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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Mash Bucket and Malt Draining Brick

Object 89 - The seemingly humble mash bucket and malt draining brick were important pieces of equipment used in the process of home brewing.

Elizabeth Sharrett

Elizabeth Sharrett is a Doctoral Researcher at the Shakespeare Institute.

“Go, brew me a pottle of sack finely” (3.5.26-27).

Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor

Woodcut of a brew house showing the housewife of her day brewing up drink for her family
Woodcut of a brew house showing the housewife of her day brewing up drink for her family

This post is for all you home brewers out there! In early modern England, in addition to preparing food for her family, providing them with warm garments, and preserving them with “wholesome physic”, a good housewife was not to “be ignorant in the provision of drink”.[1] Indeed, as most water was unsafe to consume at the time, this was just as important, if not more important than supplying bread to a household. Gervase Markham writes, a housewife should be “well practiced in the well making of malt…for as from it is made the drink, by which the household is nourished and sustained” (180). Therefore, today’s objects, the seemingly humble mash bucket and malt draining brick, were important pieces of equipment used in the process of home brewing. Though the particular examples in the Trust's collection are from the nineteenth century, they represent items that would have been commonplace in early modern England. Moreover, brewing remained largely unchanged for many years - like many of the tasks discussed in previous posts, such as spinning (object 70)bee keeping (object 85)bread making (object 73), and butter churning (object 80).

Markham’s instructions on “brewing ordinary beer” are quite extensive, and to begin he advises,

your malt being well ground and put in your mash vat [or bucket], and your liquor in your lead ready to boil [that’s right, he said lead!!], you shall then by little and little with scoops or pails put the boiling liquor to the malt, and then stir it even to the bottom exceedingly well together (which is called the mashing of the malt) then, the liquor swimming in the top, cover all over with more malt, and so let it stand an hour and more in the mash vat (205).

The next step is to remove the malt draining brick from plugging the bung-hole in the mash bucket, replacing it with a mashing strom, or wicker strainer, to keep the grain and hops from flowing into the drained liquor.

There are four main kinds of drink identified by Markham: beer, ale, perry, and cider. To this list he also adds mead and metheglin – drinks made of honey and herbs in Wales and the Marches (the borders of Wales and Scotland) – and distinguishes them as “exceeding wholesome” (204). Thus, when this main brew was finished, it was then time for making “small beer”, a drink that ripened as quickly as a fortnight, but which kept for a long time, as well as March beer made in the spring, strong ale, bottle ale, perry – made from pears –, and cider – made from apples.

The brew-house was to be located in a convenient part of the house, equipped with a good ventilation system, so that the smoke stayed out of “your other more private rooms” and didn’t taint the taste of the liquor (211). There is perhaps no other Shakespearean character more associated with beer than Falstaff, and the particular drink for which he asked was probably heated and enriched with a blend of spices such as ginger.[2] However, while it is obvious that he was well acquainted with the taste of beer, I doubt he had little practical experience of how it came to be made.

[1] Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, edited by Michael R. Best (London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), 204.

[2] T. W. Craik, ed., The Merry Wives of Windsor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).