A friend of mine recently comment that my 18th Century brewing demonstrations are so much more relaxed than what they see when modern methods are used.  WOW!  It must be like the duck on a pond – calm above and paddling like mad below.  Even when you ignore the added complexity of simultaneously speaking to an audience[1], brewing in the 18th Century Manner is quite a bit more intellectually complex than it seems.  This should not surprise anyone, after all, driving a standard shift car is more complex than a modern automatic; landing a conventional gear airplane[2] is harder than landing a tricycle geared modern plane; doing computations in object-oriented code is easier than old fashioned FORTRAN; navigating with a map is harder than using a GPS; there are numerous examples of where modern technology has made our lives easier.  Of course, in each of these cases, the job became more complicated, so the overall effort seems complex.  None of these things were initially hard but by improving them, we were able to do more with the same amount of effort, so the job seems harder until you remember we are doing much more.  The same is true of Colonial era brewing versus modern 21st Century homebrewing.  The technology makes some task easier so that we can do more analysis and better control our environment.  The job seems more complex today because it is more complex, more is done but it’s the same amount of work.

When I set up my 18th Century demonstrations, I am using very basic brewing technique and equipment.  My goal is to portray a Journeyman Brewer of modest means so I deliberately scale everything to what I can comfortably carry.  This is very similar to what you might experience if you fly “stick and rudder” in a Piper Cub versus the experience of flying a modern business jet.  The simpler plane IS easier to fly but it does not feel like it is because you must manage many of the basic variables yourself whereas in the bigger more complex plane, these are managed for you and you can focus on more complex issues like instrument flight[3].  In the Piper you don’t really have the ability to conduct complex maneuvers because you are managing the airplane, “by the seat of your pants,” judging airspeed by the sound of the wind on the muslin[4] and attitude by line of sight with the horizon.  Similarly, as a Journeyman brewer, I am brewing “by the seat of my pants,” using my senses to judge how the process is going because I have no instruments or tools to help me.  

There is a downside to this.  Just as a flying a Piper Cub into JFK on day with marginal weather would be overwhelming, so to are some complex beers that are easy to make in my 21st Century brewery that are out of the question in my 18th Century set-up.  I choose to brew ales rather than blonde American style rice and corn lagers with their Champaign finishes not because they can’t be brewed with 18th Century gear but because to do so eat up all my attention and I would not be able to interact with the crowd.

So what technology are we talking about?  Well, these are shockingly basic but learning to brew without them can be a challenge.  To be a good brewer, you need to manage heat, time, and quantities.  Unfortunately, for the 18th Century Journeyman Brewer, many of the means to control these simple parameters is challenging.  In my 21st Century brewery, I can measure temperature carefully modulate the amount of heat I pump into my brew kettle with tight precision; I have timers and clocks that not only measure but remind me of critically timed events; I have balances, pipettes, and all manner of measuring tools to help me carefully measure additives; and I have brix meters, pH meters, hydrometers, colorimeters, and all sorts of tools to give me a clear understanding of the colligative properties of my brew.  As a Colonial Brewer, I have a pocket watch with no second hand, a gil cup, and my five senses[5].    I am literally brewing by the “seat of my pants.”

That said, its not Black Magic.[6]  You learn to trust your senses and make judgements, initially by rule of thumb[7] but later by experience.  You can judge how hot the water is by how it behaves in the kettle, how it sounds, moves, the color and nature of the vapors, and sometimes how it feels.  You can “measure” hops by how they smell in the resulting beer.  You can judge time by the position of the sun and you can judge how much malt and other sugars are in your wort by how they taste.  18th Century Brewing is more of an “art” while in the 21st Century we make it more like engineering and like any art, flexibility is key.  Frequently things diverge from your plan, kettles boil over, hops are not as potent as you expect, the fire is not hot enough or too hot, but you keep steering your product back to the conditions you want and eventually make good beer. 

All these adjustments are made by being “in tune” with your product, using your wits and your five senses to understand how your beer is developing and managing that development not by technical means but by mastering the basic forces that convert malt, yeast, water and hops into wholesome beer. 

This will be a three-part essay covering the three fundamental parameters a good brewer must manage, heat, quantity, and time.  Today, I will discuss managing just one of these three fundamental parameters – heat.  In subsequent weeks, we will discuss the other two.

So, lets start with fire.  Everyone who cooks, brews, distills, does laundry, or any of the other myriad of tasks that in Colonial America required a fire has a love/hate relationship with fire.  We love what it will do for the product we are creating, and fire hates us!  Fire is both a blessing and a curse.  Its never constant and invariably the fire we build is either too hot, not hot enough, or demands way too much attention to keep going at the right pace.  As a brewer, I need intense steady heat.  In my modern brewery, I use a propane burner that allows me to easily and immediately add heat as needed in a stable and predictable manner.  In order to get this with a wood fire, I must move constantly to keep the intensity of that unstable fire constant.  In a kitchen with a proper hearth and a crane with a trammel, this is a relatively simple and safe task, over a campfire with a tripod, not.  To achieve good results, you must pay close attention – its an art.

The most complex part of this art is learning to temperatures without the benefit of a thermometer.  Thermometers were available in the colonies in 1750 but they were both fragile frail things and hideously expensive.  Sure, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had mercury thermometers, but these were well beyond the financial resources of average journeyman brewer.  I must assess (not measure) temperature based upon how the work or beer behaves in the kettle not a number on a temperature gauge.  Like everything else in the brewing experience, I rely on all five senses to estimate the temperature in my kettle.

We start with the strike water for the mash.  To get the mash started, I need to put my grain into water at about 75-95° C.  I call this temperature “scalding” because this is the temperature at which if I apply this water to my skin.  This is, of course, a horrible and painful way to establish that my strike water is hot enough so I can emphasize enough that you should never pour scalding water on yourself to see if its hot enough.  So how do we know?  We are back to physical behavior of the water, its sound, its appearance, the movement of the vapor above the kettle all give critical clues that the strike water is ready.

When you heat fluid in a kettle, especially over a wood fire, the contents are not all at the same temperature.  The fluid closest to the heat (generally on the bottom) is hotter than that farthest from the heat.  This results in convection within your kettle.  Fluid will rise, eddy and swirl.  In a heavy copper kettle of substantial size (say 50 gallons) you can hear the fluid may even cavitate and you can certainly see the effects of the convection and the vapor above the fluid.  With practice you can easily learn to anticipate when your kettle is at the right temperature.  The problem is, however, each kettle is different so you must learn what yours looks and sounds like at strike temperature.

Mash temperature is easy.  We are seeking “Blood Temperature” and the best way to establish that your mash is at the right temperature is to touch it.  If its at the same temperature as you, its at blood temperature (35-40° C).  The only problem with mash is KEEPING the temperature at blood temperature and to do this we must constantly be adding the heat that radiates from the mash tun.  We cannot add heat directly by placing the mash over the fire, it will get too hot and kill the enzymes we need to convert starches and complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars, so we decoct.  Decoction is the practice of taking a portion of the mash, heating it to near boiling and then returning it to the mash.  The key is to do this fast enough to keep the temperature constant.

Boiling is also easy, look for bubbles but keep in mind that the sugars in the wort drive up the boiling point.  As the wort boils, it destroys the malt proteins that lauder with the malt sugars (enzymes and other proteins) which makes foam.  The hard part of boiling your wort is keeping it from boiling over and this is accomplished one of three ways.  The easiest is to let it boil over which partially extinguishes the fire – not good.  A better and more practical approach is to move the kettle away from the fire then back as it cools, this requires constant attention.  Then there is stirring.  As I stir the kettle, I combine the foam back into the fluid but you need to stir at the right time – again close attention is required.

As you can see, like the duck on the pond, there is a lot of activity going on behind the scenes.  I don’t have the cool gadgets than make brewing easy and fun.  I must rely on my senses and my wits.  To be a good Colonial Brewer, you literally experience the brewing process but that’s the challenge and the fun.


[1] I love you guys but sometime talking about history is all engrossing which takes my attention away from making quality beer.

[2] With a tailwheel in the back not training wheels up front. 😊

[3] In the clouds with limited visibility or in congested airspace or both.

[4] Fabric covered wings vibrate as the wind over them increases

[5] Sight, smell, taste, feel, and hearing

[6] That presentation is further down the midway… Keep walking 😊

[7] https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/rule-of-thumb-history-origin-meaning-why-say/


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Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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