One question I frequently get asked at reenactments is “is that the really the way beer was made in the 1770’s?” For the most part, the answer is “yes” but there are some very necessary exceptions. Not all “Colonial Beers” are good and some of the methods used in the 18th Century were unsafe by today’s standards. So, in full disclosure, these are the compromises I routinely make between being historically correct and using modern methods for practical and safety reasons.
Ingredients: There are a lot of people out there claiming to make beer using the “authentic recipe” of George Washington. Well folks, that’s just a lie. You can’t get the same malt and hops George Washington used, they have been genetically engineered into extinction. Even the water is different after nearly two hundred fifty years of “purification.” Our malts convert better, our yeasts are more efficient, and our water (even spring water) has trace chemicals in it that alter the taste. We make beer in the same STYLE as our forefathers, but it is different.
Yeast Inoculation: In the 1770’s brewers were aware of yeast and actively managed cultures even though they really did not understand what it was. As wort ferments, yeast falls to the bottom of the vessel and by taking some of this strube and using it to inoculate the next batch of beer, you can easily brew beer in mass quantities. A modern brewer, however, knows that most of these yeast are dead so introducing them into new beer adds contaminants. Furthermore, as the yeast grow, water impurities are concentrated in these dying yeast cells so maybe reusing strube, even though we talk about it in my presentations, is not a good idea.
Another way to inoculate your beer with yeast, commonly employed in the 18th Century and mentioned in my presentations, is to use natural airborne yeast. Simply exposing the wort to the air allows these yeast to settle into your beer and begin the fermentation process. Whenever you brew outside, this happens but in modern, urban America, I cannot trust that only yeast and not other airborne contaminants and pollutants settle into my beer, so I am fairly careful to make sure this does not actually happen.
Sanitation: Of course, the biggest difference between the modern brewer and the 18th Century brewer has to do with our focus on keeping everything clean. Microorganisms were not well understood in the 18th Century so sanitation was not a huge focus. Contaminated beer not only tastes bad, it can harbor dangerous pathogens, so I practice scrupulous cleaning and sanitizing of my equipment. Of course, you don’t see this at my brewing demonstrations because I am only showing the “hot side” of the brewing process and using the one sanitation tool 18th Century brewers did understand — heat.
Use of glass, stainless steel and other “cleanable” materials: In the 18th Century, my options for keeping the beer clean are limited to heat and scrubbing with soap and water. Occasionally, copper implements were used (more on this in a later blog) but we would consider most actual beer served in Colonial America to be contaminated with undesirable microbes. Scrubbing and heat work great on the “hot side” of the brewing process (the part I demonstrate at events) but that heat also kills the yeast we need to ferment the beer so eventually, we must cool the beer. Its when we shift to the “cool side” of the brewing process that modern sanitation becomes critical.
In the 18th Century, after brewing the wort would be placed in a wooden barrel for fermenting (sometimes open). Generally, this barrel was reused so the yeast culture from the previous batch of beer was already growing in the cervices and pores of the wood. Of course, if yeast can grow there so can bacteria so as a modern brewer, I never use wood on the “cool side” only glass and stainless steel that have been sanitized with modern sanitizing agents like bleach or iodophor.
Sometimes for events I will decant beer into a sanitized wooden firken or pin for dispensing. This is only for show and after the event, that beer is always discarded. The alcohol will keep the beer clean in a clean barrel for a few days but not indefinitely and the sanitizers will kill most but not all the microbes that live in wood so beer in a barrel has a very short shelf life. This is why I put my beer in 19th Century glass bottles or 20th Century stainless steel kegs.
Some beer gets thrown out: Last but certainly not least in differences between the 18th and 21st Century practice of brewing is that I have the luxury of discarding beer that has “off” tastes or is otherwise not quite meeting my quality standards. In the 1770’s if you went to a tavern and the beer tasted odd, well that is what they had, you either drank it or not. Economics dictated that they kept all the beer they brewed and sometimes kept it well past its “best by” date. Of course, the same was true of the food and even the bedding upon which you slept. We don’t have to live that way in the 21st Century.
So you see, despite our best efforts to give you an authentic 18th Century experience with beer, those of us who brew in the Colonial Manner don’t completely eschew the modern science of brewing. We want to share the good things about the 18th Century while avoiding the problems.