Today we think of beer as a luxury item, something to enjoy during our leisure times and beverage known and imbibed for its intoxicating properties. This was not always true. In fact, beer was once considered the most healthy 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. In colonial America, even though the waters were largely unspoiled, beer and cider were considered the only safe ways to quench your thirst.
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. In the earliest days of British colonization, however, the ingredients for beer imported from England. Settlers soon discovered that this was unsustainable and costly so barley and hops were soon cultivated in America creating not just a supply to make our own beer and spirits but also burgeoning export business.
Prior to 1656, every household would have brewed their own beer. With the creation of public taverns, however, the practice of brewing became more consolidated (although most estates still had both breweries and distilleries). Because of the rise of taverns, groups like the Sons of Liberty were able to meet, spread their views on Parliament and the King, and ultimately plant the seeds of rebellion. Little did Parliament know when they enacted the Tavern Act that they was setting the stage for the ultimate dissolution of the British Colonies in North America.
“In Wine there is Wisdom, in Beer there is Freedom, in water, there is Bacterium”
— Benjamin Franklin
Typically we will make 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 four 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. First we make a tea from the malted barley in a process known as “mashing”. The mashing process liberates the sugars from the husks, proteins, and dextrans of the grain giving us a “wort” that we can brew into beer. Next we brew the beer over a fire. Boiling the beer breaks down the sugars so that they can be digested by the yeast and allows us to infuse the wort with hops and other flavorings. Finally, the wort is cooled and fermented with yeast.
Today, we are adding yeast from the left-over “strube” of a previous batch of beer. This is not strictly necessary as wild yeasts are everywhere. In fact, the beer brewed in the 18th Century manner will be unique to time and place in which it is brewed because as we brew, we are exposing our wort to these wild yeast.
It will take about a week for our beer to ferment and it will then be conditioned in either bottles or kegs for another two weeks. As you can see, brewing had to go on continuously in order to satisfy the needs of this household.
Our Brewing Process
The demonstration I do follows the traditional practices of the 18th century but will be done on a much smaller scale. At events, I typically brew a 5 gallon batch of house beer. This would however, only be enough for one meal so a typical estate of this size would need a brewery of ten times this size.
Most homes and taverns brewed their own beer, however, sometimes larger estates and taverns would employ Journeyman Brewers. These craftsmen traveled from place to place helping households to establish their breweries and distilleries and often, as you see today, actually brewing the beer for the estate.