The jokes write themselves with this one, so I’m going to try to keep it as straight as possible: brewing with peas is an ancient tradition, going back at least 400 years in Britain, and it still takes place in Lithuania, the United States and Japan.
The earliest mention I have found for peas in beer is from Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, published in London in 1615:
Now for the brewing of the best March Beer, you shall allow to a Hogshead thereof a quarter [eight bushels] of the best Malt well ground, then you shall take a Peck [a quarter of a bushel] of Pease, half a peck of Wheat, and half a peck of Oats and grind them all very well together, and then mix them with your Malt …
This, Markham said, would make “a Hogshead of the best and a Hogshead of the second, and half a Hogshead of small beer, without any augmentation of Hops or Malt.” Even though the hop rate was just a pound a barrel, the strong beer, brewed in March or April, “should (if it have right ) have a whole year to ripen in”, Markham said, and “it will last two, three, or four years if it lye cool; and endure the drawing to the last drop.” That is probably more down to the strength of the beer – at some five and a half bushels of fermentables per barrel, the alcohol per volume was quite likely north of 11 per cent – than any magic the peas brought to the brew.
A few words about the word “pea”, incidentally: it began as “pease”, singular, with “peasen” the plural. By the 15th century “pease” was often being used as both the singular and plural, and as a “mass noun”, like rice or malt. Eventually , by the 17th century, “pease” was misanalysed as the plural of a singular “pea”. “Pease” and “peasen” survive today only in “pease pudding” and in place names such as Peasenhall in Suffolk.
The peas could be malted, and so could beans, vetch and even lupins, though Markham seems to have been talking about unmalted varieties, since he said elsewhere in The English Housewife:
Now I do not deny, but there may be made malt of wheat, peas, lupins, vetches, and such like, yet it is with us of no retained custom, not is the drink simply drawn or extracted from those grains either wholesome or pleasant, but strong and fulsome; therefore I think it not fit to spend any time in treating of the same.
“Fulsome” was being used there in the sense of “offensive”. Bitter vetch, Vicia ervilia, is a legume with, as you’ve guessed from its name, bitter-tasting, lentil-like seeds, grown today for feeding to sheep or cattle and now only rarely consumed by humans.
However, an informant called “RT”, from Derby then one of the malting centres of England, was recorded in 1683 as saying:
I have known pease and beans malted frequently, and many ale brewers desire some in their malted barley, because they make the liquor in working bear a better yeast, or barm, as here we call it; and certainly, being mixed in a good quantity with other malt, they make very strong liquor, which, as I am well informed, is apt to intoxicate and heat the stomach exceedingly.
Peas and beans, as Markham indicated, were not the only legumes made into ale or beer. Thomas Short, MD, writing in 1750 on “malt liquors” (the catch-all for hopped beer and unhopped, or lightly hopped ale in the 18th century) in a book called Discourses on Tea, Sugar, Milk, Made-wines, Spirits, Punch, Tobacco, &c, with Plain and Useful Rules for Gouty People , said:
Malt Liquors differ in respect of the Grain whereof they are made. Thus Pease, Beans, French Beans, Chick Pease &c afford a more tenacious, heavy Liquor, and such as requires a stronger Constitution to digest them, Wheat and Barley produce more nourishing and strengthening Liquors, seeing their Parts are more separable, and sooner reduced to a wholesome Spirit. Oats yield a more detersive kind of Drink, which is less viscid, has more earthy Parts, and a smaller Quantity of Oil in it.
Another writer in 1733 mentions malt made of “Barley, Pease, Beans, Oats, Vetches, Buck-Wheat, or whatsoever else is cheapest”.
According to Richard Bradley, author of The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director, published in 1732,
“Wheat-malt, Pea-malt, or these mix’d with Barley-malt, tho’ they produce a high-colour’d Liquor, will keep many Years, and drink soft and smooth; but then they have the Mum-Flavour.
– mum being the heavily herbed wheat beer originally made in Brunswick.
Four years later, William Ellis, in The London and Country Brewer, wrote
Some I have known put a Peck or more of Peas, and malt them with five Quarters of Barley, and they’ll greatly mellow the Drink, and so will Beans; but they won’t come so soon, nor mix so conveniently with the Malt, as the Pea will.
Ellis also recommended that when ageing “Stout or Stale Beer”, brewers should use an “Artificial Lee” for the beer to feed on, and while some hung a bag of wheat flour in the cask for this purpose,
… some in the North will hang a Bag of the Flower of malted Oats, Wheat, Pease and Beans in the Vessels of Beer, as being a lighter and mellower Body than whole Wheat or its Flower, and more natural to the Liquor.
He gives a recipe for a hogshead of October Beer from Lichfield, in Staffordshire which involves
sixteen Bushels of Barley Malt, one of Wheat, one of Beans, one of Pease and one of Oat Malt, besides hanging a Bag of Flower taken out of the last four Malts in the Hogshead for the Drink to feed on
which must have been an unbelievable original gravity, at more than 13 bushels of malt and malted pulses to the barrel. (Allsopp’s No 1 Burton Ale, OG 1122, abv 10.31, had only 4.5 bushels to the barrel)
It wasn’t only brewers who were making alcohol from peas and beans: distillers were, too, at least in Ireland. In 1758 the Irish parliament passed an Act “to prevent the distilling of spirits from wheat, oats, bear, barley, malt, beans and pease or from any potatoes, meal, or flour of wheat, oats, bear, barley, malt beans or pease, for a limited time”. (“Bear” is bere, the coarse variety of barley still grown in Scotland). Pea whiskey, anyone? OK – in 1708 a book called The Whole Art of Husbandry said that “out of one Bushel of Pease will come of Spirit at least two Gallons or more, which will be as strong as the strongest Anniseed-water usually sold in London,” and explained how to make it:
Let Pease be taken and steeped in as much water as will cover them, ’till they come and swell, and be order’d as Barley is for malting, only with this difference, that for this Work if they sprout twice as much as Barley doth for malting ’tis the better. The Pease thus sprouted, if beaten small, which is easily done, they being so tender, and put into a Vessel stopt with a Bung and Rag as usual, they will ferment, and after three or four Months, if distilled, will really perform what is promised.
In 1794 a book called An Agricultural Dictionary consisting of Extracts from the most celebrated Authors and Papers recommended “pease malted after the manner of barley” as food for horses. But the references to peas, malted or otherwise, for brewing continue into the 19th century. In 1839 the author of A statistical account of the British Empire, talking about malting in Great Britain, said: “Barley is the grain generally used, but oats, and other grain and pulse, viz beans and peas, are sometimes used for the purpose.”
Samuel Morewood’s Philosophical and statistical history of … the manufacture and use of inebriating liquors in 1838 revealed that “owing to their fermentive properties”, distillers “frequently” used “the meal of peas beans and oats” in making their bub, a mixture of meal and yeast with warm wort and water, used to promote fermentation. Morewood also said that in Georgia, bouza – a common word for fermented millet/grain-based drinks across the Ottoman-influenced word, apparently from Turkish, and not connected with the word “booze” – was “made from peas, which is the common basis of it in that country.”
Even the pea pods were used to brew with in the United States. A book called Five Thousand Receipts In All the Useful and Domestic Arts, by Colin MacKenzie, published in Philadelphia in 1825, declared: “No production of this country abounds so much with vegetable saccharine matter as the shells of peas. A strong decoction of them so much in odour and taste an infusion of malt, termed wort, as to deceive a brewer.” The book gave the following recipe:
To make beer and ale from pea shells instead of malt
Fill a boiler with the green shells of peas; pour on water till it rises half an inch above the shells, and simmer for three hours, strain off the liquor and add a strong decoction of wood sage or hops, so as to render it pleasantly bitter; then ferment in the usual manner. By boiling a fresh quantity of shells in the decoction before it becomes cold, the liquor when fermented will be as strong as ale.
After 1839, however, references in Britain to peas being used in brewing seem to vanish. It had been illegal for commercial brewers in the United Kingdom to brew with anything other than malted barley as their source of wort since the malt tax was introduced in the time of William
IV III at the end of the 17th century. Suggestions for using peas, in the 18th century, therefore, were aimed at the (still considerable) domestic brewing sector. For whatever reason, however – I wouldn’t wish to speculate – pea beer looks to have nosedived in popularity in the UK from the start of the 19th century.
It does not seem to have vanished elsewhere, however. In 1995 Michael Jackson found beer brewed with peas being made in Lithuania. The Ragutis (“Drinking Horn”) brewery in the city of Kaunas brewed a pale bronze lager called Širvenos, after the district in northern Lithuanian famous for brewing Pea Beer, about 4.2 per cent abv, with 15 per cent or so of the grist being green peas. The brewery director told Jackson that the protein in the peas helped head retention, and that they created a “thicker body” and “richer flavour”. Ragutis is now called Volfas Engelman, and no longer brewing Pea Beer, I believe. But beer with peas in the grist is still, a reliable source (the Norwegian beer blogger Lars Marius Garshol) tells me, being made in Lithuania: the Biržai brewery in the city of Biržai, which is actually in Širvenos, Land of Pea Beer.
At least one small brewery in the UK, Nottingham Brewery, picked up the Pea Beer baton in the 21st century when it made a “mushy pea” beer, a special for the 2001 Nottingham Camra Beer Festival. The beer was given the name “Double Jeopardy”, because if the beer didn’t get you, “the peas would”. The man behind the beer, Steve
Westerby Westby, the beer festival’s cellarman said afterwards:
“Philip Darby [the brewery's managing director] thought it would be a good idea if I came in and helped brew a special beer for the festival. I was keen to have a go but wanted the beer to be something a bit different. Now, there is nothing more that reflects the taste of Nottingham than mushy peas and mint sauce, which are traditionally sold at the annual Goose Fair each October. So I thought, why not brew a mushy pea beer? I put it to Philip and he thought it might work, although Niven [Balfour, head brewer], who undertakes much of the actual brewing work, had to be convinced.
“I went into the brewery to help with the brew one Sunday 11 days before the festival. We decided it should be a 4.2 per cent golden-coloured ale and it was to be brewed in the conventional way but with some mushy peas added in the mash, and, later, further peas added to the copper at the same time as the hops. We used 5 boxes of peas on each occasion, they were not pre-soaked as we felt that the brewing process would achieve this.
“The brew went well except that the residue of the peas clogged up the filter on the copper and it took Niven about five hours to transfer the wort into the fermenter instead of the usual 20 minutes. If you wish to suggest to Niven that he should brew a further batch of the beer, be sure to be wearing a cricket box for your own safety!”
Nottingham Brewery does not, indeed, appear to have repeated that experiment.
Today Bear Republic Brewing in California makes an “English Estate October Ale” it calls “Clobberskull”, with 10 per cent raw wheat and 10 per cent split peas, aged for 100 days in French oak barrels to end up with a golden colour and an abv of 10 per cent, which actually might be fairly authentic for an 18th-century-style ale made in the household brewery at a country home like Downton Abbey.
The only other country, as far as I am aware, making beer from peas is Japan – and entirely because of that country’s peculiar tax system than any heritage. Beer with less than 25 per cent malt is in a lower tax band, and Sapporo makes at least two beers, Draft One and Slims, using peas.
If anybody has any experience of brewing with peas, or drinking pea beer, I’d be delighted to hear from you: do leave a comment.
One warning: there is an alleged recipe for 18th-century “Welsh Fruited Table Ale” floating around on the interwebs which is supposed to come from a book by someone called R.K. Sykes called Instructions for Thrifty Ale Wives, published in 1797, and which has four pounds of beans in the grist, along with 20 pounds of malt, eight pounds of oats, elderberries, a “pin” of cut and crushed pears and flavourings that included betony, avens, burnet, alecost and fir rinds. It’s a total fake. R.K. Sykes and the Instructions for Thrifty Ale Wives sprang from the foetid imagination of someone calling themselves “Adam Larsen”, who said they were from the Faroe Islands, and who appeared on the Usenet group hist-brewing in 2000.
“Adam Larsen” claimed to have friends on the Isle of Man, Gotland (in the Baltic), and the Faroes, who provided him with old brewing recipes. I was writing Beer: The Story of the Pint at the time, and “Larsen” told me that “a friend” called “Filby” had a book called The Contented Home, originally written in 1728 by someone called J. Telsford-Ash from Essex, who lived from 1682 to 1731, and subsequently reprinted by the Reverend Cuthbert Ash of Essex in 1887, which contained a recipe for strong porter that included “blown” or snap malt, treacle, “Spanish juice” (liquorish), lavender and yarrow.
If this was genuine, it would be easily the earliest verifiable recipe for porter. Unfortunately, neither the British Library nor any other library, anywhere on the planet, has a record of a book called The Contented Home by an author called Ash, or Telsford-Ash. Nor does the Reverend Cuthbert Ash appear anywhere on the web. I sent several emails to “Adam Larsen” asking if his friend could supply scans or photographs of the book’s title-page and the page or pages with the recipe on. First he was evasive, them he simply failed to answer, and at the same time his postings to hist-brewing ceased.
It was clear that “Adam Larsen” might have enjoyed, as he claimed, recreating beers from old recipes, but he also enjoyed sitting under bridges waiting for billy-goats to pass by. Nothing he told me that was claimed to be unique information uncovered by him or his contacts could be verified: his contacts did not seem to exist; he did not seem to exist, as far as the Web was concerned, outside of his postings to hist-brewing, and even in 2001 it was hard to be completely invisible to the internet.
What thrill he received from fooling people with his postings, passing himself off as deeply knowledgeable about early brewing with fake sources and fake recipes, is beyond my imagination. He wasn’t actually that good at faking his sources: the Instructions for Thrifty Ale Wives is an anachronistic use of ale-wife for 1797, the English in the “extracts” that “Larsen” posted is nothing like 18th century English in its constructions and vocabulary, and the instructions allegedly by Sykes for “Welsh Fruited Table Ale” include, at one point, a direction to draw the wort off “into a coolship” – a word never, ever used by British brewers, only by Continental and American ones.
Clearly “Adam Larsen” was taking the pease.