Wooden Tubs, Outdoor Fires and Craftsman's Intuition

CAMDEN, N.J. -- If you're a home brewer or otherwise fascinated with the legend and lore of beer making, last Saturday was your kind of day at the Camden County Historical Society.

Photo: Hoag Levins

Richard Wagner tends his colonial-era beer-brewing rig during a day-long presentation at the Camden County Historical Society's Colonial Brew Fest. Click for larger photo.

The Presenters' Websites:

pointer bug Brew Historian Richard Wagner
pointer bug Open-Hearth Cook Mercy Ingraham

The Sponsors' Websites:

pointer bug Flying Fish Brewery
pointer bug Yards Brewery Co.
The side yard of the Society's Pomona Hall mansion was turned into an 18th-century brew house, where beer historian Richard Wagner stoked the fire beneath a boiling copper kettle, sloshed water back and forth with a huge, hand-carved wooden baler and raked a porridge-thick wort of malted barley in a barrel-stave tub as he demonstrating the making of the colonial era's favorite drink.

1750's brewer
A bear of a man with hair to his shoulder blades, the 54-year-old Hatboro, Pa., resident was dressed in garb that would have been worn by a typical 1750s itinerant brew master -- a craftsman whose horse and wagon carted a mini-brewery from farm to farm.

"In the Colonial era, a normal family would have gathered for breakfast and all of them -- children included -- would have routinely received beer to drink," said Mr. Wagner, who has spent 25 years researching the history and technology of brewing. "They drank beer like we drink water or coffee, and there are a number of reasons for that."

Mr. Wagner, who has been doing his historical brewing demonstrations since 1993, has previously been featured in WHYY's documentary "Workshop of the World" that tracked the evolution of the region's major industries, including Philadelphia's famed early breweries.

Handmade wooden equipment
All his brewing equipment -- except for the hammered cooper kettle -- was made of hand-carved wood. "I worked with a cooper for eight months to make everything just as it would have been made back then. We carved the ladles from naturally-occurring tree burls and, during the winter, I'm always studying my firewood to find pieces shaped just right for certain implements," he said.

Mr. Wagner's Saturday appearance was part of a one-day Historical Society event that also included hearth cook Mercy Ingraham of the Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley who gave presentations about early tavern life and cooking in Pomona Hall's large 18th-century kitchen.

"As part of our effort to bring local history to life, this one was really close to home for us," said Society executive director Linda R. Gentry. "The Cooper families that lived here in Pomona Hall during the 1700s were typical of southern New Jersey plantation owners and maintained their own brew house here. Today we're actually doing the same thing they did, right where they did it."


Photo: Hoag Levins

Ann Wagner stokes a wood fire under a copper kettle to boil the water needed for the old-time beer making process. Larger photo.

But the event concept was not without some controversy, according to Society president Richard Pillatt. "After we announced it earlier this summer, I was in a nearby restaurant eavesdropping on some people who were discussing our publicity, and one of them asked the other, 'what does BEER really have to do with history?' Well, in terms of daily life in 18th-century Camden County, one word easily answers that question: 'Everything,' I said. Beer played a central role in the social, economic and political life of almost all our regional ancestors. It provided daily nutritional sustenance, it was made from the crops that they grew and bought and sold in huge quantities, and it was the key lubricant in the networks of local taverns that were the culture's primary social and political venues."

Benjamin Franklin
"The era's sense of the stuff was summed up by Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in his famed almanac that 'Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,'" said Mr. Pillatt.

In his own presentations throughout the day, Mr. Wagner concurred. "Making your own beer was the norm back then," he said. Most women had to know how to make beer because it was just expected that every wife would feed her family with nourishing beer. This was as important a domestic craft as cooking soup, tending a kitchen garden or spinning yarn."

The historical record indicates that from their earliest days at the beginning of the 17th century, avid beer makers populated European settlements along both sides of the Delaware River. In the 1670s, when English Quaker John Fenwick arrived to take possession of a land grant and start the town of Salem, N.J., along the lower Delaware, he wrote that the his fellow settlers quickly "busied themselves in erecting breweries for manufacturing beer for common drink."


Photo: Hoag Levins

In a central part of the beer-making process, a mash rake is used to stir a mix of malted barley and hot water in a mash "tun" or tub. Larger photo.

And when William Penn landed to establish his own new town of Philadelphia in 1682, one of his earliest acts was to appoint the settlement's first brewster. A few years later, he built his own brew house at his Pennsbury Manor, twenty miles upriver, and wrote, "Our beer was mostly made from molasses which was well boyld, with Sassafras or Pine infused into it."

Regional industry
By the 1700s, beer brewing and the growing of barley and hops required for the process were major regional industries. Commercial notices in Benjamin Franklin's and other newspapers indicate that aside from using locally grown hops, Philadelphia brewers had to import them from distant cities as well. For instance, The Pennsylvania Gazette reported that during the year 1791, Philadelphia merchants took delivery of a total of 20 tons of hops from vessels inbound from Boston alone.

Hops are a flowering vine whose fruit resembles tiny, soft green pinecones. Each contains a sticky yellow resin-like substance that has been used as a preservative and flavoring in the brewing process for nearly a thousand years. The plant grows astoundingly fast, as demonstrated by the Historical Society's own hops garden. Planted with seedlings in the early spring in anticipation of this event, the vines had, by last weekend, completely enveloped 10-foot-tall trellises.

"Our idea was that visitors who came to this historical brew fest would encounter everything the Coopers experienced when they made beer here 250 years ago," said Ms. Gentry. "So, today, we're urging our visitors to touch the vines and see real hops growing and then walk to the other end of Pomona Hall to grab a handful of dried hops from one of the burlap bags of hops and barley that Mr. Wagner is using."

Hops sleeping pillows
Inside the mansion, Ms. Ingraham was also giving a presentation about hops to a crowd gathered in the sprawling kitchen. Standing close to a roaring fire in a stone hearth as large a modern garage door opening, she held up a curl of green vine and explained that centuries ago, farmers noticed that laborers who harvested hops all day often became calm and sleepy during the work. And because it was believed that hops had sedating or sleep-inducing qualities, 17th and 18th-century insomniacs often stuffed their pillows with hops flowers to hasten their own slumber.


Photo: Hoag Levins

Historic Foodways Society hearth cook Mercy Ingraham holds up a fresh-cut section of hops vine thick with the flowering fruits that are used in beer making. Larger photo.

Ms. Ingraham pointed out that the growing of hops, gathering of barley and making of beer were serious business for tavern owners as well as families in general back then. "People knew from hard experience that water was not safe to drink. They didn't understand sanitation principles and had no knowledge of germ theory or the causes of the diseases that killed so many of them at a young age. But they did know that when you drank beer instead of water, you didn't get sick. As we can see from Mr. Wagner's demonstration, the brewing of beer from hops and barley as well as the brewing of cider from fermented apples used a boiling process and laced the beverages with alcohol -- both things that protected against the growth and spread of harmful microorganisms."

Timers and thermometers?
Back in the side yard, Mr. Wagner was tending his mash and being peppered with questions from the audience, whose members included a number of home brewers. Several bent down to quizzically inspect the wooden-stave gear up close. Others wanted to know where his timers and thermometers were.

"I don't used modern instruments to measure anything," he explained, holding up his wrist to emphasize that he didn't even wear a watch. "Everything is based on the way things look or feel at certain stages. I watch until the water is just about to boil in the kettle and that's when I add it to the mash. I time things by using the movement of the sun -- 15 degrees an hour."

"Or, after you've boiled the wort for two or three hours, you have to let it cool down until it's 'blood warm' before you put the yeast in -- that's a rough estimate of body temperature. So, everything about the old-time process involves estimates and observations based on experience rather than instrumentation."

"The home brewers who come to watch me during these demonstrations are people who are using the most up-to-date equipment available and, beyond that, many of them have their PCs hooked up to various parts of their brewing system to exactly control everything. When these guys see me, they tend to be flabbergasted that I can use this old-time stuff to actually turn out drinkable beer."

How does it taste?
And just how does his beer taste? Well, because the full process requires the finished brew to sit for about six weeks, we didn't get to taste any of Saturday's batch. But audience members wanted to know how it would compare to commercial beer and whether the taste Mr. Wagner achieved would have been the same as that of brewers of centuries ago.

"Well, that depends on how much of a purist you want to be," he said. "The varieties of barlies available today are different then they were back then. But what I try to do is use a recipe that is comparable -- with the materials I have to work with today -- to what they would have done back there. The real big difference is pure yeast culture. After Pasteur and other scientists became aware of microorganisms, they were able to adapt scientific techniques to creating a pure yeast culture -- yeast is a fungus. But before that, our ancestors didn't know if yeast was animal, mineral or vegetable. They did know that when they threw this stuff they called "God is good" into a fermenter, you had this lively reaction that was magical. But they had no idea why or how it happened. Brewing for them was truly an art and a mystery."

"So, the real difference is that with a pure yeast culture, I get a better tasting beer than they ever would have gotten," Mr. Wagner said. "They had to use their yeast over and over again and didn't have the same kind of sanitation we have today, so they would have gotten all kinds of off flavors compared to what I get today."

"I do everything I can do in the traditional way that colonial people would have done it but I don't intentionally make the beer bad," he said. "The truth is, if modern people could somewhow taste the beer that was actually made back then, we'd probably all spit it out."

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