Cock Ale

Don’t get too excited—Pynchon clearly has his saucier moments, but I haven’t gone all NSFW on you here. A cock’s a chicken, you dirty bastards. And what could be a more natural beer ingredient than a chicken.

Cock Ale PynchonThe Cock Ale appears in Mason & Dixon, brewed regularly at “The Moon,” a St Helena “punch house” on “Cock Hill” (p. 116). Mason, Dixon, and Maskelyne are hanging around celebrating (or more like commiserating) Maskelyne’s twenty-ninth birthday. Mason’s mysteriously sober, preoccupied with a misinstalled Plumb-line. Meanwhile “a Malay” runs into the the room screaming “Cock Ale Tomorrow! Cock Ale Tomorrow!” and “holding by the Feet a dead Fighting-Cock trailing its last blood in splashes like Characters Death would know how to read” (p. 119). But we apparently don’t have to wait until tomorrow—there’s a batch ready today. The proprietor, Mr Blackner, presents M, D & M with “three gigantic Pots of today’s Cock Ale” (p. 120):

“Rum Suck, Gents, and if Mr. Mas-son, can resist it, why then you Gents may divide this third Pot betwixt ye, Compliments of the House.” Mr Blackner’s Receipt for Cock Ale is esteem’d up and down the India Route, and when these Malays stop in Town with their travelling Cock-Fights, the Main Ingredient being suddenly plentiful, Cock Ale, as some might say, is in Season.

Cock Ale is not the invention of Mr Blackner, nor of Pynchon. It is in fact a venerable beverage, and probably a mostly forgotten curiosity by the 18th century of Mason & Dixon. Back in 1669, one Sir Kenelm Digby wrote that “these are tame days when we have forgotten how to make Cock-Ale.” He then helpfully provided a reminder, the first known printed recipe for cock ale:

Kenelm Digby,

Kenelm Digby, “The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, Knight.” (London, 1669). 

I’ve pillaged that from a fascinating history of cock ale that you can and should read here. Mr Blackner’s recipe at The Moon differs slightly from Sir Digby’s (p. 120):

Mr. Blackner prefers to soak the necessary dried Fruit Bits in Mountain, or Málaga Wine, instead of Canary, and to squeeze the Carcass dry with a cunning Chinese Duck-Press, won at Euchre from a fugitive aristocrat of that Land, in which Force may be multiplied to unprecedented Values, extracting mystick Humors not obtain’d in other Receipts.

The cock ale I sampled apparently sticks pretty close to Digby’s recipe, with mace and a whole unpressed chicken. It was the Big Red Cock Ale from Brisbane’s Bacchus Brewing (which I found alongside a terrific mushroom burger at Brother Burger and the Marvellous Brew). The raisins were much more prominent than the cock, but I could more or less convince myself that there were some savoury chicken stock type notes in there too. Generally, it tasted like a subtler, weirder German dunkel.

I would of course like to sample Mr. Blackner’s version. If anyone has a spare cunning Chinese Duck-Press sitting around, send it over my way and I’ll have a go at brewing it up myself.

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