The longest journey begins with a single step –Lao Tzu

I haven’t really taken the time to consolidate my various endeavors in a single location. This blog is one such attempt.

My name is Madoc, and I make beer… and wine, and mead. I have been brewing since 1995, and specialize in historic brewing practices in conjunction with my participation in an international historical society known as the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc.

My journey started with another member of the SCA, Ansel the Barrister, who is a Georgia lawyer working for the Department of Defense Logistics Agency. A home brewer of some reputation, I was over at his house once when he said in his classic southern drawl, “Madoc… as much as you like a good beer, I’m s’prised ya don’t brew yo’own.” I replied that I would love to, but that I didn’t understand organic chemistry. He gave me that look southern mamas give their children when they’ve said something stupid, and said, “Huh?” I replied that I had been led to understand that brewing involved a lot of organic chemistry. He took a big draught from his mug, and stated firmly, “I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout no organic chemistry… but you come over t’the house Sunday and I’ll teach ya ta make beer.”

That first batch of all-extract English bitter was all it took to get me hooked. My birthday present from my wife that year was a beginners brewing kit, and the rest is history. I moved from Georgia to Missouri in 1996, where I met Shandrake Vale and Alaric von Thurn, two other SCA members who were actively brewing. Shandrake eventually went on to other endeavors, and is now a beadmaking Laurel. Alaric and I took on the regional brewing community. We kick-started the old kingdom brewers guild, and instituted a kingdom brewing championship at Lilies War. We bought out a flailing brew supply business and grew it into an almost-successful retail and online outlet (that business was subsequently sold). Mostly, we brewed… and we brewed lots. We also read – books, papers, whatever we could get our hands on – anything to do with the historical aspects of brewing. This is where my thirst for research gained solid ground.

Once I retired from the military, I moved back to western PA where I was raised, and got active in the new SCA kingdom that had sprung up during my absence. While the brewing community was not as active or diverse as I had become accustomed to, there are still plenty of lively and exciting individuals with whom I have been able to share my passion. I now spend most of my brewing time advancing the concept of historical brewing within the Kingdom of Æthelmearc.

For several years since returning home, people have been asking me to post my research. I have been actively teaching classes, organizing competitions, providing demonstrations, and responding to nearly every request for donations of home brewed beverage… but aside from posting a few files on various web sites, I haven’t really taken the time to consolidate my various endeavors in a single location. This blog is one such attempt. It is my hope that historical brewers within the SCA, as well as those outside the organization with an interest in historical concepts of brewing, will find some of my musings useful, if not necessarily interesting. Please enjoy the site as you browse through it, and feel free to leave me feedback if you are so inclined.

Regards//Madoc Arundel (mka Christopher Miller)

Documenting Period Homebrew: What Digbie Never Told You

The most common complaint I hear from historical brewers discussing their research and documentation is that there are so few sources available from within our period of study. Many brewers rely heavily on two principle sources: Cindy Renfrow’s A Sip Through Time, and Digbie’s The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened. While these are both valid sources, they are in reality sources of the secondary nature… citing earlier works, but written outside of our period of study. To truly be able to document period brewing, one must have at their disposal at least a handful of primary sources.

While it was true a quarter century ago that primary sources for the brewing science were difficult to come by, it was simple urban legend as to why this was the case. For years, I had brewers in the SCA tell me that brewing was woman’s work in the home, and that recipes or techniques were not written down because they were ‘common knowledge’. I also had people tell me that brewing processes were ‘guild secrets’ and were therefore committed to memory rather than paper or parchment. While both assertions have some truth to them, they fall short of reality.

In truth, there are many writings from brewers, maltsters, farmers/gardeners, and scientists regarding various aspects of brewing throughout ancient and medieval history if one knows where to look. Twenty-five years ago, access to these documents required one to travel to major libraries or even to other countries, and obtain special access permission. Even then, many of the holders of these resources required one to be a member of a particular academic or research community, and hands-on access was still frequently limited. With the advent of the worldwide web, many of those restricted sources are now available or coming available to the ‘do it yourself’ researcher. Photographs or PDFs of period documents are posted to the internet. Texts are transcribed from the original documents to plain text files. Documents in ancient or foreign languages are translated or transliterated into modern English. The key is in knowing what questions to ask and to whom.

Primary sources do not have to take the form of a period recipe or period ‘how to’ for brewing. In general, providing primary documentation is less about the finished product and more about the ingredients, the processes, and the purpose of that product. By stepping back and looking at brewing as a collection of parts rather than a whole form, we can imagine a whole new world of primary references.

  • Herbals: Often used in medicine as well as brewing (and some brewing was purposed for medicine), books on the properties of, uses for, and means of obtaining various herbs and spices become reliable sources for documenting the presence of those herbs and spices in a brewed product.
  • Physica: More or less ancient medical journals, these volumes give us a significant amount of primary information on the use of various plants, animals, or chemical compounds in various types of beverage primarily used for medicinal purposes.
  • Shipping Records / Bills of Lading: Several sources are available for obtaining collections of business records. By reading the shipping records for different companies, countries, or industries, we can justify not just the types of ingredients used in alcohol production, but get a rough idea of the ratios used.
  • Production / Sales Records: Similar to shipping records, even cottage industries in the Low Countries and the British Isles kept detailed records of production and sales for the purpose of justifying their tax payments. Like the shipping records, collections of production and sales records can be found in collected works. Some of these may be reprinted as part of the history of guilds or of towns.
  • Poetry and Song: Some of the more ancient cultures passed down their history in story, song, or verse. Eventually, these works of art were written down and translated / transliterated for general consumption. Such works as Beowulf, y Gododdin, or the Kalevala explain the finished product of brewing in sufficient detail to discern the most probably techniques. The Kalevala actually defines the entire brewing process in the ancient Middle East in some detail.
  • Monastery / Convent Records: The first mention of hops in brewing was a 12th century diary entry by Abbess Hildegaard, who was a nun in central Germany very much into brewing. I found a translation of that writing through The Gutenberg Project.
  • Royal Decrees: Fairly well documented, the legal workings of the government play heavily in primary documentation. As examples, the Reinheitsgebot, or German purity law of 1536, or a proclamation by a French noble that all foreign yeast sold within his demesne had to pass an inspection before being sold to bakers or brewers.
  • Architectural Records: Something as simple as Charlemagne dictating the relationship in city design between the bakers and the brewers, and the reason why (for the transmittal of yeast between the two industries) can be documentation for a process.
  • Scientific Documents: Particularly for things like distilling, mashing, boiling, temperature control, clarifying agents, yeast culturing, etc., there are many scientific publications going back to before the Roman Empire that tell us explicitly what was common practice for the zymurgists of the day.
  • Personal Writings: Journals (such as the travel diary of Marco Polo), personal letters, proceedings of a meeting, counsel, or even a private party, and other such personal writings can include important clues for not just the ingredients in a brewed product, but the presentation of that product to the intended audience as well. Examples include writings indicating the Romans sweetened their wine with honey, and those stating that fruit was soaked in wine served in large bowls in 16th century Spain.

In short, by looking less towards what we in the modern age consider proper brewing documentation and more towards the various parts of brewing, we can discover a host of primary sources to lean on through every step of our own historically based process.

Here are a few tips for locating a variety of sources that brewers might use to assist them in their documentation:

  • First, Wikipedia. Yes… Wikipedia. If you do a wiki search on your project, any of the ingredients, or any of the processes, someone has probably done a wiki article that is relevant. Read through the article looking for key information, and note what source the author has cited. Odds are you can find that source through one of many publishing preview sites available to the public, some of which are detailed in this handout.
  • The Gutenberg Project (www.gutenberg.org) is an open source, wiki project that enables users to scan and upload books that have passed their copyright end date. There are tens of thousands of books available in plain text format from the Roman Empire all the way up through the early 20th century. If you know which book you are looking for, it’s easy to search their rolls to see if someone has scanned or transcribed the text, and they frequently have an English translation of books written in foreign languages.
  • Google Books (books.google.com) is another great resource that will give extensive previews of books available for sale at Google. I have been able to search entire chapters in the preview mode with great success. This site works best with books that are still in publication, so doesn’t provide much in the way of primary sources.
  • Another popular Google resource is Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) which specializes in research based articles primarily for secondary and post-secondary education. Google Scholar, like Google Books, is a sub-search engine. Be advised that many of the sources available through this type of search are “pay for access” articles. Unlike Google Books, Google Scholar does not provide extensive free previews of the contents, but will generally provide a free view of the abstract or summary.
  • The Internet Archive (archive.org) is another location where past-copyright books can be accessed with a simple search. This site frequently cross-references with the Gutenberg Project.
  • Archaeological Digs… more and more universities and private foundations are publishing the findings of their archaeological endeavors online. I have tripped over news articles regarding a significant find by an archaeological team (e.g. a 1st century Roman wine press in a city along the Mosel River), which in turn has allowed me to track the team and read copies of their papers as they are published. Many of these will be published at one of the sites listed below.

There are several other internet archives for scholarly papers or texts of an historic and/or scientific nature. A couple of my favorites are:

  • scribd.com – subscription access to books, many of which are out of print;
  • springer.com, an online archive collection of scholarly works that includes a category in chemistry and material sciences;
  • jstor.com, a collection of scholarly periodicals available by subscription;
  • Project Muse (muse.com), similar to JSTOR;
  • highwire.com, headquartered at Stanford University, a collection of research articles in various topics;
  • Oxford University Press (oxfordjournals.org).
  • Academia (academia.edu) – a self-publishing site for academicians and amateur scholars to share research. The site has limited free access with full access on a subscription basis.

One of my favorite sites for source documentation is Stefan’s Florilegium (www.florilegium.org) – a site specifically aimed at the SCA audience, Stefan accepts articles, research papers, and bibliographies from anyone who wishes to contribute, and organizes them on his site by topic. He cross references submissions that address more than one subject. One unique feature of this site is that he includes archives of discussions from the old SCA bulletin boards and news groups.

The Library of Congress and the inter-library loan program: The Library of Congress has an extensive web resource that is available with registration. Although some of their more rare documents are not available for checkout, you an book time with one of their librarians who will be happy to assist with research and provide excerpts electronically or in person.

There are literally dozens of university and community libraries across the nation that are part of the LoC network. University libraries have the added benefit of graduate level research papers on file, and are frequently accessible through the web. A fairly comprehensive list is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_databases_and_search_engines.

Last but not least, a simple google search will turn up anything from regional history sites to periodicals to university research papers to virtual museums. What’s important with any website is to verify that their information is valid – Is it properly footnoted? Does it have a bibliography? Is it something more than just a cut-n-paste of the Wikipedia article? In my experience, it is usually better to check the original references rather than to simply cite the internet article. This is where the next step in documentation comes in.

Email and telephone calls: Many times, I have followed up a review of a web article or museum site by contacting the author / webmaster / curator for additional information or clarification. During the writing of one of my more in depth research papers, I spoke with university professors and museum curators in a dozen countries. With one exception, none of them put me off or refused to answer any of my inquiries. In one case, I wound up in a two-hour long phone conversation with the USA’s foremost authority on mezzo-American culinary culture. Don’t automatically discount a reference to an email or phone conversation properly cited in the paper. These can be tremendously rich resources.

Below are some of the most common primary sources that I have used over the last decade in documenting beers, wines, and meads. This list does not include the museums, universities, and academic specialists that I have accessed outside the world of literature, but will help get you started:

  1. Aneirin, y Gododdin, published circa 700 C.E., translated by Joseph Clancy at http://www.missgien.net/celtic/gododdin/poem.html
  2. Apicius, De Re Coquinaria, from a 9th century manuscript resident in the Academy of Medicine, New York, retrieved via email.
  3. Bancke, An Herbal, published 1525, facsimile & transcript edition by Larkey & Pyles, Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, New York, 1941.
  4. Bock, Hieronymus, Kreutterbuch, J.Rihel, Strasbourg, 1565.
  5. Boorde, Andrew, The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, published 1542, Early English Text Society (translator), N. Truebner and Co., London, 1870.
  6. Boorde, Andrewe, A Compendyous Regymentor a Dyetary of helth, 1557.
  7. Brunschwig, H., Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, Straßburg, 1532.
  8. Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus, de re Rustica, Book III, published 1st century C.E., translation by W. Thayer, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1941.
  9. de Tyr, Guillame, Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, translated from French and printed by William Caxton, 1481 (edited for the Early English Text Society by K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London, 1893.)
  10. Gairdner, James (editor), The Paston Letters: 1422 – 1509 A.D., volume I: Henry VI, 1422 – 1461 A.D., A. Constable & Co., Westminster, 1896. (a compendium source)
  11. Gerard, John, The herball, or Generall historie of plantes, John Norton, London, 1597.
  12. Great Britain Privy Council, Acts of the Privy Council of England, Volume II, 1547-1550, John Roch Dasent (editor), Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1890. (a compendium source)
  13. Hall, Lesslie (translator), Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem, published circa 1000 C.E., translated from the Heyne-Socin text, D.C. Heath & Co., Boston, 1892.
  14. http://www.winzerfreunde-ruesselsheim.de/weinberg.htm, Winzerfreunde Rüsselsheim – facsimile and translation of the 1435 document.
  15. Hudson, William et al, The Records of the City of Norwich, Ulan Press, 2012. (a compendium source)
  16. Libavii, Andreaæ, Alchymea, Petrus Kopff, Frankfurt, 1606. (a Gray Period source)
  17. Markham, G., The English Housewife, (originally published 1615), M. Best (editor). McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1986. (a Gray Period source)
  18. Mascall, Leonard, Booke of the art and maner, how to plante and graffe all sorts of trees Arte of planting and graffing, Henrie Denham, London, 1589.
  19. Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XII, published circa 75 C.E., translated by John Bostock in The Natural History: Pliny the Elder, Taylor and Francis, London, 1855.
  20. Polo, Marco and Rustichello of Pisa, Devisement du Monde, published circa 1298. Colonel Sir Henry Yule (translator and editor), The book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian concerning kingdoms and marvels of the East, volumes I and II, 3rd edition, John Murray, London, 1903.
  21. Scot, Reynolde, A Pefite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden, Henrie Denham, London, 1576.
  22. Taliesin, Kanu y Med (c. 6th century), published in Llyfr Talies in circa 1275  and retained in the National Library of Wales.
  23. von Bingen, Hildegaard, Physica, published circa 1158, Priscilla Throop (translator), Healing Arts Press, San Francisco, 1998.

A list of the most common secondary sources can be accessed at

Brewing Competitions at Dry Sites

Arts and Sciences are an important part of the SCA experience. Fighting tends to dominate an event or demo, as it is a very visual activity; but the total period experience is made up of more than just the sound of rattan striking plywood, leather, or steel. At any event, the historical aura is made up of costumes, singing and music, banners and pennons, scrolls, jewelry and other accessories, and so much more. The arts and sciences bring the total experience to life.

Of all the A&S routinely practiced in the SCA, brewing seems to be the most controversial. It is one of the few A&S activities that is governed largely not by SCA convention, but by public law – federal, state, and local. It is also one of the few activities where the fruits of the artisan’s labor are subject to a high level of regulation. It was only a couple of years ago that the last of the states in the United States even legalized home brewing as a hobby. Brewers must be aware of the age of the people to whom they serve their wares. Site owners must be concerned with both regulatory and tort issues when allowing the SCA to use their site. Insurance comes into play, as do (at times) the personal, social, or religious views of the people involved in a contract for use of a site.

This brings us to the topic of the article. Any event can have an A&S display or competition. In general, the only concern is space and appropriate judges; but how do you conduct a brewing competition when the site is dry?

First, let me state unequivocally that I will never advocate for breaking the law or for misrepresenting the SCA or any of its subordinate groups. I will never promote the introduction of alcohol at a site where the owner has made it explicitly clear that alcohol is not permitted, or where local, state, or federal laws prohibit its use. That being said, there are several options for those wanting to include this important and historical aspect of medieval and renaissance life at the event of their choice.

The single biggest obstruction to a brewing competition at a dry site is the law. Many events are conducted at public parks or public facilities owned by a government agency. These might be state or municipal parks, federal buildings, national monuments, or other such locations offering wide open spaces at rock bottom prices. The first step is to contact the governing authority (usually the office that grants permission for use of the facility) to determine what level of prohibition exists, if any. In some cases, the prohibition is not on alcohol itself, but on some other aspect usually associated with alcohol. A public swimming area, park, tennis court, or ball field may have a restriction on glass containers. A facility in an urban or suburban area may have a restriction on public drunkenness. Some sites may even have compartmentalized prohibitions… maybe alcohol is only permitted in certain buildings or certain rooms, or only permitted outside. The autocrat and competition coordinator can very easily determine whether any of these restrictions are an actual obstruction or merely a perceived one. The site scheduling authority should be able to provide clear interpretations of the applicable laws and regulations, or direct the autocrat to the agency that can do so.

In cases where the site is privately owned, the law may still be an obstacle. Local ordinance or zoning restrictions may come into play. In these cases, the owning/scheduling authority may or may not be familiar with the specifics of the restriction; but rather may have just gone with the most restrictive interpretation in order to ease the contracting burden. This actually presents a much more difficult obstacle, since the site owner may not accept a third-party interpretation of the ordinance. Additionally, not every autocrat has access to a legal authority to provide that interpretation. In these cases, it is generally best to go looking for another site or to seek one of the alternate solutions for hosting the competition.

When the law is not an issue, there can still be a number of concerns based on public access to the site, insurance issues, religious or moral objections, or even just a general dislike for alcohol. In most cases, there will be a contract that will spell out any restrictions, but not necessarily the reasoning behind them. In cases like this, it is not out of line to politely request a variance. The autocrat can write out a very specific memo describing the activity to be conducted, the limitations on the use of the alcohol (e.g. sampling for judging purposes only), and the procedures to be used to ensure that only the prescribed activities will be conducted, and present it to the site owner for consideration. In many cases, a simple assurance in writing that the alcohol will not be available for general consumption can cause a variance to be granted. This may include an assurance that the judging activity will be confined to a specific room, facility, or outdoor location on the site.

In the case of many privately-owned facilities, the site is “managed”. This happens when the owner is not the agency arranging for the leasing or use of the site. That responsibility may be delegated to a rental agency, a land manager, a superintendent, or some other third party. In this case, the owner may have “no alcohol” as a standing order, and questioning the logic or suggesting alternatives to the agent results in a shoulder shrug and a “sorry – that’s the rule”. In this situation, it may be more difficult to state your case; but it is still possible. Presenting the case in writing and requesting that it be passed on to the site owner may prove enough. In more difficult cases, it may require a rider to the contract or even a financial deposit against any unexpected damages.

Ultimately, there will be times when it is impossible to get a variance on a “no alcohol” policy. Most often, this happens in the case of insurance restrictions or in the case of moral or religious objections to alcohol. In such cases, there may be only one way to facilitate a brewing competition: remove the judging to another location. This may be the nearby home of an SCA member or friend of the group, a hotel or motel room rented for this specific purpose, a nearby commercial facility that permits such activities (such as a restaurant or bar with a private room to lease a hobby shop with a back room), or even a camper or RV parked near the site. With the latter option, the parking lot of the facility may be sufficient for the site owner, as is often the case for churches or fraternal organizations who prohibit alcohol only inside their facilities. Finally, if insurance is involved, there are sites that will permit the purchase of a short-term policy or rider solely for the purpose of protecting the site owner or manager from liability based on alcohol related incidents. This could add a dollar to the site fee for attendees, but in the long run may be the least expensive of the “commercial” solutions.

At last count, there were more than 150 people on the AEthelmearc brewers list with between two and three dozen being active brewers. While some are discouraged from entering competitions by distance, lack of sufficient notice to prepare an entry, or fear of too harsh a criticism, just as many are discouraged by the tag line “the site is dry” in the event announcement. Given the role of alcohol in the middle ages, there should be just as much attention paid to accommodating this science as there is to ensuring a sufficient kitchen for the day board or feast preparation. I urge all potential autocrats to make every effort to work with site owners to permit judging of alcoholic beverages at any event hosting an A&S competition.

Sahti – Scandinavian Juniper Ale

Evergreen ale may have been a staple in Scandinavia dating to ancient times. There is a reference to the use of the new shoots from the ends of evergreen branches in the production of wedding beer in the ancient saga Kalevala, book XX.[1] The folklore contained therein is referenced by Tacitus in the second century, although a collective account of the poem translated into English is only available to us from the 19th century.[2] Juniper is reputed to have some antiseptic qualities[3], and in fact the juniper berries are used to produce gin – a restorative tonic dating to the early 16th century.

Juniper ale and beer is the traditional brew of the Scandinavian countries: Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are seven methods used in these countries for brewing juniper ale: boiled mash and wort, boiled mash and wort with repeated pourings, the wort boiled but not the mash, mash and some of wort boiled, mash boiled but not the wort, some wort boiled but not the mash, and neither mash nor wort boiled (this is known as raw ale).[4]

Scandinavian beer culture have been traced back at least to the Viking Age (9th – 11th centuries). For example, Asplund (p. 25) notes that sahti barrels were found in the 1930s on a sunken Viking wreck off Norway. The design of the barrels was dated to the 9th century, when sahti may have been popularised in Finland and, to an extent, in parts of Sweden and Norway.[5]

The traditional Scandinavian brew called sahti dates at least to the 8th century[6], and uses juniper in two forms.[7] The wort is cooked with juniper berries or sections of juniper twigs. The wort is then filtered through a mesh made up of juniper twigs. The beer thus enjoys both the cooked and the uncooked adjuncts of juniper to affect the finished flavor.

Juniper is usually the star of the show in sahti, but it served as more than just an ingredient. First, a bundle of juniper branches … were thrown into the strike water and brought to a boil. This not only added flavor to the hot liquor, but the juniper-infused liquid was used as a sanitizer in which all the equipment was dipped. Juniper branches, along with a layer of straw, were also traditionally placed at the bottom of a a trough-like vessel called a kuurna. The wort was sent through the kuurna as a means of filtration, but also allowed the liquid to pick up some more of the juniper … character. This can be mimicked by the modern homebrewer by layering juniper branches over your mash tun’s filter device.[8]

While modern sahti is usually hopped, this was not the traditional practice. Juniper has both a bittering component, and a preservative quality to it.

Juniper is the most important brewing herb in the Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales. Traditionally the juniper flavor comes from the branches laid on the bottom of the lauter tun filter or from juniper infusion (branches infused in hot water).  The taste of branches is needle-like and woody, somewhat different than flavor of berries. Hops are used fairly often, but usually in minor quantities. Sahti is often unhopped.[9]



[1] Crawford, pg. 306.

[2] Crawford, pg. vii.

[3] Oliver, pg. 431.

[4] Bessette

[5] Ovell, pg. 4. Note that Asplund’s reference is actually to the Oseberg ship find, which was a ship discovered in a burial mound rather than a ship sunk off the coast as Ovell implies.

[6] Cullen

[7] Mosher, pp. 244-5.

[8] Bryant

[9] Laitinen


Bessette, Alex (1 April 2012). “Juniper”. Gruit Ale & Unhopped Beers. Retrieved 15 July 2016, from http://www.gruitale.com/bot_juniper.htm.

Bryant, Duncan. (2017). “Sahti: One of the World’s Oldest Beer Styles”. Zymurgy. Retrieved 6 September 2017, from https://www.homebrewersassociation.org/how-to-brew/sahti-one-of-the-worlds-oldest-beer-styles/.

Crawford, John Martin. (1888). The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland into English. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company.

Cullen, Kevin (9 March 2010). “Brewing a Viking Era Ale”. The Distant Mirror. Retrieved 15 July 2016, from https://distantmirror.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/brewing-a-viking-era-ale/.

Laitinen, Mika. (January 2017). “Sahti and Related Ancient Farmhouse Ales”. Brewing Nordic. Retrieved 7 September 2017, from http://www.brewingnordic.com/farmhouse-ales/ancient-homebrew-sahti/.

Mosher, Randy (2004). Radical Brewing. Boulder: Brewers Publications.

Oliver, Garrett (2011). The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ovell, Peter. (1996). “Finland’s Indigenous Beer Culture”. Cervisia Fennica, Special Publications 1. Helsinki: Finnish Society for Traditional Beers.

Brewing Sugars: Simple and Complex

The basic concept of brewing is that yeast digests sugar, and produces (among other things) ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Ideally, the flavor of the resulting alcohol will emulate the flavors of the various ingredients used to produce it. However, sugar is not a mere ingredient. There are several different types of sugar – generally any carbohydrate ending in -ose is a sugar – as well as sugar compounds. All sugars, however, are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Understanding how your selected yeast reacts with the sugars in your wort or must is essential to predicting the most likely finished flavor of any fermented beverage, and is a great aid in recipe formulation.

Brewers and vintners use several different manifestations of sugar in their processes. These include but aren’t limited to cane or beet sugar, fruit or fruit juice, molasses, honey, malt, corn sugar or syrup, rice syrup, milk sugar, and palm or maple sugar. Each of these is used for a particular effect, whether to increase alcohol content, substitute for a more expensive ingredient, or flavor the finished beverage. By understanding the characteristics of each, and how each will react both with the yeast and with other ingredients, we can choose how and when to introduce each to the batch for maximum desired effect.

Sugars can be broadly classified as either simple or complex.

Simple sugars by definition are those that have the simplest chemical makeup – monosaccharides (made up of a single sugar molecule) and disaccharides (made up of two sugar molecules with one water molecule taken away in the bonding.) These types of sugar are the easiest to digest, and therefore are the easiest for yeast to process.

Complex sugars, commonly known as starches, are those sugars made by the chaining of multiple simple sugar molecules. These types of sugars are more difficult to digest, as the bonds between sugar molecules must first be broken down (the process brewers refer to as conversion) before the resulting simple sugars can be processed by the yeast. Complex sugar compounds may require the addition of particular enzymes in order to break down the molecular chains before the yeast can do its work.

We will first look at the simplest sugars available to the average brewer.

The most common monosaccharides available to the brewer are glucose and fructose. Both of these sugars are very basic and will be aggressively attacked by yeast early in the fermentation process.

Glucose (also known as dextrose) is the most common sugar compound, and is the one found most commonly in the human body. It is found in most plants as a principle byproduct of photosynthesis. This is also the most common sugar used as a food additive. The most common form of glucose used by brewers is corn sugar.

Fructose occurs most naturally in fruit, and is the sweetest tasting of the sugars. We see this sugar used extensively in processed foods as a principle component of high-fructose corn syrup.

A third monosaccharide called galactose does not exist in a free form, and is only made available through the breaking down of disaccharides or compounds. Galactose is not generally available to the brewer except as a byproduct of conversion.

The most common disaccharides are sucrose (the principle ingredient in table sugar), maltose (the most common sugar found in grains), and lactose (the principle sugar found in dairy products.) Each of these sugars is comprised of a combination of two monosaccharides with the subtraction of a water molecule. The bond holding these two molecules together is defined as a hemiacetal linkage. During the fermentation process, the yeast must first break the linkage to reduce the compound to its glucose, fructose, and/or galactose components in order to then process those base sugars. The key feature of this process is the conversion of a hemiacetal and an alcohol to an acetal, with the concurrent release of a molecule of water, the oxygen atom of which is the actual molecular link. The acetal byproducts are called glycosides, and if formed in excess may impart a buttery flavor to the finished brew.

Sucrose is made up of one molecule each of glucose and fructose, and occurs naturally in many plants, including sugar cane, beets, and carrots. Table sugar and most cooking sugars are commonly sucrose. In brewing, sucrose is used most commonly in wines and ciders, and actually imparts a cidery flavor if used to excess. Because of the fructose component, sucrose is the easiest of the disaccharides for yeast to process.

Maltose is produced in many grains, and forms during germination. It is made up of two molecules of glucose. Maltose is the most common sugar used in the production of ales and lagers, and has a largely neutral although vaguely starchy flavor. It is also the most common sugar produced when certain enzymes are applied to the starches in grain during the mashing process.

Lactose is made up of one molecule each of glucose and galactose, and is the principle sugar found in dairy products. It is commonly and incorrectly identified as a non-fermentable sugar. In truth, lactose will ferment slowly only with specific strains of yeast, although its processing can be accelerated with the use of enzymes such as lactase. Lactose is often used to impart a sweet component to farmhouse ales or stouts. It is also the principle sugar used in the production of kumis.

Invert sugar or confectioners sugar is also available to the brewer, generally in the form of Belgian candi sugar. Invert sugar is simply sucrose that has been chemically or thermally converted to its base form of glucose and fructose, then recrystallized for storage. Invert sugar will have slightly more residual sweetness and slightly less cidery flavor than ordinary sucrose, and as such is useful in certain beers.

Complex sugars take the form of oligosaccharides (molecular chains of between three and nine simple sugar molecules, commonly known as starches) and polysaccharides (molecular chains of  ten or more simple sugar molecules, commonly known as fiber.)

Fiber is not suitable for brewing, so we will not discuss it here. Starch compounds may contain as few as three sugar molecules or as many as nine, and may include bonding with non-sugar elements such as ethers and aldehydes. Starches are bonded in such a way as to make it nearly impossible for yeast to process without first breaking down the chains through enzymatic hydrolysis.

The two most common starch compounds in any food product are amylose and amylopectin.

Amylose is a polymer starch made up of multiple glucose molecules bonded in an oxygen chain. It makes up about 30 percent of the starch stored in plants, including grains used in brewing. When introduced to the enzyme alpha-amylase (note the similarity in the name), the oxygen bonds are broken, producing the oligosaccharide maltotriose (triple-bonded maltose) and simple maltose. Note that amylose will appear a dark blue when introduced to iodine… a common test brewers use to determine if conversion has taken place.

A common byproduct of amylose conversion is dextrin, which is produced during the mashing process (the hydrolysis of the amylo-starches.) Dextrin does not ferment readily, but can contribute to the brewer’s desired end. Caramelization of dextrins in malted grains is what produces the unique flavor components of crystal malt, as well as contributing to the reddish hue of brews using crystal malt.

Malto-dextrin, also available commercially at most health food stores or brewing supply shops, is a type of amylose derived most commonly from corn and less so from wheat. Although it is not fermentable in its commercially available form, and has little inherent sweetness, it can be used to increase the body of a beer and improve head retention. It’s most common use is as a carbohydrate supplement for athletes.

Amylopectin is a polymer starch made up of multiple glucose molecules bonded in a branched oxygen chain. It makes up about 70 percent of the starch stored in plants, approaching 100 percent in corn, potatoes, and rice. The branching in the molecular structure of the compound allows various enzymes to attach themselves to the chain, making amylopectin more soluble and easier to degrade than amylose. When introduced to the enzyme beta-amylase, the oxygen bonds are broken and hydrolized, producing maltose and glucose.

Rice syrup, available in most health food stores, is actually modified amylopectin derived from rice grains, and thus consists largely of maltose and glucose, as well as dextrin. Rice syrup in its unmodified form is sometimes used as a non-fermentable to provide more body to a beer that has an otherwise low malt content. In its modified form, it is most often found in sake – a Japanese rice wine. A note for brewers shopping at conventional supply stores… rice syrup is not the same as rice syrup solids. The solids are the unmodified rice starches, unfermentable in their commercially available form.

Some sugars commonly referred to as complex are really just amalgamations of simple sugars blended with proteins and mineral compounds.

Honey is an example of an amalgamated sugar composite that contains other factors influencing fermentation. In addition to fructose, glucose, maltose, and sucrose compounds, honey contains a variety of amino acids (proteins), fiber, and trace minerals. Honey can be both an easy and a complicated sugar to ferment. The glucose and fructose are monosaccharides, but the maltose and sucrose components must be broken down prior to fermentation being able to take place. This added step puts the yeast at a significant disadvantage, and can be witnessed in the extended period of time between pitching the yeast and seeing significant activity in the fermenter. For this reason, brewers will often add a yeast nutrient or energizer to promote a faster start and more aggressive primary fermentation cycle. Honey is the principle ingredient in the production of mead.

Molasses is a byproduct of the production of crystallized table sugar, and consists of sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Because sucrose is a disaccharide, the yeast will most likely process the glucose and fructose first before attempting to break the bonds between the molecules in the sucrose. When mixed with monosaccharide-based ingredients, the molasses will likely be processed later in the fermentation process, allowing many of the residual characteristics of the molasses to remain in the beverage. Molasses is often used in stouts to soften the harsh flavor of the darker grains, and is the principle ingredient in the production of rum.

Maple syrup derives from evaporation of water from tree sap, and is an amalgamation primarily of sucrose and water, with small quantities of glucose and fructose from the invert sugar resulting from the boiling. The large concentration of sucrose means that yeast will process maple syrup after the simpler sugars have been exhausted, leaving much of the maple character behind in the finished beverage. Non-sugar aspects of maple syrup include volatile organic compounds such as vanillin, hydroxybutanone, and propionaldehyde. Maple syrup also includes numerous phenolic compounds which impart a spicy or clove-like flavor when used in brewing, and may give a medicine-like flavor if present in excess.

So, now that we have a basic understanding of the more common types of sugars, how can we use this to our advantage in brewing? Very simply – by understanding the processes that the yeast, any added enzymes, and the heating or cooling processes have on the sugars themselves, we can modify our sequence of processes and our ingredients list to achieve desired results.

The first consideration as a brewer is the formulation of the recipe. The choice of fermentable and non-fermentable ingredients and the amounts in which they are used will significantly affect the flavor, body, and alcohol content of the finished beverage. Most brewers are aware of the basic effects of various sugars (briefly discussed above), but not necessarily the “why” behind those effects. By understanding the “why”, the brewer can make intelligent decisions on what types of sugars and starches they wish to build into their recipe. A desire for higher alcohol content in a lighter bodied beer warrants the addition of simpler sugars, while a fuller bodied beer with a moderate alcohol content might warrant the addition of complex or non-fermentable sugars. As shown with the sugar blends, the ancillary character of honey, molasses, maple syrup or other less common amalgamations may be a desirable effect for the beverage.

The second consideration is the timing of ingredients in the brewing process. Take, for example, the rice syrup. Rice syrup is a complex sugar that requires enzymes to break it down for fermentation. Those enzymes are active at the temperature ranges most commonly used in the mashing process, but are destroyed at higher temperatures – even if at that temperature for only a few minutes. Therefore, if the rice syrup is desired as a fermentable, it must be added with the enzymes in the mash tun. If the rice syrup is desired for its ability to add body without affecting flavor or alcohol content, it must be added in the boil. The amount of rice syrup added is also a consideration, as only small amounts are required in the latter case while significantly higher amounts are required in the former. Another example is the ongoing argument among meadhers on the benefits and detriments of using honey raw, pasteurized, or boiled. Raw honey will have a lighter color, more floral characteristics, and a greater influence on the overall flavor of the beverage while boiled honey will allow the brewer to rid the honey of detritus from the beehive, any remaining beeswax, and protein compounds. The desired end state of the beverage may influence the brewer’s choice regarding how to prepare and when to introduce the honey to the must/wort.

Also consider your choice of sugars based on the character each will impart on the finished beverage. Fructose and glucose/dextrose will be turned into alcohol quickly right from the start, and will add little character to the finished product in most cases. This is why corn sugar is mainly used as an alcohol booster in a variety of different beverage types. Sucrose will impart a cidery flavor, making it acceptable for ciders and wines, but abominable for beers. Maltose will almost certainly impart a cereal character to the beverage, making it perfect in beers and braggots, but largely undesirable in wines or other types of mead. The most complex sugars can be chosen more for their distinct flavors, aromas, and aftertastes rather than for their fermentability, as the bulk of the sugars, and therefore the characteristics associated with those sugars, will remain in the finished beverage.

The next consideration is the choice of yeast and yeast additives. As we saw with lactose, it may require a specific strain of yeast to properly break down this bonded sugar. In period, yeasts were cultured down from wild strains by being harvested from one batch for use in starting the next batch. Several generations of yeast barm might produce a yeast strain that is tempered to a specific sugar, simple or complex; but too much is left to chance. Modern science now has more than 120 strains of yeast available to brewers, some of which are cultured specifically for their ability to exploit bonded sugars. In addition, a variety of natural and chemical nutrients and energizers are available to assist the yeast in achieving a fast start and a strong primary ferment. The brewer should research the yeasts available, and choose the strain best suited to the ingredient list and the desired end state of the beverage. More advanced brewers will find a greater variety of strains with many subtle differences in the pitchable liquid strains available from commercial laboratories than are available in the somewhat limited selection of dry yeast sachets most commonly on the retail market.

The final consideration is in the actual fermentation. Beginning brewers are prone to boil everything together, stick it all the fermenter, pitch the yeast, and take what they get. The more advanced brewer will consider the timing of fermentation with the same level of concern as the timing of the mash and boil. Yeast by its very nature will move to ingest the simplest sugar molecules first, as they are the easiest for the yeast to process. Only when the simpler sugars are used up will the yeast proceed to the more complex sugars. By the time the yeast reaches the most complex sugars, it is likely that the majority of yeast cells in play are either ‘tired’ (near the end of their life cycle) or nearing the limits of their own alcohol tolerance. Remember that yeast is an organism that rushes towards its own demise in its efforts to produce ethanol as efficiently as possible. In many cases, this is the desired effect, as the simpler sugars are useful in providing the desired alcohol levels while leaving the more complex sugars to temper the beverage to the brewer’s taste.

As an example of this last phenomena, consider what happens when you make a straight mead – no additives or adjuncts. If you use the same amount of honey you would use for a melomel, you may in fact wind up with less of a honey flavor in the end result. This is because a melomel has fruit, which is full of fructose, which is a monosaccharide, while the honey is an amalgamation of mono and disaccharides. In the melomel, the yeast will go after the fructose first, and only move on to the honey when the fructose is exhausted. The end result is that there is more unfermented honey available in the melomel than in the traditional mead. The general fix for this is to add more honey per gallon of straight mead than you would use for a melomel in order to have the finished product exhibit a similar honey taste.

Now, consider just the melomel. Try this experiment: using the same ingredients (type and amount) and the same yeast, set up three one-gallon fermenters. In the first, add the honey and fruit right from the start. In the second, add only the honey in the primary, and add the fruit after moving the must to the secondary. In the third, add only the honey in both primary and secondary, and add the fruit after fermentation is complete and the yeast has reached its alcohol tolerance. You should notice distinct differences in the finished flavor based on the sugars available to the yeast at each stage of fermentation. In the first gallon, the fructose – along with much of the character of the fruit – will be processed early and rapidly, with the yeast only going after the honey once the fructose is gone. This leaves a more prominent honey character to the finished mead. In the second, you will likely see two distinct “primary” fermentations, with the tired yeast coming off the bonded sugars to find a base sugar introduced. This should cause a rejuvenated fermentation that will slow rapidly as the ethanol level approaches yeast tolerance. In the final gallon, the yeast will be at or very near its tolerance, and most of the character of the honey will be fermented out, while the fruit will remain as the principle flavor. You may see some rejuvenation of fermentation, but it will be extremely short-lived. The first example is probably closer in consistency and body to what most people would think of as a mead, while the latter will be much closer in characteristics to a wine or wine cooler.

Understanding which ingredients will impart which specific sugars and how each of those sugars will impact the finished beverage allows the discerning brewer to make intelligent choices both in recipe design and in processes. Additionally, understanding what each ingredient is designed to do and how it reacts with other ingredients in the batch allows the brewer to evaluate existing recipes rather than blindly following someone else’s possible mistakes.

The order in which yeast will process sugars:


Dextrose / Glucose






“A New Way to Look at Carbohydrates”. The World’s Healthiest Foods. The George Mateljan Foundation. Retrieved 31 March 2015 from http://whfoods.org.

AUS-e-TUTE (2 August 2014). Chemistry Tutorial: Carbohydrates (sugars). Retrieved 30 March 2015 from http://www.ausetute.com.au/sugars.html.

Barry, Carla (1999). “The detection of C4 sugars in honey”. Hivelights 12(1). Canadian Honey Council.

Berthelot, Marcellin (1860). Organic chemistry based on synthesis, vol 2. Paris: Mallet-Bachelier.

Bogdanov, Stefan (2009). “Physical Properties of Honey”. Book of Honey. Bee Product Science.

Chartier, Francois (30 March 2012). Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Cohen, R. et al (2008). “Structural and Functional Properties of Amylose Complexes with Genistein”. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 56(11):4212–4218.

Cohen, Rich (August 2013). “Sugar Love”, National Geographic.

Curtin, L.V. (1983). “Molasses – General Considerations”, Molasses in Animal Nutrition, Iowa: National Feed Ingredients Association.

Green, Mark M. et al (November 1975). “Which Starch Fraction is Water-Soluble, Amylose or Amylopectin?”. Journal of Chemical Education 52(11):729.

Helmenstine, A.M. (29 November 2014). “What is Fermentation”. About Education. Retrieved 30 March 2015 from http://chemistry.about.com/od/lecturenoteslab1/f/What-Is-Fermentation.htm.

Hynes, R. C. and Y. Le Page (1991). “Sucrose, a convenient test crystal for absolute structures”. Journal of Applied Crystallography 24(4):352.

Järvelä I, et al (2009). “Molecular genetics of human lactase deficiencies”. Annals of Medicine 41(8): 568–75.

Keusch, Peter (2001). “Yeast and Sugar – The Chemistry Must Be Right”. Unpublished manuscript. Germany: University of Regensburg.

Kroskey, Carol (April 2000). “Making Simple Sugar is an Exercise in Chemical Reactions”. Baker’s Exchange. Retrieved 15 May 2015 from http://www.bakers-exchange.com.

Lagrange, V. (1994). “A Honey of a Beer”. Brewers Digest 12:13.

Lewis, Ashton (March 2001). “Beano Brew”. Brew Your Own 16:2, pp. 28-30.

Lewis, Michael and Tom Young (2002). Brewing. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishing.

Li, Liya et al (2001). “Quebecol, a novel phenolic compound isolated from Canadian maple syrup”. Journal of Functional Foods 3(2):125.

Linko, P. “Lactose and Lactitol”, in Birch, G.G. & Parker, K.J. (1982). Natural Sweeteners, New Jersey: Applied Science Publishers, pp. 109–132.

“Maltose”. The American Heritage Science Dictionary. Retrieved 02 April 2015 from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/maltose, Houghton Mifflin Company.

McMichael, Kirk (2001). “Disaccharides — Polysaccharides”. Chemistry 240. Lecture, Washington State University.

McMichael, Kirk (2001). “Monosaccharides — Structure of Glucose”. Chemistry 240. Lecture, Washington State University.

Nelson, David , and Michael M. Cox (2008). Principles of Biochemistry, 5th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

O’Sullivan, Cornelius (1872). “On the transformation-products of starch”. Journal of the Chemical Society 25: 579–588.

Palmer, John J. (2006). How To Brew, 3rd ed. Colorado: Brewers Publications.

Parkes, Steve (September 2001). “Understanding Enzymes: Homebrew Science”. Brew Your Own 16:5, pp. 48-51.

Pasteur (1856). “Note sur le sucre de lait” (Notes on milk sugar). Comptes Rendus, 42:347-351.

Pigman and Horton (1972). The Carbohydrates: Chemistry and Biochemistry Vol 1A, 2nd ed. San Diego: Academic Press.

Qach, Wolfgang (2004). “Fructose”, Ullman’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.

Raven, Peter H. and George B. Johnson (1995). Understanding Biology, 3rd ed. Dubuque: William C. Brown.

Resurreccion, A. (1995). “Effect of Enhancement of the Basic Tastes and Desirable Flavors by Honey”. Unpublished manuscript. Athens: Deptartment of Food Science, University of Georgia.

Schenck, F.W. (2006). “Glucose and Glucose-Containing Syrups”. Ullman’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.

Shaw, J.F., and J.R. Sheu (1992). “Production of high-maltose syrup and high-protein flour from rice by an enzymatic method”. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 56:7, pp. 1071-1073.

Sikorski, Z.E. (2007). Chemical and functional properties of food components. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Silverman, Jacob. “How Sugar Works”. How Stuff Works. Retrieved 31 March 2015 from http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/sugar5.htm.

Stephen, Alastair et al (2006). Food polysaccharides and their applications, 2nd ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Sugarcane: Saccharum Officinarum, USAID, United States Federal Government, 2006.

van den Berg, Abby et al (December 2006). “Sugar Profiles of Maple Syrup Grades”. Maple Syrup Digest 18A(4), pp. 12–13.

Viadiu, Hector (19 November 2012). “Carbohydrates”. Chem 114A. La Jolla: UCSD.

White, J.W. Jr. et al (1962). “Composition of American Honeys”. Technical Bulletin 1261. Washington DC: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

White, J.W. Jr. (1980). “Detection of Honey Adulteration by Carbohydrate Analysis”. Journal of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists 63(1):11-18.

Did you know you can malt acorns? Part 1

As far as nuts go, acorns enjoy an unusual composition. Acorns are largely made up of starches and fiber whereas most other type of nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, etc.) are largely made up of proteins and oils/fats. Because of this structure, acorns have a unique property among nuts – they can actually be malted.

The acorn itself is very similar in content to barley. It is 72 to 80 percent starch, 8 to 12 percent protein, and has a low oil content. One of its major drawbacks is that, like the potato, it contains high concentrations of the enzyme polyphenol oxidase. Therefore, the beers made with acorns will not be of the lighter variety. In test mashes the color comes out to be a brown shade along the line of a Vienna or Oktoberfest-style beer.[1]

Acorns are among one of the more ancient of nuts enjoying not just a nutritional role, but a mythical one as well. “In Greece, the oak too was reckoned the tree from which men first sprang; they called it the ‘first mother’, which fed men, mother-like, with her own acorns.”[2] (Ovid)

“Acorns, too, were a charm against lightning, and ornamental designs used to be made from them and put in cottage windows.”[3]

Prima Ceres ferro mortalis vertere terram instituit, cum iam glandes atque arbuta sacrae deficerent silvae et victum Dodona negaret. Ceres was the first to instruct mortals how to turn the soil with iron, when once the acorns and the wild strawberries of the sacred forest were failing and Dodona was refusing food.[4]

Virgil implies that Ceres’ grain superseded acorns as the foodstuff of choice. “Liber et alma Ceres, vestro si munere tellus Chaoniam pingui glandem mutavit arista.[5] Virgil, 1.7-8, c.30 BC. A loose translation is, “Ancient deity and kind Ceres, who by your bounty aided the Earth in replacing Dodona’s acorn with plump grain.” This implies that acorns were the food of choice for mankind prior to the development of agriculture.

In the 15th century, we see acorns mentioned as a principle ingredient in pottage – a hot stew similar to porridge. “Chikeney. Do almond mylke yn a pott. Take cornels of okekornes [acorns] rostyd; grynd hem, draw hem with wyn or ale. Do therto a grete porcyon of sigure, saundres, & safron & othri poudris, & seson hit up with poudres; & take the schelles & set abovyn.”[6]

Sweet acorns are indeed the best to eat, as they have a lower tannin content. Their low fat and high carbohydrate content make them a suitable food for both humans and animals; pounded and washed in running water, boiled or roasted, they can be quite pleasant. When ground they provide a flour, used in times of hardship, which has given this benign food a bad name.[7]

“Meanwhile, in an anonymous 16th-century survey (Descrittione dell’isola di Sicilia, 1546), listed… as typical of Val Demone [ed. note: a historical and geographical region encompassing the north-eastern third of Sicily], were acorns, olives, grapes, chestnuts, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, figs, pears, cherries, apples, plums, peaches, and mulberries.”[8] [bold added for emphasis.]

Acorns in mead are referenced in a kenning within the Ancient Lay of Gudrun, referenced as part of the Volsunga Saga.[9] Although brown-burnt acorns are listed here as an ‘ill’, malted or fresh acorns would not be so. Given that ‘blood of all the wood’ [sap] is also listed as an ill when maple and birch sap are not considered so, and that ‘god-doomed dead beasts inwards’ [diseased entrails] is listed as an ill when non-diseased animal innards are part of the daily diet, I contend that the variants listed here are abominations of standard ingestible ingredients. Thus, the inclusion of acorns in the list implies that unburnt acorns are in fact used in food and/or beverage production.

In that mead were mingled
Many ills together,
Blood of all the wood,
And brown-burnt acorns;
The black dew of the hearth,
And god-doomed dead beasts’ inwards
And the swine’s liver sodden,
For wrongs late done that deadens.


[1] Whistler

[2] Watts, pg. 203

[3] Watts, pg. 228

[4] Boyd, pp.73-4

[5] Maro, 1.7-8

[6] Hieatt, pg. 71. The recipe is cited as being from a 15th century source.

[7] Riley, pp. 7-8.

[8] Riley, pp. 498-9.

[9] (Sigfusson) Thorpe, pg. 216


Boyd, Barbara Weiden (1997). Ovid’s Literary Loves: Influence and Innovation in the Amores. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hieatt, Constance B. et al (1988). An Ordinance of Pottage: an edition of the fifteenth century culinary recipes in Yale University’s MS Beinecke 163. London: Prospect Books.

Maro, Publius Vergilius (c. 29 BC). Georgics. Translated in Virgil: Georgics: Volume 1, Books I-II. Richard F. Thomas (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, July 1988.

Riley, Gillian (November 2007). The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sigfusson, Saemund (c. 11th century). The Elder Eddas. Translated by Benjamin Thorpe (1906). London: The Norroena Society.

Watts, D. C. (May 2007). Dictionary of Plant Lore. Cambridge: Academic Press.

Whistler, Randy (November 1997). “The Adjuncts: Malt Madness”. Brew Your Own. Retrieved 23 June 2016, from https://byo.com/hops/item/1463-the-adjuncts-malt-madness.

Did you know you can malt acorns? Part 2

Acorns are mentioned as an ingredient added along with herbs in 16th century Germany. “Ginger, anise, and cumin were used in beer in Germany and various other things including laurel, marjoram, mint, sage, and acorns were used at one time or another in addition to gruit.”[1]

The Discovery Channel did a documentary entitled “How Beer Saved the World.” A snippet of transcript describes what is the first use of acorns to make beer in the new world, giving us a gray-area reference circa 1622:[2]

“Beer was an absolute essential item for their survival.” [Dr. Greg Smith, Historian]

Narrator: When the beer supply ran out, the colony hung in the balance. The settlers had to find a way of making beer. But they had no barley or hops until squirrels came to the rescue. Sounds nuts, but they gave settlers the idea of using acorns, and it worked. Acorn beer kept Plymouth alive.

As stated earlier, acorns can be mashed. However, there are some pre-brewing actions that must occur in order to prepare acorns for brewing. First of all, acorns are very high in tannin. The choice of which species of oak to harvest can assist with the reduction in tannins. In general, acorns from the red and black oak families have more tannins, while those from the white oak family have less.[3] If you are unsure of whether the acorns you are harvesting are from the white, red, or black oak families, a simple way to judge is by the size of the acorn cap. The larger the cap, the more tannins contained in the acorn.[4] If one is concerned about the authenticity of the specific species of oak, a good choice is the cork oak – a low tannin option that was cultivated throughout southern Europe in the middle ages, and which has migrated to North America. The cork oak produces acorns that are long and slender, shaped similar to a football when the cap is removed.

To harvest the acorns, pick them directly from the tree or soon enough after they fall that they have not yet fallen prey to rodents or insects. They should still be greenish in color, as that ensures they are fresh. In order to ensure that the acorns are suitable for consumption, remove the caps and drop the nut into a bowl of water. If it floats, this is evidence that the core has been hollowed out – generally by a type of larva called an acorn grub or oak weevil.[5] You can also do a visual check for small holes, caused by the grub gnawing its way out of the husk.

Once the acorns are harvested, decide whether you want to convert them directly into an adjunct or if you want to mash them as a principle fermentable. If you decide you want to mash them, treat them the same way as raw barley. Allow them to sprout – a sprout of less than an inch is sufficient to indicate that the acorn has begun transforming its starches into convertible sugars.[6] “What I do to prep acorns for consumption is let them germinate, so the starches turn into malt sugar.[7] Once they have sprouted, you can continue on with the next steps. If you are planning to use them only as an adjunct, you can proceed directly from harvesting to the next step.

Shell them. Once the cap is removed, set the acorn in a hard surface and crack it with a hammer. Once the shell is cracked, it should peel away fairly easily. It will be even easier if the acorn is soaked through. If the acorns were harvested green, they can be shelled with a paring knife. Once you have collected the nut meats, choose the leeching method best suited for your final purposes. For making bread or mashing, use the cold water method. For use as an adjunct, you can use the faster boiling method.

To use the boiling method, use two pots of water. Boil the acorn meats in one pot while the second pot heats to boil. The water in the first pot will darken. When it turns brown, pour off the water and immediately place the acorn meats in the second pot. Do not allow them to cool in between, or you risk binding the tannins to the starches. Once the meats are in the second pot, fill the first pot with fresh water and begin heating it back to a boil. Repeat this process until the water no longer changes color.[8] It should take between 2 and 4 hours, depending on the tannin content of the acorns.

To use the cold water method, crush the shelled acorns, place the ground pieces in cool water and leave sit until the water turns brown. Pour off the water and replace it with clear water. Repeat this process until the water no longer changes color. This could take anywhere from 3 or 4 days to more than a week depending on the level of tannin in the acorns.[9] Bear in mind that Shaw is discussing cold leeching from the perspective of making flour for bread… not adjuncts for beer. You do not want to use cheesecloth to strain the water (since you do not want to preserve the oils or proteins), and you do not want to grind your acorns to flour (as the glutens remaining from cold leeching will cause your mash to gum up and you will be unable to properly sparge.)

Once the leeching produces no change in water color, dry out the nut meat by placing it in the sun, or by placing it in the oven with a heat setting of 200 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours.[10] You don’t want to roast the acorns… you just want to dry them out so they do not mold. At this point, you should have some rather bland-tasting acorn bits. From this point on, if you allowed your acorns to sprout, you can treat the acorn meal just as you would treat malted barley. You can also change out barley pound-for-pound in your beer recipes, although you may find that leaving some barley in the mix will improve the overall flavor. If you used the boiling method of leeching, or you did not allow your acorns to sprout, you can still use the acorns in your brew; but they will not significantly contribute to fermentation. Treat them as you would rice syrup solids or unmalted barley when formulating your recipe. In this case, if you want a nuttier flavor from the acorns, it is okay to roast them at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for enough time to achieve a desired color.[11]


[1] Unger, pg. 32; referencing A. Hallema and J.A. Emems, Het bier en zijn brouwers. Die geschiendenis van onze oudste volksdrank (Amsterdam, J.H. deBussy, 1968), 29; Moulin, “Biere houblonet cervoise” 117; Schulte, “Vom Grutbiere, 130; Nordlund, Brewing and Beer Tradtions in Norway, 126, 132-34, 144, 158-59, 173-93, 217-19, 225-26.

[2] Discovery Communications, Inc.

[3] Shaw, 2013.

[4] Deane

[5] Deane

[6] Ocean, pg. 2

[7] Deane, a quote from biologist and nutritionist Peter Becker regarding acorns.

[8] Alden

[9] Shaw, 2013

[10] Whistler

[11] Alden


Alden, Lori (2005). “Nuts”. The Cook’s Thesaurus. Retrieved 25 June 2016, from http://www.foodsubs.com/Nuts.html.

Deane, Green (2014). “Acorns: The Inside Story”. Eat the Weeds and Other Things Too. Retrieved 23 June 2016, from http://www.eattheweeds.com/acorns-the-inside-story.

Discovery Communications, Inc. (2011). How Beer Saved the World. Produced for the Discovery Channel by Beyond Productions, PTY LTD. Narrated by Henry Strozier. Transcript by Daniel J. Leonard. Retrieved 23 June 2016, from http://www.beersyndicate.com/blog/how-beer-saved-the-world-transcript.

Ocean, Suellen (1993). Acorns and Eat ‘Em: A How-To Vegetarian Cookbook, Complete Directions for Harvesting, Preparing, Cooking Acorns. Grass Valley: Ocean-Hose Publishing.

Shaw, Hank (26 September 2013). “The Best Way to Make Acorn Flour”. Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. Retrieved 24 June 2016, from http://honest-food.net/2013/09/26/acorn-flour-recipe-cold-process.

Unger, Richard W. (2004). Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Whistler, Randy (November 1997). “The Adjuncts: Malt Madness”. Brew Your Own. Retrieved 23 June 2016, from https://byo.com/hops/item/1463-the-adjuncts-malt-madness.

Hops is Tops

Hops was a well-known agricultural product in Europe by the 9th century. Records from two French abbeys, St. Germain-des-Pres and St. Remi, both show sizable quantities of hops brought in from a number of estates.[1] In this case, it was largely used for medicinal purposes, having a mild analgesic effect as well as being purported to induce sleep.

The first documented link between hops and brewing comes from Picardy in Northern France, in 822, where Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in the Somme valley near Amiens, wrote a series of statutes on how the abbey should be run. The many rules covered areas such as the duties of the abbey’s tenants, which included gathering of firewood and also of hops – implying wild hops, rather than cultivated ones. Adalhard also said that a tithe (or tenth) of all the malt that came in should be given to the porter of the monastery, and the same with the hops. If this did not supply enough hops, the porter should take steps to get more from elsewhere to make sufficient beer for himself.[2]

A German abbess named Hildegaard living in the abbey of Rupertsberg near the town of Bingen-am-Rhein documented hops use in beer in Physica Sacra, published c.1158. Her treatise is the first indication we have of hops being used for its preservative qualities rather than simply for flavoring.

It is warm and dry, and has a moderate moisture, and is not very useful in benefiting man, because it makes melancholy grow in man and makes the soul of man sad, and weighs down his inner organs. But yet as a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer.[3]

A very detailed explanation of the best time to plant hops and the best methods for ensuring a good crop are described in Mascall’s treatise on planting and grafting of agricultural products.[4] Mascall goes on to explain how to prepare the hops for use in the brewery.

When your Hoppes be well tossed and turned on boorded floores, and well dryed (as I haue afore shewed) ye shall put them into great sackes according to the quantitie of your Hoppes, and let them be troden downe hard togither, which will kéepe their strength longer, and so yée may reserve them, and take at your pleasure. Some doe use, (which have but small store) to treade them into drie fattes, and so reserve them for their use, which is counted the better way and the lesse portion doth serve, and will longer kéepe their vertue and strength.[5]

Hops contain two types of acid – alpha and beta. The alpha acids contain the chemical agents Humulone, Cohumulone and Adhumulone used to impart bitterness. Alpha resins are not very soluble and must be boiled to impart bitterness in the beer. Beta acids are used to impart flavor and aroma. Unlike the alpha acids, these oils are water soluble and will quickly boil off. Typically, hops will impart flavor if boiled between 5-15 minutes and aroma if boiled for 1-3 minutes.[6]


[1] Unger, pg. 54

[2] Cornell

[3] Von Bingen, Book I, Chapter 61

[4] Mascall, pg. 86

[5] Ibid, pg. 89

[6] “Hops”


Cornell, Martyn (2009). “A Short History of Hops”, Zythophile: Beer Now and Then. Retrieved 11 February 2015, from https://zythophile.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/a-short-history-of-hops.

“Hops”. British Brewer. Retrieved 11 January 2017, from http://www.britishbrewer.com/2010/02/hops.

Mascall, Leonard (1589). Booke of the art and maner, how to plante and graffe all sorts of trees Arte of planting and graffing. London: Henrie Denham.

Unger, Richard W. (2007). Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. University of Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Press.

von Bingen, Hildegaard (c.1158). Physica. Priscilla Throop (translator). San Francisco: Healing Arts Press, 1998.

It’s Catchier in the Rye

Rye tends to be less finicky than wheat so that it can generate at least some yield even in poorer and more acidic soils, where wheat would not grow. Historically, therefore, rye was the only grain that could be counted on, from the North Sea to the Ural Mountains, to ripen in the short and often rainy summers of central Europe. Rye has been planted with particular success in such countries as Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and Slovakia. These are also the places where rye beers were once prominent.[1]

Rye is mentioned by the Greek historian Hellanicus of Lesbos as being used in beer in Phrygia and Thracia – what is now modern-day western and central Turkey and northern Greece – as early as the 5th century B.C.[2] Able to grow in conditions that may not have been as suitable for barley or wheat, rye may have been a primary grain in early beers, but was certainly an additional ingredient.

Russian kvass and Finnish sahti both have evidence of rye as a principle ingredient – although kvass appears to have been primarily brewed from rye baked into bread. The bread, dried and crumbled, then appears to have been mashed in much the same way as actual grain.[3]

Residue sampled from jars in a Bronze Age grave in northern Italy points to barley, wheat, millet, and rye being used in the production of beer.[4]

As noted above, Tacitus wrote in De origine et situ germanorum “…the Germanii serve an extract of barley and rye as a beverage that is somehow adulterated to resemble wine.”[5]

Much later in the medieval period, circa 1250-1260, the Italian doctor Aldobrandino de Siena wrote in Li Livres pour la Santé et du corps (a medical treatise written for and by order of King Louis IX of France – one of the first written in the vernacular rather than in Latin) that ale made from rye or rye bread with mint and wild celery was the best kind of beer for general health,[6] good skin, and proper gastro-intestinal maintenance.[7]

There is speculation by a number of historical beer and brewing sources that the Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity Law, of 1516 was less about maintaining the purity of a barley beer and more about preserving the more glutinous grains (e.g. wheat, rye, spelt) for the production of bread following several years of bad grain harvests.[8],[9]

From northwest Denmark, circa 1500-1300 BC, to the Swedish island of Gotland as late as the first century AD, Nordic peoples were imbibing an alcoholic ‘grog’ or extreme hybrid beverage rich in local ingredients, including honey, bog cranberry, lingonberry, bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin, and cereals including wheat, barley and/or rye…[10]

Despite its documented presence in ancient beverages, rye is a difficult grain with which to brew. Rye has almost no hull, and is high in gluten. For this reason, there is nothing to prevent rye from becoming a gooey mess in the mash tun that can quickly solidify into a clay-like mess. Ancient texts point to rye as just one of many grains used collectively in the mash, and modern recipes lean towards a grain bill of from 20% to 50% rye blended with wheat and/or barley. Presumably, the barley hulls assist in keeping the mash broken up enough to be able to extract the liquor. One modern craft brewer experimenting with higher percentages of rye malt recommends the use of rice hulls in the mash for this purpose.[11]


[1] German Beer Institute

[2] Nelson, chap. 2

[3] Hornsby (2012), pp. 296-297

[4] Patterson & Hoelst-Pullen, pg. 12

[5] Cullen

[6] Wallis, pg. 189

[7] Landouzy & Pepin

[8] German Beer Institute

[9] McHops

[10] McGovern, et al, pg. 1. The biomolecular archaeological evidence provides concrete evidence for an early, widespread, and long-lived Nordic grog tradition with distinctive flavors and probable medicinal purposes. The researchers obtained ancient residue samples from four sites in a 150-mile radius of southern Sweden and Denmark. The oldest, dated 1500-1300 BC, was from Nandrup in northwestern Denmark, where a warrior prince had been buried in an oak coffin with a bronze sword, battle-ax, and pottery jar whose interior was covered with a dark residue. A second Danish sample, dated to a later phase of the Nordic Bronze Age from about 1100-500 BC, came from a pit hoard at Kostræde, southwest of Copenhagen. A brownish residue filling a perforation of a bronze strainer was sampled. A third Danish sample was a dark residue on the interior base of a large bronze bucket from inside a wooden coffin of a 30-year-old woman, dating to the Early Roman Iron Age, about 200 BC, at Juellinge on the island of Lolland, southwest of Kostræde. A reddish-brown residue filling the holes and interior of a strainer-cup provided the fourth sample. Dating to the first century AD, the strainer-cup was excavated from a hoard at Havor on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Ancient organic compounds were identified by a combination of chemical techniques: Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), ultra-high performance liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS), and headspace solid phase microextraction (SPME) coupled to GC-MS.

[11] Bernstein


Bernstein, Joshua M. (2010). “Rye Beers: Against the Grain”. Imbibe Liquid Culture. Retrieved 15 January 2017, from http://imbibemagazine.com/rye-beers-against-the-grain.

Cullen, Kevin (2009). “Ale Through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing”. The Distant Mirror. Retrieved 14 January, from https://distantmirror.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/ale-through-the-ages-the-anthropology-and-archaeology-of-brewing.

German Beer Institute (n.d.) Retrieved 13 January 2017 from http://www.germanbeerinstitute.com/.

Hornsey, Ian S. (2012). Alcohol and Its Role in the Evolution of Human Society. London: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Hornsey, Ian S. (2003). A History of Beer and Brewing. London: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Landouzy, Louis and Roger Pepin (1911). Le régime du corps de maître Aldebrandin de Sienne. Texte français du XIIIe siècle, publié pour la première fois d’après les manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale et de la Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. Paris: Champion.

McGovern, Patrick E., Gretchen R. Hall, & Armen Mirzoian (2013). “A biomolecular archaeological approach to ‘Nordic grog.’” Danish Journal of Archaeology, 2:2, 1-20.

McHops, Barley (2010). “When Beer Goes A-Rye”. Beer Culture, Tasting Notes. Retrieved from 17 January 2017, from https://aleheads.com/2010/11/02/when-beer-goes-a-rye.

Nelson, Max (2011). “Beer: Necessity or Luxury?”. Avista Forum Journal of Medical Science, Technology, and Art. 21:1/2, Pennsylvania: Haverford College. pp 73-85.

Patterson, Mark and Nancy Hoalst-Pullen (2014). The Geography of Beer: Regions, Environment, and Societies. New York: Springer.

Wallis, Faith (2010). Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


If It Ain’t Broke…

The process of malting grains for brewing was known for centuries.

…the Greeks ascribed the invention of malt to the Egyptians. The art of malting, the key to successful brewing, is thus one of the most ancient of processes. The art found its way from Egypt to Tyre and Sidon and thence to Carthage, Greece, Rome, Germany, Gaul, the Scandinavian countries and to Britain.[1]

The process has essentially remained unchanged in recorded history, with the exception of the advent of new equipment to make it more precise.

Malting consists of allowing grains to germinate to a certain point, followed by the application of heat to halt the growth and kill the sprouts. What remains is convertible starches, amino acids, and amylase enzymes which enable the mashing process – the production of fermentable sugars.[2] We know that this process was well established by the time of Charlemagne by looking at the plans for construction of the St. Gall Monastery c. 820 AD. The monastery plans called for three separate breweries, a granary, a mill, and a kiln (presumably) for production of malted grains.[3] This also establishes the earliest records we have of monasteries being involved in the production of brewed malt beverages.

Kilns used for drying the malt were primarily fired by wood, straw, or peat. In later centuries, anthracite coal may have been used as a cleaner, hotter source of both drying and roasting. Depending on the logistics of the kiln itself, the quality of the fire, and the proximity of the grains to the heat source, the individual grains might be lighter or darker. In earlier periods, grains would not have been separated by color, but would have been used collectively. This would result in a beer anywhere from a pale amber to a rich brown. Since beer styles were not defined to the level of detail they are today, color would have been largely dictated by individual kilns within each locale. However, by the mid to late 17th century, recognition of the differences between various roasts of malt was common. “…it then must be put on the Kiln to dry four, six, or twelve Hours according to the nature of the Malt, for the pale sort requires more leisure and less fire than the amber or brown sorts.”[4]

“Colored malts resulted from uneven heat control which would have produced pale, amber and brown malts in the same batch, and likely in random distributions. Brown malt was also intentionally produced to reclaim slack malt.”[5]


[1] Brookes, pg. 26

[2] Palmer, p.g 141-142

[3] Unger, pg. 27-29

[4] Fox, pg. 11

[5] Hardy


Brookes, Peter (2005). “Barley Breeding and Development in the UK, an Historical Perspective”. Brewery History 121, pp. 25-39.

Fox (1736). The London and Country Brewer, 2nd ed. Westminster Hall: Half-Moon and Seven Stars.

Hardy, Fred (1995). “Medieval English Brewing”. Retrieved 11 February 2015, from rec.crafts.brewing.

Palmer, John J. (2002). How to Brew, 2nd ed. California: Defenestrative Publishing Co.

Unger, Richard W. (2007). Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. University of Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Press.

The Yeast of my Troubles… part 3

In addition to boiling water for the mash process and the natural contra-bacterial qualities of hops, the yeast itself contributes something to the sanitary nature of beer.

If the beverage contains viable yeast cells these will ensure that anaerobiosis is maintained and so inhibit the growth of aerobic contaminants. Further antiseptic qualities are introduced by many of the supplementary flavouring agents, for example, hops… In historical times, therefore, beer was a useful source of dietary calories, minerals and vitamins but could also be viewed as sanitised water. In medieval times this property was of no small significance when one considers the number of potentially fatal diseases which could be contracted after imbibing polluted water. This is illustrated by the story of Saint Arnold, the patron saint of Belgian brewers, who reportedly saved the inhabitants of a village gripped by a cholera epidemic, by blessing the local brewery and advising them to eschew water and from then on drink only beer.[1]


[1] Boulton, pp. 6-7


Boulton, Chris and David Quain (2001). Brewing Yeast and Fermentation. Oxford: Blackwell Science Ltd.