Medieval Beer Test

The British Association for the Advancement of Science describes a test that medieval brewers supposedly used to measure how much alcohol was in beer:

To test a fermentation mixture in a brewery, pour onto a wooden seat. Sit in this puddle wearing leather breeches, while drinking more beer. Try to stand up. If breeches stick to seat, the beer will be strong. This method was used by 13th century Ale Conners, mediaeval Customs and Excise Inspectors. The stickier the mixture, the more sugar. This will produce more alcohol, so more duty is payable. Modern methods are more sophisticated, but less fun!

I suppose this would work. But whether or not medieval brewers actually did this, I don't know.


Posted on Sun May 01, 2005


...Ensure you bring multiple pairs of breeches in case the brewery makes more than one beer.

Sounds bollocks to me.
Posted by Paul in Prague  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  01:04 AM
Maybe it just got harder to stand up because you've had more beers...?
Posted by Tom  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  02:59 AM
Sorry to dispargae, gentlemen, but this indeed is true. Contemporary instructions for ale conners or conyers working for His Majesty's Customs did specify pouring some of the ale upon a stool or bench, preferably oak as it won't absord too much, then sitting on it it non-absorbent leather trousers. If the ale had the right amount of sugars and so forth, it would be sticky enough to lift the seat when the conner stood up. ( From "The FRank Muir Book", a social history of practically everything; This particualr fact from the Bodleian Library records of English civli servants documents.)

Of course, as such ingredients as ammonia, chicken dung and grass clippings were often added to ales in these time sto strengthen them, the sugar and alcohol content were the LEAST of your worries..... sick
Posted by DFStuckey  in  Auckland New Zealand  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  03:43 AM
That's stupid.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  05:48 AM
DFStucky, are you sure that wasn't meant as satire?

There were other ways of measuring the ammount of sugar in the unfermented beer (which is called "wort", by the way) The simple and pretty accurate way that early brewers used (and home brewers like myself use still) was to measure the density of the wort before adding the yeast, and then again after the fermentation is complete. The difference corresponds directly to the ammount of alcohol created by the yeast. Though I suppose the sugar in the wort would make the it sticky, I don't think you could differentiate between two different concentrations by this method.

Sounds like BS to me.
Posted by JoeSixpack  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  07:08 AM
Actually I've heard about this too. In one of those Discovery Channel books. I'd hope the Discovery Channel would be getting most of their facts straight
Posted by Fay-Fay  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  10:24 AM
...I just seems like the SUGAR isn't sugar after it's fermented. So, it's not the same syrupy goo that it started out as...
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  12:27 PM
Anybody with much experience can estimate the sugar (or alcohol) content of something pretty accurately by tasting or even just smelling it. I think this "test" is 200-proof bunk.
Posted by Big Gary C in Dallas  in  Dallas, Texas  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  12:37 PM
The Discovery Channel and related channels have an irregular relationship to the truth. If there's a particular fact you think is fascinating, cross-check it with something else before believing it. I've seen them propagate some doozies.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Mon May 02, 2005  at  02:18 PM
JoeSixPack, you do make some good points. However, I feel I should make some better ones.

Firstly, the conners were doing this test in the field, i.e. in brewerys which were actually public alehouses out in the country, which they travelled to on horseback. They could not carry a lot of equipment - And, recall, this was the 13th century, they didn't HAVE a lot of equipment* - To measure density with. Plus they were testing for overall strength of the finished ale, which included more than the alcohol content.

Lastly, it was not a precision test as to exact percentage of alcohol ( Or even proof, which is twice the alcohol volume ) but just to ensure the stuff wasn't overly watery, nor so powerful as to prevent serfs doing their work through blindness or death.

*Reminds me of a story told by Robert Heinlien: When he wrote the book "Space Cadet" he used a scene where an astronoaut trainee had to perform a tethered jump from a spacecraft. To work out the physics of the movement, he used sheets of butcher's paper for the calcualtions invloved which ran to about three feet worth. When he told this fact to a scientist/fan some time later, the fan was shocke dand asked "Why didn't you use a calculator for such a job? Did you really need all that detail for half a paragraph?" Heinlien recalls "I took a deep breath and said 'Sonny,( And usually I'm in awe of anyone with a PhD, no matter how young ) Remember, I did this in 1948...'."
Posted by DFStuckey  in  Auckland New Zealand  on  Tue May 03, 2005  at  03:44 AM
DFStucky, the equipment for measuring density is not any more complicated than a wooden yardstick with a weight on one end. It works on the same principle that Archemedies discovered 15 centuries before, so it's not like we're talking about something that needs an electrical outlet to use. Pretty easy to carry around, too. Hydrometers were used by brewers back then, so why wouldn't tax collectors use them? Pretty easy to carry around. It would be a hell of a lot more useful for testing than leather trousers. Sorry, it still smells like BS to me.
Posted by JoeSixpack  on  Tue May 03, 2005  at  05:20 PM
I've been to many SCA events, I've seen medieval leather trousers in action. (Though, more's the pity, I've never seen anyone do this test, even though there are brewing demonstrations. Damn.) Leather britches are bulky and heavy; I have no doubt that a yardstick with a weight on one end would be much more easily portable (and easier to clean, too).

>>>The Discovery Channel and related channels have an irregular relationship to the truth. If there's a particular fact you think is fascinating, cross-check it with something else before believing it. I've seen them propagate some doozies.<<<

I know this to be true, and have ever since I saw The History Channel repeat the silly canard about Ring Around The Rosie being about the plague as fact. A good hoax can slip past anyone's fact checkers now and then.
Posted by Barghest  on  Wed May 04, 2005  at  12:36 AM
Well, without anyone actually trusted by all of us to go and actually look at the regualtions in the Bodelian Library, guess we'll never solve this.

All I can say is it's the platypus all over agin smile
Posted by DFStuckey  in  Auckland New Zealand  on  Wed May 04, 2005  at  03:59 AM
"...Ring Around The Rosie being about the plague as fact"

It isn't? I thought it was. What is it's origin? Please tell me more.

Posted by Peter  on  Wed May 04, 2005  at  05:38 AM
Hi Peter.
Snopes does a pretty good coverage of this legend.
Posted by Boo  in  The Land of the Haggii...  on  Wed May 04, 2005  at  05:42 AM
Something else finally yelled at me from my subconcious: men weren't wearing breeches in the 13th century, leather or otherwise.

Everyone was still in tunics! (Dresses, for those of you who aren't historical clothing wonks like myself.) A man might wear a white linen shirt, white linen underwear, wool or linen hosen tied to the shirt or underwear or another layer, and then the outer tunic over all of that. The trends were towards more fitted tunics toward the end of this century, but anything we'd call trousers wouldn't show up until late in the 1400s.

Now, it's remotely possible that this excerpt could demonstrate that *someone* was wearing leather breeches, if it is accurate. But if they were, it's not a style seen in the artwork of the time.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Thu May 05, 2005  at  06:01 AM
Well I never. Gosh, I've learnt something today.

Thank you Boo.
Posted by Peter  in  London  on  Thu May 05, 2005  at  06:04 AM
No problem.
Posted by Boo  in  The Land of the Haggii...  on  Thu May 05, 2005  at  07:18 AM
And thank YOU, cvirtue. You're right, of course.
Posted by Big Gary C in Dallas  in  Dallas, Texas  on  Thu May 05, 2005  at  11:04 AM
No. Sugars in suspension *decrease* with fermentation, so "stickiness showing strength" is nonsense. As alcoholic strength goes up, the relative stickiness goes down.

Ale was considered to be *food* in the Middle Ages, not *recreational beverage*. Thus, ale (or beer, for that matter) had to show that there were sufficient nutrients - which at that time translated to mean unfermented sugars - in it to be considered as proper food.

Thus the connors' test. The ale (or beer) was expected to have a certain level of unfermented sugars residual in it; there was a pretty clear expectation that the resultant product would be a "proper food". This is one of the reasons behind the epistles against imported Dutch and German beers in the 14th - 16th centuries.
Posted by Argyle  in  NYC  on  Thu May 05, 2005  at  04:56 PM
No, cvirtue is not right at all, not even close. Men have been wearing breeches for a very long time, way before the 13th century. Just because non-pants alternatives existed, and in some eras were more fashionable, does not mean there were no pants.

And a tunic is not a dress, it's a longish shirt, never used for anything except wearing as a shirt. Hose would sometimes be worn instead of breeches with a tunic, but that's not the same thing.

I'm in the SCA, I'd know. We have to have authentic documentation for everything, and we go back to the late Roman period, and there are pants from all eras.

I know, your common sense says otherwise. Well, common sense is also what tells you the world is flat.
Posted by Barghest  on  Fri May 06, 2005  at  07:39 PM
Barghest, I'd like to know more about your understanding of pants for men in England in the 13th century, since you seem to have information I've never heard of. You (or anyone else who is interested) can reach me via my website, which is
Posted by cvirtue  on  Sat May 07, 2005  at  07:19 AM
Something else is bothering me about this... were there actual commercial breweries in the 13th century? I'm not questioning whether of not beer was sold "commercially" as it was quite clearly sold in taverns, alehouses and the like. However, part of the attraction of one establishment over another was the flavor and quality of the beer and ale. Those were all in-house establishments and even by the 16th century the vast majority of "commercial" brewing, I believe, was done by the Ale Wife, aka the wife of the owner of the establishment (or his widow or daughter or daughter-in-law, as needed). Most people didn't buy much beer by the barrel - they made it at home, it was part of the housewife's basic domestic duties. At the upper end of the social/economic scale you had servants who did you familial brewing for you. Even the Crown had their own brewing houses at each royal residence. I admit that I haven't studied the history of large scale commercial brewing, but given what I do know of beer/ale brewing I would be surprised if there was a large scale brewing industry that was regulated. As far as importing goes... that kind of goes hand in hand with that same question I would think. Wine was imported into England as England isn't exactly great grape growing country (in spite of the Great Vine which dates from Tudor Times and is still growing at Hampton Court Palace). Except for a specialty brew that they couldn't produce at home, I don't see the English importing a lot of beer when they made their own and importing it would only make it more expensive to drink. Hhhmmmm.... Pondering....

EMB in Florida
Posted by E. Bair  in  Florida  on  Mon May 09, 2005  at  10:29 AM
Berghest writes: "I'm in the SCA, I'd know. We have to have authentic documentation for everything"

Um, with all due respect: no. I love the SCA dearly, but there are basically no documentation standards. Just because something is common practice in the Society doesn't necessarily indicate that it's authentic.

Mind, I'm saying this as a longtime Laurel. (As are at least two other posters in this thread.) It's a wonderful organization. But it has plenty of inaccuracies...
Posted by Justin du Coeur  on  Mon May 09, 2005  at  04:17 PM
Well, I perhaps misspoke when I said we "have to" have authentic documentation. We don't. We show up in flame pants and four-buckle boots from Journeys and drink out of beer cans.

But there is always one stickler in every group who actually does credible research and only wears period (that is, historicall accurate) clothing, and everyone else will refer to her if they are in doubt. As a point of personal pride, they know what they are talking about. And I've never, ever had a stickler say anything about pants being non-period. (Though I do get a lot of criticism for my pirate hat.)

And while trousers in the sense of tight-fitting pants with buttons and pockets are a recent innovation, breeches have been around forever, more or less. I know because I regularly wear a blue pair of baggy pants that is historically accurate back to about the first century.

As a further example, jogging pants are actually authentic. People have been wearing loose-fitting cotton breeches with drawstrings since pre-Roman times. You show up wearing nothing but jogging pants, and you're a completely authentic Celt. It's our back-up plan for newbies without garb, actually....male newbies of course.
Posted by Barghest  on  Tue May 10, 2005  at  07:43 PM
Well, the problem is that you can't lump period together like that. Yes, it's true that they had vaguely trouser-ish kinds of things in early period, and that they were wearing trews in the Renaissance. But there's a thousand years in between there, and there were entire centuries in the middle when trousers were *not* being worn. And if cvirtue (one of the Society's better-known garb experts) says that the 13th century was one of them, I'm inclined to believe her. That's really the heart of the disagreement. It isn't that pants aren't *period* -- it's that they're not 13th century European.

You have to remember, a thousand years is an incredibly long time, moreso when you're talking about the entire Western world. The result is that almost any generalization about period is probably wrong in a lot of times and places. Damned near everything was true in some SCA-covered cultures, and false in others. The devil's in the details. That's why most Laurels tend to talk more specifically than simply whether something is period or not...
Posted by Justin du Coeur  on  Tue May 10, 2005  at  08:42 PM
But you do agree that there's a huge difference between saying "People didn't wear pants in this time period" and "People didn't HAVE pants and COULDN'T have pants in this time period because they weren't invented yet", right? It's the difference between the existence of a type of garment and a widespread fashion preference.

People don't wear swords on their belts in this current era. That does not mean that they couldn't if they wanted to, or that they don't have swords at all.

It's true that not all cultures in all times have worn pants. But the idea that pants did not exist before the 1700's is a canard, it's total bunk. The Huns who sacked Rome wore pants, and that was in 410 AD.
Posted by Barghest  on  Tue May 10, 2005  at  11:33 PM
I can't really find a good source on the Net for information on 13th-century pants. (Lots of offhanded mentions....)

Here's the gist of it: you will see pants in a culture whenever horseriding starts to catch on. This makes sense, since it's hard to ride a horse in a long robe or tunic. The result being that pants are usually looked on as garments for the soldiers and lower classes. Royalty would not have worn pants except in battle, which is why it looks like there weren't a lot of pants around--most of the paintings we have to look at from that period are of rich people wearing their best clothes, after all.

Most of the "pants" worn in the 13th century would have been hose, but they would have been made from wool, fit loosely, and coarse. If you saw 13th century hose, you'd think they were jogging pants, and they pretty much were. Hose didn't start getting tight and sheer until the late 14th century, when fashion really started to develop.

It also depends a lot on which region we are talking about. Vikings and the men of Andalusia overwhelmingly favored breeches, as did the horse-riding tribes of Asia and Asia Minor, and all of the Middle East except for the more westernized Levant and Jerusalem regions (thanks to the Crusades). Most of the men who were not wearing pants or breeches of some sort were to be found in Western and Central Europe. Saying they didn't wear pants in 13th century Europe is a lot like saying people don't wear hats in 21st century America--it depends a lot on what region you mean, and the class and profession of the individual.
Posted by Barghest  on  Wed May 11, 2005  at  12:39 AM
wow i never expected to find a discussion about breeches being in period on a site like this! while its all wonderful information for an sca noob like myself, the whole idea of sitting in a puddle of ale to test it for anything sounds absolutely insane! shock
Posted by cybermonkey  on  Wed May 11, 2005  at  04:25 AM
"But you do agree that there's a huge difference between saying "People didn't wear pants in this time period" and "People didn't HAVE pants and COULDN'T have pants in this time period because they weren't invented yet", right? It's the difference between the existence of a type of garment and a widespread fashion preference."

Actually, that's not so clear. Remember, you're talking about an era with significantly poorer communication than we have today. Just because someone knew about it somewhere doesn't mean that it was known elsewhere and/or elsewhen. Vast amounts of information were just plain *lost* in period, and cross-culture communication was spotty, at best.

In general, one the Society's most common fallacies is to put too much weight on the concept of invention. People in period *could* have had an enormous fraction of what we have today, especially when it comes to matters of culture. Most things weren't a matter of knowing how to do them -- rather, they were matters of taste. That's why we have to focus on what they *did* have in particular times and places, or it just turns into a jumbled mess.

Nor should you underestimate the effect of "fashion". I mean, I *could* wear an Italian tunic and hose today, but I'd get strange looks at best. In practice, it simply doesn't happen outside contexts like ours. Fashion is deeply pervasive in all cultures, and outliers are generally rare -- in most cultures even more than our current one. And remember that the discussion is of what the ale masters *normally* did.

As for hose -- yep, that sounds right. But so far, it still mostly supports the original contention: that the story that started this off is inconsistent with what we know about 13th century Western European men's clothing. Is it possible? Sure. Is it *likely*? I'm still unconvinced...
Posted by Justin du Coeur  on  Wed May 11, 2005  at  07:02 AM
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