The Original American Homebrews pt. 2

Let me say the response to the last post was much better that I ever thought possible. Thank you! If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, take a look here before you continue on. This post picks up where that one left off. A few points that were made in correspondence about the first post that I’d like to clarify real quick. First, let me reiterate that I know there were real breweries making beer with actual malt in them. I wasn't trying to focus on that for now, I’m merely trying to highlight homebrew recipes of the time. If you want to know more about means and methods of professional brewers of the past, I can’t possibly touch the work of the master on the subject. I’m also focused in this series on recipes that can be dated back to pre-Prohibition in printed form. I’m sure there were a ton of recipes passed by oral tradition or homebrews made in other ways, but I haven’t been able to find source material to verify that yet. If you know of books or scholarly publications that highlight old brewing recipes, please drop me a line and send them my way . I’d love to include them in future posts and help further flesh out the picture of the early American homebrewer. With that business out of the way, let’s talk about beer!

Spruce Beer

Long before brewers on the West Coast made the idea of a bold, resinous, in-your-face IPA a national craze, your fore bearers were quaffing down a piney brew and loving every minute of it. By far, the most popular beer recipes I've found were for spruce beer. Even some beers that weren't written up originally as spruce beers would have a note that something along the lines of “the addition of a few ounces of essence of spruce greatly improves the flavor”. The interest in spruce wasn't merely gastronomic, it was medicinal. Scurvy was a serious problem for colonists and early pioneers. While many might think it some comical disease that only pirates got, it cause lethargy, bleeding from the gums, spots on the skin, tooth loss, fever, immobilization, and eventually death. Native Americans showed the colonists that making a tea from spruce would solve the problem, but in true British fashion, they thought “If you’re going to drink something, why not get drunk off it in the process?” Spruce beer is born in the New World. Captains loaded their ships with spruce tip in order to make beer en route to ports of call and while exploring. There are records of it being consumed while exploration of the West Coast and Pacific was happening which makes me wonder if somehow the collective memory of the beers of old influenced the trend later on down the line.

Molasses
(lbs)
Wheat
Bran
(lbs)
Sugar
(lbs)
Hops
(oz)
OG FG ABV IBU Notes
Spruce Beer (1796) 5 0 0 1.25 1.033 1.008 3.2 18 2.5oz essence of spruce
Spruce Beer (1803) 2.5 0 0 0 1.015 1.004 1.4 0 2.5qt spruce shed
Spruce Beer (1839) 5 0 0 5 1.029 1.007 2.9 92 5 ounces (or less) of spruce essence and 5 spoonfuls of ginger
Spruce Beer (1840) 6 0 0 2 1.038 1.01 3.8 42 1.75oz essence of spruce and 1/2c ginger
Spruce Beer (1845) 2.5 0 0 0 1.016 1.004 1.6 0 2tbs of spurce essence and an equal amount of sugar for priming
Spruce Beer (1860) 4 0 0 0.8 1.026 1.006 2.5 13 A spoonful of essense of spruce, a spoonful of powdered ginger, a half a spoonful allspice
Spruce Beer (1873) 4 0 0 0.8 1.026 1.006 2.5 13 2oz spruce essence

*agricultural conversions

So let’s see what we have here. The average ABV was 2.55% and average IBU was 25.4. I’d say the IBU’s are very deceptive since the addition of essence of spruce would definitely add more bitterness to the brew, but there’s no way to relate that to the IBU. Indeed, it’s hard to say what the addition of essence of spruce would add since there’s no standardized method (that I can find) for making it. I envision a drink similar to a weak version of Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Winter Ale or even somewhat similar to a session IPA’s made with Simcoe. If you're less imaginative, think hoppy plus Christmas tree.

It was stated in Wikipedia that spruce beer might have been brewed in Scandinavia before colonization so I thought it would be interesting to compare the styles of preparation. I can’t find any specific old recipes from Scandinavia, probably in part due to the fact I don’t speak any of the local languages, but I thought I’d compare old world techniques chronicled by Lars Garshol to these recipes to see if everyone was drinking something similar and get some feeling for what these recipes might have tasted like. When you compare the North American preparation of spruce beer using shed to Scandanavian beers like kveik they seemed to follow a similar methodology, so it had me wondering if immigrants from Scandinavia influenced North American brewing practices. Then I came across this and a puzzle emerged. That correspondence is dated 1752 which lead me to a few conclusions. First was that spruce beer is clearly older than any recipe I’m able to find. Second, and more interesting, is the way Mr. Kalm is relaying this information to the Swedish Academy as if no one had ever heard of this idea before back home and they should really try it out. Is that truly possible? It seems so odd to me to think they only brewed with juniper in Scandinavia and never spruce, despite it’s abundance. Even assuming the author of this note was … less than informed on beer history of Sweden … he seems familiar with Sweden based on his description of their native spruce, so you would think he’d lived there some period of time. If it were more common, wouldn't he had consumed some spruce beer at some point? One would think if it were more common, someone in the Swedish Academy would have said “Hey guy we already do that, thanks!”. So many questions and so few answers. I still think the farmhouse beers of Norway would be the closest modern representation of the rustic spruce beers made in Colonial homes, but with a slight variance in terms of evergreen character.

Ginger and Lemon Beer

After essence of spruce, ginger was the next most popular additive in early American homebrews. Even for beers typically not labelled as ginger beer (as shown below), you’ll see ginger suggested as an ingredient. Ginger beer with lemon was often called lemon beer, but not always. It’s hard to trace the exact history of where ginger beer started and why it started, mostly due to the rewriting of history by soda manufacturers. There were Americans who claimed they invented it in the 1840’s and then Irish claims of invention in the 1840’s. This is all clearly nonsense as I found actual recipes from the 1820’s and references in the Royal Society of London of it being made in the mid 1700’s. The story that seems to make the most sense is use in Britain was facilitated by colonization of India and that trickled over to North America. The previously stated “let’s get drunk off it” British rule was applied and ginger beer is born. Subsequent ginger sodas were merely lower in ABV and lacking in the spicy ginger kick the original beers had.

Molasses
(lbs)
Wheat
Bran
(lbs)
Sugar
(lbs)
Hops
(oz)
OG FG ABV IBU Notes
Ginger Beer (1827) 0 0 10 0 1.092 1.023 9 0 5oz ginger powder, 2.5oz cream of tartar, and 5 large lemons cut in slices
Jumble Beer (1827) 1 0 0 0 1.006 1.002 0.6 0 2tbs ground ginger
A Cheap and Wholesome Beer (1827) 10 0 0 2.5 1.064 1.016 6.3 46 2.5oz of pounded ginger
Thornton's Southern Gardner (1863) 1.25 0 0 1 1.009 1.002 0.8 25 1.25oz of powdered ginger
Ginger Beer (1864) 0 0 5 0 1.046 1.012 4.5 0 Add 2.5oz ginger, 5 lemon, and 5 egg whites
Molasses Beer (1869) 5 0 0 0 1.032 1.008 3.1 0 4 spoonfuls of ginger and 2 spoonfuls of allspice
Beer (1873) 3.33 0 0 0 1.021 1.005 2.1 0 3oz ginger, 3 tbs cream of tartar

*agricultural conversions

Immediately looking at these recipes hints to the origins of ginger soda (the under 1% ABV recipes) and what was more of an alcoholic ginger drink as we know it (above 1% ABV). Drinks that are closer to soda seem to contain less ginger and always in a powdered form, suggesting they were more mild in flavor. Higher alcohol versions average 5% ABV and contain significantly higher amounts of ginger. It's also the only time I see bruised ginger or pounded ginger mentioned which would have produced more of a hot ginger spice kick. It could be due to personal taste, to balance the alcohol and the ginger flavor, or the fact that ginger is high in antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Ginger's potency was so effective that many of these recipes had no need for hops at all (technically making them ales) while a few still threw them in (technically making them beer). These properties of ginger would give it some higher measure of shelf stability than other beers and make the prospect of investing in more ingredients to boost alcohol content a viable one.

Another interesting facet of ginger beer production compared to other beer preparations of the time is that they seemed to be severely under pitching yeast at first glance. Many recipes would only call for a tablespoon of yeast for a barrel or not mention yeast at all. However, the same fermentation timeline was observed as other beers of the time; 24-48 hours. How could that be? It would seem that the action of the ginger beer plant was in play here. Ginger beer plant isn't an actual plant, but a symbiotic organism comprising of Saccharomyces and Lactobacillus, similar to the mother culture in kombucha. These organisms live on the skin of fresh ginger, so it seems very reasonable that ginger beer plant was used in at least some of these recipes, even if the users didn't know what it was. This blend of pitched yeast and natural organisms would have given the beer a more interesting and complex flavor profile than beers pitched with only regular yeast.

The two ingredients that you'll see mentioned in ginger beer that don't seem to appear in any other beer recipes of the time period are eggs and cream of tartar. The intended purpose of these ingredients is never actually stated. Both might have been added to provide additional nutrients to the yeast. Egg whites would have acted as a fining, but it seems somewhat unlikely that was the intended purpose since there was never mention of it being used in other beers. The cream of tartar is even more bizarre. Besides the possibility of yeast health, it might have served as an acidifying agent to promote the ginger beer plant to form over other bacteria in the fermenting wort. One document I found suggests it produces a more mellow ginger flavor when compared to ginger beer made without it, but I can't find anything to back that claim up. I think the closest modern representation based on what I've read would be Crabbie's Ginger Beer, although imagining a shandy with a spicy kick wouldn't be too far off either.


That about wraps up this post on early American beers. Next time I'll finish up this series with some of the more strange and rare beers I've uncovered and discuss where I plan to try and take some of this research in the New Year. Cheers!