'California Beer' or 'Bee Beer' - Fermented With Beech Gum

By Rich Wagner

Here is an article I found most interesting. During my colonial brewing demonstrations the question invariably arises “where did they get the yeast?” I invariably invoke a story told to me by an old timer who grew up in the Sinnemahoning Forest in Central Pennsylvania “where the hemlock grew so straight and true they were made into ships' masts,” (as he related).

When his mother needed a “sourdough starter” she would send him in search of wild hops growing in the forest. When he returned she would make an infusion with some flour or sugar and water. This cold tea would be nutritious for any airborne yeast trapped in the lupulin glands of the hop cones and bring them to life, creating her sourdough starter!

That and hearing Dr. Patrick McGovern, who has done incredible archeological investigations of early brewing and fermented beverages. In an interview in the documentary “Beeradelphia” he kept coming back to honey and the role of insects, etc. in distributing airborne fauna and flora. Dogfish Head's Eat-aly in New York City cultured yeast from a hornet a few years ago and I just read where an organization trying to prevent the extinction of butterflies had a beer made from yeast collected from a butterfly! Add to this the fact that today's brewers are experimenting with “open air inoculation,” just adds another facet to the picture.

So the following article was yet another possible way that people could have cultured yeast. I shared the article with Dr. Clarissa Dillon who has done deep research into Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania Housewifery. This is a portion of her reply:

Birch wine, found in 18th century sources as well as modern ones, uses sap that’s collected like maple sap. I checked in Andre Simon’s How to Make Wines and Cordials From Old English Recipe Books (Dover, 1972) and found nothing (sic about gum from beech).

My wine mentor told me about “bee wine” that she remembered from her childhood in Bedfordshire. She said it was so called because little things moved up and down during fermentation and looked like bees. I have a copy of the book she used, First Steps in Winemaking by C.J.J. Berry, and looked up Bee Wine. It doesn’t mention gum but says that the “bees” are clumps of a certain kind of yeast. Jars of the fermenting mixture were set on the window sill so the process went faster and the “bees” were more visible…

I have no idea why they call it “California Beer” but judging from the time and place, my guess is people were resorting to tried and true methods from antiquity to make home brew at a time when Britain was recovering from WWI.

The Brewer and Maltster and Beverageur October 15, 1919

p. 56, 58. Beech Gum Used to Make New “California Beer.” By James Scott.

A few weeks ago Messrs. Hewit Bros. of the Tower Brewery, Grimsby (sic England), very kindly inquired whether I was aware of a remarkable local practice, based upon the use of beech gum in a saccharine solution, whereby is prepared a very palatable wine. I had to admit that I was hitherto unaware of the custom, and upon seeking full information and guidance in the subject from the firm named, they helped me with a sufficient supply of information, and also some of the materials concerned therewith.

Subsequently, in a contemporary, the following passage was published: “We wonder if any of our readers have heard of the domestic concoction called Californian Beer, which has suddenly sprung into public favor, since it became so difficult to obtain beer and spirits.”

I think that the various facts relating to this matter will have some amount of interest for our readers, even if they are not potent enough to offer any commercial advantages to them, which is not altogether impossible.

The country people of Lincolnshire split the bark of the beech trees during spring, and from these fissures there slowly ooze globules of gum, which collect together into granular nodules about half-an-inch or so wide.

A few pieces of this gum are then placed in a solution of sugar or treacle, the whole being contained in a bottle or other suitable receptacle, the top of which is covered with a layer of close-textured muslin, or linen, tied into position. The necessity for the latter innovation becomes obvious if one attempts an improper alternative. For instance, one day I closed the neck of the bottle with a cork, and after a few hours’ time it was blown out and across the other side of the room, owing to the action of the gases evolved in the solution.

I followed the instructions given to me, and made repeated observations on the processes and changes which were experienced by the contents of the bottle. The latter was stood on the hearthstone, a few feet away from the fire, to ensure the necessary equable temperature. In spring and summer the normal warmth is usually sufficient for the purpose. As the fermentation proceeded the pieces of gum alternately rose and fell in the most curious manner. A piece, till then lying quietly on the bottom (it had, of course, moved some time before), suddenly rose with rapidity until it reached the surface of the solution. After a second or two it descended with equal facility. Another piece was lifted a short way, or half way, or higher up, and then fell. As some pieces were passing upwards, while others were going down, the whole effect was somewhat comical.

The phenomenon is easily explained. During the fermentation of the sugar various gases were naturally produced in the active gum, which was the source of the fermentation. The gases were in the form of tiny bubbles, and until these had increased in number and size they could not exert their power. When, however, there were enough of them they served as so many buoys or balloonets, and lifted the piece of gum to which they were attached. Arrived at the surface the buttbles burst, and by allowing the gum to regain its normal weight enabled it to sink, ready, when again gas-laden, to renew the rising movements.

Some bubbles of gas got detached while the gum was midway in the solution, and so were lightened at earlier stages.

A spponful of cane sugar had to be placed in the bottle each morning, and afforded the material to be fermented, when it had dissolved. This was done regularly for fourteen days, and the wine was then decanted off from the lees, and clarified. It proved to possess a very agreeable flavor. That it contained a fair proportion of spirit was clear when I applied the iodine test. Indeed, the strength of the “beery” or “winey,” which pervaded the apartment during the transferring process was almost incredible.

The lees, consisting principally of the gummy nodules, were capable of continuing the fermentation of fresh lots of saccharine solution.

As may be expected, the wine was practically colorless, only a faint yellowish tint being visible. Tinted with a little cochineal, or some equally innocuous product, it would become attractive.

The gumming of tres is quite a common occurrence, as people who grow plum, cherry, peach and other fruit trees will be aware. Gummy nodules , sticky or dry, glistening or dull, as the case may be (being dependent on condition, age, and so on), may be found projecting from little scars in the trunks and branches.

The gumming is generally believed by scientists to be due to the action of a fungoid growth, the commonest species of which is Corvneum gummiparum. Other kinds of minute fungi which are believed to have the capacity to produce gum are Clasteos porium carpophyllum, Cladosporium epiphyllum, Helminthosporium carpophyllum and Coryneum Beijerinckii.

It is the invisible mycelia threads which penetrate and grow just beneath the bark that operate on the sap in such a way as to convert it tinot gum. The ends of the threads, as they lengthen, excrete a ferment or enzyme (a nitrogenous principle which increases and becomes stronger the more work it does), and this factor may dissolve in the sap and be carried to a distance exerting its chemical sway there without any further need of the fungus itself.

At certain seasons the mycelia threads break through little cracks in the bark – they are usually themselves responsible for such openings – and from black spores or conidia upon the ends of outgrowing threads or hyphoe. The tufts are commonly compact and discoidal, and may grow on any part of the tree. The descripton applies more particularly to Coryneum gummiparum, but there is so little real difference of formation between this and the other species named, that many authorities think they should all be regarded as simple varieties, and not definitely different species.

The spores are Nature’s provision for ensuring the satisfactory continuance of the fungus. The threads themselves cannot pass from tree to tree, but when the sporkes appear, and then ripen, they get detached and blown all over the country as invisible dust, each being ready to sprout, and eventually yield gumming mycelium.

They find their way down to the sap through the tiniest possible slits, or may germinate outside the bark, and cause their threads to pass down through the cells until the sap is reached.

The tapping of the beech – which is a notoriously moist and sappy tree – may admit the necessary fungi, or the sap beneath may already have been sufficiently modified to render it ready to ooze when afforded the opportunity. The air naturally has an influence on the gum, especially in stiffening it into the nodular shapes.

The name Bee, previously referred to, is evidently a shortening of the word beech, but whether Californua makes much of the wine I do not know.

A special shallow vessel with a darkened bottom ground, has been used for the purpose of observation. The wet gum is soft, yielding, and partly disintegrated over the surface. It is full of tiny organisms of all kinds. As fermentation proceeds, ordinarily invisible bubbles of gas form within it, and gradually expand until they touch one another, and then combine to form larger ones, which raise the gum. The curious part of the matter is that the more the gum is used the stronger it becomes.

Of course, larger pieces act in the same way. Eventually it gets disintegrated to nothingness.

It seems to me that the facts narrated deserve looking into from the point of view of the indluence of gum in ordinary brewing towards the production of alcohol. Dextrin (gum) is formed as an intermediate product between the original starch of the barley grain and its ultimate maltose. It is usually concluded that gum which still remains unchanged is a kind of lethargic medium, waiting to be changed itself into sugar that shall be alcoholised by yeast. But it appears to be quite feasible that such gum has the power to operate on the maltose of its own account. At any rate, we cannot say that we know all there is to be learned along these lines.