Filling a 300-Year-Old Bottle
I recently had the pleasure of acquiring what was described to me as a “300 year-old beer bottle,” unearthed from beneath a 17th century cottage in Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England. It is thick and heavy, holding somewhere between a pint and a quart, off-round, and with a lopsided neck.
Whether it’s authentic I’ll have to verify elsewhere, but nothing about its appearance suggests more than a passing relationship with the Industrial Revolution. Its salt glaze is uneven; there are chips, exploded bubbles, stones, even traces of handprints from the potter who threw it. Far cruder, heavier and uglier than the Civil War-era bottles that show up on Ebay all the time, this one’s old.
Holding this relic, I was drawn into its tale, and tried to imagine the sight of it, full and corked, holding a well-aged brew, warming some beer lover’s heart on a cold winter’s night in Dorset. What would such a beer taste like? Strong, weak, hoppy, herbed? It could have been any of those. I set out in search of a recipe.
Dorset’s Historic Charms
Cerne Abbas is a famous place, noted for its hillside chalk figure of a giant with a huge erection, carved into the hill by some hairy Druidic race now long vanished. Newlyweds and other couples seeking children are advised to go out and avail themselves (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) of the power of the aforementioned figure as a fertility charm.
The region is Dorset, a short hop south of London, famous among beer lovers as the home of Eldridge Pope, makers of the barley wine named for their favorite son, Thomas Hardy. By now, many of you would be familiar with his famous quote describing Dorset beer, written in 1870:
“It was of the most beautiful color that the eye of an artist could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset, free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady. The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious country families it was not despised.”
Less familiar is the following, excised at the last moment:
“But its whole army of brewers have passed away, its flavor is forgotten except by a few aged men, and the secret of its composition appears to have been completely lost as that of Falstaff’s beverage.”
A writer praised Dorset beers in 1700: “… the people here have learned to brew the finest malt liquors in the kingdom, so delicately clean and well tasted that the best judges … prefer it to the ales most in vogue as in Hull, Derby, Burton, &c.” At that time, a great deal of Dorset beer was being shipped to London, the porter revolution there having not yet begun.
A Concocted Recipe
I have to admit that the following recipe is concocted and extrapolated, rather than copied intact from some precious goatskin manuscript. The cold, hard fact remains that we will never really know what was in this bottle. What you see here represents a “could have been” approach.
Working backwards from a recipe of about 1800, we’ll be using a base made of one-third pale ale malt, and two-thirds amber malt. The latter was once widely used for a variety of beers in England, including the earliest porters. It is somewhat hard to find, but offers a unique toasted, nutty taste unlike anything else. About 25 to 35 degrees Lovibond, or 45 to 65 EBC, it was formerly made by toasting over a straw fire, which produced a clean taste, unlike the oak-kilned brown malts of the same era.
Amber is available today. DeWolf Cosyns makes a malt called “biscuit” that fills the bill, and there may still be some available from British suppliers, although I can’t find one at the moment.
If you can’t find a commercially made amber, it is simplicity itself to roast one’s own. Simply fill a cake pan with pale or pils malt to a depth of less than an inch, and roast for about 30 minutes at 300 degrees F, turning every 10 minutes or so. You are looking for a peachy golden color when the malt is cracked open, nothing darker. Once it’s done, take it out and let it cool. Do this a couple of weeks in advance; fresh-roasted malts, unlike coffee, can be strikingly harsh.
The yield of this beer was noted as “two barrels per quarter,” meaning that 336 pounds of malt made 86.4 US gallons.
This recipe also calls for “Kentish” hops at the rate of 6 or 7 pounds to the quarter, which translates into the quantities below. This is a moderate rate for a strong beer like this.
Although by 1700 brewers were well into fully hopped beers, I’m tossing in a pinch of sage, mentioned in another old Dorset recipe, as a nod to the rustic nature of this brewing center.
Brewing at that time was done in a “party-gyle” manner, meaning that the runnings from the mash tun were not all mixed together but were fermented into two or even three different beers. We’ll use the first two-thirds, which will give us a rich, strong brew. The remainder can be discarded or made into a small beer by the addition of a pound or two of molasses.