When we find actual recipes from the 18th Century, whether they are for food, beer, or even chemical substances like gunpowder and soap, the recipes are vague and ambiguous by modern sensibilities. These instructions were clearly written for experts. Below you will find an example of George Washington’s Small Beer recipe, and unless you are in the employ of Mr. Washington and know his brewery well, these aren’t detailed enough to really help you make his beer. Furthermore, if we follow his instructions exactly as written, assuming you know what a “siffer” is, the resulting brew is certainly not something anyone (today or in 1756) would recognize as beer. Was he being cryptic? I don’t think so, these were house instructions, or crib notes, written for the workmen and slaves who manned the brewery at Mt. Vernon. Detail was not required because they already knew the recipe.
So, how is it that 260 years later, Budweiser is able to reproduce this beer on a commercial scale? Yes, Budweiser does not make “good” beer; but this isn’t good beer. It is, unlike the exact rendition of George’s recipe, palatable and actually beer not sugar water with alcohol. There are other breweries that have done a better job interpreting the recipe as have I with acceptable results. How do we do it? How do we “read between the lines” and understand what George intended rather than what he said? How do we convert these notes into something a modern brewer can interpret and brew? Let me take you through the process I used.
It is important to start with a basic understanding and experience with brewing. Like George Washington’s farm brewers, we need to interpret these instructions not follow them blindly. Obviously, we have to convert the measurements into something familiar and workable (1 siffer ≈ ½ bushel). We also know that unless we mash our malt all we will get from boiling it is astringent tannins. Finally, we must understand that the basic ingredients have evolved over the last 270 years and make adjustments for malt conversion, hops intensity, and yeast efficiency. When we do these things, we can make a fairly accurate reproduction beer.
So this is how I interpret George’s instructions (scaled for my 5 gallon field brewery set-up):
- Take 4 pounds crushed 6 row pale malt and mash in 5 gallons of 150°F water for 90 minutes then sparge and lauter with an additional 2 gallons boiling water. (yield should 6-7 gallons of semi clear sweet wort).
- Bring the resulting wort to a full rolling boil and add 2 ounces East Kent Goldings whole hops. Continue to boil for 1 hour then add an additional 2 ounces of East Kent Golding hops at flame-out.
- While wort is still hot, stir in 6 pounds of Light Brown Sugar (NOT Blackstrap Molasses!) then cool to below 100°F before transferring to the fermenter.
- Adjust the final volume to 5 gallons with boiled water and add SafBrew T-58 Yeast.
- Allow fermentation to run to completion (approximately 10 days) then bottle or keg.
(You can substitute 2 pounds of pale malt extract and two additions of ½ oz Golding pellets if you are not a whole grain brewer)
As you can see, my instructions appear quite different from George’s it will make the same beer. Lets discuss the deviations:
“4 pounds 6 row pale malt”: George specifies a “large siffer full of bran hops.” Its somewhat ambiguous what he intends here but clearly he wants MALT not hops. Most sources identify his “siffer” as a half bushel scoop, so at 47 pounds per bushel of barley, George’s recipe calls for 23 ½ pounds in a 30-gallon batch. When I scale that down to my 5-gallon brewery, I get 3.9 pounds. I choose 6 row pale malt because this is an American malt (European malt is typically 2 row) and this is likely the barley that would grow at Mt. Vernon. You could substitute 2 row malt with no significant changes in quality (slight difference in taste).
“mash at 150°F for 90 minutes”: George omitted this step but his brewers would certainly not have. Most likely, as proprietor of the plantation, George Washington did not fully understand the brewing process. He ran the entire estate. The actual work would have been done by craftsmen and slaves who learned brewing from a master brewer. These brewers would know that if you don’t mash the grain, you will not get fermentable sugars and boiling the grain itself will yield a very astringent tannin tea.
“sparge and lauter”: You don’t want the tannins from the barley husks in your boil and you certainly don’t want them transferred to the fermenter.
“Boil for 1 hour”: You can follow George’s advice, provided you remove the barley husks, a boil for the full 3 hours but it will not improve the beer. One hour is more than sufficient to destroy the grain proteins, break down any complex carbohydrates, and kill all the microbes in your beer. Boiling longer just caramelizes some of the sugars, adding color and reducing the ABV, and boils away water that will need to be added back at fermentation.
“East Kent Golding Hops”: It’s unclear whether George hopped his small beer. Hops were expensive so he may have deleted this step intentionally. Hops add a bit of bitterness, when added early, and a floral “nose” when added late in the boil (like at flame-out). This beer will be VERY sweet without hops and no have much tastes so I added East Kent Golding hops which are very mild (6% AA) and fairly aromatic.
“stir in 6 pounds of Light Brown Sugar (NOT Blackstrap Molasses!)”: Whoa! George calls for MOLASSES! Well, what we call molasses and what would have been called molasses in 1757 is very different. The black stuff you put in gingerbread cookies is Blackstrap sulfated molasses. This is a waste product from the production of sugar and would likely have never been exported from the Caribbean (unless it came as rum). In Colonial America, molasses referred to all unrefined sugar. I chose brown sugar because it contains some unrefined sugar. What is critical is that you not get the sulfureted sugars from dark molasses as this kills yeast. Turbinado sugar is probably the ideal substitute but brown sugar is close enough.
Following my instructions, you will get a medium light brown ale with a very light body, ABV of 8%, and 31 IBU. A very pleasant ale that you could easily drink with any meal and if you are a slave master, you can dilute this 50% and still have decent beer for your slaves. Although I am not following the instructions exactly as written, my version is closer to what George Washington would have served his farmhands (free and enslaved) than the swill you get by dutifully following the instructions exactly. Our goal is to recreate the experience of the 18th Century and that means we have to think and interpret as they did.