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.”

Another recipe for “Western White Ale” from the anonymous Every Man his Own Brewer of 1768 said the beer was made from “pale, slack dried malt of the lowest quality, and without the use of any hop, or other alkaline preservative, as being for spending immediately after fermentation.” The fermentation was brought about “without yeast” by adding wheat flour, bean flour or malt flour, “it matters not which”, made into a paste with egg white, which “being thrown into the wort sets it a fermenting.”

The wort is “most usually let down from the mash into glazed jars called steens, and worked in [allowed to ferment], and drawn from them for use.” The similarity of this “spontaneous” method of fermentation to Belgian lambic beers, which are also made with a quantity of wheat in the recipe, evidently occurred to the writer of Every Man his Own Brewer, who said: “All over Flanders an ale of the like kind, in taste and colour, is drank very freely by the ladies, and seems the cause of their plump and healthy appearances.”

The Town and Country Brewery Book, written by William Brande in or soon after 1830, listed “Devonshire White Ale” among the regional speciality brews of Britain. Brande warned that white ale had to be drunk quickly, “for if it was let alone to fine or stale, it was rejected as not worthy of buying or drinking. Yet some, out of curiosity, have kept it in bottles, racked it off clear, and made of it flip and other very good compositions.” His recipe for the drink gave the ingredients as:

Pale ale wort, 25 gallons; Hops, 2 handfuls; Yeast, 3 pounds; Groats, 6 or 8 pounds: When the fermentation is at its height, bottle in strong stone half pints, well corked and wired. This ale effervesces when opened.

The nature or identity of “groats” in Brande’s recipe is cleared up in a rare book called The Publican, Innkeeper and Brewer’s Guide from 1850, which says “Gray, in his Practical Chemist”, which may be a reference to Samuel Gray’s Operative Chemist, published 1828, gives a recipe for “Grouts for White”, made from six to eight pounds of ground malt in one and a half gallons of water, kept warm by a fireside and stirred often until it began naturally fermenting, and then “when in full fermentation” boiled down to a thin paste. Groats or grouts would therefore be a source of yeast to ferment the White Ale wort with.

The anonymous author (named only as “a practical brewer”) of The Publican, Innkeeper and Brewer’s Guide also gives the first known full recipe for White ale,

a liquor much drank in Plymouth and the adjoining towns. It is considered a very nutritious and wholesome drinks and is probably one of our old English ales, slightly improved or altered. The method of preparing it we have not yet seen in any modern work published on brewing, therefore we proceed to supply the deficiency.

Mash one sack [about 240 pounds] of pale malt or pale and amber malts with sufficient liquor [water] at 170 deg. to draw off thirty [imperial] gallons. Stand two hours and-a-half; set tap [drain] and turn over as much liquor at 180 deg for second mash as will draw off thirty gallons more.

 While the second mash is standing, lade or pump the first wort into the copper; add half-a-pound of hops and increase the heat gradually while the second wort is running off, which add to it. Boil the wort very slowly for twenty minutes or half-an-hour. When it begins to get cloudy, or to break, which may be seen by dipping out a little in a basin, it is then boiled enough, for this must not be boiled so long as for beer. run it off into the coolers with the hops. and cool down as speedily as possible to 81 or 80 degrees in winter and about 60 in summer, and pitch the tun or square.

While it is running into the square, mix a portion of the wort with twenty-four pounds of fine wheaten flour, and twenty-four fresh eggs, into a thin smooth batter, and then put it into the whole with one pound of salt, and set to work with one pound of ‘ripening’.

“Ripening”, the book explained, was a secret ingredient that had been “held by one or two families for many years, no one else in the neighbourhoods where the ale is drank but these knowing how to prepare it.” However, it did not seem to be too secret, for the book went on: “The Ripening, sold at Plymouth, for causing the fermentation, is a mixture of malt, hops and wort, which is quite sour, and without any appearance of fermentation, and is evidently a preparation in which a natural state of fermentation has occurred.”

The same effect can be had, the author wrote. by taking some of the first wort, mixed with some of the malt and hops and kept in a warm place “close corked” for three or four days in a jar, or if some of the first mash is taken out and likewise kept in a jar in a warm place “till the next brewing, the same result will be obtained, without having recourse to the ‘ripening'”.

Once all the wort and ingredients are in the tun,

cover it well up. In ten hours a fermentation will be visible all around the sides of the tun or square, which will increase until it forms a thick head over the whole surface, about as thick as a penny-piece. [This presumably means the diameter of a pre-decimalisation penny, about one and a half inches.]

It will then break into little white heads which will fall back, at which point it should be cleaned by passing it through a fine wire sieve into twelve or fourteen-gallon casks with the heads out. Put them in a place here there is no draft, that the liquor may not chill, and let it be well covered, that it may continue fermenting for eight or ten hours longer, when it will be fit to drink. A thin brown head will then be formed on the top, which should remain undisturbed, to keep the ale fresh under it.

Should this head begin to break away, and fall through the liquor, it may be skimmed off, or it will be drawn off with the ale and spoil its appearance.

At a rough approximation it looks to me as if the recipe would give an ale of around 1050 OG, while the hop rate works out, if my maths is right, to less than five ounces a barrel, or only a third of what even a lightly hopped 19th century mild ale would receive.

White Ale could still be found in South Devon in the 1860s. By 1877, however, White Ale was being described as “said to have been a common drink until recently in the South Hams of Devon and in Cornwall.”. George Saintsbury, the critic and scholar, said in his Notes from a Cellar Book, published in 1920, that “The curious ‘white ale’, or lober agol”, “within the memory of man, used to exist in Devonshire and Cornwall,” though “even half a century ago”, that is, around 1870, “I have vainly sought [for it] there.”

“Lober agol” may have something to do with the extremely obscure brewing term lobb, meaning a thick mixture of yeast and wort ready for pitching into the fermenting vessel, found by the Oxford English Dictionary in a reference from 1839. The journalist John Bickerdyke, writing in 1889, claimed that “at the present time a considerable quantity of white ale is made in and about Tavistock”, that is, Mid-Devon, though this was “brewed in a simpler manner than before, and consists simply of common ale with eggs and flour added.” He added that “an ale of a similar nature to white ale goes in Cornwall by the rather uneuphonious title of ‘Laboragol’.”

However, Bickerdyke’s reference is the last time White Ale was claimed as a living tradition. By the start of the 20th century it looks to have vanished, the final link with a tradition of naturally fermented, hopless or only very lightly hopped ales going back hundreds of years.

17 thoughts on “West Country White Ale, a lost English beer

  1. cheers for this. I´ve been intrigued by west country white ale since seeing a recipe for it in Randy Mosher´s “radical brewing” (with egg white). I seem to recall that his recipe only works out at about 2.5%.

    Haven´t yet got round to trying it, and like Paul, I suspect it will be nasty. But the sources you´ve quoted give a slightly better idea of what may or may not have gone into it.

  2. Good luck, matey, let us know how you get on – I suspect that this probably works like sour dough bread, that is, if you start off with a wild yeast culture in the beginning but constantly use some yeast left over from the last time for the next batch, eventually the yeast types settle down to an optimal mix to produce something reasonably decent. It’s not that different, after all, from a gueuze …

  3. I’m reading your book at the moment Martyn, and this passage struck a chord with me. I’ve recently been experimenting with using egg whites in my brews.

    My theory is adding the egg whites at the end of the mash will raise the pH (egg white is alkaline), help to clarify the brew (egg whites are often used in traditional wine brews for this purpose), remove excessive bitterness (probably related to acidity – bitterness/tartness was becoming a bit of a problem for me in my dark grain brews) and add nutrient for the yeast. So, I add the egg whites when I’ve mashed out all the sugars, let it simmer for a bit and do its thang before scooping it out again, and then bring the brew to a boil.

    It sounds like egg whites may have served a similar purpose in these traditional brews. I strongly doubt they were the source of the wild yeast or fermentation – surely egg white would have evolved to have anti-microbial properties? That wild yeast would have come from the flour.

    Anyway, my first egg white brew is still ageing so it’ll be a month or two before we know if it’s worked 🙂

  4. […] West Country White Ale, also known as Devon White Ale, was apparently the popular drink in, you guessed it, the west of Britain for a few hundred years spanning the 1500’s to the 1800’s. The original drink was consumed very young, sometimes while still fermenting, and that won’t do by modern standards – especially if I am entering this in any sort of competition. I won’t reveal the recipe quite yet, but I’ll be brewing it soon and provide all the details in a follow up post. […]

  5. Didn’t Sir Humphrey Davy recommend Cornish “White Ale” as a delicacy to Robert Southey (author of Goldilocks and the 3 bears) in about 1800?

    I don’t think Southey found the Ale, nor did he go much on Cornwall unfortunately.

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