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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:

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:
    Actually, 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. )
    Beer 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:

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:

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:

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.



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:

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:

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.

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:

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:

Distillation, Alchemy, and Medicine:

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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