At Rowany in 2013 I continued with my experimentation of brewing at events over a fire and using dark-ages equipment. Rowany however offered an opportunity that other events don’t: to go from brewing through fermentation and then consumption.
So I took this opportunity and made a Gruit ale from (as best I could) locally sourced ingredients. The whole experiment from making the wort, fermenting and drinking was done on site using a variety of Dark-ages domestic cooking equipment.
I used a blend of modern malt to approximate what I believe the taste of medieval malt. The malt was built from floor-malted Halcyon and dark Munich malt. Halcyon is one of the oldest varieties of base malt that is still in production and the dark Munich was used to bring the overall colour up. I used a blend of three different smoked malts and roasted malt to try and provide a generic smoked flavour that would be found in malt that was cooked over a fire (as would have occurred in period), rather than a particular ‘flavour’ of smoke (which would have come through if I hadn’t blended them).
The bittering agent was dandelions that were found at the festival site.
The yeast was sourced from the bottom of the fermenter of my previous batch of beer – as yeast was often recycled in period.
Making the ale
I mashed the brew over a fire. This was quite involved!
On the day of the brew I started chopping wood at 6.30 am which got me a few odd comments from those I camp with but this was ok, because it was in the pursuit of beer. With a cart load of wood I stopped to eat breakfast and to prepare everything else I needed for the day.
At about 10 am I lit my fire and waited for it to burn down into a good bed of coals. Once I had sufficient and stable heat I set up the smaller of my cauldrons and dry roasted the dandelions until they took on a bitter taste. I added the malt and the water to the pot and over the course of 2.5-3 hours (the time was measured by tracking the sun across the sky) and brought it up to a temperature that I could not put my hand into. I compensated for fluctuating temperatures and increased the heat mass by adding rocks that had been heated by the fire into the brew, this was inspired by a video called Billy and Dec’s Bronze Age Beer.
I then took the cauldron off the fire and started to separate the wort from the grain and returned the wort to the fire. I brought the wort to the boil and simmered it for 15-30 mins (sun again) with a little more dandelion by the time this was all done it was about 5 pm .
I then let the wort cool to pitching temperature, added the yeast and fermented it onsite in a spare cauldron. The following morning there was a fine thick Kräusen and it tasted fine.
We started to drink this seriously after about 48 hours of fermentation until the end of Festival. I noticed a significant flavor change about every six hours or so and I feel it tasted best at the 72 hour mark.
This brew was well received by those who dared to try it. Comments ranged from “No f****** way” through to “It’s good, not what I was expecting.”
I feel that this brew really challenged those who tried it and changed the perceptions of what can be done at an event. It is also a demonstration of what can be done with primitive equipment and no measurement tools which stands in contrast to a hobby/industry that is driven by technology.
I don’t think I could brew with any less equipment and will continue to do this kind of brewing at events. Come and join me!