There are almost no descriptions of brewing processes in Britain from the medieval period, a reflection of the universality of ale and the universality of the knowledge of how to brew it: similarly “everybody” in the British Isles today knows how to make a cup of tea, and nobody wastes their time writing down a narration covering how to mash the Assam and when to add the milk.
One odd account of brewing “cerveyse”, or ale, was recorded in a late 13th century collection of poems written as an educational guide called the Treatise of Walter de Biblesworth, or, in his own words and spelling, “Le treytyz ke moun sire Gauter de Bíbelesworthe”. Biblesworth, or Bibbesworth, who was born in or before 1219 and died some time in or soon after 1270, was a knight who owned Bibbesworth manor, in Kimpton, Hertfordshire, and he was friends with some powerful people in the England of Edward I, such as the de Lacys, earls of Lincoln, and the de Veres, earls of Oxford. His rhyming treatise is written in the Norman French of the 1200s, with many obscure words. Here is the section on brewing:
Seyoms ore entour cerveyse
Pur fere gens ben à eyse
Alumet, amy, cele lefrenole
E kaunt averas mangés de brakole
En une cuwe(1) large e leez
Cel orge là enfoundréz
E kaunt sera enfoundré
E le ewe seyt escouloé
Mountez sel haut soler
Si le festes nette baler
E là cochet(2) votre blée
Taunke seyt ben germé,
De cele houre appelleras
Brès(3), ke blé avant nomas
Le brès de vostre mayn muez
En mounceus ou en rengeés;
Pus le portez en un corbel
Pur ensechuer au toral.
Le corbel e le corbiloun
Vous serviront au fusoyn.
Kaunt vostre brez est molu
E de ewe chaud ben enbeu,
Des bertiz ver cervoyse
Par art contrové teise.
Ky fet miracles e merveyles,
De une chaundelie deus chaundelis,
De homme lay fet bon clerc
A homme desconu doune merk
Homme fort fet chatoner
E homme à roye haut juper,
Taunt de vertu de la grees
De servoyse fet de brès,
Ke la coyfe de un bricoun
Teyndre seet sanz vermilloun.
Ceste matyre cy repose
Parlom ore de autre chose
(1) This appears to be the same as kieve, the word for a mash tun still used in Ireland.
(2) Couch, still the technical term used in malting.
(3) From the Celtic bracis, and root of the French brasseur, brewer
The would-be brewer looking to turn orge (barley) into “cerveyse” (still, in a modernised spelling the French for unhopped ale) was enjoined to rise early (early enough to still need a “lefrenole”, evidently a rushlight or candle), have a bite of “brakole”, or spiced cake for breakfast and proceed to steep – “enfoundré” – his “orge”, or barley in a large vat. When it was soaked and the “ewe” (eau, water, in modern French) drained off, he was to carry the grain to a clean-swept “soler” or upper floor and there “cochet (“couch”, still the word used by maltsters) the grain – spread it out – until it had properly germinated: it should now be called “brès”, or “malt”, and not “grain”, Bibbesworth said. The malt should be stirred by hand, and left to stand in “heaps or rows”, an essential practice to stop the grain over-heating as it sprouted and to ensure the growing sprouts and rootlets did not get so tangled the malt turned into an unseparatable lump.
The malt had then to be carried in a “corbel” or basket to the “toral” or kiln, where it was dried in the basket or spread out on a “corbiloun”, a wicker tray or rack. When the dried “brez” or malt (consistency in spelling wasn’t a 13th century necessity – this was “brès” just a few lines earlier) had been “molu” or ground (literally, “milled”) it was soaked in hot “ewe” after which the resultant “bertiz” or wort was changed “by skill” to ale, which makes “miracles and marvels”: two candles out of one (a good description of drink-induced double vision); the layman would become a good clerk, the “unknown” man – one without a reputation – acted like one with a “mark”, someone who had earned their badge or coat of arms ; strong men would fall down and high-born men shout, while the roisterer’s face needed no dye to turn it red.
Here’s the translation that John Bickerdyke gave of Bibbesworth’s poem in The Curiosities of Ale and Beer in 1889:
Ale shall now engage my pen
To set at rest the hearts of men
First my friend your candle light
Next of spiced cake take a bite
Then steep your barley in a vat
Large and broad take care of that
When you shall have steeped your grain
And the water let out drain
Take it to an upper floor
If you’ve swept it clean before
There couch and let your barley dwell
Till it germinates full well
Malt now you shall call the grain
Corn it ne’er shall be again
Stir the malt then with your hand
In heaps or rows now let it stand
On a tray then you shall take it
To a kiln to dry and bake it
The tray and eke a basket light
Will serve to spread the malt aright
When your malt is ground in mill
And of hot water has drank its fill
And skill has changed the wort to ale
Then to see you shall not fail
Miracles and marvels. Lo!
Two candles out of one do grow
Ale makes a layman a good clerk
To one unknown it gives a mark
Ale makes the strong go on all fours
And fill the streets with shouts and roars
The good ale from the malt at length
So draws the barley’s pride and strength
That a roysterer’s figure head
Needs no dye to make it red
Here then let the matter rest
To talk of other things were best
Several points come out of Bibbesworth’s description of brewing ale in the 13th century. The first is that there is no mention of pitching or adding yeast to the wort to turn it into ale: this is likely to be because the brewers and brewsters he knew depended upon wild yeasts or the residue of previous brews left behind in the fermenting vessel to start the fermentation in a fresh batch. Second, there are no flavourings or herbs mentioned, just barley and water. It’s also interesting that an aristocratic knight should know so much about the processes of malting and brewing, though, of course, land-owning knights in the 12th century were closer to being armed farmers than the companions of King Arthur’s Round Table or crusading warriors that we are perhaps used to picturing knights as.
Kimpton is just a few miles from where I grew up, and I’ve had quite a few pints in the village’s two surviving pubs, the White Horse (there’s a nice typo in that link – “a priesthold behind the bar” – that would be “priesthole”, secret hiding place, unless it’s some sort of gripping device for clerics who won’t pay for their round) and the Boot, so I feel a geographical connection with Sir Walter, even though we’re separated in time by more than 700 years.