Ancient Irish Ale

Martyn Cornell

It was a tough life being a king in ancient Ireland. The Irish poetic epic called “the Cattle Raid of Cooley” describes the typical day of King Conor Mac Nessa, the legendary ruler of Ulster around the end of the first century A.D. King Conor, the poet said, would spend a third of the day watching the youths at sport (the ancient equivalent of tuning into the football on television); a third playing fidchell, a popular Iron Age board game; and the last third of the day drinking ale – coirm or cuirm in Old Irish – “until he falls asleep therefrom.”

Cuirm comes from the same root as the curmi mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny, about A.D. 60, as a drink made from barley and consumed by the Celtic Gauls. At some point the "m" in curmi changed to "v," and when the Romans adopted the Gaulish practise of ale drinking they called it cervesia in Latin, from which the Spanish word cerveza is derived. Coirm, as well as meaning ale, also meant a drinking party or feasting, and coirm agus ceol was the Irish for feasting and singing.

Another Irish word for ale was scó, which occurs in the old Irish expression scó scethach, used for beer that was off, and meaning literally “vomiting ale,” or “vomit-inducing ale.” Under ancient Irish law, if anyone served scó scethach to his guests he could be sued for the consequences. (Incidentally, the modern Irish for beer, lionn, was originally a word for any sort of liquor.)

Irish law also laid out the duties of a king, which, in the seventh century, were “Sunday, at ale drinking, for he is not a lawful flaith [lord] who does not distribute ale every Sunday; Monday, at legislation, for the government of the tribe; Tuesday, at fidchell; Wednesday, seeing greyhounds coursing; Thursday, at the pleasures of love; Friday, at horse-racing; Saturday, at judgment.”

Patrick Weston Joyce, in “A Social History of Ancient Ireland,” published in 1903, said that old Irish ale was “reddish in colour, as now” – suggesting that “Irish red ale” has very deep roots. The techniques of brewing ale was understood “everywhere in Ireland,” Joyce said, and ale was the universal drink, as it was in other Celtic lands, although mead, made from fermented diluted honey, was “the dainty drink of nobles, intoxicating, though not so much as ale.”

Red ale is mentioned in a poem on Irish ale written in about the 8th or 9th century that lists more than a dozen different ales from Kerry to Antrim. Red ale was drunk, the poem says, in "Dorind” in Kerry, and also "about the land of the Cruithni," the land of the Irish Picts, that is, County Down and southern Antrim. Other brews mentioned in the poem are "the Saxon ale of bitterness" and "the ale of Cualand," in East Leinster, which the poet said had to be drunk by anyone wanting to be king of all Ireland. Another source says that cuirm Cualann, was drunk by the kings of Leinster out of vessels made from wild ox horns.

A law tract from the eighth century said that every farmer was expected to own “a vat in which a measure of ale may be brewed” and a supply of malt, salt and charcoal. Among the buildings on his farm should be a kiln for drying grain, and he also needed to have a share in a mill that would grind grain for his household. He should have bacon, milk and ale always available to entertain “a king or a bishop or a scholar or a brehon from the road.” The brehons were the traditional travelling judges of old Ireland who ruled on everything, including the quantity of ale allowed at dinner: six pints to a layman and three to a priest, so that the priests “may not be drunk.”

The grain generally used for brewing in Ireland was barley, but ale was also brewed from rye, from wheat and from oats. Whatever grain was used, it was first converted into malt, brac in old Irish, which is probably the root of the Celtic name of a type of wheat used in brewing before barley took its place, bracis. This same word has given French, via Gaulish, its word for brewer, brasseur. Old Irish laws required a total of 15 days for malting, divided into five carefully described stages.

The grain was steeped in water for a day, probably in a bath-like structure (a record of a fire at the monastery of Clonard around 787A.D. speaks of grain stored in ballenio, literally “in a bath”), after which the water should be let off slowly over a day and a half. Modern maltsters change the water used to steep the grain several times to flush away bacteria and wild yeasts and to supply fresh dissolved oxygen. For ancient Irish brewers, the presence of wild yeasts was probably necessary to give them a fermentation, just as with lambic brewers of Belgium today, and letting the water run off slowly mean wild yeasts were more likely to stay behind in the grain.

When the steeping process was done, the wet grain was left for four and a half days “under cover,” that is with straw piled on top of it, and for another three days exposed. It was then piled up for a day and combed into ridges for four days. Periodically the sprouting grain was turned and raked to bring all parts to the surface – early Irish maltsters clearly knew the need both to prevent the grain sticking together as it underwent the early stages of germination and to aerate it to keep it cool during the malting process.

The green malt then had to be dried in a kiln. There were two methods of kilning: in one a circular pit was dug, with a cover made from wattle. The grain was strewn on the wattle and a fire lit in the pit, which sent a stream of heated air up to dry the grain. In the other method, the fire was on the surface. The grain was placed in a basket, or a round sieve woven from twigs called a laem, which was held over the fire of the kiln and supported on posts. It must have needed skill and experience not to burn the malt, or set fire to the laem: piles of completely blackened grain have been found at ancient settlement sites in Britain that were obviously the result of an accident while the drying process was being carried out.

The dried malt could be kept as grains, or ground in a quern – a small hand-operated mill, called a bro in Irish – or taken to a water mill for grinding. Using a quern was hard work: it would take an hour for two women, pushing the top stone of the quern round and round, to grind 10 pounds of meal. When ground, the malt flour could be put into sacks for later use or made into cakes and dried.

Malt cakes, Joyce says, were often so hard that before being used they had to be broken into pieces with a mallet and reground back to meal. They sound very similar, even identical, to the bappir of the Sumerians, which was also made in hard, sizeable lumps stored in sacks and had to be reground before use in ale making.

Like ale brewers everywhere, the Irish would flavor their drink with whatever was handy: the leaves and twigs of sweet gale or bog myrtle (Myrica gale) are known to have been used, as they were throughout Northern Europe (bog myrtle was one of the main ingredient in gruit, the mixture of herbs used by medieval German and Dutch brewers to flavour pre-hop ale). Another marsh plant used in Ireland as a flavoring for ale was bogbean, buck-bean or marsh trefoil (Menyanthes trifoliata), where the leaves give a bitter taste to the drink.

-- Martyn Cornell