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Friday, October 25, 2013

butterbeer and buttered beer -- say that five times, fast

A dear friend inspired this post. She recently made "butterbeer" for her younger siblings whilst they took a break in the middle of a Harry Potter movie marathon. I had to give her applause for the HP fervor. Not so much the concoction of caramelized brown sugar and butter stirred into heavy cream and cream soda. This particular lady is a health nut. My brain had a mini blip while I wondered what she, of all people, was doing with cream soda in her house. She forgives me, but I had to comment on the insanity of such a farce, and promised her immediately that I would start looking up and testing alternatives with real, healthier, possibly herbal ingredients.

I began by throwing out a quick internet search. Disgusting results. Recipes call for fizzy soda drinks of all types fortified with yet more sugars, high fructose corn syrup caramel sauces or fake chips, marshmallows, ice creams, sweetened whipping creams, artificial flavoring concentrates... As if soda is not sickly sweet and unhealthy enough already, Harry Potter fanaticism is evidently a good excuse for American readers to load up on enough sugar to cause a heart attack with one gulp. Don't get me wrong, I love a good slice of calories from time to time. But such fakeness really doesn't seem worth the effort of swallowing, certainly not the puking that may well ensue shortly after consumption of these diabetes-inducing drinks. I mean, why not just pop a couple of caffeine pills while you're at it and let your heart really go nuts? Legal equals safe and healthy, right?

I also had a check for actual J.K. Rowling literary descriptions for butterbeer, to see if I could come up with something that clarified what I remembered the imaginary taste of butterbeer to be.
  • J.K. Rowling described butterbeer in an interview as meant "to taste a little bit like less-sickly butterscotch."
  • It got house elves drunk. 
  • It could apparently lower inhibitions in wizards, too, as indicated by Harry's concern for his friends, Ron and Hermione, while "under the influence of butterbeer" at Professor Slughorn's Christmas party. 
  • Butterbeer is served cold in bottles but hot in steaming tankards at the Leaky Cauldron pub. 
  • It has a warming effect in the body whether consumed hot or cold, which causes a comfortable lethargy.  
So , then, HP butterbeer is a mildly alcoholic drink that contains little enough alcohol for teenage wizards to buy and consume it publicly. (American readers will please bear in mind that the drinking culture in the UK and Europe is significantly different than in the USA, with the legal drinking age being currently 18 years of age in the UK and 18 or 16 years in much of Europe with even some countries, such as Russia, currently not holding any age limits over alcohol. Anyway, the justices of Harry Potter books "endorsing" or "encouraging" underage drinking is entirely beside the point to my mind. Beer is alcoholic.) Butterbeer seems to contain enough alcohol to prove effectual over small bodies, such as the house elves which are basically the size of a human toddler, as well as over young men and women not of full growth, providing they drink enough and have a low tolerance from not consuming alcohol on a regular basis. Butterbeer is also supposed to have a buttery flavor, with a warming, drowsy-making effect probably produced by complimentary herbs and spices, but is not supposed to be as sweet as candy or a dessert.

I then did some more internet scouting, and discovered this. Buttered beer was not Rowling's invention, but was an actual beverage served in the 16th century. As evident from many links then produced by Google upon my specific request, book The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin (1588) was a real cookbook, really published, and buttered beer really was a beer alcohol, mulled (warmed and spiced) with a custard base of egg yolks to suspend the butter and sweetener, and served as a specialty.
"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."

I will provide you with the recipe below in common American household measures, since the links I found with modern measurements have used metric, but a few points first will explain my other adaptations from the above link's recipe. 
  • One: eggs and butter. Medieval eggs were much smaller in size than modern day eggs. Heck, even 19th century eggs were much smaller in size than modern day eggs. So, five modern size egg yolks to three pints of beer might prove a bit more custard-like than you prefer to slurp down. I have used less. I also disagree that a "dish of sweet butter" was the size of our 10 inch dinner plates. Most likely, a dish of butter was the amount one would get from a one-cow daily milking, which would be in the realm of 12 Tbs as indicated by 12bottlebar. But even that seems rather much, really, when you look at it, and I would still bet that the original "dish" amounted to even less than our modern day stick and a half. (Realize that sweet butter is the freshest, whereas cultured butter would be preserved by natural fermentation for longer life, so only think about what would keep sweet without a fridge.) Also bear in mind that the eggs are only in this drink as a vehicle for distributing butter, so if you use fewer yolks you must also reduce the butter or you will end up with unabsorbed fat floating unappealingly on the top of your beer. Eew. So, we reduced the butter.
  • Two: ales. Again with the 16th C traditions, the ale or beer used would likely not have been brewed with hops, but with the more traditional method of fermenting grains. That rules out a fair amount of beers available to me in Arizona. I would have a much better selection from which to choose if I still lived in the south of England. Merely thinking about butter beer gets me pining for a particularly good honey mead I first had at an Easter celebration village festival when I was 16. My tests have been performed with hop-free ales, despite my limited local selection, so be it on your own head if you try the recipe with the wrong alcohol base and it just doesn't taste right. That said, I believe that a hop-based ale or beer will work, too, being mindful that I have reduced the sweetener with hop-free sweeter ales and the greater bitterness of a hops beer may require more sweetness again. Taste your beer before buttering it. What you will need to look for is a light ale, not a dark one, but on the dark end of the light beer spectrum. No USA "horse piss", as my husband so delicately described typical American beers. The ale should be golden colored, faintly reminiscent of honey, and not dependent on fizz for flavor as a good portion of that fizz will cook out in the making of buttered beer. Of the four types of ale we buttered, a dark golden Samuel Adams was the glowing success.
  • Three: spices. Ginger was my first thought as to herbs used, not only because it is a Chi activator and warms the body, but because it has also been available for a few hundred years in England via trade route, although it prefers to grow in more heat than English soil provides. Rowling's world does not overlook the far-reaching history of the country in which the books are set so it seemed logical to me that spices used would be ones not too uncommon for a middling-class household, especially during winter celebration months. Nutmeg and cloves are also sensible; however, a few more herbs I have thought would contribute to the Chi restoring effect of Rowling's magical butterbeer. They are optional for you. I also found that powdered spices contributed to thickening the drink a little more than desired. This is why I have specified whole spices, either left whole or bruised ("beaten") with a mortar and pestle but not powdered. 

The four ales we buttered -- Samuel Adams was the best, with Dogfish Head coming in second. Elder Brett was too pale and bland. Wootstout was a fabulous ale by itself but was too strong in flavor and competed with the additional ingredients.

AJ decoction in my right hand above, whisked yolks plus butter plus honey below.

Whisking together.

Custard and spice base added to ale in a large pot, warming through. This is what properly suspended butter in beer should look like.


Beautiful scant pint of warm buttered beer to share. Buttery, smooth, spiced not too heavily but enough to coat and soothe the back of the throat and tongue, makes you want to savor it in your mouth a moment before swallowing but is not so thick or sweet that you are drinking your dessert. The ale has a very slight sparkle left if served freshly warm, just enough to lighten the drink. Chilled, as we discovered later, tastes slightly richer but is not too thick or spiced as to be cloying or heavy in the mouth. It's like homemade caramel but not. It's like sweetened beer but not. It's buttery but not. It's delicious and satisfying.

Buttered Beer

4 oz apple juice (or 4 oz ale, if desired)
5 whole cloves 
1/2 stick (about 2 inches) cinnamon, broken into chips 
2 Tbs fresh peeled and chopped ginger root 
(1/2 tsp dried licorice root chips, optional) 
(1 'tongue depressor' dried astragalus root, optional)
(1 tsp dried chopped eleuthero root, optional)

 2 egg yolks 
1/3 c raw honey (or brown sugar, if desired)
3 Tbs sweet cream butter, room temperature soft

8 oz golden ale, room temperature

Makes one scant pint glass, or enough for two adults to share on a date night.

Decoct the apple juice with the spices: in a separate pot with a lid, heat the juice and spices until simmering evenly, then reduce the heat to barely bubbling and let flavor for 15 to 20 minutes.

In a cold, large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, honey and softened but not melted butter.

Pour plain ale into a second, large pot to go on the stove, but do not place over heat just yet.

strained and decocted juice into the bowl over the egg mixture, whisking steadily.

Pour it all back into the large pot into the waiting ale and place over a low to medium heat, whisking steadily to avoid egg curdling, until the buttered beer thickens and is warmed through.

Serve warm right away, or rebottle, let cool, and chill to serve cold. Should keep in the fridge for about 5 days.

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