#54 – What Have We Done To Beer?! (& What Can We Do About It?)

Did you know that women have been the predominant brewers of beer throughout history….up to just 400 years ago?

How about that up till that same time period beer tasted completely different to the beer we are used to now?

Join us in this episode to hear the real story of beer, how we messed it up and why Alison is passionate about bringing beer back where it belongs – the kitchen!

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Tudor Monastery Farm Episode 3



Patron monthly live calls

Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, 2nd Edition

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation

Medieval Ale In A Modern Kitchen (Alison’s article)

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  1. Hi Alison,

    I’ve been listening to some of your back episodes. I can’t remember how I found your podcast—I think it was when trying to relocate the WAPF Nourishing Traditions podcast. I have been interested in what people broadly refer to as “Ancestral diets”—which seems to encompass mainly Paleo, Low Carb and WAPF-style diets—for health for more than a decade now. However, I was interested in food and cookery from the point of view of taste and craft and cultural history long before then. Accordingly, I was pleased to hear Dorothy Hartley’s book mentioned—I bought a copy of that longer ago than I can remember.

    Some things struck me with regards to episode 54—the one on beer. My understanding is that beer was replaced to some extent by tea. It fills a similar niche in one way—which is that both are safe to drink when the water is not. Alan Macfarlane, a professor of anthropology at Cambridge, actually argues that the importation of tea was one of the factors enabling the Industrial Revolution—inasmuch as you can’t safely operate machinery while drinking large quantities of beer. (See old Channel 4 TV series and book The Day the World Took Off.)

    I suspect one of the reasons beer has become particularly associated with men is that “small beer” as an everyday table-drink with meals for everyone, including children, began to be eclipsed by other drinks, but labouring men found the calorific content of beer useful for sustaining manual work. Notice that while beer is associated with men, as you said, even today it tends to be more strongly associated with working men. In the old days these men also drank the darker and sweeter beers—and again it’s been suggested that this was owing to their energetic needs. Nowadays, we associate porter with Ireland, but it was a beer style originally developed for the London porters. My understanding is that wealthier people drank the drier and bitterer beers—the pale ales—because they didn’t have a felt need for the extra carbohydrate and were more interested in the taste qualities. Darker beers only fell out of favour with World War I, when coke couldn’t be wasted on roasting grain for the darker brews and that practice was banned by the government—except in Ireland, where interfering with people’s beer was thought too politically sensitive. Some male professions were also specially connected with heavy beer-drinking. One example would be sawyers—the man in the bottom of the pit was always wanting a draught to clear the sawdust from his throat, Victorian writers comment.

    As far as I can tell, women, for whatever reasons, seem to have more readily taken to tea.

    Having said all that, interestingly the naturalist Richard Jeffries says in 1894: “Instead of beer, the agricultural labourer frequently drinks tea with his dinner—weak tea in large quantities” (The Toilers of the Field).

    In sum, I feel we have a complex story here that is tied up with many social changes and also with the introduction and availability of tea.

    I was also interested in the philosophical/anthropological discussion you had around selective breeding of yeast. It brought to mind thoughts from the American environmentalist Paul Shepard—in for example Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Of course, beer is a post-Agricultural Revolution drink (perhaps we should say a WAPF dietary not a Paleo one), and one thinks of the “wild man” Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh having to learn to eat bread and drink beer. But Shepard’s thoughts are interesting. He says:

    “Selection of animals for visible ‘desirable’ traits (size in dogs, milk in cows, wool in sheep) may make them unfit in other unseen ways (smaller brains, bone and skeletal problems, abnormal development, etc.).”

    Maybe it can be the same for yeast. The process certainly can produce distinct psychological attitudes, discussed by Shepard—concern to exclude wild infiltration (the airlock), thoughts revolving around distinctiveness and separateness and purity, which he suggests have had undesirable social effects in agricultural societies.

    I don’t know if you know but there are still beers made in Belgium by wild fermentation—by simply opening the windows of the brewery and letting the wort be fermented by what’s in the air. These are the famous lambic and gueuze styles. There is also a brewery in Ghent that brews some beers with gruit (a herbal mix), like medieval brewers did, rather than using yeast:


    Also, there are a few beers around now brewed with kveik (pronounced I’m told—accurately or not!—“kvake”) a Norwegian farmhouse yeast that is believed genetically to go back as far as the Viking Age:


    As for your beer brewed with the commercial yeast being too heady—I should suppose that the yeast you’d bought had probably been selectively bred to ferment more vigorously and fully. However, I also wonder how you brew at home. You mentioned they put in a sourdough culture in Ancient Egyptian beer, but I wasn’t clear whether you did that. But while sourdough cultures do tend to contain some yeast strains, sour ferments, as I’m sure you know, are essentially lactic not alcoholic ferments. And I guess even if you didn’t add any lactobacilli they might get in there in an open vessel out of the air, anyway. I wonder if that might explain it.

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge and engaging with the podcast. You bring up so many interesting points!

      You are right that the history of ale and beer is complex. I’ll try and go through each topic you raise and give my reaction and thoughts.

      Let’s start with tea. I’d heard of ‘the great sobering’ making the industrial revolution possible – but in respect to coffee, not tea! Thanks for sharing tea’s role.

      I’ve read about kveik in Lars Garshol’s book Historical Brewing Techniques. I heard him interviewed on the Craft Beer & Brewing podcast – he talked about how the lab-culturing process for the kveik that is now available commercially results in a poor cousin copy of the actual farmhouse yeast in Scandinavia. So for me – who is interested in resurrecting a process that gives ownership to the brewer and is real – brewing with commercial kveik doesn’t excite me.

      I love the lambic tradition, but as far as I know all the brewers use hops. Although I like the taste of lambics, I much prefer unhopped ale, so haven’t yet explored this tradition much.

      To clarify your question about the sourdough: Although I started out using sourdough starters in my brews, I quickly switched to trying out home yeast cultures as the inoculant (as I didn’t like the overt sour flavour). I agree that the one time I did use commercial yeast the brew was probably headier because of commercial selection – and yes, my ale is definitely ‘contaminated’ with bacteria as I don’t sanitise or use airlocks.

      My ale does definitely seem calorific – it’s cloudy and hearty – and I can imagine that ales like this gave sustenance to those doing heavy labour. That’s certainly part of the story of the ‘masculinisation’ of beer.

      I can’t show you evidence that there were more women drinking ale than men in the 1300s but there is plenty of evidence that women were in control of making ale back then (in their kitchens) and that this changed dramatically with industrialisation. That loss of home tradition is what I feel most strongly about, and would love to play a part in changing. I want women making ale in their kitchens again. My drive is amplified by the fact that, speaking as a women, I much prefer ale created this way to the beer I find around commercially 🙂


      p.s. Have you made anything from Dorothy Hartley’s book? I love some of the recipes in it!

  2. Thanks for the reply.

    I can’t recall if I’ve actually made much from Dorothy Hartley’s book. I know at one time I experimented with making manchet, the medieval hand-bread (which I think is also mentioned in one of Elizabeth David’s books). As I recall, she says Yorkshire tea-cakes are a descendant of it. I mostly remember enjoying reading it. I like the historical digressions and the quotations from old writers like Andrew Boorde, the Tudor physician and wit. He seems to have had very strong views on ale. I have some selections from him, including from his “The Breuiarie of Health”, on my bookshelves. I remember he says something along the lines that beer is all right for Dutchmen but ale is the drink for Englishmen! He also says, which I think Dorothy Hartley quotes, that beer he was given in Cornwall was “as pygges had wrastled in it”.

    1. I sometimes wonder if bits of Dorothy Hartley’s book are somewhat fantastical. I’ve tried to look up some of the bibliography at the back (which is somewhat lacking) and not got anywhere and also tried to further research some of the things she talks about without success. But there is still plenty of truth in it and she writes (and compiles) so wonderfully.

  3. May I just add that, after posting what’s above and in trying to find the second Boorde quotation, I ran into articles claiming that what Boorde was given was a specific type of West Country ale that only died out in the 19th century? Apparently, it was fermented not with saved yeast but by pitching in a paste of wheatflour, egg whites and salt. People have experimented with trying to recreate the process (though also adding some reserved ale from a previous batch that had already been fermented, as may have been done). The linked article describes this and links a longer and more detailed description:


    1. I had a read, thank you! Interesting indeed, I wish I could have tried it. I have also heard of a West Country ale with a chicken carcass in. I think it was in Hartley’s book initially, then I listened to an episode of Gastropod where the ladies interviewed someone who’d recreated it.

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