The Ways Of The Old

from theweeklybrew


It seems whenever somone brings up barrel aging, smoked grains, or “real ale” these days they like to pretend they are tasting the flavors of old. They dream of heavy beers with smoky undertones and hints of vanilla and oak, poured from a cask with a slightly oxidized quality. They talk about how it’s the way beer has tasted for hundreds of years, and therefore is how real beer should taste. The reality is that this is our more modern view of what beer would have tasted like.

Technology is the thing you need to understand in order to paint an accurate picture of what a beer would taste like in, say Britain in the 1600’s. The technology available to people drove beer flavors much more then the flavor profiles that drive modern production.

First you start with the malt. Barley and other fermentables at the time didn’t benefit from the breeding we have today. Modern cereals for brewing benefit from an attempt to balance starches, proteins, growability, and other factors. Nowadays we treat our soils and irrigate our fields to help produce a consistent standard. Cereals prior to modern agriculture were inconsistent and could be either high or low protein and no one would really be the wiser. Once cereals were harvested, the ones destined for beer had to be malted. Then the process was inconsistent. Pour grains and water in tubs, soak, drain, germinate, then kiln. Our modern methods regulate temperatures, water, acrospyre length and all sorts of stuff to regiment germination and produce a greater variety of malts. Kilning also added a unique flavor to the beer. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that a new technology allowed grains to be tumbled in a rotating drum. In the 17th century grains were dried on screens or tiles over an open flame or coals creating an intense taste and smell that would probably be more reminiscent to the taste and smell of a campfire then a modern smoked beer. This kilning method also would produce inconsistent roasting of the grain.

Secondly you need to consider hops and yeast. Prior to the 11th century hops weren’t found in beers. By the 1600’s though hops had found their way into beers as a bittering agent. Early hops cultivation suffered similarly to early cereals. There were fewer varieties, inconsistent crops, and poor storage. Even into the 17th century gruit herbs still found their way into most beers. A beer of that time probably would not have any citrus hop flavors like we associate with American beers though. Yeast at the time also suffered from a lack of modernization. Yeast strains were generally regional and were obtained only from a brewer or baker. Breweries who had unique strains often guarded them. If you wanted to make a beer similar to one you tasted in Germany then you needed yeast from that brewery. No White Labs vials from a mail order catalogue.

Barrels in the 1600’s were the primary vessel for storage more so for their durability then their flavors. In the earliest days of brewing brewers would use caustic chemicals like lye or lime, and hot rocks to sanitize their barrels. Imagine the flavors those left in your beers. In Europe though some breweries made an art out of using unsanitized barrels loaded with microbes. These produced the famous sour ales which include Flanders Reds. During this time barrels were often used as long as they could hold beer. Over time and use barrels loose the flavors they are known to impart to beer. Non caustic sanitation didn’t happen until brewers started pitching their barrels by lining them with resin or wax. This made it possible to use barrels without any flavors being imparted, as well as creating a water and air tight environment that was easy to sanitize. In the end all beer was served in what modern drinkers call the “real ale” style. This process required tapping the keg with a tap, and creating a vent hole for air to equalize the pressure. Any beer not consumed soon after the tapping would oxidize and start spoiling due to microbial contact.

So knowing all this can we put together what a beer from the 1600’s tasted like? It would probably look cloudy with bits of yeast, coagulated protein, and vegetable matter. The taste would be similar to a campfire mixed with a malty beverage. There would be some strong herbal notes, perhaps some citrus if yarrow was used. Acetic acid would probably be present and detectable as well as non desirable esthers and other flavors from the yeasts due to improper fermentation temps. The lye used to clean the barrels would leave a salty flavor in the beer rather then vanilla and oak, and there would be a strong oxidation flavor if the cask had been tapped and not finished.

To be fair though lets fast forward a hundred years. Thanks to coke fired kilns malts are lighter and not smokey. Advances in agriculture are leading to more consistency in crop production. Beers from the 1700’s would have lighter colors. Herbal flavors will be less common also. While still suffering quality wise like the beers one hundred years before beer in the 18th century has seen improvements in brewing methods and equipment.

 Into the 1800’s, another hundred years later, and rotating drum roasters produce a consistent quality of malt. Hop and cereal production have seen huge advances in terms of verities grown for beer making. Brewers start pitching their barrels to create a water and air tight vessel that is easy to sanitize and wont impart wood flavors to the beer. Beer from this era begins to resemble modern craft beer in terms of clarity and consistency. Coagulated proteins and sourness are no longer common in beers. Pasteur has greatly added to mans knowledge of micro organisms and how they work. Beer during this time is still poured from the keg, but now by way of a beer engine pumping beer thanks to Joseph Bramah. 

Once you get to the 20th century you have draft beer, glass bottles become common, and the brewing process starts to become mechanized. Beer is lighter, advances in yeast culturing have produced more varieties of yeast. Oxidized beer from a barrel is now a thing of the past. Many of our more modern grains and hops were bred during this time. A beer that is smokey, acidic, or full of coagulated proteins is considered bad beer.

I think it’s fair to say “barrel aged/real ale/smoked” beer never tastes like it did in the old days. If it did, we probably wouldn’t drink it

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5 Responses to “The Ways Of The Old”

  1. Beermented says:

    Nicely written! Bravo!

  2. KCHopHead says:

    So what you’re saying is, DFH should make a “campfire” beer and call it 1600? I’d die to taste the inconsistent, vegitable matter along with the terrible yeast. You know, cause it’s real.

  3. jrbox says:

    A splendid post. Resplendent with useful information and knowledgeable insight. ? Where did you earn your MBA [Master of Beer Appreciation] ?

    The only thing missing is informed comments by Dr. Worts, RIP.

  4. Jared says:

    Don’t count the Doc out. He’s still haunting the blogs and reading them even if he doesn’t comment these days.


    Please don’t give Sam any ideas. I wouldn’t put it past him to make a “1600’s Style Beer”. Chances are it would lack the negative qualities I talked about. Most likely if they did it would be a barrel aged smoke ale with some herbs, but perfectly clear and tasting strangly like a verry average beer.

    @ jrbox

    I’m fortunate enough that so many great researchers have come before me. Many books dealing with brewing from the 1800’s and early 1900’s are available online if you know where to look. It’s just a matter of lot’s of reading and sticking the puzzle pieces together.

  5. jrbox says:


    I suspect uninformed attempts at homebrewing might satisfy your desire ‘to taste the inconsistent, vegetable matter along with the terrible yeast’; I have not first hand knowledge [yet].

    Happy Hall’s

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