The last week and a bit has flown by with lots of detail work on manuscripts and immersion in the world of medieval music and ale–more ale than music this week. And I should add, I don’t mean literal immersion. Just in case anyone wondered. Although it certainly would have helped me answer my question: how does the taste of today’s ale or beer compare to the taste of medieval ale?
Ale, in short, was largely the drink of the medieval day, made with malted grains (oats, barely, or wheat, for instance), water, and yeast. It may have been flavored with spices, herbs, sugars, or fruits. Beer, by contrast, contained hops, which gave it a touch of bitterness and helped with preservation. Most speculation is that medieval ale was weaker than today’s, and had little to no carbonization, although these points, like any others, are up for debate. In medieval England, it was served fresh, meaning still, or only very recently done, fermenting.
As usual, opinions vary about the state of things seven hundred years ago. Both music and ale have similar problems: we have no direct experience of their medieval versions. In the world of music, we have a few manuscripts from which to re-create a few pieces, but not many, and we can’t hear the actual instruments, nor how a medieval bard would have interpreted what manuscripts we have.
In the world of ale, a few written household records have survived. Judith Bennett quotes many such medieval sources in her book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England, and these sources were used to construct two possible recipes for medieval ale, and brew several batches, using no modern equipment.
Opinion on medieval ale veers strongly toward it having been sweet; the brewer says the ale from his first recipe was definitely not sweet, although this may be due to the ale being deliberately weak. He describes one batch as quite cloudy, tasting ‘tannic,’ like ‘liquid bread,’ and apparently being quite low in alcoholic content. Despite this, he says, it was ’quite drinkable and refreshing.’ Further batches, produced from a recipe that would have been more appropriate for an aristocratic household, gave tastes ranging from paint thinner to pleasant apple.
We can safely say there would have been a great variety in the taste of ales from one town to the next, depending on the individual brewer, and the ingredients and equipment available. But it seems that in general, they would have been sweeter and weaker than what we know today.