16th-Century Butter Beer

I made butter beer! No, not the wizard version, but the real late 16th and early 17th-century stuff made with sugar, warming spices, eggs, and you guessed it, butter. It has been absolutely freezing this week and so the thoughts of a hot beverage to ward off the chill sounded like an excellent idea. Also, it’s the holiday season, and whilst I love a good cup of mulled wine, I wanted to try my hand at a few different hot beer recipes. This is the first one.

Butter beer, or buttered beer, has a long and storied history. There are many recipes all containing at least the butter, sugar, beer and eggs, though the variety of spices seems to vary greatly with some including nutmeg, cloves and ginger, whilst others opt for aniseed and licorice. You can learn more about it and find several different recipes on the absolutely wonderful resource that is ‘Foods of England Project’ here.

Our recipe today comes from The Good Housewives Handmaide for the Kitchin which was printed in London by Richard Jones circa 1594. You can find the complete text at the Justus Liebig University Giessen website here.

And the full text of the recipe is as follows:

To make Buttered Beere.

TAke three pintes of Beere, put fiue yolkes of Egges to it, straine them together, and set it in a pewter pot to the fyre, and put to it halfe a pound of Sugar, one penniworth of Nutmegs beaten, one penniworth of Cloues beaten, and a halfepenniworth of Ginger beaten, and when it is all in, take another pewter pot and brewe them together, and set it to the fire againe, and when it is readie to boyle, take it from the fire, and put a dish of sweet butter into it, and brewe them together out of one pot into an other.

This recipe is fairly straightforward, which honestly I feel like I say way too much. The only thing possible issue is perhaps what exactly is a penniworth. Well, as the name suggests it’s how much of something can be bought with a penny. But does this mean they are the same measurement because we are talking about the price to buy? So in theory, all of these could be different amounts. Maybe? Maybe not. I am not an Early Modern English recipe expert by any means.

Spices in general were not commodities afforded to everyone. Nutmeg in particular was incredibly valuable. Now, I started falling down a rabbit hole researching the price of nutmeg, ginger, and cloves in 16th/17th-century London, but quickly realised that is a whole project so I’ve just estimated ½ tsp for each, which is really me just shaking some in the pot until it looks about right.

And FYI here are a few of the sources I found whilst tumbling down this particular rabbit hole in case you are interested in learning more: Stefan Halikowski Smith, ‘Demystifying a Change in Taste: Spices, Space, and Social Hierarchy in Europe, 1380-1750’, and Tasting Difference: Food, Race, and Cultural Encounters in Early Modern Literature by Gitanjali Shahani. And if anyone has any more recommendations let me know!

Also, I didn’t want to make five pints of it for just me. Well, at least not right away until I tasted it first. So I made this version but just with one pint. Now, my past experience making sweetened, warmed beers tells me that the best beers to make these with are malty German lagers or even a Czech dark lager. This of course is anachronistic, so if you can get your hands on something more authentic and make it, I would love to hear about your results.

So my version was as follows:

  1. Get one one pint of lager and mix it with two eggs yolks, well like 1 2/3 if we wanted to be super accurate, but I just used two. I used a whisk to blend everything well.
  2. A half pound of sugar is like 227 grams, so that’s about 76 grams per pint, or about 1/3 of a cup. Add that.
  3. Add in the nutmeg, cloves, and ginger
  4. Mix everything together and heat until just below boiling
  5. Add butter and mix again
  6. Use two pots and mix back and forth between the two, which makes it nice and frothy
  7. Drink!

Now I loved this. It was so creamy and delicious; Nicely spiced and sweet. The egg yolks made a big difference and added a lot of body which held up against the sweetness and made it not cloying IMO. The butter also added some fat content which also helped to balance the sweetness and the spiciness. The malt notes worked really well with the spices and the sweet malt was amplified by the sugar and spice but not completely overwhelmed. This will all really be down to the beer you choose though. Really enjoyed this and would absolutely make it again.