Beer: The Way the Founders Intended It?

Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website Yonder and Home. Andrew is the host of Heard Tell podcast.

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18 Responses

  1. dragonfrog says:

    That is a very vague beer recipe. You could brew a whole lot of very different things according to it.

    I’m guessing “A large sifter full of bran” is your grain. Could mean a lot of things – roasted light or dark, a wide range of quantities. Maybe it really means use what we now refer to as “bran” – just for flavour and yeast nutrients, the only fermentable sugar coming from the molasses. Whoooo knowwwws.

    “Hops to your taste” – OK, a three hour boil seems a bit much but at least that’s a specific instruction.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    This post is relevant to my interests. First and quickly, history pedantia: Samuel Adams and John Adams were second cousins, not brothers. Their mutual ancestor was a great-grandfather: Joseph Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts.

    With that out of the way, on to the most important thing: Washington’s small beer. How might I go about making it?

    His grain bill consists of “Bran Hops.” That, unfortunately, isn’t all that useful a direction for the modern homebrewer. Bran, taken literally, is the outer hull of a seed of a grain. I presume that this really means Washington used unmalted, unhulled grain of some sort.

    Most modern beer, and most homebrewers, use malt instead. What happens is a merchant buys the harvested grains (what Washington used), then sprays the grains with water and lets them sit on a tray for a day. Then, just as the grain starts to sprout, it goes into an oven and gets roasted. Usually, this is done with one or more species of barley, but wheat and corn and sometimes other grains might be used too. That then gets milled, to separate the now-cooked germ inside the roasted grain, and crushes that germ down a little bit into a texture a bit coarser than sand.

    Then there’s the hops – homebrewing and craftbrewing geeks joyously agonize over what kind of hops they will put in their wort, and when in the boil they should go in. Washington offers no guidance on this subject whatsoever. One presumes he would have used the hops available to him, and here, too, we don’t get a lot of help: the hilly portions of the Virginia Piedmont, which would include at its extreme northern end the Mount Vernon estate Washington called home, are just about ideal for growing hops of nearly all varieties.

    What I do see is that Washington used a three-hour boil, and left over at the end of it is 30 gallons of product. That “boil” may include a “mash” period. “Mash” is when the grain gives up its flavor and sugar into the water. That’s best done at sub-boiling temperatures, but if Washington was using whole grains, he’d need to do something to break through the bran and release the germ inside. It looks like his method to do that was boiling, and that would work — prolonged exposure to hot water would cause the bran to peel away from the germ and expose the part of the grain with all the sugar in it to the water.

    How much grain did he use? “To taste.” Thanks, General Washington, for this hugely ambiguous direction. When I brew a five-gallon batch at home I usually use between eight and nine pounds of malted barley. But as I noted above, my grain is malted and milled, so I don’t need as much of it to produce good beer as Washington would using whole grains. I’m going to guesstimate that Washington would need half again as much grain as I would because he’s not malting and milling, and he’s going for a thirty-gallon batch, six times what I usually do. That yields 76.5 pounds of grain in his bill.

    Which means he needs a kettle that will hold about 77 pounds of wet grain and about 48 gallons of water (he’s going to lose 20% of the liquid every hour of the boil and aims at ending up with 30 gallons). That will have to be suspended over a fire for three hours, and then cleaned out. An interesting logistical challenge using late eighteenth century technology.

    Then he strains it out. Which means the grain got left in the mash during the boil. That would causes the grains to release tannin, which lends a leathery, sour flavor. For this reason, I infer that Washington used his hops to conceal that flavor, since he did not seem to control for it by using a sub-boil mash. If you go shopping for hops at your local homebrew supply store or online, you’ll see hops rated with an “Alpha” percentage and a “Beta” percentage. Shorthand: alpha acids alter the flavor of the beer and are most effective added early in the boil; beta acids alter the aroma of the beer and are most effective added late in the boil. Washington would have put in some high-alpha hops early on in the brew. I’m guessing popular modern varieties similar to what he used would have been like a Simcoe or a Chinook — although those are both more modern breeds.

    Then here’s the most interesting part, to me at least: he fortifies his wort. This means that in modern parlance, he’s making what we call “malt liquor.” For Washington, molasses or sorghum would have been easy, cheap products for fortifying the brew. Modern brewers can use other things, like cane sugar syrup or corn syrup. Molasses would have added a malty, smoky flavor along with all that sugar. For 30 gallons of wort, he adds a whopping 3 gallons of molasses, increasing an already-sweet boil from what I’m guessing is about an 8% solution from the sugars that are naturally in his grains, to about 18% sugar.

    Then he frightens me badly by allowing this much hot liquid to air-cool until it’s about the temperature of “blood” before he adds his yeast. This is when the beer is most vulnerable to contamination and souring. Stray bacteria floating around in the air or breathed out of a brewer’s lungs would find warm, sugary water an idea breeding ground, and that can contaminate the beer and make anyone who drinks it sick. I hope the beer was put somewhere where the risk of this was relatively low — perhaps in a barrel and rolled into a cellar.

    Then the magic happens: a quart of yeast gets added. This would probably have been ale yeast, or maybe even the same yeast that was used to bake bread. Laagering varieties of yeast, which take much cooler temperatures, were not introduced into the United States until the mid-nineteenth century, when German, Polish and Czech immigrants brought their methods of beermaking with them. Washington would have used beermaking methods from more western parts of Europe, particularly England, and those are ale varieties. Ale yeast likes temperatures from about 60 to about 80 degrees, which would have been easily attainable in a Mount Vernon cellar nearly any time of year.

    With that much sugar and that much yeast right away, no wonder he left the bung off his barrel. That fermentation would have been bonkers to watch. Probably bubbled like a fountain and exhaled enough carbon dioxide to suffocate a man to death upon entry if the cellar wasn’t properly vented. In mitigation, all that fermentation would be really bad for any bacteria that would otherwise sour the beer, so that would probably have kept the product healthy.

    Washington wasn’t big on finishing, it seems — he bottled after only a week of fermentation. I let my homebrew ferment for anywhere from three to five weeks depending on how the yeast behaves. One way to see when the yeast is done doing its work is to drop a hydrometer into the a sample of the liquid and monitor when the gravity stops falling. That will tell you how much sugar has been converted to alcohol. And he was using what I’m guessing is about an 18% sugar solution, so that’s going to yield a beer that is stronger than most modern wines.

    So now, I can see that a) it’s gonna be a dark beer, with all those tannins, probably a deep, leathery red at least the color of a modern football if not darker; b) it will have a complex taste with bitter, sour, smoky, and sweet flavors all mixed in, most acting to conceal the tart sourness of the tannins; and c) it’s gonna be high-test — a rough guess is he’d come out with an ABV of something like 14%. Just thinking about drinking this stuff is making me a little bit tipsy.

    George Washington’s dark, smoky, sweet, knock-you-straight-on-your-ass malt liquor would have been drunk by the general himself and his advisors as they planned maneuvers in the French and Indian War and pre-Revolutionary politics and probably during the Revolutionary War itself and again, thinking about how strong this stuff was makes me marvel that anything got done at all, much less done successfully enough to defeat the strongest military power on Earth.Report

    • @burt-likko re:history pedantia I have corrected the post, I knew that I have no idea why I brain farted it that way. Thankfully, this piece was reviewed by others before going live, so the shame is not mine alone to bear. My bad, thanks for pointing it out.

      You notes on measurements reminds me of the old cooking joke where the children fought over the deceased mothers super secret recipes, only to discover them having been written along the lines of “two scopes from the red lid”, “half of the old green bowl”, and “three of the medium wood spoon”, making their replication almost impossible. Having said that a question since I’m ignorant on this subject for the most part: Is there a substaitial difference in the grains and hops used now as opposed to them, other than the refining and packaging? As someone who cooks I know ingrediants vary wildly just from things like packaging differences so I am wondering if the same holds true to the hops and grains of the day fresh from the fields/storage compared to purchased by home crafters now.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

        I suspect it depended more when you were brewing.

        Nowadays, hops are processed shortly after harvest into dense pellets, minimizing oxygen contact, packed in decently airtight packaging, and refrigerated.

        In the 18th Century, they might have been packed in a barrel or sack in a cool cellar, but there would always be way more oxidation if you were brewing 10 or 11 months after hops harvest. Which wouldn’t probably matter much if as in this recipe you’re boiling all your hops for three hours anyway – oxidation affects aroma mostly, which you get mainly from hops that are boiled somewhere from 0-10 minutes.Report

      • Consider the rose.

        Humans have been cultivating, breeding, and genetically altering roses for centuries, even millenia. We want some to have fewer thorns. Others to have many small blooms. Others to have singular large flowers. Others to have strong scent. Others to have brilliant displays of color. And so on. They’re all roses. Assume the existence of a time machine: a gardener from ancient Egypt or Babylon or China (probably China; the ancient Chinese invented basically everything before Westerners did so why not cultivated roses too) would instantly recognize a modern rose; a modern gardener would instantly recognize an ancient rose.

        Our modern two-row barley is the result of centuries of intentional cross-breeding by farmers and scientists, which changes it from the “natural” state that evolution first left the stuff when humans started cultivating it. The strain of barley we use to make beer from today is about 100 years old, to produce the best possible barley for zymurgy. And experimentation and alteration of barley continues to this day; our grandchildren will drink beer made from barley different than our contemporary two-row pale.

        But it’s still barley. If we were to transport George Washington or Samuel Adams or some other brewer from the eighteenth century forward in time to today, they’d look at modern two-row pale barley, immediate recognize it for what it is, and proceed to make beer out of it, no doubt finding our modern equipment strange at first and delightful after they learned how to use it.

        So too with hops. So too with yeast. Washington would have used different barley, different hops, different yeast than us. But it was still barley, still hops, still yeast. And if we drank it, we’d instantly recognize it as beer. I still think we’d recognize Washington’s stuff as strong beer, notwithstanding the welcome pushback I see from others who also dabble in domestic zymurgy, but we have strong beer today too.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Hm, I was reading that as:

      – a large Sifter full of Bran
      – Hops to your Taste
      Boil these three hours

      If “bran” is unmalted grain then would you not get a starchy porridgy sort of thing – full of complex carbs the yeast won’t touch (right?). If it’s what we call “bran” now, that would just be for grain flavour and yeast nutrient – basically no carbs at all. Either way, the only fermentables would be from 3 gallons of molasses in 30 gallons of wort. So, assuming google’s nutritional information on molasses is close to how thick they boiled molasses down 250 years ago (and I’m sorry I just can’t carry on in imperial, my brain breaks halfway through) about 12 kg of sugar in 113 L of wort – something like 5% ABV.

      Unless he wass letting the starchy wort cool to mashing temperature and then adding a bit of malted grain, as one does when e.g. making corn whiskey (but of course he knew that so didn’t bother writing it down). In which case, there’s also the sugar from “a large sifter” of grain. However much that is.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Oops, notice a typo too late to fix.

        If “bran” is unmalted grain then would you not get a starchy porridgy sort of thing (etc.).

        Also, if 18th C. molasses wasn’t boiled down, as ours is now, to less than 25% water, then the ABV would be correspondingly lower.

        Alsotoo, that’s a helluva lot of molasses. I have tasted rum wash (fermented molasses, usually more like 9-10% ABV than the 5% I’d guess for this recipe) and it is not appetizing at all. Not one bit of yum in it.Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to dragonfrog says:

          Yeah, the quantity of molasses in the recipe really jumped out at me. Even if, as you suggest, it wasn’t quite as concentrated as the modern product, that’s still malt liquor.

          I’m sure George could have milled his barley (or whatever other grain he was using); IIRC there’s a livestock-powered circular flour mill at Mount Vernon to this day. He might have malted it, too, and failed to mention this, though to my mind the process of malting barley is non-obvious.

          The result being, he’d have needed less grain to get the requisite amount of sugar in the mash than if he used whole grains. He does, however, specify that the wort needs to be strained, so he must had some porridgification going on in there.Report

    • Hence the “based on” or “inspired by” frequently used in the advertising copy. I cook a few dishes based on things my mom served when I was a kid. She says “based loosely on” would be more accurate.

      Fascinating comment, though.Report

  3. LeeEsq says:

    The Drys did a lot of work to eliminate the fact that the Founders liked to drink in the run up to Prohibition. They would do things like pay for famous paintings and illustrations of the founders to be redone without alcohol like deleting a carafe of wine from Washington’s desk as he speaks to his officers.Report

  4. i thought maybe just once says:

    the alcohol substitute for water meme bout medeival europe has very little basis in fact.

    see this excellent essay on the topic: