Medieval Beer: West Country White Ale

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Beer Explorer Recipes
Devon White Ale

West Country White Ale, sometimes called Devon White Ale, is a seemingly odd beer with roots back in the middle ages. An ale before the time of hops, it was commonly brewed in Devon and Cornwall, England from at least the mid 1500s though the late 1800s. It is made from barley malt, wheat flour, egg whites, yeast, and possibly some spices.

I first read about this beer in Randy Mosher’s excellent “Radical Brewing” and have since researched a bit more online, finding the article on Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile, “West Country White Ale, a lost English beer“, to be particularly informative.

Possibly the first known mention of West Country White Ale was published in 1542 in Andrew Boorde’s A Dyetary of Helth where he describes it as:

“…stark nought, lokinge whyte and thycke, as pygges had wrasteled in it,” […] “it wyll make one to kacke, also to spew; it is dycke [thick] and smoky, and also it is dyn”.

I’m not sure he was so fond of it.

It is mentioned again, later in 1736 by William Ellis in The London and Country Brewer where he gives what might be the earliest known recipe:

…a clear Wort made from pale Malt, and fermented with what they call ripening, which is a Composition, they say, of the Flower [flour] of Malt, Yeast and Whites of Eggs…
the Wort is brewed and the Ale vended by many of the Publicans; which is drank while it is fermenting in Earthen Steens, in such a thick manner as resembles butter’d Ale, and sold for Twopence Halfpenny the full Quart.

Other recipes appear in 1768 (Cornell) and again in 1830, where a version now utilizing hops is given:

Pale ale wort, 25 gallons; Hops, 2 handfuls; Yeast, 3 pounds; Groats, 6 or 8 pounds: When the fermentation is at its height, bottle in strong stone half pints, well corked and wired. This ale effervesces when opened.

From these various sources, it seems the earliest versions of West Country White Ale consisted of a wort made solely of pale malt and was fermented with a “yeast cake” make of what would seem to be almost a bread starter; a mix of flour (wheat, malt or bean), egg whites and yeast (either added or naturally collected on the starter). Mosher speculates that spices might have been added as well. Fermentation then commences and it is drank just 24 hours later, while still fermenting (though the 1768 recipe mentions bottling).

Time to brew!

If this were to be drank young, I knew I only wanted to brew one gallon. So I set about putting together the following recipe for a 1.1 gallon (4.16 liters) Brew-In-A-Bag (BIAB) batch:

Devon White Ale - Starter Ingredients

Ingredients for the starter

1.75 lbs (0.79 kg) Pale Malt, or Pilsner Malt
1 egg white
3oz (85g) whole wheat flour
1/3 package Safale S-04 English Ale Yeast
a pinch of ground ginger
a pinch of ground coriander seed

I figured sanitation wasn’t all that great in the Middle Ages, so I decided to be lax here — after all, we’d be drinking this the following day. What could go wrong?

I began heating around 1.75 gallons (6.6 liters) of water up to 152°F for the BIAB mash.

While that was going, I mixed the egg white, wheat flour, and yeast together…

Starter-0.5

It was a bit too crumbly though. Being wary of adding another egg white (or just chicken; get it?), I added a spoonful or two of water until it had, what seemed to be, a nice bread starter like consistency…

Starter-1

After about an hour (while the mash was going) it became active and greatly increased in size…

Starter-3

The stove-top mash…

Mash-BIAB

I cooled the mash in an ice bath in the sink. My original gravity ended up being higher than expected (especially considering I was doing BIAB), 1.049 (over 80% efficiency!). Once everything was ready, I poured enough of the cooled wort into the yeast starter to make it thin and pourable. I poured the wort into a washed, but not sanitized, one gallon jug, and then added the yeast. Rather than use an air lock — we’re not going for sanitation here — I just put a loose piece of foil over the top of the jug…

BeginFermentation

After 24 hours of fermentation…

Day1

It was looking good — though looked a bit like the Mexican drink, Horchata. This was it. The 24h mark. Time to drink. I checked the gravity and it had dropped to around 1.030 (about 2.5% abv)…

Day1-pour
It poured an opaque off white — like milk made from powder, with a slight hue of yellow. My brave beer companion and I then grabbed our glasses, said “cheers!”, and tasted some. It was, as expected, slightly sweet, as it had not yet fully fermented. Not bad though. Certainly better than the muck or mire we were half expecting. The spices were not really discernible. Subtly effervescent. Definitely very yeasty, but not overwhelmingly so. The main thing that came to our minds was fresh “liquid” bread that had a touch of sugar or honey in it. Yeah, we could actually drink more of this. Maybe a full pint! Even two?

However, I had one more thing I wanted to experiment with. What if I let the fermentation go another 24 hours? How would the taste compare? What would the gravity be? The jug was returned to the cool garage.

tick tock tick tock…

So, 24 hours later, I checked the gravity again (now below 1.010 OG; just above 5% abv). But, uh, oh. Problems. Upon removal of the foil I smelled a subtle rancid note in the air. The faint scent again made itself known while pouring the pints.

Devon White Ale

Two mugs of fresh West Country (Devon) White Ale

Undeterred, we clanked our raised glasses, and said a hearty, “cheers!”. Bottoms up. The sweetness was all but gone; fermented away, leaving a very dry beer. And yeah, well, that subtle rancid note was definitely an infection in the beer. It wasn’t nearly as good as the day before. In fact, it wasn’t very good at all. Being adventurous drinkers, however, we both finished our pints — though not without a couple winces and grimaces. It probably goes without saying that at this point, no one cared for seconds. The remainder was poured down the drain.

Lesson learned. West Country White Ale is best drank young. It’s a very different type of ale. Certainly not for everyone. And certainly unlike anything you can buy in a bottle, can, or keg anywhere today. It’s probably only for the most adventurous brewers and drinkers. However, I think with the right mindset (and proper timing!) it really could be enjoyable. In fact, it’s enjoyable enough that I plan to brew this again for a Medieval themed dinner party I’m planning to host later this summer.


Again, a big thanks to Randy Mosher’s “Radical Brewing” book and Martyn Cornell’s article “West Country White Ale, a lost English beer“.

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