How Historians Resurrected a 16th-Century Dublin Ale

A 450-year-old beer recipe and deep curiosity about 16th century drinking led to the revival of an unusually made yet highly drinkable ale—one made with hefty portions of malted oats and an almost-forgotten barley variety. Here’s how they did it.

Will Hawkes Jun 3, 2024 - 12 min read

How Historians Resurrected a 16th-Century Dublin Ale Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

How drunk were people in the 16th century? It’s a question that has tantalized and frustrated historians for decades.

Well, now we know—or, at least, we have a much better idea, thanks to Susan Flavin, associate professor of history at Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin. She’s spent the past five years leading a painstaking re-creation of a beer from that era.

So, what’s the answer?

“Maybe everybody was just a little bit drunk all the time?” Flavin says. “The beer we produced was 5 percent ABV, stronger than [16th-century beer] is commonly assumed to have been. If you’re drinking five to 10 pints a day, there’s going to be more than mild inebriation.”


Hard to argue, particularly given Flavin’s credentials. Since 2018—when she received a grant of €1.5 million ($1.65 million) from the European Research Council to fund a wider project called FoodCult—she has investigated every aspect of early modern brewing, from utensils to ingredients to brewing environment. Her recent article in The Historical Journal, “Understanding Early Modern Beer,” is a culmination of sorts. The case study includes the brewing of a 16th century Dublin beer meant to be as true as possible to that time and place—and that includes using more oat malt than barley malt.

Flavin and her team used a recipe that was recorded at Dublin Castle in 1574. That’s when it was governed by William Fitzwilliam, the English crown’s representative in colonial Ireland. The beer challenges many assumptions about ale in that era, and not just its strength—but also what it looked like, how it tasted, and its nutritional value.

“We have these remarkable household accounts that give us really vivid detail on how beer was produced, how often, what the ingredients were, but they’ve never been reconstructed,” she says. “They’re always used theoretically. We wanted to bring the recipe back to life.”

So, they did. The finished beer turned out to be opaque—as you might expect, given the oats—but also golden in color, with a flavor akin to a modern British bitter. “It was very light, kind of fruity, with a creamy mouthfeel,” Flavin says. “It was very drinkable. There was also a strong flavor of the oak barrels it was produced in.”


“It tasted like a sweet English bitter,” says Marc Meltonville, the British consultant and food historian who took charge of the brewing process. “There was richness and sourness. It was remarkably good, but unremarkable.”

In terms of flavor, that may be true—but when it comes to preparation, this is surely about as remarkable as beer gets.

Elements of the Dublin Castle Ale

The first challenge was finding appropriate ingredients, aiming to get as near as possible to what they would have used in 1574.

The barley widely used in 16th-century Irish brewing was Bere, a landrace six-row variety that has long since been superseded by others—possibly because it’s so tall that it sometimes falls over in the wind. No problem: It’s still grown in Orkney, Scotland, thanks to a 19th-century mill that never stopped making flour for bannocks, scones, and more. (Local whiskey distillers have also taken an interest.)


More difficult was sourcing historically accurate oats. The archives don’t record which variety was used. A heritage crop of Irish oats germinated to only 84 percent, far from ideal for making malt. Ultimately, Flavin’s team chose to use modern flaked oat malt, acknowledging that it may have an impact on the authenticity of the beer.

Even at the time, oats were a distinctive and divisive ingredient. They were beginning to fall out of fashion, and commentators from across the Irish Sea could be dismissive. “English comments on Ireland [are often] about how they drink this awful muddy beer, and it tastes terrible,” Flavin says. “But similar beer was made in Cornwall and Wales and Scotland. Irish people tend to look at that and say, ‘That’s so racist,’ but it’s London-centric—anything outside of London is [regarded as] backward.”

Both the Bere barley and oats were malted at Warminster, a traditional floor maltings in Wiltshire, England. While it might have been ideal to re-create a 16th-century maltings, Flavin says that wasn’t practical. “It wasn’t within the scope of the project,” she says. “There are lots of descriptions of floor maltings at the time, and Warminster’s not really that different.”

Hops were another challenge. The Dublin Castle records mention that the hops came from Flanders. In consultation with Peter Darby of Britain’s National Hop Collection, they chose Tolhurst—a 19th-century Kentish variety with similarities to those historic hops. However, that led to another problem: It’s grown on only two sites in the United Kingdom, and they had to collect hops from three harvests to get enough for the project.


Yeast came from Britain’s National Collection of Yeast Cultures (NCYC), under the guidance of John Morrissey, a microbiologist at University College Cork. They chose a strain called NCYC 1026. The brewery from which it was collected is unknown, but it has the most genetic similarities to the ancestor of a family of strains known as “Beer 1.” Many modern yeasts descended from that ancestor; notably, the domestication of those yeasts started to gain momentum in the late 16th century.

Brewing It the Old Way

When it came to the brewing—which took place in September 2021—Flavin drew on Meltonville’s experience. “He was able to pull together this network of people that we’d have never been able to otherwise,” she says.

That group included Les Skinner, one of England’s few remaining coopers; wicker weaver Linda Mills; Iberian Coppers, a Portuguese company that made the copper brewing kettle; metalworker Adrian Warrell; and woodworker Robert Hoare.

Over three years, they put together the brewhouse. Among the components:

  • a mash tun and buck (for storing wort), both made of oak
  • the copper brewing kettle
  • a wooden dipper for transferring beer
  • wooden tubes, taps, and paddles
  • a copper ladle
  • a “wilch”—a conical wicker sieve placed inside the mash tun, which was common at the time, to stop grain from clogging the tap
  • wooden lids for all the vessels
  • oak barrels for fermentation

This design was possible thanks to researcher Charlie Taverner, who discovered a description of Henry VIII’s brewery at Portsmouth—an important English naval base in the 1520s. “They did an audit every year, to stop people nicking stuff,” Meltonville says. “And that became our shopping list.”

They ground the malt in a hand-turned mill—a puddingstone quern—with grain poured into a hole at the top and collected at the bottom. Going through that mill was one bushel each of malted bere and flaked oats; the bushel was a typical measurement for the time, a unit of dry capacity equivalent to about 9.3 U.S. gallons (or 35 liters).

They also chose the location carefully. The Weald and Downland Living Museum in West Sussex, England, had two key advantages: the local water is almost identical to Dublin’s in pH and hardness; and the museum agreed to grant the team two weeks’ use of its Tudor kitchen, with unglazed windows and an open fire.

On brew days, Meltonville’s three-man team lit the fire underneath the copper just after 8 a.m. They first brought the water to a boil, then they allowed its temperature to drop to around 60–70°C (140–158°F), when it was possible to see their faces in the reflection. Then came the hardest part: While one brewer ladled 25 gallons (95 liters) of water from the copper to the mash tun, one gallon (about four liters) at a time, another gradually added the grain. The third brewer gently stirred to break up lumps.


After 90 minutes, they began to drain the wort very slowly—“running like a straw” is how contemporary reports describe this process. This produced about 19 to 20 gallons of wort (about 75 liters), which they stored in the buck. They then added another 10 to 15 gallons (38 to 57 liters) of water to the mash and left it for 90 minutes more before lautering and adding it to the first runnings. They boiled it for 90 minutes, adding hops at the start, before racking to barrels and allowing the wort to cool overnight.

By morning, the wort was somewhere between 20 and 30°C (68 and 86°F)—the temperature at which a dipped finger feels neither hot nor cold. They then pitched the yeast and mixed the wort vigorously. They fermented the beer in upright casks with the heads removed—lidded but not sealed—for five to seven days. Then they transferred it to other barrels for storage.

The brewing team repeated this process four times (one ended in a stuck mash), producing 75 gallons (284 liters) of beer. They also made two additional batches—one using modern grains and yeast, the other using two bushels of Bere instead of oats—for comparison.

A Future for the Past?

Were there aspects of the brewing process that surprised or excited Meltonville? “I was very excited at how well our filtering system worked,” he says. “I can’t prove it yet, but I don’t think the wilch is a filter. I think it creates a void in the grain bed to allow the wort to flow through freely.”

As it turns out, the Dublin Castle ale project took place in the nick of time. Not only has cooper Les Skinner retired, but A Bushel of Hops—the growers who furnished half the project’s Tolhurst hops—stopped growing the variety because it didn’t sell.

Despite this, there are plans to re-brew the beer this year, in Ireland this time—and perhaps get closer to the original ingredients, at least in terms of oats and yeast. Flavin has other plans, too: “It would be interesting to see if we could create something commercially viable from this,” she says, “because it would be a very good market for people growing heritage crops. That’s something to explore.”

That’s for the future. For now, Flavin and her team can reflect on a beer that—for all its differences in production and ingredients to modern ales—demonstrates the strong links between early modern ale and what we drink today.