Posted by: Wayne Robinson | April 24, 2011

And you think Helmut does strange things with chicken wings…

This is the story of how Glenda and I made the most legendary of all historical drinks, cock ale. The tale begins in 2007 at the “brewing” workshop at the 2007 Conferention at Dunghaven which for those who didn’t attend, mainly consisted of people sitting around talking about how much sugar they could load into a 2L plastic  bottle of fruit juice and then ferment without the bottle exploding and killing someone. The sense of outrage among the “real” historic brewers attending built up to the point where we didn’t even enter the brews we bought in the competition, drowning our sorrows with them instead. I vaguely recall a “Viking” Pine-Orange “mead” (really a honey sweetened pineapple-orange wine) being handed around.

Seditious discussion between us, Lou and Damo ensued, mainly trying to work out what obscenities we could commit while still remaining accurate for next time this situation arose. Enter the 2011 Conferention at Dunghaven and one eminent Sir K. Digby.


Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.

The Closet of Sir Kenholm Digby, Knight Unlocked (1644)

There’s couple of posts in the series, the first presenting a little of the history and some recent attempts (and mistakes) by others, the second discussing the process we took and the third (if it ever eventuates)  our tasting notes.

The Digby recipe is also (theoretically) reproduced in Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, claiming to be from the 1677 edition of Digby. The only 1677 edition we could find is identical to the one above. I’ll reproduce Charlie’s recipe here and explain some of the problems with it.

Take 10 gallons of ale and a large cock, the older the better; parboil the cock, flay him, and stamp him in a stone mortar until his bones are broken (you must gut him when you flay him). Then, put the cock into two quarts of sack, and put to it five pounds of raisins of the sun – stoned; some blades of mace, and a few cloves. Put all these into a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale has been working, put the bag and ale together in vessel.

Some of the language may be Digby’s, but if that was the case, it had been through a number of rewrites before the later authors picked it up. Apart from taking liberties with quantities, dropping the dates (fnarr!), adding cloves and the treatment of the chook, there’s the introduction of a canvas bag. When Digby wants to use a cloth bag, he specifies it (as in many of his hydromel receipts). The biggest problem is that the chook is only parboiled and is flung in at the start of the fermentation where the protein will make the brew cloudy and reduce the alcohol yield, rather than at the end when the yeast has finished its work where it acts as a nutrient and clarifier for the secondary fermentation (a little before you find the ale has been working rather than Digby’s after). The Homebrewing Wiki given this recipe and taking it as representative for all historic cock ales notes “Brewers considering making their own cock ale should probably take extra precautions to avoid microbiological contamination of their beer.” This recipe would just about guarantee it.

My research has found that the recipe is a modern re-telling of one that was collected by William Carew Hazlitt in his 1886 collection Old Cookery-Books and Ancient Cuisine and has been commonly reprinted and misattributed to Digby, Pepys and others in books and on websites ever since. However, the chap at Rowley’s Whiskey Forge says “Papazian lifted it from Edward Spencer [1903] who yoiked it from Eliza Smith whose The Complete Housewife [London 1727, Williamsburg, Va, 1742] was the first cookbook published in America”. Date interpolations are mine, I suspect we’re both correct and Spencer nicked it from Hazlitt along the way.

Here’s Mrs Smith’s.

Take ten gallons of ale and a large cock, the older the better, parboil the cock, slay him and stamp him in a stone mortar till his bones are broken (you must craw and gut him when you slay him). Then put the cock into two quarts of sack (possibly sherry) and put to it three pounds of raisins of the sun stoned, some blades of mace, and a few cloves; put all these in a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale had done working, put the bag and ale together in a vessel, in a week or nine days time bottle it up;  fill the bottle just above the neck, and give it some time to ripen as other ale.

The common heritage with Digby is fairly obvious. Again, the chook is inserted at the end of the primary fermentation, following Papazian’s recipe will kill people. I had planned to insert some earlier examples at this point,  but couldn’t find any earlier than Digby. There must have been some but I’ve been unable to find any, feel free to post any that you know in the comments section. And so on to some modern interpretations.

A number of others have attempted this brew, although generally make some wild substitutions or fail to even read the recipe. Many take the form of chicken soup with beer added, although some go the other way. Some have taken the rather dangerous step of adding raw chicken meat to the primary ferment, possibly inviting Darwin to step in and cull some of those who can’t do their research.

The Boston Beer Company released one a few years back from a 1763 recipe under their Samuel Adams label. The blog  At Cock Ale – the finest English Refreshment, presents one much like our own with few divergences. The recipe is Digby’s but blamed on Pepys, Cranberrys are substituted for some of the raisins due to a shortage. In this example and the fruit and meat was steeped in the sherry overnight, possibly more correct than us but not something we fancied on a 30 degree day. This one also uses a modern quantity of hops, probably eight times the amount we used.

The chap responsible for the Ye Olde Cock Ale at Kaizer Penguin used Papizan’s redaction and then took his own shortcuts, substituting vin ordinaire Chardie for the sack, more than halving the ale but not the chook, using a modern quantity of strong German hops, adding herbs not mentioned in any of the recipes, old or new, and then using a wine yeast capable of making a 14% brew. He enjoyed it, which is the main thing, but our approach is a little different, trying to get it to taste as close as possible to the original. We’ll go through that in the next post.



  1. Dearest Reverend,

    Wonderful stuff!

    I must ask – is there no direction on drinking said Cock Ale? I assume one would simply guzzle it.

    Kindest Regards

    RL Esq.

    • Having been one of the lucky recipients of a tasting, I can heartily recommend guzzling. Spitting is so distasteful, and would have been such a waste. Every cock ale is sacred.

  2. […] Green Band which gives great scope for further exploring the comforts of civilian life. Food and drink are two areas that we’ve really just started to try. We know they sometimes stayed in tents, […]

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