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West Country White Ale, a lost English beer

The Tudor physician, traveller and former Carthusian monk Andrew Boorde is most famous in brewing history for his attack on hopped beer, calling it, in his A Dyetary of Helth, published in 1542,

a naturall drynke for a Dutche man [by which he meant Germans]  … of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men … it doth make a man fat and doth inflate the bely.

However, he also deserves recognition as the first person to write about West Country White Ale, a “lost” beer style with its roots, almost certainly, in the unhopped ales of the Middle Ages, which died out in the final decades of the 19th century.

Typically, Boorde was rude about the drink, writing of Cornish ale that it was “stark nought, lokinge whyte and thycke, as pygges had wrasteled in it,” adding that “it wyll make one to kacke, also to spew; it is dycke [thick] and smoky, and also it is dyn”.

Despite Boorde’s jabs, White Ale continued to be popular in the West Country, and William Ellis noted in The London and Country Brewer in 1736 that “the Plymouth People … are so attach’d to their white thick Ale, that many have undone themselves by drinking it.” Ellis gave the first recipe for White Ale, saying it was

a clear Wort made from pale Malt, and fermented with what they call ripening, which is a Composition, they say, of the Flower [flour] of Malt, Yeast and Whites of Eggs, a Nostrum made and sold only by two or three in those Parts.

However, the sellers of the “ripening” did not make the ale: instead

the Wort is brewed and the Ale vended by many of the Publicans; which is drank while it is fermenting in Earthen Steens, in such a thick manner as resembles butter’d Ale, and sold for Twopence Halfpenny the full Quart.

Ellis added that White Ale “is often prescribed by Physicians to be drank by wet Nurses for the encrease of their Milk, and also as a prevalent Medicine for the Colick and Gravel.”

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