The Original American Homebrews pt. 3


You know the drill by now. Part 1 and Part 2 of this series should be read before continuing onward with this post.

The Poor Relation of Champagne

A distinctly southern variant on early American homebrewing was persimmon beer. It was first chronicled in 1705, although finding exact recipes for it proved difficult, every mention and recipe I uncovered described it as being made from a bread or pone consisting of persimmon pulp and wheat bran. Corn meal was occasionally substituted for wheat bran. Sometimes apples, pumpkin, or sweet potatoes were added to the dough to increase the sugar content and improve the flavor. There's no record of exactly why the pones were the first step in making persimmon beer but I would speculate it was to further break down the tannins in the fruit thereby reducing the astringency and to concentrate the sugars. Perhaps one of the reasons it's so hard to find early recipes is because they were highly valued and people tried to keep its exact composition a secret. It was thought so highly of that it was said "simmon beer and ash-cake is equal to cash, but it don't make glad come like whiskey". Further on in the superlative:

"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

Seems like high praise, but what was it exactly?

Molasses
(lbs)
Wheat
Bran
(lbs)
Sugar
(lbs)
Hops
(oz)
OG FG ABV IBU Notes
Persimmon Beer (1863) 0 16 5.5 2 1.066 1.017 6.5 32
Persimmon Beer (1863) 0 4.2 2.86 1 1.030 1.008 3.0 0
Persimmon Beer (1913) 0 14 7 0 1.084 1.021 8.3 0

*agricultural conversions

Several assumptions had to be made when compiling and analyzing these recipes. The first is that a bushel of persimmon is approximately equal to a bushel of plums. Persimmons were assumed to have approximately 12.5% sugar composition by weight which is listed in the Sugar column in the table above. When there isn't much mention of the ratio of persimmon to wheat used in the making of the pone, it was assumed that it was made in a 1:2 fruit to wheat ratio.

One thing that we do not have to wonder is how this concoction might have tasted. Ardent Craft Ales recently released a version of persimmmon ale that was contained in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society. The taste of the beer is described as "touches of sweetness and tangerine-like notes from the persimmons and just a whisper of spiciness from the English Golding hops". The recipe Ardent Craft Ales chose was described as a table beer, so it was probably most similar to the second recipe listed above, but typically persimmon beer was described as a strong beer. It was often bottled and compared to "Jersey champaign" or "foreign wine" as mentioned in the quote above, so one must assume it was more typically of a higher ABV such as the first and third recipes in the table. The variance might be accounted for in another unique attribute of the persimmon pone used to make the beer; it was shelf stable enough that it could be stored for long periods of time. Persimmons become ripe in the late fall and on into the winter. Making and storing persimmon pones could provide for necessary ingredients for beer until Spring when the winter wheat could be harvested. The amount of alcohol could be varied based on supply, occasion, or temperature. Stronger beers would have been served at special occasions, holidays, harvest, or extremely cold weather to help fend off the cold. Lighter beers would have been made as table beers or when supplies were running low.

Harvest Beer and Other Curiosities

One beer recipe that was mentioned over and over in passing when reading about early American alcohol was "Harvest Beer" or "Harvest Ale". It was consumed during the harvest season (late summer - fall) and was purported to energize and revive farm hands; a sort of period Gatorade. The problem is that no one has a recipe for it. It was spoken of as being very popular with the farm hands and reportedly contained ginger and sassafras and an amalgam of other possible ingredients some of which might have been licorice root, mallow root, cinnamon, chicory, allspice, citrus, or vinegar depending on who was giving the description. This made some measure of sense as many of the ingredients listed are known or were thought to be anti-inflammatories or treatments for colds. That would have helped any farm hand fight off the effects of the oncoming winter, but where was the recipe? I found a few recipes from the early 1900's, but they only contained vinegar, sugar, ginger, and sassafras. From other research done on this series, I realized this was the Temperance-ization effect on the recipe similar to the way ginger beer eventually evolved to ginger soda. Finally, I found Ms. Lea's recipe for Harvest Beer from 1869 and something clicked. Molasses, ginger, sassafras, and the possible compliment of other available roots, barks, and spices make a drink we're familiar with today. Early Americans had their own Oktoberfestbier, but it wasn't Märzen or Festbier, it was Root Beer!

Molasses
(lbs)
Wheat
Bran
(lbs)
Sugar
(lbs)
Hops
(oz)
OG FG ABV IBU Notes
Harvest Beer (1869) 3 0 0 0 1.019 1.005 1.9 0 1/3 oz ginger and 5oz sassafrass
Corn Beer (1863) 5 0 0 0 1.047 1.012 4.7 0 3.36lbs of corn was used
Maple Beer (1803) 2.35 0 0 0 1.014 1.003 1.3 0 Molasses is made from maple. "Malt or bran may be added to this beer, when agreeable". A tablespoon of spruce essence can be added.

*agricultural conversions

The last two beers here didn't really fit into any particular category, but had interesting aspects I thought worth mentioning. The corn beer seems like it would make a rather awful beer at first blush, but the thing that struck me was leaving the corn in the fermenting vessel. It seems you served out of the jar but then topped it off with more water and molasses as you went. Essentially what they're describing is a solera. I imagine that over time, the mixed colony of bacteria that built up would given this brew a slightly tart and refreshing flavor. They could continue feeding on the starch in the corn and possibly release new flavors we wouldn't normally associate with corn.

The maple beer stood out to me more because it was the only maple beer recipe I could find. I would have thought there would be more, but the hint as to why there aren't might come from the recipe listed right above it in the source. They describe boiling down maple syrup into molasses. To many, molasses was molasses and the source didn't typically matter. So any beer I've highlighted thus far might have been made with a maple variation if it were made in Vermont or other maple producing areas.

One final beer that I'd like to highlight, but not give an exact recipe for, was one popular with soldiers during the Civil War. It went by many names, such as Oh Be Joyful, Skullcracker, Knockem Stiff, and Pop Skull. The recipe varied based on the supplies at hand, but one Union officer recalled that is consisted of "bark juice, tar water, turpentine, brown sugar, lamp oil, and alcohol". I now understand why this "beer" earned the names it did. If you're looking for a daring exBEERiment, you can give this a go, but please don't mention me if you end up in the hospital.

Where Did They Go?

So the big question is, if these beers were so great, why did people stop making them? It's a confluence of things and none of them are spelled out in any text. You have to look at history as a whole and make some educated guesses based on writings of the time and the attitudes of their authors. Allow me to offer some speculation based on my research for this series.

The biggest factor in the demise of American homebrew was the slow march towards Prohibition. Many of the recipe collections I've highlighted started their printed life as publications put together by churches as fundraisers. As we move on in time, the church backed Temperance and then Prohibition more and more. They weren't going to carry on the tradition of publishing homebrew recipes. Even those publications not associated with the church dropped home beer recipes as it became less socially acceptable for any "good Christian" to consume alcohol.

Once Prohibition kicked in, no one was going to risk getting busted for alcohol over beer. Anyone who drank moved over to hard liquor. We were already a whiskey nation, Prohibition just further cemented it. After Prohibition ended, people stuck with hard liquor partially out of habit and partially out of economics. We were still in the Great Depression. People were dirt poor and couldn't afford to drink. Even if you could, you wanted to get the best buzz for your buck, which is hard liquor. We then immediately move into WWII. The country gets mobilized into total war and production priorities change. So if you consider the Temperance movement up to Prohibition, Prohibition itself, The Great Depression, and WWII, you're talking about a gap of over 20 years. That's a whole generation that didn't experience the same drinks and traditions of their forefathers. We forged an artificial memory gap.

To a lesser extent, the shifting preference in beer during the mid-1800s also contributed to the downfall of these homebrews. German immigrants come to America and bring a taste for and technology to make lager with them. Lager was new and hip and everyone wanted it. You can't make lager at home. Things made at home are slowly starting to be seen as things poor people did. If you had money, you partook in the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, and lager was its beer poster child. I kind of look at it like BBQ. Many people ate BBQ or some primitive form of it in early America because it made use of tougher parts of the animal and it cooked all day with little oversight, allowing you to work while it was being made. As some point, people looked down on BBQ as "slave food" or "poor country food". More recently people have come around to realize that slow cooked meat is awesome. Why did we ever abandon this?! I can't help but wonder if these beers fall into a similar situation.

What Now?

So, that was a fun little romp through history, but how can we use the lessons of the past to make the beer of tomorrow? Here are my takeaways from the research done for this series and how I plan to incorporate them into my future brewing to revive the spirit of the original American homebrews:

  • Make Do - Our brewing forefathers didn't have access to all kinds of fancy malts and hops, yet they still found creative ways to utilize what was at hand. Improvising with ginger and spruce as hop supplements/substitutes lead to two of the most popular brews of the age. I found an interesting article that said Confederate soldiers often didn't have access to coffee, so they made due with a beverage brewed from roasted corn meal and chicory. This got me thinking of substituting this mixture in place of roasted grain flavor in a Porter or Stout. At the very least, roast the grain for myself! Think of all the other avenues for creativity by trying to limit yourself to less fancy ingredients and more local produce.

  • Sugar Is King - If you read my post about making sweet potato syrup, you'll already know that I think sugar is an unjustly maligned ingredient in today's brewing landscape, even though it was highly thought of in the past. These homebrew recipes further reinforce that notion in my mind. Molasses or loaf sugar was practically required to make good beer in the minds of our forefathers, so why are we so stuck on malt only?

  • Session Over Imperial - America seems to have started out as a nation of table beer consumers. Although I love a good Belgian Quad, it's not something I could drink multiples of every day. Beer was consumed more like we consume soda today; all day long, every day. While I don't see myself never making a strong beer, I definitely want to focus on making more flavorful, sessionable beers in the future.

  • Don't Be Afraid of Unmalted Grain - Especially considering the diastatic power of modern base malt, why not supplement with more unmalted grain? It's cheaper and I'd love to see how a slow cereal mash might bring out some unique flavors in the final beer. If nothing else, body and head retention problems would be things of the past.

  • CAMRA Might Be Right - Beer was fermented quickly and meant to be consumed right away. As CAMRA proclaims, beer "is a natural, living product" and all early American beer was cask conditioned or bottle conditioned. If you want to revive the American style, ditch forced carbonation. There might actually be something to that seeing more and more big craft brewers move to bottle conditioning.

  • Beer As A Mixer - Beer was not just a stand alone drink in early America, it was a mixer! One of the most popular concoctions was The Flip. While I don't see myself reaching for a red hot poker every time I want a drink, I can see how a modern twist on a steinbier could be made to mimic some of the flavors this drink possessed. Hopefully, I'll be posting about that idea in the future once I get some of the logistics worked out. There are several more recipes out there that use beer and cider as a mixer and I'd love to explore incorporating some of the ideas from those cocktails into a brewed beverage.

This will probably be the last post of the year with the holidays coming up, so don't fret if you don't see any updates for a few weeks. I have lots of ideas in the notebook for future posts, recipes to try, results on a cider pressing I did, and a few other surprises. Thank you so much for following along in this series and all the feedback I've gotten on it. Happy holidays and many brews to you and yours!