Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Farmhouse ale tasting notes

Last year I made a batch of ale, and now it's time to drink it.  But is it good?

Well, it's not the best beer I've ever had, but it's certainly not the worst*.  It's good enough to serve to guests and it got reasonably good reviews.  The taste is slightly sour with distinct citrus flavours, which is a flavour profile I enjoy and therefore a good result.  I do think the flavours could be a little more balanced, and I'll put some thought into how to improve my next batch.  Overall the flavour and colour are more or less in line with what you might expect from a mild ale.

One of the things that interested me about making raw ale was to see if it would taste different from boiled beer, but I don't think it does.  What is slightly different is the texture.

It has a smooth, full-bodied texture, and as you can probably see from the photo it's a little cloudy with some sediment in the bottom of the bottles.  While a bit of sediment is normal for home brewed beers and also for some commercial beers (e.g. Hefeweizen), this is cloudier than usual.  As it is a raw ale, that's to be expected.  When you boil your wort you destroy the protein in it, but raw ale still contains this protein.

My ale doesn't have much of a head, which is possibly because I didn't use carbonation drops.  I wanted to see how it would go without them.  As you can see from the photo there is plenty of carbonation in there, and I wonder whether this is a style of beer that doesn't froth up much.  Because I've never had raw ale before I don't really know what to expect, and this is very much a learning process for me.

I don't know what percentage of alcohol is in the beer either, because I don't own a hydrometer.  I keep meaning to get one, but really I'm more interested in the taste than the alcohol content.   Any fool can make alcohol, the important thing is whether it's palatable.  However, I can tell you that this stuff is probably not a standard 5% beer.  I think it's closer to 7%.

To make this beer I followed the brewing process used in Denmark in the 19th century, when it was still common for households to brew their own beer.  The process is described in detail in fairly extensive surveys, which are summarised by blogger and brewing enthusiast Lars Marius here.  It's actually a very simple process that doesn't require much in the way of equipment, which is attractive to me as a home brewer, and I'm a little surprised that more home brewers don't follow this method.  I recommend it.

* Disclaimer: I have drunk some impressively horrible beers in my time.

Monday, 4 January 2016

What are o-pa-wo-ta?

That picture again.

The Phaistos helmet has circular markings with little holes in the middle at regular intervals around the outside.  These are reinforcement discs, or o-pa-wo-ta in Linear B (έπαϝορτα) .  It means "attachments", and we know from Linear B archives that o-pa-wo-ta were used on both helmets and body armour to enhance the protective qualities of perishable materials such as leather and linen.  O-pa-wo-ta were made of bronze (possibly ivory or bone in some cases), and they gave extra protection against arrows and sword blows.  Very few bronze age helmets were made entirely of metal, but metal reinforcement pieces were a common design element right through the bronze age.  The Phaistos relief would have had metal discs that unfortunately haven't survived, and they would have been shaped like little nails with pins driven into the holes in the ivory piece.

Reinforcement pieces on real helmets were either metal studs with pins that were hammered through the leather, or perforated discs stitched to the leather.  Archaeological evidence suggest both types were used, but for this project I'm going with metal studs similar to these late bronze age examples found at Lakkithra, which have a round, slightly domed head with a pin in the center.

Small bronze nails used to reinforce a helmet, found at Lakkithra.

Bronze age art indicates o-pa-wo-ta came in all sizes, from relatively large ones on the Phaistos relief to tiny ones that look more like studs on a leather jacket on the Warrior Vase from Mycenae, made around 1200 BCE.  The white dots on these helmets represent o-pa-wo-ta.  Bearing in mind the fact that o-pa-wo-ta could also be used on body armour, the white dots on the warriors' kilts may also represent o-pa-wo-ta.

Picture found here.

These small o-pa-wo-ta scattered randomly over the surface of the helmet are a bit unusual.  Most depictions of bronze age helmets show the o-pa-wo-ta arranged in horizontal rows.

I should point out here that the circular markings on the Phaistos relief don't necessarily indicate what shape the metal discs were.  It's quite possible they were round with a small circle in the middle, but they may not have been.  Other art works suggest plain round discs like the ones from Lakkithra and some clearly show o-pa-wo-ta shaped like rosettes, which is why I was quite excited when I found some studs in the shape of little rosettes.

Those are furniture tacks.  They were described as "bronze" on the Ebay listing, but of course that refers to the colour.  I doubt they are actually bronze, but they do look about right.  As you can see they're a lot like the Lakkithra studs, apart from the embossed rosettes.  They have the same slightly domed head and central pin.  Even though they aren't quite the right metal, I'm very pleased with them.

Studs in the shape of rosettes are shown on some pictures of helmets from this time, and rosettes in general were a common design in Minoan and Mycenaean art.  Many were very similar to the rosettes on my furniture tacks.

A Minoan helmet with rosette-shaped studs and what appear to be rows of boar tusks.

References for the Linear B tablets:

Chadwick, J., Killen, J. T., Olivier, J.P. 1971.  The Knossos Tablets (4th Edition).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ventris, M., Chadwick, J.  1956.  Documents in Mycenaean Greek.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Minoan beehive helmet: the outer layer

This is the third part of my beehive helmet series, in which I describe how I'm reconstructing a Minoan helmet like this one from Phaistos.  In part two, I talked about how I made the inside of the helmet.  This post deals with the outer layer.

Picture from the Salimbeti website

The outside of the helmet is made from four horizontal bands of leather, joined together with what are probably strips of felt.  Since the helmet is shaped, these leather bands have to be shaped too.  I can't really provide a pattern like I did for the internal structure, because the external layer's shape and dimensions depend on the internal support and will therefore be slightly different for every helmet.

Bands 1 to 4, clockwise from left.

Band 1 is simply a strip of leather 50mm wide and long enough to go around the helmet plus about 50mm.

Band 2 is also a strip of leather 50mm wide, but it has been stretched until it has a slight curve.  It started out 30mm longer than the circumference of the helmet, and after stretching the bottom edge of band 2 is 20mm longer than the top edge.  It's not much,  but it's enough.

Band 3 has more of a curve than I could achieve just by stretching the leather.  I could do it with thinner leather, but this stuff is thick and tough.  Therefore, I made a pattern by taping a piece of paper around the top of the helmet and drawing the band.  Once I cut the paper, I had a pattern I could use to cut out my leather.

Piece of paper wrapped around the helmet, with the shape of band 3 drawn on.

Pattern for band 3.

Band 4 is a circle 120mm in diameter with a 50mm hole cut out of the centre.  It is shaped into a shallow cone.

To shape the leather, I gave it a really good soak in hot water until it was thoroughly saturated (this takes an hour or so), then moulded and stretched it until it fit over the inner helmet.  I kept that dry by wrapping it in clingfilm.  No it's not historically accurate, but it gets the job done.  The inner helmet is nowhere hear rigid enough to be used as a mould for shaping the outer bands, so I just used my hands to shape bands 1 through 3, and found a wine bottle worked well for shaping band 4.  Maybe the Minoans used wine jars too.

Soaking the leather makes it a lot softer, but with leather this thick it still takes a little patience and a lot of brute force to shape the pieces.  The same goes for piercing holes to stitch the leather bands together and attach metal studs, which I'll discuss in more depth in the next post.

There are no words to describe how sick I am of making awl holes in armour leather.

The easiest way to do it is to soak the leather and then heat the awl over a candle, which I suspect was how the Minoans did it, but "easiest" is a relative term in this context.  It must have been even more difficult in the Bronze Age, because steel tools were not yet available.  The tools they had didn't hold an edge the way steel tools do.