A Yeast Affection: Say hello to my little friends…

This is Figaro.

He’s not a special historical breed of cat or anything. He’s pretty cool and I’ve had him a long time, but he’s not really sure what to make of my strange hobbies. I suppose after 14 years he’s seen me do stranger things than learning renaissance crafting, though if you pressed, I think he’d admit he’s a bit giddy that there are now two knitters in the house.

Why am I bringing up my grumpy old cat on a story about yeast?

Because I’ve spent the last decade and a half trying to keep the furry little weirdo away from the stuff. Fig will move heaven and earth to get to anything yeasty. He’s been known to try to drink the water we bloom the yeast in for bread dough. Beer, bread, pizza dough… he’ll climb you like a tree to get at it.

You would think it was tuna the way he chases it.

Which is one of the many reasons that I was so happy when my friends Patrick and JoNell offered his kitchen and gear for my foray into beer making. They don’t have a weirdo yeast-obsessed cat to contend with and brewing is all about sanitation.

Brewing beer at my place would require straining tuxedo cats out of the mash.

Since most of the ale that the Elizabethans drank was made at home, a little cat fur and a couple of miscreant children in the mix might make it more period, but I think people would object. So we’re brewing a cat-less batch first time out.

Beer brewing was a fully-fledged industry by the time Elizabeth came to power, but according to Martyn Cornwell’s “Beer: The Story of the Pint” (Headline Publishing, 2003) even as late as 1585, over half of the brewers in London were registered aliens.


Because hops, that’s why.  Traditional English brewing happened without hops, and it happened in the home. The histories tell us that immigrants, mostly protestant refugees from the religious wars on the continent first brought hops brewing to England and it was they that drank most of the production of the breweries they set up once they got to London.

Not to be xenophobic, but we’re going to take this opportunity to look into the homelives of the artisans, to step out of the workshops and saunter down the street a bit or up the stairs to enter the world of the Alewife.

The bakery and the brewery is going to overlap for us and these projects will take place simultaneously because the line between bread and brew was a fine one in the early modern world. Both were a calorically-dense cornerstone of the English diet and the ale we’re attempting will be, in every sense, liquid bread.

Early modern humans consumed mind-boggling quantities of brew, with estimates ranging from two liters per person, per day, to four for a male and one for a child. Reasons given are still dominated by the “Water was unsafe” school, though that is teetering a bit.

Whatever the case, once you understand the rates of consumption, you begin to wonder if people were loaded day and night. The answer is a low-alcohol, calorie-dense, liquid bread.

In search of a beer you can drink all day without turning into a complete sot (an artisan has to earn a living, you know) led me to this book.

My first foray into this very simple method of brewing will be paved by a book by a fast-rising star of fermented history, Cassandra Cookson and her book “Drinkable History”. The book is written in a light-hearted and far too short, but it enforces in the reader a desire to hear Professor Cookson give a lecture on pretty much anything.

Her English ale recipe is simplicity itself: Malted Barley, Oats, water, yeast.  She even outlines how to harvest your own yeast and malt your own barley, though we’re going to let that project wait for another show.

My high school teachers taught me that fermentation was mankind’s oldest trick, the first chemical reaction that humans learned to control.  Control, but not understand.  The brewers and bakers of the ancient world developed some very strange theories about what was going on in their brews and their bread, but it was mostly written off as supernatural until the 18th century and not really understood until the 19th century.

Yet they figured out that bread and beer were working from essentially the same process, and that the foam atop a vat of brewing beer could leaven bread as well as the funk that occurred naturally on the skins of apples.

Which is the latest example in my new presentation, tentatively titled, Our Ancestors Were More Observant than Us.  And so is my cat.

Later, we brew. In the meantime, like the artisans of old, I need to head off to work.

– Scott


  1. That is truly impressive. Since I've never done this before, I confess I chose my recipe based on its simplicity. My partner in crime made me promise to do something more complex next time. Twist my arm.


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