Last week I introduced the “art” of brewing in the 18th Century and discussed how this differs from the modern engineering approach we take today.  Like many other tasks, technology has changed the nature of the work freeing us from the complexity of managing certain things but also removing a certain experiential nature to the task as well.  This is a mixed blessing for while we have made the process simpler, we rarely reduce the workload, instead we make our modern brewing experience ever more complex.  Last week, I discussed managing heat in the Colonial brewery; today I want to talk about assessing the amounts of our additions.

I often get a chuckle from my audience[1] when I “carefully” measure out handfuls of hops or additives into my beer.  Anyone who has every brewed before knows that these are not arbitrary or random quantities of material I am adding as small changes in the amounts of hops, sugar, adjuvants, spices, etc can have a dramatic impact on the quality and taste of my beer.  Its not, however, “slight of hand”.  I am not mimicking some Julia Child cooking demonstration[2] where everything has been carefully measured off-stage and its simply combined for show.  No, when I do a brewing demonstration, I am preparing a batch of beer that will be bottled[3] and I am doing everything, including measuring the ingredients live for my followers.

Because of the masses involved, my malt is measured on a balance at the malthouse before it is milled.  This would also have been common practice in the 18th Century as millers generally had good large balances.  I have considered bringing this process into my demonstration but given the size of the gear and the short duration of time I use it each time, I have opted to simply allow my malt supplier[4] to do this form me.  Perhaps in the future when I build a permanent brewhouse I will add this and the milling process where the grain is cracked.

Weighing out the 5-7Kg of malt, however, is not the important step from a brewer’s perspective so I probably should add this to my demonstration.  You see, malt is not homogeneous, and each batch has a different flavor and sugar content.  What you don’t get to see me doing is something every good brewer (in 1750 and today) does and that is assess the malt and this is done by examining and tasting the grain.  When I buy grain, I take a few kernels and chew them, so I then know how much is needed to make the beer.  You don’t blindly follow a menu as if it’s a computer program, you must assess and adjust for the variation in these natural ingredients.

Now a modern brewer has the advantage of chemical and physical analysis.  At the malthouse and roasting house (often the same place), baum (color) and brix (sugar content) are measured.  I do this by sight, smell, and taste substituting my senses for modern analytical tools.  Its less precise and takes lots of practice to master but it does give me a connection to the brewing process that the numbers don’t convey.  Remember, in Colonial brewing its about experiencing the brewing process not just following the steps.

The amount of water used in brewing is for both a modern and 18th Century brewer dynamic.  I know I will boil away and have to replenish water so I don’t take a lot of effort in making sure I know how much is in the kettle at any time, but I do have benchmarks.  I literally have marks etched in the walls of the kettle that tell me approximately how much water I have.  These are not accurate as the kettle is broad and a large amount of water is required to bring the level up a small amount.  The accuracy is further compromised by the fact that everything in the brewing process expands as it is heated and the water bubbles and rolls when it boils but the benchmark gives me general guidance and I can correct volumes later in the fermentation.

Unlike in colonial times, modern beer drinkers seem fixated on ABV[5] and if I were a German brewer managing my brewery in accordance to Reinheitsgebot[6] as it would impact how much tax I paid.  To measure ABV, I must measure specific gravity of my wort before and after fermentation[7] and this requires a hydrometer.  Wow, I wish as a I could own a hydrometer.  Like a thermometer, this is a very expensive (in 1750) and fragile instrument well beyond the financial resources of a simple Journeyman Brewer.  So, I use the next best thing – and egg.  A simple uncooked chicken egg has a specific gravity of about 1.007 which means the if I float my egg in the wort and adjust the water in the wort until an area the size of a shilling[8] remains above the fluid, my beer should ferment to 6-7% ABV.  Of course, I could just taste the final work and save the egg for my breakfast ….

Most other additives to my brew will be doled out in a gil[9] cup.  Its important to remember, however, that sugar in the 18th Century was not highly refined like it is today so a gil today may have much more or less actual sugar than a gil tomorrow.  While we measure, we also assess by taste and smell.  Don’t trust the volume to be true[10].

Finally there is hops and this is, of course, where the crowds often laugh because what I am doing and saying has very little to do with how I am measuring my hops.  I used to assess my hops at the brew store in the same way I do my malt but today I can get high-quality vacuum-packed hops cheaply so I trust them until I get to brew day (always buy extra hops).  Like malt and sugar, hops are a natural product and there is a lot of variation in the quality of its acids[11], esters11, and terpenes11 from batch to batch so measuring hops by the gram is not a very accurate way to predict its effect in my beer.  Its much better to trust your nose.

On brew day, I liberally throw handfuls of hops into the kettle, “carefully measuring” the amount.  That is what my hands are doing but in reality, what I am doing is smelling the hops as they boil.  Add enough hops until the boiling wort smells right, it will be more than a handful.

So as you can see, brewing in the 18th Century manner is and is not a precise science.  I am taking all the complex measurements that a modern brewer will take with their chemical analytical tools.  I just use my senses as the laboratory.  To be an effective brewer in the Colonial era, you must experience your beer not just follow the recipe.


[1] Yes, they are laughing AT me not with me but at least they are paying attention. 😊

[2] Except that I do ascribe to the “when the wine in the pot is equal to the wine in the cook…”

[3] To be shared at the next event

[4] Keystone Homebrew in Montgomeryville, PA

[5] Alcohol By Volume

[6] Regulation about the purity of beer started in Ingolstadt, Bavaria in 1516.

[7] Dissolved sugars increase the weight per milliliter of wort and since alcohol has a lower mass than glucose, as the sugar is converted to alcohol (and carbon dioxide) the gravity goes down.

[8] Slightly larger than a modern US Quarter

[9] 2 ½ oz

[10] Unless you are offering a gil of rum or whiskey in which case I’m okay with the volume. 😊

[11] Flavor molecules


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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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