Brewing Ale in 1651

Brewing Ale in 1651

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Die Bierbreuwer from Jost Amman’s Stände und Handwerker. First published in Frankfurt, 1568. Image taken from the 1884 München facsimilie. © Wellcome Images

In the autumn of 1651, Colonel Edward Harley stayed with Sir John Tracey in Norfolk. There, the two men drank to the health of Harley’s uncle Edward Conway, second Viscount Conway now ruralized at Petworth House, the seat of the Percy family. Impressed by the ‘excellent’ ale, Harley obtained the recipe to make it and forwarded the know-how to his uncle. The recipe itself is very simple. The maker takes eight bushels of malt per hogshead, boils water by itself for three hours and then pours the scalding hot water onto the malt. He/she then leaves the mixture to cool together until the water has taken the strength of the malt. When the mixture is cold, he/she adds some yeast and, finally, leaves the mixture to age for a month. Harley’s act of sharing a recipe with Conway was in itself not unusual as recipes of all kinds were frequent features in their correspondence. What is interesting here is that this ale recipe and, in particular, the step that calls for water to be boiled by itself for three hours became a recurring topic of conversation in subsequent letters. Conway was highly skeptical of the ‘boiling water’ step. He consults the local brewer on the ins and outs of ale making and concludes that no one there is willing to put their time and resources towards testing Harley’s recipe. While Conway’s consultation of the local brewer might be seen as seeking a practical solution, his continuing correspondence with his nephew took a decidedly natural philosophical turn. From Conway’s letters (most of Harley’s letters are now lost), it seems that in London, Harley and his physician have been discussing the effects of heat on the quality of water. Harley recommended the ‘boiling water’ step as he believed that the ‘highest’ water might be obtained by boiling. For him, during the process of boiling, "the thinnest and finest parte of the water doth goe away and that…leave[s] only the most grosse, wholesome and earth parte." Drawing upon his extensive library, Conway counters his nephew’s claims with quotes from Johannes Butinus’ edition of Hippocrates Aphorismi et prognostica (1625), Louis duGardin’s Institutiones Medicinae (1634) and Nouncius’ De Re Libaria. After two months of discussions, Conway finally concedes and writes:

I pray let me know whether you have made good and excellent ale by the receipt you sent me, if you did what can you do more, there is nothing to be beleaved in natural things but experience, But the brewers heare say that mutch boyling doch neither good nor hurte, but that not to boile the wort will certainly spoile the Ale and I cannot perswade any body to make it. (BL Additional MS 70006, fol. 247r)

After this letter, the trail goes cold and the conversations between uncle and nephew move onto other matters. As modern readers, it is easy to dismiss this curious conversation as the passing whims of two gentlemen. However, it is also tempting to read the conversations alongside contemporary natural philosophical discussions. A keen letter writer and networker, Conway was in touch with physicians such as Theordore de Mayerne and Walter Charleton and figures such as Sir Kenelm Digby. He was, after all, also staying on the estate of the late ‘wizard earl’, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. This paper seeks to locate this episode within discussions of ale making and natural philosophical debates in late 1651 London. It will argue that letters served as a site for ‘sharing processes’ which, in cases such as this, occurred over unexpected topics like the brewing of ale. Secondly, it will suggest that these ‘sharing processes’ might have involved intermediaries such as Conway and Harley whose own interests and knowledge helped shape the encounters.

  • "Making Medicines in the Early Modern Household," Bulletin of the History of Medicine (82, Spring, 2008), pp. 145-68.