] Pamela Sambrook, Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900 (London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1996, 93-100 and James Sumner, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700-1880 (London and Brookfield, VT: Pickering and Chatto, 2013), chapter 2.

[2] 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), 68.

One thought on “How to brew beer with a ‘paile of cold water’”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *