Beer appears frequently in The Lord of the Rings, but not enough to give us so many useful details for a precise description. Some of the quotes are surely well remembered by all the readers, first of the "good word" spoken by Gandalf upon Barliman's beer, that caused the exceptional quality of that beer for seven years (which homebrewer wouldn't welcome such a help?!).
A few statistics: the words beer or ale comes up 40 times in LOTR, while wine is mentioned 25 times. If we look at the Silmarillion, wine is mentioned only twice, and beer never! Beer is related to the daily, material aspects of life, that is, it is drunk for pleasure or to quench your thirst; wine instead can have a more ritual connotation. In the Silmarillion all the references to daily, practical life (e.g. food) are missing, while in LOTR are present. More in detail, beer is always mentioned not metaphorically and with direct reference to its consumption: it is enjoyed by men and quite appreciated by hobbits, expecially by Pippin and Sam. Concerning wine, the references are of more different kinds: it is mentioned sometimes figurately, and a few times as a ritual drink [The king now rose, and at once Éowyn came forward bearing wine. 'Ferthu Théoden hál!' she said. 'Receive now this cup and drink in happy hour. Health be with thee at thy going and coming!'] but of course also as a normal, daily beverage (the hobbits themselves appreciate wine, Legolas prefers it to beer); wine drinking is slightly less frequently refenced than beerdrinking, but is prevailing in "high", noble enviromemnts (Pippin is offered wine by Denethor, though later the hobbit complains the lacks of inns and beer in the streets of Minas Tirith). This contrast is explicit during the visit to the Prancing Pony in the return journey towards the Shire, when Barliman says that the King probably drinks wine from a golden cup, and Gandalf remarks that the King himself does appreciates beer, actually Barliman's beer, because he is no other than Aragorn/Strider...
If we want to find out the characteristics of that beer, we have very few facts in the novel to work on. One would be tempted to identify Middle-earth beer as a medieval one; this however is not completely correct in theory (though the practical conclusion will be close to that, as we will see): in fact the historical time of the novel is not Middle-Age, but an imaginary epoch of our Earth - sometimes positioned by Tolkien some 7000 years ago; besides, a few reeferences in the novel itself (for example potatoes, not existing in medieval Europe) are not compatible with the medieval ipothesys. So it is better to look for references in the novel itself, knowing that anyway it will be more a way of playing that a scientific analysis.
Let's start with the colour: it is referenced once in Frodo's song at the Prancing Pony ("... a beer so brown...") but it is not clear wheter the dark hue is an exception or the rule. In the Appendices we find a quick reference to "golden brown" beer, when speaking of the colour or Brandivin river. It is obviously an ale (top fermenting), because the technology for lager production (expecially refrigeration) would not be available. The technology considerations gan give us other hints: the perfectioning of pale, unsmoked malt production has happened thanks to the use of coke (instead of wood) in the malting process [see "Homebrewing, the CAMRA Guide" by Wheeler, and "Pale Ale", by Protz - La Pensee]. This technology seems not to be reachable in Tolkien's Middle-earth, so malt had to be at least a bit dark and smoked.
What about ingredients? Barley is explicity mentioned for beer production in the Shire: so the malt used is barley malt. The word "hops", though, never comes up in the whole novel! We could think that is implied, and its absence just a chanche. If we want to be more cautious, though, it is better to suppose it was not used in the flavouring of the beer, at least as a main flavour ingredient, and that the drink was a malt-only one, or - as it happend in the past - flavoured with a "gruit", a changeable mix of herbs and spices. Now, the ideal thing would be to use herbs and spices actually mentioned in the novel so that we are certain that they are available in Middle-earth. The most relevant references are probably those about heather, for which I point you to my article about heather ale (italian only). Apart the above, the best known passage regarding herbs is surely the one about the stewed rabbit cooked by Sam. "A few bay-leaves, some thyme and sage"... these have actually found their way in some medieval ale recipes, but usually not as main flavouring ingredients, and anyway are not bittering. There are scarce mentions of other herbs and spices, but one of the reference - though maybe less known and quoted than others - is particularly helpful. In the first book, the four hobbits get lost in the Old Forest, and find themselves in a glade between the trees, where many "rough grass and plants" are growing, including thistles and... nettles! Wild thistle is mentioned in some old beer recipes see also Bickerdyke, but nettle is even more interesting. It is mentioned by Wheeler [see above] among the herbs used in beer in past times, and - quite interesting - has some bittering power; by the way, it is of the same family of hops. A nettle beer is even described in one of my first homebrewing books, and the reported recipe had been tried by a friend of mine, with decent results (keeping in mind that it was done during a pioneristic homebrewing epoch!) We have no clues about the beer strength, besides the fact that - as far as we know it - the beers of ancient times were quite stronger than the present beers, up to the First World War.
We can now risk a tentative recipe for a Middle-earth Beer. Concerning the malts, I would not use 100% Rauchmalz (which is purposedly heavily smoked) but (for example) a mix of pale, amber and rauchmalz, that could be an approximation of a malt obtained by way of a less evoluted technology. For the nettles we can start with the quantity recommended in the above mentioned book (cautiously reduced) and infusing it in the same water we will use for the mashing (as an alternative we can just add the nettles during the boiling). For the possible use (in addition or as an alternative) of heather, you can check the article about heather ale (italian only). We can also add a few sage leaves; less adventurous recipes may include a light hopping, or on the contrary omit any kind of aromatizations. I would choose a generic, top fermenting yeast for the fermentation. Last not least, the most important ingredient: a good word by a Wizard (or an Istar, to be more precise)... if you manage to find one!
Copyright 2004 Massimo Faraggi - originally for Unionbirrai News
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