Elizabethan Homebrewing

Tofi Kerthjalfadsson

Pennsic XXV


Beer was a staple of the northern European diet during the medieval and renaissance periods. Although much beer was made by monks and by guilds in the cities, in England through the end of our period, most beer was brewed at the manor house by its residents. As one of many staple food stuffs, beer and its making were generally the domain of the Lady of the manor and her cooking staff. Most of the references we have for brewing are from cook books, often close to and associated with the sections on baking.

In saying "Beer is period." one must be careful. American Light Lager is most certainly not period, even for the city of Pilz in what is now the Czech Republic [Jackson, pp. 31]. But neither is Irish Stout, for many of the same reasons. So what kind of beer is `period?' Fortunately for Elizabethan England, we have some primary sources and some good secondary ones, so we can make it to find out.

In general, beers from Elizabethan England would be somewhat heavier (with wide variation), somewhat sweeter, and less bitter than what is available in England today. They would range in color from light to dark brown, due to the malts used. They would have considerably less carbonation than today. And they would be pretty fresh, possibly even `green' by today's standards.


The materials we use will effect the resulting beer almost as much as the techniques, so we have to be fairly careful about what we use and why. In general, beer is made from grains, spices, water, and yeast.


The most common grain in beer is malted barley. Wheat is also fairly common, often in smaller quantities, as are oats. Malting is a process which both preserves a grain for longer-term storage than is possible in the raw form, and activates enzymes in the grain that help turn starches into sugars. After the grain is harvested, it is moistened and allowed to sprout and grow for a few days, then dried in an oven at low to moderate temperatures, and finally threshed and stored.

Traditionally the sprouting would be carried out on a large floor [Markham, pp. 182-185], often in the attic of the malt house. As the grain sprouts, it generates heat. This must be allowed to escape so that the malting grain does not cook itself. The young plants also require carbon dioxide to continue growing. To facilitate this, the malt is turned (scoop it up, flip it over) at regular intervals. A few British maltsters are still producing floor-malt today, though it is rare and expensive.

Historically, kilning was often carried out in what is essentially a large wood oven or smoker. The malt would be spread out on a false-floor made of hair-cloth, straw mat, or other suitable material, on top of some time of loose material, so to allow the hot exhaust from the kiln's oven to evenly penetrate the grain. Then a wood fire would be built in the oven, and the malt baked for several hours, and occasionally turned to prevent burning [Markham, pp. 186-190].

Modern kilning is quite different. Today the malt is roasted in a drum with a water spray to control temperature, patented by D. Wheeler in 1817 [Harrison]. The drum roaster can produce malt that is paler than possible using the traditional kiln, leading to the light-amber color of modern beers such as Bud or Bass. It also can roast malt and unmalted grain far darker than possible. Since the deeply roasted taste and very dark color from these are an integral part of the modern porter and stout, Guinness isn't much closer to the mark.

We can make a decent approximation to the amber and brown malts at home by roasting Pale malt in an oven. I have successfully used the technique described by Robert Grossman [Zymurgy special 95]. Briefly, one spreads out one or two pounds of malt in a cookie sheet or two, put them in a pre-heated oven, and bake for a while. 10 minutes at 300 F gives a nice slightly roasted character to Pale malt without deactivating the enzymes. 20 mins. at 350 F produces an amber malt, but deactivates the enzymes. Doing this to 10-- 20% of the malt adds a nice character to an ale. 50 mins. at 350 will produce a nice brown malt, useful in making historic dark ales and porters. For Elizabethan ales, I prefer roasting about half my malt for 10 mins., and another pound or two for 20, in order to simulate the vagaries of traditional kilning.

British, Belgian, German, and American malts are all somewhat different. British Pale malt comes from a 2-row variety of barley, is allowed to sprout for a somewhat longer period of time, thus more of the very long starches are modified [Lager, pp. 87], and is kilned at a reasonably low temperature. The Belgian and German malts are often less modified, and kilned differently. The American malts are most often 6-row barley, which is a different, modern strain of barley. Most homebrewing stores either carry British Pale malt, or can get it.

Plain wheat and oats are easy to find. If your homebrewing supplies store doesn't carry these, check in health-food stores, or even normal grocery stores. Malted wheat can be found in brewing supply stores. I have not yet found a source of malted oats. This is unfortunate, as several medieval recipes use them.


Hops may have been first introduced into the British Isles in the early medieval period, but they were not commonly found in beer until the Reformation. Even through the 17th century, unhopped ales could be found. Hops were fairly expensive, and so were used in much smaller quantities than we would find in a modern India Pale Ale such as Bass.

There are many varieties of hops, but most of them are too recent. Using one of the Noble varieties of hops, such as European Hallertau or Kent Goldings is about the best we are going to manage.


I've seen all sorts of things used for a Gruit, or spice mixture, in medieval ales, and even more things claimed. For instance, in one ca 1300 recipe, about 6 grams each of Sweet Gale, Marsh Rosemary, and Yarrow are called for (for a 5 US gallon batch). In ca. 1400 recipe, Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves, and White Pepper are called for [Harrison, pp. 21-23]. At this point I suspect that just about anything would be fair game, so long as it was available (and not too expensive). Consult a good herbalist.


Water characteristics vary quite a bit in Britain. In Burton-on-Trent, the water is very hard, well matching darker, heavier-bodied beers. In Scotland, the water is often fairly soft. I don't stress too much about my water hardness, though I tend to use harder water for English beers than for Welsh or Scottish ones. If you are really interested, consult Noonan [Lager].


Unfortunately, we have really very little idea what kind of yeast was used. The idea that yeast is a microorganism that can be cultured and bred is, of course, entirely modern, thanks to the efforts of Pasteur. Many of the desirable traits are naturally selected for by reusing the yeast of one batch in another, over and over. And brewers would generally trade yeasts, so particularly good yeast strains would be propagated pretty quickly within a region.

I personally like to use English or Scottish ale yeasts for British ales. Though modern English Ale yeast may be different than the strains used 400 years ago, modern Belgian or German (Alt) yeast is likely even more different. I prefer liquid yeasts to dry ones. They are somewhat more expensive (at $5 a pouch vs. $0.75 a packet), but well cared for, a good strain can last through many batches.


Mashing is the process of converting the starches in the grains into fermentable sugars, using the enzymes in the grain. This is done by holding a mixture of grains and water at a relatively high temperature for a period of time (e.g. 150 F for an hour). Modern brewers know quite a bit about what the various enzymes do, and at which levels of acidity and temperature each enzyme works best.

The medieval brewer was of course unaware of the enzymes found in the malt. That is not to say that the he or she was ignorant of the need to maintain the proper temperature; this behavior would be found by trial and error. In recreating pre-scientific brewing, we are attempting to rediscover rules-of-thumb that will give us approximately the right results.

Infusion mashing

Barley, wheat, oats, and other grains, peas [Markham, pp. 207], and dried beans [Harrison, pp. 24] have all been used to make beer. These have few simple sugars, but an abundance of long starches, tightly packed together. Unfortunately, yeast can't digest starches, so we need some way of turning these starches into sugars. Fortunately barley and wheat (and to a lesser extent oats) also come with a way to perform such a stunt. If the grain is allowed to sprout in some water, and allowed to grow just a bit, the young plant will produce enzymes that break down the starches and turn them into sugars. Normally, these enzymes act very slowly, but they will work much faster if exposed to more heat and water than usual.

So the grain is allowed to sprout and grow just a bit, and then dried out in an oven, a process known as malting. An extra benefit is that malted grain will store much longer than normal grain will. So it is safe to harvest and malt large quantities of grain, brew with some, and store the rest for winter and spring brewing.

After the grain has been malted, it can be mashed. In this process, the remaining starches are converted to simple sugars by mixing the grain, after being crushed (lightly ground) with hot water (usually 145-158 F), and held in this temperature range for an hour or three. During this time, the enzymes will convert almost all of the starches into simple sugars that the yeast can digest.

A starch molecule is made of a long chain of simple sugars all linked together. There are two enzymes that work together to break this long chain down into small pieces. Alpha- amylase cuts long starch chains into smaller pieces, still too large to be digestible to yeast. Beta-amylase cuts very small pieces, simple sugars suitable to yeast, off the ends of the starch chains. So the two working together do a very good job of breaking down the long starches into sugars. Beta-amylase is most active at somewhat higher temperatures than Alpha, but there is a fair overlap in their useful temperature ranges [Lager, pp. 88-89]. The most important thing about all this to the brewer is that the higher the temperature mash, the sweeter the resulting beer will be.

Double and triple mashing

The general mashing technique used by brewers in the British Isles in the Elizabethan period was double (or triple) infusion mashing. In this, the grains are mixed with hot water, allowed to sit a while, and then the liquor is drained off into the boiling vessel. Then a second batch of hot water is added to the grains, which are again allowed to steep as the first wort is boiled. After the first wort is poured off to cool, the second batch of liquor is drained off and boiled. For very potent beers, a third running would be performed in the same way.

These second and third mashings are mostly useless for enzyme activity - the enzymes have mostly quit by the time the first mashing is over. But not all of the sugars will be collected in the first running. These second mashings serve to rinse more sugar out of the grain, giving weaker beers for the effort.

In modern brewing, we use a technique called sparging to run off the first running and rinse sugars out of the grains. This is essentially equivalent to doing the above procedure into the same vessel. In fact, [Belgian Ale, pp. 84] describes just such a technique, where the liquor is run completely off before the sparge water is added. Sparging is good for increasing the conversion efficiency of the runnings, but does not seem to have been adopted by English brewers until the mid-19th century. In [Scotch Ale, pp. 90], Noonan quotes W. H. Roberts, a Scottish brewer, writing in 1847:

The process of sparging is, in my opinion, decidedly preferable to a second mash for ale worts, and has ever been considered in this light by the whole of Scottish brewers.

German brewers today sometimes use a method known as decoction. I won't be talking about it because (to the best of my knowledge) English brewers have not ever used this technique.


I use a 10-gallon Rubbermaid-brand water cooler, with an Easymasher(tm) screen-manifold (a 6-inch tube of stainless-steel screen, closed on one end and attached to a tube on the other) installed inside. This may seem like awfully modern equipment, but it is surprisingly well motivated. In "Scotch Ale from my Lady Holmbey", Digbie writes:

Heat Spring-water; it must not boil, but be ready to boil, which you will know by leaping up in bubbles. Then pour it to the Malt; but by little and little, stirring them strongly together all the while they are mingling. When all the water is in, it must be so proportioned that it be very thick. Then cover the vessel well with a thick Mat made on purpose with a hole for the stick, and that with Coverlets and Blankets to keep in all the heat. After three or four hours, let it run out by the stick (putting new heated water upon the Malt, if you please, for small Ale or Beer) into a Hogshead with the head out. ...

Here, Digbie has told us to make a thick, hot, mash, in an insulated vessel. Further, he describes how the liquor is emptied from it. In emptying, a small amount of scrunge will come out through the hole. But fairly quickly, the husks of the grain will get in the way and act as a filter to keep the smaller particles out of the liquor, which will run down the sides of the stick and out the hole. In much the same way, the screen, manifold, or false- bottom in the cooler will allow the grain to filter the runnings.

When converting a recipe from original units down to a 5-gallon batch, a modern brewer may be quite surprised at the quantities of grain involved. When I first figured out Harrison's recipe [Misc-4], I came up with 4.75 lbs. of grain per gallon of wort. I was used to getting an extraction rate of 0.027 or more per gallon, and was taken aback by the prospect of a starting gravity of 1.128. But that extraction rate only applied to modern sparging; for the first runnings of the recipe, my first runnings were 1.071, or 0.015 per gallon, and for all three runnings my extraction was only 0.025. Clearly one reason those 19th C. Scotts preferred sparging was frugality.

Getting the right temperature without a thermometer

The thermometer is a modern device. This is most unfortunate, since control over temperature is vital to successful all-grain brewing. Fortunately, we can still get pretty good temperature control by mixing lots of boiling water with some cold water and the cold grain to achieve a good mash temperature. A good first guess is to calculate the weight- averaged temperature of the combination. So for instance, 20 pints of boiling water (212 F), 3 pint of cold water (45 F), and 10 lbs. of malted barley at room temperature (70 F) should average out to 153.8 F. This is almost right, but not quite for three reasons. First off, the inside of the mash tun will also need to be heated up, contributing a bit more cool weight. Second, pouring the boiling water through the air will cool it down a bit, as vapor escapes into the air. Finally, the malt will use up some of the heat energy in the chemical processes of mashing, especially at first, so the water will need to be a little extra hot before the grain is added. As a rough rule of thumb, I've found that for a rate of 1 US quart of water per pound of grain, 170 F is a good water temperature to end up with a mash around 150-153 F. To get this method right for your equipment, you'll have to try it and find out. Start by mixing up the hot and cold water in your lauter tun, and measure the temperature. If it is around 170-174, add the grain, stir it all up and measure again. If it is a bit cold, add some more boiling water; if it is a bit hot, add a small amount of cold water. (It takes almost twice as much boiling water to go up 5 degrees as it takes cold water to go down 5 degrees at normal mash temperatures.)


Boiling is pretty much the same today as it was back then. We've collected a bunch of mash liquor in a large pot, which we put over a fire and boil for about an hour. The pots are somewhat different today - a fortunate brewer would have a large copper pot, but a less fortunate brewer might have one made of lead. Important: don't use a lead vessel, it is poisonous, as is anything made in it. Today the most common pots for homebrewers are made of stainless steel or enameled steel. Either is fine (though a good commercial stainless steel pot is both nicer to use and more expensive). I'm not so sure about aluminum. Some folks say it is fine, others say using an aluminum pot will give a nasty metallic taste to the beer.


Cooling seems to have been done by one of two techniques. The wort could have been transferred into a barrel, and allowed to sit and cool over a day or so. This technique is used in Digbie, in "Scotch Ale from my Lady Holmbey" [Digbie, pp. 99]:

... Then put it again into the Caldron, and boil it an hour or an hour and a half. Then put it into a Woodden-vessel to cool, which will require near forty hours for a hogshead. Then pour it gently from the settling. ...

Evaporation is a quicker way to cool the hot wort. In Markham, "of brewing ordinary beer", the author says "...this done, put the wort through a straight sieve, which may drain the hops from it, into your cooler,..." with the footnote:

"When the hops and liquor shall have thus boiled twelve hours, they empty the copper again, and put the wort to cool at leisure into other vessels called floats or coolers, and they be broad like unto the vats, but only one foot deep." (Surflet, ed. Markham, p 587)

The practice of using large shallow open vats to cool the wort is still practiced today in Belgium [Belgian Ale, pp. 38; De Keersmaecker, pp. 78]. This has the side-effect of inoculating the wort with wild yeasts, along with an astonishing number of other microbes [De Keersmaecker]


Both Digbie and Markham recommend making a yeast starter in order to have a sufficient quantity of yeast to attack the large size batches they are making. Digbie advises [Digbie, pp. 99]:

... This quantity (of a hogshead) will require better then a quart of the best Ale- barm, which you must put to it thus. Put it to about three quarts of wort, and stir it, to make it work well. When the barm has risen quick scum it off and put to the rest of the wort by degrees. The remaining Liquor (that is the three quarts) will have drawn into it all the heavy dregs of the barm, and you may put it to the Ale of the second running, but not to this. Put the barm you have scummed off (which will be at least a quart) to about two gallons of the wort, and stir it to make that rise and work. Then put two Gallons more to it. Doing thus several times, till all be mingled, which will require a whole day to do. Cover it close, and let it work, till it be at it's height, and begin to fall, which may require ten or twelve hours, or more. Watch this well, least it sink too much, for then it will be dead. Then scum off the thickest part of the barm, and run your Ale into the hogshead, ...

Markham recommends something similar, though not as complex a technique. He says to combine some of your wort (presumably cool enough) with some barm (yeast), and let these work while the main batch is cooling. Then when the main batch is cool, stir up this starter well and mix it in.

Using a starter is good practice in modern, as well as medieval brewing. Starting with a large quantity of yeast will reduce the effects of wild yeasts and other microorganisms by overwhelming them by sheer number, and eating up all the available sugar.

At this point, a modern brewer would pitch in the yeast, make sure the wort is well aerated, and put on a blow-off tube or fermentation lock. Digbie recommends the former [Digbie, pp. 99]:

... and run your Ale into the hogshead; leaving all the bung open a day or two. Then lay a strong Paper upon it, to keep the clay from falling in, that you must then lay upon it, in which you must make a little hole to let it work out. You must have some of the same Liquor to fill it up, as it works over.

Here Digbie essentially describes a blow-off vessel. The bung is left open so the active fermentation can foam over and blow any crud that may be on the surface of the liquor out of the barrel. Markham advises much the same [Markham, pp. 206]:

... and then, beating it and the barm exceeding well together, tun it up into the hogsheads being clean washed and scalded, and so let it purge: and herein you shall observe not to tun your vessels too full, for fear thereby it purge too much of the barm away: when it hath purged a day and a night, you shall close up the bung holes with clay, and only for a day or two after keep a vent-hole in it, and after close it up as close as may be.

This is still done in parts of Belgium, especially in making Lambic [De Keersmaecker, pp. 79]. I usually use either a large tub fermenter (which avoids the blow-off tube hassle, but requires skimming at least once), or a glass fermenter with a large diameter (1 inch I.D.) blow-off tube.


For the final part of the Scotch Ale recipe, Digbie says [Digbie, pp. 99]:

When it hath done working, stop it up very close, and keep it in a very cold Cellar. It will be fit to broach after a year; and be very clear and sweet and pleasant, and will continue a year longer drawing; and the last glass full be as pure and quick as the first. You begin to broach it high. Let your Cask have served for Sweet-wine.

Kegging the beer would be the most appropriate way to store and serve it, and also the least amount of work. I often bottle mine, even though the technique of cork bottling was at very best `late period.' For this, I recommend whatever you are most comfortable with. Storing the bottles or kegs in a suitably cool cellar is always good practice. The beer takes a bit longer to mature, but has a much smoother and better taste.


Elizabethan beers can be recreated with relative ease by the modern medievalist. They are fairly easy to make and well worth the effort. And they do not require any extraordinary equipment; only an attention to the details of the materials and processes.


Digbie, K, The Closet of the eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, kt., Opened..., 1669, in Miscellany from D. Friedman & E. Cook

[Zymurgy special 95]
Grossman, R, "Home Grain Roasting", Zymurgy, vol. 18 no. 4, Special 1995, pp. 28-30

Harrison, J, An Introduction to Old British Beers and How to Make Them, 1991 Durden Park Beer Circle

Jackson, M., The World Guide to Beer, 1977 Quarto Ltd.

[De Keersmaecker]
De Keersmaecker, J., "The Mystery of Lambic Beer", Scientific American, August 1996, pp. 74-80.

Markham, G., The English Housewife, Best, M. ed., 1986 McGill-Queen's Press. (originally published 1615, 1623, and 1631.)

Noonan, G., Brewing Lager Beer, 1983 Brewers Publications.

[Scotch Ale]
Noonan, G., Scotch Ale, 1993 Brewers Publications.

[Belgian Ale]
Rajotte, P., Belgian Ale, 1992 Brewers Publications.

Harrison, preface to Hollinshed's Chronicles, 1587, in Miscellany as "Misc-4," from D. Friedman & E. Cook

Copyright 1996, 1997 by Paul W. Placeway.
The author gives permission for this to be reproduced in any form, as long as the complete text, from title to this notice, is included.

Tofi Kerthjalfadsson (Paul Placeway)
pwp+ (AT) cs dot cmu dot edu