Beer was once considered the most health drink to give to children and vital to survival. To understand this, you must first understand that centuries of dense urban living had left the water in Europe unsafe to drink. People of the 18th Century did not understand why but they did observe that people who drank water became ill with diseases like cholera and dysentery while those who drank tea and beer did not. We now know that it is the process of boiling during the brewing process that kills the microbes that cause disease. One of the first buildings erected at Jamestown and at Plymouth was a brew house. In fact, the landing by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts rather than their intended Virginia is largely attributed to the dwindling supplies of beer on the Mayflower.
Every household in America would have brewed their own beer and this beer would have been consumed at every meal. Typically, each time they brewed, they would two beers: a “large beer” with a robust alcohol content and body for consumption during meals and by the master of the house, and a “small beer,” made from the “second running’s” of the malt which have less sugar so this is a low alcohol beer for consumption while working and by children and slaves.
Beer is made from three main ingredients: Malt, yeast, and water. To these three main ingredients, we will add additional things known to the brewer to make our beer “more wholesome.” Particularly, we are adding the flowers of the hops plant (Humulus Lupulus) which imparts bitterness and helps preserve the beer during storage. We will also add the residual sugars from the processing of cane in the form of molasses as well as some local honey. These extra sugars impart specific flavors but also fermentable sugars that make our beer more potent.
The brewing process is simple.
- The first step to making beer is to “Malt the grain. The malting process consists of allowing the grain to remain in contact with water until it germinates. Malting the grain begins the conversion of sugars that is necessary for fermentation to occur. Roasted the malt adds color to the beer and halts this conversion process so the we can later extract the sugars.
- Next, we make a tea from the malted barley in a process known as “mashing”. Grains are used to acquire fermentable sugar that gives the beer its distinctive flavors. The mashing process releases the starches from grains and converting them to use in your brew. Mashing also liberates sugars from these starches because natural enzymes in the malted grain break these down. Unfortunately, we also get proteins (in addition to the enzymes), as well as the raw hulks and fiber from the grain.
- Then we brew the beer over a fire. Boiling the beer breaks down the complex sugars so that they can be digested by the yeast, denatures any proteins in the beer that would give it an off-putting flavor, and allows us to infuse the wort with hops and other flavorings. Finally, the wort is cooled and fermented with yeast.
- In the 18th Century, only brewers and bakers knew about yeast and much of what they knew was mythology. Beer got its yeast two ways. Experienced brewers would add yeast from the left-over “strube” of a previous batch of beer thus perpetuating a single strain of yeast. This is the primary way beer is brewed today. The other way of getting yeast is to allow wild yeast present in the air to settle on the wort as it cool. Most beer in the 18th Century was brewed in this manner in open vats giving it a rich but often unpredictable and sometimes objectionable taste.
- Finally, the beer is either bottled or kegged. Barrels were the preferred means of storing beer because they are easy to transport. Beer should be allowed to “condition” in the barrel or bottle for several weeks so in order to have a steady supply of beer, brewing was a near constant in most households and taverns.
When you come to one of my demonstrations, you will see I use very basic equipment:
- Boiling Kettle: Mine is tin but the preferred material is copper. Copper has natural antibiotic properties so affluent brewers would naturally adopt these because they make better beer. Alas, I am a simple Journeyman Brewer and building my clientele so I use an iron kettle that has been platted in tin. You will never, however, see brewers use cast iron like a dutch-oven. Iron is toxic to yeast so beer brewed in iron kettles doesn’t ferment properly. I am going to use a lot of water so I typically bring two or more.
- Mash-lauder Tun: I use two common practices from the 18th Century.
- The first and most basic is to immerse a muslin or burlap bag into the boil kettle after it has been removed from the fire. Hot water and malt are mixed in the bag and after a period of time, the bag can be pulled from the kettle and wort allowed to drain from the bag. The advantage to the bag is that as a Journeyman, I have less to carry from household to household and as long as I am making a second “small beer,” enough of the sugars in the grain will be extracted to make brewing economical. The disadvantage is that bags are hard (impossible) to clean and my brewery efficiency is very low.
- The other method I use is to use a barrel with “false bottom”. This is the more modern method and is employed by taverns and large plantation estates where they have the luxury of dedicated breweries. This vessel allows me to mix my grain, allow it to steep, then drain the wort. The advantage to this method is that I can rinse the grain and extract more sugars. It’s an elegant method but the barrel is heavy and as a Journeyman Brewer, I am hesitant to carry it along my travels.
- Decoction pail: Modern barley has been carefully selected and genetically modifiedi making the mash process much easier and more efficient. In the 18th Century, we would often help the digestion of starches into sugars (again we didn’t understand this but learned from trial and error) by removing a portion of the mash, heating it over the fire, then returning to the mash tun. This process is called decoction and will be repeated two to ten times during the course of mashing.
- Fermentation bottle or keg: Traditionally, this would be a barrel with an open top. The outgassing from the fermentation process keeps the beer clean from bacteria and such that would settle on it but care must be taken to transfer this beer to a sealed container as soon as the fermentation comes to an end. Here, I make an concession to the 21st Century and use a large glass bottle which I seal with a water lock that allows gasses to go out but not come back in. Its not period correct but unlike my persona, I will be carrying this beer away for fermentation and bottling off-site.
- Various tools:
- Large wooden Mash Paddle for stirring mash.
- Various spoons and ladles for transferring mash and wort between vessels
- Fire irons and tripod for holding the boil kettle and managing the fire
- Trammel hook for adjusting the distance of the kettle from the fire. This hook has a ratcheting extension that allows it to be long or short as needed. This is the only tool I have that can adjust the heat applied to my boil kettle. As a modern brewer, I use a propane burner where I can adjust the intensity of the flame at will. As an 18th Century Brewer, I use a wood fire that is always too hot or too cool for the job so the kettle must be moved constantly to ensure even heating and avoid boil over.
As an 18th Century Brewer I must make do without some fairly basic and essential tools:
- Thermometer: Daniel Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer and its scale in 1724 and it’s a fragile expensive piece of technology well beyond the means of even the most affluent breweries in America. Of course, I must still judge temperatures but my means are more basic.
- Strike temperature = “Scalding”- I want to mix my grains with water at 150-175 ℉ and without a thermometer this is a difficult temperature to judge. I look for the nature and behavior of the steam or vapor over my kettle. When it reaches a rolling cloudlike appearance, I have achieved “Scalding.” Alternatively, I could stick my hand in and if it comes our blistered, its scalding (not recommended!).
- Mash Temperature – The ideal temperature for converting malt to wort (ie breaking down the dextrin and starch into simple sugars) is between 148-158 ℉. This is the temperature right before vapors appear and achieving this is bit of an art. I can raise the temperature by adding hot decoction and lower it by stirring but at the end of the day, its guesswork.
- Boiling – This one is easy (sort of) but with all the sugar in the wort, boiling is not at 212 ℉ can be elevated as high as 214 ℉ if enough sugars are in the wort.
- “Blood Temperature” – If I add yeast or strube to wort that is too hot, it will kill it. I need to cool my wort to <100 ℉ and to see that it is that temperature, I immerse my finger in the wort. If the beer is cooler than me, its safe to add yeast.
- Hydrometer: Thomas Tomson won’t invent this until 1770. Again, I need to judge gravities but what can I do? Well, an egg is a pretty good substitute. If you immerse an egg in water it will sink but if you immerse it in cooled wort, it will float. A raw egg has a specific gravity of about 1.077 so if my starting gravity is close to this, the egg will float. Of course, if my starting gravity is that high, my final beer will likely have an ABV of about 9% but 18th Century beer was strong.
- Clock: Alas, this is the most missed piece of equipment in my brewing kit. I need to judge the time for the mash and for the boil and while the timing does not need to be exact, its easy to lose track of how long these have been going (especially when giving demonstrations to an audience). Now as a Journeyman Brewer, I might have a watch. It would be one of the most expensive things I own but it is possible. It would sit in my pocket not on my wrist and I would have to protect it from everything in my environment (dust, water, heat, etc). There are good substitutes such as the position of the sun or the rate at which a candle burns, but using these takes practice which is why you learn to brew as an apprentice.
- Tubing, pumps and other transfer equipment – Siphons were known to the Greeks and Romans but what will I make them from? Fine glass tubing was not something common in 18th Century America nor were rubber hoses. If I want to move wort or beer I must use a ladle.
Decades of homebrewing should have prepared me for brewing in the 18th Century manner but there is a lot to “unlearn.” It seems similar and the basic process is the same today as it was for the ancient Mesopotamians but mindset is very different. As a modern brewer, I brew by the numbers: Time, Gravity, Temperature, IBU, etc. I have technical means of controlling my brewing experience to a fine detail. Modern brewing is a science and is well understood. In the 18th Century I brew by my senses. What does it feel like, how does it look, smell, taste, and sound? It’s an art. I am at the mercy of fire, wild yeast, cloud cover and any number of nesciences that can completely upset my control over the beer I brew – and yet it all seems to work. It all seems to work because it must. I need beer in the 18th Century to survive.
[i] If you are one of those people who refuse to eat GMO foods, DON’T EAT! Almost everything in our diet has been carefully breed over centuries to be more useful and easier to grow. When I say modern malt is genetically modified, I’m not talking about scientists in a laboratory doing molecular biology (although that does happen about 1% of the time) but rather farmers in the field selecting and culling crops for best outcomes. 99% of GMO foods come from husbandry and horticulture selection.