Historical Brewing 101: This Is Easier Than You Think

I’m liking this whole “write posts on Sunday” thing. I rarely have things that demand my attention on Sundays, so I often find myself sitting around with time to kill.

Perhaps I shall redirect that killing time to whitespace – fill the void with something useful. Slash and burn pixel forests with self-aggrandizing pontification on topics of incredibly specific interest and arcane origin. Type quickly and loudly simply for the sake of hearing the music of my keystrokes. Fill your eyes with needless words expounding far beyond the point of necessity, into a realm that can only be described as ego-stroking.

You love it and you know it.

So, basically, I think the Sunday post will become the norm. Adjust your calendars accordingly.

And yes, there will be a return to the every-other-week schedule soon. Moving to a new place imminently! Once life stops exploding on my face, we’ll return to the usual.

I expect you all are quivering with anticipation.

See, it's funny because I am also a jolly fat man. That's right, I'm fucking jolly.

See, it’s funny because I am also a jolly fat man. That’s right, I’m fucking jolly.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to teach brewing at an SCA event up north a bit from Albany. It was a great experience – I had several very eager students turn out to learn all about homebrewing from the very basics (as in, “yeast + sugar + water = booze” basic), and it was quite the educational experience for me as well. This is why we teach, after all – as we give knowledge to others, so we receive it in return.

Teaching these classes helped me codify a position I’d long been trying to express; I’d like to share that with you.

While the SCA has a fairly well-defined mission in “recreating the arts and traditions of pre-17th century Europe,” the truth is that the accuracy of said re-creation varies. A lot. A whole lot. The group casts a fairly broad net in attracting members, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness – we can take in people with a diverse range of interests and cultivate their inner Medievalist geek, but we also don’t separate by interest level or expertise. Thus, you get a very mixed bag in terms of research interest in the group as a whole. It’s a byproduct of being inclusive, and it’s a good thing, I think. Certainly, there are groups which cleave to a higher standard of accuracy and authenticity, but we can find that level in the SCA as well – and you’re more likely to find the SCA than, say, Regia Anglorum.

But what I occasionally run into is a person who not only isn’t engaged in recreating the art of the era – they actively oppose it. “Pfft, why would I make period wines? They were probably crappy!” Or “I don’t care about doing research – I just want to make something delicious.” Or better still, “Research is too hard to do.”

“Research is too hard, so I’m just going to do whatever?” That’s crap. That’s like saying “I don’t want to base my observations on facts – I’d just rather pull things out of my ass.” That is an unfortunately common mindset in the world (one to which we are all vulnerable), and we can work to reduce it by engaging in critical analysis.

I think it’s rooted, in part, in the desire of creative people to invest themselves into a project, and in doing so add to their own social value. We put a lot of ourselves into, say, a song that we write or a beer that we brew. We take our ideas, and using our hard-won skill, translate them into another medium that may be consumed by others. There’s a lot of ego wound up in our creations. We share that with other people. “If they like this, then they’ll like me and they’ll see that I have value!” We ingratiate ourselves to a society by our contributions to it, and we take that to heart.

But when we work from another’s source material – try to recreate someone else’s creation – it seems to us that we no longer are conveying our own ideas. “These are someone else’s ideas! What if they’re wrong? What if their idea sucks? If I create that and promulgate it as my own, everyone will think suck!” We have to remove our own ego from such attempts at re-creation, because we need to think about how someone else did something – whether or not we think that’s a good idea. This creates a situation where someone may dislike a thing and direct that at us, while we stand there helpless trying to defend a thing that never came from us in the first place.

This can be daunting for many. We stand to lose investor confidence. Our social currency will weaken. Purchasing power declines. Our credit rating may be downgraded.  And so, we become fiscally conservative regarding our social currency – stick to what we know works, and don’t take risks.

It’s all a lie. As I will show shortly, the process of re-creating is one of translation – and any translation involves choices on the part of the translator. That’s where you get to invest yourself – but because people are unfamiliar with it, because it is a new direction of expression and investment, they become scared.

Let’s take a look at how to overcome such fears. What follows is an applied form of the scientific method, used to recreate an ancient wine; while I’m focusing on ancient wine, this principle can really be applied (in specific modified forms) in any area of life that involves analysis of information and synthesis of ideas.

What's the worst that could happen?

What’s the worst that could happen?

This is my process summarized:

1) Find a source

2) Identify and list critical steps

3) Ask questions and map possible answers

4) Continue asking questions until you can’t answer (or give up)

5) Pick your answers and justify your choices

6) Reassemble into a novel method

7) Experiment, document, and repeat

Most people who have done this to any extent will look at that list and go “Well, no shit.” This, however, is not always obvious to people, and there are a few other principles that we need to know going in:

  • Perfect replication is probably impossible.

In much the same way that science will never lead you to “100% certainty,” any attempt to replicate an item from history is inherently flawed. That’s OK – impossible goals are still useful, because they ensure that we’ll always  try.

  • Every step along the path can be useful.

This ties back to my “being wrong is good” argument. Even our failures will teach us valuable lessons, and if you’re following a tightly-regimented process, your learning pace will be greatly accelerated. The key is to remember that you will be making choices while also documenting alternate paths – so long as you do that, you will have a map that you can continue to explore, time and time again, until you have satisfactorily exhausted its secrets.

Let’s do this step-by-step:

1) Find a source: You can do this the hard way (see the “Brewing with Egil” series), or you can “cheat” and find something that you want to replicate. Let’s cheat! I’ll start with an ancient Greek technique for something called Coan wine. Keep that open in a new tab as you read the rest of this.

2) Identify and list critical steps: Here, I like to look for things that are both familiar and foreign. Reading over the recipe, it ends with regular wine production: remove the grapes, press them, store the juice. OK, so we know where we’re ending. The initial stages seem bizarre, though. Collect seawater? Dry the grapes? What? It doesn’t have to make sense right now – what you need to do is cobble together a list of summarized steps:

  1. Obtain seawater with sediment removed.
  2. Pick very ripe grapes that have dried after a rain.
  3. Dry grapes: in the sun for 2 days, or outside generally for 3.
  4. Take 10 quadrantrils of seawater and 40 quadrantrils of grapes, in a container that can just hold all of it.
  5. Soak the grapes for 3 days in the seawater.
  6. Remove the grapes, press in the treading room, store the juice.

As I said, you don’t need to know what anything means just yet. In fact, it’s better that you don’t – put everything that might be relevant into your summary, and keep the original source handy in case you missed something. You’ll also need the originals for the next step.

3) Ask questions and map possible answers: What do I mean here? Let’s start asking a few and you’ll get the picture.

Start with step 1, the seawater. I’ll just start asking questions that come to mind:

  • Where is the seawater from?
  • What is the salt concentration of the water?
  • Are there other minerals leftover?
  • What kind of jar is the water stored in?

Now, start answering questions, and “mapping” different possible answers. Sometimes, a question has a fairly straightforward answer – but sometimes, multiple possibilities appear equiprobable. Put it all down. Note your sources – you can ask questions about those too.

  • “Coan” wine, after some searching, comes from the Greek island of Kos, which is just off the western coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea.
  • Global average ocean salinity is 3.5%. Around Kos, it’s 4%. Source.
  • Hm. I have no idea. Seawater has a lot of stuff in it, but I don’t know what will settle out and what won’t.
  • There could be several answers here. We know the Greeks used clay amphorae. They also used wooden vessels. They also used leather vessels. All are possibilities.

To start building your “map,” try to visualize the central step about which you are asking questions. Put this first round of questions around that step as radiating lines, and add answers to the ends of those lines. Something like this:

I don’t usually draw a literal diagram like this – this is just how I visualize my process, and how I engage in questioning. The crucial part is to leave your answers lying around as touchstones.

4) Continue asking questions until you can’t answer (or give up): Now you can start asking questions about your answers, and building a web around those. Maybe you pick the “Wood, Leather, or Pottery” answer and start asking questions about it:

You can do this forever. I haven’t even begun to ask all the questions I could possibly ask – and that’s OK. That’s why you’re building the map – you research something until a point where you need to stop (or wish to stop), but leave the map around so you have something to come back to. It becomes a literal guide for your research that you can continue to reference repeatedly.

And with experimentation and learning, you’ll alter that map and find new directions!

5) Pick your answers and justify your choices When you stop, what you’ll have are basic steps, with a huge network of roads and resting points (questions and answers). Follow a road of questions to an answer that suits you, and justify your stop. Any reason is valid, so long as you’re honest about it. Remember, you’ve always got your map, so you can return at any point and keep going down that road.

Perhaps you want to pick one initial answer and explore it until you’ve exhausted all sources of information. Cool. Maybe you want to find enough information to allow you to replicate the product with stuff you have in your house. Also cool. Your purpose will guide the answers you pick, and remarking on why you went where you did will help you when you revisit this map – and yes, you will revisit it. Over and over again.

So remember, you’re in complete control of the journey. It goes as far as you want it to as fast as you want it to, and all steps along the way are valuable. In fact, small incremental experimentation is better than complex multi-variable efforts – it’s easier to analyze your information that way.

6) Reassemble into a novel method Now that you’ve got your answers picked out, you’ll put them together in a logical order, modifying steps as appropriate to incorporate your answers.

So maybe I figure out the exact salinity and mineral content of the Aegian Sea circa 200 BCE. Excellent. I have to somehow incorporate that information into my processing – perhaps I manufacture a purified “seawater” by adding chemicals to distilled water until I hit the right mineral profile.

Or maybe you decided, “Screw that, I live on Kos – I’m just going to go out into a boat and gather up water like they did.” So the boat, the voyage, the destination – those are all part of the method.

7) Experiment, document, and repeat By itself, this is a valuable intellectual exercise – but look, I’m a brewer. I make shit. What good is all this research unless we get something out of it. So we figure out what we’re doing and set up a small experiment.

I did this at the class I mentioned above. I purchased 2 2-quart bottles of concord grape juice (no preservatives), and after a bunch of research and extrapolation, I figured out that I needed to add approximately 35 grams of salt to those 2 quarts of juice to get the right salt content. I used hand-harvested Mediterranean sea salt, because that’s as close as I could get. I used one satchet of wine yeast. Added the salt to one of the quarts, left the other alone, added the yeast.

Easy, right? It would up being ~2 tablespoons of salt, so the rate of addition I figured out is 1 tablespoon of salt per quart of grape juice.

If you’re wondering, it tastes really really weird.

So I tried it, and I just told you what I did (documented) as well as my entire process. Now? I can go back to my map and try it all over again. Like I said, you don’t need to make a literal map – that’d drive you insane – but the principle is one to which you should adhere. Make sure you’ve always got something to go back to, so that you have a launching point for new experiments.

This is essentially an adapted and applied version of the scientific method. We observe, hypothesize, experiment, learn, and do it all over again.

You’ll never be “finished” with it, but you’ll sure as hell make some great progress – and some really interesting products – along the way.

So go forth and try shit out! Dare to fail! Make something really weird! Just make sure you take good notes along the way.

I really just wanted to post this .gif again. Let's say it's something about experiments in human psychology. Yeah, that sounds right.

I really just wanted to post this .gif again. Let’s say it’s something about experiments in human psychology. Yeah, that sounds right.

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2 comments on “Historical Brewing 101: This Is Easier Than You Think

  1. […] talked at you all before about how easy it can be to do historical brewing research and recreation. We often attempt to take the principles of […]

  2. […] down into the same steps, and go over some possible ways to interpret them easily. Remember, all steps on the path can be valid. The important thing is to know why you’re making the choices that you’re making, and […]

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