Period Brewing Contest Rules

What’s the point?

Prepare yourselves for a bit of a soapbox, but it’s my contest so I can opine if I want to…

Modern home brewing has little to nothing to do with the way brewing was done “in period”, meaning before industrialization.  Modernly we have very high standards of sanitation, equipment that is easy to clean and sanitize, access to very consistent materials, and tools the likes of which our ancestors could only have dreamed (like 15 gallon stainless steel pots).  

And yet, by all accounts, our ancestors also produced some very tasty fermented beverages for which they won praise and renown.  

Modern home brewing is an excellent hobby, and produces some truly spectacular beverages, and I’m a huge advocate.  At the same time, brewing using modern techniques is not teaching us anything about history and how brewing was done “back in the day”, or the challenges and rewards it can bring.

So… the Challenge!

This is to be a contest of “period” style fermented beverages using documentable recipes and processes to the extent of your interest and ability.  That means entries are restricted to beverages fermented by you (no cordials or distilled spirits, please) using period methods and styles.  Beer, mead, wine, cider, or anything else you can ferment yourself and make a case for being “period” is welcome.

What does documentable mean?

There are pre-industrial beer recipes out there.  There are quite a few Tudor and Elizabethan English documents that describe brewing recipes and practices.  If you want to make beer according to the Hymn of Ninkasi, I’ll totally try it and it would be a great experiment.  I suspect there are other written sources out there as well in languages I’m not conversant with. 

What is there are not written recipes, you ask?  Make a case, and the judges will give it their thorough consideration.  For example, if you want to make “Viking” beer, you will need to make a case for what materials and tools they would have had available and why you made the choices you did.  If you come with examples of early modern Norwegian brewing vessels and can talk about the processes that they imply, excellent!  (BTW, check out Odd Nordlund’s excellent book “Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway” (available via ILL)) and various internet sources on modern farmhouse brewing such as http://www.garshol.priv.no/blog/.  If you want to make Roman wine, there are good written sources.  The information is out there, so look for it.

What is “period” process?

Using a “period” process is more about what steps you follow than what equipment you use.  If you want to carry out your whole process in wooden vessels, that’s awesome.  If you can’t afford that (I know I can’t) think about using modern equipment to support your period process.  Viking’s probably mashed in wooden vessels lined with tree branches and / or straw.  If you treat your ingredients the same way in an insulated Gatorade cooler as a mash tun because that’s what you have, be prepared to talk about how the process is the same even if the materials are different.  Vikings probably didn’t have large vessels to heat water, so if you use a cooler for a mash tun and add mash water a smaller container at a time, that’s period process using modern materials.  For almost all period brewing, open fermentation would have been the norm, to take that into consideration.  Think about period process when considering carbonation.  Etc.

The rules

This is about “period” brewing, so scoring will be weighted as follows:

50% documentable (see above) recipe

30% period process (this is harder, but you can do it)

20% finished product

Why so little weight on the actual product, you may ask?  Because “period” beverages may taste weird to us.  “Viking” beer does not taste like the beer we are used to.  Roman wine most likely did not taste like the wine we are familiar with today.  I don’t want judges to be constrained by modern prejudices.  The score you will receive for the finished product will have to do with things like whether or not your fermentation has gone wrong, is it contaminated, are there noticeable off flavors (due to fermentation, not ingredients that we aren’t used to), etc.  

My goal here is to challenge you to think about process over product.  If you bring a fantastic Black IPA that you made on your three vessel stainless steel system with temperature controlled fermentation, I will happily drink your beer and praise you for your mastery of modern technique, but you will score considerably behind someone who brings a Roman wine that they made by stomping grapes and aged in a pitch lined clay vessel even if it’s kind of sour and tastes like trees.

So, bring your beer/wine/cider/mead/chicha/sake/whatever with your documentation about your recipe and processes.  

Note:

There are quite a few ingredients traditionally used in brewing that are considered to be toxic or otherwise unhealthy today.  If you choose to use any of them you need to disclose what and how much you have used so the judges can decide for themselves if they choose to taste your beverage or not.  Be prepared to talk about how much rue (for example) you put in your gruit beer and why that’s probably OK.  If you use those ingredients however, be prepared for some judges to decide not to try it.  The important part if that you understand your ingredients ahead of time.  I once judge a brewing entry at Kingdom A&S that included an ingredient widely considered to be toxic, of which the entrant was unaware.  After some consultation, all the judges agreed to taste it, and everything went well, but please be prepared.

Bonus round:

As an extra challenge, there will be a separate contest with a separate prize for documentable mixed drinks using your entry.  The Tudors had lots of beer based drinks, as an example, and I’m sure you can find others.  Romans did all kinds of things with wine, too.  I’m less concerned about process here, so the scoring will be 60% documentation and 40% finished product.