Take a Cock and Boil Him Well

PETE

Last time, I mentioned briefly that I had choked a chicken and made him into beer. This is a thing which requires a degree of elaboration.

Cock ale is a beverage whose earliest attestation dates from the mid-17th century, in the writings of Sir Kenelm Digby. Dibgy is a popular source among SCAdians and other historical brewers, as this text is essentially a large collection of booze recipes; most are various sorts of meads or other honey-based beverages, but we also find a handful of ale techniques, as well as this recipe for something called “cock ale:”

TO MAKE COCK-ALE
Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.
 

WAT R U DOIN?

 

It’s worth noting a few things at this juncture:

  1. The “gallon” in question at the time (~1669) was most likely the English ale gallon, with a volume of ~288 cubic inches. Of course, measurement standardization was still spotty at such a time, and a range of volumes were possible, from 270 to 288 cubic inches being found. For reference, our standard gallon is 231 cubic inches in volume – that means that a “gallon” of ale in 1669 occupied a space roughly 20% larger than the current US gallon. So that “8 gallons of ale” is more like 9.6 gallons.
  2. The wording in the recipe is not totally straightforward. A fellow historical brewing nutjob, who is quite good at it, has a version of this technique where he boils the chicken in the wort while making the beer. Seems like it can be a valid reading. Another reading seems to indicate that you boil the rooster but don’t do anything with it; the direction to “beat these all in a mortar” seems to refer most directly to fruit and sherry. My reading is that you boil the rooster (after cleaning and gutting him), cut or chop him up, mix him with the fruit and sherry, and put that all in the ale. But that’s just one possible interpretation – nothing is definitive here. A later version of the recipe does agree with this interpretation, so I am confident that this is a plausible method.
  3. Sack” is an archaic term that was used to refer broadly to all fortified Spanish wines. The most commonly available iteration today is sherry, but not all sack is sherry.
  4. The rooster I used is called a Golden Polish, and its roots date back to roughly the 16th century. In fact, evidence of crested chickens goes back to the 4th century CE.
  5. His name was Death Cluck. Don’t you forget it.

PETE

Of course, all of this is useless without an ale as a starting point. At this point in brewing history, “ale” and “beer” were distinct products. A late 16th/early 17th century text by Gervase Markham, entitled The English Housewife, contains recipes for both “beer” and “ale” (pp 206 – 209).

In general, “ale” was a higher-alcohol unhopped product that is somewhat akin to barley wines, and which may have been flavored with herbs; “beer” was a mid-range product (~5% ABV) that used hops as a preservative, and rarely had an additional herbal component. Markham’s technique for both versions of “ale” – strong and bottle – would produce high-sugar products with a large potential alcohol content.

Digby documents something he calls “small ale for the stone.” He also documents an “ale with honey,” which is a drink made of honey mixed with small ale. Digby’s use of language is very precise; he says “small ale,” “ale,” and “strong ale” to talk about different products. My conclusion is that his “8 gallons of ale” meant something stronger than a “small ale” but not as strong as a “strong ale.” This is probably more akin to Markham’s “bottle ale” or his own “ale with honey” – as Digby calls this an “ale” expressly.

So to make my “ale” base, I used two other Digby recipes: “small ale for the stone,” which served as the base for “ale with honey.” That “ale with honey” served as the base for the “cock-ale.”

STAHP!

Small Ale for the Stone (~4.5 gallon batch)

  • 3 quarts wheat malt
  • 2.5 quarts Maris Otter pale malt
  • 0.5 quarts crystal rye malt
  • 0.5 quarts chocolate rye malt
  • 0.5 quarts 6-row malt
  • 1/2 oz Hallertau hop pellets

Digby’s recipe ultimately calls for 1.5 pecks of malt and 15 gallons of water. The gallon used to measure water was likely the same as the wine gallon – ~231 cubic inches. He also instructs you to tun it into a barrel of 8 gallons – presumably ale gallons, which would be ~9.5 conventional gallons. You probably wouldn’t fill the barrel completely, so this recipe likely made 8 or 9 gallons of ale.

That’s more booze than I could handle, so I cut the recipe in half (7.5 gallons and 0.75 pecks of malt). There are 4 pecks in a bushel, and the bushel at the time was roughly 9.2 conventional gallons in volume (~2130 cubic inches, close to the actual volume of the bushel today). That means that a peck was 9.2 modern quarts – 3/4 of that is roughly 7 quarts.

The recipe calls for a half ounce of hops (the measures for weight of foods at the time were the same as ours today), but as I already had a half ounce of Hallertau left, and I didn’t want a useless quarter ounce kicking around, I just put the full amount into half the volume. It barely makes a difference in IBU content anyhow. I also didn’t boil the water with hops first – instead, I added them to the second boil (the wort boil), and reduced the ingoing water by 1 gallon (to account for what I would have lost by boiling).

The recipe seems to be a mish-mash of different malts – that’s because I was using what I had on hand, and wanted to get rid of some small weights of grain that weren’t doing me much good. Malt at the time was primarily barley, but could be made of wheat or rye as well, as Markham documents in another work.

I brewed the beer like you do anything else – heat the water up, dump it on the grain, let it sit for an hour, drain the wort, boil with hops, cool, pitch yeast. I used Munton’s dry ale yeast on this guy, because I had it on hand.

My final yield was a touch over 4 gallons – about 4.25. Gravity was 1.048, roughly what I expected. I let this ferment for about 5 days, until the strong fermentation was done, and then dragged it out to Rhode Island for Phase II.

I am a highly-educated, reasonably-paid, ostensibly mature adult.

Ale with Honey

  • 4 gallons small ale (above)
  • 0.5 gallons honey (local raw honey)

Digby works in larger quantites, so I reduced by a factor of 10. For those who don’t know, a gallon of honey weighs ~12 pounds – so this technique has me adding 6 pounds of honey to 4 gallons of finished ale. That’s a lot of sugar to be adding; the recipe becomes roughly 40% grain sugars and 60% honey sugars, making it more like a braggot. Because the ale was done, I didn’t take a gravity reading after the honey addition – but it was probably in the 1.100 range, which is pretty damn strong and has a high alcohol potential.

Before all of this, of course, I had slaughtered, gutted, and cleaned Death Cluck – with some assistance from Phil and his dad. It was interesting to use a heritage breed of rooster that hadn’t been raised for meat; the meat on the carcass was quite dark, and had a liver-like aroma after boiling. That’s likely because of the high blood flow to the rooster’s muscles, as he was running around doing rooster stuff for his whole life.

As I was heating a gallon of the beer to dissolve the honey, I was letting half of Death Cluck’s boiled carcass steep in 1 quart of sherry, 2 pounds of raisins, 4 oz of dates, and ~ 5 grams each of nutmeg and mace (a single nutmeg is ~4 – 5 grams, and I decided to equal it with mace). Since I only had a touch over 4 gallons of ale, and Digby called for 8 (really 9), I just cut the entire recipe in half.

If you’re wondering, Phil and his finacee Chie kept the other half of the rooster and turned him into soup. He was delicious, and will be missed.

Once I had the honey dissolved, everything went into the fermenter – the honey/ale mix, the rooster carcass, and all the fruit and sherry. That went on to ferment for about another 12 days (I got sidetracked), and finished up at a nice 1.010 FG.

Through various testing means, I’ve estimated the final alcohol content of this beast to be ~15%. Trust me, it tastes like it – along with sherry, raisins, a bit of spice, and a touch of umami.

There are several possible reasons why this technique may have been employed. We find a tradition, starting in about the 14th century, of middle-class folks adulterating cheap wines to “improve” them. Additions most often include eggs (still used to clarify wine today), milk or cream, various spices, herbs, honey, fruit, and fortified wines. It seems that the intent was to replicate the flavor profile and texture of the more sought-after fortified Spanish wines, while also clarifying the product. This would save money while giving people a taste of higher-class beverages. It is conceivable that this escalated all the way to adding an actual bird to an ale (which was more like a wine anyway) in order to “improve” it.

It is also conceivable that it was done for superstitious medical reasons. We find at least one instance of cock ale being used as a remedy, and it was alleged that at least one king preferred it to wine. It was said to “raise the spirits” and other such nonsense. Seeing as how the rooster is often associated with masculinity and virility, it makes a degree of superstitious sense.

And seriously, this stuff will put hair on your chest. 15% ABV ain’t no joke.

It’s been fairly well received so far, though the product is far too young to drink right now. I estimate that it will have smoothed out somewhat by the new year – I’ll try cracking some more open then, and seeing how it’s changed.

This has been quite an interesting experiment. I had never thought that the literal combination of meat and drink could work out, but this has been quite enjoyable. It doesn’t taste at all like chicken; the carcass had simply added an earthy richness to the drink, which is complemented nicely by the dark fruit flavors and warm spices. I believe that the use of a heritage breed – that was actually living as a rooster and not a meat animal – was vital in getting that earthiness across. The base product is a very strong ale, so a more mild-tasting chicken would probably have disappeared from the flavor profile. As it is, Death Cluck has added an umami component to the product, making it very rich-tasting. Decadent, to an extent. Very silky and smooth.

But where to go from here?

What? This? Pork sausage. What did you think I was talking about?

Brat-toberfest. You heard it here first – meated beer is going to become a thing for me.

You have been warned.

One comment on “Take a Cock and Boil Him Well

  1. Kythe says:

    love the Nutjob link

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