16th Century Homebrewers

Brewing takes on an historical flavor for members of the Mag Mor Brewers Guild, a branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Members of the SCA adopt personas, or characters, from the 16th century and earlier and re-create many aspects of the Middle Ages. The brewers bring to life medieval methods of brewing beer and other alcoholic beverages, such as liqueurs and mead.

The 100 members of the Barony of Mag Mor, the anachronists’ guild in Lincoln, Neb., gather at least once a month for combat, cooking, armoring, metalwork, and calligraphy.

A dozen of the members pursue another specialty: brewing. They get together to brew, share information, and plan events or competitions involving brewing. The brewers’ guild includes men and women from many backgrounds. Two things they have in common are their love of history and brewing.

Among other anachronists in the Kingdom of Caltonir (a four-state area including Nebraska), Mag Mor holds a reputation for brewing prowess. Recently, the King of Caltonir called upon Mag Mor’s brewers to create a special beer to be awarded as a prize in a week-long “war” held at a lake in Missouri.

Meet the Brewers

Tim Hintsala, known in the SCA as Angus John MacLeod, founded the brewers’ guild of Mag Mor in 1993 with help from another member, Kevin Costello. A member of the SCA since 1986, Hintsala moved to Lincoln from Houghton, Mich., where he had participated in the local brewing guild since 1990. He was still interested in brewing and found that several other members of Mag Mor were, too. But there was no organization when he arrived, so he put together meetings and helped the group get started.

Hintsala is known for his Bloody Angus beer. It was originally planned as a dark stout, to be called the Black Angus. “When it was put in a carboy it was nearly black, but after the
sediment settled, the beer was a dark red,” he recalls. Another brewer in the group dubbed it the Bloody Angus. The name stuck, and the Bloody Angus is now Hintsala’s most
well-known beer.

Jim Lafler has been in the SCA for three years and has been brewing since he joined the society. He likes the experimental nature of the brewers’ guild, which doesn’t stick to established methods outlined in such homebrewing texts as Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing. “The SCA is a treasure trove of brewers who are willing to step outside of Papazian’s rules and try new things,” he says.

Lafler prefers making fruit beers but says he brews mostly nut brown ales because they are his favorite to drink.

Nick Lind is a recent college graduate with a history degree. He has been brewing with the SCA for about two years. Although Lind brews a lot of beer, he is perhaps best known locally for making Atholl Brose, a Scottish drink from the 1300s. It is made with oatmeal, scotch, and honey. He also makes mead and liqueurs. His wife, Vikki, has been brewing for the last year. She focuses primarily on liqueurs.

Other members focus on wine, mead, and other specialties.

How They Brew

Although not everything they brew is period (documentable as something that could have been made before 1600), primarily because they use some modern techniques and ingredients, Mag Mor brewers try to stay as true to Middle Ages methods as possible. For example they learn to brew without many of the scientific tools available to today’s homebrewers.

Guild members “know by touch when the wort is the right temperature to pitch the yeast” instead of relying on a thermometer, notes Lafler.

In addition brewers learn to brew through sight, taste, and smell instead of strictly following recipes. They do lose a batch once in a while, but their success rate – without modern tools and with a lot of experimentation – is 95 percent.

Learning to rely on their own instincts improves the brewing skill of members, says Hinsala. “It makes them more instinctive brewers and, in turn, makes them better brewers,”
he says.

Brewing Competitions

Members enter competitions with other SCA brewers from within and outside the area.“My approach to brewing competitions is to ask myself what Jean Michel (his 12th century Norman persona) would have brewed and how he would have done it,” says Lafler. He considers anything up to the 12th century fair game.

Judging is based on a 50-point scale similar to that used by the Beer Judge Certification Program. The main difference between competitions for BJCP and SCA is the emphasis of the judging process.

Instead of placing the primary emphasis on technique and style, SCA brewing competitions put a lot of importance on the documentation a brewer has for his or her entry. Is there evidence that it was created during the Middle Ages, and did the brewer do as much as possible to use period materials and techniques? What did the brewer learn about brewing in the Middle Ages as a result of the project?

“Once you start looking at the documentation, you learn things that make you a better brewer,” says Lafler. For example recipes from the Middle Ages have seemingly very odd ingredients. Yet the ingredients were a way of providing an important brewing element, such as starch, unavailable in the form we’re used to. Medieval brewers had to experiment with what was in their environment to see what worked.

SCA brewing competitions are also much more focused on what the SCA refers to as the “ground up” quality of the entry: Did the brewer make everything from scratch? For example if you grow your own hops and malt your own barley, that earns points toward your score.

Another difference Lafler and Hintsala see between AHA and SCA brewing competitions is the level of experience of the judges. In the SCA the judges may not have a very strong brewing background themselves. While these brewers certainly try to recruit judges who are knowledgeable about brewing, it’s difficult, and they often end up with judges more familiar with the SCA arts and sciences competition format than with brewing in particular. Lafler and Hintsala spoke about a growing interest among some of the brewers in learning to become better judges.

All in all, the brewers clearly enjoy themselves while learning a great deal about brewing and history.

Issue: November 1996