It’s the stuff of legend, the muse of poets, the nectar of the gentry. Strong beer, brilliant as topaz, sweet as dew, and dripping with the perfume of hops, was for centuries a revered icon of English culture. In typical language-loving English style, these beers had nicknames such as angel’s food, clamber-skull, huffcap, dragon’s milk, and many others.
October beer was the most laudable product of country brewing, specifically country house brewing. Beer wasn’t a readily transportable product in the ox-cart era, so the maintenance of an estate, large or small, required beer to brewed on the premises. I was inspired to write on this topic by a fascinating and well-written book called Country House Brewing in England, 1500-1900 (1996). Written by Pamela Sambrook, it is still available and is a great read on the social history of those times.
From about 1600 to 1900, four classes of beers were brewed on estates, although not all kinds were brewed by every brewer. On the bottom was the weak and watery small beer, usually the last runnings of whatever was being brewed, although occasionally brewed on its own in summer months. Next up the scale in strength was “table” beer, a beer of what we today would regard as ordinary strength, roughly in the 1050 (5 percent alcohol) range. Next came March and October beer at about 1080 or a bit higher; and then the rarely brewed “double” beers, well over 1100 (10 percent plus). The latter were reserved for very special occasions.
Beer was allotted according to employment or familial status on the estates. Everyone was allowed liberal access to the weak small beer, as a means of providing a safe form of water. The table beer was allotted as part of employment contracts, as was the stronger beer-although, as you would expect, much less liberally. It was a point of civility that the family drank the same small beer as everyone else, and no upgraded version was made strictly for their use. Of course, they had access to the stronger stuff whenever they wanted it.
Sambrook’s book has lots of pictures of extant old house breweries, and it makes one appreciate the skills of the brewers who could turn out a praiseworthy product from these rough and rude facilities, sans thermometers and hydrometers (prior to the late 1700s).
Before the invention of refrigeration, brewing was much more strictly tied to the whims of the seasons, both on the brewing and consuming sides of the tun. The summer heat, availability of ingredients, need for large amounts of quenching–but not too intoxicating–brews in the summer, and warming ones in the winter, all played a part.
October was generally regarded as the best month to brew. The barley harvest was in, so new malt was available and was widely believed to contribute to a beer that kept very well. Fresh hops added their own special charms. Cooler fermentation temperatures made long-aged beers less vulnerable to frets and souring than March beers. And by October, the strong beer made in the previous year was starting to be tapped, and so the necessity of brewing a replacement became obvious.
October and March beers are just about identical, except that the use of last year’s malt and hops, and the warm summertime fermentations, gave March beer a lesser reputation for quality than the October brews. The old recipes vary a bit but generally agree that only the very top grade of ingredients should be used. Malt is invariably of the pale “white” variety, and contemporary diatribes about the evil noxiousness of “smoak” make it clear that there would have been little of it evident in a well-made beer.
Hops, too, were of the best quality, which in England has long meant East Kent. One commercial example that is instructive is J. W. Lee’s Harvest Ale, made solely from the two aforementioned ingredients. Considering its utterly simplistic recipe, it is a beer of startling depth and an object lesson for a brewer at any level. Of course, the name bears directly on our subject here.
Today we would call these beers barley wines, but that term is a relatively recent invention, appearing just a little after the turn of the last century or around World War I. Strong beers were so ubiquitous that they really weren’t thought of as a category. Instead, each district had its own–Yorkshire’s Stingo, to cite an example–for which it was renowned–or infamous. To call these special brews “wines” was confusing at best, even insulting, as they were certainly capable of standing on their own without reference to an altogether different class of drink.
A New Taste for Hoppy Beers
In 1710, as England and France tangled again, taxes on hops, malt and other aspects of brewing were rearranged–mostly raised. One effect was to reduce the relative cost of hops, which until that time had been fairly high. This put the final nail in the coffin of the old style sweetish “ales,” sparking a rage for hoppy beers.
Every imaginable scheme for using hops was employed, with a lot of variation in resulting bitterness. With the higher hop quantities, it would be a good idea to use them in a less efficient way, like charging a hop back or adding after the end of the boil.
These beers were well aged. As William Harrison observed in 1587, “The beer that is used at noblemen’s tables in their fixed and standing houses is commonly of a year old, or peradventure of two year’s running or more, but this is not general.” This pattern continued as long as the house-breweries did. Typically the beer was brewed in October, fermented for a month or so, then transferred into barrels where it was stoppered loosely, then closed up tight when activity ceased. Often the bung had to be loosened the next summer as fermentation restarted in the warm weather.
All the old texts stress the importance of cleanliness, no mean task when everything is made of wood. Scrubbing and scalding seem to have been the primary weapons in their fight. Beer fermented in wood will inevitably show some wild character from microorganisms living therein, but it is clear from numerous references that sour beer was not a thing of beauty. Harrison, again: “..each one coveting to have the [beer] stale as he may, so that it not be sour, and his bread new as possible, so that it not be hot.” A taste of Gale’s Prize Old Ale or Greene King Strong Suffolk Ale will reveal hints of the brettanomyces “horsey” character that usually accompanies the wood aging of beer.
Today, there are a couple of ways to achieve the wood-aged character. One is to add a brettanomyces or mixed lambic starter after you rack to the secondary, or some months before bottling. These are slow-moving organisms and they take a few months to show an effect, but they will continue to get stronger as the months and years go by. Another method would be to inoculate a gallon or so of beer with the wild stuff, wait a few months, then pasteurize by heating to 180 degrees F for half an hour, then allow to cool and add to the beer before bottling. The easiest solution would be to add a bottle or two of a beer such as Rodenbach, which will contribute a slight tang and a nose full of the wild, wood-aged character.
The earliest real recipe I have is from Gervaise Markham, The English Housewife, 1615:
“Now for the brewing of the best March beer, you shall allow to a hogshead thereof a quarter of the best malt well ground; then you shall take a peck of pease, half a peck of wheat, and half a peck of oats and grind them all very well together, and mix them with your malt; which done, you shall in all points brew this beer as you did the former ordinary beer; only you shall allow a pound and a half of hops to this one hogshead; and whereas before you drew but two sorts of beer, so now shall you draw three; that is a hogshead of the best, and a hogshead of the second, and half a hogshead of small beer without any augmentation of hops or malt.”
In a 5-gallon batch, this works out to 19 pounds of pale malt, plus 10 ounces each of unmalted wheat, oats and split peas. Hops comes to 1 and 3/4 ounces for the batch.
I have a number of later recipes that have certain similarities, but rather than average them into a detailed October beer recipe, I’m going to give you a little chart of the recipes and their dates, and let you select exactly where you want to take this yourself.
“Best quality” malt these days means Maris Otter, a much-prized barley variety cultivated in small quantities in England. I would stick to that if you can get it.
Date Author Malt (lbs.) Hops (oz.)
1727 Bradley 29 3.7
1748 Bradshaw 29 9.8
1783 Poole 26 7.4
These malt numbers are reduced by about 25 percent from the original recipes to account for the increased yield of modern malt. Mash-in relatively thick, at 1 quart per pound, and try to get a rest temperature of about 153 degrees F. After an hour, add boiling water to mash out at around 168 degrees F.
Any English ale yeast will serve you well, as long as it has the ability to handle a relatively high gravity wort. I would recommend making up as large a starter as you can manage.
With these kinds of quantities, gravity is going to be pretty much off the chart. You’re going to collect the first runnings only, which should come in at well over 1100. The second runnings ought to produce a pretty credible “table” beer, especially if a couple of pounds of amber (sometimes called “biscuit” these days) is added to the second mashing, a procedure called “capping.”
A final note, by way of a warning. These beers are strong! As William Harrison wrote in 1587, “Neither did Romulus and Remus suck their she-wolf, or shepherd’s wife, Lupa, with such eager and sharp devotion, as these men hale at huffcap till they be red as cocks and little wiser than their combs.”