Thursday, 2 June 2022

Irish Beer History: Absinth Ale, Gill, and Women's Longing

In 1727 Caleb Threlkeld, an English doctor and botanist, published a small book on the wild plants growing around Dublin with the typically long-winded title for the time of 'Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum Alphabetice Dispositarum. Sive Commentatio de Plantis Indigenis Presertim Dublinensibus Instituta Being A Short Treatise of Native Plants, especially such a grow spontaneously in the Vicinity of Dublin; with Their Latin, English and Irish Names; And an Abridgment of their Vertues. With several new Discoveries' - and that is a truncated version. The work is exactly as described in the title and lists what seems to be every wild plant growing around the vicinity of Dublin, with various forms of their names and, most interestingly, their uses.

There are a few herbs that mention their use in ale or beer too, either added in the brewing process or combined later for medicinal purposes, and although being mention in this book does not mean that all of these herbs were definitely used in Dublin I think we can be relatively sure by some of his wordings that most certainly were. Many of these plants will be familiar to those who read about historical brewing but it is the definite mention of their use in Dublin that is relevant to us here. 

Absinthium maritimum (now Artemisia maritima) - Sea Wormwood - which he mentions is used by local 'Ale-house-keepers [to] make their Purl, great Consumption of which is made in Winter Mornings. Purl in the original signification denotes a piece blazoned and spangled with Pearl, whence the Name is applyed to the Cervisia Absinthites, as distinguished from other Ale by its Excellency.' He goes on to say it is a 'drying Bitter' and he then quotes another botanist he calls Mr. Ray as saying, 'Those who travel the Country in searching and gathering Plants, if they chance to light upon sour or ill tasted Ale, they may amend it by the Infusion of Common Wormwood into it, whereby it will be more agreeable to the Palate and less hurtful to the Stomach.'

Common Wormwood - Absinthium vulgare - (now Artemisia absinthium) is listed here also just above his mention of the maritima variety and it is seemingly the common one was used in the liqueur Absinthe, but the writer is not completely clear - to my mind at least - which he is talking about or seems to be talking about both being used. Either way it is nice to see it listed as an ingredient or perhaps a fix for beer. (The plant is classed as toxic so I would not recommend using it unless you are completely sure what you are doing if you plan to replicate any recipes it contains.)

Myrtus brabantica (now Myrica gale) - Bog Myrtle, Sweet Gale - has many uses but for our interests the author says 'The Flowers boiled in Ale instead of Hops, causes sudden Drunkenness.' I had previously heard of its use in ales but presumed it was the leaves, but here it mentions only the flowers. I am unsure about the inebriation issue - if true - unless the flowers have a narcotic quality perhaps? I would suspect it is just hearsay ...

Of Erica baccifera procumbens nigra (now Empetrum nigrum) - Crowberry - he said that 'Some use the Ling instead of Hops, and is said to give no ungrateful Taste to the Ale.' You can make of that what you will, as with many words I am sure 'ungrateful' has other meanings than how we use it now and in this case 'no ungrateful' probably meant pleasant or accetable.

Possibly the most interesting is the mention of Haedera terrestris (now Glechoma hederacea) - Ground Ivy, Alehoof - where Threlkeld states that 'It refines and clarifies Ale, of which a great Quantity is drunk in Town [Dublin]. under the Name of Gill.' This is the second reference I came across recently to this as Jonathan Swift mentions 'Gill-Ale ' in one of his letters from 1710 where he states he was 'forced to go to a blind chop-house, and dine for ten-pence upon gill-ale, bad broth, and three chops of mutton.' This was in London so it is good to see it in print in our book in reference to Dublin. This style or type of beer has been mentioned elsewhere before, it is not a new find, but its reference specifically to Dublin is of note perhaps. Also, I am assuming the ale was called after the herb and not vice-versa, as the plant is also known as Gill-Over-the-Ground, which seems logical. 

Incidentally, there is a listing of Barley and other grasses too, such as Beer, Bigg and others for those who have an interest in these things, as I know some of you do!

Other mentions include on for the seaweed 'Dullisk' (Dillisk), which was seemingly chewed like Tobacco when dry and 'gives a Relish to Beer, as Anchoves and Olives to Wine.' I am yet again not sure if I understand this completely but perhaps he means a savoury umami quality? Incidentally it 'is commended against Womens Longing', which is another piece of wording that I will claim ignorance to - and perhaps on that note I will finish ...

Liam K.

Threlkeld's book is available here.

All quotations are repeats as printed with spellings and syntax as it appears in the book.

All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its source, and a link back to this post.

No comments: