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A pastoral landscape of women, men and children picking hops
Hop picking from Herring's Agricultural Scenes, 1857. Prints and Photographs Division

Early American Beer

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Today’s post is written by science librarian and culinary specialist Alison Kelly. She has provided her expertise in a number of Inside Adams blog posts related to food history and cooking. Alison is also a gardener and a horticulture subject specialist- she wrote  a post about Women in Horticulture that highlights a selection of books by and about notable women in that field.  

It seems that each year they arrive earlier, and it doesn’t feel quite right, when you are still wearing flip-flops, to see them reappear, their labels glowing with evilly grinning jack-o-lanterns or jolly over-stuffed gourds lolling about in fields and tumbling out of wheelbarrows.  Happily, though, the unseasonal  acceleration of pumpkin beer season has nothing to do with climate change–and,  while  the rising tide of pumpkin brews may be a modern phenomenon, brewing beer–or ale– with pumpkins is actually as old as the United States itself.

Edward Field, the late 19th century historian of colonial times and taverns, includes a reference to “beer that’s brewed with hops and pumpkins,” in his discussion of early days in Rhode Island (The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, vol. 3, 1902- a digital copy is available here). He goes on to describe a flip , a popular hot mixed drink,  in colonial New England:  “home brewed beer, sweetened with sugar, molasses or dried pumpkin, and flavored with a liberal dash of rum, then stirred in a great mug or pitcher with a red hot hottle or flip dog, which made the liquor foam, and gave it a burnt, bitter taste.” (A hottle or a flip dog,  also known as a loggerhead, is a long-handled iron tool with a ball on the end; they were kept in or by the fire and used to heat wines and beers.)

Color photograph of a pumpkin patch with a hill and trees in the background
Pumpkin patch near Litchfield, Connecticut. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2011.

But these colonial brews probably tasted very unlike today’s pumpkin-pie spiced brews. “Pumpkin ale never attained great popularity,” beer historian Gregg Smith states in Beer in America: the early years, 1587-1840 (Brewers Publications, 1998). “As opposed to modern pumpkin beer, in which the pumpkin only adds flavor, for colonials the pumpkin was a source of fermentable sugar. Pumpkin ale of the colonial era, as a result, was said to have a noticeable ‘tang’ unless aged for a few years.”

Pumpkin was in fact only one of the substitutes for traditional European ingredients employed by early American brewers–and it was probably not the first choice of substitutes. Spruce was widely available, and red or black spruce shoots–or, more often, essence of spruce–were often used in place of hops, contributing bitterness and preservative qualities. Other substitute flavorants included ground ivy, (a common weed), and ginger–not native to this country, but a very popular import through trade. Persimmons, pumpkin, and molasses were all used as alternative sources of sugars where they were available.

Beer is usually based on a grain, most often barley, which is malted and then brewed with hops, before being fermented. Although barley was more readily available to many early brewers than sugar, the malting could be a tricky undertaking, best left to a professional maltster.  There appear to have been few substitutes for barley–in fact, a number of early beers were made with little or no grains. Sanborn Brown, in Wines and Beers of Old New England, discusses attempts to substitute Indian corn for barley as a grain–and explains why these experiments were largely unsuccessful.

Photograph of ripe persimmons on a wooden bench
Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Photo by Alison Kelly, 2014.

Beer was also brewed with the common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), native to much of the southern and mid-Atlantic region of the United States. This fruit is known for its mouth-puckering astringency when green, but ripe persimmons are said to turn sweet with the first frost. “An excellent beer is made of persimmons in some of the southern provinces,” according to a statement recorded in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (vol. 1, 1771).  And a recipe for persimmon beer–as well as one for corn beer–appears in Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural  (1863), by Francis Peyre Porcher (a digital copy is available here ).

To make Persimmon Beer. — Gather the persimmons perfectly ripe and free from any roughness. Work them into large loaves with bran enough to make them consistent ; bake them so thoroughly that the cake may be brown and dry throughout, but not burned. They are then fit for use. But if you keep them any time it will be necessary to dry them frequently in an oven moderately warm. Of these loaves broken into a coarse powder, take eight bushels. Pour on them forty gallons of cold water, and after two or three days draw it off; boil it as other beer, adding a little hops. This makes a very strong beer.

Another brewing innovation that made use of American ingredients was spruce beer.  Amelia Simmons American Cookery (1796), the first cookbook written by an American, using ingredients available to Americans, gives a recipe for spruce beer containing hops, water, molasses and “essence of spruce.”   (The essence was produced by boiling the young fresh shoots of the spruce tree and reducing the liquid to a concentrated extract.)  In 1824, Mary Randolph included a similar recipe for spruce beer in The Virginia Housewife, calling for a handful of hops, and twice as much of the chippings of sassafras root, one gallon of molasses, two spoonfuls of essence of spruce, two of powdered ginger, and one of powdered allspice.

Some years later, Eliza Leslie, in Directions for Cookery, the most popular American cookbook  of the 19th century, included recipes for spruce beer, ginger beer, molasses beer , and sassafras beer, (as well as for  fox grape shrub and cherry bounce):

Sassafras Beer– Have ready two gallons of soft water; one quart of wheat bran; a large handful of dried apples; half a pint of molasses; a small handful of hops; half a pint of strong fresh yeast; and a piece of sassafras root the size of an egg…

Miss Leslie goes on to give instructions for boiling the mixture, straining through a hair sieve, and putting into open jugs to ferment.  Interestingly, I could not find these recipes in the later editions of the book–whether in deference to the temperance movement or simply to changing fashions, is not clear. If you are interested in viewing early American cookbooks, including titles by Simmons, Randolph, and Leslie,  see the Michigan State University’s great  Feeding America project.

Cover of Housekeeping in the Blue Grass compiled by the Southern Presbyterian Church Missionary Society of Paris, Kentucky, in 1875.
Cover of Housekeeping in the Blue Grass compiled by the Southern Presbyterian Church Missionary Society of Paris, Kentucky, in 1875.

Even up into the later 1800s, some households were producing their own beer. This recipe for beer comes from one of my favorite community cookbooks, Housekeeping in the Blue Grass  compiled by the Southern Presbyterian Church Missionary Society of Paris, Kentucky, in 1875:

Beer- Two quarts of wheat bran, two and a half gallons of water, a few hops, one pint of molasses, and one pint of yeast. –Miss Kate Spears.

It’s clear that readers of this book were expected to be familiar with the particulars of the brewing process.

Spruce and molasses, along with hops and malt, continued to be employed in home brewing well into the 19th century.  Lydia Maria Child, the noted American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, journalist, Indian rights advocate, and successful author, uses all of these ingredients and more in her recipes  from The Frugal Housewife, which was reprinted at least 35 times between 1829 and 1850:

Beer– Beer is a good family drink. A handful of hops, to a pailful of water, and a half-pint of molasses, makes good hop beer. Spruce mixed with hops is pleasanter than hops alone. Boxberry, fever-bush, sweet fern, and horseradish make a good and healthy diet-drink. The winter evergreen, or rheumatism weed, thrown in, is very beneficial to humors. Be careful and not mistake kill-lamb for winter-evergreen ; they resemble each other. Malt mixed with a few hops makes a weak kind of beer ; but it is cool and pleasant ; it needs less molasses than hops alone. The rule is about the same for all beer. Boil the ingredients two or three hours, pour in a half-pint of molasses to a pailful, while the beer is scalding hot. Strain the beer, and when about lukewarm, put a pint lively yeast to a barrel. Leave the bung loose till the beer is done working; you can ascertain this by observing when the froth subsides. If your family be large, and the beer will be drank rapidly, it may as well remain in the barrel; but if your family be small, fill what bottles you have with it; it keeps better bottled. A raw potato or two, cut up and thrown in, while the ingredients are boiling, is said to make beer spirited. ( A digital copy of the 1835 Frugal Housewife can be accessed here).

For more information about the history and science of beer and brewing check out the Beer and Brewing Guide which provides a selection of titles available in the Library of Congress collection.

Colonial glassware, specimen illustratons
Colonial glassware, specimen illustratons

Also of interest are the following titles which provide information about colonial drinks:

Comments (3)

  1. Thank you Jennifer, very interesting and very informative. When I have time, I will follow your links.

  2. What a great article. I love that craft beer has really taken off in the United States and shown the world that there’s more to American beer than Bud. Your article just goes to show what a rich, developed beer culture the US really has. It’s great that it’s been revived and expanded upon today.

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