Mid-Atlantic Brewing News December 2003/January 2004

The Making of a Colonial Brewer

By Rich Wagner

Researching Pennsylvania's brewing history has taken me down some pretty bumpy roads but none more twisted than the path to colonial brewing. It all started innocently enough in the spring of 1985 when my wife and I took a tour of Pennsbury Manor. I was particularly interested in the brew house. There was a large wooden cistern and two large fermenting tubs and three copper kettles over enclosed fireboxes. We were impressed that such a significant part of Pennsylvania's brewing tradition was on display.

Two years later we took the tour again and I noticed hops growing in the herb garden and told the guide that the hops could use a string or pole to climb on. I spoke with the horticulturist and worked with him to put up a trellis made of saplings for the "hop hills" in the garden. The following summer there was a hop harvest at the manor.

Interestingly enough, Clare Lise Cavicchi, curator there, had just published a well-researched document entitled "Beer Brewing at Pennsbury Manor." She was experimenting with making homebrew and dreamed of the day they could interpret the brewing process in the brew house at the manor. I encouraged Clare, and even entered one of her beers in the H.O.P.S. competition that year.

Over the next two years Clare enlisted the help of Ron Raiselis, a cooper from Connecticut, who fashioned several tubs and two barrels which could be used to demonstrate the colonial brewing process. When he delivered the equipment he gave a presentation. I was fascinated as he explained how each piece was made and showed slides of the works in progress. My excitement was replaced by disbelief when Clare asked if I'd be interested in figuring out how to put it all together and use it to make beer. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was plunging headlong onto a path that would ultimately, essentially, make me a "time traveler."

To make a long story short, in the Fall of 1990, I conducted the first brewing at Pennsbury Manor in over three hundred years! I made several brews at the Manor, but wondered if I could make my own equipment and take the show on the road. I didn't know how to proceed and the idea lay dormant for two more years until I saw a copy of a local high school newspaper. On the front page was an industrial arts teacher displaying wooden tubs and buckets he made as part of his coopering hobby. After some more twists and turns in the trail, I finally ended up in the cooper shop of Mr. David Miller, who enthusiastically agreed to help me.

We spent the first week fashioning the mash tun, receiver and baler. Since the wood was green, we let the pieces air-dry for a few months. When we started up again, we completed each item, constructed a mash rake, mash plug and a stand for the mash tun. A friend purchased a copper kettle for me at a farm sale, and David made a stand for it out of two wrought iron wagon "tires."

That summer my wife, my eight-year-old son, and I loaded the equipment and thirty gallons of home brew into our trailer and drove to Portland to demonstrate colonial brewing at the Oregon Brewers' Festival. For three days, throngs of attendees walked past our steaming, wort-filled kettle and watched as we stirred the mash, added the hops, and served samples of our beer.

1993 was the 150th Anniversary of the Oregon Trail, and on our way home, we pulled our own "wagon" and demonstrated our brewing system at three sites along the trail. That was only the beginning. For the next nine years we demonstrated beer brewing at the Goshenhoppen Festival in East Greenville and have participated in countless other events along the way. It's been a lot of fun, and I've learned a lot along the way, but in the words of Jerry Garcia, "What a long strange trip it's been!"