They made some wacky stuff centuries ago. I think I like it.

PINTS by Jason Foster

Lately I’ve been thinking about what beer would’ve tasted like a couple of hundred years ago. Beer always changes — brewing methods change, ingredients evolve and consumer palates shift. While no one can be certain what a 1700s or 1800s beer tasted like, we do have some signs from historical records, and knowledge of brewing processes and ingredients. However a good deal of guesswork is always at play.

I’ve been writing about beer history lately. This time  I want to talk about a few styles with a long history that have rare and rather experimental modern-day versions. (That’s one of the great things about craft brewing these days — brewers are willing to take a stab at an extinct style they would’ve had no opportunity to try before.) There are lots of historic and regional styles that’ve died out. I chose the two I discuss below because I’ve had some experience tasting their modern-day equivalents — either because I brewed one or tasted a commercial example of one. Whether the versions I tried have any resemblance to the originals, no one can say. But it’s still interesting to explore.

I’ll begin with leann fraoich, or Heather Ale — a historic beer style I’ve brewed many times at home. It’s is a very old style of beer that some say has been brewed since 2000 B.C. by the Gaels, although that, as you can imagine, is hard to confirm.

The key element of heather ale is that heather, rather than hops, is used for bittering and additional flavour. Hops are not particularly common in Scotland given the geography, but heather is rather plentiful — so you can see why ancient Gaelic brewers would opt for it. The original heather ales likely had other fruits and spices added. My version — as well as the only commercial example I’m aware of, Williams Brothers Fraoch (not currently available in North America) — uses only heather and bog myrtle (a pungent herb). The heather is not nearly as bitter as hops but does impart an earthy, musty counter to the malt sweetness. The result: a sweet bitterness that makes the beer more rustic. It’s a very different beer from what we get today.

Tafelbier is another beer you’ve never heard of. Tafelbier is Dutch/Flemish (I’m not getting in the middle of that fight) for “table beer” — historically it was served with meals. Tafelbier was light bodied and clocked in at between 1.5% and 3.5% alcohol, so it’s quite the small beer. What makes it interesting, though, is that it imparts the same kind of Belgian yeast spiciness as Trappist beer. The one I’ve tried (although it was a bit higher in alcohol than tradition) looked much like a witbier — cloudy, pale straw — and started with a noted fruitiness. However, midway through the yeast starts to kick in and the beer transforms, building a white pepper and earthy note, culminating in a musty, spicy finish.

It is, I must say, very drinkable.

Most people know about Saison, the rustic farmhouse ale from Belgium and France. It’s quite the sexy option these days. But a much lesser known Finnish version quietly toils in the background. Sahti is just as old as other farmhouse ales and also comes from the tradition of farmers brewing it on site for their farmhands. It shares with saison a spicy, peppery, phenolic yeast finish, but what else comes along the way is quite different. Sahti is brewed with a variety of malted and unmalted grain, including barley, wheat, oats and rye, which gives it a complex profile. Its other key difference is the use of juniper berries, both in the beer and (in the form of branches) as a filtering agent for the mash. Juniper infuses a sharp, pine-like flavour to the beer. It can replace hops, much like heather does, to create an earthier, spicier version of a beer. The juniper blends with the yeast spicing to create a unique sharp, spicy beer.

Dampfbier is the latest historical beer I’ve tried. It’s an old Bavarian style that today I might describe as a hybrid of a steam beer (a hoppy, woody American beer) and a weizen (German wheat beer). The base beer is an amber ale/lager hybrid with notable hop bitterness. The weizen yeast adds a clove/banana character to the beer.

I suspect the versions we try today offer only faint resemblances of the originals, in large part because brewing techniques are much more refined today than 2000 — or even just 200 — years ago. Still, it’s fun to sip on one and think about what it would’ve been like to be in old Europe drinking something similar.

This concludes Jason’s three-part series on historical beer.