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Cock Ale

26 Mar
A cock

A cock

 

I have an old, yellowed, second-hand book on my beer shelves. It’s called “Amateur Winemaking & Brewing”, and is a Teach-Yourself book published in 1974. The focus is clearly on winemaking, as of the book’s 271 pages, only the final seven are dedicated to beer recipes. There are nine, and the last one is for Cock Ale. Now we’ve all heard of cock ale, it’s something to snigger about when a beer or two too many has regressed you to schoolboyhood.

The book describes a method for making a 4 gallon batch of what it calls ‘full-bodied and strong beer’. I’ve never made it, but I suspect that ‘strong’ in 1974 probably meant anything over about 4%. To make the cock ale, it suggests that when the specific gravity has fallen to 1010, 1 pint of grape concentrate be added to the fermenting wort, along with 1 lb of ‘chicken giblets, scraps, etc. (cooked)’ placed in a net. I should point out that the parenthetical ‘cooked’ is very important. The beer, it goes on to say, should be bottled when the  specific gravity reaches about 1006.

To quote directly from the book; ‘Although the presence of the chicken scraps does give the beer flavour and body, the idea is not to everyone’s taste’. Quite.

I decided that this recipe seemed rather watered-down from what may well have been a much more ‘interesting’ original recipe, so I dug a little deeper.

The first known reference to cock ale is in the 1669 book “The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt., Opened”. I quote from the opened closet:

‘Take eight gallons of ale, take a cock and boil him well, then take four pounds of raisins of the sun, well stoned, two or three nutmegs, three or four flakes of mace, half a pound of dates; beat these all in a mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best sack*; and when the ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.’

*sack = a sort of white sherry.

Mmmm… this looks lovely. And have you noticed in old recipes they always used massive quantities – “Take eight gallons of ale…”

In 1726, this recipe was given by John Nott, the Duke of Bolton’s cook, in his “Cooks and Confectioner’s Dictionary”:

‘Take a couple of young cocks, boil them almost to a jelly in water, and put into four gallons of ale; put in also a pound of raisins of the sun stoned; infuse a pound of dates, mace and nutmegs, of each two ounces, in a quart of canary*; put them to the ale; strain and squeeze out the liquor, and put to it half a pint of new ale yeast. Let it work for a day; you may drink it the next but it is better the third day; you may make it weaker by mingling it with plain ale as you draw it, or you may put it into a firkin of ale. It is good against consumption and to restore decayed nature.’

*canary = another name for sack.

This looks to me like a version of the first recipe written down by someone who had actually made it. It’s also one of my favourites because not only does it mention ‘cock’, but also ‘firkin’. Fnarr, fnarr.

In her 1727 cookery book, “The Compleat Housewife, or, The Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion”, Eliza Smith goes for the massiveness record with this by now quite familiar recipe:

‘Take ten gallons of ale, and a large cock, the older the better; parboil the cock, flay him, and stamp him in a stone mortar till his bones are broken (you must craw and gut him when you flay him); then put the cock into two quarts of sack, and put it to three pounds of raisins of the sun stoned, some blades of mace, and a few cloves; put all these into a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale has done working, put the ale and bag together into a vessel; in a week or nine days time bottle it up; fill the bottle but just above the neck, and give the same time to ripen as other ale.’

I have seen this particular recipe quoted on the internet, but instead of “flay him” it has been typed as “flea him”. Do not under any circumstances attempt to flea your cock.

In “Homebrewed Beers and Stouts” by that doyen of mid-20th century homebrewers, C. J. J. Berry (1977), the adventurous Cyril modified this original recipe and brewed an experimental one gallon batch. On tasting the result, he wrote: ‘Astonishingly, it made an excellent ale, nourishing and strong-flavoured, of the ‘barley wine’ type; well worth trying.’

More recently, Chris Thomas and Adam Cusick reported their own experiments with cock ale in Beer & Brewing Magazine (Australia). Their recipe was quite modified to cater for modern tastes, but included the all important cooked chicken, which they got from a supermarket. So technically it was more likely to have been hen ale.

They report: ‘At one month the beer showed great potential. It poured a dark amber colour with a foamy head. Howard was offered the first taste of the Cock Ale and was rapt with the added bitterness of the bullet hops and impressed by the obvious benefits of a quality yeast. He also recognised the superior head. And thankfully it didn’t taste like drinking a roast chicken!

‘In terms of aroma, the cloves are first identifiable, along with the pleasant hint of oak from the dry white. The spices, raisins and wine really enhance the flavour of this freshly hopped strong ale, while the major impact of the chicken has been to add great body to the beer.

‘Two months later, the second tasting reveals the beer to have matured into what Berry accurately described as an ‘excellent ale’! While the hops have mellowed nicely, the distinctive spices remained. The beer shared distinct similarities with a strong Belgian ale.’

The recipes from the 17th and 18th century are remarkably consistent. It may have been commonplace to chuck kitchen scraps into whatever happened to be fermenting away in a corner, and by happy accident, someone discovered that an old cock is just what beer needs to liven it up.

I’m tempted, almost, to try it myself. It’s not only the presence of meat in the ale (guff, guff!), but also the odd spices – mace and cloves – that I find intriguing.

Go on – someone give it a go and let us know how it turned out. You can write it up and I’ll publish it as a guest blog. Ah, go on. Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on!

Words are my copyright, please respect that. All you have to do is ask. Thank you.

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9 Comments

Posted by on 26 March, 2013 in Home Brewing

 

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9 responses to “Cock Ale

  1. strongale45

    5 July, 2013 at 17:23

    I also came across a couple of recipes for cock ale and decided to make a gallon or so. Basically I took the carcase of a medium plain roasted chicken, broke it up, added a few ounces of the cooked meat and dowsed the bird remains in about 60 ml of dry white wine and the end of a bottle of medium sweet rose, which I thought might correspond to ‘sack.’ Left in the fridge with raisins and cloves, clingfilm over the basin for 2 days while I started the beer fermentation, adding the strained cock-enriched wine (spiced wine would perhaps sound less offensive) to the brew. The beer looked a little oily initially but fermented out and lost the oily sheen, looking like a pale amber conventional beer. Bottled for 6 weeks or so, the beer came across as a decent bitter. I may still have the odd bottle, now well over 18 months old, but it certainly had no odd tang or meaty scent at any stage. I gave a couple of bottles away and it was okay, according to my main brew taster, neither was it memorably excellent. Would I make it again? No, it was a pleasant experiment and there is probably room to vary the quality, according to the type and amount of wine used, how far the brewer wants to go with additions of spice, quantity of malt etc. I took no note of final gravity but would guess it came out around 5.0% abv, probably low for an 18th century brew. It seems to
    me that the cost of wine makes such brews expensive for the quality of flavour and taste and, being a tightfisted brewer, such beers of this sort are a rite of passage, rather like adding port to stout (which tends to add nothing to either and spoils what may be perfectly decent grog if swallowed separately). Fun to do in anticipation of how the brew may turn out but a carefully made Breferm Gallia or Diabolo or a Wilkinson Hoppy Bitter can yield far easier and superior results. That said, if a brewer with a historic bent really wants to get into refining the recipe, maybe a strong ale based om 6.0% malt goods PLUS the added kick of a fairly larger quantity of
    the correct type of wine may give an authenticity I did not achieve. Or maybe the reason cock ale hasn’t featured in brewing for years is that it just isn’t that wonderful, especially if making 5 or 10 or more gallons: just how many carcases does one need? As to adding a lump of meat, roadkill or other, to a batch of cider, well that’s one road I won’t be going down. Not unless I go totally dotty.

     
    • Alebagger

      10 July, 2013 at 23:49

      Thanks for your very interesting comment. You have basically put into words what I have been thinking ever since I started reading up on Cock Ale. My thoughts can be summed up in one word. ‘Why?’ I think you’ve probably answered the question for me. ‘No reason’. It seems that maybe a couple of hundred years ago someone had the bright idea of dumping the waste from a meal into the beer that was brewing in the corner of the kitchen. The result was ‘meh’, but somehow it became ‘the thing to do’. Most people I have talked to who have made (or at least sampled) cock ale have come to the same conclusions as you have, namely: it’s OK, but nowt special, and they wouldn’t make it again. Perhaps this is slightly disappointing, but I still feel the urge to have a go myself. I expect I will say that it was alright, but nothing special, and that I won’t be making it again…
      Thinks – I saw a dead badger at the side of the road this afternoon…

       
  2. Daniel Etherington

    26 August, 2013 at 14:46

    Great bit of ale history. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of thing as pre-20th century, especially medieval, food and drink mixed up sweet, savoury, meat, spice, sugar, etc in a way we just can’t really imagine now. (Eg, European medieval cookery involved a lot of blancmange – made with ground almonds, ground chicken breast, milk, sugar etc.)

    As an aside, I remember drinking hideous scrumpy called “Old Cock” on Obby-Oss day in Padstow (aka the Day-the-Whole-Town-Is-Drunk), but I don’t think it was actually made with any chickeny body parts.

     
  3. Alebagger

    28 August, 2013 at 12:28

    I wouldn’t be surprised at anything that goes into scrumpy! Not a big fan, though I have tried. Interesting point about food combinations we would consider ‘mixed up’. I wonder when the decision was made (and by whom) that certain foods should never go together. My chief suspects would be the Victorians. Never could leave things alone. Thanks for your interesting comment.

     
    • Daniel Etherington

      28 August, 2013 at 12:42

      Yes, it’s a really interesting question – when did we start deciding that sweet and savoury should be kept separate, and that chicken bits shouldn’t go in a beer. Victorians, yep, but also earlier I suspect – spices and sugar were so expensive in the Middle Ages, the rich used them to show off their wealth, but as they become more commonplace, the cuisine changed. That doesn’t have a bearing on cock ale though… Health and safety fussing probably compromises a lot of stuff like that these days.
      I don’t like scrumpy either. Ugh. Stuck in a field camping once with no liquid other than scrumpy put me off enough, but learning to enjoy decent beer was the final nail in the coffin for any cider-drinking.

       
      • Alebagger

        28 August, 2013 at 13:00

        I suppose it’s a question of whether we finally learned not to mix different types of flavour or whether we simply got prudish, in a culinary sense. There have been many TV programmes where old recipes are revived for the entertainment of the viewing public. I often think that the interpretation of these old recipes (for food and drink alike) can be a bit shaky. Precise recipes did not exist as such, and when a recipe calls for an undefined quantity of an ingredient, maybe back in the day, everybody knew that meant two handfuls or whatever. I suspect that some really fabulous meals and drinks have been lost in the past couple of century, but I’m quite sure that some really disgusting ones have too!

         
      • Daniel Etherington

        28 August, 2013 at 14:17

        Yes, quite. Here in Italy, quite often a recipe still has “qb”, which means “quanto basta” – “how much is enough”, ie use your own judgment.

         
      • strongale45

        30 August, 2013 at 15:16

        Gentlemen, if we accept what our teachers said, that our ancestors boiled our water to kill off the visible creatures and added flavourings to kill off the vile taste of the recycled urban waters, then medieval ales would have been what people could afford. Little changes. Honey was probably pretty expensive and hops may have given a palatable flavour which some communities cherish: 60 years ago, getting sips of bitter from a flagon in Kidderminster gave me a strong impression that beer should be deeply, darky bitter, with real length to the bitterness. Hopyards were not so many miles away and I still love to chew a fresh hop flower. I also enjoy delicate flavours but my main point is that I agree with the comments that tastes proliferate as opportunities occur to sample new flavours. Some may be thrust upon us by marketing what may be cheap for a brewer to make, using cheap materials: for example, who in their right mind, wants to drink cider or cyder made by a manufacturing brewer from apple concentrate, sugar and flavourings? And yet that is so common it is hard to find genuine cider, with that luscious, sweet, slightly bitter, throat-catching
        blend of floral fragrance. My grannie used to buy me (aged 10 or 11) a crate of champagne perry delivered by Davenports, a fine drink (at 10), matured as I recall for some considerable time, and it took ages to get through the bottles with grandma. But on the subject of cock ale and meat additives, I suggest anyone interested has a look at Zythophile.wordpress where Martun Cornell posted an article on this subject, dated 22nd April 2010. His proposition is that meat added to ale may give the impression that ‘Beer is good for you,’ rather like Inspector Morse’s, ‘Beeer is Food.’ Well, it uis, isn’t it? The melding of meat with beer or cider carries with it the notion that you are enjoying something which is nutritious and medicinal (health claims, supported by certificates issued by analysts, formed part of the advertising). All neat, easily remembered stuff in the 1880s and before for a population woefully under-educated and with the majority of persons in cramped conditions where infant mortality was truly appalling, much of it caused through poor hygene, bad or nil drainage of human waste. As those who survived got a bit more education, maybe the idea of meat in beer, especially at a premium to non-meat beer, seemed rather daft. I can’t say I fancy a pint of liver-enriched porter or the like – but that I allus was okkard. Intuitively, before I decided to make a small brew of cock ale, it seemed to me that there was almost a doctrine of signatures appeal to mixing the caramelised bones and sweetness of cooked meat with beer; bearing in mind that the old recipes refer to ‘sack’ or a fairly strong wine, the abv is going to be boosted, so there is potential to increase alcohol, add flavouring in the form of a plain roasted chicken carcase (chicken flavoured crisps, haggis chips – oh dear, my gut churns), maybe a slightly burnt back flavour. I suppose it’s possible that, a few centuries ago, short of malt and honey, some bright spark said, ‘Grannie, let’s mix and mash, as there’s a couple of pints of sack left over which is a bit rank. And lets mash up the bones from them 2 capons which we forgot to put in the larder. Chuck a bit of malt in, add some stale spices or alespice or curious berries taken from the hedgerow. After all, we’ve got the fire going and maybe it’ll be fairly drinkable. At least we are being frugal and may avoid the accidie of a rather hopless life unrelieved by much entertainment and food being scare and all.’ At which, Grannie said, ‘And what shall we call this brew?’ ‘Cock ale,’ answered grandson, receiving a sharp slap to the head, and the words, ‘Dirty little bugger.’ You see, Grannie was a bit deaf. She thought he said, ‘cock ale.’ There may be another ingredient in this brew as yet undiscovered but my view is that this was never meant to be very expensive and is really a leftovers recipe. It is not recorded whether Grannie supped and said, ‘Young Dave, this ent a bad sortta beer, boy.’

         
      • Alebagger

        31 August, 2013 at 10:54

        Thanks for your very entertaining comment, Dave. You make some very valid points. Food for thought for all of us.

         

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