Three Bird, a modern Cock-Ale (?)

Mr. Cock, I presume?
Mr. Cock, I presume?

I remember stumbling on a recipe for “Cock Ale” years ago, said to be popular in 17th and 18th-century England, where a specially cooked and prepared rooster was put in a muslin bag and tossed into fermenting beer. In “The Young Gallants Tutor, Or, An Invitation to Mirth,” a rather lusty song from the 1670s, an anonymous author celebrates several particular beverages: “With love and good liquor our hearts we do cheer, Canary and Claret, Cock Ale and March beer.” I remember shuddering with a jolt of revulsion and fascination as I contemplated how horribly wrong such an idea could go. It has haunted me ever since.

Womenspetitionagainstcoffee.JPGThere’s even this weird seventeenth century link between Cock Ale, coffee, and male potency! In “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” the author(s) bemoaned the “Decay of that true Old English Vigour” caused by the excess consumption of coffee. They lamented that English men had formerly been “the Ablest Performers in Christendome,” but “our Gallants being every way so Frenchified … they are become meer Cock-sparrows.” The ladies suggested outlawing coffee and “returning to the good old strengthning Liquors of our Forefathers,” which included, yes, Cock-Ale, a “Lusty nappy Beer.”

Over the ensuing years the subject has come up repeatedly amongst my fellow beer enthusiasts and I, particularly in conversations around historical beer. Someone always says “Yeah, but what about that Cock Ale?” Those of us who are familiar with the idea grin while those who aren’t gasp and exclaim “Come on now, that’s not real, is it?” At that point the rest of us shrug and say “Well, I’ve never actually had any, but according to the literature, folks DID make it.”

Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopœia extemporanea (1710) offers a recipe which “sweetens

Mr. Digby
Dear Mr. Digby

the Acrimony of the blood and humours, incites clammy phlegm, facilitates expectoration, invigorates the lungs, supplies soft nourishment, and is very profitable even in a consumption itself, if not too far gone.” Supposedly King William III preferred it to wine and several authors have theorized that Cock ale may have mutated into “cocktail”  an American word first used in 1806 whose origin is now lost. The first printed recipe for Cock Ale appears to have been published by the Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665).

It was the summer of 2013, in the Pitt Tavern at Strawbery Banke, the subject came up yet again in an excited conversation with a history professor, a minister, and myself. Sounds like the lead to a joke, right? “So a professor, a minister and a counselor are in a bar…” The rub here is that it was no joke. The three of us resolved to recreate this legendary ale, regardless of the myriad reasons not to attempt such folly. Tad would do the research, Kit would supply the birds and prepare them accordingly, and I would create an appropriate colonial style ale and a place to put it all together.

Kit adding the molasses for the masses.
Kit adding the molasses for the masses.

Two weeks ago the three of us met up at EEB and brewed the base ale. We all took turns stirring the mash, cleaning equipment, and I took pictures whist Tad handed warm jars of molasses to Kit which she dumped into the boil kettle. An then we cleaned more (yeah, I know, probably not so historically accurate). Anyway, on our way to lunch at the venerable Portsmouth Brewery, Tad. ever the rock music devotee, came up with the not-so-gratuitous name of THREE BIRD.  We had a great day making a fairly high gravity brew while conversations meandered all over the map, regularly circling back to our chosen task and our resulting nervous excitement. Would we be rediscovering a viable ale labeled the “homely aphrodisiac” or would our efforts culmulate with dumping of 35 gallons of fowled beer down the drain?

Kit, Tad, & Butch We did it! Or did we?
Kit, Tad, & Butch    We did it! Or did we?

In Richard Ames’ 1693 poem, “The bacchanalian sessions, or, The contention of liquors with a farewel to wine,”  Cock Ale defends himself to his fellow liquors:
For ‘tis but a truth, which is very well known,? How much I’m belov’d by the Sparks of the Town,?  And their Mistresses too, who ‘fore Wine me prefer,?  When they meet at a House very near Temple bar,?    What precious intreigues could my Pimpship discover,?  Between a Town Jilt, and a mony’d[?] young Lover.