Cock Ale: “A Homely Aphrodisiac”

By Joel A. Klein

In a stanza from, “The Young Gallants Tutor, Or, An Invitation to Mirth,” an especially lusty song from the 1670s, the anonymous author praised several particular beverages: “With love and good liquor our hearts we do cheer, Canary and Claret, Cock Ale and March beer.”

While Canary Wine, Claret, and Märzenbier are still consumed today, what exactly was Cock Ale? The short answer is that it was an alcoholic beverage made from ale, sack, raisins, and the flesh of a rooster, but to do Cock Ale justice requires a longer explanation.

The first printed recipe for Cock Ale appears to have been published by the Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665).

Fig. 1: Digby, Kenelm. Engraving by Burnet Reading, fl. 1777-1822. Original Artist: Anthony Van Dyck, 1599-1641.
Engraving of Kenelm Digby. Original Artist, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Credit: The Smithsonian Digital Collections.

In 1669, Digby wrote, “These are tame days when we have forgotten how to make Cock-Ale,” and thus he gave a recipe:

Kenelm Digby, "The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened," (London, 1669). Image taken from a later reprint (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1910), p. 147.
Kenelm Digby, “The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, Knight. Opened,” (London, 1669). Credit: Reprint (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1910), p. 147, at Archive.org .

Later recipes would vary in the details, but this was a common preparation, and such recipes can be reproduced with relative ease.

The association of this particular ale with male vigor and potency was an evident subtext in the early seventeenth century, but eventually, subtext gave way to the explicit. In a famous tract, “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” a “Humble Petition and Address of several Thousands of Buxome Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want,” the author(s) of this extraordinary address bemoaned the “Decay of that true Old English Vigour” caused by the excess consumption of coffee.

The Women’s Petition Against Coffee (London, 1674). Image taken from Wikipedia.

The authors lamented that English men had formerly been “the Ablest Performers in Christendome,” but “our Gallants being every way so Frenchified … they are become meer Cock-sparrows.” Likewise, while these fluttered “with a world of fury,” they were “not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat.”

In order to reinvigorate these coffee-addled men, the ladies suggested a solution of outlawing coffee for those under the age of sixty and “returning to the good old strengthning Liquors of our Forefathers,” which included Cock-Ale and “Lusty nappy Beer.” For more on the so-called Coffee Controversy, see Jennifer Evans’ post at Early Modern Medicine.

Within the pages of the 1725 New Canting Dictionary, which defined the words and terms used by “Gypsies, Beggars … and all other clans of Cheats and Villains,” Cock Ale was described as a “pleasant Drink, said to be provocative”–meaning that it excited lust and aroused sexual desire. In a nineteenth-century dictionary of slang, Cock Ale was directly identified as a “homely aphrodisiac.”

There were, however, references to Cock Ale long before Digby’s recipe. The first mention appears in Thomas Drue’s play, The life of the dutches of Suffolke (1631), when one tiler (i.e. one who lays tiles) says to another, “Lets doe our dayes work in an hour / and drink our selues drunke all the day after,” and his colleague answers, “Whope, why the Cocke ale has spurd thee already.”

“The Cocke” was a reference to both the beverage and the place from where it was sold, for after encouraging his partner to abandon their work, the tiler suggested the two “over goe to the Cocke and see if he came a’th kind, if his ale will make a man crow.”

While there have been numerous London taverns by the name of “The Cock,”an especially famous one was The Cock and Bottle on Fleet Street, near Temple Bar (dating back as far as 1549). Frequented by famous writers such as Samuel Pepys and Alfred Lord Tennyson, the tavern sold Cock Ale in bottles and from the tap–sometimes redeemable with a tavern token. In 1668, Pepys wrote, “Thence by water to the Temple, and then to the Cock Alehouse, and drank, and eat a lobster, and sang, and mightily merry.”

Another mention of Cock Ale prior to Digby’s recipe is from 1663, when a sailor from the play, “A witty combat, or, The female victor,” said,

I have heard of Cock-Ale,… And I know not how many sorts more that are the Gentlemens drink as they call ‘em; All is but Ale still, made of Water that runs by Billingsgate. And for my part, when all is done give me the plain wholsome Ale of England without welt or guard as they say, or a deal of mixtures; but of all drinks I hate that of coffee, it dries Mens Brains.

Others, too, were skeptical of the ingredients of Cock Ale, believing that it was merely normal ale that was sold under false pretence at a higher price.

In Richard Ames’ 1693 poem, “The bacchanalian sessions, or, The contention of liquors with a farewel to wine,”  Cock Ale defended himself to his fellow liquors:

For ‘tis but a truth, which is very well known,
How much I’m belov’d by the Sparks of the Town,
And their Mistresses too, who ‘fore Wine me prefer,
When they meet at a House very near Temple bar,
What precious intreigues could my Pimpship discover,
Between a Town Jilt, and a mony’d[?] young Lover.

Thus, while many recipes may have left out the cock, it appears that the ale still led many to enjoy to its desired effects.

Beer soup: The Breakfast of Early Modern Rulers

By Molly Taylor-Poleskey

As a young ruler, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia began each morning with a beer soup. He then dutifully locked himself away and attended to the day’s business until the midday meal.

This simple anecdote is recounted by almost every biographer of Friedrich Wilhelm. I was intrigued by the historiographic implications of this (what did biographers think it reflected about the ruler that he consumed this rather modest fare?). Beyond this, though, I became curious: what actually was beer soup? And, what it might have been like to start every day with it?

Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877
Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877

Although foreign to contemporary German cuisine, beer soup was very common in central Europe in the medieval and early modern period. As such common fare, it had a wide number of permutations. The most basic definition of beer soup is a “soup of brown (probably dark) beer, cream, fat and flour or egg yolk.”[1]  Various other recipes called for slightly different ingredients (such as costly spices), or onions and cheese to make a more substantial soup to accompany a roast.

After reading about various beer soups in early modern cookbooks, though, I still could not wrap my head around what a beer soup was. So, there was only one thing to do: perform “experiential research” and try beer soup for myself.

The Experiment

Somewhat surprisingly, my friends Steve and Noria enthusiastically agreed to join the experience. We gathered at my apartment one Saturday afternoon (we couldn’t bring ourselves to perform the experiment first thing in the morning) and decided to attempt two versions of the recipe. We selected the recipes for their clarity and because they used a representative mix of commonly-mentioned ingredients.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first recipe was inspired by a recipe in an eighteenth-century encyclopedia for “a really good beer soup.”[2] We translated it thus:

  • 1 Bottle of dark beer
  • Sweet cream
  • Three egg yolks[3]
  • Mace
  • 3 ½ Tbs. Butter[4]
  • Raisins[5]

Thoroughly stir mixture, boil it and serve with toast.

“a really good beer soup”
“a really good beer soup”

The result? “Repulsive,” said Steve, “I don’t want to eat it anymore.” I had to agree, the egg-drop soup consistency combined with the taste of day-old beer was nauseating. Noria had a more descriptive response: “it’s weird that it tastes sweet; I would have never guessed it since it smells like feet.” The toast was unquestionably the highlight of that attempt.

Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise
Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise

The second attempt was, thankfully, slightly more palatable. For this, we used the following recipe from the 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook:

  • 1 Bottle of white beer (we used Erdinger Weißbier)
  • Cloves
  • 3 ½ Tbs. butter
  • 2 slices of rye bread cut into small chunks
  • Salt to taste

Combine beer, cloves and butter. Heat in a pot, but don’t let it boil. When it’s ready, add bread and salt and this makes a tasty soup. [6]

Although this attempt was not completely successful, we all agreed that it was much better than the first. Perhaps with fewer cloves and less salt, it was conceivable that someone (other than us) might enjoy this soup.

Reflection

Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.
Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.

In following these recipes, I did not presume to recreate the experience of an early modern diner. The gulf between our palates, ingredients, cooking tools and methods is just too wide. But there’s no doubt that the exercise helped me realize some things about the habits and tastes of the people I study. For example, beer soup was more a hearty drink than a soup that might constitute a meal. This fits with the description of daily habits from an early eighteenth-century court advice manual, which described beer and bread for Früh=Trunk, or “early drink” (instead of using the word for breakfast, Frühstück). The records of daily food distribution at the Berlin residence also only refer to two meals: the midday and evening meals. The elector’s beer soup, then, was more likely meant as a restorative broth. Other absolutist rulers, such as King Charles II of England, are known to have drunk such a restorative during their morning levée when they were ceremoniously washed and dressed.

The practical application of the recipes made me pay much closer attention to the details of the instructions than if had I just read them. I could not follow the author’s instructions to the letter. In the end, I had to make decisions about what modern ingredients to substitute for early modern ones, such as whipping cream with sugar for sweet cream. Most likely, my Calphalon pot over an electric burner also produced different results than an iron kettle or a raised hearth.

But, even Rumpolt allowed some room for improvisation: “each cook prepares food as he pleases … in my opinion, there are no absolute rules in cooking, otherwise it would be impossible.”[7]


[1] Sabine Bunsmann-Hopf, Zur Sprache in Kochbüchern des späten mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit-ein fachkundliches Wörterbuch. (Würzburg: Verlag Koenigshausen & Neumann GmbH, 2003), 29.

[2] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Bier=suppe.” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie Oder Allgemeines System Der Staats- Stadt- Haus- Und Landwirthschaft, 1773, http://kruenitz1.uni-trier.de/.

[3] Presumably the egg whites would have been turned to more elegant purposes elsewhere in the early modern kitchen.

[4] Measurement taken from a beer soup recipe at the website: www.how-to-live-like-a-German.com

[5] We only had dried cranberries on hand—a New World food that only entered German cuisine in the 21st century!

[6] Nimb weiß Bier/ thu Kümmel und Butter darein/ laß nur damit warm werden/ und nicht affusieden/ und wenn du es wilt anrichten/ so schneidt Ruckenbrot darunten/ unnd salz es/ so is ein wolgeschmackte Biersuppen. Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch (Franckfurt am Mayn: Fischer, 1604), 164.

[7] “ein jeder Koch seine art und weise/ eine Speise seines gefallens zubereiten … Ist auch meine meynung ganz und gar nicht/ gewisse Regeln un Praecepta/ nach welchen sich einer/ der kochen wil lernen/ eben richten solte un müßte/ als wer es sonst unmüglich kochen …” Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch, 63.