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Thursday, May 05, 2011

George Washington's Small Beer: Less Than Meets the Eye

My Google News alert was thrumming last night with a story that Schmaltz Brewery would be making a batch of George Washington's famous beer:
The founding father and first president of the republic was a man of the people when it came to his drink of preference. His "Notebook as a Virginia Colonel," dated from 1757, includes a handwritten recipe for "small beer."

That recipe, along with many of Washington's other papers, is part of the New York Public Library's collection. This month, the library is joining with Shmaltz Brewing Co. to recreate a modern version of the porter to celebrate the centennial of its Stephen A. Schwarzman building.

Just 15 gallons will be brewed and offered for tasting. Local brewers Peter Taylor and Josh Knowlton have taken the liberty of tweaking the recipe, which the library has dubbed "Fortitude's Founding Father Brew."

There are a couple problems here. First. Fifteen gallons? That's not even nanobrewing. Who brews a half gallon barrel? Second, if you're going to do something like this and light up the internet, shouldn't you at least go all in and hawk it like it's Billy Beer? Cash in if you're going to cash in.

But my bigger problem is that the "recipe" is no such thing. Behold:

"To make Small Beer. Take a large Sifter full of Bran Hops to your Taste. — Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gallons into a Cooler, put in 3 Gallons Molasses while the Beer is scalding hot or rather drain the molasses into the Cooler & strain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. Let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm. Then put in a quart of Yeast if the weather is very cold, cover it over with a Blanket & let it work in the Cooler 24 hours. Then put it into the Cask — leave the Bung open till it is almost done working — Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed."

What the hell is he talking about? He was only 25 when he scratched this out, and my sense is that his knowledge of brewing was ... rudimentary. Even if we grant that "bran hops" is supposed to be rendered "bran, hops," it still doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe by bran he meant malt, but then "to taste" doesn't give a lot of direction. And the business of adding the molasses after the boil--probably not super wise. (But, maybe--if it was boiling Hot.)

Schmaltz's Jeremy Cowan acknowledged that the recipe is cockamamie--or "tricky," as he described it. "The ingredients in the brewing process that he used are kind of pre-modern." Indeed.

Good President, bad recipe.


  1. Perhaps there was a comma or something missing and the statement was supposed to read, "Add a sifter of bran, (and) hops to taste."

  2. I agree 15 gallons is a piddling and sorry amount. But,"Who brews a half gallon?" I think should be 'who brews half a barrel?

  3. Norm, right you are. Thanks for catching it.

  4. Obviously the bran wasn't going to add much if boiled. The Mashing process involved steeping Grains a specific temperature. Boiling would do almost nothing to extract sugars/flavors from the bran other than create a malt-o-meal. Was the "bran" malted ahead? Sounds like this would be a Molasses beer with Hops. I've seen this recipe a zillion times always wonder why it has Hops rather than spruce which was the bittering favorite in colonial time. Ingredients are all there... It's the method that's in question.

  5. My thoughts exactly when I read this. Whatever this made tasted like crap. I don't care if George Washington drank it. I wouldn't want to make it, or drink it. Also, whatever the king of gimmicky brewing (Schmaltz)is making is going to taste NOTHING like what those poor souls had to endure.

  6. "Who brews a half barrel"?

    Foggy Noggin' in Washington.

    And what do you mean by "that isn't even nanobrewing"? What is your definition of nanobrewing.

  7. Despite all the "pooh-poohing" going on for this beer, I would be happy to try it. Not only because I've a little bit of guilty pleasure for history, but because it is an experience.

    Isn't that what craft beer drinkers love? New flavors? Different techniques? Long-lost recipes? I think Dogfish Head would argue the popularity of ancient ales!

    I remember eating US Civil War soldier rations ("hard tack") on a field trip as a youngster. It was friggin' awful, but to this day I'm glad I tried it because it let me know something about history.

    All said and done, if Dogfish Head can make a amazing beer out of the scrapings of some ancient Egyptian vessel, then Schmaltz should be able to do something satisfactory with a much more specific "list" of ingredients than Dogfish Head ever had. Whether it tastes anything like the historic brew is another matter.