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 health 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. 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 colonial America, even though the waters were largely unspoiled, beer and cider were considered the only safe ways to quench your thirst.
In the earliest days of British colonization, 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 burgoning export business. The problem with exporting barley to England, however, is that this commodity spoils.
In 1721 when Sir William Keith purchased Fountain Low (now Graeme Park) he built a malt house. Malting the grain begins the conversion of sugars that is necessary for fermentation to occur. By converting raw grain to into roasted malt, and eventually whiskey and beer, Governor Keith was able to take grains that would likely spoil in transit and not only elevate their commercial value but make them stable enought to be stored, and shipped, for long periods of time. This continued the commerical development of the Pennsylvania colonies.
Today, we are making “house beer.” Every household in America would have brewed their own beer and this beer would have been consumed at every meal. 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 runnings” 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 three main ingredients: Malt, yeast, and water. To these three main ingredients, we will add additonal 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 fermentables 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 yeast is everywhere. In fact, the beer brewed here today will be unique to Graeme Park because as we brew outside, we are exposing our wort to these wild yeast. It will take about two weeks for our beer to ferment and it will then be conditioned in either bottles or kegs for another two weeks so brewing had to go on continuously in order to satisfy the needs of this household.
Recipe for download: Graeme Park Demo Beer