All About Beer Magazine - Volume 28, Issue 3
July 1, 2007 By

One of the great frustrations of researching beer history is not being able to actually taste the beers. You can try to brew a facsimile, but the further back you go, the less certainty you have. Prior to about 1600, you sometimes have just a few words to go by. Earlier than 1750 or so, written recipes remain tantalizingly vague. And complete recipes of a more recent date may employ different terminology, hard to pin down ingredients, or obscure procedures to a point where the modern-day brewer cannot be sure if his or her efforts are anything more than wishful brewing.

Even with all their uncertainty, attempts at recreation can teach us about the beers of the past. And an historic perspective can be useful when trying to dream up new and unusual beers to brew. Thinking about history without having to worry about whether it is correct or not can be a great big hogshead of fun. Sometimes you just want to brew, history be damned.

Take the example of Scotch ale. British brewing books, as early as the 17th century, heap tun-loads of scorn on smoked malts in beer, and this goes for Scottish brewers, too. But we American brewers are so taken with the lore and heady flavors of Scotch whisky that we imagine that peat-smoked malt must be a component of Scottish beer as well. If you go back in time this undoubtedly was true, but the creosote reek of peated malt has been absent from Scottish beer for centuries. But why not re-imagine things? And you know, a bit of peat-smoked malt does add complexity to a malty Scotch ale.

In history, just about everything has been tried at one time or another, so just make it up. Somebody, somewhere probably brewed it. Your beer may be correct, but you will probably never learn the who, when or why of it.

Fantasizing can be a powerful tool. You can make up beers that might have been brewed at known times and places or you can take it a great deal further—and brew the beers you dream up. Just imagine…

…a monastery in Southern Indiana where they brewed a dubbel called Two-X, that was a strong version of the common beers once brewed in the Ohio Valley, but with a dab of molasses and sassafras* added. A Pawpaw tripel lightened with sorghum or maple syrup was a seasonal favorite.

…a mythic civilization, which you could picture as a cross between the lands of Lord of the Ring and a giant amusement park, kind of an “Elves Gone Wild” culture. Popular tipples might have included an ultra pale springtime beer made from wheat with a sizeable addition of quince juice, dosed with ginger and woodruff; a wood-aged old ale with caramelized honey and aromatized with black truffles; and a velvety, ink-black barleywine seasoned with several types of flower blossoms, not all of which are legal at the present time.

…a secret community of brewers hidden in the Caliphate of 14th century Baghdad. One beer was laced with thyme honey and seasoned with exotic spices such as saffron, jasmine and myrrh, and colored a burgundy red with Syrian rue (google that one). A stupefying and very sweet barleywine was made with a number of additions of date or sometimes grape syrup, seasoned with cardamom. It was served with a small disk of gold leaf floating on top of the foam.

…a beer-brewing offshoot of the Maya, somewhere in Honduras. A beer reserved for royalty used malted corn and native honey for the base, with cocoa beans, toasted hot chilis, vanilla pods and the pulp of the black sapote fruit, along with a whole kit of native herbs and vine barks that have been lost to time. Texture was heavy and sweet, bittered by the herbs and chocolate, enlivened by the brisk heat of the chilis.

…a British expatriate village in the Oporto region of Portugal—famous for port wines—hanging on until the late nineteenth century. These crafty brewers made barley wines that were fortified with brandy distilled from honey wine and aged exactly like port, in retired port barrels. The everyday version was a wispy blonde, limpid and dry as a fino sherry, but with an unmistakable malty nose. A dark, sweet, extra luxurious ale was made with the addition of caramelized raisins and licorice. It was said to be much improved by a shipboard journey to the New World and back.

…a secret order of brewing knights in France, who made off with brewing secrets from the ancient Middle East. Brewing in a regular seasonal progression for secret ceremonies and private meetings, these descendents of Crusaders kept alive a tradition of the legendary beers of the ancient world until about 1800. Egyptian Red Beer of Sekhmet, Babylonian Strong Emmer and Date Beer, Sumerian Blackened Raisin Ale and Yellow Soma Ale were among the most memorable.

…a tiny town up near the Swiss border that somehow escaped the attention of Michael Jackson, still brewing gruit beers, although now using lager yeast. This manifests itself in a full range of beers, including a “Gruilsner,” which is a pale lager, slightly stronger that a regular pale lager at 1055/13.6 °P, and seasoned primarily with bog myrtle (Myrica gale), the brewers having decided that the astringent taste of yarrow and wild rosemary didn’t suit the modern palate. Hops are used, but only in small amounts for preservative qualities. Breweries serve a “keller” version—dry-bog-myrtled—directly from the wood. The bock is the showcase for the gruit character, and in addition to the Myrica, features caraway, long pepper (Piper longam) and a dash each of sweet flag (Acorus calamus) and mace. An amber-colored rye doppelbock that leaned heavily on the local Alpine juniper used to be popular around Christmastime.

This kind of fantasizing is not only a lot of fun, it is a really good way to stretch your imagination and break yourself free of your usual patterns. And when you go back to brew a pale ale, well, you know it’s going to be a pretty interesting pale ale.

So, we will part with just a few lingering questions, which I will leave to you to invent the answers:

What might the Vikings and the Native Americans they ran into in Martha’s Vineyard have brewed?

What will be the first beer brewed on Mars?

What would Elvis have brewed if he were an ardent homebrewer?

*For those of you wishing to pursue this, a safrole-free liquid extract is available from soda flavor and herbal supplement suppliers.