The Original American Homebrews pt.1

A Brief Background

The stated mission of this site is to try and build recipes from the bottom up in order to reflect the terroir of the place they come from. In order to do this, I feel it necessary to examine the history of brewing in the United States to see what beer culture was like before Prohibition. First, it is important to recognise that beer did not have nearly the mindshare in the hearts of drinkers that it has today. Distilled spirits were the beverage of choice among Colonialists for multiple reasons. They didn’t spoil and they were easy to transport being the primary ones. Gentlemen drank Madeira, port, sherry, and fine brandies. More common men drank rum pre-Revolution and whiskey post-Revolution. Another reason you saw beer in short supply compared to spirits was the fact that for several decades after colonization started, all malt had to be imported. Barley didn’t grow well in New England and what malt was produced or imported was saved to help in distilling.

Although barley didn’t take well at first, a crop that did take off in the New World was apples. Since the notion that it was considered unhealthy to drink water was brought over from England, production of hard cider took off and consumption skyrocketed. So whiskey or cider were extremely popular … what about beer? There were breweries in the big cities on the East Coast, but as previously stated, most of the malt had to be imported and most beer they brewed was done in the style of the English until about the mid 1800’s. So, does that mean America had no original brewing style and everything that was made was merely “clone” beers? Not at all! Although there were some breweries, the majority of beer that was produced was produced at home. With traditional brewing ingredients in short supply, homebrewers had to get creative.

“Beer” & “Ale”

So what did homebrewers use and what kind of beer did they make? First, let’s talk about what they didn’t make. The mentions you see of Thomas Jefferson’s beer in The Homebrewer’s Recipe Guide and Radical Brewing are completely wrong assuming Jefferson was brewing in a manner simliar to contemporary homebrewers. How do I know that? I sifted through over 100 pre-Prohibitions beer recipes. You know what’s not in a single one of them? Malt. I know that sounds odd, but consider the information in the background. Malt was in short supply and what malt there was had to be used for its diastatic power to help transform the abundance of corn and grains into whiskey. There were occasional mentions to be found of “adding a handful of malt should it be handy” or whatnot, but as you will see, malt wasn’t the main ingredient in beer. The supposed Jefferson beers are comparatively high in ABV and make use of modern pale malts. In all the recipes I’ve examined, there was only one beer that came in over 5% ABV and all the malts of the day were closer to Munich or amber malt.

So what were people using to make beer? By and large, they used wheat bran and molasses. Wheat bran is the hard outer coat of the wheat kernel. Being the outer shell, it has many of the enzymes and therefore, a high diastatic power. Although I couldn’t find hard data the extration rate of wheat bran, it seems to have 1/5th the nutritional value of regular wheat, so from here forward, it will be assumed to have 1/5th the potential of flaked wheat until experimental data can confirm this. All estimates below assumed the yeast to be approximately as attenuative as American Ale Yeast (1056) and the hops to be compariable to East Kent Goldings which would have been in style for the time. Molasses was also not typically the same as the black strap molasses of today. Most molasses was of a light to mid grade and there was occasion mention of substitution with equal measures of honey. Technically, that makes the drink mead or metheglin, but considering how loosely beer is being defined already, I don’t think many cared. So let’s take a look at some actual beer recipes that most resemble beer as we think of it today scaled to the typical 5gal homebrew batch.

George W.'s Small Beer (1757) 4 3.33 0 1 1.029 1.007 2.9 21 1 sifter assumed to equal 1 bushel
Hop Beer (1808) 2.69 0 0 1.66 1.016 1.004 1.5 40
"Beer is a good family drink" (1835) 4 0 0 0.5 1.026 1.006 2.5 7 Assuming 1 pail of water is 1 gal
Small Beer (1863) 2 1.6 0 0.25 1.013 1.003 1.3 6 Recipe states to add a few raisins as well
The French Army Beer (1863) 0.25 0 0 0.5 1.001 1.000 0.1 13 Recommends the addition of ~0.3oz marshmallow root
Hop Beer (1870) 4 0 0 4 1.026 1.006 2.5 44 Recommends adding about 3 eggs ... probably as a clarifying agent.
Kate Spear's "Beer" (1875) 2 2.2 0 0.5 1.015 1.004 1.5 12
Hop Beer (1887) 6.67 0 0 1 1.043 1.011 4.2 22
Hop Beer (1887) 0 0 8 12 1.074 1.018 7.2 205

*agricultural conversions

First interesting thing I’d like to point out here is that the publication dates of these recipes is a bit deceptive. With the exception of George Washington’s recipe, I found several duplicates of each recipe published in other collections. I’ve only listed the earliest copy of the recipe I could find, but that does not guarantee that this is listing is the origin of the recipe. For instance, I found reference that “Beer is a good family drink” was first published in another collection of The Frugal Housewife in 1833, but it was repeated as late 1887 in Good Housekeeping. Most recipes seem to be collections of favorite recipes from previously published recipes or collections of home recipes compiled by a church as part of a cookbook being sold for charity.

That acknowledgement aside, let’s look at the beers we have here. The average ABV is only 2.6% and the average IBU is 20.6 if you pull out the obvious odd outlier. The average batch size of the day seemed to be around 15-16 gals and the average length of boil was 3 hours. There was no mention of mashing and lautering in some recipes that included wheat bran but when it was mentioned, it seems that hops and bran were usually boiled together. This was a bit confusing when I first encountered it, but if you consider the average home at the time, it makes a bit more sense. They didn’t have giant propane burners to bring a 15 gallon batch up to boil in 30 or 40 minutes as we do today. The fire was an open wood fireplace or a wood/coal burning cast iron stove. This meant large batches heated more slowly. Given the high diastatic power of the bran and the relatively low conversion potential, I would think the pot would be in the beta and alpha amylase zones long enough to get a decent conversion. Any addition starches liberated in the boil or tannins extracted would provide some measure of body and flavor to what was seemingly a fairly weak drink. The yeast used would have been whatever was being used by the household to make bread. Although it’s impossible to know the exact pitching rate, the average addition seemed to be “a pint of yeast” to a 15 gallon batch once the beer was cool or “blood warm”, so it would at least seem somewhat in line with modern pitching practices. The other oddity that you see commonly is fermentation time. Most recipes indicate that the beer would be ready to consume the next day or within two days. Some make mention of sealing the bung at this time while others give no indication, so it seems the beer was either flat or very low in carbonation. While there’s no direct mention of it in the given recipes, other supplementary materials I read stated that most homes had a dedicated ale making room separate from the house and the further south one went, the need to do so in a cellar was key. That would indicate that they had some grasp that fermentation temperature needed to be mediated.

So what do I make of this? Low ABV, lots of wheat character, moderate hopping, possibly blended or funky yeast … the average “hop beer” of the day was closer to a traditional saison than anything else. It’s odd to think the common place beer was more like DuPont than Budweiser. Does that mean this was the preferred beer of choice? Not really. As I mentioned earlier, this post just represents some statistics and analysis around what we’d recognize as the most average ales. America had it’s version of the IPA craze long before Cascadia made it cool. People were into all kinds of crazy flavor combinations centuries before Dogfishhead thought to bottle something off the wall. That will have to wait until next time though...

A few other resources utilized for this series of posts: