Sunday, July 22, 2018

Yogurt from store-bought starter

Each spring and summer our homestead produces a bounty of fresh goat's milk from our small backyard herd of Saanen cross goats. While we make many things with the milk - from custard to soft cheese chèvre and even goat's milk soap - my family's favorite is yogurt. There are many methods of making yogurt, often using specialty cultures bought from cheesemaking supplies and specialized yogurt incubators. To avoid having to buy & ship cultures and owning another piece of equipment, I found a fool-proof way of making yogurt with off-the-shelf yogurt and my oven. We now enjoy fresh yogurt whenever we like!

My doe Gazelle with her Saanen x Nubian twins.

Yogurt is a fermented milk product that provides digested lactose and specific viable bacterial strains, typically Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. It is a source of several essential nutrients, including protein, calcium, potassium and vitamins B2 and B12. With the domestication of milk-producing animals like cows, sheep and goats, as well as horses, buffalo and yaks, milk products became a part of the human diet. It is generally thought yogurt, and other fermented milk products, were discovered by accident as a result of milk being stored by primitive methods in warm climates. Milk spoils easily, making it difficult to use. Herdsmen in the Middle East discovered that milk carried around in bags make from intestinal gut would cause the milk to curdle and sour - the rennet from the intestinal juices would preserve and help conserve the otherwise easy to spoil milk for extended periods of time. For millennia, making yogurt was the only known safe method for preserving milk, other than drying it in the form of cheese. The Greeks were the first to write about yogurt at around 100BC, mentioning the use of it by barbarous nations. Genghis Khan reputedly fed his army yogurt - already a staple of the Mongolian diet - because he thought it instilled bravery in his warriors! It is generally thought the word 'yogurt' comes from the Turkish word 'yoğurmak,' which means to thicken or curdle.

The first industrialized production of yogurt started in 1919 in Barcelona by Isaac Carasso – he named the company 'Danone,' or 'Little Daniel,' for his son. While Turkish immigrants had brought yogurt to North America in the 1700s, it did not really catch on until the 1940s. That is when Daniel Carasso, the son of Danone founder Isaac, and Juan Metzger took over a small yogurt factory in the Bronx, New York, renamed it Dannon and quickly introduced yogurt with fruit on the bottom in 1947. The popularity of yogurt soared in the 50s and 60s with the boom of the health food culture and is now readily available in many varieties, including sheep and goat's milk yogurt. The types of yogurt typically available today are influenced by local traditions and lifestyles. For instance, Eastern European and Asian cultures have the milk undergo an alcoholic fermentation to make kefir and koumis. In Spain and Germany, yogurt is typically heat-treated to kill the bacteria, and in the United States as well as other countries, various probiotics and/or prebiotics are added to the mix.

It has been my experience that certain off-the-shelf yogurts work much different than others - they all make yogurt but some of the textures were not what I would call pleasing. From all the different yogurt brands I’ve played with, Stonyfield Organic is the most consistent. It is important to make sure the jars are sterile to avoid contamination with unwanted bacteria and yeasts, and to start with a healthy starter to promote vigorous fermentation of the right cultures. Especially households that make other ferments like vinegar, bread and kefir do well to pay close attention to cleanliness. But once you've got your ducks in a row, the actual process of making yogurt is pretty simple and takes less effort than you might expect!

Yogurt starter, milk and heat – all the essentials for wholesome homemade yogurt!

What you'll need:
- one gallon organic whole milk (I use raw backyard goat milk)
- 1 to 2 cups of Stonyfield Organic Yogurt (I use low fat as I am cow dairy sensitive)
- stainless steel pot or a Dutch oven
- thermometer
- stainless steel wisk
- wide mouth (canning) funnel
- five mason jars with lids
How to sterilize?
There are several methods of sterilizing equipment: anyone who has canned before should be all set. Anything that is in contact with the milk after it is pasteurized should be sterilized; this includes the funnel, the mason jars and the lids.

As I brew as well, I sterilized my mason jars using the brewing sanitizer Star-San and stored the jars on my dishwasher drawer - this is quick and energy efficient.

Method one: run the jars and lids through the hot / canning setting of your dishwasher.
Method two: boil the jars and lids in your water-bath canner for 10 minutes (just like prepping jars for canning).
Method three: use a brewing sanitizer like Star-San, or iodine.
Method four: soak in a sterilizing bleach bath, and rinse very well afterwards.

Step by Step on making yogurt:
- Heat your milk to 182°F (this pasteurizes the milk).

- Let it sit for 10 minutes on low at around 182°F.

- Fill your sink with cold water (add some ice packs if you have them). Put the pan with hot milk in the cold water to cool the milk down to 110-120°F.
- Scoop 2 cups of Stonyfield yogurt into the lukewarm milk. If the yogurt is straight from the fridge, add at 120°F; if it is room temperature, add at around 110-115°F. You want the cultured milk to be at around 110°F.

- Gently whisk the yogurt culture into the milk. If you like, you can dilute it separately in some of your milk so it is less chunky and dissolves easier but this is not necessary.
- Pour the cultured milk into mason jars (use wide mouth funnel) and close the lid.

- Put the mason jars with cultured milk into the oven – leave the pilot or the general light on.

- Leave overnight, the next morning your yogurt is ready for consumption (after that, refrigerate).

Some beautiful fermentation is visible at the rim of the fresh yogurt.

The trick to culturing yogurt is to use a (turned off) kitchen oven as an incubator – it is well insulated and every house has one. If you have an old-fashioned gas stove which lights with a pilot light, that is all it needs to stay all nice and cozy inside. If your oven does not have a pilot light, it should have a regular light bulb to see what is going on inside. Leave that on (with the door closed), and it will keep the oven just as comfortable – a perfect environment for culturing yogurt.

Tip: if you strain your yogurt through some cheesecloth until it is as thick as you like, you just made your very own thicker Greek-style yogurt.


DIY medieval hard white soap.

Castile soap – a well-known olive oil soap with a long-time history, it is named for the city it reportedly originated. Originally made from unfiltered olive oil and lye produced from burning the plant barilla, castile soap still has an all-natural reputation and is perfect for vegetarians and vegans as it is made of vegetable oils only. While in Spain castile soap means soap made in the Castilla area from 100% olive oil, in modern times the term ‘castile’ can have other meanings. Commercially available Castile soaps are often a blend of olive oil with coconut and palm oils, and here castile indicates the bulk of the oils comes from olives. The term castile is also used to indicate vegetable oils-only soaps, and even slightly viscous liquid soap made only with vegetable oil.

Aleppo soap 03.jpg
Aleppo soap at the Al-Jebeili factory, Aleppo, Syria (Creative Commons)

Most people are familiar with the solid bar olive oil soap and some might even know its Spanish roots. But did you know that another soap made from only olive oil, called simply ‘white soap,’ originated in Northern Italy hundreds of years before castile soap appeared in Spain? And the European claim is not even as old as the even older more fabled source – Aleppo soap, made of olive and laurel berry oils. This hard soap originated in the city of Aleppo and goes back at least a thousand years; as well as its cousin Nabulsi soap, made in Nablus, Palestine. It is generally thought that the invading ‘Moors’ of North Africa brought the technology of making hard white soap with them to medieval Southern Europe. With the prevalence of the plant barilla in Southern Europe - an essential ingredient in the making of hard soap - the craft of hard soap making was quickly picked up by the Europeans and evolved into lucrative local soap making centers, like in Castilla, Spain and in Marseilles, France.

Why go through the trouble of making your own soap?
Not all soaps are made alike and unless you know what went in it many olive oil soaps might not be as healthy as you would wish. There are different grades of olive oil, depending on how it is processed. They all work for making soap, though I would advice to stay away from pomace olive oil. While this is cheapest, there is a reason! Pomace means that it is made of the solid remains of the olive including skins, pulp, seeds, and stems, and the amount of oil left is so minimal that it cannot be extracted by pressing, but only through the combined use of chemical solvents and extremely high heat. Cheap filler oils like canola and palm oil are also often included in modern castile soaps. In the case of palm oil: unless it is certified organic and sustainably farmed, I do not use it as standard production attributes to rainforest deforestation. Olive oil-only soaps are readily available from artisanal soap makers but sometimes it’s easier – and a lot more fun – to just go ahead and make your own!

Why make soap in a soda bottle?
The exothermic or heat creating reaction of dissolving lye crystals into water heats the water to (near) boiling and creates a lot of very dangerous caustic steam. Experienced soap makers learn how to work around this, either by making lye outdoors (and being upwind ourselves), by using (partially) frozen liquid, or by using ventilation. The soda bottle method keeps the steam contained as we wait for it to cool down and condense again. Steam, as it is a water vapor, or gas, takes up more room than liquid water, and in a confined area like a bottle will build up pressure. Soda bottles are designed to take this pressure, as long as there is enough space left in the bottle to do so. Using this technique anyone can make small amounts of hard soap without the need for specialized equipment. But do always keep your wits about, as lye will always be a potentially dangerous chemical.

Measuring out the lye, the soap bottle and the water are at the ready.
Measured the oil.
- 2 liter soda pop bottle, with lid.
- 5 gallon bucket
- Lye
- Water
- Ice cubes
- Olive oil
- Funnels (one for water, one for lye)
- Rubber spatula
- Scale, preferably digital.
- Paper Towels
- Household vinegar
- Rubber gloves
- Safety glasses

About the bottle:
PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are not specifically made for extreme temperatures; they are made to withstand pressure very well, and are easy to get as 2 liter soda pop bottles. PET plastic should not contain BPA but might contain traces due to the (recycled) manufacturing process. BPA is not food safe but only releases slowly from contaminated plastic under high temperatures, and while the lye creates high temperatures, it does so only for a short while.  To minimize heat, a bucket with ice water should be at the ready before mixing the lye water.

Do NOT OVERFILL the bottle. Stick to the recommended minimal amount of oil and lye. The empty space in the bottle is needed as a pressure chamber for heat expansion. The exothermic (heat creating) reaction of dissolving lye in water, heats the water to boiling and creates lots of steam. This steam is highly caustic and VERY dangerous, hence the closed-off bottle pressure chamber.

About the lye:
Up until recently, lye would be available in the household cleaning isle of the supermarket and hardware store. Alas, as it is used to make certain other stuff, this is no more. Do not buy liquid lye to make soap, as it is not possible to measure the amount of dissolved lye correctly, plus, there are additives added you do not want in your soap. Food grade lye can be bought over the internet and I get mine from here:

About Safety:
When working with sodium hydroxide lye ALWAYS wear SAFETY GLASSES. It is recommended to wear gloves, and always have household vinegar nearby for the unexpected splash or droplet. Wear closed shoes and long sleeves if possible.

For a nice amount of hard soap for personal use a 10 ounce olive oil batch works well.

Step by step:

  • Measure 10 weight ounces of (room temperature) olive oil.
  • Measure 1.26 ounces of lye.
  • Measure 2 ounces of cold water.

- Fill a 5 gallon bucket with a water and ice mixture.
- Add water to soda bottle with funnel.
- Slowly but steadily add lye crystals to water in bottle with the other dry funnel.
- When done, close lid immediately, and shake gently.
- Stick into ice-water right away when all the lye is dissolved.
- The bottle will start to fill with steam, get scorching hot and swell. Do not touch at the bottom! It should already be in the ice-water.
- After about 5-10 minutes check bottle.
- If the bottle’s bottom shrank, it could benefit from ice-water a little quicker next time.
- The steam should be condensing on the sides and run down in droplets.

 Water droplets condensing on the sides.

A slightly overheated shrunken soap bottle bottom.

- When the bottom of the bottle, with the liquid, feels not cold nor warm (body temperature, also called blood warm) it is time.
- Open bottle cap, and add oil to blood warm lye.

Oil sitting on top of lye water.

      All mixed up by shaking.

- And now it’s time to shake your booty! Do put the cap back on first.
- Shake, shake, and shake some more…
- When the soap starts to stick and coat the sides of the bottle like custard, it is good.

Raw soap at the ‘custard’ stage.

If you like, this is the moment you can pour the soap into a mold, or into a small water bottle to make soap rounds (for instance to make felted soap). Remove the top of the bottle first, and use a rubber spatula to get it all out.

If you do not intend to mold, remove the lid, set it somewhere safe and let it sit open until the sides of the soap are totally firm. Cut off the top of the bottle, and pop out your block of soap!

Cut your soap to size in a week or so (do not wait too long, olive soap is notorious for getting crumbly) Let the pieces dry on a cookie drying rack in a cool and dark place for a minimum of three weeks.

Tip: you can let the soap dry completely in the bottle, but make sure to remove the lid. If dried in a (partially) closed environment the soap can ‘sweat’ a little – this will either go away on its own, or you can dab it dry later with a paper towel.

As with all hand made soap, when in use place the soap on a draining soap dish to let dry in between uses and it will go a long way - a green Scotchbrite pad cut in half makes a fabulous cheap soap dish. As has been said: the longer it sits, the harder it gets, and the longer it stays!

Dunn, Kevin. Caveman Chemistry. Universal Publishers, 2003.
Dunn, Kevin. Scientific Soapmaking. Farmville, VA: Clavicula Press, 2010 (p.58)

About the safety of using plastic bottles:

About castile soap in general:

Creative Commons image;

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Root Beer - with some history

As a medieval reenactor, and brewer, I was unsurprisingly asked – begged! – by my kid to help him make root beer. We both quite like the taste of root beer, and the idea of going on a root-and-herb scavenger hunt in the back swamp spoke to both of us! The cunning plan was to have the kid enter his root beer in a brewing competition hosted by a medieval reenacting Society ( and thus he had to know at least some of its early history. But – how period is root beer? The two ingredients most often mentioned to make root beer are sarsaparilla and sassafras, so let’s first take a look at those.

sarsaparillaA Flora of the State of New York by John Torrey Vol

Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata; top) was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the Spaniards, first from Mexico and later from Honduras. Mexico, Central America and many parts of northern South America abound in various species of sarsaparilla, valued by the natives for their, more or less, medicinal qualities. The natives value its nourishing and healing qualities so much they would drive their cattle to areas where it grew in abundance in order to feed on the plants and receive its benefits.


Sassafras (Sassafras albidum; top) was a well-known plant to the natives of the southwestern United States way before the Europeans came around. It had many purposes, including cooking (to flavor bear fat, to cure meat) and medicinal. The European interest in sassafras brought Europeans into closer contact with the Native Americans during the early years of settlement in 16th and 17th century Florida, Virginia and parts of the Northeast. Early European settlers enjoyed the aromatic scent of sassafras – according to legend, Christopher Columbus finally found land because he could smell the sassafras! As early as the 1560s, French visitors to North America discovered the medicinal qualities of sassafras, as well as the Spanish who arrived in Florida.

Sassafras trees were reported as plentiful at the arrival of the English on the coast of Northeast. Sassafras bark was sold in England and in continental Europe where it was made into a dark beverage called ‘saloop’ – touted to have medicinal qualities and used as a medicinal cure for a variety of ailments. This refreshing beverage was sold in place of tea and coffee, which were much more expensive, and was served in a similar way with milk and sugar. Sir Francis Drake was one of the earliest to bring sassafras to England in 1586, and Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to commercially export sassafras in 1602. Since the bark was the most commercially valued part of the sassafras plant due to large concentrations of the aromatic safrole oil, the trees would be stripped of their bark  – which kills the tree. This meant that as significant amounts of sassafras bark were harvested, supplies quickly diminished and sassafras became more difficult to find. For example, while one of the first shipments of sassafras in 1602 weighed as much as a ton, by 1626, the English colonists failed to meet their 30-pound quota. Unfortunately, over-harvesting is not a modern thing either.

Martin Pring; in his own words (1603):
“In all these places we found no people, but signes of fires where they had beene. Howbeit we beheld very goodly Groves and Woods replenished with tall Okes, Beeches, Pine-trees, Firre-trees, Hasels, Wich-hasels and Maples. We saw here also sundry sorts of Beasts, as Stags, Deere, Beares, Wolves, Foxes, Lusernes, and Dogges with sharpe noses. But meeting with no Sassafras, we left these places with all the foresaid Ilands, shaping our course for Savage Rocke discovered the yeere before by Captaine Gosnold, where going upon the Mayne we found people, with whom we had no long conversation, because here also we could find no Sassafras. De-parting hence 3 we bare into that great Gulfe which Captaine Gosnold over-shot the yeere before, coasting and finding people on the North side thereof. […] Bancroft, following Belknap, identifies Whitson’s Bay with the harbor of Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, which is in the latitude of 41° 25g. […]and finding a pleasant Hill thereunto adjoyning, we called it Mount Aldworth, for Master Robert Aldworths sake a chiefe furtherer of the Voyage, as well with his Purse as with his travell. Here we had sufficient quantitie of Sassafras.”

Is root beer period plausible?

What this rather long introduction means is that both main root beer flavors – sarsaparilla and sassafras – were known in 16th century Europe, and at least sassafras was used in a drinkable medicinal concoction in Europe. Unfortunately, it was not (yet) fermented… The tradition of brewing, or fermenting, root beer is thought to have evolved out of other European small beer traditions that produced fermented drinks with very low alcohol content. These were thought to be healthier to drink than possibly tainted local sources of drinking water, and enhanced by the medicinal and nutritional qualities of the ingredients used. For instance, the 14th century recipe Tizanne Doulce (like a tisane, or infusion) uses barley, licorice root and crystal sugar to make a root beer-like beverage.

Le Ménagier de Paris, 1393
TIZANNE DOULCE. Take water and boil it, then for each sester [the sester of 8 pints] of water put in a bowl heaped with barley, and it matters not if it be hulls and all, and two parisis [2 1/2d.] worth of liquorice, item, figs, and let it be boiled till the barley bursts; then let it be strained through two or three pieces of linen, and in each goblet put great plenty of crystallised sugar. Then the barley is good to give to poultry to eat to fatten them. Note that the good liquorice is the newest and it is a fresh greenish colour, and the old is more faded and dead and is dry.


Roots, bark, resin, fruits & flowers

We chose these specific roots, barks and leaves as these either grew in the back yard (our property adjoins a New York State Protected Wetland, so plenty of bio-diversity) or we already had in the kitchen cupboards. Even though I met someone via Facebook who lived in the South and had a sassafras tree in his backyard and was willing to ship rootstock, unfortunately, facebook ate the conversation and he was never heard from again… so this time around, at least, no period-correct Southern grown sassafras. We substituted with black birch, as that has a root beer typical wintergreen-like flavor, and spicebush (bottom).

Spicebush or Lindera Benzoin.  Wm PC Barton. 

We went on a scavenger hunt and gathered as much as we could from the back yard and surrounding property. Ironically, it is in our modern middle Ages not possible to buy fresh, green licorice; therefor we’ll have to do with the ‘dead’ dry stuff. The kid made name cards to label each baggie of ingredients.

Backyard scavenger hunt with friend.

Our recipe

  • 0.6 oz black birch bark
  • 0.6 oz spicebush bark
  • 0.3 oz licorice root
  • 0.3 oz dandelion root
  • 0.3 oz birch bark
  • 0.3 oz black cherry bark (included resin)
  • 0.3 oz juniper berries
  • 1 tbs hops flowers
  • 1 tbs ginger root
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 ½ quart water
  • 1 cup sugar (brown sugar)
  • yeast starter (ale yeast, reclaimed from a perry).


Then it was time to brew! The kids scraped the bark off the wintergreen and spicebush twigs. He chopped the dandelion root and grated the ginger root. He broke the birch bark, the cherry bark and the dried licorice root into little pieces. He picked the juniper berries from between the greens. And crushed the cinnamon stick. Mom got homegrown hops from the freezer (he’s not touching the hops supply). He measured everything on the scale, and added it all to the big sauce pot. He measured and added the 2 ½ quarts of water. Turned on the stove, and brought it up to a boil. When boiling, it was turned down to a simmer, to simmer for 20 minutes. When done, mom put the pot in the sink in cold water to cool. The infusion was left to sit overnight.


The next day, he poured some reclaimed ale yeast into a 1 gallon carboy, and poured the infusion – through a filter – into the same carboy. He added 1 cup of sugar, for the yeast. He then shook the carboy well to dissolve all the sugar, and carefully poured the infusion into his recycled fliptop soda bottles. They were left in a warm place to start fermentation. They will stay out for a few days, until carbonation is visible, and then be refrigerated to stop/slow down the yeast.

A table showing the different botanicals that can be used in root-beer (X marks the ones we used):

Roots and herbs

Sassafras albidum – roots, leaves, bark
Pimenta dioica – allspice

Smilax ornata sarsaparilla X Juniperus communis – juniper berries

Smilax glyciphylla – sweet sarsaparilla
Trigonella foenum-graecum – fenugreek

Piper auritum – root beer plant
Myroxylon balsamum – Tolu balsam
X Glycyrrhiza glabra – liquorice (root)
Abies balsamea – balsam fir

Aralia nudicaulis – wild sarsaparilla
Myristica fragrans – nutmeg

Gaultheria procumbens – wintergreen (leaves and berries) X Cinnamomum verum – cinnamon (bark)
X Betula lenta – sweet birch (sap/syraup/resin)
Cinnamomum aromaticum – cassia (bark)
X Betula nigra – black birch (sap/syrup/resin)
Syzygium aromaticum – clove
X Prunus serotina – black cherry
Foeniculum vulgare – fennel (seed)

Picea rubens – red spruce X Zingiber officinale – ginger (stem/rhizome)

Picea mariana – black spruce
Illicium verum – star anise

Picea sitchensis – Sitka spruce
Pimpinella anisum – anise

Arctium lappa – burdock (root) X Humulus lupulus – hops (bells/flowers)
X Taraxacum officinale – dandelion (root)
Mentha species – mint

Other ingredients

Hordeum vulgare – barley (malted)

Hypericum perforatum – St. John's wort

X Sugar


X Yeast

Note: black birch and the evergreen Gaultheria are both sources for the scent wintergreen.
Note: while in medieval European brewing Juniperus communis was used, as we have several mature trees of Juniperus virginiana we used that instead. Like its European counterpart, Virginian juniper is also used to flavor gin.

Medieval European plausibility of our chosen ingredients: [yes / no]

black birch bark wh eastern North America no
spicebush bark wh eastern North America no
dandelion root wh native to Eurasia and North America yes
birch bark wh native to Eurasia and North America yes
black cherry bark wh eastern North America, Central America no
juniper berries hg native to Eurasia and North America yes
hops flowers hg introduced to northern Europe in the 9th century yes
licorice root cs native to southern Europe and parts of Asia yes
ginger root cs exported to EU via India in the first century AD yes
cinnamon stick cs exported to EU via Africa (Egypt) from Sri Lanka yes

Legenda – wh: wild harvested; hg: home grown; cs: commercially sourced


  • this is an excellent youth-adult project!
  • neither of us liked the licorice after-taste.
  • next time we intend to add burdock, and maybe some mint, or anise – the possibilities are endless!
  • only add a little bit of lees. There is plenty of yeast in even a little bit to start fermentation.
  • if using commercial dry (bread) yeast, a pinch to each bottle is enough.
  • as soon as vigorous carbonation is visible on the outside of the bottles, put them in the fridge.
  • just in case, have a large container ready when opening the flip-top to catch any overly-carbonated blow-out.
  • fermented root beer will go alcoholic eventually – keep an eye on the brew so the kids don’t get too frisky.
  • alcoholic root beer tastes quite good!

And as Sir Kenelme Digby so aptly advised, in his slightly post-period brewing cornucopia:
“You may use what Herbs or Roots you please, either for their tast or vertue…”


Monday, April 30, 2018

Interesting historic brewing blogs

Inn of Bards Rest
Historical research on Beverages and Tavern Life

Brewing Nordic
Exploring the Past, Present and Future of Nordic Beer

'Zee-tho-fyle', by Martyn Cornell, an award-winning blog about beer now and then


A Friend In Mead
Master Madoc Arundel's SCA Brewing Blog

The Draughts are Deep
Master Magnús hvalmagi's quest for the mead of wisdom

Ancient malt and ale
an archaeologist, a brewer and a blog about how the ale was made

Misha's Brewing
Homebrew, Homestead, History and How-to.

Jordan Rex
Beer archaeologist

Literature. Drinking. 【文飲】
Reconstructing Medieval Chinese Wine

Mythbusting medieval brewing preconceptions

You probably have heard them too, those hard-to-check factoids of medieval life. Medieval people had no concept of hygiene. They were dirty people who never bathed as nobody washed themselves in the Middle Ages. The drinking water was so disgusting they drank beer like water. Honey could only be harvested by killing the whole hive. Or, medieval beer was always sour, and flat to boot. It might make us Modern people feel good we know 'better' than our uneducated ancestors, although not all 'facts' are as factual as one might think...

A handful of common misconceptions about medieval brews:

#1 Medieval braggot is a malted mead

Modern braggot is a type of mead which gets its fermentable sugars both from honey and from barley malt, typically between 30 to 50%. In history, the definition of a braggot seems to be quite different. The 14th century recipe Ad faciendum brakott from Curye on Inglysch uses already fermented ale from grains used twice; a second run, which would be weaker and benefit from the extra honey sugars. The Customs of London and The Haven of Health and The Jewel House of Art and Nature al use already fermented ale as well. The Haven of Health adds barm at the end to start secondary fermentation and The Jewell House of Art and Nature recommends strong new ale, which would also re-ferment by adding more sugars, i.e. back-sweetening with honey. As historic recipes request ale (fermented) and not malt (before fermentation), even though secondary fermentation is often part of the process, it seems medieval braggot was most likely a back-sweetened spiced ale. The abundant use of spices similar to spiced wine - like pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon - also makes a good case for period braggot to be more akin to hippocras (sweetened and spiced wine) than to malted mead, and the whole process might have had more to do with keeping turned ale drinkable …

The Customs of London, otherwise called Arnold’s Chronicle, 1503.
For Braket. Take a pott of good ale and put therto a porcion of hony and peper in this maner, when thou hast good ale let it stone in a pot ij. Daies and thā drawe out a quarte or a potell of that ale and put to the hony and set it ouer the fire and lete it seethe well and take it of the fire and scinne it clene and than put thertoo the peper and thē set hē on the fire and lete hem boyle wel togedur with esy fir; but peper take iiij. gallons of good ale a pynte of fyn tried hony and the mountenaunce off saucer full of poud’ of pepper, &ct.

The only recipe which seemingly makes malted mead is the 14th century recipe To make fyn meade & poynaunt. Here malt, extra honey, and spices are added to previously fermented fresh mead; in essence making malted mead - but it is pointedly not labeled as a braggot.

10 To make fine mead & poignant.
Take 20 gallons of the previously mentioned pomys cooked in 3 gallons of fine wort, & take 1 gallon of life honey & simmer it well & scum it well until it is clear enough; & add to it 3 pennyworth powder of pepper & 1 pennyworth powder of cloves & let it boil well together. & when it is cold put it into the vessel of the barreled up previously mentioned mead; add it to it, & close it well as it is said before.

#2 Beer, including medieval beer, is made with barley

Depending on where the beer is made, it is made with whatever was easiest to grow locally, or most affordable to import. For instance, during the Dark Ages in the Low Countries this meant mostly oats, with some wheat, as seen in this 1366 recipe from Gouda, the Netherlands, which uses 45 measures oats with 9 measures wheat, and no barley. Not until the middle Ages did barley make an appearance, and even then only as the third grain in the overall grain bill.

1373 - City ordinances of Breda, concerning the beers of Delft, the Netherlands. “Also it is ordained by the lord and the city, that if the beer comes from Delft, the total brew being 20 to 18 full barrels is done with 17 bags of malt of the measurements of Delft, this being six bags of wheat, three bags of barley, and eight bags of oats of the same weight, as used in Delft.” 

While oats were readily available in the middle Ages, brewing with it had a few drawbacks. Oat starch does not convert as easily into fermentable sugars as other grains. It also can not be malted. The malting process of sprouting the grain for it to release the starch-converting enzymes makes oats too soft to be milled. During the steep milled malted oats turn into mush and are then impossible to filter back out. The medieval solution was to use unmalted oats, and to add at least 25% of another grain that was malted, to supply the needed enzymes for sugar conversion (similar to the modern practice of decoction brewing). This explains why on average the medieval grain bill was about 60-70% rolled oats, 10-20% malted wheat and 15-25% malted barley. Using oats, even with its brewing drawbacks, could have been for the practical reason that malting used significant resources, including time, a sprouting floor and a malting oven, and that this way only 25% of the grain bill had to undergo the malting process.

The availability of grains also depended on whether or not the country was in war or had suffered a bad harvest. In years of need, certain grains would be reserved for baking only, to feed the population: “Ergo nobody make malt with rye, nor brew any beer, on a fine of 3 pounds, all this without argue.”

#3 Wort has to be boiled to make beer

In a way, this is true, if the word beer is taken to mean only hopped beer. If it means any grain beverage, then it is not, as ale can easily be made without boiling the must. Wort is made by adding warm water to crushed malted, and unmalted, grains, making a mash. The sprout starches and enzymes leach out and during the warm steep the enzymes convert starches into fermentable sugars. This sugary mixture is called the wort. It is possible in early medieval brewing the wort was only heated shortly and not boiled at all, as the step of mashing and heating would happen in the same vessel and thus include all the grains (boiling often turns grain to pulp). Due to the introduction of hops in later medieval brewing, a separation of the mashing and boiling step was necessary as hops needs to be boiled for an hour or more to benefit from its preservative effects.

#4 Medieval beer is flat

Medieval beer, and ale, was stored in wooden barrels that do not contain carbonation well after active fermentation stopped. But as un-hopped ale did not store well either - it would spoil rather quickly - it was possible to prime the ale during barreling, to have a carbonated brew until it did spoil. The brew needed to be consumed quickly, before the back-fermentation ran out, and made for delightfully carbonated sweet & sour ale.

Nimweeghse Mol is first encountered as geremol in 1519 and quickly became a successful export product of the 16th century city of Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Excerpt of a 17th century recipe for Mol: “evaporate [the second run or naebier/near-beer] until it is thick as syrup, and store this until 1/2 hour before one goes barreling-up, then add the thick beer as a syrup and barrel up 1/2 an hour after this.

#5 Medieval beer was sour

Wort exposed to the air will more often than not ‘catch’ more than plain yeast and develop a sour taste due to infections with lactobacillis or brettanomyces. The recipe above shows that, at least by the early Renaissance, sweet & sour ale was made for consumption. The reputation of gruit ale as ‘sweet and heavy ale’ also indicates sweet beer was not unheard off.

#6 Malt extract is a modern invention

Brewing ale or beer with a malt extract is not a modern invention at all. It is quite possible it goes back all the way to the Dark Ages! Brewing solely relying on malt extract, as in, not using any wort made by infusing grains; that is a modern process made possible by the commercial canning industry. The Dutch beer Mol uses evaporated near-beer syrup to make a carbonated sweet & sour beer. English Grout Ale brewers used a similar concentrated malt (or, malt extract) to enrich their brew. The ingredient grout was thought by the English brewers to work as a ferment in the process of brewing, and was thought to make a better, sweeter, high alcoholic beer; a sentiment quite reminiscent with Dark Age gruit brewers.

“English ale is made althus: Take two hundred pound cooked malt / that is wort / two handfuls hop: when that has cooked together and is poured through [filtered off] / one would also mix it together / as has been said above / to know yeast of beer or ale three pounds / and English grout / which we call naerbier / six to eight pounds.”

A 16th century recipe for grout instructs as follows:
“Graut and Naerbier is made althus / said Lobel: take six or eight pounds of milled malt / twelve or fifteen pounds of seething hot water: mix this together well six times a day: cover very well with cloths and straw: and let it soak together so long in a clean barrel that it becomes as thick as syrup. After that one should heat this up with fire / always diligently stirring / so that it does not burn [to the bottom] / until it becomes as thick as porridge.

#7 Medieval mead (or mead in general) is sweet

The popularity of mead waned in the latter part of medieval Europe as the production of honey slowed and prices rose. Due to the increase in availability of cheap wine - by the 14th century a gallon of mead was three times more expensive than a gallon of imported wine - likely only the monasteries and great houses, who kept their own beegardens, could afford to make mead. In southern Europe, where grapes were cultivated, wine became economically more important and elsewhere beer finally supplanted mead. The only wines with which mead could rival were the expensive sweet Southern European wines like Vernage and Malmsey and thus it came about that the dry wine-like mead as it was known then - very good mead was equated with clear, old wine in old medieval leechdoms - became more akin to a sweet sack mead.  

From the Norse Edda’s come two mentions of aged mead (as opposed to young mead):

“Hail rather to thee, youth! and accept an icy cup, filled with old mead; although I thought not that I ever should love one of Vanir race.”
“Hail to thee, Loki! and this cool cup receive, full of old mead: at least me alone - among the blameless Æsir race - leave stainless.”

#8 Medieval mead is made by boiling a hive, bees and all!

According to the medieval & Renaissance printed books, processed honey was valued depending on how it would be removed from the comb: unprocessed ‘life honey’ would be of highest value, that which would easily be leaked out and strained when breaking up or crushing the comb cell structure would be second quality, with third being the washing of the leaked combs in heated water whereby the leftover and crystallized honey dissolves but the wax is not melted. A waste grade would be to squeeze the washed combs with a twisted bag press to get the last little bits of liquid out. Most texts are clear on the value and quality of life honey or first-kind honey, though some are more frugal than others with the leftovers. Thomas Hyll in his 1579 A Profitable Instruction is impatient to let the honey run out by itself and advises, to expedite the process, to press the combs with a heavy weight: “whiche lette lye there, vntil the hony by little and little be run forth, or rather for the more expedition, pressed forthe with a heauy waighte, and the same which is then come forth, is very faire rawe hony” and feels he still gets very fair raw honey.
Butler in Feminine Monarchie lists several techniques to remove honey but feels that pressing goes too far “& some (which is worse) doe violently presse it out. But by these means they shal have no fine & pure raw hony, howsoever afterward they handle it.” He advocates a combination of crushing, after having caught all the life honey, by “pound with a pestle, or crush often with your hands al to pieces, & let it run as before”, and soaking “set it in some vessel over a soft fire, and stil keep your hand in the vessel stirring about the honie and the wax, and opening the wax piece-meale until the hony and not the wax shal be molten: and then powre out all into a strainer, & wring out the hony” and mixes the two to raise the quality of the latter “but thus this good hony wil become but course: and therefore put it to the second shoot”.

Thus, according to these books, honey is not removed from the hive, or the comb, by boiling, but by a gentle rinse. Not until the honey is intended for mead making is it to be boiled, especially honey of a lesser quality. Heresbach mentions in his Fovre Bookes of Hvsbandriethe Honey that is of the worst making, is to be boiled” but as he does not explain what to use this boiled honey for, it is unclear if he means this for fermentation (as honey is often clarified through boiling prior to fermentation), cooking, or something else. Butler also mentions boiling low quality or coarse honey “The coarse honey being boiled and clarified has a most pleasant & delicate tast” indicating clarification betters the taste of the honey to then brew with it: “having boiled and scummed it, put it to your brewlock.” But be aware, even Butler was aware too much (or too high) heating evaporates the volatile fragrances “overmuch boiling consumes the spirittuous parts of the honey, and turnes the sweet tast into bitter” which puts to the question the modern practice of literally boiling honey for an extended time…

#9 Melomels are a modern thing

The historic recipes found show that honey would most often be used to brew plain mead, spiced metheglin or honeyed-ale braggot. The combination of honey, fermentation and different kinds of fruit juice is known, though the practice is not common enough yet to have coined our modern terms melomel (for fruit mead), cycer (for apple mead) or pyment (for grape mead). While melomeli was known to the Romans as a wine made from honey and fruit juices, and the word possibly came by the Greek melimelon or melomeli for apple-honey or tree fruit-honey, it does not seem to have been adopted into the English language as such until well after the middle Ages.

Of course, fermenting with fruit, an easy to come by sugar often with their own ambient yeast strains, is not at all uncommon and fruit wines were known to be made by settlers of the foothills of the Alps as early as 2000 BCE from wild grapes, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, bittersweet nightshade and cornelian cherries. Cider and perry, or fermented plain apple and pear juice, are also well known and mentioned in numerous historic texts, including the Bible - and in “without sider and wyn and meeth men and wommen myght lyve full long”, quoted from Peacock, 1449. The combination of fruit juice and honey might not have been common practice, but thankfully for us re-enacting melomel enthusiasts a tiny handful of interesting examples does exist. This could be attributed to the medieval idea that while honey and its many products were regarded as healthy and medicinal, fruit was not as such, as voiced by Thomas Cogan “considering that fruites doe ingender ill humours” in his Haven of Health.

The one and only book listing brewing recipes using honey and fruit (a whopping 2 recipes) is the 16th century beekeeping manual Van de Byen (About Bees). Not only does the recipe below make plausible the use of fruit in medieval mead, it also validates the method of adding fruit juice in secondary fermentation. Modern brewers often prefer to brew plain mead first and add fruit juice only after fermentation slows down, about a month later, to make sure most of the fruit flavor is saved for the end product. Otherwise, the yeast will eat the fruit sugars first, and start on the honey sugars only after the fruit sugars are all consumed, resulting in a plain(er) mead.

Van de Byen by Theodorus Clutius, 1597.
To make red wine-like honey-water. Take of the mead of the two types mentioned above 64. stoopen / add 16. stoop juice of amarellen [sour, dark red cherries with long stems] / another two stoop honey / mix this together and set it to rise as above. This wine-like honey-water is very good against fever / and those anguished with excess heat / against defects of the brain / and one can use it instead of wine / for those whom wine is forbidden. At such days one can also make wine-like water with the juice of red currants / red and black cherries / also of grapes / apples / and pears / always add in the proportions of the amarellen / as is previously explained.

Bonus: #10 Did specialty honey exist back then?

As an endnote, a small tidbit on specialty honey. Varietal honey is occasionally mentioned in medieval sources, like lavender honey, but mostly in the context of cooking and cosmetics. As honey bees forage on anything flowering within range, even modern varietal honey only means that at that specific time and place, most of the plants flowering were such-and-such. And if unknown? That’s where ‘wild flower’ honey comes from… Varietal honey is possible due to mono-cultivation, which, apart from extensive French lavender fields, is not typically associated with medieval agriculture.
       Out of all the recipes I’ve seen, I came across only one medieval recipe from the Netherlands (undated) which lists honey specifically from the ‘lis’ (likely the gele lis, or yellow iris; Iris pseudacorus). It is questionable if this single recipe indicates specialty honey would have been available and used in brewing in medieval times, or if it truly is an anomaly…

382. To make mead, take 22 stoops water, and add therin 3 quarters Iris [Iris pseudacorus] virgin honey, when it is dissolved, let is simmer and scum well, and then add 2 stoop water and scum well; add therein another 2 stoop water and scum well; then it shall be 29 stoop and let it simmer down to 26 stoop; and let it shrink another 2 stoop; then it shall be good mead of 2 inghelsen [?].

May the Sources be with you… the experimental brewer!





Flat & Sour
  • Ferro, Rudolf Nunes. Een verloren gewaand bierrecept herondekt. De berijdingswijze van de Nijmeegse Mol. Jaarboek Numaga 41, 1994.
  • Wubs-Mrozewicz, Justyna. Hopped Beer as an Innovation. Trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange. Continuity and change in the North Sea area and the Baltic c. 1350-1750. Hanno Brand (Editor). Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2005.
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. The Rise and Fall of Gruit. 2018.

Malt extract
  • Karkeel, Paul Q. White Ale. Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art. Vol. IX. Plymouth: W. Brendon & Son, 1877 (p. 192).
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. The Rise and Fall of Gruit. 2018.

Sweet mead
  • Anderson, Rasmus B. (Editor). The Elder Edda’s of Saemund Sigfusson (translated by Benjamin Thorpe). The Younger Edda’s by Snorre Sturleson (translated by I.A. Backwell). London: Norroena Society, 1906 (p. 77, 93).
·       Kritsky, Gene. Beekeeping from Antiquity through the Middle Ages. The Annual Review of Entomology 62:249–64, 2017 (p. 253).
  • McGovern, Patrick. Uncorking the Past. The Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages. California: University of California Press, 2009 (p. 238).
  • Gayre, Robert. Wassail! In Mazers of Mead. Colorado, US: Brewers Publications, 1986 (p. 101-04, 202).
·       Crane, Eva. Mead. Wine and Food (49) 30-34, 1950. Eva Crane Trust (p. 31-32).

Specialty honey
  • Vreese, 100 Middelnederlandsche geneeskundige recepten en tractaten, zegeningen en tooverformules (Medieval Dutch healing recipes and manuscripts, blessings and magical formulas). The handwritten manuscript itself is part of the collection of the Royal Flemish Academy (Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie) in Gent.
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. Of hony. A collection of Mediaeval Brewing Recipes. 2017.