Reenactors seem to revel in the debate over historical accuracy. We either passionately focus on authenticity or we bristle at those who do. Colonial brewers are reenactors and we run the gamut from casual historical entertainers to passionate academic historians. There is a place for everyone but we need to acknowledge the range of expression in the craft. Some commercial and homebrewers claim to be making beer from recipes recorded in historic documents and we have people who brew beer modern for their buddies to share at events while putting on a good show. Some of us focus on reproducing the styles and techniques of the past and some just put good labels on their beer. All of us make compromises and none of our beers are 100% authentic but we are all attempting to give you a taste of the past.
Now before I jump into degrees of authenticity, lets distinguish between historically accurate and good. Yards makes a great set of beers labeled “Ales of the American Revolution” but these are not historically correct styles. Their good beers, they are just not what you would experience in an 18th Century tavern. I’m going to try to not make references to specific brewers (again) and I will also leave the question of whether a beer is good up to the reader but let’s delve into the different approaches to recreating the beers of the past.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, all good brewers know that they must make certain deviations from true 18th Century practice for practical and safety concerns. Its also important to remember that no matter how well researched and how expertly brewed, the beers we make today are not exactly the same as the beers our forefathers drank. We simply cannot make beers exactly like it was made in the 18th Century because the malt, hops and yeast available in the 18th Century have been genetically modified. We cannot get the materials. That said, most of us use recipes and methods well researched form historic sources and we are endeavoring to share that research in a manner that allows you to come as close as possible to experiencing beer from Colonial America and we do it in the following ways.
Historic recipes made with modern brewing methods and equipment: This is by far the most common approach to reenacting Colonial Brewing both as amateurs and professional brewers and with good reason. Brewing with modern equipment and methods is not a complex process and it is reasonably simple to adapt old recipes to work well in a modern brewery. This is the simplest, cheapest, and safest way to produce a Colonial style beer that can be shared or sold.
Modern recipes made with Colonial methods: Many homebrewers will attempt to do this a reenactments. As I have discussed in previous blogs, this is not an easy task. Colonial brewers lacked some of the key resources and tools that most homebrewers use but using a familiar recipe with these archaic techniques takes one level of complexity out of learning to deal with fire, vague temperature measurements, vague time measures, and all the approximations and sensory rather than analytical measures needed.
Historic recipes with historic methods: This is the level of authenticity that I strive for but lets be honest, this is HARD and most people who come to reenactments do not appreciate the work that goes into this level of accuracy. Compromises must still be made with choosing equipment and ingredients. Some of the historic recipes produce bad beer, and most of the sources for brewing instruction are vague since they relied on brewers learning through apprenticeship rather than academically. Finally, if you plan to share or sell these beers, you must deviate from 18th Century sanitation and storage practices for safety.
Yes, we are a hobby that loves to point out and pick apart the anachronisms that inevitably seep into our presentations but don’t go overboard. Beer is meant to be wholesome, tasty, and safe. In our own way, each of us is adapting our approach to that aim – wholesome, tasty and safe. Charlie Papazian, the 1970’s “father” of craft brewing in a post prohibition America, is famous for saying “relax and have a homebrew.” When it comes to Colonial beer, no truer words can be said. Many of our beers are not technically historically correct but most are pretty good. Relax and enjoy. We are working to bring the EXPERIENCE of 18th Century beer to you not just the history.