Beer, worts and all


ale (eil) An alcoholic drink made from fermented cereal grains, esp. barley.
[Old English - alu, ealu, Old Saxon - alofat]

Mesopotamian texts, dating back over 5,000 years ago, refer to 19 different types of beer, brewed from barley, wheat, and various aromatic plants which were used for their flavouring and preservative qualities.

When the Romans came to Britain they brought with them the many types of wine to which they were accustomed. After they left to return to Rome, various tribes flooded into Britain from the continent, bringing with them their own culture, farming methods, and brewing techniques.

The Benedictine monks of the 7th century were great drinkers of wine, and also mead, made from fermented honey. They believed that a pint of wine a day was an acceptable amount, and not at all excessive.

The Saxon farmers of Stonyford would have grown barley in long cultivated strips of land, and without a doubt, they would have drunk an ale made from their produce. (Our modern usage noun "brewer" is derived from the Old Saxon word "brewan") This ale would have been very unlike the ales or beers we are used to today. It would have been a cloudy ale, an ale in which the sweetness of the malt was balanced by the addition of bitter herbs. It would have been a strong tasting ale, a real ale, a man’s ale, an ale to put hair on your chest……, and in all likelihood, it would have been brewed by the women of the village. The practice of brewing beer was a mainly female occupation right up to the most recent of times.

Whereas drinking ale today is regarded as a social pastime, Saxon ale would also have been produced as a source of protein and as a part of the normal diet. Because the ale was unfiltered and the use of fining agents for ale brewing was a much later procedure, the ale would have had proteins and debris left from the mashing process hanging in suspension, making it a very cloudy and murky brew, but an excellent source of nourishment.
Does anyone remember the old Mackeson slogan? "It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good!". Mackeson and other beers like it were "stout" ales which, apart from meaning some of the malt used to make it had been very darkly toasted, giving the resulting brew it’s lush dark colour, it also meant that it was unfiltered and hadn't been through any fining process, leaving the yeast and malt residues hanging in suspension

Stonyford’s early brewers would have been situated right on the banks of the River Don, an area long since reshaped after the digging of the canal and Vermuyden’s reworking of the river Don, but the river would have provided the perfect water for brewing ale.
The grains would have been "malted", that is allowed to sprout and then roasted in an oven. This turned all of the starch in the grains into sugar, which would then be extracted in a process known as mashing. In this procedure the malted grains are simmered in hot water in a large vessel, usually made of copper. The temperature in those days being accurately judged by the brewer’s elbow, the mashing process was carried out at around 66C, for at least one and a half hours. The resulting sugar laden liquid would be called the "wort". The wort was then boiled thoroughly, which would sterilise the liquid prior to a yeast been introduced once the wort had cooled.
Many different types of bitter herbs were added to the boiling wort to balance the sweetness of the malt. It would be over a thousand years before the use of hops became commonplace.


The humble hop plant - Humulus Lupulus
It is believed that hopped beer was unheard of in England until soldiers returning from Europe after taking part in the Crusades in the 1400’s demanded beers brewed with hops. While visiting foreign parts they had drunk the European ale, which we now call lager. This beer was strongly flavoured with hops, probably of varieties we now know as Halertau and Saaz. The first hops were imported by traders from Flanders, but hop growing soon became a major concern, particularly in Kent.
Of course, not everyone was happy with the arrival of "this noxious weed", as it was once described. Prior to the arrival of the hop plant, monks had brewed mead and other drinks made from their own produce, which of course provided them with extra income.

They used a variety of herbs and spices to flavour their brews and were reluctant to use a weed which they recognised as been related to the cannabis producing hemp plant.
The beers we are used to today are flavoured with home produced varieties of hops which have wonderful names, such as Fuggles, Bramling Cross and Goldings.

After fermentation, the ale would be sealed in stone jars or wooden containers and self condition for a further few weeks before being ready to drink.


In the days before commercial beers underwent such vigorous filtering methods, bottled beers would remain murky throughout the first few days after bottling. Gradually the beer would clear as the remaining sugars carried on fermenting with the still live yeast. The liquid would absorb carbon dioxide, produced along with alcohol during fermentation, and the spent yeast and other organic substances would fall to the bottom of the bottle, creating a layer of sediment. Such was the value placed on the supposed healthy benefits of this sediment that for a long time the last part of the poured ale was referred to as "the brewers inch". This time, between bottling and the ale being ready to drink, is known as "conditioning".

From Saxon times, right through to the middle ages, most of the ale would have been brewed and served at the brewer’s home. However, with the coming of the traders from the Isle of Axholme and Thorne who carried their goods along the River Don on their way to Doncaster Market, there would have been great need for an establishment dealing with the purveyance of alcoholic beverages.

Beside being a source of income for the brewer and his/her family, which would attract visiting traders and other clientele, the sale of ale and beer would also have attracted the tax man.


The Tax Man Cometh!
As with all good things, successive governments would soon want to place a price on the enjoyment of the populace.
Local governments would set up a person to act as "ale conner", from Old English connere - "one who tests", in order to collect tax.
Ale was taxed on it’s strength, which was somewhat awkward since the measuring devices of the Customs & Excises were a long way off.
A far more accurate way to the judge the strength of an ale was to test the amount of sugar contained in the wort before fermentation, because it is the fermented sugars which produce the alcohol in the finished brew.
The ale conner would enter the establishment armed with tools of his trade - a pot to drink from and a pair of leather breeches.
Wort was poured onto any available flat surface, and then the ale conner would sit in it while he drank his ale. The strength of the wort was determined by the degree of stickiness affecting the conner’s leather breeches and the sugary surface, which was measured after a certain length of time had elapsed. The stickier the wort, the higher the predicted alcohol content.
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