Everything about these old recipes told me it wouldn't work. After talking about when to dump a beer, I wasn't really in a hurry to repeat the experience, but something kept nagging at me. The historical descriptions of Persimmon Ale all raved about it.
"simmon beer and ash-cake is equal to cash, but it don't make glad come like whiskey"
-The Farmers' Registry, 1838
"I drink you the following sentiment, in a glass of persimmon ale: May the product of the persimmon tree, substitute foreign wines, molasses, sugar, tea, and coffee, and save the 'old dominion' thousands annually"
- Willam B. Smith 1838
Sounds like a winner, so why was I full of doubt? Reading over the historical recipes leaves you with less than a reassured feeling. As I've outlined before, Persimmon Ale was traditionally made at home by mixing persimmons with wheat bran, baking that into pones, then storing them on the shelf until brew day. Once brew day arrives, you'd take several pones off the shelf and break them up in a kettle full of water, and slowly bring that up to a boil. Hops may or may not be used, depending on availability and the preference of the brewer. The process seems very similar to making Kvass. Maybe that's where the mental block comes in. Old, fermented bread doesn't sound like something I'd want a pint of. What was it that the old timers were going on about then? I couldn't let it go. I needed to know what this beverage was all about, even if it meant another drain pour.
First thing needed in this historical recreation would be to find persimmons in quantity for a reasonable price. I spent several weeks calling around to farms to see if they American Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) with no luck. I finally found a flat of Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki) at the farmer's market for less than $20 and had to call it good.
So, you'll notice on the cover photo that they're all Fuyu persimmons, which would make it another step removed from accurate, but it's the best I could find. I couldn't find Hachiya persimmon anywhere, for any price, but they would have been a closer to authentic substitution. To try and concentrate flavors and minimize tannins, I allowed the persimmons to sit out until they just started to show the first signs of rot. Once that happened, I cored out the tops and blended the permissions to a fine paste. This should be somewhat similar to the pudding like texture of eating an American or Hachiya persimmon. A quick taste test confirmed this to be fairly accurate, although it seemed the flavor and sugar concentration wasn't quite as intense. It would have to do for this experiment.
Now comes the issue of how to make the pone. What's a pone? It's unleavened bread, usually cornbread, shaped into ovals or circles by hand. Cupcake pans were going to substitute for hand shaping on this day. I had initially hypothesized the ratio would come in around 1:2 fruit to wheat ratio. Once I started actually making them, I thought prudent to start adding wheat bran while the mixer ran on low until it started to resemble dough. I'm glad I didn't listen to myself here because it would have been way too much wheat bran. I ended up using 2lbs (~0.9kg) wheat bran for 8lbs (~3.6kg) persimmon puree. I found that the wheat bran tended to expand as it absorbed the moisture from the puree.
Looks appetizing, doesn't it?
Another thing that was missing from the equation was how were the pones made? The funny thing about old recipes is that things like this were just assumed to be known as part of normal day to day chores. It would be considered slightly absurd to spell out things that you already know, so they didn't. What I do know is that these pones were supposed to be shelf stable and were able to be stored for many months before they went bad. This combined with the idea that they were probably cooked around a wood fired hearth, leads me to believe that they would have been cooked long and low. Therefore, I baked the pones at 250F (~121C) for about 90 minutes. At this point, they looked dry and they were starting to really darken. This is what I ended up with...
I can report that they taste like light molasses and sawdust. There is nothing at all appetizing about these things. Thinking that perhaps the magic lay in aging and curious to see how shelf stable these things are, I packed them up and left them for two months. I chickened out on keeping them in the pantry and decided instead to keep them in the refrigerator. Even if this wasn't going to taste very good, I wasn't interested in food poisoning. Unsurprisingly, they came out looking exactly as they did when they went in two months prior. I mashed them up inside the bags to avoid making a mess and got a pot of water on the stove.
Many of the recipes of old had you add the grain into the water at room temperature and slowly allow the temperature to rise to boiling. This practice was partially due to the nature of the heat source (a wood fired hearth), but also allows for a slow continuously ramping mash. This ends up being an extremely efficient way to convert starch to fermentable sugars. I added 10lbs of bran mush to 4 gallons (~15L) of water and let it rise at the rate of about 2F/min (~0.625C/min) for about 2 hours until it hit boiling. I then pulled the mash out of the pot and tossed in an ounce (~28g) of EKG hops and boiled until it was approximately at 2.5 gal of liquid. For me, this was about 90 minutes, but your mileage may vary. I added another half ounce of EKG (~14g) at flameout along with a pinch of yeast nutrient. The lid was put back on the pot and it was allowed to cool to room temperature overnight before it was transferred over to a carboy and pitched with Wyeast 1968. These hops and yeast choices seem to be a best guess as to the original ingredients. Colonialists would have imported hops if they could because American varieties were seen as inferior. Yeast would have been whatever was in the barrels that previously contained beer, so it was more than likely some English strain. The initial gravity ended up at 1.039 which was lower than I had hoped based on historical accounts, but higher than I thought possible after tasting one of the pones. The fermenter was set aside in a closet for two weeks with no temperature control.
So, two weeks turned into two and a half months because life happened. I'm not sure how much I really missed out on at this point, because there were visible flakes of bran floating around and frankly it just looked gross. My snow globe of funk finally settled down and I built up enough courage to taste it. I took a sip and...
No freaking way.
This actually worked and it's actually good. It ended up at 1.002 for a respectable 4.86% ABV. I decided it would be interesting to see what this brew tasted like carbonated, so I primed with Lyle's Golden Syrup (another nod to British heritage) to about 1.7 vol. of CO2 and let it sit for another three weeks to fully condition.
Appearance: Straw yellow with only the faintest of haze. 1 finger of foam that quickly dissipates.
Aroma: None. Seriously. There is no odor at all. If you had your eyes closed, you might not know there was anything even in the glass.
Taste: The complete opposite of the aroma. You're immediately hit with big tangerine flavor with under currents of guava and passion fruit. The flat version was more sweet and juicy, while the carbonated version was drier. As you swallow you get that small hint of distinct florals that comes from EKG. Everything immediately vanishes after you swallow.
Mouthfeel: Lightly carbonated with equally light body. Doesn't come across as watery. Ends with a slight tannic bite making it seem crisp. As with the flavor, everything fades out quickly leaving you ready for another drink right away.
Overall: Every time I open a bottle of this beer, I'm blown away. It's not that it's a spectacular beer, but considering the ingredients and methodology, it is amazing. I can't get over how refreshing it is at room temperature. It so closely resembles modern session IPAs, something we think of as new and trendy in beer, but the recipe is over 200 years old. What other awesome beers are we missing out on because they were left behind in the march of time?
Additional notes: I initially chilled the beer down before pouring it. Big mistake. All flavor vanished and it was just a cold glass of astringent water. I'd imagine if you lightly carbonated witch hazel, this would be about what you'd end up with. This makes total sense though. Persimmon, even when ripe, has a ton of astringency in it, but it's usually covered up with sugar. Those tannins are what fall into the background and gives the beer a hint of body when served warm.
I'm drinking another glass of this as I finish writing this post and I still can't wrap my head around this beer. I'm not sure I'd make another batch exactly the same way, but it gives me a reference point for what this beer was and where I'd like to take it. First thing would be to track down actual Diospyros virginiana or at least Hachiya persimmons to help boost the flavor contribution there. I'd then probably do a traditional mash of mostly wheat malt, with a little flaked wheat and bran in for history's sake, and some corn to help keep the body light while using local products. It's the South, grits are everywhere. A neutral to fruity ester English strain of yeast is definitely the way to go. Hops could be any of the newer tropical varieties, but I'm thinking something like El Dorado or even neo-mex cultivars. Keep the carbonation levels low, so it can be consumed en mass.
I hope I've inspired you to give history a try. I won't tell you that this beer will win awards, but I encourage you to try something like this at least once. It was a remarkable learning experience and it will really get your creative brewing juices flowing!
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