Mythbusting medieval brewing preconceptions

You probably have heard them too, those hard-to-check factoids of medieval life. Medieval people had no concept of hygiene. They were dirty people who never bathed as nobody washed themselves in the Middle Ages. The drinking water was so disgusting they drank beer like water. Honey could only be harvested by killing the whole hive. Or, medieval beer was always sour, and flat to boot. It might make us Modern people feel good we know ‘better’ than our uneducated ancestors, although not all ‘facts’ are as factual as one might think…


A handful of common misconceptions about medieval brews:

 #1 Medieval braggot is a malted mead

Modern braggot is a type of mead which gets its fermentable sugars both from honey and from barley malt, typically between 30 to 50%. In history, the definition of a braggot seems to be quite different. The 14th century recipe Ad faciendum brakott from Curye on Inglysch uses already fermented ale from grains used twice; a second run, which would be weaker and benefit from the extra honey sugars. The Customs of London and The Haven of Health and The Jewel House of Art and Nature al use already fermented ale as well. The Haven of Health adds barm at the end to start secondary fermentation and The Jewell House of Art and Nature recommends strong new ale, which would also re-ferment by adding more sugars, i.e. back-sweetening with honey. As historic recipes request ale (fermented) and not malt (before fermentation), even though secondary fermentation is often part of the process, it seems medieval braggot was most likely a back-sweetened spiced ale. The abundant use of spices similar to spiced wine – like pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon – also makes a good case for period braggot to be more akin to hippocras (sweetened and spiced wine) than to malted mead, and the whole process might have had more to do with keeping turned ale drinkable …

The Customs of London, otherwise called Arnold’s Chronicle, 1503.

For Braket. Take a pott of good ale and put therto a porcion of hony and peper in this maner, when thou hast good ale let it stone in a pot ij. Daies and thā drawe out a quarte or a potell of that ale and put to the hony and set it ouer the fire and lete it seethe well and take it of the fire and scinne it clene and than put thertoo the peper and thē set hē on the fire and lete hem boyle wel togedur with esy fir; but peper take iiij. gallons of good ale a pynte of fyn tried hony and the mountenaunce off saucer full of poud’ of pepper, &ct.

The only recipe which seemingly makes malted mead is the 14th century recipe To make fyn meade & poynaunt. Here malt, extra honey, and spices are added to previously fermented fresh mead; in essence making malted mead – but it is pointedly not labeled as a braggot.

10 To make fine mead & poignant. Take 20 gallons of the previously mentioned pomys cooked in 3 gallons of fine wort, & take 1 gallon of life honey & simmer it well & scum it well until it is clear enough; & add to it 3 pennyworth powder of pepper & 1 pennyworth powder of cloves & let it boil well together. & when it is cold put it into the vessel of the barreled up previously mentioned mead; add it to it, & close it well as it is said before.


#2 Beer, including medieval beer, is made with barley

Depending on where the beer is made, it is made with whatever was easiest to grow locally, or most affordable to import. For instance, during the Dark Ages in the Low Countries this meant mostly oats, with some wheat, as seen in this 1366 recipe from Gouda, the Netherlands, which uses 45 measures oats with 9 measures wheat, and no barley. Not until the middle Ages did barley make an appearance, and even then only as the third grain in the overall grain bill.

1373 – City ordinances of Breda, concerning the beers of Delft, the Netherlands.

“Also it is ordained by the lord and the city, that if the beer comes from Delft, the total brew being 20 to 18 full barrels is done with 17 bags of malt of the measurements of Delft, this being six bags of wheat, three bags of barley, and eight bags of oats of the same weight, as used in Delft.

While oats were readily available in the middle Ages, brewing with it had a few drawbacks. Oat starch does not convert as easily into fermentable sugars as other grains. It also can not be malted. The malting process of sprouting the grain for it to release the starch-converting enzymes makes oats too soft to be milled. During the steep milled malted oats turn into mush and are then impossible to filter back out. The medieval solution was to use unmalted oats, and to add at least 25% of another grain that was malted, to supply the needed enzymes for sugar conversion (similar to the modern practice of decoction brewing). This explains why on average the medieval grain bill was about 60-70% rolled oats, 10-20% malted wheat and 15-25% malted barley. Using oats, even with its brewing drawbacks, could have been for the practical reason that malting used significant resources, including time, a sprouting floor and a malting oven, and that this way only 25% of the grain bill had to undergo the malting process.

The availability of grains also depended on whether or not the country was in war or had suffered a bad harvest. In years of need, certain grains would be reserved for baking only, to feed the population: “Ergo nobody make malt with rye, nor brew any beer, on a fine of 3 pounds, all this without argue.”


#3 Wort has to be boiled to make beer

 In a way, this is true, if the word beer is taken to mean only hopped beer. If it means any grain beverage, then it is not, as ale can easily be made without boiling the must. Wort is made by adding warm water to crushed malted, and unmalted, grains, making a mash. The sprout starches and enzymes leach out and during the warm steep the enzymes convert starches into fermentable sugars. This sugary mixture is called the wort. It is possible in early medieval brewing the wort was only heated shortly and not boiled at all, as the step of mashing and heating would happen in the same vessel and thus include all the grains (boiling often turns grain to pulp). Due to the introduction of hops in later medieval brewing, a separation of the mashing and boiling step was necessary as hops needs to be boiled for an hour or more to benefit from its preservative effects.


#4 Medieval beer is flat

 Medieval beer, and ale, was stored in wooden barrels that do not contain carbonation well after active fermentation stopped. But as un-hopped ale did not store well either – it would spoil rather quickly – it was possible to prime the ale during barreling, to have a carbonated brew until it did spoil. The brew needed to be consumed quickly, before the back-fermentation ran out, and made for delightfully carbonated sweet & sour ale.

Nimweeghse Mol is first encountered as geremol in 1519 and quickly became a successful export product of the 16th century city of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Excerpt of a 17th century recipe for Mol:

evaporate [the second run or naebier/near-beer] until it is thick as syrup, and store this until 1/2 hour before one goes barreling-up, then add the thick beer as a syrup and barrel up 1/2 an hour after this.


#5 Medieval beer was sour

 Wort exposed to the air will more often than not ‘catch’ more than plain yeast and develop a sour taste due to infections with lactobacillis or brettanomyces. The recipe above shows that, at least by the early Renaissance, sweet & sour ale was made for consumption. The reputation of gruit ale as ‘sweet and heavy ale’ also indicates sweet beer was not unheard off.


#6 Malt extract is a modern invention

Brewing ale or beer with a malt extract is not a modern invention at all. It is quite possible it goes back all the way to the Dark Ages! Brewing solely relying on malt extract, as in, not using any wort made by infusing grains; that is a modern process made possible by the commercial canning industry. The Dutch beer Mol uses evaporated near-beer syrup to make a carbonated sweet & sour beer. English Grout Ale brewers used a similar concentrated malt (or, malt extract) to enrich their brew. The ingredient grout was thought by the English brewers to work as a ferment in the process of brewing, and was thought to make a better, sweeter, high alcoholic beer; a sentiment quite reminiscent with Dark Age gruit brewers.

“English ale is made althus: Take two hundred pound cooked malt / that is wort / two handfuls hop: when that has cooked together and is poured through [filtered off] / one would also mix it together / as has been said above / to know yeast of beer or ale three pounds / and English grout / which we call naerbier / six to eight pounds.”

A 16th century recipe for grout instructs as follows:

“Graut and Naerbier is made althus / said Lobel: take six or eight pounds of milled malt / twelve or fifteen pounds of seething hot water: mix this together well six times a day: cover very well with cloths and straw: and let it soak together so long in a clean barrel that it becomes as thick as syrup. After that one should heat this up with fire / always diligently stirring / so that it does not burn [to the bottom] / until it becomes as thick as porridge.


#7 Medieval mead (or mead in general) is sweet

The popularity of mead waned in the latter part of medieval Europe as the production of honey slowed and prices rose. Due to the increase in availability of cheap wine – by the 14th century a gallon of mead was three times more expensive than a gallon of imported wine – likely only the monasteries and great houses, who kept their own beegardens, could afford to make mead. In southern Europe, where grapes were cultivated, wine became economically more important and elsewhere beer finally supplanted mead. The only wines with which mead could rival were the expensive sweet Southern European wines like Vernage and Malmsey and thus it came about that the dry wine-like mead as it was known then – very good mead was equated with clear, old wine in old medieval leechdoms – became more akin to a sweet sack mead.

From the Norse Edda’s come two mentions of aged mead (as opposed to young mead):

“Hail rather to thee, youth! and accept an icy cup, filled with old mead; although I thought not that I ever should love one of Vanir race.”

“Hail to thee, Loki! and this cool cup receive, full of old mead: at least me alone – among the blameless Æsir race – leave stainless.”


#8 Medieval mead is made by boiling a hive, bees and all!

According to the medieval & Renaissance printed books, processed honey was valued depending on how it would be removed from the comb: unprocessed ‘life honey’ would be of highest value, that which would easily be leaked out and strained when breaking up or crushing the comb cell structure would be second quality, with third being the washing of the leaked combs in heated water whereby the leftover and crystallized honey dissolves but the wax is not melted. A waste grade would be to squeeze the washed combs with a twisted bag press to get the last little bits of liquid out. Most texts are clear on the value and quality of life honey or first-kind honey, though some are more frugal than others with the leftovers. Thomas Hyll in his 1579 A Profitable Instruction is impatient to let the honey run out by itself and advises, to expedite the process, to press the combs with a heavy weight: “whiche lette lye there, vntil the hony by little and little be run forth, or rather for the more expedition, pressed forthe with a heauy waighte, and the same which is then come forth, is very faire rawe hony” and feels he still gets very fair raw honey.

Butler in Feminine Monarchie lists several techniques to remove honey but feels that pressing goes too far “& some (which is worse) doe violently presse it out. But by these means they shal have no fine & pure raw hony, howsoever afterward they handle it.” He advocates a combination of crushing, after having caught all the life honey, by “pound with a pestle, or crush often with your hands al to pieces, & let it run as before”, and soaking “set it in some vessel over a soft fire, and stil keep your hand in the vessel stirring about the honie and the wax, and opening the wax piece-meale until the hony and not the wax shal be molten: and then powre out all into a strainer, & wring out the hony” and mixes the two to raise the quality of the latter “but thus this good hony wil become but course: and therefore put it to the second shoot”.

Thus, according to these books, honey is not removed from the hive, or the comb, by boiling, but by a gentle rinse. Not until the honey is intended for mead making is it to be boiled, especially honey of a lesser quality. Heresbach mentions in his Fovre Bookes of Hvsbandriethe Honey that is of the worst making, is to be boiled” but as he does not explain what to use this boiled honey for, it is unclear if he means this for fermentation (as honey is often clarified through boiling prior to fermentation), cooking, or something else. Butler also mentions boiling low quality or coarse honey “The coarse honey being boiled and clarified has a most pleasant & delicate tast” indicating clarification betters the taste of the honey to then brew with it: “having boiled and scummed it, put it to your brewlock.” But be aware, even Butler was aware too much (or too high) heating evaporates the volatile fragrances “overmuch boiling consumes the spirittuous parts of the honey, and turnes the sweet tast into bitter” which puts to the question the modern practice of literally boiling honey for an extended time…


#9 Melomels are a modern thing

The historic recipes found show that honey would most often be used to brew plain mead, spiced metheglin or honeyed-ale braggot. The combination of honey, fermentation and different kinds of fruit juice is known, though the practice is not common enough yet to have coined our modern terms melomel (for fruit mead), cycer (for apple mead) or pyment (for grape mead). While melomeli was known to the Romans as a wine made from honey and fruit juices, and the word possibly came by the Greek melimelon or melomeli for apple-honey or tree fruit-honey, it does not seem to have been adopted into the English language as such until well after the middle Ages.

Of course, fermenting with fruit, an easy to come by sugar often with their own ambient yeast strains, is not at all uncommon and fruit wines were known to be made by settlers of the foothills of the Alps as early as 2000 BCE from wild grapes, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, bittersweet nightshade and cornelian cherries. Cider and perry, or fermented plain apple and pear juice, are also well known and mentioned in numerous historic texts, including the Bible – and in “without sider and wyn and meeth men and wommen myght lyve full long”, quoted from Peacock, 1449. The combination of fruit juice and honey might not have been common practice, but thankfully for us re-enacting melomel enthusiasts a tiny handful of interesting examples does exist. This could be attributed to the medieval idea that while honey and its many products were regarded as healthy and medicinal, fruit was not as such, as voiced by Thomas Cogan “considering that fruites doe ingender ill humours” in his Haven of Health.

The one and only book listing brewing recipes using honey and fruit (a whopping 2 recipes) is the 16th century beekeeping manual Van de Byen (About Bees). Not only does the recipe below make plausible the use of fruit in medieval mead, it also validates the method of adding fruit juice in secondary fermentation. Modern brewers often prefer to brew plain mead first and add fruit juice only after fermentation slows down, about a month later, to make sure most of the fruit flavor is saved for the end product. Otherwise, the yeast will eat the fruit sugars first, and start on the honey sugars only after the fruit sugars are all consumed, resulting in a plain(er) mead.

Van de Byen by Theodorus Clutius, 1597.

To make red wine-like honey-water. Take of the mead of the two types mentioned above 64. stoopen / add 16. stoop juice of amarellen [sour, dark red cherries with long stems] / another two stoop honey / mix this together and set it to rise as above. This wine-like honey-water is very good against fever / and those anguished with excess heat / against defects of the brain / and one can use it instead of wine / for those whom wine is forbidden. At such days one can also make wine-like water with the juice of red currants / red and black cherries / also of grapes / apples / and pears / always add in the proportions of the amarellen / as is previously explained.


Bonus: #10 Did specialty honey exist back then?

As an endnote, a small tidbit on specialty honey. Varietal honey is occasionally mentioned in medieval sources, like lavender honey, but mostly in the context of cooking and cosmetics. As honey bees forage on anything flowering within range, even modern varietal honey only means that at that specific time and place, most of the plants flowering were such-and-such. And if unknown? That’s where ‘wild flower’ honey comes from… Varietal honey is possible due to mono-cultivation, which, apart from extensive French lavender fields, is not typically associated with medieval agriculture.

Out of all the recipes I’ve seen, I came across only one medieval recipe from the Netherlands (undated) which lists honey specifically from the ‘lis’ (likely the gele lis, or yellow iris; Iris pseudacorus). It is questionable if this single recipe indicates specialty honey would have been available and used in brewing in medieval times, or if it truly is an anomaly…

To make mead, take 22 stoops water, and add therin 3 quarters Iris [Iris pseudacorus] virgin honey, when it is dissolved, let is simmer and scum well, and then add 2 stoop water and scum well; add therein another 2 stoop water and scum well; then it shall be 29 stoop and let it simmer down to 26 stoop; and let it shrink another 2 stoop; then it shall be good mead of 2 inghelsen [?].


May the Sources be with you… the experimental brewer!






Flat & Sour

  • Ferro, Rudolf Nunes. Een verloren gewaand bierrecept herondekt. De berijdingswijze van de Nijmeegse Mol. Jaarboek Numaga 41, 1994.
  • Wubs-Mrozewicz, Justyna. Hopped Beer as an Innovation. Trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange. Continuity and change in the North Sea area and the Baltic c. 1350-1750. Hanno Brand (Editor). Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2005.
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. The Rise and Fall of Gruit. 2018.

Malt extract

  • Karkeel, Paul Q. White Ale. Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art. Vol. IX. Plymouth: W. Brendon & Son, 1877 (p. 192).
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. The Rise and Fall of Gruit. 2018.

Sweet mead

Specialty honey

  • Vreese, 100 Middelnederlandsche geneeskundige recepten en tractaten, zegeningen en tooverformules (Medieval Dutch healing recipes and manuscripts, blessings and magical formulas). The handwritten manuscript itself is part of the collection of the Royal Flemish Academy (Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie) in Gent.
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. Of hony. A collection of Mediaeval Brewing Recipes. 2017.