Da Schnitzelbank April, 1996

The Inadvertent Cooper

By Richard Wagner


I began homebrewing some ten years ago, convinced I could brew beer with more flavor and character than the domestic brews available at the time. Like most homebrewers, my experience began with a can of malt extract and a one gallon spaghetti pot on the kitchen range. The serious homebrewer substitutes the can of extract with twenty pounds of barley malt. I traded my spaghetti pot for a twenty gallon stainless steel kettle from a dye factory and began boiling on a propane burner in the great out of doors!

My interest led me to grow my own hops to add to my brews. Hops is used in beer making like spices are used in cooking. The hops give beer its bitter flavor and aroma. It is the hop-growing that led me on a journey into the past I would never forget or regret!


Pennsbury Manor

About five years later I visited Pennsbury Manor, a Pennsylvania Historic Site, William Penn's Country Estate on the Delaware. During the 1930's the site was rebuilt from the ground up as a Works Public Administration project. The Bake and Brew Houses adjacent to the Manor were reconstructed in brick, far surpassing the level of sophistication of the original wooden structures. Next to the Brew House was a garden, arranged according seventeenth century design. The Manor gardener grew flax for spinning, herbs and spices for cooking and the like. I noticed a struggling hop vine and asked the gardener about it and explained my own experience in growing hops. I indicated the plants needed a string to grow on and even volunteered to plant some of my root stock the following spring and construct a trellis.

When the time came, I set up two tripods constructed from saplings and spanned them with another sapling. From the cross member, strings were tied and staked into the ground below. This provided the string for the hops to climb - a trait unsurpassed by any other climbing vine! The hops struggled through the heat of August, but climbed the tripod trellis I constructed for them and formed lush vines with their broad leaves and curious plump cones.

The following year I was contacted by Pennsbury Manor. Clare Cavicchi, the curator, had just published Brewing At Pennsbury Manor. Her research was the basis for outfitting the restored Brew House with all the necessary equipment to brew beer. The Brew House had three copper kettles situated in two adjoining rooms which sat in iron rings upon two enclosed fireboxes. In one room there were two kettles and a large cistern where water could be brought up from the river. The cistern was installed during reconstruction and was never used. The adjacent room contained one kettle and a small kiln built into the chimney which could be used for drying. A wooden grain bin was built along the wall. The floor was made of stone.

Each kettle held about twenty-five gallons. In the thirties, some large wooden fermenting tubs had been installed, but Clare's research indicated they were not consistent with an English Brew House of the seventeenth century. Clare had commissioned Ron Raiselis to build the cooperage. And when he delivered it to the Manor they needed a brewer to step in and make it all work.

 The Brewing Process

The brewing process is quite involved, and it is a wonder how people first began brewing ten thousand years ago. It's easy to see how winemaking started, since wild yeast will ferment overripe grapes. But how did those early hominids dwelling in the "Cradle of Civilization" ever decipher the malting, mashing and fermenting processes? Grapes contain sugar for yeast to ferment, but barley is a starchy grain that must be made sweet for the yeast to ferment it into beer.

Beer making actually begins with the malting process. After barley has been harvested from the fields, the maltster steeps it in tubs of water. Then the water is drained and the grain is spread out on the floor to germinate. The "green malt" is turned with wooden shovels to keep the sprouts from growing into a tangled mass. When the sprouts have grown to the proper size (about half again as long as the kernel) germination is terminated, the green malt is dried and kilned at a low temperature. The malting process stabilizes the grains, making it possible to store and use at a later time. The malted barley is now ready for the brewer.

There is a hot side and a cold side to the brewing process. The hot side begins when the brewer mills the grains to expose the inside of the kernel. The cracked malt is added to the mashing vessel where it is mixed with warm water. The combination of moisture and heat starts a process similar to what happens when starchy bread turns sweet in your mouth. After a time, the temperature is raised to produce more sugar from the starch in the grains. The mashing process takes over an hour. The English infusion mash involves stepping up the temperature again to extract the last bit of sugar, then the sweet liquid, called wort, is strained into a receiving vessel below the mash tub. It is this straining action which makes barley malt more suited to brewing than baking. Barley kernels have a hard outer layer which would have to be removed for cooking, but which serve as an ideal filter bed for the brewer in the mash tun. It can take over an hour to strain the wort.

After the wort has been received, it is transferred to the kettle where it is boiled vigorously for one to two hours. During the boil hops are added. The hops help to clarify the wort and impart bitterness. After boiling, the wort is strained through the hops and cooled to a temperature which yeast can tolerate.

The cold side of the process begins when the cooled wort is transferred to the fermenting vessel. Here the yeast is pitched, or thrown, into the fermenter. Wort is an ideal medium for yeast, it provides necessary sugar and protein and within about twenty-four hours their population is sufficient to bring things to a head. In consuming sugar, yeast gives off carbon dioxide and produces alcohol. Top fermenting ale yeast is active at the top of the liquid, and when there is insufficient sugar, too much alcohol, or other conditions prevail, the yeast die or become dormant and sink to the bottom of the fermenter. The wort can be called beer as soon as the yeast begin the fermentation process. After about a week, the resulting beer can be transferred to barrels, and a small amount of sugar is added to produce a secondary fermentation in the sealed cask to carbonate the beer. The beer is aged and is ready for drinking in several weeks.

Penn's Brew House

What was required to brew beer at Pennsbury Manor was a wooden mash tub or tun. Colonial brewers made a tapered hole in the center of the bottom or head of the tun and then made a corresponding tapered plug with a handle long enough to rise above the grain bed so the brewer could raise the plug slightly to strain the wort. The smaller receiver fits beneath the mash tun stand.

Ron constructed a baler for transferring (baling) the wort from receiver to kettle, from kettle to fermenter and from fermenter to cask. The baler is essentially a bucket with a long handle resembling a ladle. He also made a large funnel for filling the barrels.

It became my task to work with the equipment and design a plan for brewing. I began calling professional brewers who were old enough to have worked with wooden cooperage early in their careers. I learned about wetting the tubs down in order to make them water tight. The old-timers even recalled lining barrels and fermenters with a form of pitch to create a cleanable surface and keep things tight.

Palmer Sharpless was the joiner at the manor. He ran the joyners' shop, where he literally "turned out pieces." He turned the plug/handle for the mash tun and drilled a tapered hole in the center of the head. He also made the handle for the baler and built the stand for the mash tun. Palmer also provided me with the benefit of his expertise based on a lifetime of working with wood.

After Palmer bored the drain-hole and made the plug, I took the tubs home to prepare them for the brewing demonstration. I filled all the tubs with water. After some initial leakage they became water tight. However, I returned home from work the following day to find an empty mash tun. In the process of wetting down the tubs, the expansion of the wood sheared the rivets of two hoops and all the water drained out. I began to get worried. I made a mad dash to three hardware stores, none of which carried rivets. Palmer suggested that I cut a nail long enough to span the overlap on the hoops and peen the shaft of the nail to fasten the hoops together. In the process of replacing the hoops the bottom fell out! My worst nightmare had just come true. How was I going to get this thing back together by the weekend for the brewing demonstration?

I frantically called Palmer Sharpless. He offered some advice and lent me some ratcheted webbed straps to serve as temporary hoops, but I was on my own. The problem was the head of the tub had warped. I loosened the staves near the head of the tub and tried to force it in from the inside but no amount of coaxing would get the head back in. I could get only about two thirds of the circumference back into the groove. I stood on it and weighed it down with all the mass I could muster to get the bowed end back into the groove. The head finally fell apart into three pieces, making my job seem even more impossible. I was at my wits end. The only thing worse that could happen would be if all the staves fell apart in the driveway. If that had happened I'd surely have been licked and the brewing demonstration would have been impossible.

Finally someone suggested I use a hydraulic jack to force the bowed head into the groove. I breathed a sigh of relief when it popped into the groove. It worked! The tub was back together all right, but it leaked like a sieve. I called Palmer again for more advice. He told me to keep adjusting the hoops and, " just fiddle with it." I used his webbed belts to keep the tub together while removing and replacing the hoops. Eventually I got the thing as tight as a drum!

The brewing demonstrations were successful. The wooden mash tun and fermenters produced the closest thing any of us will ever taste to fresh seventeenth century-style ale. The second brew boiled for so long that much of the liquid was lost to steam and the recipe intended for a barrel of beer yielded only half a barrel. The beer turned out to be eleven percent alcohol by volume, and compared favorably to Trappist Ales of Belgium to this day, despite some gushing, the beer is quite drinkable.

Constructing a Working, Mobile, Colonial Brewery 

My experience at Pennsbury Manor, while arduous, was fulfilling. But I could see certain constraints of working within the State Historical bureaucracy and desired to brew on my own terms. I decided to outfit myself with my own system so that I could conduct similar brewing demonstrations on the road. As they say, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." The problem now was there were no "Coopers" listed in the Yellow Pages. Where could I find a cooper to make my mash tun, receiver and fermenters? I let the matter rest until someone showed me a copy of a local high school newspaper. In it, there were write-ups on the hobbies of various members of the faculty. Among them was an industrial arts teacher by the name of David Miller, who was a cooper. He was pictured, in costume with some of his wares. What followed was an intensive search for Miller the cooper. I started by checking the phone book. There are nearly as many Millers as Smiths, and at least several of the Millers were Davids. None answered to my description. By the time I managed to contact the school, it was summer time. The receptionist took my name and number and promised to forward my message to David Miller. Before long, we made contact and David turned out to be an experienced cooper who was well acquainted with interpretive demonstrations of traditional crafts.

As I began talking with David about the project he seemed interested. He had made lots of tubs and buckets for butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, but never for a brewer. Traditionally, brewing was one of the crafts most closely connected to coopering, since brew kettles, mash tubs, fermenting vessels and kegs were originally made with staves and hoops. Historically, many brewers began by apprenticing with coopers before learning the brewers' art. Since cooperage was such an integral part of the brewing process it was advantageous to know how to maintain and repair brewing vessels.

What followed was a project that took me through the various operations of the cooper's trade. It turned out to be something of an apprenticeship. We worked together to produce a mash tun, stand, receiver, plug, mash rake, and baler. That process put me in touch with a craft that has been practiced for thousands of years, but which in recent history has become obsolete.

The result was the only active colonial brewing demonstration we know of in the world. I have taken my mobile colonial brewery on the road to brew along the Oregon Trail and at the Oregon Brewers Festival as well as the Goshenhoppen Festival and Hecklerfest in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. People who sample the beer are generally impressed, even surprised, to find such a palatable product. The other thing that surprises most people is to find out just how much work goes into brewing a glass of beer, no matter what century we're talking about.