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The Lore of Beers and Ales for the Germanic Cultures

John Barleycorn -- English folk legend of the malts

John Barleycorn -- English folk legend of the malts

History of Ales

As far back in time as the Roman Empire, the German tribes were considered to be great brewers. Pliny describes the beer-making abilities of the Germans during the time of Tacitus, of which they were impressed by the Germans’ ability “to make even water intoxicating.”

The Norse had a very close relationship to brewing, with the yeast aspect being quite interesting. Yeast was called many things across different regions that translate to its action, with terms such as “working,” “foaming,” and “seed.” The yeast would be allowed to settle on Juniper branches and then used later. The use of juniper was due to it being evergreen and thus magical in its implementation. The Nordic countries also used juniper berries as an ingredient- it was considered sacred and magical, and was good for curing gout and arthritis, among other ailments. Norse brewers also believed that a stronger ale could be made by acting angry around the fermenting product.

In the 900s, King Hakon of Norway made a law that Yule and Christmas (this was a time when both the Pagan and the Christian holidays were celebrated) should be kept holy with every man brewing an ale.

Jule-Ol -- A Norse beer brewed at Christmas time.

Jule-Ol -- A Norse beer brewed at Christmas time.

Styles and Uses

Anglo-Saxon writings describe 11 types of ale: Welsh, mild, clear, light, twice brewed, new, old, sour, pure, strong, and weak. Unfortunately, the strengths of these are never given, nor are the qualities, except that it’s already been determined from other writings that Welsh ales were of very high quality. I can’t imagine that these eleven types were all distinct. The differences between mild and weak could not be great, just like clear and light. Also of note is that these were quite possibly brewed with honey and could be meads or mead-ale combinations. Also of note is that Welsh could mean one of three things: it was brewed in Wales; it was of Welsh style but brewed in what would become English lands; and it could also mean “foreign,” which is the translation of the name the invading Anglo-Saxons gave the indigenous Celts. Quite cheeky indeed! The third one is unlikely, unless it also means the first, as there are records of wine being imported from other countries across the channel, but the island’s beer needs were being met domestically.

My preferred argument is one of style but based off an old Celtic recipe. It would have been strong and sweet and similar to what we now call a barleywine, and possibly also a mead braggot with similar grains. Whatever the case, it was certainly well-liked, as much less of it was needed to pay rents than other styles.

As your narrator has brewed a braggot with Scotch ale grains, this wylisc may have to be next. Barleywines are my favorite style, and knowing that the awesome King Offa of Mercia specified it as part of his tenants’’ rents certainly helps, out of which every third hogshead was to be sweetened with honey.

The author making a full breakfast with his homemade braggot "Reavers Mead."

The author making a full breakfast with his homemade braggot "Reavers Mead."

Mugwort is a relative of wormwood, though not as strong, and was written about as one of the nine sacred herbs in tenth-century Wessex. Being primarily used for female reproductive issues from menstruation to increased fertility to cramps, it was also used to ease depression and aid in digestion and was used as an additive in both beer and mead.

Coming into more modern times, German immigrants in the United States brewed a beer that contained fir (tree) tips, considering it good for fever, weight loss, anemia, and lack of energy. In the 1700s of England, various regions are associated with specific beers. Wheat beers from Middlesex are top-notch, while standard ales are excellent from Yorkshire and Cheshire. (On an aside, if you ever have the chance to try Samuel Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo, you should not pass that opportunity up!). Norfolk was well known for a strong ale called Norfolk Nog, with one variety having the moniker Clamber Skull.

Yorkshire Stingo (company ad)

Yorkshire Stingo (company ad)


Considered a Halloween drink in Ireland and a Christmas-with-Halloween-culture drink in Scotland, Lambs Wool is decidedly a Yule drink in England. Both it and the Wassail bowl are mentioned in Harrick’s Twelfth Night. Although, as mentioned in my article on Germanic culture and mead (LINK HERE), the Wassail bowl was predominantly used for mead, in the modern times of 300 years ago, it was already being used for a drink made of strong ale, sugar, spices, and roasted apples: the drink lambs wool.

Frothy lambswool

Frothy lambswool

Concluding With a Song of Ale

And to finish, please enjoy this wonderful lyrical poem about ale. You could always try drinking each type as you read aloud, but I feel I should mention that you’ll probably get alcohol poisoning. As long as you recognize this and don’t hold me responsible, feel free to let me know how it goes if you give it a try!

Song of Eight Ales – John Taylor, Gloucester, England, circa 1620

We went into the house of one John Pinners,

(A man that lives among a crew of sinners)

And there eight several sorts of Ale we had,

All able to make one starke drunke or mad

But I with courage bravely flinched not,

And gave the Towne leave to discharge shot,

We had at one time set upon the table,

Good Ale of Hisope, ‘twas not Esope fable:

Then we had Ale of Sage, and Ale of Malt,

And Ale of Woorme-wood, that could make one halt,

With Ale of Rosemary, and Bettony,

And two Ales more, or else I needs must lye.

But to conclude this drinking Alye tale,

We had a sort of Ale called scurvy Ale.

I started with a song of four ales... and ended up with twelve.

I started with a song of four ales... and ended up with twelve.

Spelling Note

NOTE: You may notice some of the words are spelled differently throughout. These are not errors, but rather I have used all of the different spellings that occur in my research reading. Such wonderful fun!

Further Reading and Sources:

The Curiousities of Ale & Beer (YEAR) John Bickerdyke, Charles Henry Cook, John Greville Fennell, and JM Dixon.

St. Brigid’s Alefeast (11th century Old Irish poem)

Brewing Mead, Wassail! In Mazers of Mead (1948) Lt. Colonel Robert Gayre

© 2016 James Slaven