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Raw ale

Posted in Beer on 2015-06-05 09:42

A barrel of raw ale, Vilnius, Lithuania

The topic for the session #100 is "resurrecting lost beer styles". I decided to choose what is very likely the biggest beer style you've never heard of: raw ale. It's not even a single style, but a whole group of beer styles, all of which share one characteristic: the wort is never boiled. Strictly speaking raw ale neither dead nor lost, but it's still in need of a ressurection. Because even though these beers are spread over a wide area, and historically have been extremely important, hardly anyone has ever heard of them.

To my mind, raw ale is important because it tastes very different from boiled beer, and because the best raw ales can be absolutely amazing. Examples: Hornindal, Jovaru Alus, Storli Gard. So it's clear that there's rich ground here for anyone wanting to brew beer that's interesting and different. In addition, there is the historic importance, which we will return to.

In fact, the difference between raw and boiled beer is so stark that the tree of beer styles should probably look like this:

Beer style hierarchy redrawn

Unfortunately, that's going to break some well-known styles in two parts (sahti, for example), because the style as currently described includes both boiled and raw ales. To my mind that's not a problem, because raw and boiled sahti are vastly more different than, say, IPA and pale ale are.

"You have to boil the wort!"

Now, as any homebrewing manual will tell you, a fixed and key part of the brewing process is boiling the wort. It's such a key step that the brewing process is often divided into "the hot side" (before boiling) and "the cold side" (after boiling). Weirdly, a number of texts on the history and archaeology of beer also assume that beer must necessarily be boiled.

Boiling is important because it achieves (at least) three things:

However, as it turns out, most farmhouse brewers today don't actually boil the wort. Nor did their ancestors. And while this may sound like a relic of the Stone Age (which in some ways it is), some of them actually make magnificent beers which can compete with any boiled beer. But what about the three issues above, then? Let's do them one by one:

In other words: what brewing literature teaches us is an absolute requirement is actually unnecessary. And what historians and archaeologists tend to assume was a fixed feature of prehistoric beer is still, to this day, not part of the brewing process for traditional brewers in large parts of northern Europe.

Brewing raw ale, unsuccessfully, Oslo

Defining raw ale

Strange as it might sound, raw ale is a fuzzy concept, because there's no sharp line dividing raw ale from boiled ale. Sometimes people boil only 1/6th of the wort. Is it then raw ale? Normal beer is boiled for at least an hour, but farmhouse ale can be boiled for 2 minutes. Is it then really boiled ale?

For the drinker, what matters the most is the flavour, so I tend to use the yardstick that if the process makes it taste like boiled beer I'll consider it boiled beer. Thus, if most of the wort is raw, or the boil is so short that the hops don't isomerize and there's no hot break releasing the protein then it's a raw ale. Unfortunately, I have no emperical evidence for where the dividing line lies, so for now let's say a boil shorter than 30 minutes gives you a technically raw ale.

Having said that, the majority of people making raw ale don't boil at all. In fact, a number of farmhouse brewers consider that boiling the wort will spoil the beer.

Range today

Of the farmhouse ale brewed today, how much is raw ale? That's nearly impossible to quantify with anything like precision, but I can outline the areas where raw ale appears to be the norm:

Mug of raw ale

In the recent past

If we roll back a century or so we can add to the list above:

Very likely the list should contain more, but more research is needed.

Further into the past

Now, as I've documented above, most farmhouse ale today and in the recent past was raw ale. As we go further back, some important technology disappears. Without a metal kettle, boiling becomes difficult. Copper kettles have been around for more than two millennia, but until the last couple of centuries they were very expensive high-status items. As odd as it might sound now, in the Iron Age a copper kettle would make a good gift for a chieftain, for example.

Exact valuations are rare, but in 1350 the heirs of Eirik Bukk at the Finne farm in Voss, Norway, divided their inheritance. The document has survived, and values his three copper kettles at eight cows. [DN I 321] This at a time when a manorial farm might have 12 cows all told, and a small farmer might have just one. In other words: copper kettles were seriously expensive items. Accounts from continental Europe agree, for example, [Unger 2007] says that in this period the copper kettle was undoubtedly the most expensive equipment the brewer had.

Hence, people would brew in wooden vessels, and heat the liquid with stones. As some people still do. It's possible to boil wort for an hour with stones, but it's hard, and it takes a lot of fuel. We've already seen that raw ale was very likely extremely widespread a couple of centuries ago, and in the stone boiling era it likely dominated totally.

Medieval drinking horn (1950s replica), Vest-Telemark Museum

Another change that's important here is the introduction of hops. Before the introduction of hops beer kept poorly anyway, so the sterilization and protein issues didn't matter so much, and the hop isomerization obviously did not apply, either. It follows that before hops were introduced there was really no reason to boil the beer at all. Add to this the difficulties of boiling with stones plus the cost of fuel and it becomes very unlikely that unhopped farmhouse ale was boiled. Further, boiling removes protein from the beer, which reduces the nutritional value of it.

Indeed, there is every possibility that unhopped commercial beer wasn't boiled, either. Several English sources from around the time that hopped beer was introduced (16th-17th century) indicate that even unhopped commercial ale was unboiled. [Holme 1688] [Harrison 1577] In the Low Countries, it seems that around the time that hopped beer replaced the older gruit beer (14th century), copper kettles also became much more common (12th/13th century), which is interesting. It may well be that this is when breweries in the Low Countries started boiling their wort. [Unger 2007]

Conclusion

In short, raw ale is a major branch of the tree of beer styles, and so far unjustly ignored. Most farmhouse ale is raw ale, and historically the dominance has been even greater. Very likely just about all prehistoric beer was raw ale. Which again means that probably every single modern recreation of ancient ales has missed a key point: don't boil the wort.

The main difficulty with commercial production of raw ale is very likely going to be shelf-life. There are, however, people who have been and are able to brew raw ale that lasts at least some months, so this need not be unsolvable.

Sources

DN I 321 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, volume 1, letter no 321.

Firth 1920 Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish, John Firth, W.R. Rendall, Stromness, 1920.

Harrison 1577 A Description of Elizabethan England, William Harrison, 1577.

Holme 1688 The Academie of Armorie, Randle Holme, Chester, 1688.

Hupel 1777 Topographische Nachrichten von Lief- und Esthland II, A. W. Hupel, Riga, 1777.

Järmälä 1997 Estonian Koduolu - Homebrewing in Estonia, Ari Järmälä, web page, 1997.

NEU Nationalmuseets Etnologiske Undersøgelser, Danish National Museum.

Olufsen 1812 Anviisning for land-almuen til at brygge øl, C. Olufsen, Copenhagen, 1812.

Ovell 1996 Finland's Indigenous Beer Culture Peter Ovell, Perinteisen Oluen Seura, Special Publications No 1, Helsinki, 1996.

Räsänen 1975 Vom Halm zum Fass, Matti Räsänen, Kansatieteellinen arkisto, Helsinki, 1975. ISBN 9519056181.

Salomonsson 1979 Gotlandsdricka, Anders Salomonsson, Lund, 1979.

Scott 1967 Island Saga: The Story of North Ronaldsay, Mary A. Scott, Alex Reid & Son, 1967.

Unger 2007 Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Richard W. Unger, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8122-1999-9







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Comments

Marshall - 2015-06-05 13:18:23

I smell some interesting raw ale xBmts in my future. Great article, Lars, I always look forward to your posts!

> Latvia: the beers in Latgale seem to be unboiled; not sure about western Latvia yet. Older literature describes mostly raw ale.

I married into a Latvian family and would absolutely LOVE to get more information on traditional Latvian beer, raw, boiled, or otherwise. We regularly attend US versions of Latvian festivities, it'd be really cool to be able to serve a traditional beer at one of these.

Cheers!

Marshall

Martyn Cornell - 2015-06-05 13:40:22

"Raw ale" as described was the norm in pre-hop Britain, since if you don't use hops there really is no need to boil your wort, and as Britain continued to have a tradition of ale brewers into the 18th century (much longer than most historians have previously believed) then "raw ale" probably continued that long: indeed, the writer Thomas Tryon was telling all brewers not to boil their worts in the 1690s.

Lars Marius - 2015-06-06 04:42:36

@Marshall: Thank you! I will be brewing a farmhouse ale in Aizpute in western Latvia in July, so at some point in August there will be a blog post about that. I hope to be able to include a full recipe.

@Martyn: My guess is that raw ale probably continued even longer if you consider farmhouse brewers. I haven't gone looking for the documentation yet, but I'm convinced there must have been farmhouse brewers making raw ale in Britain in the 19th century.

Thank you for the Tryon reference! Found it now.

Graham Dineley - 2015-06-06 05:48:05

The first time I made a meadowsweet ale I boiled 5 gallons(imp) with 1.5 oz of dried meadowsweet flowers. It gave a beautiful deep chestnut colour, but severely inhibited the yeast action. Now I add the flowers at the end of primary fermentation, not the same colour. When we ran a mash in a reconstructed burnt-mound trough at Bressay, Shetland, in 2011, there was no way to boil the wort. We just gathered it when it was cool enough to handle, and pitched bakers yeast onto it when it reached blood temperature. It is not practical to boil wort with hot rocks, and is not necessary. Boiling with kettles/cauldrens is possible, but they are still more suited to heating water or mashing. I think boiling wort only became normal with the widespread use of hops. Some gruit herbs are best added after fermentation, the alkaloids then dissolve in the alcohol.

Lars Marius - 2015-06-06 09:36:31

@Graham: That Bressay beer is exactly how I think prehistoric beers were brewed, based on what I know about traditional brewing. What you say about boiling with rocks is useful, since I know you've done it several times.

Boiling with kettles is no problem, though, in my experience. I've brewed three beers with wood-fired kettles now, and all were boiled with no difficulty at all. In one case we boiled 300 liters of wort down to 150 liters in the course of four hours.

I'm still trying to find more recipes where people used herbs so that I can see where in the process they added them, and in what kinds of beers.

Dan ABA - 2015-06-06 17:12:56

Another reason that modern brewers boil wort is to drive off Dimethyl sulfide. Any chance you can address that please?

Lars Marius - 2015-06-07 05:07:51

@Dan: It's a very good question. I decided to skip it in the post itself because of the length.

The precursor of DMS, SMM, is only present in very pale malts, but these brewers generally used darker malts. However, even with pale malts it doesn't appear to be a problem, although you can pick up some DMS. The brewers generally do very vigourous fermentations, so presumably some DMS is scrubbed out then. Overall, I think you do get some DMS, but not so much that it's a problem.

Adam Boura - 2015-06-07 09:42:04

I love this! I'm probably going raw on the next batch.

Jack Perdue - 2015-06-23 20:04:43

Very interesting post. I'd never heard of raw ale before this. Always good to learn about from hence our beer comes. Thanks, Jack

Liam Gilmartin - 2015-07-26 19:42:51

Regarding DMS: If dark malts contain less of the pre-cursor then how dark does a malt need to be to reduce DMS in the finished beer to barely detectable levels?

I am wondering if any malts that have sufficient diastatic power to be capable of self-conversion fall into this category (eg a Munich malt)?

Fascinating post, thank you.

Martynas - 2015-08-04 09:34:35

Yet another great post, and interesting discussion in the comments.

Just a couple of comments:

"There are, however, people who have been and are able to brew raw ale that lasts at least some months, so this need not be unsolvable."

In Lithuania, the "keeping" ale was typically the "superior" beer, "pirmokas", made from the first runnings, hence much stronger in sugars and eventually, alcohol. My guess is that this would have helped to keep such ale fresh longer.

Then, the beer would be kept/matured cool/cold - I keep hearing tales of oak barrels submerged in water wells. Also people living close to the water bodies maintained ice-block filled shelters/cellars that would allow maintaining cold temps year-round.

(Pic) "Mug of raw ale"

If that's Davra beer in that mug, it's probably boiled:) Even if they evolved from commercial wooden vessel-brewing in 1991, today Davra is fairly modern and makes only boiled beers, as far as I know.

Lars Marius - 2015-08-04 15:25:26

@Martynas: What you say about pirmokas makes perfect sense. The Danes used to brew a raw ale in March/April, for consumption in fall, and again that would be a stronger and more hopped beer. So that fits.

Davra is indeed a boiled lager, but the mug actually contained Jovaru Alus. I only have so many photos for these blog posts. :)

Zac - 2015-10-23 21:49:51

Thank you Lars. Great article. I live in the United States, and am an avid home Brewer for the last 7 years. I had never heard of raw ale until this article. I brewed a batch about a month ago using sweet gale as my bittering herb, and it is wonderful. I even went as far as to toast my own "crystal" grains getting about an 80L out of it. I used Nottingham as my yeast, and primed my bottles using the gyle method of saving some of the original wort. It is a vastly different ale than I have ever brewed, but I am in love with the process, and the product. I am now drinking a little bit of history, and will carry on the tradition of raw ale here in the Americas.

Thank you again Lars,

Zac

Kristian Sætervik - 2016-04-13 07:14:25

Fascinating post Lars. I've just started experimenting With fresh fruit additions to the secondary fermenter vessel With boiled ales. But is there evidence of raw ales, past or present being flavored With fruits?

Kristian Sætervik, Grimstad, Norway.

Lars Marius - 2016-04-13 07:38:32

Thank you, Kristian. I don't know of any evidence that any farmhouse ale (raw or otherwise) was ever fermented with fruit (in Norway or anywhere else). Lambics have of course traditionally been brewed with fruit, but whether lambics ever were farmhouse ales I don't know.

Fran Gagne - 2016-07-20 15:57:41

I have been experimenting with a raw ale also called bruit. I obtained sprout able oats barley and wheat and proceeded to soak and strain and air till they begin to sprout. At this point i liquefy in a blended with added honey sugar and barley malt powder. I am on my 3rd try and cannot get the yeast to get going, any ideas why? Fran

Lars Marius Garshol - 2016-07-24 10:13:11

@Fran: It's hard to say, but it sounds like you may have stopped the sprouting a little early, so that the grains don't have enough enzymes and you wind up with not enough sugar. The honey, sugar, and malt powder should help, though. If you have a hydrometer or refractometer you could measure the sugar content with that.

Another question is why you are so sure the yeast is not going. Perhaps it will start, or is going very slowly. Again, a hydrometer/refractometer would help you figure this out, since you could compare sugar content before/after fermentation.

Or maybe your yeast was bad and if you add more it will start. I don't know.

Sue Taylor - 2017-09-05 22:17:22

hi - just wondering on the offchance - might you be willing to sell your copy of Island Saga, Mary Scott? I've been unable to find a copy, and am doing a research project on the island. thanks.

Lars Marius Garshol - 2017-09-06 06:26:31

@Sue: Unfortunately, I don't have a copy, just a scan of 3-4 pages that someone kindly sent me. Try Bookfinder.com, perhaps?

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