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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Devonshire White Ale; a Taste of the Past

Sometime nearly 500 years ago, a man named Andrew Boorde visited Cornwall and wrote about the local beer he found there: "Their ale ... looking white and thick, as if pigs has wrestled in it."* Sounds tempting, yes? What if I add that the beer was made with eggs, salt, and some flour thrown in after the mash? Irresistible. Ben Edmunds thought so; last week he served some--the first time in decades?--at Breakside.

Ben didn't make it exactly as the old accounts describe. (Thank god.) There are certain modernities professional brewers must observe. The flour and eggs, though, those he tossed in. The original Cornish ale was made in the manner of sourdough, with a pinch of the last batch kept in reserve for pitching into the next (it was known, poetically, as "the ripening"). It produced sour beer that needed to be drunk speedily lest it become an unhealthy science experiment. Ben achieved the tang with a bit of sour wort added into conditioning.

The resulting beer? Surprisingly tasty. It was thick, cloudy, and white--not foul enough to suggest the involvement of pigs, but certainly rustic-looking, like river water frothed by rapids. The pint I got came with a small skiff of beautiful foam, not wholly dissimilar to clotted--or Devonshire--cream. It didn't stick around long, though, and underneath was that whitish liquid. Amazingly, it was quite palatable. It was mildly tart and very thick, sort of like liquid sourdough bread. It was enjoyable enough that I had a second pint. And, should Ben ever get around to making another batch, I'd happily have a third and fourth pint to boot.

*In the English of the day, it was actually rendered thus: "Their ale ... lokinge whyte and thycke, as pygges had wrastled in it.” More, much more, on the style here.


  1. Not sure about your 'first time in decades' comment - After the exposure on Zythophile and in Radical Brewing, a number of homebrewers have made these (which Ben readily acknowledges in the write-up he did).

  2. @Unkown: I could be wrong, but Jeff's usage of "served some" implies "served to the public."

  3. Actually, Unknown makes an important point. I was talking about a commercial brewery making this beer--noteworthy and praiseworthy--but Cornish White Ale (aka Devonshire White Ale) was probably never really a commercial product. Not in the modern sense.

    Still, I'm all about hyperbole, so I'm giving Ben credit--as a commercial brewery, anyway.