How to test a historic recipe (without falling foul of Safe Search), part 2

(Part 1 here)

So, having settled on October 18th for the brewday, I had to actually think about boring things like recipes and how, exactly, we were going to add fruit, spice, sack and dead bird to the resultant ferment.

Recreating the beer exactly as it would have existed a few centuries ago would be, if not impossible, beyond my capabilities here. The varieties of barley grown, how they were malted, the qualities and freshness of the hops, the yeast cultures used, receptacles for fermentation and maturation – all would be different to some degree. Not to mention variance over time and between regions. From reading old copies of the Protz/La Pensée CAMRA Homebrew Classics range won at various beer festivals in my youth and the ongoing excavations of Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell‘s blogs, I was happy to draw a line through “historically accurate” and instead list hopefully towards “vaguely traditional-feeling”.

Having let myself off the hook on that front, I looked at what was available from the homebrew outfit near Richard and kept it pretty simple. I was working on the understanding that, before industrialisation, pale malts were difficult to produce and unlikely to be as pale or well-modified as they are now. So, largely the province of the gentry – which seemed fitting given it was Sir Kenelm Digby’s recipe that started all this. A base of pale malt (Chevalier if available, but likely Maris Otter) alongside moderate amounts of amber and light crystal malt seemed about right for something a little toothier than a modern notion of a pale ale. Ideally, the latter two malts would add body, colour and complexity to the beer without pushing it too far towards something dark.

For hops, I was going to go for Goldings, as the longest established English variety and, failing that, Fuggles. I have a general romantic attachment to using whole hops rather than pellets, with a final decision hinging on whether they had either available from the most recent harvest. As it turned out they had 2021 Fuggles in, but no Goldings at all, so that was that choice made for me. Not having a feel for likely hopping rates during Cock Ale’s heyday, but with 100g of hops I wanted to make decent use of, I suspect I went bigger than was necessary. Wanting to avoid massively over-bittering the beer and not feeling dry-hopping jibed well with the recipe, I plumped for a hop addition schedule only a homebrewer could love.

As to yeast, I’m sure that some kind of mixed culture or secondary brett during maturation could add interest and hints of what came before the adoption of pure strains for brewing, but then, so would using wooden barrels. Into the bucket of ideas labelled “another time, if we really get into this recipe”. Thus I heeded the siren call of a familiar yeast that I felt confident wouldn’t complain on when the shock of a most unorthodox biotransformation – adding chicken to the fermenting beer – was foisted on it. Safale S-04 it was.

Apart from that, a tiny smidge of protafloc to help with the hot break was the only other thing marked down for the brew day.

Put together on a very old copy of BrewMate, which unhelpfully doesn’t appear to exist anymore, my plan for a ten litre batch looked like this*:

60 minute mash at 66°C:
2.62kg Maris Otter Pale
350g Light Crystal
175g Amber

Sparge/top up to 10 litres with water at 76°C

60 minute boil (36.6% IBU targeted) :
t-60 20g Fuggles (4.5% AA),
t-45 10g Fuggles (4.5% AA)
t-30 10g Fuggles (4.5% AA)
t-15 Protafloc ( I can’t remember the specific quantity, but a gram or two?)
t-05 20g Fuggles (4.5% AA)

The software’s default assumptions gave me OG of 1.068 and an FG of 1.017. Hitting those numbers would get us an ABV of 6.7%, which was at the upper end of where I wanted it. Given that the brewing set-up to hand was a ten litre stockpot, to be used both for mashing in and the boil, I didn’t think overshooting that was a great risk.

Come the day itself, Richard (as per part 1 – a namesake, not a descent into the 3rd person) and I had inveigled a mutual friend, Nick, to join in and lend a hand. This meant that I had the unalloyed pleasure of being able to talk at an audience about beer and brewing for hours. I haven’t asked them what they thought of it, but I’m sure they were fascinated.

The brew itself went reasonably well. As you might imagine from trying to mash over direct heat in a thin-bottomed, uninsulated vessel, things were a bit crude on the “holding a consistent temperature” front, but not catastrophically so, and we got a sweet wort out of it. The grist was contained in a muslin sack, brew-in-a-bag style. While the lack of spare capacity in the stockpot made mashing out/sparging a bit fiddly, being able to remove the grain so simply did make the transition from mash to boil easier. The boil itself was fine, though the number of additions was gratuitous. Cooling and then transferring into the fermenter was a little fraught, but we got there. The OG reading was 1.052, which was lower than hoped, but enough to get us past 5% ABV even before the sherry.

Nick and I left the fermenter with Richard, who set it up in a mild, dark corner of his house. Fermentation was at the lower end of S-04’s recommended temperature range, but the airlock was blopping merrily away by the next morning, which is always a good sign.

Reassured that we actually had a beer in hand that could be used as a base, we could look ahead to the steeping. The sums done by International Routier for their attempt were very handy and, seeing no flaws in their logic, we ended up with about half of their quantities. After some discussion about the relative potencies of whole and ground nutmeg, this came to:

450g Raisins
1/2 tsp ground Nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground Mace
60g Dates
560ml Sherry (a supermarket Amontillado)
1 Chicken Leg

A very crude calculation on how much fermentable sugar the dried fruits followed. According to the packs, the raisins and dates had 69.3g and 66.3g of sugars per 100g. Working on the assumption, perhaps riskily, that the sugars in fruit are simple ones, that added the equivalent of about 350g of cane sugar in secondary. Given that after boil-off and transfer, there was only 7.5 litres in the fermenter, that could be another two points added to the ABV. The sherry would add another point, too…

Regarding process, my thinking was that a steep in the sherry would have some antibacterial effect on any spoilers lingering on the dried fruits’ skins. Similarly, if the chicken was fresh from a long boil, swiftly prepped, and then added to that mix before the whole lot went in the fermenter, we’d probably be ok. I also moved the addition of this wholesome blend to within the yeast’s active phase, in the vague hope that the S-04 could out-compete anything unwanted that did come in.

Having pitched the yeast on the Monday afternoon and seen vigorous action by Tuesday morning, I decided that the chicken, fruit and spices should go in that evening. Richard prepped everything, giving the fruit and spices some time in the sherry while the chicken simmered away. Once the leg was suitably mortar-and-pestled (well, picked clean and separated), it joined them for a spell. Rather than chuck everything in loosely, some muslin was sanitised, so whatever survived of the bird and fruit could be withdrawn easily. All were tipped in late on Tuesday.

If the airlock was anything to go by, the additions hadn’t thrown the yeast off its stride. In fact, the fermentation only fully ceased the following Tuesday (26th), which was a bit longer than I expected. Bottling was done the next day (normally, I’d give homebrew a bit longer to condition, but Richard was going away the next day). Priming sugar was added with an eye to getting 1.8 volumes of CO2, so a bit higher than cask, but carbonation still staying fairly soft.

Now, we just had to wait until it was ready to try – more on that in part 3, to come soon.

*I find ten litres a slightly awkward batch size, even when using a better set-up. I’ve stuck a screenshot up of what I was working from below. If anyone wants to extrapolate a different batch size, point out any obvious errors, or recommend better recipe-building alternatives, please do get in touch.

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