For the Historical Food Fortnightly challenge 17 – Myths and Legends, I made small beer. Small beer was drunk in medieval Europe instead of water, as water wasn’t safe to drink. Small beer contains less alcohol than beer; it was homemade; drunk by all, even children and servants, and the consistency was sometimes rather like porridge. Small beer is mentioned in “The Three Heads of the Well” by Joseph Jacobs published in English Fairy Tales in 1890: The king’s daughter says to the old man: ‘In my bag I have got bread and cheese, and in my bottle good small beer. Would you like to have some?’
I found different 18th century and Victorian recipes for small beer, and tried out two of them. ‘The term small beer is a common designation for the light fermented beers, better known as root, spruce, tonic, birch, ginger, lemon, Peruvian and other similar beers. The trouble and care of making these drinks are greater than when produced by means of apparatus.’ But ‘they are, when well prepared, pleasant and invigorating. Small beers as above are usually put up in opaque, glass or stone bottles, for obvious reasons. They will keep usually about a week under ordinary circumstances’. (“Definition Of Small Beers” in A Treatise On Beverages or The Complete Practical Bottler, 1888) George Washington’s wrote down a recipe for small beer in the 1750s: The small beer was made with wheat bran, molasses and hops. Small beer can also be made with birch sap or birch bark.
‘The clarifying of the beer is another feature in the art and process of making these light, fermented beers, that must receive considerable attention. Strong beer, made from malt and hops, ferments so slowly that sufficient time is obtained for it to “fine,” as it is termed – in other words, for the yeast, dirt, foreign matters, etc., to either precipitate or rise to the top, or both, and become clear and transparent. Beer made from sugar or molasses at a high temperature ferments so rapidly, and consequently sours so quickly, that sufficient time is not allowed for the fining process’. But small beer can be clarified ‘by leaching the beer through a foot or more of clean, pure, white sand, or filtering through a felt or flannel bag’ before bottling. (“Clarifying Of Small Beers” in A Treatise On Beverages or The Complete Practical Bottler, 1888)
Victorian Kvass Recipe (The Flowing Bowl – When And What To Drink, 1891)
- 10 lbs rye flour
- 1 lb malt
- 1 lb buckwheat flour
- 30 qt boiling water
- cold water
Stir flours and malt into ‘three quarts of warm water; then pour over it three quarts of boiling water; after half an hour add again six quarts of boiling water, and repeat this in half-hourly intervals three times more; stir the flour in the water well; let it get cool, cover, and let it stand in a rather warm place; the following day you thin the kvass with cold water; put it in a cool place; let it thoroughly sour, and bottle. When the kvass is nearly used up, leave a couple of quarts of the beverage in the tub for the next souring; the thick sediment at the bottom is then thrown away, but it may be used on farms successfully as food for the beasts of burden.’
Adapted Victorian Kvass Recipe
- 80g home milled rye flour
- 7g home milled buckwheat flour
- 3 tbsp grain coffee (malt can be replaced with grain coffee – I used spelt coffee)
- 1 tsp molasses
- 1/2l hot water
- cold water
Stir flours, yeast, sugar and grain coffee into the hot water. Let it infuse overnight at room temperature.
Thin the kvass with cold water, keep it in the fridge for 1 or 2 days. Then it’s ready to drink.
This Victorian Kvass tastes just like diluted sourdough. As none of us really liked the small beer, I added more flour and baked a sourdough bread with it.
Here’s a 1846 recipe for bran bread made with small-beer yeast: ‘Mix with 1/2 a peck of flour, containing the whole of the bran, a 1/4 of a pint of small-beer yeast, and a quart of lukewarm water; stir it well with a wooden spoon until it becomes a thick batter, then put a napkin over the dough, and set it about three feet from the fire, until it rises well. Add, if requisite, a little more warm water, strew over it a tablespoonful of salt, and make the whole into a stiff paste. Put it to the fire, and when it rises, again knead it into the dough. If baked in tins, the loaves will be improved.’ (A Cyclopædia of Practical Receipts, 1846)
Victorian Nettle Beer Recipe (A Treatise On Beverages or The Complete Practical Bottler, 1888)
- 1 peck green nettles
- 1 handful dandelion
- 1 oz ginger
- 1 oz yeast
- 1 handful coltsfoot
- 2 lbs brown sugar
- 1 oz cream of tartar
- 3 gallons boiling water
Infuse ‘the herbs in the boiling water, and when cold strain the liquor. In it dissolve the cream of tartar and the sugar, adding the yeast and bruised ginger. Let the whole work about twelve hours, skim the liquor carefully, and bottle in champagne bottles. Close tightly with good corks softened in boiling water, and tie the corks down. After a few days the beer is ready for use.’
Adapted Victorian Nettle Beer Recipe
- 500g stinging nettle tops (Urtica dioica)
- 5 dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinale)
- 625ml boiling water
- 50g brown sugar (I used half brown and half white sugar)
- 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp bruised, fresh ginger
- ca. 1/3 tsp fresh yeast
Wash the herbs.
Use a spoon or spatula to transfer the washed stinging nettles to the pot.
Pour boiling water over the herbs and infuse till cold, then strain through a sieve.
You can use the nettle tops like spinach or add them to a soup.
Add sugar, ginger, yeast and lemon juice. Cover it with a kitchen towel and let the nettle beer stand overnight at room temperature.
After some hours, there’s brown foam floating on top.
After about 12 hours, carefully remove the scum with a spoon. Then pour the nettle beer through a sieve into plastic bottles – don’t fill the bottle to the brim. Plastic bottles are safer for nettle beer because glass bottles might explode.
‘Let the bottled beverage remain in the same room or place for several hours, to permit the creation of the second or after-fermentation in the bottle, which gives the beverage that pungency and esprit, whereupon it must be removed to a cool place or cellar where the temperature is considerably lower than where it was kept to ferment in.’ (“Preparing And Bottling Small Beers” in A Treatise On Beverages or The Complete Practical Bottler, 1888)
After about two or three hours at room temperature put the bottles into the fridge.
Open the bottle once or twice a day to let off the pressure.
After some days, the nettle beer is ready.
I made two batches of nettle beer: I made the second batch just after some days with the same ingredients except a different yeast, and the colors are completely different! 😀
Other Small Beer Recipes
- 1/2 pint wheat bran
- 3 handfuls hops
- 2 tbsp yeast
- 10 gallons water
- 2 quarts molasses
‘Boil bran and hops in the water until both sink to the bottom; strain through a hair sieve; when lukewarm put in the molasses and stir till it is melted. Put in a cask, bung up, and it will be ready for use in a few days.’
Small Beer without Hops (A topographical history of Surrey, 1841, p. 442)
‘He brews small-beer without hops or other flavouring substance; but in so doing, employs but a small quantitiy of malt with a large proportion of unmalted grain, perhaps five-eighths, or seven-eighths’.