House of Brews

Pennsbury Manor will offer a Colonial beer brewing and cider-making demonstration.

Related Story: Cheers for Beers
By: Lauren Otis
   Beer as breakfast food? For the kids? No, this isn’t an alien world, just the world of Colonial Pennsylvania in the 1600s. "Drinking beer was considered to be a very healthy habit. It had ‘spirit lifting’ qualities," says Emily Schooley, a caretaker at Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, Pa., who also serves as brewmaster at the historic country estate on the Delaware River once owned by William Penn.
   Ms. Schooley will be conducting a historically accurate Colonial brewing and cider-making demonstration Oct. 22, using authentic equipment at Pennsbury Manor’s brewhouse, a freestanding structure on the estate which also houses the kitchen.
   Beer making and consumption was an integral part of most Colonial households, Ms. Schooley says. Adults drank three to four quarts of beer a day, and children drank one to two quarts, albeit of "small beer," a weak 1 to 2 percent alcohol version, she says. Beer was the drink of choice for meals, "it was what everyone drank for breakfast," with a family of 10 going through a 36 gallon barrel of brew in a week, she says.
   At the time there was no knowledge of germ theory but from experience it was understood that drinking water would make you sick but drinking beer, which had been boiled, would not, Ms. Schooley explains. Thus beer became a staple of the Colonial diet, as important as bread, she says.
   William Penn’s own writings indicate his interest in building facilities for regular brewing, Ms. Schooley says. Rather than the stainless steel equipment in today’s commercial breweries or even the sanitized plastic containers used by contemporary homebrewers, Ms. Schooley must ply her Colonial craft with copper kettles, slatted-wood barrel containers and no thermometer.
   In the 1980s, Clare Cavicchi, a curator at Pennsbury Manor, put "an enormous amount of work" into researching Colonial-era brewing, says Rich Wagner, a Hatboro, Pa.-based historian of Pennsylvania brewing who was recruited to reintroduce brewing to the manor. In 1990 he conducted the first brewing at Pennsbury Manor "in over 300 years," conducting a number of demonstrations until Ms. Schooley took over in 1993.
   "I just happened to be there at the right time," says Mr. Wagner, who was asked by Ms. Cavicchi if he wanted to try his hand at Colonial brewing and "jumped at the chance." His challenge was to use only Colonial-era equipment and processes, and "make beer that was drinkable," says Mr. Wagner.
   He says he succeeded, with the help of a pure strain of contemporary cultured yeast — his one concession to the modern world — although the Colonial-type brews he concocted were a far cry from the sanitized and homogenized beers contemporary drinkers may be used to. "You might turn your nose up at it, you might spit it out, then again you might like it," he says of Colonial-era beer.
   What is fun is for visitors to Pennsbury Manor to get a feel for the historic importance of beer-making in the Colonial era, how much work was involved and how long a pedigree brewing in this country has, says Mr. Wagner.
   "This was an art, right now it is a science," Ms. Schooley says of the brewing process. Prior to the wide cultivation of barley in Pennsylvania, William Penn and others would brew beer using imported molasses, she says. Pennsylvania is a good area for the cultivation of barley and hops, and by the late 1600s an English ale-style beer using these ingredients became prevalent, she says. Each family had its own recipe for beer that would be passed down from generation to generation. In addition to the basic ingredients of malted barley, water and hops, families would cultivate and reuse their own variety of yeast, and would perhaps add wheat, oats and herbs to the brew according to their family tradition, Ms. Schooley says.
   No Penn family beer recipes have been recovered from the Colonial era, Ms. Schooley says, so she brews a "generic" Colonial beer — using hops grown on the grounds of Pennsbury Manor as well as barley — at the demonstration.
   The process involves mixing boiled water with malted barley to form a "wort," which steeps like tea. The liquid from this wort is then drained off and boiled with hops. Once cooled to "blood" temperature — the approximate temperature of the human body — the yeast is added to this mixture and fermentation begins. After fermentation the beer is kegged and ready for consumption.
   Although brewing occurred throughout the year, cider-making was a seasonal process in the fall, and only for those who owned apple orchards, which William Penn did, Ms. Schooley says. At the Oct. 22 demonstration she and her two assistants, volunteers Lisa and Caitlin Hayden, will press cider outside as well as brew beer inside the brew house.
   The fact that, at the Pennsbury Manor demonstration, all the brewers are women is actually historically accurate, Ms. Schooley says. Brewing, like baking and other kitchen activities, was the realm of women in the Colonial era. "Women knew how to brew, like they knew how to bake, and they learned to do so at their mothers’ knees," she says.
   Inevitably, Ms. Schooley is asked by those in attendance if they can sample what she’s made. The answer is, unfortunately, no, both because the beverages aren’t ready to drink immediately, and because the very same lack of modern sterilization techniques which made Colonial brewing a challenge, also make the tasting of her brews by the public problematic, she says.
Pennsbury Manor’s beer brewing and cider making demonstration will take place on the manor house grounds, 400 Pennsbury Memorial Road, Morrisville, Pa., Oct. 22, 1-4 p.m. Admission costs $5, $4.50 seniors, $3 ages 6-17, free age 5 and under. For information, call (215) 946-0400. On the Web: