Introduction to Brewing or I’d rather drink my grape juice after it has gone off

Ales and Beers
Cider and Perry
Flavored alcohol and wines
I want to start Brewing.  What do I need?
I want to learn more

Man has been inextricably linked with alcohol during most of our evolution.  This is written in our genes, we are born with the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in our liver, this enzyme serves to detoxify this toxic compound from our blood.  The results of natural fermentation can still be seen in Wildlife documentaries, with many animals, including elephants, been seen to get drunk on the fruit of the Amarula tree.
So when in the past did one of our ancestors decide that the fruit juice tasted better if it had sat around for a while, gone all funny looking and bubbly, and then cleared.  It is known that by the 16th C bce the Greeks had discovered how to make grape wine.  The ancient Egyptians left instructions on how to make beer written in hieroglyphs.  So if all that is needed to make wine or beer is to let stuff go off then how come beer, mead and wine were taken as the drink of the gods, and that those who prepared it were so highly valued.  The answer is simple, if you just let some fruit juice ferment by itself you are as likely to get vinegar, mold or some other nasty growth as you are to get a wonderful alcoholic beverage.
For the purposes of this class I will divide drinks into four categories: meads, wines, ales, cider and perry and finally flavored wines and spirits (cordials).  First a little about the beast responsible for the transformation of sugar to alcohol.

It is quite possible to claim that without Saccharomyces cerevisciae the world would be a far different place.  This humble little yeast transforms wheat flour into light and fluffy bread and is single handedly responsible for just about every single alcoholic drink served worldwide.  Mankind has been selectively breading yeast for many years, even before the modern scientific age we were selecting for yeast better for baking, by keeping a sourdough, and brewing, using the must from one keg to start the next.  So what does yeast need to live and grow and thrive.
1) A place of it’s own – especially when you are starting a brew the conditions are perfect for more than just the yeast you want growing in there.  So it is important to make sure that everything is as clean as possible so no other nasty bugs can muscle in on those sugars and spoil the party for everyone.
2) A little bit of warmth – yeast grows best between about 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (this is not true for lager yeast but we will get there later).  If the temperature gets too high the yeast will die, giving you lots of dead yeast in your ferment and you will have to start all over again.  If the temperature is too low then the yeast will simply stop growing and you will have to raise the temperature to get things going again.
3) Something to eat – this can be any carbohydrate, this includes starch: a complex carbohydrate such as in found in wheat, barley, rice, oats; and sugar: from fruit juice, honey or plain old sugar.  But the balance has to be just right, too much sugar and the yeast will not grow, too little and all the food is exhausted quickly yielding a thin low alcohol brew.
4) Vitamins and minerals – just like us, yeast need a nice balanced diet, they especially love amino acids and some sort of nitrogen source.  If the yeast is short of these nutrients you will have a long slow ferment that results in a low alcohol brew.

The Celts, Anglo-Saxons and the Norse drank mead, the ancient Greeks and Romans hydromel.  Mead is most likely the most ancient of alcoholic beverages and is spoken of in both Beowolf and the Mabinogion [1].  Given simply mead is simply the fermentation of honey diluted with water.  However, as far as yeast are concerned honey is lacking in several essential items, notably acid and tannin.  Thus, in many of the period and existing recipes for mead we find the addition of fruit juices for acids and spices to provide the tannins.  There are three major types of mead: plain mead which contains mostly honey and water, metheglin which is enriched with herbs and spices, melomel which is a mead made with fruit juice.  The recipes below are two out of nearly fifty recipes for mead and metheglin given in “The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digby Opened”[2].

To make an excellent Meath [2]
To every quart of honey, take four quarts of water.  Put your water in a clean kettle over the fire and with a stick take a just measure how high the water cometh, making a notch, where the superfices toucheth the stick.  As soon as the water is warm, put in your honey, and let it boil, skimming it always, till it be very clean, then put to every gallon of water one pound of the best blue raisins of the Sun, clean picked from the stalks and clean washed.  Let them remain in the boiling liquor, till they be throughly swoln and soft, then take them out, and put them into a hair bag, and strain all the juyce and pulp and substance from them in an apothecaries press; which put back into your liquor, and let it boil, till it be consumed just up to the notch you took at first, for the measure of your water alone.  Then let your liquor run through a hair strainer to an empty wooden vat which must stand end wise, with the head of the upper end out; and there let it remain till the next day, that the liquor be quite cold.  Then tun it up into a good barrel, not filled quite full, but within three or four fingers breadth; (where sack hath been, is the best) and let the bung remain open for six weeks with a double bolter-cloth lying upon it, to keep any foulness from falling in.  Then stop it up close, and drink not of it till after nine months.

In this recipe we see that standard mead ingredients (honey and water) supplemented with raisins, which are essentially dried grapes, these add some of the tannins, nutrients and acids that help balance out the mead.  There is no mention of adding barm (the yeast that rises to the top of an ale brew) in this recipe but may be understood to be added as so many other mead recipes in this book specify such.  We are then instructed to let it ferment it for six weeks in an empty sack barrel, with the opening covered with cloth, and then to close it up and let it sit for nine months before drinking.  If we were to attempt this recipe at home it would look something like this:

2 pints honey (a little over three pounds)
8 pints of water (1 gallon)
1 pound raisins washed
Put the water in a pan to boil and note the height of the water.  When the water is warm add the honey and stir in and bring to a boil.  Remove all the scum that rises to the surface, when the liquid is skimmed add the raisins and leave in the liquid until they are plump and juicy.  Remove the plumped raisins, crush and strain all the juice back into the pan.  Continue boiling the honey, raisin water mix until there is only 8 pints remaining.  Strain into a carboy and leave to cool overnight.  Next day pitch you yeast, attach an airlock and allow to ferment for at least six months before bottling.

 Metheglin composed by my self out of sundry receipts [2]
In sixty gallons of water, boil ten handfuls of sweet-bryat (bryony) leaves; eye-bright, livorwort, Agrimony, scabrious, balme, wood-betony, strawberry-leaves, burnet of each four handfuls; of rosemary three handfuls; of mint, angelica, Bays and wild-thyme, sweet marjoram, of each two handfuls, six iringo roots.  When the water hat taken out the vertue of the herbs and roots, let it setle, and the next day pour off the clean, and in every three gallons boil one of honey, scumming it well, and putting in a little cold water now and then to make the scum rise, as also some whites of eggs.  When it is clear scummed, take it off and let it cool; then work it with Ale-yeast, tun it up and hang in it a bag with Ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamon.  And as it worketh over, put in some strong honey drink warmed.  When it works no more stop it up close.

This metheglin is incredibly rich with various herbs, however the actual amount per gallon is fairly small when you consider that you are adding a couple of handfuls of each herbs sixty gallons of water.  Further spices are added in a bag in the barrel to further perfume and flavor the wine.  One could easily make the metheglin without the sixty gallons of water and handfuls of herbs (agrimonry is also known as monks hood and is poisonous) and merely season it with the spices, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.  Such a recipe may be given as:
6 pints water
2 pints honey
Dissolve honey in the water and bring to a boil.  Remove all the scum as it rises.  When it is clear skimmed take it off the heat and transfer to a sterile carboy.  When cool add yeast, and 1 inch ginger root, 2 inches cinnamon stick, 10 cloves, 15 cardamom pods, wrapped in a cloth and suspended on a string to the liquid.  Stopper with an airlock and allow to ferment.

The classic wine is that made from the juice of grapes.  There nature of the grape wine is essentially taken from the variety of the grape used to produce it.  Hence, a merlot wine is made from the merlot grapes.  However, there are differences dependent on where it was grown, the conditions it was grown under and the way it was produced.  This is why you can by a Gallo Merlot for only a couple of dollars, and something that tastes fantastic for more.  In period there was no way to have the vintage wines we enjoy today.  Wine was stored and transported in wooden casks, therefore it was open to the spoiling effects of air.  Thus in period much of the wine was drunk the same year, or at most 1 year after it was brewed.  This means that in general the wines were paler and often more acidic than those we enjoy today [3].  I have not managed to unearth any recipes on grape wine but essentially the method has remained unchanged for centuries.  For white wine the grapes are pressed and the juice strained and fermented.  A white wine can be made from either a red or a white grape.  For a red wine the grapes are crushed and allowed to ferment on the skins for a time before the juice is pressed and fermentation is continued.
There is evidence for the making of country wines, that is wines of fruits that are not grape.  This practice continues today in many home brewers houses.
Strawberry Wine [2]
Bruise the strawberries, and put them into a linen-bag which hath been a little used, that so the Liquor may run through more easily.  You hang in the bag at the bung into the vessel, before you do put in your Strawberries.  The quantity of the fruit is left ot your discretion; for you will judge to be there enough of them, when the color of the wine is high enoug.  During the working, you leave the bung open.  The working being over, you stop your vessel.  Cherry wine is made after the same fashion.  But it is necessary, that if your cherries be of the black soure cherries, you put to it a little cinnamon, and a few cloves.

This recipe appears to make wine out of the juice of strawberries alone, with no addition of sugar.  There are many excellent country wine recipes available on the web at the online wine makers guide [4].

Ales and Beers
The classic distinction between an ale and a beer is the presence of hops.  Early in SCA period Ales were the norm and the use of hops was virtually unknown.  Hops have a particular use in beer, not merely to make it taste bitter but to improve the keeping qualities, a hopped beer spoils less readily.  The basic steps in beer making are as follows:
1) Malting – the grain (barley) is encouraged to germinate, this turns many of the starches to sugar (malt).  The sprouted grains are then kilned, or baked, to kill the seed.  The degree of cooking of the grain determines the darkness of the malt, the longer you cook it the darker, and more caramelized the malt becomes.
2) Mashing – this is where the ground grains are steeped in hot water.  This produces a wort which is rich in starch and sugar extracted from the grains.  This strained wort may then be boiled with hops to add the characteristic bitterness.
3) Fermentation – well we are talking alcohol here so we have to throw in the yeast at some point.  There are two forms of yeast when talking about beer, the lager or bottom fermenting yeast and the ale or top fermenting yeast.  Each has it’s own particular characteristics.
4) Bottling and priming – at some point in a beers life it is time to slow down.  When this happens the brew (to which a little sugar may be added) is put into bottles and allowed to ferment further.  This yields a brew with that nice bit of carbonation that fizzes on your tongue.

Markeham Gervase [5] had this to say about beer:
“To speake then of beere, although there bee divers kinds of tastes and strengths therof, according to the allowance of malte, hoppe, and age given unto the same; yet indeed there can bee tryly sayd to be but two kindes thereof; namely, ordinary beere and March beare, all other beeres being derived from them.”

March beer [5]
Now for the brewing of the best march beere you shall allow to a Hogs-head therof a quarter of the best malt, well ground; then you shall take a pecke of pease, halfe a pecke of wheate, and half a pecke of oates, and grind them all very well together, and then mix them with your malt; which done you shall in all points brew this beere as you did with the ordinary beere; onely you shall allow a pound and a half of hops to this one Hogshead: and whereas before you drew but two sorts of beere: so now you shall draw three: that is a Hogs-head of the best, and a hogs head of the second, and half a hogs-head of small beere without any augmentation of hops or malt.
This march beere would be brew’d in the moneths of March or April, and should if it have right lie a whole year to ripen: it will last two, three or foure yeeres if it lie coole and close, and indure then dropping to the last drop, though with never so much leasure.

An unusual beer recipe that contains many other grains in addition to the standard malt.  Peas, wheat and oats all make an appearance.  We are also told that this beer lasts a long time.  A hogs head is a measure equivalent to about 63 gallons.  Quite a considerable home brew run.

 Mr Webb’s Ale and Braggot [2]
Five bushels of malt will make two hogs-heads, the first running makes one very good hogshead, but not very strong; the second is very weak.  To this proportion boil a quarter of a pound of hops in all the water that is to make the two hogsheads; that is, two ounces to each hogshead.  You put your water to the mault in the ordinary way.  Boil it well, when you work it with yeast; take very good beer yeast not ale yeast.
To make Braggot, He takes the first running of such Ale, and boils a less proportion of Honey in it than when He makes His ordinary Meath; but dubble or triple as much spice and herbs.  As for example to twenty gallons of the strong-wort, he puts eight or ten pound (according to your taste liketh more or less honey) of honey; But at least triple as much herbs, and triple as much spice as would serve a quantity of small Mead as he made Me (For to a stronger Mead you put a greater proportion of Herbs and Spice, than to a small; by the reason that you must keep it a longer time before you drink it; and the length of time mellows and tames the tat of the herbs and spice). And when it is tunned in the vessel (after working with the barm) you hang in it a bag with bruised spices (rather more than you boiled in it) which is to hang in the barrel all the while you draw it.

This is really two recipes in one, first we are given an ale recipe and then a braggot which is a cross between a metheglin (containing honey, herbs and spices) and an Ale.

Cider and Perry
These two drinks are indelibly linked with the West country in England and Normandy in France.  For it is in these regions that pear and apple trees are common and these drinks are simply the fermented juice of the peer or apple tree.

Perrie and cider [5]
As for the making of Perrie and cider which are drinks much used in the west parts and other countries well storied with fruit in this kingdome, you shall know that your Perry is made from pears only, and your cider of Apples; and for the manner of making therof it is done after one fashion, that is to say after your Peares or Apples are well pickt from stalkes, rottennesse and all manner of other filth, you shall put them in the presse mill which is made with a mill stone running round in a circle, under which you shall crush your peares or Apples, and then straining them through a bagge of haire cloth, tunne up the same after it hath been a little setled into hogs-heads, barrels and other close vessel.

These simple instructions from Gervase are as valid today as then.  Simply crush the apples or pears, strain the juice, ferment and bottle.  Many west country apple farmers still produce cider in much the same way and it can be bought from them in plastic containers.  This farm produced cider, often called scrumpy, is by no means the clear and sanitized drink most often found masquerading as cider in the modern store.  It is almost a thick liquid, totally unfiltered, often cloudy and with a kick like a crazy mule, it also runs around 6-8% alcohol, tastes great going down but leaves a mean hangover.  Trust me on this one.

Flavored alcohol and wines
Within the middle ages the flavoring of wine was common, as was discussed earlier wine was stored and transported in wooden casks, this often led to spoilage.  One way that was used to make a less than perfect wine a little better was by the addition of flavorings such as herbs and spices or fruits.  This served two purposes, one it made an excellent post meal digestive, two it made everything taste better.  The most common form of flavored wine was hypocras or ipocras.  This beverage was wine which had been steeped with aromatic herbs.  It was frequently served as part of the final course of a dinner, along with sweetmeats to aid digestion.

Ipocras [6]
Take of chosen cinamon, two ounces, of fyne Gynger one ounce, of Graynes halfe an ounce, bruse them all, & steepe them in iii or iiii pyntes of good odiferous wine, with a pound of sugre by the space of xxiiii howres, then put them into an Ipocras bag of wollen, and so receave the liquor.  The rediest or the best waye is to put the spices with the halfe pounde of sugre, and the wine into a stone bottle or a stone pot stopped close, and after xxiiii howres it will be ready, then cast a thin linnen cloth, or a peece of a boulter cloth on the mouth, let so much run thorow as ye wyll occupy at once, and kepe the vessell close for it will so well keep both the sprite, odour and vertue of the wine and also spices.

This is a simple to follow recipe:
80 fl oz good red wine
1 lb sugar
two ounces cinnamon
one ounce root ginger (dried)
half an ounce of grains of paradise
Pound the spices (bruise them) and break them up a little, pour the spices, sugar and wine into some vessel that you can close.  Allow to steep for a day.  Strain the spices from the wine using a cloth or bag (a ipocras bag was a finely woven cloth bag specifically used for making this spiced wine).  Bottle and keep the wine closed.

Another way of flavoring wine was with fruit as in this recipe from Digby.
Morello wine [2]
To half an aume of white-wine, take twenty pounds of morello-cherriees, the stalks being first plucked off.  Bruise the cherries and break the stones.  Pour into the wine the juyce that comes out of the cherries; but put all the solid substance of them into a long bag of boulter cloth, and hang it in the wine at the bung, so that it lie not in the bottom, but only react to touch it, and therefore nail it down at the mout of the bung.  Then stop it close.  For variety you may use clear juyce of cherries alone (but drawn from a larger proportion of cherries) into another parcel of wine.

An aume is a measure equivalent to about 40 gallons, so here we are flavoring each gallon of wine with about half a pound of cherries.  A boulter cloth was the cloth used to bolt the flour to yield white flour from whole ground grain.  Thus, it would have been a fairly close woven fabric.

Another way of flavoring wines would be to add flowers to the wine, allow it to steep and then strain it.  As in these recipes from Italy:

Odori diversi a’vini [7]
Prendi il fiore dell’uva salvatica et si mette a seccare all’ombra et si serba in vaso di vetro ben turata fino alla vendemmia et fatto che sarà il vino, prima che metterlo nelle botti, si piglia una libbra di questo fiore per ogni otto barili di vino et si mette in fondo della botte et poi se empie detta botte et si tura subito, che in breve tempo piglierà un odore tanto soave che non si potrà immaginare quello che si sia.
 Odore di moscadello
Prendi fiori di sanbuco et fallo seccare all’ombra ben netto e pulito e se ne mette a descritione nella bote confome alle quantità del vino et farai come si è detto, cioè una libbra di fiore a otto barili di vino et fa’ come sopra.

To give various scents to wines
Take the flowers of the wild grape and put them to dry in the shade, and put them to one side in a glass jug that is well sealed will before the grape harvest, and when you have the wine before putting it into the cask, one takes a pound of these flowers for every eight barili (one barila is 45 liters) and then one fills the cask and one seals it immediately, that in a short time it will take a scent pleasing sweet and gentle that one cannot possible imagine what it is.
To give a scent of moscatello
Take elder flowers and let them dry in the shade, well cleaned and washed and one puts them into the cask in relation to the quantity of wine and one does as it is said, that is a pound of flowers for every eight barili of wine and do as above.

Here flowers are dried and then added to fresh wine as soon as it is ready to put in the barrel to give it additional fragrance and flavor.  This can be easily modified to a new wine at the rate of ¼ ounce of dried flowers per standard bottle (750ml) of wine.

Next we come to flavored alcohol, here the situation is a little trickier.  In period cordials or waters as they were often called were the result of distillation, a process that is illegal under the law in the US.  You could do this at home, if you had an alembic or still, however it is called bootlegging and can buy you jail time.  I have included three spirit recipes, the first is a distillation of honey alcohol, the second contains many herbs and spices, the third simply cinnamon.  These are a very small representation of the huge number of distilled spirits available in period cook books and books of medicine.  In fact the waters in question were viewed more as a medicine than as a drink.  A pottle is a liquid measure of two quarts.  Sack is a strong, light colored wine from Spain.

Spirit of Hony [8]
Put one part hony to 5 parts of water, when the water boyleth, dissolve your hony therein, skimme it, and having sodden an houre or two, put it in to a wooden vessell, and when it is but bloud warme, set in on worke with yeaste after the usuall manner of beere and Ale, tun it, and when it hath lyen some time, it will yeelde his spirit by distillation as wine, beer and ale.
To make Balme water. [9]
Take Balme, dry thee ounces, time, peniriall, of each an ounce, cinamon foure ounces, a dram of cardonus, graines halfe an ounce sweet fennell seeds an ounce, nutmegs and ginger of each a dram, gallingale one ounce, calamus and cyprus, cubebs and pepper, of each two drams, of caper-roots halfe a dram, of Doptamus one dram: bruise these things, and put them to a pottle of sacke, and steepe them 24 houres, and then use it as the former waters.
To make cinamon water [10]
Take one pound of cinamon, the best you can get, bruise it well, and put to it a gallon of the best sack, and steepe it three daies and three nights, and distill it as before.

The closest we can come to making these spirits is to soak spices or fruit in an alcohol base, i.e. by maceration of the flavoring agent in the alcohol.
One alcohol still made like this today is the drink called “Limonata” which is made in southern Italy from Lemons.  A reasonable version of limonata can be made by the following recipe:
2 lemons, take the peel from the lemons, ensuring that there is no pith (white stuff),
3 cups of vodka
1 cup sugar
Place all ingredients into a closed vessel and leave in a cool dark place for one week shaking occasionally.  After one week filter out the lemon peel, bottle the liqueur and allow to sit for a further week before drinking.  Serve and drink ice cold, store the bottle in the freezer.

I want to start Brewing.  What do I need?
For wine and mead
A large pan to boil water.
Two glass carboys or vessels of the appropriate size, i.e. if you want to make 1 gallon of brew you need two 1 gallon carboys, if 2 gallons then 2 gallon carboys etc.
A food safe fermentation vessel (bucket) of some form, large enough to hold the initial ferment.
Sterilizing compound: this can be bleach (not my favorite) or campden tablets (Sodium metabisulfate).
A length of siphon tubing, a bag or strainer.
Bungs, one with a hole in for a fermentation lock and one sealed.
Bottles and corks
Patience, lots of it.  Most wine tastes better after it has aged, expect to wait at least one year before you drink it.
For beer
As above but for carboys substitute a beer fermentation vessel, beer bottles and caps for wine bottles.
For cordials
A vessel for steeping the alcohol in, a bag or some sort of strainer, bottles for the finished drink.

I want to learn more
There are many wonderful resources for wine, mead and beer on the web, many hosted by SCAdians. - the home of the SCA-brew on the web, has many links to other pages. – Nick Trumans online brewing guide, tells you what you need, gives reasons for everything and lots of wonderful recipes for wines and beers. – a page dedicated to medieval and renaissance brewing – discussions, recipes and resources for the makers of mead. - the home winemakers manual by Lum Eissenman, a manual for amateur wine makers. - a page dedicated to small scale ciderr making, including how to grow your own cider apples. – Cindy Renfrew’s links to online historical brewing links, including online books.


Cindy Renfrew a sip through time.  A Sip Through Time contains over 400 recipes drawn from Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Europe, and 17th, 18th, and 19th century America and Europe. No stone has been left unturned in my quest to find authentic, documented period recipes for Ale, Beer, Mead, Metheglin, Cider, Perry, Brandy, Liqueurs, Distilled Waters, Hypocras, Wines, Caudles, Possets, and Syllabubs.  Available for purchase on the web at:

The Compleat Anachronist has two volumes on brewing and alcohol.
# 5, The compleat Anachronist Guide to Brewing.
# 60 Alcoholic Drinks of the Middle ages
These are available for purchase online at:

1. Shapiro, M., Alcoholic drinks of the middle ages. 1992, Compleat Anachronist #60.
2. Digby, K., The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Kigby Kt. opened. 1671, London: H. Brome.
3. Eviane, L.A. and R.A. Gwynedd, The compleat anachronist handbook of brewing. 1983, Compleat Anachronist # 5.
4. Truman, N., The online wine makers guide.
5. Markeham, G., Countrey contentments. 1615, London: R. Jackson.
6. Par, I., The treasurie of commodious conceits & hidden secrets. 1573, London: Richarde Iones.
7. del Turco, G., Epulario e segreti vari, ed. A. Forni. 1636, Bologna, Italy: Arnaldo Forni.
8. Plat, H., Delightes for Ladies. 1603, London: Peter Short.
9. A closet for Ladies and gentlewomen. 1630, London: John Havilard.
10. Murrel, J., A daily exercise for ladies and gentlewomen. 1617, London: Widow Helme.

Composed 2003  by Lady Helewyse de Birkestad, CW.  You may use/ distribute this version for non-profit use only (scholarly, private use) provided that this information is included.  Contact me by email at