In 1994, I became interested in the someone rebellious and definitely an anachronistic hobby of home-brewing. Brewing beer at home became legal (again) in 1979 so by the time I got involved it was a weird mix of semi-commercial home-brew supply stores that sold malt, yeast, and hops in various forms plus a hodgepodge of crude brewing equipment and the ever-present Complete Joy of Home Brewingby Charlie Papazian. All this juxtaposed to the grassroots, anti-establishment, do everything yourself, Foxfire inspired community of home-brewers. It was heady times and most people just didn’t understand why we didn’t just drink Budweiser like everybody else.
As a chemist, I am fascinated by the brewing process. Although very simple, brewing beer requires subtle understanding of thermodynamic and heat transfer, solvent extraction, enzyme kinetics, basic biochemistry of the Krebs Cycle, solubility of gasses, and all sorts of cool physics and chemistry. For those willing to take the plunge into the technical aspects of brewing, it’s a deep subject and diverse subject. Of course, none of this knowledge is available to the 18th Century brewer!
When my oldest son decided he wanted to do reenacting and needed me to join him until he was old enough to carry a musket on without parental supervision, I found a natural outlet for all my folk-craft and brewing passions. While we learned the nuances of the 1764 Manual of Arms, I practiced home-brewing (at home) and reproduced colonial beer for the regiment’s libations. I eventually began transporting beer in wooden barrels for appearance, but my methods remained whole those of the 20th/21st Century. In 2017, I decided to create a proper reenacting persona of a colonial brewer. I visited and studied others and felt I could do as well, if not better, and reach audiences they could not. My “Journeyman Brewer” was born.
My thoughts were, this should be an easy impression. I had been reenacting as a Continental and British Regular soldier for a little over 7 years (as long as the real Rev. War!), so while there is always more to learn, I could play the part of a 1750’s American subject of the Crown pretty well. I had been brewing for 22 years (and watched my Grandfather brew at home for many years before that) so I knew how to brew beer. How hard could it be…? In a nutshell, damn hard!
Even on the same scale, with the same ingredients, 20th Century homebrew methods are enormously different from 18th Century brewing. At home, I have a nice propane burner that delivers even, controllable, and instant heat. In the 18th Century I have wood fire which is never right, either too hot, not hot enough, smoldering with tons of smoke, or otherwise demanding my attention. At home, all my gear is smooth stainless steel which is easy to clean, conducts heat well, and very sanitary. In the 18th Century, I have tin, wood, copper, and other materials which are nearly impossible to keep clean and sanitized (especially over a sooty wood fire!). At home, I have tools to measure pH, temperature, specific gravity, carbonation, and a whole host of parameters that make brewing easy and controllable. Most of these tools were not invented in 1750 and those that had been invented were so expensive that a Journeyman Brewer would not have them. I measure temperature by physical changes in the water, wort, or beer; and I measure time by the position of the sun or the burning of a candle. All crude measurements at best. In modern brewing, I use cultured yeast from pure strains. In the 18th Century I rely on wild yeast and cultures made from the spent yeast or strube of a prior batch of beer (similar to how sourdough bakers culture their yeast). Unlearning and relearning how to brew is much of the fun of this impression but this is true Living History where I am relearning just how they managed to brew beer without modern equipment and materials.
So, what will you see if you come to visit my brewing demonstration? Well, first off, unless you stay for many hours you will see only a small portion of the process. I am brewing real, drinkable, beer as good as any craft beer you will buy at the package store. I even sometimes give out samples but please understand that with the methods available in 1750 brewing will take several hours so if you stay for 10-15 minutes, you will not see the entire process. I start brewing in the morning and will not fill my fermenter until middle afternoon. Even then the process is not over as the beer will ferment off-site for about ten days and need to be bottled.
A typical brew day looks like this:
9:00 – 9:30 Start a fire using flint and steel
9:30 Fill the kettle with water and start the process of bringing it to a boil. 5 gallons of water takes a long time to come to a boil.
10:30 Strike the malt. About 10 pounds of crushed malt will be placed in a large muslin bag and then placed in the brew kettle. The kettle is then removed from the fire and covered. During this time, enzymes in the malt begin to convert starch and dextrin into simple sugar (sucrose, fructose, and glucose). This process is called mashing.
10:45 First decoction. Since the malt was struck at a very high temperature, some of the enzymes in the yeast are compromised. We will compensate for this by pulling a bit of the mash (water and grain) and heating it over the fire until it is almost boiling. This decoction is then stirred back into the mash to add both heat and broken-down starches for the grains enzymes to work on.
11:15 Second decoction. Pull as second bit of mash and repeat the process above.
11:30 Lautering. The muslin bag is pulled from the kettle and all the fluid (water with lots of dissolved sugars) is allowed to drain. Hot water is poured through this grain to flush out as much of the sugar as possible and I will squeeze the bag to drive out as much of the water as I can.
12:00 Start the boil. I will often add a little fresh water to bring the wort to 5 gallons then we wait while that comes to a boiling temperate.
12:30 Add bittering hops, spruce or other herbs. Beer is naturally sweet so to create the flavor most of us associate with beer, flowers of the hops* plant are added so the bitter oils will be extracted into the beer.
1:00 Add aroma hops. The first addition of hops adds bitterness but most of the flowery smell will boil away. We add a bit more just at the end to give our beer a floral “nose.”
1:05 Remove the kettle from the fire and start cooling. During this time I often quench the fire, clean up, and begin packing up my supplies.
1:45 It takes a long time to cool 5 gallons of beer. During this time, wild yeast from the air are landing in our wort giving it a local character. When it is “Blood Warm” or about 35-39°C, I will transfer the wort to my fermenter and add a bit of cultured yeast.
2:00 Done. Well not really, I still have 3 weeks of fermenting, bottling, and conditioning to do off-site. I don’t include these steps in my demonstration because 1) they are long; and 2) I still use modern and sanitary methods.
The beer I brew is my own recipe, derived but not copied from 18th Century sources. These are all simple beers, like IPA, because I want to focus on teaching the process and history rather than focus 100% on the beer.
All the temperatures I use are based on physical phenomenon and direct human observation. Thermometers were available to the elite in the 18th Century but they were very expensive. I know water always boils at 100°C and I can put my hand to (or in) the beer or mash to assess if it is at “Blood Warmth” or about 37°C. I do similar measures for specific gravity. I will taste my wort to estimate sugar content (very inaccurate) but not use a hydrometer. Dr. Franklin and Mr. Jefferson had hydrometers and thermometers, but they also had MUCH more money than a simple Journeyman Brewer. Alas, I make do.
When I measure out my batch of malt, I will rely on industrial scales at the grist mill where they also crack (not grind into flour) my grain. I have balance scales but theirs are better. As for hops, a handful or two will be a good enough measure. The beer will taste different batch to batch but with wild yeast, its going to taste different anyway.
The equipment I use is very basic. I do most of my brewing in a large tin kettle. Copper would be better and the big breweries all use copper but again, copper is beyond my means as a Journeyman. I do have a few smaller copper kettles and tools and I use these because cooper has antiseptic properties. I NEVER use iron kettles or cauldrons because the iron kills my yeasts.
You will see me present as a middle-class Journeyman. I dress well, and I want to present myself in a manner that shows that while I am not a Gentleman (you will never see me wear a wig), I am not a common laborer either. When I am not tending to my work, I will wear a proper frock coat, if its cold a cloak, and a proper tricorn hat. While tending to my work, I will retire to “proper undress” removing my frock coat and had but never my weskit and always covering my head with a workman’s cap. I do, after all, have standards of appearance I must maintain. You will never see me in just breeches and a shirt, that is beneath my station!
I hope this gives you an insight into my portrayal of a Colonial Brewer. Come join me, and as Charlie Papazian frequently said, “relax and have a home-brew…”
*Humulus lupulus (common hop or hops) is species of flowering plant in the hemp family (Cannabaceae). That’s right, hops is a form of marijuana