Zymurgy Summer 1989

Bringing Colonial Brewing and Malting to Life

By Rich Wagner

Even before the State's founder, William Penn, arrived in his colony in 1682, brewing was fast becoming a prominent endeavor there. Penn's visit lasted less than two years, but in his "greene country towne" of Philadelphia, he reported there was "an able man who… set up a large brewhouse, in order to furnish the people with good drink, both there and up and down the (Delaware) River…"

Penn erected a mansion at Pennsbury Manor, preferring a country estate for his family. He had a brew and bake house built adjacent to the home. Beer was brewed with malt purchased from Philadelphia, and it is reported that hops were grown in his garden.

Penn's love of beer influenced the laws governing the production of beer in the colony. Beer was preferred over distilled spirits, and domestic production was promoted through tax incentives. The government encouraged farmers to grow barley and hops by imposing tariffs on imported raw materials. From the brewing industry's infancy with that "able man" who knew how to brew good beer, Philadelphia would go on to become famous for its porter, preferred by none other than George Washington. Eventually, Pennsylvania would become a world-renowned brewing center.

In the city of Philadelphia as well as the outlying areas there are examples of colonial architecture and clues to life in the past. There are even a few sites that provide glimpses into the brewing process of colonial times.

Graeme Park

Graeme Park is a preserved country estate that was home to the proprietary governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith. Recent attempts to discern the original intent of the structure have been a source of controversy. Was the house built as a malt house, or as a dwelling?

Architectural consultants were hired to do the authoritative work on the estate to guide future restoration and interpretation of the property. Mark Reinberger's assessment indicates that a small malt house was built behind the house. There were plans to build a larger malt house to process the locally grown barley, but due to economic problems, the plans never materialized.

I toured the grounds in May, 1987 and arranged to give a malting demonstration. Preparing it was a lot more work than I expected. I had brewed full-mash batches of beer before, and had even demonstrated brewing outdoors, but this malting business was completely different. I consulted Zymurgy, some obscure 17th-century references supplied by Clare Lise Cavicchi, curator at Pennsbury Manor, and other sources.

Preparations began with a trip to Agway for some untreated feed barley. The smallest quantity was 40 pounds. I proceeded to spread 20 pounds of the barley which had been soaked in water on a cheese cloth supported by a screen propped up on blocks in the back yard.

A sample of the grain was taken every 24 hours for four days and placed in a jar to show the sequence of the sprouting process. I turned the grain regularly and when most of it had sprouted I heated it on cookie sheets in the kitchen oven. The result was a caramel malt of sorts. The Friends of Graeme Park who attended my demonstration were amazed at the complexity of the malting process.


The Heckler Plains Folklife Society is dedicated to brining colonial crafts alive and making people aware of what life was like in the past. I was asked to brew beer at their annual Hecklerfest in September of 1987. With my homebrewing partner, Dan Brosious, we wowed and zowed countless Hecklerfesters with a full-mash brew from start to finish. The recipe was 25 pounds of 6-row fancy and about 5 pounds of homemade caramel malt and some hops I grew in my garden.

For the uninitiated, it is always astounding to see what goes into brewing a ten gallon batch of beer! To many, beer is just something that comes out of a tap or bottle. Along with the blacksmith, butter churners, spinners, weavers, quilt makers, a wine maker across the way, the brewing demonstration fit right into the act. As an added attraction Charlie Brem from the Homebrewers of Philadelphia & Suburbs (HOPS) contributed his expertise and some heavy handed hop additions.

Pennsbury Manor

Pennsbury Manor has beautifully landscaped grounds surrounding buildings reconstructed by the WPA in the 1930's. The gardens are tended by Chales Thomforde and include flowers, grape arbors, corn, flax, herbs, spices and other plants.

I visited the Manor in 1987 and began talking to Charlie about the hops in his garden. He explained that several years ago he had transplanted some hops he found growing on a fence to the garden. I observed that they would yield more cones if they were trained to climb a trellis. He agreed and permitted me to construct several tripods made of saplings.

By mid July the plants were struggling with the heat and dry weather, but they rebounded by late August and that year the volunteer staff harvested about a pound of hops from six or eight vines. Visitors can now see some of the raw materials used in beer making before they enter the bake and brew house. The volunteers received hop pillows for their efforts. In colonial times hops were placed in pillows for their calming effects to promote a sound sleep.

Fortunately for the Pennsbury Society, Clare Lise Cavicchi has researched beer brewing at the Manor and has begun work on outfitting the brew house with the equipment necessary to brew beer so that future visitors may actually see beer being brewed as it was during Penn's time. Authenticity is important, so the barrels will have wooden hoops. Imagine home brewing without plastic tubing or liquid bleach! Thinking about the flavor of a dry hopped ale made from molasses and fermented at room temperature for 24 hours staggers the imagination.

She made a brown ale using a colonial recipe that called for yeast to be added to the wort when it was "blood warm" (a description used prior to the invention of the thermometer). It turned out really well.

Clare has contracted with a craftsman in New Hampshire who specializes in recreating artifacts from antiquity. Based on her research, she has ordered a scoop, funnel, tun dish, three barrels, three coolers, one working tun, mash tun and underback as well as some small utensils. She hopes that brewing at Pennsbury Manor will commence sometime soon.

 This article has been included in:

Papazian, Charlie. Zymurgy for the Homebrewer and Beer Lover. Avon Books, New York. 1998. ch. 1, pp. 5

Addendum July 22, 2020: For me this article was the beginning of a twenty year odyssey which involved working with a cooper to create a system similar to the one used at Pennsbury Manor, only smaller which I've taken “on the road” and done around 100 brewing demonstrations since.

Related Articles

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

Wagner, Rich. “Colonial Brewing From Coast to Coast.” American Breweriana Journal. July/August 2007.

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.