How to brew like a medieval knight

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.

An armed farmer of the 13th century, like Sir Walter de Bibesworth

One account of brewing “cerveise”, or ale, was recorded in a mid-13th century collection of poems supposedly written as an educational guide to learning French 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. One section concerns brewing ale, and is about the only write-up we have of domestic malting and brewing practice in the middle ages.

Unfortunately the best-known version today of Bibbesworth’s section on brewing, reprinted in John Bickerdyke’s The Curiosities of Ale and Beer in 1889, from a book called A Library of National Antiquities, edited by Thomas Wright and published in 1857, misses out the vital couple of lines that descibe the adding of “le geeste“, the yeast, thus making it look as if 13th century brewers did not pitch yeast into their wort to ferment their ale, but let wild yeasts, or yeasts left behind in the vessel from a previous brew, perform the fermentation.

I am grateful to William Sayers of Cornell University for providing an accurate rendition of Walter’s words, in place of Bickerdyke’s inaccurate version, and a prose translation. Here is Walter de Bibbesworth’s treaty on brewing:

Ore le fraunceis pur breser brece e bracer(1) cerveise(2)
(“Now the French for mashing malt and brewing ale”)

En une cuve(3) large e leez

Cel orge la enfondrez(4),

E quant il est bien enfondré,

E le eauwe seit descouelé(5),
Mountez dune cele haut soler,

Si le facez bien baler,

E la coucherez(6) vostre blé
Taunt cum seit bien germee(8);

E de cele houre apeleras

Breez(9) qe einz blé nomaz,
Le breez de vostre mein movez

En mounceus ou est rengez,

E puis le portés en une corbail
Pur enseccher au torrail(10),

Car corbail ou corbailloun

Vos servirunt tut a foisoun.

Puis serra le brez molu(11)

E de eauwe chaude bien enbu(12).

Si le lessez descoure ataunt

Hors de keverel(13) meintenaunt

Taunt cum la bresceresce(14) entent

Ki ele eit bersil(15) a talent,

E puis le berzize(16) prendra

De forment ou orge ki ele a,

E par le geeste(17) e le berzille

Dunt home plus se sutille,

Par dreit dever de bracerye.
Mes tut diviser ne sai jeo mie,

Mes tut issint de art en art

Attirez chescune part

Deskes vous eez bone serveise,

Dount home devient si ben a eise
Ki les uns en pernent taunt

Ke il enyverent meintenant.

And here is Sayers’s prose translation:

“In a deep and wide vat steep your barley and when it is well steeped and the water has been drawn off, go up then to that high loft and have it well swept out, and leave your grain spread out on the floor, until it has fully germinated.

“From that moment on you will call malt what was formerly called grain. Stir the malt in the piles where it is laid out with your hand, and then carry it in a basket in order to dry it in the oast (kiln), for the basket, big or little, will serve you amply.

“Then the malt is to be ground and well infused with hot water. Then let it drain a while, now outside the mashing vat, until the brewster sees that she has the wort as she wants it.

“Then she will take this grout, of wheat or barley, that she has, and with the barm and wort (by which people sharpen their wits) [she will carry out] the true duties of brewing. But I am not able to give you a full account.

“But thus, with one process after the other, complete each stage until you have good ale, which makes people feel so good that some drink so much that they become drunk.”

And my notes:

(1) “Breser”, “to malt”, “brece”, “malt”, and “bracer”, “to brew”, are all from the Celtic or Gaulish bracis, which means a type of grain, or, more likely, simply malted grain (Latin writers who called bracis a type of grain, such as emmer, were quite likely confused), and which is the root of the French brasseur, brewer. Celtic languages do not appear to differentiate between malting and brewing: the Welsh for malt is brag, while “brewer” in Welsh is bragwr and “to brew” is braga (bracha in North Wales).
(2) Still, in its modern form, cervoise, the French word for unhopped ale, and again derived from an originally Celtic word, curmi, or curmis.
(3) This appears to be the same as kieve, the word for a mash tun still used in Ireland
(4) Literally “sunk” or “submerged”: glossed by, apparently, a later author, as “stepe”, that is, steep
(5) “laden outh” (sic), according to the later gloss on the poem suggesting that the steeping vessel did not have a tap to let the “eauwe” (eau in modern French, of course) drain off, but the water had to be ladled out.
(6) Couch, still the technical term used in malting
(7) Note that the grain started as orge, barley, and is now blé, wheat, showing that the medieval brewer was happy to malt and brew with either grain indiscriminately
(8) Glossed as “spired”: to spire is a now obsolete word meaning “to send forth or develop shoots, especially the first shoot or acrospire”. “The “acro” part of acrospire, incidentally, comes from a dialect word meaning ear, as in ear of corn, barley or wheat …
(9) “Brece” has now become “breez“: consistency in spelling was not essential in the 13th century, evidently, as the word is spelt “brez” a few lines on. In “standard” Early French the word for “malt” was brais,  from the Late Latin braces, from the Gaulish bracis.
(10) Glossed as “kuln”, that is, “kiln”. It comes from the Latin torrere, to roast: the same word appears in an inventory of a brewhouse in London in 1335, spelt “torell”.
(11) Glossed as “Grounden”
(12) The reduced past participial form of the French verb enbeverer, “to steep, soak”.
(13) “keverel”, a little “cuve”, is glossed as “mahissing fate”, that is, mashing vat
(14) “la bresceresce” is “brewster”: you will have noted that this whole operation is, implicitly and explicitly, a female occupation throughout.
(15) Glossed as “Wort”. “Bersil”, or “berzille”, as Walter also spells it, is somewhat of a mystery word, found only here and in some Anglo-Norman medical recipes: Sayers suggests a possible link with Old Norse barlog, “sweet wort”.
(16) Also found in Anglo-Norman texts as bersise and glossed here as “Grout”, evidently in the sense of “grout” as “the infusion of malt before it is fermented, and during the process of fermentation”. “Grout” is a tricksy word, since its meanings in English range from coarse meal to small  beer, and its paronyms in Dutch and German, gruit, Grut, Grütze, are used for the herb mix used to flavour ale in Northern Europe before hops. I know of no use of “grout” in English to suggest it ever meant a herb mix: it always looks to mean grain/malt, or infused grain/malt only. Grout/berzize look to be the mashed grain, wort/bersil the liquid run off the mash. But I am happy to be corrected.
(17) Glossed as “Berme”, that is, barm, or yeast. All the etymological dictionaries I have (and I have four) say the giest/gest/gischt/jist/yeast family is Germanic: Sayers suggests an origin for Walter’s geeste in a supposed Gaulish root word *jesta, though this was evidently a Gaulish borrowing from a Germanic word. The modern French word for yeast is, of course, levure. If anybody knows what the modern Norman French dialect word for yeast is, I would love to know. (The modern Welsh word for yeast, incidentally, is burum, which looks to come from “barm”, while in Irish it’s “giosta“, clearly a member of the giest/yeast family.)

Going through the process, the would-be brewster looking to turn orge (barley) into “cerveyse” first had to steep  her barley in a large vat. When it was soaked and the “eauwe” drained off, she was to carry the grain to a clean-swept “soler” or upper floor and “la coucherez” until it had properly germinated: it should now be called “breez”, 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  basket to the “torrail” or kiln, where it was dried. When the dried malt had been ground (literally, “milled”) it was soaked in hot “eauwe”, the wort run off out of the mash tun until the brewster is satisfied, and yeast added to the wort.

Several points come out of Bibbesworth’s description of brewing ale in the mid-13th century. Irritatingly, he fails to give  us a detailed account of the fermentation stage. But perhaps the most important point is that this appears to be what is known technically as a “raw” ale: the wort is unboiled. This is very different from the description of medieval brewing given by Richard Unger in his book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (2004), where he claims (p30) that mashing and boiling the wort “took place in the same vessel.” According to Bibbesworth there was no boiling. Unger says “water and malt were poured in together and heated”; Bibbesworth implies that the eauwe  was chaude before it was added to the brez. Whatever, this was hot water, not boiling water.

A drawing of a brewhouse from the 15th century showing the ‘lead’ on top of the furnace,
on the right, and the mash tun being stirred, on the left

Second, it is clear that the brewster is adding yeast to the wort after the wort has been removed from the mashtun, not merely letting airborne yeasts ferment it. Again, Bibbesworth frustrates us by declaring  that he is “not able to give you a full account”. He does not tell us anything about the yeast, or exactly how, and in what sort of vessel, fermentation is carried out. Unger suggests fermentation took place in “wooden troughs or barrels” (p31). But an inventory of a brewery in London in 1335, some 80 or so years after Bibbesworth was writing, included a “”raryngfat”, or rearing vat, an old name for a fermentation vat, so that specialist fermentation vessels were certainly in use in the period. Troughs were found in brewhouses, but they were used as conduits, to carry water from one vessel to another, such as from the copper to the mash tun.

Third, there are no flavourings or herbs mentioned, just grain and water. Absence of evidence is not proof of absence, but it strongly suggests that the sort of ale Walter knew did not, in fact, have flavourings added to it. There are still Norwegian farm/home brewers who make “raw” and unherbed ales, and they can be very good indeed, even if they do not last very long.

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 today.

Kimpton, Bibbesworth’s home village, is just a few miles from where I grew up, and I’ve had quite a few pints in what were, when I lived in North Herts, the village’s two surviving pubs, the White Horse (alas, now closed) and the Boot, so I feel a geographical connection with Sir Walter, even though we’re separated in time by more than 700 years.

This post was originally wrtten in 2009, and was based on the incomplete version of Walter of Bibbesworth’s poem found in The Curiosities of Ale. It has now been substantially revised and corrected, leaning heavily on an article by William Sayers, “Brewing Ale in Walter of Bibbesworth’s 13th C. French Treatise for English Housewives”, in Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia, vol. 14, Kraków, 2009, pp 255-266.

13 thoughts on “How to brew like a medieval knight

  1. I’m impressed that you managed to resist the temptation to sneak in a reference to sir Walter being very bibulous.

    Great work! Very happy to see this. It reads exactly like 20th century farmhouse brewers describing what they do: first malting, then brewing, as two parts of a single process.

    Hugely annoying that it breaks off at the crucial moment, but I read this as being (a) almost certainly simple infusion mashing, and (b) probably raw ale. I guess if there was boiling it would have been mentioned, since it’s such a simple and obvious thing.

    There’s no reason why Unger’s claim of mashing and boiling in the same vessel needs to be wrong. Given how hugely variable farmhouse brewing processes were even within a single district in the 20th century, they probably were at least as variable in the 13th century. And I’ve personally seen people mash and boil in the same kettle.

    The “raryngfat” could be a wooden vessel, and despite the name it could in theory also be used for mashing/lautering. In Voss today people say “gil” of their fermentor, and that really means fermentor, but they happily mash in the same vessel.

    The lauter tun is generally suitable as a fermentor, because of the tap, so in low-tech settings fermentors and lauter tuns are often the same in shape, and sometimes even the same vessel.

    Anyway, great to see this piece completed with that crucial bit of information!

  2. “I’ve personally seen people mash and boil in the same kettle.”

    This is pretty common actually in a continental-style two or three vessel brewery. When I was brewing at Meantime, for example, their original brewhouse at Penhall Rd, and the micro unit at The Old Brewery used this method.
    Once the iodine test had been done, and the mash finished, it was cast out to the lauter tun. The mash tun was then cleaned during the lauter rest. The wort was then run back into the mash tun/kettle, and boiled, before transfer to the whirlpool.
    Their current set-up does have a seperate mash tun and kettle, however, which obviously allows mashing and boiling to happen at the same time (ie first brew wort being boiled whilst second brew mash taking place).

  3. Just to say I mash and boil in the same vessel – I do have a very large stainless steel sieve on little feet that nearly fills the vessel, just enough room so the heat can be distributed evenly, so after mashing its lifted up and supported on copper pipes so the remaining malt can be sparged while the wort is heated.

  4. This is very interesting! Now I’m going to go check out this manuscript. And regarding “barm” and similar terminology, you may or may not know that “barm” was used to describe yeast in later Middle English texts, such as Margery Kempe’s (mid-15th century).

    Regarding grout and gruit, you may be interested in an essay that will be published in a collection I’m co-editing about beer’s medieval history and modern beer medievalism. The essay explores the history of gruit in detail and corrects some common scholarly misunderstandings or misinterpretation of earlier evidence for gruit. We anticipate it should be out by the end of the year, but if you were interested in reading a pre-print version I’d be happy to ask our contributor for permission.

  5. I feel rather dubitative about your note 7 : as Haudricourt & Hédin (1943), among others, say :
    “Selon ces règles, les mots les plus fréquemment employés sont soumis à un renouvellement interne » à l’intérieur de la langue. L’histoire de ces substitutions successives apporte des précisions importantes sur la principale céréale cultivée. Ainsi, la céréale la plus courante prend le nom qui désigne la Céréale en général ; par exemple, Blé a remplacé Froment, Frumentum a été employé au lieu de Triticum, alors qu’il s’agit toujours de la même plante.” (p101)
    aka, wouldn’t “blé” in the mid-13th still mean “cereal” rather than “wheat” ?

  6. Interesting that the wort apparently wasn’t boiled. In fact, for some time I’ve suspected that the need for boiling only arose when hops were introduced, which would explain why 14th and 15th century brewers from what is now Belgium had some trouble adapting to hop brewing and why they apparently needed to upgrade their breweries.

    1. Yes, you suddenly needed a furnace capable of bringing a large amount of liquid to actual boiling point, and keep it there, and you needed a vessel that could stand up to that prolongued heat as well …

  7. I’m not much up on Medieval French, but your mystery word “Bersil”/“berzille” sounds very much like “Persil” – Parsley. One of your missing herbs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.