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5 things we discovered when we recreated 16th century Dublin beer

Analysis: Here’s what we found when we set out to remake a beer last brewed at Dublin Castle in 1574

By Susan Flavin, Trinity College Dublin and Charlie Taverner, Trinity College Dublin

It’s true that our 16th-century ancestors drank much more than Irish people do today. But why they did so and what their beer was like are questions shrouded in myth. The authors were part of a team who set out to find some answers.

As part of a major study of food and drink in early modern Ireland, funded by the European Research Council, we recreated and analysed a beer last brewed at Dublin Castle in 1574. Combining craft, microbiology, brewing science, archaeology, as well as history, this was the most comprehensive interdisciplinary study of historical beer ever undertaken. Here are five things that we discovered.

People didn’t drink beer because water was unhealthy

It’s often assumed that lack of access to clean water led people to drink beer instead. We know this isn’t true for many reasons, not least because brewers needed a constant source of fresh water to make the best beer.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime, food historian Susan Flavon on 16th century beer brewing

Water was certainly viewed as less healthy, but not because of any understanding of microbial contamination. According to a system of medicine and treatment used at the time, Galenic humorism, water was a “cold” drink that affected digestion, causing fluctuations and windiness. Meanwhile, beer was “warm and comforting”, balancing the “humours” and quenching thirst.

Beer was a payment for work

Beer was taken as medicine, often mixed with curious ingredients. Treatments for conditions such as flux or bed wetting, for example, required ground kid’s hoof or grated stag’s penis to be taken with a drink of beer.

People drank at work, commonly receiving drink as part of their wages. The quantities were staggering. At Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, masons received up to 15 pints per day when undertaking heavy work.

More than small beer: workers at Christ Church Cathedral received up to 15 pints of beer per day

More typical was a range of five to ten pints, as was the case at Dublin Castle. There, servants imbibed up to 2,700 calories a day in beer alone, the cost of which exceeded what the household spent on bread.

Beer had some different ingredients 450 years ago

In many ways, 16th-century beer would be recognisable today. The key ingredients were malt (made from barley or oats depending on the region), water, yeast and hops. The addition of hops, a Dutch innovation, spread throughout Europe in this period. This resulted in a longer lasting drink, accelerating the development of the brewing industry as we know it today.

But there are differences between pre-modern and modern beers, relating primarily to the nature of the ingredients. Four centuries ago, cereals were grown as landraces. A landrace has a wide range of characteristics distinct from those of standardised modern varieties, through adaptation to their regional climate, soils and topography. Shrinking cultivation of these landraces meant that sourcing heritage ingredients was challenging.

Trailer for Drunk? Adventures in 16th Century Brewing, a documentary following food historian Susan Flavin as she faithfully replicates a beer last brewed in Dublin in the 1570s

The variety of barley we chose was bere. This is the only landrace barley still grown commercially, thanks to the conservation efforts of agronomists and farmers in Orkney, Scotland. The experiment was a unique opportunity to examine the significance of these varieties to the taste and quality of drinks in the past, and the benefits of saving heritage crops for future generations.

Making beer required skills in short supply today

Industrial brewing today produces the same beer every time. Brewing in the past, using simpler equipment and in a more open environment, was much more challenging. Brewers were deeply in tune with their working conditions and didn’t have modern devices such as thermometers.

They used their senses and knowledge to make adjustments as they worked. As the project team learned the hard way, small mistakes could be disastrous, resulting in spoiled beer and accidental porridge.

Recreating the technology of the past also highlighted the wider craft skills, such as coopering (making barrels), wicker-weaving, woodworking, and coppersmithing, that went into making all the equipment needed to make a pint. Much like heritage crops, these skills are in worrying decline.

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From RTÉ Archives, Carroll McHugh reports for RTÉ News in October 1982 on the boom in home brew making

Our oak fermenting barrels and mash tuns (a vessel used in brewing) were made by Les Skinner, at the time one of the last two master coopers in England. He has since retired. We had to go all the way to Portugal to find coppersmiths who could build a large freestanding boiler.

Even everyday beer was strong

One enduring misconception is that people were able to drink so much in the 16th century because their beer was relatively weak. Based on little evidence, it is assumed that beer of around 2% alcohol by volume (abv) was the most common drink of the working classes. But we know this so called “small beer” was widely rejected by workers, as well as by physicians, dietary writers, and government officials, who all deemed it dangerous to health.

Our experiment showed that a typical beer of middling strength actually had the potential to be around 5% abv, comparable to modern lager. This means people could have been extremely inebriated from merely what they drank alongside work. Unsurprisingly, there were loud and frequent calls for drinkers to show moderation.

Those calls often came, however, from the same people who liberally supplied their workers with beer. This suggests that the context in which people drank was very important. If having a pint or two at breakfast and dinner was acceptable, even expected, many more at the village alehouse was seen as more troublesome.

To learn more about brewing a beer from 1574, visit our online exhibition. A documentary film is coming soon and details will be on our website.The Conversation

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Susan Flavin is Associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin, Charlie Taverner is a Research fellow in history at Trinity College Dublin. This article was originally published by The Conversation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ

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