Recently I have been thinking of re-igniting my interest in home-brewing. Previous attempts to make alcohol have never been successful. I have made white wine that tasted of rotten eggs, and made dandelion wine that, when bottled, exploded spectacularly in my lounge. Now I have a couple of books that spell out the process, and I am a little more confident that I can do it.
Naturally I have been hitting the old cookbooks for some historical inspiration and came across this recipe for cock-beer. In this recipe from 1780, you essentially make a giant cock tea-bag to impart its essence into your brewing beer:
Take 10 gallons ale, a large cock (the older the better). Slay, caw and gut him, and stamp him in a stone mortar. Add spice and put all in a canvas bag. Lower him into the ale while still working [i.e. fermenting]. Finish working and bottle.
That is actually a toned down receipt – many times live cockerels were used. Goodness knows how people didn’t die. Perhaps they did!
It doesn’t stop at cocks in beer, oh no, in Cornwall sheep’s blood – hot from the slaughter – was added to cider; and what did it taste like? According to Andrew Boorde, the 16th Century physician and traveller: “[it] is stark nought, looking whyte and thicke as pygges had wrastled in it.”
There were many tales of men’s heads being thrown into the hogshead along with the beer, and perhaps they weren’t just tales, because the cockerel wasn’t added to the beer for flavour (I suspect that the spices were added to mask the flavour of the bird). The idea is that the animal’s strength, courage and vigour would be imparted into the brew. So these beers were in fact more remedies than proper drinks.
William III: Cock Beer Lover
That said, two brave brewers called Chris Thomas and Adam Cusick, brewed a batch from this very recipe, obviously with a certain amount of interpretation. They did welch a little bit by using a cooked chicken. However a delicious ale was produced that was mellow and ‘shared distinct similarities with a strong Belgian ale’. Apparently, William III’s drink of choice was cock beer, and it has been noted several times through the centuries for its superior quality.
My gut feeling is that is must be foul (no pun intended), yet it gets all this praise. Well, when I become a seasoned brewer of beer, I might just give it a go.
One last thing:tantalisingly, it has been suggested that the word cocktail (a work whose origin is famously unknown) comes from cock-ale. O how I wish it was true.