~ “The past is a foreign country.” ~
You might have ended up here thinking this post was going to be about barley wines, Belgian quads, barrel-aged imperial stouts, or winter warmers. It’s not, much as I enjoy those typically malty styles. My apologies. Blame it on a piece I wrote a few years back called “When Once They Drank Beer Warm.” My enthusiasm for introducing readers to a nearly forgotten past did not mesh well with the timing of the piece. (Read: not an inordinate number of page views.) You see, I posted this article about warm beer at the height of summer. Who in this day and age wants to contemplate warm beer when the temperatures say beach and biking? But with a good two months’ worth of cold weather on the horizon, now might not be a bad time to revisit the past and cook up a tankard or two of warmed and spiced ale to parry the cold. So buckle up for a journey into the brave old world of warm beer concoctions, along with several recipes sure to expand what you thought possible of those aforementioned winter warmers.
John Bickerdyke begins Chapter XIV, “Beverages Compounded of Ale or Beer,” of his 1889 work, The Curiosities of Ale and Beer, with the following observation:
“Very few people, when warming themselves in the winter months with Mulled Ale, know that they are quaffing a direct descendant of that famous liquor known to our forefathers as the Wassail-Bowl, and near akin to Lambs-Wool, of which Herrick wrote in his Twelfth Night:
Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle Lambs wooll*,
Adde sugare and nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too
And thus ye must doe,
To make the Wassaile a swinger.’”
*Lambswool is one of the traditional drinks of the Wassail and was made with sweet, spiced hot ale or cider and roasted apples.
That Bickerdyke could assume his audience would be warming themselves with mulled ale is indicative of just how much our attitudes have changed regarding the “proper” consumption of beer in the intervening space of a mere 125 years, especially concerning temperature.
Bickerdyke was not alone. Published a year earlier than Bickerdyke’s Curiosities, W.T. Marchant’s In Praise of Ale dedicates an entire chapter to warm ale. Here, Marchant references a work published some two hundred years before his own, the title of which bears clear witness to the author’s attitudes regarding cold beer: A Treatise of Warm Beer, Wherein is declared by many reasons that Beer so qualified is farre more wholesome than that which is drunk cold (1641).
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Given the ample references to the deleterious effects of cold beverages in these older sources in conjunction with encomia lauding the benefits of warm beer for health, countenance, and constitution, it’s not surprising that recipes for warm ale and beer concoctions abound in the days before the arrival of cleaner water supplies and more reliably consistent (and industrialized) methods of beer production.
Hold my warm beer … …
* * *
Why warm beer now, winter weather notwithstanding? In his socio-cultural history in the form of a book about beer and ballads, Marchant lamented that “the making of these warm, comforting, and invigorating drinks has become all but a lost art” (Marchant, 606). Books are a form of cultural memory, and beer books are no different. Writing in the waning years of the nineteenth century, Marchant was attempting to preserve a long history of sociality that barely survived the Industrial Revolution. And even if history is, in many ways, about preservation, it is also about sensitizing us to difference –– cultural difference, political difference, differences in traditions and mores, and, yes, differences in beer drinking customs largely unfamiliar to us. (Warm beer, anyone?) Though the echo of this history resonates in some culinary circles enthusiastic about keeping old drinking traditions alive, these seemingly foreign traditions are almost all but forgotten among the wider public of beer enthusiasts.
So why did warmed beer beverages nearly fade into oblivion? Why is this past so foreign to us drinkers of cold beer? Refrigeration, a late nineteenth-century invention, may have had something to do with it. Beyond that, Gregg Smith, author of Beer in America: The Early Years, maintains that enough circumstantial evidence supports the notion that beer-based mixed drinks were a means of saving beer that had gone awry. “As brewing’s raw materials, equipment, instruments, procedures, and science advanced in the 1800s, beer mixed drinks […] all but disappeared” (Smith, 224). Writing over a century earlier about lambswool and the Wassail Bowl, Bickerdyke wryly notes the following:
“It can easily be understood that when ale was for the most part brewed without hops, and consequently rather insipid in taste, many people would have a craving for something more highly flavoured, and would put nutmeg, ginger, and other spices into their liquor. It is not unlikely that the introduction of hops was the cause which ultimately led to beer cups going out of fashion” (Bickerdyke, 381).
In other words, sugar and spice were very nice in times when home- or tavern-brewed beers were of wildly varying quality and the ale preceding hopped beer was “rather insipid in taste.”
* * *
The metaphorical shelves of books by late nineteenth-century writers like Marchant and Bickerdyke are stocked with a curiosity cabinet’s worth of drinks awaiting the intrepid contemporary beer enthusiast on a quest for novelty in the past. Here are a few recipes for your historical cocktail hour, straight from these pages. (Of note: Should you venture to try these at home, I’d opt for malty beers over hoppy ones.)
Rum Fustian. A night cap prepared in the same way as posset (discussed in my next piece), with subtle differences. Combine “the yokes of twelve eggs, a quart of strong home-brewed beer, a bottle of white wine, half a pint of gin, a grated nutmeg, the juice from the peel of a lemon, a small quantity of cinnamon, and sugar sufficient to sweeten it.” (Marchant, 607). Oddly, no rum.
Lambswool. A drink that has absolutely nothing to do with the wool of little lambs, and plenty to do with roasted apples. Authors differ on when the roasted apple should be added to the beverage. Smith states that “apples were […] roasted until the skins burst and were added to the warm beer mixture before serving” (Smith, 223) — possibly a colonial American variation on a British theme. Bickerdyke suggests the following means of preparing lambswool:
“To make this beverage, mix the pulp of half a dozen roasted apples with some raw sugar, a grated nutmeg, and a small quantity of ginger; add one quart of strong ale made moderately warm. Stir the whole together, and, if sweet enough, it is fit for use. This mixture is sometimes served up in a bowl, with sweet cakes floating in them” (Bickerdyke, 382).
As for the rather curious name? Bickerdyke and others trace it back to an ancient Celtic pagan festival called La Mas Ubal (The Day of Apple-Fruit), which was held on the first day of November. La Mas Ubal was pronounced lamasool, which was eventually corrupted by the countryfolk into lambswool, the beverage for the feast day bearing its name.
Warm Ale Cup. “One quart of ale, one glass of brandy, two glasses of sherry, and a quarter of a pound of lump sugar. Spice according to the palate. Boil the sugar in half the ale, and then mix the whole together” (Marchant, 608).
Freemasons’ Cup (served hot or cold). Combine Scotch ale with a similar quantity of mild beer, half a pint of brandy, a pint of sherry, half a pound of sugar loaf, and plenty of grated nutmeg. Ever the wag, Bickerdyke quips that “freemasons must have strong heads” (Bickerdyke, 391).
Buttered Ale. Marchant cites a seventeenth-century traveler to England who wrote the following: “In the evening, the English take a certain beverage which they call buttered ale, composed of cinnamon, sugar, butter, and beer brewed without hops” (Marchant, 612).
Braggot. Last but not least, braggot. Writes Chaucer of this elixir in his Miller’s Tale:
“Hire mouth was as sweete as braket or the meth*” (cited in Bickerdyke, 380).
*“Meth” here refers to metheglin, a type of mead.
Braggot is a beverage of great antiquity and has gone by many names, including bragawd, braket, bragget, and braga. The latter is of Nordic origin, and is derived from the name of one of the mythological gods of the Edda. The drink’s iterations over the years are no less diverse. With characteristic wit, Bryckendyke observes that “to define Bragot with any degree of preciseness would be as difficult as to give an accurate definition of ‘soup’” (Bickerdyke, 379).
Marchant furnishes us with a recipe of suitable vintage, “The Crafte for Braket”:
“When thou hast good ale, draw out a quart of it and put it to the honey, and set it over the fyre, and let it seethe well, and take it off the fyre and scume it well, and so again, and then let it keel a whyle, and put thereto the peper, and set him on the fyre, and let him boyle together, with esy fyre, but clere. To four gallons of good ale put a pynte of fyne tried honey and a saucerfull of poudre of peper*. (Marchant, 606).
*As far as I can make out, “poudre of peper” possibly refers to the medieval spice blends “poudre forte” (a spice blend based on cinnamon, clove, and black pepper) or “poudre douce” (similar to poudre forte, but with ginger and without black pepper). Unsurprisingly, like gruit, the variations were manifold. The spice retailer World Spice Merchants adds Grains of Paradise to its poudre forte.
* * *
Remember those winter warmers I mentioned at the outset? In the absence of anything but anecdotal evidence, I don’t think it would be a stretch to claim that the concoctions I have described here were the inspiration for many a contemporary spiced beer fit for winter evenings by the fire. In the same spirit of preservation and historical archeology evinced by the likes of W.T. Marchant and John Bickerdyke, I hope to have opened a small window onto an almost forgotten drinking past by offering you this small compendium of recipes.
Stay tuned for Part II, which gives you a taste of the origins of early American drinking history, itself borne out of the spirit of these drinking customs of Olde Albion. Here’s to keeping the cold at bay!
W.T. Marchant, In Praise of Ale, Or, A Compendium of Songs, Ballads, Epigrams, and Anecdotes Relating to Beer, Malt, and Hops, with Some Curious Particulars Concerning Ale-Wives and Brewers, Drinking-Clubs and Customs (London: George Redway, York Street, Covent Garden, 1888).
John Bickerdyke, The Curiosities of Ale and Beer: An Entertaining History (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1889).
Gregg Smith, Beer in America: The Early Years, 1587–1840 (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 1998).
The Oakden Traditional Cookware blog.
Pinzgauer Alps: F.D. Hofer
Jan Luyken, The Brewer (1694): Brookston Beer Bulletin
Marchant title page photo: F.D. Hofer
Engraving from title page of the 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt’s Ein new Kochbuch: Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877
Simon A. Eugster, Cinnamon: sticks (ceylon cinnamon from Sri Lanka), powder, and flowers. Created from 31 images stacked with CombineZP. Wikimedia/Wiki Commons.
Honey photo: organics.org
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