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The town and country brewer

Marc Meltonville FSA, Consultant Food Historian, visits the Museum periodically to interpret historic food and drink – recently mostly drink

‘Food Historian’ is the sort of job that causes trouble at dinners and drinks parties. When asked, “What do you do?” you are expected to give a simple answer such as ‘Digital retail sales management’, allowing your inquisitor to move quickly on to, “and where did you go for your holiday?” ‘Food Historian’ gets you blank stares, mostly followed by, “is that a real job?”

Real job or not, I have been researching and lecturing on food, drink and dining styles for 25 years now. Why? As an historian I find the story of food and drink fascinating, not because it is the story of food and drink, but the story of everything. Food stories can connect to a simple way of life, or the defining of high society. It can connect to trade, to politics, art, religion, even prejudice.

So why beer?

Because beer is nice. OK, so why make beer in Tindalls cottage at the Museum? This requires a more complex answer that involves the world of practical experimentation. If I achieve one thing in my short time as a food historian it will be to try and destroy the sentence; “And of course people all drank beer in the past because the water was dirty.”

I have spent many years working within the Royal Palaces. I know well the kitchens and food routes of Hampton Court Palace. By 1520 they were bringing clean spring water to the Palace from three miles away. Water was put onto the table in jugs to drink. In the countryside, in the middle-ages, no-one ever said: ‘let’s dig a well where the water is bad’. And if a well went bad, they dug another one. City water in late 18th and 19th centuries was bad, a product of urbanisation and bad sanitation. This is not the case throughout our history. Even an English/Latin primer written around the time of the Museum’s reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hall house states the following answer to the question: “Master, what do you drink?” “Ale if I have it, water if not.”* As I have given this little diatribe over the years people have then latched on, not to the clean, clear spring water, but the beer. Or moreover, the story of beer.

How was it made, who made it, where did they make it?

The more I talked about beer, ale and spirits the more the answers I gave seemed to be ripe for experimentation. How do the recipes work, what equipment do you need, does it actually work?

My first piece of luck came, not with beer but rye whisky. I had lectured at Mount Vernon in Virginia over a number of years and they knew I worked with woodfired ovens. When they rebuilt their 18th century distillery I was asked to go over and help run the stills. I knew wood fires and how to control them and they asked a distiller from Kentucky to teach us the distilling. So we made, and still make each year, a few hundred gallons of rye whisky using copper stills, buckets, some burning logs and a recipe from 1799. Whisky is basically made from beer that you distil (not so much today). I read of 18th century brewers who had a still in their brewery to allow them to make spirits from time to time. The more I read and talked the more it seemed like a good experiment to try and make some 18th century beer.

Next bit of luck – being shown around Tindalls cottage a few years ago. Finding out that it is believed that the small farm not only used the area around the copper for dairy (and laundry) but for brewing brought on a proposition. If I wanted to experiment with 18th century brewing, could it be at the Weald & Downland Living Museum? Everything fell into place when I discovered that you also had a knowledge base here at the Museum in the form of Site Interpreter Jez Smith, who had been working on 16th century brewing. This meant we could share information and move forward. I thought I knew what to do and Jez had already tried similar, if slightly different, earlier techniques. This would hopefully stop us from making too many simple errors at the start.

Brewing at Tindalls cottage would have been a simple affair. It was probably not commercial (beer for sale) but produced beers for the workers in and around the small farm. It is unlikely to have been a brewery very often, perhaps three or four times a year. The rest of the time it was a workshop with a boiling copper, a place to work through the farming year, make butter or cheese, do the laundry or even boil the Christmas pudding. The brewers would not have been full-time, but men or women who could brew. It is likely that it was the job of one or two farm hands, or was the work of the lady of the house and perhaps a couple of daughters, or perhaps one helping the other.

We do not know what they were brewing, but on offer in the early 18th century are a number of beers. Strong ale (for drinking in the evening), table beer (to have with meals) and small beer (to drink in the fields throughout the working day). Work done by Martyn Cornell of the Historic Brewery Society has shown that the beers were not weak. The strong ale was as hardy as 9-11% and the small beer at the opposite end still came in at a fine 4% by volume. This is backed up by the work of the Museum’s own ‘Tudor’ brewer, Jez, who consistently gets strong brews from his earlier recipes.

So how are we getting along?

Like our historic counterparts we turn our hand to brewing three or four times a year. Joined by historian and interpreter Robert Hoare, we do what they would have done, clear up the back room and put out all the things needed for a brew. Water is heated in the copper (it’s never called water by brewers but ‘liquor’). This hot liquor is poured into a large wooden vessel called a ‘mash tun’. Added to the liquor is malted barley, and in this southern part of the country, often some malted wheat. The hot water strips the flavour and, most importantly, the sugar from the grains. After a couple of hours you drain the tub, leaving the grain behind; this new liquid is called ‘wort.’ The wort goes back into the copper to be boiled with some hops. They give flavour and are a good preservative. The cooled wort is placed into a fermenting barrel with yeast added. Within about a week the yeast has eaten the sugar and turned it to alcohol. We have beer. It will keep in a barrel if the air is kept out, but is also ready for drinking immediately.

How do we find these old beers?

Inconsistent is the true answer. The modern world is all about consistency of product and the world that follows the farming year is not that. We have to embrace the changes. Some beers are a little stronger or sweeter than the last batch. Spring and autumn beer is better than summer or winter. Summer ale tends to be sharp to the taste. All of this is part of understanding a different way of life which can be interpreted in a living museum. How are we doing? Well, keep looking at the calendar and come and see, and ask us. We will be very happy to tell you that after a good amount of research we now fully understand that we do not know very much, but are excited to continue learning.

Note: This article is called the Town & Country Brewer, the name of a book printed in the 1730s that has since been exposed as being written by a man who was probably not a real brewer at all.

* Alfric’s Colloquy; 10th C, Latin primer.

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