Friday, July 29, 2011

Booze from the Movies: Butterbeer

Why don't we go and have a butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks? It's a bit cold, isn't it? – Hermione Granger

The marketing phenomenon that is Harry Potter.
Photo: Profound Whatever, Flickr ccl
Well it's definitely not cold here in Nova Scotia, but if you’re a fan of the Harry Potter movies, you’ve heard of butterbeer. Before we go off on a discussion of underage drinking, the author—J.K. Rowling—probably intended her literary version (served to young students) to be less alcoholic than its real life progenitor. 

The historic recipe is actually nearly as alcoholic as a beer, not surprisingly since it’s made of beer... British ales often have more alcohol than common mass produced local beers as well, so take that into consideration when imbibing the finished product.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.
Photo: lightrace, Flickr ccl
According to the (somewhat obsessive) people involved in the make believe world of the boy wizard, butterbeer is a “popular wizarding beverage with a very slight alcohol content which could get elves drunk but seems to have a less pronounced effect on humans.” 

Indeed.. It’s made from beer and precious little else. How much alcohol content do you think is in it? I have read that by simmering the mixture longer you can burn off some of the alcohol, but culinary opinion is divided on just how much reduction takes place.

According to those Muggles pontificating online about the beverage “it is served cold in bottles and hot in foaming tankards.” (Unfortunately I didn't have a tankard hanging around...)

Traditional Tudor “buttered beere” was served warm. Refrigeration was scarce at that time, to say the least. Also be careful about what recipe you decide to use if you do make it. I’ve seen some of the online recipe for butterbeer. There's some really bizarre concoctions. They're not butterbeer at all.

But enough of Harry Potter. Let’s talk about the real thing, because it IS a real thing, or at least was. “Buttered beere,” a creamy/spicy beverage, hails from Tudor England. It is supposedly an acquired taste because of the spices but after a few sips apparently becomes “extremely drinkable.”

I found the spices in perfect balance instead of an acquired taste, and it was extremely drinkable right after the first sip. Really tasty, with hints of butterscotch. I wouldn't call it very "beer-y" at all.

Tudor rose. Photo: a.drian, Flickr ccl
This is the original from the Tudor Age:
From The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, 1588

To make Buttered Beere
Take three pintes of Beere, put five yolkes of Egges to it, straine them together, and set it in a pewter pot to the fyre, and put to it halfe a pound of Sugar, one penniworth of Nutmegs beaten, one penniworth of Cloves beaten, and a halfepenniworth of Ginger beaten, and when it is all in, take another pewter pot and brewe them together, and set it to the fire againe, and when it is readie to boyle, take it from the fire, and put a dish of sweet butter into it, and brewe them together out of one pot into an other.

The only real problem with replication is the "penniworth" measurement. As its name suggests, it's how much of the spices you could purchase with a penny. It's essentially anyone's guess as to how much that would have been. Cross referencing recipes has given me an approximation. You can alter the quantities slightly to your own taste.

As a personal side note, in about 1999 or 2000 the graphic design company where I worked was contacted by publishing representatives of J.K. Rowling. 

We were asked to submit a proposal for an in-store display for what would have been the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This was before the novels became a massive hit.

Unfortunately the short lead time made it impossible for us to respond. In hindsight it may have been to our advantage to have pulled out all the stops to try to get in on the ground floor of this worldwide phenomenon.

Tudor Buttered Beere
Photo: knittymarie, Flickr ccl
1.5 L British Ale (3 pints, see bottom of this entry for a list of what is available at the NS Liquor Corp)
1/4 tsp ginger, ground
1/2 tsp each cloves and nutmeg, ground
1 cup brown sugar
5 lg egg yolks
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cubed

Pour the beer into a saucepan trying to not put too much frothy "head" on it. Add the ground spices and slowly bring to a boil. Immediately turn the heat down to low and barely simmer for 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile, using a mixer, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until they become light coloured, thick and creamy.

Remove the spiced beer from the heat and stir in the beaten yolks and sugar. Put back on LOW heat and stir constantly for between 3-5 minutes. This process cooks the raw egg yolks.

If you use too high a heat to do this step you will scramble the eggs and ruin all your work.

Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter. The whisking action will froth the liquid slightly and make it creamy.

Let cool to a drinkable temperature (which is not very long) and serve immediately.

I used Spitfire for my ale. The result was very, very good. It would be perfect on a cool Autumn afternoon or early evening.

British ales available at the NSLC: Brakspear, Duchys Originals, Fuller’s London Pride, Greene King IPA, Newcastle, Old Speckled Hen, Sharps and Spitfire. Take into consideration that our private liquor outlets probably have others and you have quite a lot of choice for your British ale.

Don’t use any of the massed produced local Canadian brands. They're not the same at all.


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