Put a cork in

Roemerwein_in_SpeyerWas it possible to age medieval mead and beer? The oldest bottle used to store, presumably, an alcoholic beverage was discovered in 1867 in a 350AD Roman noble’s grave near the German city of Speyer. It was stoppered with a seal of hot wax and is still liquid after all this time. As historic glass was too fragile, the norm for storing and transport was first ceramic vessels like the amphorae and later wood barrels.

Not until the invention of the coal burning furnace in the 17th century did the hotter temperatures allow for a darker, thicker, and harder to break glass suitable for storage and transport, especially after the rediscovery of the cork. Before the cork wine had already been bottled in glass for a few decades, but stoppered ineffectively for carbonation or longer term storage (as attested by many a wine cellar worker with only one eye), for instance with wooden pegs wrapped in hemp soaked in olive oil. It is doubtful such a closure would withstand the carbonation pressure of two month old working mead “soe makes it brisker” without loosing its cap.

The invention of the cork as a bottle stopper is often contributed to the French Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon who was the cellar master of Abbey Hautevillers from 1668 to 1715. The myth goes he met two Spanish monks on their way to Sweden whom stopped at the Abbey of Hautevillers in northern France and was inspired by their water gourds stoppered with cork from Catalonia. Except the Duke of Bedford’s household accounts for March 25, 1665 clearly list the purchase of champagne wine, glass bottles and cork; three years before Dom Pérignon entered the monastery.

Interestingly, the use of cork to close wine jugs was widely practiced in Antiquity: the earliest evidence of the use of cork to seal an alcoholic beverage container is from the early 5th century BC in Athens . The technique seems to have been lost in conjunction with the use of oxygen impermeable ceramic amphorae; a perfect combination to make it possible to store and age wine. Throughout the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, aged beverages were an oddity as storage and transport used (oxygen permeable) wood barrels. When the new years’ batch of French wine would arrive in English port, the barrels leftover from the previous year would be put on sale, to make room for the better, fresh wine.



  • McGovern, Patrick. Uncorking the Past. The Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages. California: University of California Press, 2009 (p. xiv)
  • Taber, George M. To cork or not to cork. Tradition, Romance, Science and the Battle for the Wine Bottle. Scribner, 2009 (p. 14)
  • http://www.wallafaces.com/a-history-of-the-glass-wine-bottle/

“The keeping of the stuff” (yeast) by German brewer Kobrer in 1581.

This bit of translation from an early Renaissance German brewing text is extremely interesting as it seems to describe, in quite some detail, the drying of yeast from lees and berm, and the reconstitution of this dried yeast for a new brew. This technique is very similar to yeast storage techniques as described by Professor Odd Nordland. He traveled into the Scandinavian back country to interview the local farmers and brewers about their traditional brewing techniques which were thought to go back centuries. He located a yeast log with the date 1621 inscribed in the bottom but was not able to conclusively date the technique back any further.



Fig. Carved yeast log from Morgedal, Telemark, dated to 1621.
From Nordland 1969.




Kobrer (Cobrer), Christoph. Gründliche und Nütze Beschreibung der Weinhawer und Bierbrewer-Practick  und der ganzen Kellermeister-Kunst. Burger, 1581.

The 20th Chapter.
One should and may keep the stuff for brewing [alternate: brown] and white beer and reuse.

One usually puts from the fresh good stuff [lees] as much as one wants from the first raw beer in an oaken barrel and fill the same roughly to two fingers widths so that the stuff has air. Then hammer the barrel closed and hang it in a well so that the stuff stays fresh good and strong. Similar to fresh stuff right away taken from the beer. But it must nevertheless be prepared and made ferment-y as will be taught after this.
Some people make a board wide [something, could indicate a frame with fabric stretched in the opening] that is two fingers thick in the middle and on the two sides [clamped?] or as many panes of a simple [something] big at the front it is two fingers wide and the whole thing is well wide stretched and tied together in the back and it has a handle made on it with which you can hang it up and then smear the stuff first on the one side and when that is dry if one wants to also on the other side everywhere one and a half fingers thick so that it sticks well on it. And well [the transcript says ‘no’, but I think that’s a mistake] ground hops with seeds and all [this would add antimicrobial protection], <?> mortared small or ground and scattered on top of it and in that smeared on stuff it should sink well into it so that is stays stuck in/on it. And the stuff pulls the hops in and dries quickly and let it stand in airy and shady place in the house but not in the sun because the sun sucks the strength out of it too much.
When the stuff is well dressed and stuck to each other on the ‘pane’ one can glue more on it [add another layer], if not, so one shall hang the ‘pane’ and let the stuff sticking to it dry.
After that one should take the panes with the dried stuff in a barrel over each other [stacked] and as often one puts a plane in also as often one puts/scatters hops above and below and cover it well and put a weight on it, so stays the stuff fresh and good.

To use the dried stuff again.

If you want it in the morning to give it to the beer then in the evening before one should knock off the dried stuff with a club [wood hammer] of that ‘pane’ and crush it small and then you pour the wort on it, either half or a full vat [like half a barrel, open on top] and stir it to each other and also pour from one container into another several times or often [aerate]. Thereafter let it stand the whole night by a warm and well heated oven [until] that stuff rises well several times and starts to ferment and when or as often has it well fermented then again pour it several times from one vessel into another to and fro like one does it otherwise with the fresh stuff and let it stand by the oven until again it ferments. As then the same thing another time pour to and fro and let it stand and ferment again, like before and not so long until the stuff and the wort has become very ‘soft’ or <?>. Thereafter distribute the prepared and fermenting stuff in the [used for beer making] containers and in each container as much as is necessary and the beer with its stuff well stirred through each other, this is called a white head/hat [the foam].

The storage and preparation of the stuff that belongs to the white beer.

One may try the same storage and drying and use also with the white stuff [barm, top fermenting foam] and the same pour very thinly on wooden boards [exact translation would be on sweated (or soldered) wooden firewood or maybe Schaiten is some sort of vessel, because it says ‘in’ not ‘on’ – maybe a description of a yeast log?] and the ‘Schaiten‘ with the stuff and the ‘Gerben‘ glue it well on and then set it on a warm oven where it can quickly dry or dry [the text uses two different words for drying] so that the stuff does not get sour and in the same way how you take the dried stuff from the ‘panes’ so can one get it off the [other kind of] board. Afterwards you wake it up and then you can try like with the stuff to store it and to use it as taught above.

For the German transcription, check out my blog post at: https://bookeofsecretes.blogspot.com/2018/02/the-keeping-of-stuff-yeast-for-brewing.html