Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

June 22, 2012

English Cottage Beer

Filed under: food, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 5:41 pm

Herein I will show you the way the English made beer in 1780 or so, before England started taxing malt and hops, subsidizing tea, and even banning the sharing of brewing utensils. It also happens to meet the German Purity Law. I “translated” the recipe from William Cobbett’s 1823 book “Cottage Economy,” wherein Cobbett exhorts British workers to maintain a productive homestead, rather than fully buying into the industrial, globally-ambitious economy of the Empire. Cobbett intersperses a lot of political rants into his instructions, goes out of order, uses strange old words and writes sentences that go on for paragraphs, so it would be quite hard to make beer by thumbing through the book as you go along. In other words: disorganization and high reading level don’t make for clear instructions, so I had to write this just to figure out the recipe for myself!

My translation is faithful to the original, it’s for a really big batch of beer, and you need some special equipment such as a 40-gallon copper kettle and a bundle of birch twigs. With no modifications, the recipe might help a historical re-enactor. My next step towards making this beer it to scale down the recipe to use junk available at the local homebrew shop.


Water: Soft water from a brook or river is best, and a pond fed by a rivulet will do just fine. Hard water, or mineral-rich well water, is advised against. For the modern brewer, water from the tap is likely fine, as long as it isn’t too full of minerals. In some areas, there is so much chlorine in the water that it will kill your yeast, but you can remove the chlorine by boiling or filtering the water through charcoal (the latter method will also remove hardness and other minerals).

Since you’ll be boiling it, go ahead and use water contaminated by cholera and dysentery.

Malt: If you are so fortunate as to have a local maltster, look for barley that is fully malted — all the kernels should be sporting sprouts, and float rather than sink. The shells should be thin and the interior mealy — hard and steely is bad. Whether you like light or dark roasted malt is up to you, depending on your taste in beer. This recipe is for two bushels of malt.

Alternatively, you can make your own malt from fresh barley

Soak the barley for three days. Pour it out onto bricks, stone, or concrete. Watch for the roots to shoot out, and the above-ground shoots to advance about halfway through the inside of the barley seed. Dry the barley, such as by roasting it at a low temperature.

Making your own malt was a criminal activity in the England of 1823… I can imagine Cobbett writing books about growing marijuana if he lived today!

Hops: You are looking for the cones of the hops plant, pure and free of leaf and vine. The cones should not be brown, but between yellow and green, free of mature seeds (big, hard, dark seeds), have a lively, pleasant smell, and have lots of resinous powder. Anyone who has bought cannabis should have a good handle on what to look for in hops, although good hops is described as slippery rather than sticky. This recipe uses two pounds of hops.

Yeast: Cobbett recommends making yeast cakes once per year, during a hot, dry stretch of summer.

3 ounces good fresh hops

3.5 ounces rye flour

7 pounds corn meal

1 gallon water

Boil the water. Rub the hops to separate it into the water. Boil 1/2 hour. Strain into a big bowl.

Stir in the rye flour while the water is hot. Cover with a loose cloth and leave out for a day.

Stir in the corn meal. Pull out the resulting stiff lump of dough and knead it well, “as you would a pie-crust.” Roll it out at about 1/3 of an inch thick. Cut out 3-inch round pieces of dough. Place them on a board in the hot sun; turn them every day and protect them from wet (I imagine you have to put them out every morning and take them in every evening.) When the yeast cakes are as dry and hard as ship biscuits, they are ready to be stored in a dry place.

To prepare liquid yeast from the cakes, take 2 cakes, crack them, and drop into hot water. Leave in a warm place overnight.

Froth from fermenting beer is also good, traditional yeast — but it’s only available when you already have some beer going!


40-gallon copper kettle

60-gallon mash tub with a 2″ drain hole located at the center. A tapered stick, a bit taller than the tub, serves as the stopper. A bundle of birch sticks or straw is used as a strainer. You must weight the straw into place with something you can move the stopper-stick through — but please don’t follow Cobbett’s suggestion to use a leaden collar! “The thing they use in some farmhouses is the iron box of a wheel,” if that clears things up.

An “underbuck,” a shallow tub to go under the mash tub.

30-gallon “tun” tub

2 to 4 big shallow tubs, for cooling hot liquid.


Big, bowl-like ladle

3 18-gallon casks

Stir stick: somewhat larger than a broomstick, with two or three 8-10″ sticks pushed through perpendicularly near one end.

A very large piece of cheesecloth or some burlap sacks sewn into a sheet.

Strainer (such as a clean wicker clothes basket)


Baking pan


Coarse linen

Boil the Wort

Fill the 40-gallon copper kettle with water and bring to a boil.

Set up the mash tub. It should be up on stools or sawhorses or the like, so that the underbuck can be placed under the drain hole. The straw or birch filter must somehow be set into place, and the stopper-stick shoved through it and into the drain hole.

Pour water into the mash tub, sufficient to stir two bushels of malt around in (perhaps 20 gallons?). Top the kettle up and keep it boiling.

Allow the water in the mash tub to cool to 170 Fahrenheit. Add two bushels of malt, ground, into the mash tub, and stir well with the stir stick. Leave the mash this way for 15 minutes (stirring occasionally?).

Add boiling water until the mash tub is a little more than half full — about 30 gallons of water, total, should have gone into the tub by this point, though much will be absorbed into the malt. Stir the mash well again. Cover with loose fabric, such as burlap sacks or cheese cloth, and leave for 2 hours.

Little by little, pull out the tapered stopper-stick, so the wort drains slowly into the underbuck and your filter catches the malt. Ladle the wort into the tun-tub (or use a hose and a submersible pump, I don’t care).

Start the Small Beer

Beer for hobbits? I guess you could use coffee grounds twice, and call the second batch “small coffee.” We are going to take the wort we drained out and make it into ale, but first we’ll extract the last goodness out of our malt to make small beer.

Plug the mash tub drain hole back up. Pour 36 gallons of boiling water into the tub, and stir well with the stir stick. Cover with loose cloth, and leave stand for only one hour.

Ale into the Kettle

Pour the wort from the tun-tub into the empty copper kettle. Add one and a half pounds of good hops, well rubbed and separated as you add it. Boil from one to one and a half hours.

Remove from heat and pour into the shallow cooling tubs, straining out the hops (and saving them for the small beer).

Small Beer into the Kettle

The small beer wort in the tun tub is now returned to the copper kettle, with the lightly-used hops you strained out of the ale wort. Add half a pound of fresh hops, and boil for an hour.

During this time, you need to watch for the cooling ale wort to reach 70 Fahrenheit, as well as clean the mash tub out and set it up for another use.

Ale into Tun Tub for Primary Fermentation

When the ale wort (in the shallow tubs) cools to seventy Fahrenheit, pour it back into the tun-tub.

Put a half-pint of yeast into a gallon bowl or jar, then fill the container with wort. Stir in a handful or wheat or rye flour. Pour the mixture into the tun-tub and stir it all together.

Cover with a loose cloth and place in an area as close to 55 Fahrenheit as possible.

Fermenting the Small Beer

Put out your fire, and strain the small beer wort from the kettle into the mash-tub. Throw the hops into the compost, or onto the dung-hill if that’s your style.

Let the wort cool in the mash tub.

Put three half-pints of yeast into a gallon bowl or jar, then fill the container with wort. Stir in a handful or wheat or rye flour. Pour the mixture into the mash-tub and stir it all together.

Cover with a loose cloth and place in a cool area.

Treat as in “Fermenting the Ale,” below, but cask the small beer while it is still a little warm from yeast action.

Fermenting the Ale

Let the yeast work and skim off froth every twelve hours or so, until no more froth is rising up.

When the beer is as cold as its surroundings, it is ready to cask. Block the casks with the bunghole up but slightly to one side, so that any runoff goes down the one side into an awaiting pan. Then, pour bucketfuls of beer through the funnel into the cask, leaving a couple of gallons behind for topping up. Allow the beer to work for several more days, and top up the cask as needed. When the bubbling is really, finally over, turn the bunghole straight up. Add a handful of hops, and fill the cask completely full. Put a piece of coarse linen around the bung and hammer it into place. You may weight the bung into place with a sandbag, if desired.

Leave beer in the cask from about two weeks to the limit of your patience. Small beer may be ready in a couple of weeks, but ale benefits from longer aging and is said to keep forever. Modern wooden casks feature a replaceable “keystone” through which you hammer a tap. Drink the beer. Be sure to seal the cask tightly back up when you are through with the beer, or you will mold the cask and ruin it!

Clean the cask by pouring it out, scalding it in several changes of hot water, and rolling it about with a chain inside.

That’s how you make beer. What a project — no wonder American pioneers preferred hard cider! Cobbett says that you can brew beer in one day, if you start at four in the morning. So, uh, seize the day. Or just enjoy knowing something new.

Have a happy summer, y’all!


1 Comment »

  1. Great Ceiling Cat almighty! It was exhausting just reading this, let alone try to actually follow the directions in the real world. Good luck with trying to pare down the amounts to a useable quantity!

    Comment by Kris — June 23, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

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