Imaginable Beers: A Primer for Writers of Speculative Fiction

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series For Writers

Recently, a writer friend was asking around on Facebook for some information about the history of brewing and distilling. Since I’ve been studying up on these subjects (and blogging on the subject: see here for brewing, and there’s some stuff about distilling mixed into this tag), it was suggested I might be of some help.

I started writing a longish response, and then decided that rather than toss all that information down into the Facebook crevasse where it would never be seen again, I would make a blog post about it.

Note, this is primarily directed and writers of fantastical or speculative fiction, but might be of use to other writers as well, in that it covers some of the basics of brewing and fermentation… I am, however, presuming a certain freedom to speculate and invent. Whether you’re writing about beer or distilled liquors in some kind of fantasy setting, in an SF context, or some other speculative mode, the following should be of use to you.


On Making Up Fictional Alcoholic Beverages:

Um. Use your imagination? I mean, you might be surprised: Stephen King made up graf out of his head–the apple beer mentioned in his Dark Tower series–but it’s inspired homebrewers enough to actually make their own versions of the stuff.

That said, graf was kind of an easy thing to think up: we make cider, and we make beer. Why not blend them and make a cider-beer? Other blends are possible, and also exist either as commercial beverages, historical styles, or as experimental homebrew projects, including:

  • cider + mead (cyser)
  • mead + beer (historically, “mead” or “braggot”/”bracket”/etc.)
  • wine + mead (melomel)
  • wine + beer (some homebrewers have experimented with this)
  • etc.

In our world, there are good practical, economic, political, and scientific reasons why barley ended up being the predominant grain used in European beer, but practically every grain has been turned into beer… even the grains (ie. maïze, rice, millet) that are so enzyme-poor that they require exposure to an enzyme supplement–like human spit, or fungal spores, or yeast-and-bacteria-impregnated enyzmatic starter cultures.

The truth is, fermentation was universal before the invention of fridges: it was a great way of preserving foods longer. (Contrary to the claims of various teetotal Christian groups, unfermented grape juice would have been relatively hard to produce in the ancient world… and somewhat pointless by the universal standards. Pasteurized grape juice as we know it was invented in the 1860s, and the name of its inventor is, I’ll bet, familiar to you. Other fermentation prevention methods supposedly existed, but what they might have been is unknown… probably boiling, or some kind of crude chemical additive.)

So, you know, you can let your imagination run wild. Still, if you’d like to venture a little further afield, imagination is best guided with some tips and principles, so, here:

  1. Anything with sugar in it can be fermented into alcohol… though it’s harder if the solution is more acidic than the yeast can tolerate. So: fruit juice, malt sugars extracted from malted grains and dissolved in water, and other sugar sources dissolved into water (like honey, agave nectar, tree sap, and so on). The farther back you go, the more you find mixtures being fermented: “mead” wasn’t always pure honey wine, but in fact often was a mix of honey and malt sugars. The main determinant in what people turned into booze is what the local sources for sugars were, and how easily they could be extracted from raw agricultural produce.That said, the main families of beverage in our world are:
    1. beer (grain-based)
    2. wine/cider (fruit based)
    3. mead (honey based)
    4. other (fermenting extracted sugars, saps, and yes, milk–see kefir and kumis)
    5. distilled alcohol (any of 1-4, subjected to an extra step of processing that concentrates the alcohols.)

    Popular terminology doesn’t always follow this specialized terminology. Some African banana beers are primarily fruit-based; Korean marketers try to capitalize on the higher profile enjoyed by wine in Korea and market makgeolli (rice beer) to the world as “rice wine.”

    Likewise, unless you know what tequila or mezcal is made of, you might assume that, like whiskey, it’s distilled from a grain alcohol. Not so: it’s… I’m not even sure, though I think of the juice from the heart of an agave plant as being more akin to sap than to fruit. In practical terms, though, it’s sugar. Anything with sugar in it can and will ferment. That includes imaginary flora in your world… or, hell, maybe even certain imaginary fauna…

  2. The farther back you go, the less strong a basic fermentation will be. This means it will be sweeter (when young) and lower-in-alcohol. The yeast just wasn’t as well-bred for brewing purposes, so it wasn’t quite efficient, and especially with beers, the enyzmatic power of the malt was weaker (and mashing less precise)… in the short term, that meant more sugars left in, and that means drinks were sweeter… at first. However, since modern sanitation and hygiene practices hadn’t developed, wild yeast and bacteria had more access to fermenting beverages… and in general, that means more acidification and more weird, funky aromas. (Think goat, toe jam, barnyard, and cheesy, but also unexpected fruity smells and flavors like stone fruit, tropical fruit, and so on. Also, “actetic”–vinegary flavors, a characteristic some people (including me) actually like to some degree in a sour beer. The older the beverage, and the lower its original acidity level, the more sour it will get over time. After three years, a beer produced under less-than-hygenic conditions can be utterly mouth-puckeringly sour. That said, some beers produced in the 1870s were produced so cleanly that they were stable and delicious–and not sour–right up to the present: here’s two sets of tasting notes. 200 year old wine was reported by those lucky enough to taste it, to still have a fresh character. )
  3. Fermentation was mysterious, and distillation was long seen as straight-up magical. Theories that sound bizarre to us today about how it happened abounded. People knew yeast was involved, but now how. It was seen as miraculous or magical. Brewing also often had a religious link, as did wine. (Think of the Catholic Mass.) Apparently the oldest written text we know about is both (simultaneously!) a recipe for beer and a hymn to the Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi. And as for distillation, in Western history, at least, it was associated with alchemists, though it spread from Asia. It was popularized by the publication of Books of Secrets, which were the late-Medieval/early Renaissance equivalent of Instructables. I’ve written more about that here. I’ll say more about distillation specifically below.
  4. Ingredients weren’t the same in the past. For one thing, different ingredients were used in different areas. Some places in the British Isles, 100% oat malt beer was normal for a time. In other places, 100% smoked wheat and a ton of hops were used in the dominant local beer. But in general, until sometime in the early-to-mid-1700s, all beer was at least a little smoky. Malt producers (who were sometimes the brewers themselves) had to kiln the malt, and kilning required heat, and heat came from burning things. Even straw smoked. Until better technology (kilning tech, and coke as a fuel source) were developed, beer was smoky. Grain also was less well-modified, so it yielded less fermentable sugar (ie. beers were sweeter) and yeast was less supercharged, or so I’ve read. Hops weren’t the only bittering additive (or even in regular use in a lot of places, for a long time–especially in Britain, where hop use came later than on the Continent: sometimes herbs or other plants were used, and in medicinal ales, all kinds of stuff got thrown in. Even the fashions in terms of toxic adulterants changed over time. But you could over all expect beer to be funkier, smokier, sweeter, and once aged, more sour, the further back in time you go.
  5. The history of alcohol-production is an utterly crazed patchwork of experiments, trends and categories and “styles” or product types arising and dying out. If people could extract sugars from it, they would ferment it; if they could ferment it, they did ferment it… even to the brink of famine. Modern people (and especially modern Americans) think in way shaped by branding, marketing, and so on; in the old days, regional styles existed, but it’s more useful to think of beers in terms of families: wheaty sourish beers existed across the Hanseatic league; dark, strongish beers existed all over Europe; when the technology developed, paler beers showed up all over, especially where the local water characteristics permitted their use. Think of food styles, and how they vary from region to region. (How Texas barbecue isn’t the same as barbecue in South Carolina or Memphis.) It was like that. If you can think of an oddball configuration for an alcoholic beverage, chances are, it probably existed somewhere.
  6. The further back you go, the more alcohol-production is a household chore, rather than a commercial enterprise. Well, sort of. In Mesopotamia, brewing was a religious activity, and lots of religious symbology is linked to brewing:
    Sumerians drinkingActually, temples did it, and a lot of depictions of brewing and drinking also seem to involve prostitution and so on. Hell, if you read the epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll notice that the beastman Enkidu is humanized basically by drinking beer, eating bread, and having sex with a temple prostitute named Shamhat.  (Among other things. And yes, they drank beer with straws, for various reasons–all of which link to how radically different beer can be from the stuff you know as beer. )
    3_BEERBeer and religion were often linked later on, too: the Church in Europe not only operated a number of brewries out of monasteries, but also taxed gruit, which was a rather standard combination of herbs used to bitter continental malt liquors, for example… but once the knowledge and technology spread enough for home fermentation to become practicable, it stayed that way for most of human history. In our own world’s history, you don’t start getting seriously scaled-up industrial brewing till the middle of the 18th century, and even then, home production continues strongly for some time.
  7. Both fermented and distilled beverages were often seen as having a medicinal function. Medicinal ales and wines were made with special herbal additions in various places and times, and not only in Europe; likewise, medicinal “aqua vitae” were distilled with special aromatics and flavorings (like juniper in gin) and sold for such purposes. Distilled alcohols were probably the first high-tech medicine in production, though not the first resource intensive medicine to be manufactured.
  8. In a lot of Northern/Western Europe, beer was seen and treated legislatively and socially as a foodstuff, rather than an drug (but distilled alcohols often were treated as a drug when they first appeared). Think of beer as liquid bread, with extensive connections to all elements in society: factories having beer on tap for workers; armies and navies needing to secure beer supplies for their troops; and so on. Think of distillation as being akin to the discovery of LSD. Now you’re on the right track.
  9. Hops are a standard and widespread (if not universal) bittering addition in beer today, but the further back you go, the more other herbs were used for bittering… as well as possibly imparting narcotic or hallucinogenic (or, unintendedly, toxic) qualities to a beverage. Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing has an interesting chart of historical bittering herbs used in Europe during the Middle Ages, as well as known adulterants, which were a common problem in alcohol production throughout its history.
  10. Think geography instead of “style”: American beer-lovers today especially are prone to rigidly taxonomizing beer or other beverage styles; the past was much more of a Wild West type of situation. What determined the emergence of a particular style was geography–the availability of fermentables of a given type, climate, and the character of the local water. Simply put, softer water allows for paler beers of a gentler, less-bitter character, while harder water requires darker beers (and privileges a stronger, crisper bitterness). Climate is also a factor: as a general rule, the warmer a fermentation (within reason), the fruitier and more characterful the beer produced will be; the colder the fermentation, the longer it takes to make the beer, and the more it will resemble what we call “lager.” (Though see below about bottom-fermenting yeast.) But the farther back you go, the more variety and odd stuff you see.

Now, how to apply that in practical terms?

Let’s consider a Medieval subtropical arid region: a desert like the one Conan trudged through from time to time.

Characters are likelier to be drinking something made of some kind of fruit juice from the fruit of oases (coconut milk? lychee-water?) or cactus sap (agave?), or perhaps some animal source–like the mare milk that the Mongols fermented. The product of the fermentation will (because of the fermentation temperature) likely be very fruity, but also perhaps sour–wild yeast and bacteria may be less plentiful in such climates, but are probably more active nonetheless when an infection does occur… and when infection takes in one batch, it sticks around for a long time. Expect fruity and funky aromas and flavors, and thin wine or beer, since the wild yeast chews through all the residual sugar, converting it all to alcohol. (Which is good when base sugars are in shorter supply.)

The alcohol levels might not be very high, though–high alcohol beverages are both expensive and hazardous to your health in such regions–but there might be some small distillation trade among the richest circles. Since distillation means the extraction of water from a fermented base, if water is at a premium, distillation might be prohibitively expensive for most people. Perhaps if there are annual rains, however, some kind of water-capture system might allow for annual distillations–a kind of water-harvest. But distilled booze is likely mostly medicine, not stuff one drinks for fun, outside of the top class… and even the top class might see it as medicinal as well as for-fun.

The aromatics and flavorings will be tropical–cinnamon or cardamom-like spices, not hops (which grow best in temperate climates).  I’m guessing households add the sap of cacti (or, say, great sap-circulating fungal colonies? or both?) to their household water supply, to purify and flavor it, achieving maybe the strength of table or “small” beer–1% alcohol or less, just enough to kill bacteria. If it’s a fungal colony’s sap, there could easily be mild hallucinogenic or narcotic effects from the sap, aside from the alcohol. The fungus or cactus will likely be incorporated into the culture’s religious symbology and governmental legislation.

There would be a general home industry, with an annual or biannual production ritual or period–the time when everyone makes fungal beer with easily-gotten rainwater–and a smaller trade drawing on owned or paid water supplies like deep wells–that is, unless the water supplies above ground (a nearby river) are very polluted, in which case brewing will be a bigger feature of life. (Since brewing fends against the microbiological dangers of drinking fouled water.) Or, maybe, given a reasonable degree of water-scarcity, there might be a religious organization or guild that controls the commercial brewing, or maybe all brewing in this society; perhaps it was ripped from the household chores roster, or never got established within it, due to the general scarcity of water in the region. All kinds of things are possible in terms of that.

It’s up to you whether the sap used would be highly fermentable (like most saps in our world) or would include complex sugars that regular brewing yeast (in our world) couldn’t break down. (Wild yeast [again, in our world] can do that, but it takes time.) If there are complex sugars, you’re going to expect some bittering herbs boiled into the sap (or in the water used to dilute the sap), or extracted by prolonged immersion,  to balance the sweetness to some degree. Perhaps the flesh of the fungus, or the floral blooms of the cactus, could be used for bittering; or perhaps some imported spice is used. Threats to that spice trade (bandits, international tariffs, a spice blight abroad) could be part of the background of your story.

The rest of this post, it’s for people who would like to dig deeper than that.

Brochet (“burnt honey” mead), in the boiling pot. Don’t try this at home, folks!

General Tips:

1. The first and best advice I can offer you is: try to get some hands-on experience.

While there is the occasional exception, most homebrewers are wonderfully generous when it comes to that sort of thing, or teaching people how to homebrew. The easiest ways to do this are:

  • Search online for a homebrewing club in your city, town, or area. Even if you’re looking into distilling or wine-/mead-making, this is a good place to start, because brewing as a hobby is much more popular (at least in the English-speaking world) and because brewers, being interested in those other forms of fermentation and beverage production,might be helpful in tracking down more information. (Plenty of homebrewers also make wine or beverages from other traditions, and a few distill.)
  • Check out message boards. People who make their own beer gather on online forums; sometimes that means on Facebook, but often web forums are more popular. Homebrewers, lacking any reason to be secretive about the information and techniques they find or learn (and often being indebted to others for what they do know), tend to collect information, but also to share it in communities. (See below in “Books and Reading Materials.”)
  • Seek out the local homebrewing/winemaking supply store. (Sometimes abbreviated LHBS on the web boards.) Usually such shops service people making all kinds of beverages, and can put up a notice for you, give you contact info for a club meeting,direct you to an online resource, or, at the very least, sell you a book on the subject. But see below regarding books.
  • Go poke around Youtube. Worst case scenario, your town has only unfriendly homebrewers… but you can learn the way a lot of people learn: by watching someone in a video. I have learned plenty about brewing from Youtube videos, and the site is bursting at the seams with free resources.

If you do come to a brewday, don’t be shy to contribute physically and participate. It’s not rocket science, and often brewers appreciate someone pitching in by stirring a mash tun for them, or stirring boiling wort. Which is also to say: dress the part of someone working in a kitchen. I’m not saying dress in white, but… informal dress. And shoes that won’t be ruined if you get a little water or unfermented beer on them.

2. Talk to homebrewers/winemakers/meadmakers. Such folk are a great source of practical, procedural information because their techniques are pretty comparable to how people brewed a few hundred years ago.

That said, bear in mind that:

  • Plenty of homebrewers believe things that aren’t true, especially about the history of beer. Especially American homebrewers are subjected to loads of poorly-researched historical material. The number of folk-myths propagated by the American publishers that serve the hombrewing hobby are astonishing. Don’t take their historical explanations too seriously.
  • Modern homebrewing equipment is different (in quality, capacity, and operation) than older equipment. Same process, different equipment. Modern homebrewers use gas or electricity to water used in the brewing process; brewers in the past have used many other things–wood, coal, coke, and even red-hot stones dropped into the pre-fermented beer. While brewing, try to imagine how the same procedures would be achieved in a world lit only by fire, or a world where gas is a precious resource. Think about steam injection, or about magical fire, or some precious magical additive that reduces the necessary boiling period for a batch of beer. Think about how many horses would be need to crush the grain for an industrial-scale batch of beer. Ask yourself where the water would come from if there was no running water.
  • Consider the knowledge base of your fictional world, and the state of microbiology within it. Experienced modern homebrewers, even those who buy into silly historical folk-myths, are still far, far more up-to-date on the science of fermentation and sanitation (as well as fermentation management and yeast culture maintenance) than your average brewmaster was in 1820, or 1736.

Cautions and caveats aside, there are all kinds of raw experiential aspects to brewing which could be useful to you, even if it just comes to giving a brewer character a skin-burn he got at work, or a dray-cart drover a bad back from all the years of huffing around firkins of ale. (Once you lift up five gallons (18.9 liters) of beer unassisted, you appreciate what a job the draymen had. Once you realize that brewing is so water-intensive, and how much energy goes into crushing grain for brewing, it drives home the importance of horse power in breweries of the past.)

3. Try ferment something saccharine in your own home, even if only for a day or two, and even if only from a kit. (Ginger beer is a good example, and doesn’t really require special equipment; try get a ginger beer plant if you can.) Most premodern characters would be experiencing fermentation of some kind (probably several kinds: cheese, yogurt, fermented vegetables, and alcohol) directly in their daily lives, as naturally as we do cooking or washing laundry. Makes sense to acquaint yourself with it.

4. Experiment with drinks. Try to track down unusual alcoholic beverages and try them. Mix them. Mess around. Especially try things like smoky beers, sour beers, malted or fruited or spiced meads (“braggots” and “melomels” and “metheglins,” they’re respectively called sometimes)… anything other than the mass-market beer that dominates today, and which would be absolutely unrecognizable to people living more than a few centuries ago.


Notes on Fermentation:

Fermentation deals with the natural, albeit controllable, process of transforming one food product or another. This transformation traditionally was carried out either primarily or incidentally for the purposes of preservation. In the context of beer and booze, that means transforming sugars from perishable grains into into less-perishable alcohol.

For most of human history, fermentation occupied a different–and more central–place in most human cultures. It was a means of extending the shelf-life of foods: cabbage goes bad sooner than sauerkraut, for example, and cured sausage lasts much longer than raw meat. With alcohol, there was the added bonus of intoxication.

But there were other differences:

  1. Fermentation was poorly understood, compared to what we know now. English brewers supposedly called yeast “godisgood” because it was basically a black box to them: put a scoop of the stuff into sugary fluid (or even just leave it open to the air overnight, in the right environment), and somehow magically alcohol and bubbles get made. They understood yeast was involved in fermentation of beer, they knew that contamination was possible and had bad effects, but they couldn’t exactly explain why or how it worked; they had rules of thumb, but no sense of the why of it. For a long time the much-expanded cake of yeast that develops on the bottom of an alcohol fermentation was imagined, at least by Europeans, to be a byproduct of the fermentation, rather than its primary agent.
  2. Fermentation was a household/estate concern. Home-brewing was crucial to the sustenance of households, given how foul many water sources became when human habitation grew dense enough. Home fermentation was roughly as normal as having a fridge in your home is today. It was a bit like cooking: the poorer you were, the likelier it was that most of what you drank, was made in your home, and on farms it was simply seen as being necessary like food. Indeed, a lot of European regulations about beer (as opposed to wine or distilled liquors) explicitly regarded beer as a food product, not a drug or intoxicant. Given the lower efficiency of yeasts at the time (and the resulting lower alcohol levels of the beers), beer actually did function as food–as “liquid bread.”
  3. Fermentation-related work was sometimes gendered to match its cultural niche. Not only that: in those cultures where domestic work was associated with women, you often find women tasked with the home’s brewing work. (This was the case in England prior to the 1600s, for example; women brewers got edged out of the brewing business when men started to transform it from a small-enterprise and home-occupation business, into larger-scale industry, from the 1600s until the mid-to-late 1700s. Here’s a good book on how women got edged out of brewing as it industrialized: Judith M. Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World.)
  4. Fermentation was much less directly controlled. Which is to say that there are several kinds of yeasts and bacterias that can be involved in fermentation. Most modern industrialized beverage production facilities go to great pains to establish an effectively sterile environment where various “wild” yeasts and bacterias are excluded from the process, so that a single homogenous strain of yeast performs all the fermentation. But even a century ago, that was not the case. Which is to say that traditionally, most fermented beverages would have been more sour, more “funky” (common descriptors include “wet dog” or “goaty” or “cheesy” or “barnyard”), and straight-out weirder… as well as more prone to spoilage. When a person 200, 400, or 800 years ago declared a beer “sour,” you need to bear in mind that they meant “more sour than usual” because most beer would have been tart to begin with.

The landmark scientific discoveries regarding the nature of yeast were these:

  • 1680: Dutch alchemist/early-microbiologist Antonj van Leeuwenhoek invented a microscope, and promptly started looking at beer. (Because what else would you look at?) He seems to have observed yeast cell growth and even referred to them as “animalcules.”
  • 1857: Louis Pasteur demonstrates the role of oxygen (as a growth catalyst to yeast) in the vigorousness of the rate of fermentation
  • 1876: Louis Pasteur publishes Études sur la bière (“Studies of Beer”), elucidating the existence and role of wild yeast as a contaminant, as well as establishing the role of yeast as the agent, rather than a byproduct, of fermentation.

Definitely, folk-knowledge existed prior to these times. All kinds of rumors abound about whether bottom-fermenting (“lager”) yeast was transmitted from Bavaria to Bohemia, or the other way around–though ultimately, going by genetics, it seems possible it arrived in Europe on a ship from Patagonia, of all places! (Or, at least, that’s the only place S. eubayanus has been found so far.)

Update 1 Feb 2016: Though I wasn’t aware of it, back in 2014, more than one strain of S. eubayanus was found on the Tibetan plateau, and the researchers who found it claim genetic analysis reveals a closer link to European lager yeast than the Patagonian S. eubayanus. (More detail is contained in the paper itself: here’s a link to the PDF.) That means it’s likelier that lager yeast arrived in Europe along the Silk Road. I’m not sure why it didn’t get more press, but I only heard about it earlier this year. Hm.)

Also, I realized I never explained the yeast types, so here’s a quick explanation:

  • S. cerevisae: often called “ale” yeast by English speakers, especially North Americans; a “top-fermenting” yeast, which acts at “warmer” temperatures. (Usually, but not always, below 21-22°C.) Many strains have been documented, including many wild strains. Currently used to produce pale ales, IPAs, Belgian Abbey-styled beers, German “alt” beers, and most wheat beers. (Generally, a more characterful yeast than S. pastorianus.) Also used for fermenting wines, meads, most alcohol used in distilling, as well as in baking bread.
  • S. pastorianus: often called “lager” yeast by English speakers, especially North Americans; a “bottom-fermenting” yeast that metabolically thrives in colder temperatures than ale yeast, but also ferments more slowly. Among other differences, the colder temperatures necessitate a “lagering” (cold storage) stage that top-fermented beers don’t require, to allow the yeast time to clear out byproducts of fermentation. S. pastorianus is a genetic hybrid of S. cerevisae (“ale yeast”) and S. eubyanaus—the latter having been a theoretical yeast until recently.
  • S. eubayanus:  one of the two ancestors of S. pastorianus, was not isolated in the wild until 2011, in Patagonia. Since then, samples have been found on the Tibetan plateau as well. Not generally discussed by brewers, it could be called “wild lager yeast” though its relationship to S. pastorianus seems different from the relationship between wild and domesticated forms of S. cerevisae. (And, incidentally, several recently-domesticated strains of S. cerevisae are still widely referred to as “wild” because of their fermentation properties.)

Like a typical beer-brewer, I’m focusing on yeast, but historically, and especially before the development of modern sanitation procedures, all beer would also have been at least partially fermented by a whole range of bacterial strains… and that’s to say nothing of alcohols fermented from enzyme-poor sources of carbohydrates like rice or millet (such as Korean makkeoli and dongdong-ju or the rice alcohols that are ultimately distilled in East Asia: Korean soju, Japanese sake, and Chinese baiju), some of which required multi-stage, complex fermentations using fungi, bacteria, and yeast.

In a fantasy world, all kinds of weird fermentation agents are possible, of course, including supernatural or magical ones. In a science fictional world, it’s quite possible yeasts with different metabolisms could be engineered to tolerate or prefer unusual temperatures (like the real-life Saison yeast strains of Belgium that thrive at a bewildering 25-35°C!), produce different flavor profiles, and so on… or nanomachinery could do all kinds of fascinating stuff like fermenting at high speed, partitioning the contents of a fermenter and fermenting a blend of two different beers in a single vessel, reverse engineer a beer sample and reproduce it given the right wort, and so on. Sky’s the limit, really.


Gin Lane


Distillation is an old technology, which in our world was spread around by the Mongols. (The word “arak” is used for so many different kinds of distilled alcohol in Asia for a reason.) I’m not strongly familiar with the East Asian history of distillation, beyond saying that rice (or millet, or sorghum) was mostly used in the making of a beer (with rice or other grains, often left in, as with ancient Sumerian brewing); then the grains settled or were strained out, and the alcohol was distilled from the liquid, which is how you get most of the popular hard alcohols in East Asia today (including saké and soju and various kinds of baiju, though modern forms use other fementables and even sometimes flavorings added to industrial ethanol instead).

But in Europe, distillation arrived essentially through alchemical practice. It spread through Europe in alchemical grimoires, and then passed into more general knowledge (like a lot of practical alchemical know-how, such as ink-making or glue-making) through Books of Secrets, a subject I recently discussed here.

The thing to understand is that distillation is inherently costly: large amounts of lower-alcohol liquor are distilled to produce small amounts of high-alcohol liquor. That means it’s not inherently profitable just as a beverage unless you have a lot of cheap-to-produce base alcohols. Therefore, evaporate distillation originally was practiced as a way of producing medicinal tonics infused with the oils and flavorings of various medicinal herbs or berries; it was imagined by alchemists that life-energy itself was concentrated by the act of distillation, which is why they called distilled alcohol aqua vitae (“the waters of life”).

At least based on what happened in England with the gin industry, I’d guess that here distillation did catch on, it’s a good bet that it was because low quality primary resources became available: barley unfit for brewing became available in England, at least. Bourbon and port could be produced with lower-quality wines, and whiskey with disappointing malt liquors. Which means that, like beer, such alcohols would be rather unlike the top-shelf stuff we know today. Find a bottle of cheap, crappy vodka: that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about hard liquor early in the development of distillation as a commercial trade.

Distillation is very, very much tied to alchemy, even when it arrives on the commercial scene. In England (and even places as far-flung as Korea) hard alcohol has been associated with female figures in terms of those selling it, promoting it, and even the alcohol itself is sometimes feminized (as gin was, being called “Madam Geneva” by Londoners), presumably based on the idea that booze and women both mess with men’s heads. At the same time, a lot of societies have been suspicious of the effects of distilled alcohols on women, either engaging in social panic over women’s consumption of distilled alcohol, or making it socially unacceptable. That’s not universal, but it is a widespread phenomenon in our world’s history.

Likewise, the advent of distillation is like the moment when any new form of intoxicant becomes available in a society: epidemic abuse and addiction happen, and they even sometimes play a role in the genetics of the local population. One reason so many East Asians suffer from the alcohol flush reaction seems to be linked to the intersection of endemic hepatitis, alcohol’s effects on rapid hepatitis mortality, and the influence of both on genetic selection. (I discuss that in depth here.)

I strongly recommend following up on the alchemy/distillation resources mentioned at the end of this post.

I will note, however, that alembic distillation is not the only method possible. One other form of distillation I know about (and have tried, by accident at least) is “freeze distillation”–where you do precisely what it sounds like you’d do: the alcohol either remains unfrozen, or unfreezes much more quickly than the ice-water, so if you carefully control the runoff, you can effectively concentrate the alcohol by simply stopping the runoff before the ice melts significantly. While it sounds like a massive pain in the ass, actual commercial beer styles use this method of concentration. It’s a German innovation, by the way, and while many “ice beers” suck, I’ve had one or two that were actually pretty good, if very heady. Suited to stories set in cold climates, in any case.


Books & Reading Materials:


First, the good news: there are forums online that are free to join, and available immediately. Brewers, meadmakers, winemakers and distillers all have them, and they are very active communities. Most groups would be happy to field questions and are a wealth of information… though, being amateurs and relying on rumors and word of mouth, some of that information will be wrong.

Still, forums are a great source of information and ideas. The biggest brewing forum in English is at For distillers, it’s at Meadmakers seem to hang out at a forum called (Since I’m not a winemaker, I’m not too familiar with the winemaking forums, but I’m guessing the biggest one is at or  However, be aware that there are forums in lots of other countries, too, which you can find if you search hard enough!


There are also a few blogs that discuss beer extensively, from a number of angles. The most useful for fiction researchers, in my opinion, would probably include:

  • Shut Up About Barclay Perkins: the blog of Ron Pattison, who is obsessed (in a good way) with brewing history in the UK and Europe, and rants wonderfully on the execrable misrepresentations of brewing history by Americans. Fun stuff.
  • Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile is a great blog about English beer history, and English beer today.
  • Strange Brew: now-defunct, but the author used to simulate historical conditions of brewing to get an authentic taste of what beer was like for the Victorians, Brits serving in India, and so on.
  • I’ve made a number of posts in recent months about early 18th century brewing (and general beer history) and distilling in the Gin Craze era. (The links are to tagged posts related to the theme, though the Gin Craze tag is more general, and includes other material on the gin craze era as well.)

Not so historical, but worth looking at if you’re getting at beer today:


As for books, the 1990s and 2000s have seen the explosion of brewing-related publishing. Prior to that time, very few reliable and quality resources were available to the homebrewer, but now, we’re in a bit of a golden age, despite the dross that gets through.

I’ve already noted that plenty of American homebrewing manuals and books are a mixed bag when it comes to information; they’re also dominated (to a fault) by the notion of “styles.” Beer styles (and correct brewing of them) seem to be particularly American obsession, perhaps driven by the collapse of organic, traditional brewing culture during the Prohibition. Unless you’re writing a fantastical book about the American Craft Brewing scene–in which case, I’ll assume you know about it than me–the style guides will be of negligible use: they do tend to have a little history, but it’s flawed and of limited use to you anyway.

I can only really recommend books on brewing and meadmaking: I haven’t read at all about winemaking or distilling, I’m afraid. I will mention a few books about distilling history in the short section on distilling much below this.

(Anyone more familiar with wine-making, I invite you to chime in, even if only to recommend a book or two.)

1. Technical Guides:

  • How to Brew by John Palmer. It’s pretty much the go-to book on brewing techniques and basic brewing science for new brewers. An older edition of the book (sufficient for most researchers) is available online for free. But remember, as I noted above:most characters prior to the 20th century wouldn’t know most of the things in this book, at least not in the way presented. (They may have rules of thumb that approximate some of practices recommended by Palmer, though.)
  • Ken Schramm’s The Compleat Meadmaker is a good source on mead-making, though it doesn’t have a terribly large amount of history in it as I recall. It’s more of a practical guide, though it’s the best one around.

That’s probably enough unless you’re writing specifically about modern brewers or meadmakers. In fact, most writers could afford to skip those books altogether.

2. History:

Here are some I can recommend, most from my own reading experience, but a couple by reputation.

  • If you’re interested in the history of English beers, Martyn Cornell is your man. I haven’t gotten around to them yet, but friends tell me that both Beer: the Story of a Pint and Amber, Gold and Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers are excellent works on beer history; the latter is near the top of my to-read-soon list. These are brilliantly researched, highly detailed, nonsense-banishing histories of English beer and brewing, very accessible and interesting, or at least, that is what I keep hearing from people.
  • Hands down, my favorite book on beer history is Peter Mathias’ The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830… but it’s an academic book by a specialist in the industrial revolution. It’s basically an overview of how brewing went from being a home/cottage industry to full-scale, professional industrialized brewing on large scales. He discusses changes in technology, scientific knowledge, techniques, equipment, economics, animal labour (horses! many, many horses!), and more. There are a number of interesting stories and insights, and he makes sure to give a pretty good sense of what preceded the era, though the focus is on the 1750s onward, and it has plenty of charts, maps, footnotes, and so on. This book is out of print, but you should be able to get it through interlibrary loan. Copies are expensive if you’re looking to get it second hand, though.
  • Again, a book I mentioned above, on how brewing shifted from a female-dominated field to a male-dominated one as industrialization of brewing took place is Judith M. Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World.
  • There is a good series on Belgian brewing which, while it’s focused on modern Belgian beers, will give you at least a little information about Belgium as it has been for the last century or so, maybe a little more. I think Belgium’s a good model for older brewing because, basically, it’s an anomaly in the brewing world: it’s a crazy patchwork of brewing approaches, techniques, and “styles” that aren’t “styles” at all in the American sense, and that’s precisely what European brewing would have looked like. Unless you’re a brewer, the introductory sections and general history will be what interests you.
  • Ian S. Hornsey’s A History of Beer and Brewing (2003) is a massive historical overview of brewing worldwide. I’ve only had a chance to skim it, but what I saw seemed pretty serious and detailed–maybe a little dauntingly so–but it covers a massive range of ancient beer drinking cultures and practices, along with the more recent stuff covered in many books… so it might be just the thing to dip into, especially if you’re looking for something outside the range of European brewing.

3. Public Domain Beer Books, 19th-Century and Earlier:

More useful for most fiction authors than the technical guides (mentioned above in Part 1) are the historical texts on brewing that are, ta-da, mostly available online, since they’re in the public domain. There are literally hundreds of books. An index of some interesting ones is available here. For those researching brewing in English, I personally recommend the following:

  • The London and Country Brewer (original edition 1736, but link to 1744 version): Basically an 18th century guidebook in the vein of How To Brew. Fascinating to compare to Palmer’s modern book.
  • The Whole Duty of a Woman (1737): A guidebook to all kinds of “wifely” duties, including brewing the family beer (and preparing any number of other weird concoctions).
  • The Riches of a Hop Garden Explained by Richard Bradley (1729). This may or may not be of use to you. Hops haven’t always been used in bittering beer. Check out the Mosher book above for more on that. But if hops do figure into your narrative, this is worth reading for an older perspective. George Clinch’s English hops; A History of Cultivation and Preparation for the Market from the Earliest Times (1919), is a more modern one. If you really want to know about hops, you could also try get hold of Stan Hieronymous’ recent book on the subject, For The Love of Hops: The Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness and the Culture of Hops (2012). But again, that’s more of a modern, craft-beery treatment, and also more of a reference, so if you’re a non-brewer, you’ll probably be happier borrowing it if you use it at all.
  • A Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms: Or, a Guide to Good Fellows (and its sequel, which is bundled with it) is also a wonderful historical text, but it’s not about brewing: rather, it’s a guide for “malt worms”–for beer lovers, that is–to the pubs of London, published in two parts back in the early 1700s… in verse… with illustrations. It mentions a lot of colorfully-named styles of beer that are, tantalizingly, extinct today, and gives a sense of how patrons saw pubs, publicans, and one another. Fun stuff.

I don’t know any good historical books on American brewing, winemaking, or brewing in other parts of Europe. I would, however, welcome recommendations in the comments.

4. Inspiration:

  • Radical Brewing: Recipes, Tales and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass (2004) by Randy Mosher. Hands down, this is the wildest, most wonderful book you’ll find for inspiration. Mosher’s sense of “radical” is “root”–he goes back to the roots of brewing for inspiration detailing all kinds of recipes that are extinct today, but also going back to those roots to find inspiration for modern variations on familiar beer styles. Mosher has information on a lot of extinct styles, as well as on historical ingredients not normally used today. The occasional problems in the recipes are not a big deal if you’re only researching, but Mosher’s passion for lost beer styles, and methods, and his passion for experimentation and the weird, all make this a great book for someone trying to invent a beer culture in an imaginary world.
  • With massive caveats, I can also direct you toward Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation (2013) by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I’ve only read parts of it, and wasn’t impressed with it as any sort of practical guide to brewing (nor have I seen any serious brewer praise it, though a few have criticized it thoughtfully) … but while it would be useless in a practical sense for most homebrewers, it comes at brewing from an anthropologica/herbal-medicine angle, and so it is full of curious, unscientific ideas about health, spirituality, human evolution, plant and herbal medicine, psychotropics, and other stuff that might inspire you with something useful to add to the social, cultural, religious, or magical side of things, in terms of own fictional brews, wines, or liquors. Try the library.

Distillation, Alchemy, and Medicine:

  • For medicinal ales, check out this wonderful pharmacological index compiled by Stephen Hart, for 18th century medicinal concoctions. Pertinent to the subject above are all the entries under ales, hydromels (i.e. meads), and wines.  Also, if you search “distilled” in the body texts over at the database page, you’ll find prescriptive guides for medicines mainly of a distilled alcoholic nature. This stuff is all 18th century-specific, but it’s enough to get your imagination going. (I mean, distilled (but non-alcoholic!) horse-dung water?
  • It shouldn’t be too hard for anyone who remembers the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s, or is paying attention the explosion of meth production and consumption in North America more recently, to imagine how powerfully distillation affected Europeans when they were first exposed to it. However, I personally found studying the Gin Craze as an example to be pretty useful in terms of how people in a premodern time might react to such a development. The best book I’ve seen on the subject is Patrick Dillon’s Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva – The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze (2004), though it’s focused on the social, cultural, political, and economic side of the gin craze.
  • I’ve mentioned above my own post on the way “Books of Secrets” served as a vector for spreading the technology and knowhow of distillation, but once more, here it is. That post includes a link to a great article on the subject of these books. Also, you can download here a famous book of secrets from the late 1500s, containing recipes for ink and for winemaking.
  • Bruce Moran’s Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine (2006) is an excellent overview of how alchemy went from being an important part of the inquiry of natural philosophy to being ridiculed and excluded from science, with many of its most important discoveries rebranded as “chemistry,” in a century or less. Moran doesn’t discuss alcohol outside the introduction, but he does discuss the historical context in which distillation was invented, and why it was so important to alchemists and alchemical thinking… in ways I think could be handy for historical fiction and fantasy authors to consider and learn about. However, as a fiction writer, you might find William R. Newman’s Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature (2004) more inspiring: it’s a great big important book about why we misunderstand and need to rethink our idea of what alchemy was, and how it ties to the human struggle to master nature, as well as the tention between the natural and the artificial. It’s not light reading, but it is very thoughtful. Newman’s written many more books on the subject of alchemy that you might find interesting, too.
  • Gabrielle Hatfield’s Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions (2003) is a pretty handy guide to reputed medicinal properties of way more plants than most people have ever heard of; certainly there’s enough to get you started.

That’s all I have for you, but at 7000+ words, this should probably be enough for anyone. I’d be happy to discuss things more deeply with anyone interested. Feel free to email me or leave a comment and I’ll get back to you when I have time!


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6 thoughts on “Imaginable Beers: A Primer for Writers of Speculative Fiction

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. Much of the historical context of beer I sorta knew about (that beer was more food than a drug, that most of it was made at home during medieval times and before), but not about the way fermentation itself was historically different. This will come in very handy when I’m developing the world for my current novel :)

    1. Glad it’ll be of use. One clarification: even at the beginning of the 18th century, vast amounts of brewing were being done at home. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think even at the beginning of the 19th century, half the brewing going on in England was home brewing.

      Which makes it a bit like clothing manufacture: a vast, expansive set of skills and practices that were near-universal, and which we’ve forgotten so profoundly that that universality has become invisible to us!

    2. Oh, and by the way, Anne, if this novel project is the thing set in Finland (I thought it was a short story?) then you will definitely want to read up on sahti.

      (The accounts I’ve read put it somewhere between a juniper facepunch and a Christmas tree, but I’ve never had it myself. Always wanted to track down a few berry-laden branches of Chinese juniper but never got around to it!)

  2. Great post! I have done a lot of this research myself (and also much practical research) but there’s plenty here I didn’t know. The bibliography is particularly exciting to me.

    I’ve got a book with some colonial American and later brewing history: Libations of the Eighteenth Century by David Alan Woolsey. It is by no means exhaustive, in some place frustratingly terse, but I have pored over it and used it as springboard for further research.

    I’m also fascinated by The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy by Lydia M Child, 1834 American housewife, which proposes some truly out-there fermented concoctions in a vein I imagine similar to The Whole Duty of a Woman, suggesting homebrewing was indeed a household chore in the US as it was in the UK.

    One of the things you mention here I’ve never heard of is brochet: have you got a post on that somewhere?

    I expect to be on another brewing-in-fantasy panel at ConFusion in Detroit this coming January–I’ll definitely be directing people here.

    Thank you again!

    1. You’re quite welcome Michael, and thank you for your own book recommendations. I’ll keep an eye out for the Woolsey and the Child (which I assume is online someplace). I am interested in American brewing history–especially how brewers made do without a proper supply of grain decent and hops and so on–and I’ve read a bit, but since my own project now is early 18th century London, it’s farther than I’ve researched! Soon!

      On brochet: I think I was too busy to actually write it up when Rowan and I made it. Maybe I’ll do so when I get a chance to taste some: a friend will be bringing a bottle from Korea. I think brochet just sort of had a vogue a year or two in mead and homebrewing circles online, and one of the guys in Korea mentioned making some… so we followed up. There are a lot more posts about it now than there were then, though you need to search “burnt honey” along with the style name, or you get fish! It’s apparently a very old sort of thing, and again apparently, was made in England (possibly elsewhere). One homebrewer we know reported marshmallow flavors, though I think we got something more like burnt orange sweetness.

      Nice to meet another homebrewer-in-SFF, by the way! If we’re ever in the same area, we should meet up to talk beer and SF! :)

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