Here’s something new I learned this week.
In an article titled “How Did Hops Get In Our Beer?” in the January-February issue of Brew Your Own magazine, author Horst Dornbusch briefly covers the history of hops from ancient Rome to today. About midway through the article he references the medieval natural history text Physica by the noted Benedictine abbess, mystic, musician, scientist and Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). According to Dornbusch:
Perhaps the most consequential historical reference to hops in beer is a small passage in a book by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, physician, composer, brewster, and adviser to the German Emperor Frederic Barbarossa … Hildegard describes the medicinal value and beverage application of the “hoppo” plant as “a hot and dry herb, with a bit of moisture,” which “is not of much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy.” Importantly, she observes that hoppo “putredines prohibet in amaritudine sua.” One Latin expert, Pricilla Throop, translates this as “its bitterness inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added making them last longer.”
Hildegard’s name should be familiar to any devotee of medieval history, women’s history, or cultural history. As hinted by Dornbusch, she was an expert in disciplines as diverse as science, theology, philosophy, medicine, poetry, music, and linguistics, and left behind a vast body of writings related to the many subjects she studied. My introduction to her work was many years ago in college, when my girlfriend (now my wife) did extensive research on Hildegard for a senior thesis on medieval women mystics. Upon reading this article, I immediately asked my wife if she knew that Hildegard was a brewster*. She did not, although she was familiar with Hildegard’s scientific work on plants and animals.
I shouldn’t be surprised. The brewer-cum-mystic has been a part of beer culture since the beginning, from the hypothetical prehistoric brewer-shamans described by Dr. Patrick McGovern in his excellent book Uncorking the Past to the ancient Sumerian priestesses of Ninkasi, to the Trappist monastic brewing tradition that lives on today in Belgium and elsewhere. But I was unaware that Hildegard, who’s felt almost like a member of my extended family since my wife’s thesis on her years ago, had been part of that tradition.
Certain that Hildegard’s brewing accomplishments must have been as extensive as her accomplishments in every other field she delved into, I eagerly took to the Internet to find out more. But sadly, there wasn’t much to find. The reference to hops in the Physica is well-documented, and has earned Hildegard a place in inspiring brewers all over the world. But I’ve found nothing conclusive about any further contributions to brewing history: no recipes, descriptions, or anything like that. One questionable printed source credited Hildegard with being the first brewer to put hops in beer, but the BYO article would refute this; Dornbusch found references to hopped beer as early as 827 in the work of Saint Ansegisus of Fontanelle, an adviser to Charlemagne some three centuries before Hildegard was born.
Regardless of how deep her interest in brewing may or may not have gone, Hildegard was a true polymath, making significant contributions to every field she approached – at a time when few women had the opportunity to dabble in even one of these fields. As the new father of a little girl, she’s someone I want my daughter to know about. Honestly, she’s someone that everyone – brewer or beer drinker, woman or man – should know about.
And her testimony to the bitterness and antibacterial properties of hops in beverages should qualify her as an unofficial patron saint of that most revered of styles in the modern beer canon, a beer style as versatile as the great woman herself: the IPA. So next time I pour a glass of IPA, I’m raising a toast to St. Hildegard von Bingen: a Renaissance woman before there was a Renaissance.
*Though it’s generally only heard as a surname today in non-beer history circles, within beer history circles the term brewster is widely known as a traditional English term for a female brewer, though Martyn Cornell pointed out on his blog Zythophile back in 2007 that it’s not quite that simple.
I finally brought to life my Bronze Age Fig Beer, inspired by archaeological findings at Kissonerga-Skalia in Cyprus, in a small-batch brew day that had me flying by the seat of my pants from start to finish.
For small batches, I use the “Brew In a Bag” (BIAB) technique described in the October 2012 issue of Brew Your Own magazine, and also online here. The mash is done directly in the kettle with the grist contained in a nylon mesh bag. BIAB is great for the all-grain brewer looking to save time on brew day, because there’s no sparge. Lautering is as easy as lifting a bag of wet grains (which can admittedly be heavy, if like me, the only workout you get regularly is the ol’ 16-ounce curl). It’s also a great way for extract or partial mash brewers on a budget to explore all-grain brewing without expensive new equipment: just a brew kettle and the same mesh bag you may already be steeping grains in.
Most BIAB brews call for all the brewing liquor up front. The result is a very thin mash – 4 qts/lb in my case – but once the saccharification is done, the bag comes out and the wort can be brought to a boil immediately without sparging. Efficiency suffers, but this can be compensated for with a little extra grain. BIAB works for any batch size, provided the kettle is big enough for the grist and full volume of liquor, but I personally keep it to small batches. This batch was 6 quarts.
The Bronze Age brewer didn’t have a lot of specialty grains to choose from, so I kept my grain bill simple. The only specialty grain was German rauch malt, included to replicate the smoky flavor of malt kilned in a wood-burning oven in a small Bronze Age structure:
- 2 lbs 2-row malt
- 8 oz rauch malt
I mashed in with 10 quarts of water to stabilize the mash at 155 degrees and mashed for an hour, with the kettle wrapped in towels to retain heat. I still had to fire the burner a few times to keep the mash temperature high enough. If you do this, make sure to either take the bag out while the burner is on, or place a plate at the bottom of the kettle to dissipate the direct heat. Nylon mesh bags melt very easily.
Fresh figs are hard to find right now, so I bought dried figs in bulk from the local Whole Foods. I chopped 4 oz, leaving me with a sticky knife, and added them to the kettle to boil for 60 minutes to develop flavor and brown the sugars.
Hops were not used in barley beer until the 11th century CE, so I didn’t use any. Instead, I delved into a fantastic book called The Flavor Bible for inspiration on bittering ingredients that might go well with fig. I settled on a quarter ounce of dried bitter orange peel (a traditional ingredient in Belgian witbiers, and available at most homebrew shops) and 7 sprigs of fresh thyme, and added these to the boil with 5 minutes left, along with another 1.5 oz of chopped figs.
Before boiling, the gravity was a measly 1.026, which would likely have boiled down to something in the 1.030-1.040 range. That’s fine for a session beer, but not for a rustic brew worthy of an ancient Cypriot warrior. To raise the potential alcohol, I added a pound of wildflower honey at flameout. According to Patrick McGovern’s Uncorking the Past (another fantastic book), many ancient brews were “grogs” made by mixing fermentable sugars – malt, grapes, honey, other fruits – so I was still channeling my Bronze Age forebears here, though this could technically qualify as a “braggot” by modern standards.
When all was said and done, with sugars from malt, figs, and honey, the wort at pitching time was 1.078, a fairly big brew. I pitched a 600 mL starter made from Dogfish Head Midas Touch dregs I cultivated from a bottle.
Would the ancient brew gods reward my efforts with the dulcet tones of a gurgling airlock? Find out in my next update.
UPDATE NOTE: This post describes a failed attempt at cultivating bottle dregs. If you’ve found this page looking for information on how to cultivate bottle dregs for pitching into beer wort, thank you for reading but please do not follow my process below. It didn’t work for me, as you can read in my follow-up here.
After deciding to brew a Bronze Age-inspired fig beer, I quickly went to work on the recipe in the hopes of brewing it on Monday (which I have off from my day job). It’ll be a 1-gallon experiment batch, with 2-row barley and rauch malt for that Bronze Age kiln-smoked flavor. Bitter orange peel will feature as a flavoring, and I haven’t decided yet whether it’ll have minimal hops or none. Honey and figs will round out the flavor and provide additional fermentable sugar. For yeast, I plan to cultivate a 2-step starter from the dregs in a bottle of Dogfish Head Midas Touch.
I’ve never cultivated a starter from bottle dregs before. Why now, and why Midas Touch? One usually hears about brewers cultivating dregs from sour beers like Orval to harvest the unique blend of Brett and bacteria strains that make those beers special, as described in this blog entry from TheMadFermentationist.com. But it should work with clean Saccharomyces as well.
I’m not sure what kind of yeast is used to ferment Midas Touch, though clone recipes online call for Trappist ale strains. I don’t even know if the yeast Dogfish Head bottles Midas Touch on is the same as the yeast that ferments it – many breweries use different yeasts for bottle conditioning. So my decision to use Midas Touch dregs was less about capturing a particular unique yeast than it was about superstition.
Midas Touch is one of Dogfish Head’s “ancient ales” and is based on chemical analysis of bronze vessels found in Gordion in Central Turkey – roughly the same part of the world as Cyprus, where my fig beer has its inspirational roots. I thought the dregs might be a good luck charm for my first foray into ancient brewing: a little piece of the magic from Sam Calagione and Dr. Patrick McGovern, two of the high priests of modern ancient ale reproduction. But really, the main reason I did it was because it sounded like fun and I’ve never done it before.
I made a first-step starter wort of 200 milliliters to bring the bottle yeast back from the dead. When that ferments out, I’ll “step it up” to a second starter of 500 mL. For a full 5-gallon batch I’d continue stepping up to 2 liters, but for a 1-gallon batch, 500 mL should suffice.
I scaled down my usual starter process as well as I could, realizing it’s okay if some the math isn’t exact in a wild-shot experiment. I dissolved 15 grams of extra light dry malt extract in 200 mL of boiling water. Usually I use 1 gram per 10 milliliters, but I’m hoping the lower OG starter will give a little advantage to sleepy yeast.
I also added 3/32 of a teaspoon of yeast nutrient. While that sounds like a strange fraction to use, it’s simply one each of the “pinch” and “smidgen” measuring spoons (or 3 “smidgens”) available at specialty kitchen stores. Those little spoons aren’t all that useful on a day-to-day basis, but I keep them around just for tiny measurements like this. For the record, an exact scaling of my usual 1/2 teaspoon nutrient per liter of starter would have been 1/10 teaspoon.
5 minutes of boiling reduced the starter volume more than expected, so after I cooled it and transferred to a sanitized pint glass, I topped off with pre-boiled water and chilled in the freezer to an acceptable pitching temperature of 84°F. I roused the yeast in the last half-inch of a bottle of Midas Touch (which I had already poured into a glass and was drinking) and pitched it.
As of today, there’s no visible sign of fermentation in the starter, but there is a pleasant boozy smell coming from the glass. There’s no telling how few viable yeast cells were in that bottle, but even a few cells should reproduce given time.
We’ll see how it shakes out by Monday. I never do anything too crazy without a safety net, so I have a packet of Fermentis Safbrew T-58 – a spicy Belgian yeast strain with reported clove notes, which should go well with honey, fig and smoke – on hand just in case I don’t get a usable starter. But that’s Plan B.
Here’s hoping the Bronze Age beer gods smile on my undertaking.