Sample Brewing Handbook
Chapter 3 - A brief history of brewing and vintning

Ivy Border

History of Brewing and Vintning in the Middle Ages

History does not record the first examples of the brewing and vintning arts. In fact, it is often a part of mythology. For instance, in the Oddessy attributed to Homer, Circe used an alcoholic beverage to turn men into swine. This beverage was said to be made of red wine, barley meal, cheese and honey (Butcher, 1989). The beverage known as mead has been known for so long that the name is similar in most languages. Drawings in the pyramids show the methods used in Egypt to make a type of beer over 5000 years ago (Butcher, 1989). They drank their beer while it was still fermenting, using straws to break through the yeast scum on the surface. Sub-Saharan Africans still make an alcoholic beverage from certain types of grasses which they drink when a day old and still actively fermenting. It is considering refreshing with the yeast adding nutrient value. Beer was on the shopping list for the Assyrian equivalent of Noah (Butcher, 1989). Julius Caesar found the Celts in Britain drinking cider when he was there in 55BC (Butcher, 1989). Pliny (61-113AD) says Gauls spend all their time drinking barley wine called cerivisia (Butcher, 1989). But this is not the part of brewing history that most readers will be interested in. What most readers of this history want is documentation of different brews for SCA use.

Beers of various types have been made as long as history has been recorded. This is not true for all present varieties of beers. Most beers throughout the Middle Ages probably would be classed in the present day brewing category of lambic beers. Lambic beers are made in open fermentation containers letting anything that falls into the fermenter fall with no control over what is causing the fermentation. If you have brewed any alcoholic beverages, you are probably brought to near convulsions when you first hear this with thoughts of horrible tasting, bacterially infected brews coming into your mind. Modern lambic beers, which are still made this way, do not have this problem. The reason is that most places doing this type of brewing have been doing it for very long periods of time. As a result, anything that falls is probably the right stuff as yeast spores have been being spilled into the room for long periods of time and these are probably what is in the dust that may fall into the brew. It should be mentioned, however, that the present breweries making this type of beer are very rural and go through alot of trouble to keep the surrounding area unchanged to keep their beer consistent. This is not always possible especially in cities. Therefore many brewers (mostly women and monks during the middle ages) used partially closed fermenters and added yeast. As to the variety of yeast used, the modern divisions of top fermenting (ale yeasts) and bottom fermenting (lager and most wine yeasts) may or may not have been recognized. Kenelme Digbie, for instance, mentions ale and beer yeasts but it is hard to determine what the differences are. Modern single cultures of yeast were basically unkown and most experts feel that yeasts were mixtures at this time. As most brewers know, some from painful experience, pressure increases in a container holding a fermenting liquid therefore there must be some manner of gas escape. A common method used during the early stages of fermentation was the use of a wet rag over the opening. The rag would prevent anything large from falling into the opening. The higher pressure within the container would cause a flow of air out of the opening preventing anything small from falling in. When fermentation slows later, the hole may be sealed with a bung and wax. Excess pressure probably leaks out of the waxed hole preventing explosive pressures. This can be shown indirectly using Kenelme Digbie's talk of the hissing from the hole in a fermenting container. Most beverages were served directly or indirectly from the fermenter although Digbie mentions bottling many of his meads. He does not mention how he seals the bottles. The use of corking is a relatively recent innovation, attributed to Dom Perignon, the head of the wine cellars at St. Peter's Abbey after 1668 (Fleming, 1975). Digbie probably used the wood bung plus wax method he used for aging barrels.

Beers are made of water, malted grain, yeast, and some type of flavoring/preservative which is now almost always hops. The use of hops in beer was noted in the area now known as Germany as early as 882AD (Butcher, 1989) although it was cultivated by monks at least one hundred years earlier. England was very hesitant to use hops in beers, with the date traditionally set for the introduction of hops being 1524, as noted in the rhyme:

Hops, Reformation, Bays and Beer
Came to England in one bad year,

although it actually started over one hundred years earlier (Smith, 1995). According to Butcher (1989), some ingredients used rather than hops in beer included rue in ancient Egypt, rosemary in 16th Century England, juniper in Norway and Sweden. Hackwood (1985) mentions use of ground ivy (ale-hoof) or costmary (ale-cost) in England. Harris (1976) gave a recipe for a spiced ale which contained cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and pepper and another containing a mixture of hops and rowanberries. Smith (1995) mentions the use of long peppers in beers.

Europe, except for England, quickly accepted hopped beers. Abbess Hildegard of Rupertsberg in 1079, "If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops" (Butcher, 1989). Ale and beer purity became controlled by laws very early in history. The most famous, although not earliest of these laws was the Reinheitsgebot. The Reinheitsgebot of 1516, by William IV elector of Bavaria, allowed only four ingredients in beer: water, malted barley, malted wheat, and hops (yeast was taken for granted). An earlier French equivalent from 1268 said "Nothing shall enter into the composition of beer except good malt and hops." Further clauses of same laws imply windborn yeast were not used as "No beer yeast shall be hawked about the streets, but shall be sold in the brew-houses" and "Beer yeast brought by foreigners shall be inspected before it is exposed to sale" (Butcher, 1989). For those who like modern pilsner type beers, King Wenceslas II of Bohemia (1278-1305) is said to have produced pilsner in 1292. If this is true then relatively pure bottom fermenting yeast sources must have been available. Other beer varieties were probably also available as local beer variants. Pliny's (61-113AD) barley wine called cerivisia (later cervoise), was apparently available until the 13th century when hops were introduced (Butcher, 1989). First mention of brewing at Burton upon Trent, England, a location now renowned for its ales, was in 1295 but an 1869 publication cited in Butcher (1989) says the first brewery opened its door in 1002. It was a well known brewing area by time of Richard I (1189-1199) for ales due to high gypsum water

A beer relative that was popular in the 1400s is mum. Mum was a "wholesome" strong ale brewed with wheat malt and flavored with a number of aromatic herbs (Harris, 1976; Hackwood, 1985). Hackwood (1985) gave a recipe for mum from the old townhouse of Brunswick. In this recipe, wheat malt was boiled down to a third of its original volume. You then added oatmeal and ground beans, and after allowing it to ferment, a number of herbs and spices, including the tops of birch and fir, handfuls of burnet, betony, marjoram, avens, pennyroyal, wild thyme, and elderflowers, and a few ounces of cardamon seeds, and bayberries. It was aged for two years with eggs used for fining purposes. According to an old writer on the English version of imported mum, "Our English brewers use cardamum, ginger, and sassafras, which serve instead of the inner rind of fir ; also walnut rinds, madder, red sanders and ellecampane. Some make it of strong beer and spruce beer ; and where it is designed chiefly for physical virtues, some add watercresses, brooke-lime, and wild parsley, with six handfuls of horse-radish rasped to every hogshead" (Hackwood, 1985).

In much of the middle ages, the climate was colder than at present and this contributed to the lack of extensive grape culture in England. The Domesday book mentions the existence of 38 vineyards in the area covered. These few vineyards would not have provided to sufficient wine for English consumption even had it only have been used for ecclesiastical purposes. This happenstance allows the researcher to glean a lot of information on wine varieties during this time by examining the import tax records for England. In general, most wines consumed in England during the middle ages were consumed within a year of their production. This appears to be due to the grape varieties used for wines from the regions of France most easily accessible to England due to political ties and ease of transport just did not age well. Some premium wines were, however, stable enough to be aged for longer periods. William Turner wrote extensively in his 1568 book , "A Book of Wines" about aged wines quoting Galen and other older sources about their virtues. According to James (1971), who studied the English wine trade with Gascony, Gascon wines, which made up a majority of the English wine trade due to a close alliance with England, were always dry (according to her) and usually white and only kept one year with the older wines destroyed upon arrival of the newer wines (in some periods according to law) because they did not keep well. It apparently had nothing to do with the container as other wines were not necessarily bad after one year. Francis (1973) agreed that Gascon wines along with the wines of Florence did not age well and were consumed within a year but stated that sweet wines aged better. This allowed the import of these wines from the Levant and Portugal from which it might take over a year to reach England. The stronger 'aromatic ' wines of Portugal were highly regarded and were allowed to mature for 3-4 years before consumption. Rouen was the important port for wine trade with England by the time of Charlemagne. Wines came from the Ile de France, parts of Burgundy, and perhaps from the Loire. Frisian sailors also brought wines down the Rhine from the Rhine and the Moselle. For the first century after the conquest, most of the wines imported into England came from the Ile de France, the Loire or Bordeaux and were bought at the annual Rouen fair. After the marriage in 1152 of King Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wine ships came directly from Bordeaux. The loss of Normandy in 1203 further diminished trade through Rouen. In general, wines were produced in the same areas as today and except for some changes cause by the phylloxera epidemic in the 1800s, many of the same grape varieties and even some of the same vineyards are available, some with histories dating back to Charlemagne. In general, culture of grapes for wines was often discouraged because of the argument that the growth of grapes for wine diminished the growth of grains and contributed to famines. This idea sprang from the fact that grapes and grains competed for land and therefore growing grapes for wines removed land from production which could have potentially fed the populous.

Meads, a honey based alcoholic beverage, was also important in the middle ages. This was especially true in the more northern countries were grapes would not grow and in ecclesiastical settings where honey was readily available due to need of wax for candles (Gayre and Papzian, 1988). Meads are very important in the legends especially of the Norse where if you died in combat you may get transported to heaven by Valkeries to spend eternity partying and drinking mead.


Butcher, A. D. 1989. Ale and beer: A curious history. McClelland and Stewart, Inc. Toronto, CA.

Digbie, Sir Kenelme. 1669. The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt opened: Whereby is discovered several ways for making of metheglin, sider, cherry-wine, &c. Together with excellent directions for cookery: As also for preserving, conserving, candying, &c. Published by his son's consent, London, Printed by E. C. for H. Brome, at the Star in Little Britain, 1669.

Fleming, A. 1975. Alcohol: The delightful poison. Delacorte Press, NY.

Francis, A. D. 1973. The wine trade. Barnes and Noble Books, NY.

Gayre, R. and Papazian. 1988. Wassail! In mazer of mead. Brewer's Publications, Boulder, CO.

Hackwood, F. W. 1985. Inns, ales, and drinking customs of old England. Bracken Books, London.

Harrison, J. 1976. An introduction to old British beers and how to make them. Durden Park Beer Club.

James, M. K. 1971. Studies of the medieval wine trade. Clarendon Press, Oxford),

Smith, G. 1995. Beer : A history of suds and civilization from Mesopotamia to microbreweries. Avon Books, NY.

Turner, William. 1568. A book of wines.