The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Zymurgy in the Stacks: Brewing History at the MHS

Like many other people these days, one of my hobbies outside of work is brewing beer at home. It’s a good way to spend an afternoon and the results, if not immediate, are usually very satisfying. As I type this, there are 3 gallons of Holiday Cheer Ale in a glass carboy on my counter, bubbling-away during the primary fermentation stage. It will take a few weeks until I get my final product, so patience is a necessity. But, since I’ve gotten myself into a good rotation the last couple of months, I have plenty of other styles on standby for when I get thirsty.

Even though I started brewing about two and a half years ago, I have not yet been brave enough to do a lot of experimentation with my recipes. Instead, I rely heavily on a list of house recipes created by the folks at my local brewing supply store in Cambridge. These recipes provide step-by-step instructions (which I have down-pat, at this point), specific types and amounts of grains, malt extracts, and hops that go into a given brew, and a few types of yeast that they suggest for the best results. So far, these recipes have not failed me.

On a few different occasions I have searched our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what the MHS holds in relation to beer and brewing. Sadly, there is not much, most of it coming in the form of old printed treatises on beer. A few weeks ago, though, I struck gold! While preparing a display of manuscripts for a visiting college class working on food history, I brought out an item that is listed in our catalog as an “Anonymous Recipe Book, ca.1800.” Upon opening the folder, I found staring at me a small manuscript page with the simple heading “To brew Beer.”

“Take 3 pints of malt, a double handful of Hops, as much of bran or shorts, boil these in ten gallons of soft water for two hours, then strain it, and when cold, add half a pint of molasses a half pint of yest and work it well. To colour it add a handfull of roasted barley whilst it is boiling. The yest of this beer put in a bottle with water & kept in a cool place, will serve to make bread.”

Also included on the page is a recipe for Spruce Beer:

“Take half a pint of Spruce. Boil it two hours in five gallons of soft water, a quart of molasses. When cold work in a large tea cup full of god thick yest, let it work 24 hours & then bottle it off. It will be pleasant Beer without the spruce.”

As I mentioned above, with modern recipes I have grown accustomed to seeing very specific amounts (usually in ounces, to one decimal place) and varieties of grains/malts and hops to create a certain type of brew. I feel like these somewhat vague descriptions (3 pints of malt; a double handful of hops) made more sense 200 years ago because the pickings were probably slim and brewers were using what was grown nearby. In the 18th century, a brewer did not have to agonize over whether to use Northern Brewer hops or Fuggles; the myriad options simply were not there.

Still, I think that maybe in the near future I will overcome my reliance on the modern recipe and give this piece of brewing history a try at home.  


permalink | Published: Friday, 20 November, 2015, 12:00 AM


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