At the line between bread and beer: Brewing Devon White Ale

Devon White Ale, also known as West Country White Ale, is one of those old English country beers that dates back to the Middle Ages, to a time before hops became a common beer ingredient.  It’s also one of those beers that consistently pops up in strange beer lists, owing the the inclusion of eggs, flour, and spontaneous fermentation.  In a lot of ways, it feels like a bizarre mixture of baking and brewing, with the liberal use of flour and eggs.  The first reference to Devon White Ale appears in Andrew Boorde‘s 1542 work, “A Dyetary of Health”, and this white ale continued to be popular in Devonshire through much of the 19th century before, like many other country beers, it too died out.
 There are no specific recipes that remain for Devon’s  white ale,  however a number of books do hint at the  recipe.  One of the most  useful, and readily available  sources for information on Devon White  Ale, is the  “Town and Country Brewery Book” by W. Brande.  This  book  is actually available for free via Google Books,  and anyone interested in  reading on older English  brewing methods should check it out.  Martin  Cornell’s  Zythophile also has excellent information on this  archaic beer.

Now, based on the available information regarding Devon White Ale, the questions come down to ingredients and process.  First, there are several facts that most sources agree on:

1. The fermentation is likely spontaneous, carried out by a culture of wild yeast collected/cultured inn a mixture of egg whites and flour.
2. The wort is made from simple ale malt
3.  No hops are used, and the beer is drunk fresh and still-fermenting.
4.  Several sources suggest the wort is not boiled.

Let’s get down to the ingredients (ingredients for 1 gallon of Devon White Ale):

1.5 lbs two-row pale malt
3 oz flour
2 egg whites
OG: 1.035
FG: 1.018

The first step in brewing Devon White ale is going to involve culturing some wild yeast.  To do so, mix the egg whites and flour to form a paste.  Set this flour paste near an open window and allow to set there for anywhere from 8-12 hours in order to capture some wild yeast and allow some fermentation to take hold.

Egg whites and flour

This egg white and flour paste will serve as your starter.  Or you could turn it into biscuits.  Whichever.

After your egg-flour paste has done it part to capture some yeast, start preparing the wort for your white ale.  Mash the malt at 145-150 for 90 minutes.  You’ll want to mash for longer than the typical 60 minutes, as there’s no boil and you’ll want to extract as much sugar from the malt as possible.

Starter soup for Devon White Ale

Mix your paste starter with some of the chilled wort. This will make either a great starter for your Devon White Ale, or a very bad soup. Your choice.

Once you’ve mashed and cooled the wort, it’s time to combine the two.  To make it easier to combine them, don’t just drop your fermenting blob of egg-flour paste into your wort – that will make a mess and you’ll just be left with this giant floury ball floating in your wort.  Instead, add several ladlefuls of wort into the bowl and combine the wort with the flour to make a eggy-floury-sludge.  Add a bit more wort and mix until your sludge resembles more of a pale white soup.  Now, combine that soup with your wort, loosely cover your carboy, and set it aside to go to work.  In my case, fermentation took hold within just a couple hours, and there must have been some particularly hungry yeast on the breeze.

Unfermented wort for Devon White Ale

Freshly mixed wort and flour-egg-yeast starter.

I noticed a few interesting things about the fermentation process: for one, there was never a thick krausen during fermentation, instead a thin layer of bubbles across the surface of the wort.  Another noteworthy thing is that Devon White ale has some particularly filthy looking trub due to the flour.

Fermenting white ale

Fermenting white ale. Very thin, light, bubbly krausen.

After about 24 hours, you’ll have some delicious Devon White ale ready to drink.

Devon White Ale in glass


Tasting notes:

Aroma:  It very much smells like barley wort, with a slight sour note in the background.  Not bad.

Flavor:  Wort, wort, wort.  With a small sour tang and a bit of flouriness  With the combination of the wort flavor and the flouriness, I can see how it would have been prescribed as a “healthful” drink in centuries past — it really does taste like something you’d find in an organic/holistic store.  Only better, cause it’s beer.

Mouthfeel: Thick.  It’s wort, flour, and only partly fermented.  This is a substantial drink.

Overall, Devon White Ale is not bad.  But it’s also not that strange compared to other beer’s I’ve done, like Chicha, or even the Choujiu.  Still, it was interesting to get int touch with one of those country beers of days past.

Readers, what are some of the more unusual ingredients you’ve used in your brewing?  Or any unusual processes you’ve used to make beer?

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