Middle Ages Brewing

This appeared in the Syracuse New Times, July 26-August 2, 1995

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It’s safe to assume there was no brewing industry here in Syracuse during the Middle Ages. Why then has the Middle Ages Brewing Company, Ltd., opened its doors on Wilkinson Street and begun turning out hearty, flavorful ales? Has the public expressed a widespread yearning to return to itchy cassocks and rat-on-a-stick at public beheadings? Probably not. Could this boon be a reward for clean living and good karma on the part of our citizenry? Undoubtedly, but there’s more.

The Middle Ages Brewing Company seeks to offer Central New York beer drinkers a brew that harkens from a time before sound bites, megabytes and computerized lagers. And for reasons of their own, the owners have chosen to go all the way back to the Middle Ages.

:: Middle Ages, the First Time ::

For those who slept comfortably through history, or who have misplaced their notes, the Middle Ages began with a howl in 476 AD when Vandals and Visigoths ran roughshod over the Roman Empire, rudely ending Greco-Roman civilization and governmental funding for the arts, hence “the Dark Ages,” a time of galloping ignorance, loutish behavior and nose-wrinkling lows in personal hygiene. Ten centuries later, the era hit the finish line with the invention of the printing press and Spain’s bankrolling of a foray west to forcibly open new turf for European expansion, sending all the greedheads and bullies rushing across the ocean and allowing those left behind to start the Renaissance.

In between these milestones, the era spawned feudalism, knights in shining armor, and chivalry, a code of virtue which venerated any woman whose father was king. And what of brewing in this exciting time? Early on, beer was pretty much an ‘at home’ thing, hard work and no pay, hence a job for women, because the men of the Middle Ages were not as deeply committed to gender equality as are their sensitive, enlightened 20th century counterparts.

Women took the title of brewster or ale wife, and made beer from whatever grain was available, be it barley, oats, rye or wheat, and ‘gruit,’ a mixture of herbs such as bog myrtle, rosemary, yarrow, ale-hoof or ivy, or even fine, selected tree bark. When the beer was ready, everyone present drank it all at once and fell to disgusting acts of lechery.

That’s it in a nutshell, and pretty much how beer and brewing would be today, were it not for Christianity and the monastic orders that kept learning alive during the Middle Ages. After all, the making of a festive, adult beverage from water was Christ’s first miracle, and the monks studied brewing religiously.

A typical monastery brewery included a malthouse, kiln, millroom, a brewing room and storage cellars. Different types of beer included a prima melior for distinguished visitors and the fathers themselves, a secunda for lay brothers and employees, and a tertia for pilgrims who came seeking bed and board. Beer spiced with cloves and nutmeg was brewed for special occasions.

The monasteries kept the art of brewing alive until commercial brewing got on its feet in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By the close of the Middle Ages, barley was the preferred grain, and hops the chosen flavoring agent and preservative. The copper-colored or brown ales, brewed with top-fermenting yeast, 4% to 6% alcohol by volume, were very similar to contemporary brews and would certainly be recognized by the well-quaffed drinker of today.

The last medieval brewery, said to date from the 14th century, survived with its original equipment until shortly after World War II at Queen’s College, Oxford.

:: Middle Ages, the Second Time ::

In Syracuse, however, one can catch a glimpse of the Middle Ages at 120 Wilkinson Street, across from the park. The site is not a ruin, but the old Sealtest building and the new home of the Middle Ages Brewing Company, Ltd., Syracuse’s first brewery since Haberle’s closed in 1962.

Owners Marc and Mary Rubenstein’s interest in brewing began with gardening, putting up preserves, gourmet cooking and specialty beers, and evolved into homebrewing, a hobby they enjoyed together. Mary was a medical technologist and Marc worked for a waste removal company, but they found themselves thinking seriously about starting their own brewery, “something we could do together in our middle age,” Mary notes.

Three years ago, Mark quit his job and together they began research full-time. They visited 25 microbreweries and talked to 50 brewers. They took courses in business. Marc interned at Kennebunkport Brewing in Kennebunkport, Maine, and both interned at Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine.

As Head Brewer (Marc) and President (Mary), the Rubensteins bring to the endeavor a willingness to work, a love of good beer and a ready smile. Their hours are positively medieval, 16 hours a day or more, because beer never sleeps, and it’s especially frisky when it has a good fermentation kicking along.

Peter Austin & Partners, Inc., provided the equipment, built to the Rubenstein’s specifications in England. Austin also installed the hardware, including the highly specialized piping and the brickwork that surrounds the copper brew kettle. The equipment includes a malt mill, a mash tun, a copper brew kettle, a hop percolator, four open fermenters, four conditioning tanks, and the keg and bottling lines, and can support five brews a week.

:: The Brewing Process ::

The typical brewing process begins when Marc opens 26 sacks of two-row barley malted by Munton & Fison in Suffolk, England, and runs it through the malt mill. The malt then goes to the mash tun for mashing, and the extraction of all the good stuff. At this point it becomes ‘wort.’ The wort is then strained and sent into the brew kettle where bittering hops from the Pacific Northwest are added, and the mixture is boiled over a direct natural gas flame for one hour.

Meanwhile, aroma hops are steeped in hot water in the hop percolator, and when the wort is ready, it is passed through the percolator on its way to the fermenting tanks. The hops filter the wort and impart another layer of hoppy flavor and aroma to the brew.

In the open fermenting tank, the wort cools and yeast from a 150-year-old strain from Yorkshire, England, is ‘pitched’ in, and begins to work. Fermentation takes an average of two and one-half days, during which time Marc Rubenstein can often be found on the catwalks that enable him to look down into the open fermenters. Clad in a Middle Ages t-shirt, jeans and brewery boots, Marc keeps an eye on the fermentation and ‘rouses’ the wort by hand, using a rousing stick, when he senses the yeast needs more oxygen.

When the yeast has finished its work, it is skimmed for use in the next batch, and the beer is conditioned in the fermenter for four and one-half days. The beer is ‘racked over’ to conditioning tanks for one more day to clarify further, then filtered and carbonated to the proper level, followed by kegging or bottling. Unlike lager beers, which need to be stored (lagered) for weeks, even months, ale benefits from quick conditioning and delivery at the height of freshness.

Middle Ages employs seven people full time, and is neither computerized nor automated. The whole brewing process takes nine days, strong hands and a tremendous amount of personal attention, especially when you have two or more brews in process, each at a different stage.

The results are Grail Ale, a rich, ruby-hued, full bodied ale, and White Knight Light Ale, a golden ale brewed in the tradition of English session beers, although it bears more than a passing resemblance to the better American microbrewed ales, such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. While the beer’s style and manufacture hark back to venerable English methods, the names and packaging (with art by local illustrator Mary McConnell) allude to the quest for the Holy Grail, bringing to mind Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century Arthurian legends for some, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail for others.

One thing that is not medieval about Middle Ages Brewing is the consistency of the brews. In spite of the beers’ hand-crafted nature, there are no wild variations as in the days of old. Those who love change, however, will be rewarded seasonally with a strong ale, a ‘Winter Warmer,’ in November, a traditional English bitter next Spring, and a bracing India Pale Ale in the summer of ’96.

You can taste Grail Ale and White Knight in the sales room at the brewery, and both beers can be purchased fresh from the tap in a refillable 64 oz. glass ‘growler.’ If you can relate to buying your bread straight from the oven at the Columbus Bakery, you can relate to this. The beer is fresh and full of flavor, a boffo hit at dinner parties.

Brewery tours are available by appointment and because of the brewery’s size and simplicity, they provide an excellent understanding of the brewing process.

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Sources: Chapters on medieval brewing in A History of Brewing by H.S. Corran (1975) and One Hundred Years of Brewing , published by “The Western Brewer” (1903).

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