The Importance of Beer

Beer was food. Before the potato arrived in Northern and Central Europe, barley, rye and oats were the main sources of nutrients. Of these, barley was the easiest and most robust crop. Barley isn’t that good as bread or porridge, so almost the entire harvest was brewed into beer. Beer was—and is—made from boiled water and grain. The unrefined products brewed at the time contained a large part of the grain’s nutrients, much more so than the refined products of today.

Most meat and many vegetables were preserved by salting them in various ways, and the salty food meant that large amounts of liquid were needed by everybody. Water, however, was not safe to drink unless it was boiled first, and even boiled water would spoil if it stood around at room temperature for too long. So beer was both a nifty way for getting the nutrients from the barley and for preserving the boiled water with alcohol and various added herbs.

Beer was what everybody drank regardless of their age, sex and status. Not for its alcoholic content—in fact it was barely considered alcohol at all. Whenever people at the time spoke about drunkenness it was wine or spirits such as Aqua Vita they talked about. With neither clean water, tea, coffee, milk nor juice available to most people, you could easily drink six pints of beer a day and still be considered a sober teetotaller, by yourself and by your neighbors. For a farm-worker, eight pints per day were the norm, and four pints were the average for children in boarding schools.

Of course, most of the beer drunk was small beer with a very low alcoholic content. Also, beer was often cooked into dishes, which made the alcohol evaporate.

Brewing Beer

Beer may be brewed from any kind of grain. Barley was, and is, merely the most common. Wheat beer would be most common in the southern areas, where this grain thrived, while rye and oat beer served mainly as variations.

Most beer was, and is, flavored with hops. Hops are the dried flowers from a climber related to hemp. They grow in a zone from Italy to Denmark, with northern France and southern Germany as the best areas. If you could not grow your own hops, you could buy them from the itinerate hop-traders, or use various other herbs such as bog-myrtle and juniper berries instead. These additions were not just to help the taste. Most would also aid in preserving the beer. Keeping the beer from spoiling and turning sour was always a problem, so very little beer was brewed without some kind of attempt to prevent this, a task complicated by the lack of knowledge concerning bacteria, fungi and fermentation.

Brewing was done both as home-brewing and by professional brewers, but in either case the basic method was the same.

The first step was to soak the grain in water to make it ready for sprouting. In homes this would be done in a tub or barrel, but in breweries there would often be an outdoor soaking basin for this, where the sacks of grain would stay until completely soft. Usually this basin would be placed close to the wall, just below the malting and drying room in the attic. A pulley system was used to raise the grain directly from the basin and up to the next step in the process.

The second step was to spread out the grain to sprout and become malt. In private homes this could happen on trays placed on the rafters below the roof, but this frequent damping of the rafters wasn’t good for the wood. If the household was big enough to have a room set aside for brewing, this might well be the sole room in the house with a floor covered with stone or tiles, just so the malting could take place there. In breweries there would certainly be at least one room with stone or tile floor. This room would often be in the attic, and it would have plenty of shuttered openings to let in fresh air and to control the humidity and temperature, while keeping out the sun.

Once the malt had sprouted to exactly the right stage—that is: root sprouts but no leaves sprouting—it had to be dried as fast as possible. If making white malt, this would happen on the floor with as much air blowing through as possible, often with men throwing the malt into the air to ensure an even drying. A faster and less space-demanding drying could happen in the fireplace, either in a box or on a tray placed above the fire, with or without a stone shielding it from below to keep it from roasting. This method gave the malt a smoky flavor, and it was very important that only the right kind of wood or coke was burned. Using oak or conifer wood would taint the flavor of the beer. In homes, the last heat in the oven after the weekly or monthly baking could also be used to dry the malt.

The fourth step was crushing the malt or grinding it coarsely, which could be done by hand for a small household. It would more often be done either at the professional mill or in a small farm mill by a local creek.

Next, the crushed malt would be mixed to a mash with warm water in a big tub, and allowed to stand until the “bran” or mash residue sank to the bottom. How much water to each measure of malt would determine how strong the beer would become, and thus how well it would keep. As there was no way to measure the alcohol content in the brewed beer, most towns and nations had laws concerning the maximum amount of beer that could be brewed from each measure of malt. This was partly to prevent unrest caused by swindled customers and partly to make it less attractive for the merchants to import a better quality of beer from abroad.

Once the mash residue had settled on the bottom, the liquid part, the wort—which would now contain the nutrients, starch and sugar of the grain—had to be sieved into the brewing-kettle. Some professional breweries had real sieves for this, but scalded bundles of straw were used just as often. The wort would be boiled in the kettle with hops and whatever else the brewer wanted to add to spice up the brew.

The mash residue would be mixed with water again and sieved to produce a second batch of wort. This was used to brew the weaker middle beer. The process was repeated for a third time, which would produce the weak and easily-spoiling small beer. Finally, the spent mash would be used for animal fodder.

After boiling with hops and the other flavorings, each batch of wort had to be cooled before the yeast could be added and the actual brewing take place. To prevent wild yeast from infecting and spoiling the brew, the cooling had to happen as quickly as possible. Big flat tubs or trays were used in breweries to cool the wort before transferring it to the fermenting tub. In private homes, the wort would usually be allowed to stand until it had cooled on its own. The phases of the moon or a silver coin in the tub was relied upon to preserve the beer from evil influences in these homes. A pair of trousers—especially from a male servant—draped over the tub was also believed to work to prevent spoilage.

Yeast would be saved from brew to brew, often as a yeast-ring made of wooden spikes. This ring would be dipped into the fermenting brew and then dried and kept until the next brewing day. In breweries where new batches might be started several times a week, yeast could just be skimmed from a brew and kept damp in a jar.

When the wort was the temperature that the brewer thought was right, the yeast would be added. Within a few hours a layer of yeast would cover the surface of the tub, and the beer could be transferred to barrels where it would continue fermenting for a day or two.

The barrels could not be closed while the fermenting went on, due to the pressure that would build and to allow most of the floating yeast to bubble out. Once fermenting stopped, most commercial brewers would transfer the beer to fresh barrels to rid it of most of the sediment caused by the fermentation. This might or might not happen with home-brewed beer. The last dregs in a barrel could be extremely thick and murky when the beer was not transferred to a different barrel. At this stage, the beer would contain very little carbon dioxide and be quite flat by modern standards. Usually a bit of after-fermentation would take place after the barrels were closed.

Brewing is a long and complicated process that allows the enzymes of the sprouts to make sugar from the starch of the grain, and then the yeast cells to turn this sugar into alcohol. It is also a process with many variations and professional refinements.

Types of Beer

Aside from the three grades of beer (strong, middle and small), which would always come from the three different batches of wort, the brewer needed to make quite a few choices to determine the nature of the brew. Different types and amounts of malt, water, hops, spices, yeast, transfers and temperatures all worked together to make a specific type of beer.

The type—or combination—of malt-types would determine whether the beer would be pale or dark. The pale beer would be made from the air-dried white malt, while the dark gained it’s color and smoky flavor from malt dried over a wood fire. During the Thirty Years’ War, the preference was for dark beer, which also tended to keep better due to the smoked malt. As this was the case, malt would also sometimes be air-dried and then lightly smoked, when labor was cheap but fuel expensive. Malts that were roasted, with or without being smoked, were used in many brews for added color and flavor. The really black beers such as porter and stout were a later invention, as was the pale pilsner beer so popular today. The term white beer would usually not refer to the color, but indicate a beer brewed from wheat, and might not be especially pale.

The amount of malt used to brew a barrel of beer would determine the alcohol content. Most brewers would brew an especially strong beer for Christmas, Easter and Harvest. Most breweries near a harbor would also make something extra strong to sell to far-traveling ships, where the need for the beer to keep would be of utmost importance. A barrel of malt as well as several pounds of hops would be used for a barrel of the strongest beer, while a quarter or less of the raw materials might be considered enough for the common types. This not counting the middle and small beer brewed from the same mash.

The water preferably had to be soft with a low chalk content. Many of today’s old European breweries are situated near a spring or other water source with water especially suited for brewing, but many household brewers just used the water from the local pond.

Not all hops are exactly the same. Several European areas were famous for their hops and would grow far more than what was needed locally. The extra crops would be bought by hop merchants, who would then sell them to breweries as well as urban households. A large amount of hops in the brew would make the beer keep better, but also make it bitter. The bitterness could be reduced by adding the hops late in the boiling process, by adding honey after the fermentation, or be disguised by the addition of spices. However, many areas—especially in Germany—had purity laws forbidding this, and stating that only water, barley, hops and yeast could be used in anything sold as beer.

In private households and in areas without purity laws, adding a hint of apples, liquorice, cinnamon, anise or caraway to the beer made for a popular change. In the poor areas, where scrimping on the malt and hops made the beer thin and quickly souring, adding wild herbs such as bog-myrtle, rosemary, sage or, in Scotland, heather helped make it drinkable.

The yeast was extremely important, but without microscopes etc. it was impossible to make a pure culture of a select strain of yeast fungi. If the yeast in a household or brewery went bad, all that could be done was to buy some from a place still making good beer.

No one at the time knew exactly what was going on during the fermentation, but two different methods, top and bottom, were used, as well as several variations with partial fermentation, pre-fermentation and post-fermentation.

In top fermentation, the yeast would float on top of the beer, both in the tub and after transferring to the barrels. This method was fast and could happen in a fairly wide range of temperatures. It was the easiest and most common method, and the result would today be called an ale.

Bottom fermentation needed a low and more stable temperature, but the slow process made better use of the wort and developed a better flavor.

Pre-fermentation is the fermentation that takes place in the tub before the brew is transferred to the first barrels, while post-fermentation takes place after the barrels are closed. Partial fermentation is when a fermentation is started, then stopped, and then started again.

The transfers, which moved the beer to clean barrels during and after the fermentation, mainly determined how clear the final product would become, but thus removing more or less of the yeast residue would also affect the taste. In any case, the beer would seem flat, unclear and murky compared with the modern filtered and carbonated types. On the other hand, modern beer would seem fizzy, thin and flavorless to those used to the thick, unfiltered brew of the time. The difference would have been especially big to people used to the types of beer brewed in the United States. Those are brewed largely or entirely from rice and corn in order to make a brew easy to drink cold in large quantities. Unfiltered beer brewed from barley is something entirely different.

Preserving Beer

The many types of beer were often created by trying various ways to preserve the beer and keep it from spoiling. Most beer—especially middle and small beer—was too low in alcohol to keep for long and had to be drunk before it turned sour. This could actually happen even while the brewing was going on if wild yeast or algae infected the brew. That would turn it sour and filled with long strings. This meant that all the work and grain would be wasted. People would try anything to keep this from happening and to make the process run smoothly.

That some kind of cleanliness in the production could help was known, so at least in some places the outdoor soaking basin would be lidded and perhaps even scrubbed from time to time. The drying floor would be washed between batches, and the barrels scrubbed with worn-out armor sleeves between each brew. Mainly, though, the loss of a brew would be blamed on the yeast—or, in some areas, on witches—and new yeast would be brought in from another brewery. With something on the order of a professional brewery per one thousand people, plus all merchants and craft masters also brewing enough to sell the surplus, plus all the private households brewing for their own needs, there was never any shortage of new yeast.

Once the brewing had turned out right, the next problem was storing the beer. If the beer was intended for a specific occasion, such as harvest or Christmas, an extra measure of malt and hops might be added during the brewing to make the beer stronger. Such beer could keep for almost half a year if stored in a cool cellar. Similarly, with beer intended for ships, where brewing would be impossible and the water situation even worse than on land.

Selling beer to ships as well as private households could be a very lucrative business, and many rulers and town councils tried to regulate the production and sale. Turning the beer of your area into an export, or just lessening the demand for imported beer, was a matter of interest far beyond the Brewers Guild. The area with probably the strictest laws and the most famous beer was Bavaria.

About a hundred years before the Thirty Years’ War, a decree was passed in Bavaria that forbade all brewing during the summer months. This made it necessary to store enough beer to supply the entire area for five warm months. For that to happen, the beer had to be very strong, very carefully made, and kept very cool.

When making beer for storage, the malt must be sprouted to exactly the right stage and dried very evenly and quickly. Also, the measures of malt and hops per measure of water had to be high, the wort had to be cooled very, very quickly after boiling, and the yeast had to be as clean as possible. This went on everywhere, but in Bavaria they added further refinements. When mixing the crushed malt with warm water to make the mash, they heated the mix several times to get the maximum amount of nutrients and flavor into the wort. When adding the yeast the entire fermentation process (bottom-fermentation) would take place very slowly—at a very low temperature in deep, cold cellars—to increase the alcohol content and prevent infections. The resulting beer was popular all over Europe. Bavarian methods were tried in many other areas, but usually failed due to lack of cool enough storage.

Cooking with Beer

Beer was not just served with all meals, but also as all meals. Some version of a warm beer-dish would be served for breakfast in castles as well as cabins—probably with honey, cream and eggs in the castle, and salted herring in the cabin—but the beer would be everywhere. For lunch, a beer-based soup or porridge could serve as a first course, while the cold meat eaten afterward might have been boiled and then jellied in beer. For dinner, the stew would be more likely to be boiled in beer than wine or stock, and for dessert a syllabub of fresh cream curdled in sweet beer was popular with all classes.

The many armies travelling around in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War needed beer for cooking as well as for drinking. If possible they cooked the salty and smoked meat, with whatever vegetables were around, in beer. They mixed coarse flour with beer into a bread dough that would be baked in a pot over the fire. And if the beer was young enough and the bread dough left standing overnight, it was even likely that the yeast still living in the beer would wake up and cause the dough to rise.


Many of the most common dishes from the time of the Thirty Years’ War sound odd to modern people, but these are a few of the most popular.

Bread porridge: soak leftover bread in water overnight, drain off the excess liquid and beat the bread to a smooth pulp. Add enough beer to create a porridge consistency, and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes while stirring constantly, and sweeten. Spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom might also be added. Serve with cold cream.

Fried salt herring: Soak salt herrings in water or buttermilk overnight or just rinse off the salt. Dip it in a batter made from flour mixed with beer and fry in lard until crisp. Eat with or without the bones either with rye bread, sweet mustard and beer, or as a side-dish for beer porridge.

Beer soup with eggs: bring beer to boil, remove from the heat and stir in eggs beaten with cream. Use about a cup of beer, one small egg and one tablespoon cream per person. Serve with fried bread cubes.

Sour ribs: soak a piece of salted breast of pork if heavily salted, then boil in small beer until tender together with a cleaned pig trotter, an onion and some thyme. Cut the pork into inch wide strips and place in a deep, wide bowl. Reduce the sieved cooking liquid and add vinegar to taste. Pour the liquid over the meat and leave it to jell in a cool place. Serve with rye bread, mustard and beer. A more refined dish could be made the same way with smoked ham, sweet strong beer and imported spices such as cloves. The pig trotter would still be needed to make the jelly.

Beef stew: brown a brisket of salt beef with several onions in lard, add beer and let it simmer for 2-3 hours along with a handful of savory, thyme and sage. Remove the beef and cut it to large cubes. Return it to the pot along with chopped vegetables such as carrots, turnips and cabbage, and let it simmer again. When served, the soup might be drained off and served as a separate course, or bread might be added to thicken the content of the entire pot.

Beer syllabub: the original version of this dish involved nothing more complex than milking a cow directly into a mug of beer. If consumed immediately the mix would be a homogenous frothing mixture, but if left standing the milk would curdle and could be eaten with a spoon before the beer and whey below was drunk. In the more urban versions, the beer would be spiced and sweetened and mixed with whipped cream, but it would still be customary to let it stand until the separation took place.

Despite all the yeast around due to all the brewing, the common bread of the time was made with sourdough. Not that it would be difficult to scrape some yeast off the yeast-ring and use this, but using fresh yeast like that works best with the fine wheat flour used for cakes, and the white bread most common people also called cake. For the coarse rye flour and whole wheat flour most of the population used for everyday purposes, the slow process of sourdough served to make the bread more easily digestible. Soaking the flour in beer or using beer as the liquid in the dough was common, and the yeast remaining in the unfiltered brew would serve as a further rising ingredients.

Beer bread: In the case—such as a travelling army—where the ordinary baking methods could not be used, a camp bread could be made by smearing a pot with a rind of bacon, and letting a mixture of beer and flour fry in this; preferably but not necessarily after rising a bit from the yeast in the beer. If bits of bacon or other meats, onion or cheese could be had, this would be added to the dough, if not, then a few wild herbs or just a bit of salt would add to the flavor. Baking powder, which would have made this a bannock, was not invented yet.