Zymurgy Spring 1992

Brewing the Seventeenth Century Way

By Rich Wagner

Who would have thought, more than fifty years ago when the Works Project Administration rebuilt William Penn's mansion and estate, that anyone would ever brew beer in the brew house? For years baking has been done in the open hearth and ovens, soap and candle making and laundry have been demonstrated to visitors. But not until October of 1990 did the brew house proudce a full mash brew using reproductions of seventeenth century brewing equipment.

It took the efforts of Clare Lise Cavicchi to begin the brewing program at Pennsbury Manor. Clare is curator at the Manor and researched the brewing process and published "Beer Brewing at Pennsbury Manor" in 1987. Her research was exhaustive and included everything she could get her hands on regarding the brewing process of the day including equipment and recipes. She had a vision that one day visitors could see a brewing demonstration at Pennsbury Manor.

She contracted with Ron Raiselis, a cooper from New Hampshire, to fabricate the necessary equipment. It was a pretty tall order considering she wanted barrels made without metal hoops! Raiselis had done similar work for other historical sites went to work constructing the equipment needed to interpret the colonial brewing process. The barrels had bentwood sapling hoops lashed around the staves but the mash tun and receiver had iron hoops.

The stage was set for brewing at Pennsbury Manor. Tom Pastorius of the Pennsylvania Brewing Co. paid for the equipment and offered to supply the malt. All that was missing was a seventeenth century brewer! When I established the hop trellis in the garden at Pennsbury Manor in 1987 I met Cavicchi and got her interested in making a batch of homebrew. Her first batch was a brown ale brewed with hops from the garden at the Manor.

In the spring of 1990 the staff contacted me to see if I was up to the task of making beer with their equipment. I accepted the challenge and signed on as a Pennsbury volunteer. Fortunately my homebrewing partner, Dan Brosious, agreed to assist. The brewing program was about to unfold.

We had to make sure the fireplace and chimney in the brew house were in working order so I spent a day in August firing up the kiln and test drying hops from the garden. It took awhile for the bricks in the kiln to heat up, but once they did, the hops dried in a short time. The thirty foot chimney provided an excellent draft and the firebox worked like a charm. We decided to harvest and dry hops in the kiln as a demonstration on Manor Day in September.

In the meantime, I was scratching my head trying to figure out how to use the assorted barrels, tubs and kettles by consulting Clare's book. We needed a plug for the bottom of the mash tun that could be pulled to drain the wort. Palmer Sharpless, another volunteer and experienced wood turner, turned the plug on his lather. It looked like a bed post- tall enough to stand above the hot mash.

Once the mash tun was modified, the next step was to make the various vessels watertight by soaking them in water. After transporting all the equipment to my driveway and filling the tubs with water, the wood swelled up, making them "tight" and all was well for about two days when the expansion of the staves sheared the rivets holding the hoops! The bottom of the mash tun came apart from the staves! This was a nightmare. Sharpless and other woodworkers offered some suggestions and through trial and error I managed to repair them all, but when the mash tun was filled with water it leaked like a sieve. The solution was to soak the entire tun in a wading pool for three days, whereupon the mash tun was tight as a drum!

Some of the veterans of the brewing industry I spoke to remembered working with wooden fermenters. One had even started his career with a wooden mash tun. It was agreed that the fermenter should be coated with a wax-like substance called Mammut to make a cleanable surface. The Mammut was heated to 300 degrees and applied to heated staves with a brush.

It was suggested that the barrels be "pitched," a process that sprayed a hot wax-like coating through the bunghole then rolling the barrel around to ensure an even coating to the inside of the barrel. Fortunately the Clement Brewery in Vernon, NJ uses wooden cooperage imported from Germany and they operated their own pitching machine. The brewery agreed to pitch Pennsbury's kegs in the interest of history.

It might seem that everything was ready to begin the perfect brew, but not a chance! The well at the Manor is contaminated and spring water has to be bought in five gallon carboys. Today's homebrewers take water for granted: hot and cold on tap! Unfortunately the large cistern in the brew house was not suitable for storing water for the demonstration. I filled all the wooden vessels with water from home and brought them to the Manor for the demonstration.

With everything in place, the demonstration went just fine. Brewing in a copper kettle that fits into a ring above the enclosed firebox is an unparalleled "cooking" experience. Compared with my homebrew gas grill arrangement the draft from the chimney made boiling the wort a breeze.

Operating the mash tun was the trickiest part of the process. The recipe called for 100pounds of ground malt which was provided by Pennsylvania Brewing Co. in Pittsburgh. The wooden plug did little to strain the wort so we used a piece of burlap in a sieve beneath the mash tun above the receiver. All temperatures were approximated without the help of a thermometer.

The hardest part of the process was transferring large amounts of hot water between two rooms and lifting three kettles in and out of their rings above the brick fire boxes. We added Pennsbury hops in cheesecloth bags to the kettles. We removed the kettles from the firebox rings, covered them with muslin cloth and allowed the wort to cool overnight. The following day the cooled wort was added to the wooden fermenter and the yeast from Sam Adams Brew House was pitched. Within two days a thick foam formed above the liquid and fermentation continued for about three weeks.

One leaking keg could not be made tight because of freezing temperatures, so we racked the beer into glass carboys. Some was dispensed from a draft system (F.G. 1.020) while the remainder conditioned for an additional month. The original gravity was 1.080 and the final gravity was 1.0000. This beer defied category! It was dry light bodied and very smooth. To my surprise it seemed neither malty nor hoppy just strong in alcohol and poorly carbonated.

The draft beer was much sweeter and had a strong alcohol flavor. Despite our efforts to be authentic we tried to be as clean as possible. While brewers may not have understood germ theory, they would "scald" utensils with boiling water. This is what we did to eliminate as much chance of contamination as possible. The professional brewers I talked with were skeptical of brewing with no controls, but as a homebrewer who routinely brews outdoors on a gas grill the quality of the brew did not surprise me.

As a student of the history of Pennsylvania's brewing industry, I can think of no greater honor than to be the first to brew beer in William Penn's brew house in the twentieth century, seventeenth century style!

Related Articles

Wagner, Rich. “Brewing and Malting in Early Philadelphia.” Program Description. Morris Arboretum April 19, 2018.

Wagner, Rich. "Suburban Hop Farming." Zymurgy. Spring, 1986.

Wagner, Rich. "William Penn's Brewhouse, a Historical Perspective." All About Beer Magazine. Dec. 1987.

Wagner, Rich. "Bringing Colonial Brewing and Malting to Life." Zymurgy. Summer, 1989.

Wagner, Rich. "Brewing the Seventeenth Century Way." Zymurgy. Spring, 1992.

Wagner, Rich. "The Inadvertent Cooper." Da Schnitzelbank. Vol. 1, No. 3, April 1996.

Wagner, Rich. "The Making of a Colonial Brewer." Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. Dec. 2003/ Jan. 2004.

Wagner, Rich. “The Beers and Breweries of Colonial Philadelphia.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. Dec./Jan. 2005/06.

Wagner, Rich. “Drafting History: 19th Century Brewing Demos.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News October/November 2011.