Brewing up some history: recreating historical beer recipes

By Tiah Edmunson-Morton

At the expense of sounding cliché, historic recipe recreations are a way to taste the past. Figuring out proper ingredients, considering environmental conditions, and using appropriate equipment all bring you closer to what people ate and drank in “days of yore.”

Barclay and Perkins brewery, Southwark: visitors watching beer fermenting in a large brewhouse, 1847. Image Credit: Wellcome Images, London.

Home brewer forums are full of threads on authenticity, and a Google search for “home brewing ancient recipes” nets millions of pages with ideas and results. Commercial breweries are also in on this, researching and experimenting for single brews or regular releases. In 1989, Anchor Brewing made a Sumerian beer for the Institute of Brewing Studies’ Micro Brewery Conference based on the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” an 1800 BCE song that praises the Sumerian goddess of beer and an ancient beer recipe. Even grander in terms of production and promotion is Dogfish Head Brewery’s series of beers “Ancient Ales,” which they’ve recreated with molecular archeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern. The company reports that Midas Touch, Theobroma, and Chateau Jiahu are “truly liquid time capsules.” Brewing scientists from Oregon State University collaborated with the Heurich House museum to recreate a batch of Christian Heurich Brewing Company’s “Senate Lager” after a researcher discovered the recipe in the National Archives. A final example comes from Dupont Brewery in Belgium. The recipe for “Cervesia Archeosite” came from a beer made a thousand years ago in their region; they drew on traditional styles and ingredients as a point of pride.

I knew about projects like these when I started the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives in 2013 and could see the outreach potential immediately. Oregon became a state in 1859, and much of its nineteenth-century beer history lore details a brewery on every corner. The story goes that wherever a community formed around an industry (farming, mining, logging), businesses to make and serve alcohol were among the first essential services. While I don’t doubt that plenty of alcohol was consumed, and probably made at home, the census records show that a brewery on every corner is an exaggeration at best and a myth at worst.

When I started to look for nineteenth-century brewery records, I was surprised to find so little. While the majority of Oregon’s earliest breweries were small and short-lived, if local breweries were omnipresent in the nineteenth century, I assumed there would be a treasure trove of information in libraries or archives.

Initially, I reached for the sources in my library, which included state history books with information on “prominent people,” laboratory publications that focused on the technical aspects of the brewing process, manuals on facilities management, and books on beer gardens. For historic recipes, I had the most luck in household management books; not only were there recipes for brewing beer, but also instructions for making bread and keeping bees. The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps were quite helpful in determining the size, layout, and location of breweries. Once I looked outside my building, I found probate records in county and state records, census records with biographical information about individual brewers, and mortgages and lawsuits that listed brewery assets.

The Roadshow, 2015

While these physical print sources are lovely for browsing, locating recipes from specific breweries or that used specific ingredients was really difficult. Both Google Books and the Hathi Trust are invaluable because they are both keyword searchable. In 2015, I worked with a brewery to make a beer for a public archaeology event; they wanted to make a lager with rice, and I found a short recipe in an 1883 brewing book published in England.

Roadshow 2015: The Recipe.

For the same event the following year I worked with a home brewer. I sent her links to several books and she chose one she found in a home management published in New York in 1872; the recipe was 10 pages long and the product was delightfully hoppy. Some of my favorite books are:

Choosing a recipe for the 2016 event.

In six years, I still haven’t found a recipe for an Oregon pre-Prohibition beer; however, I have gathered clues about nineteenth-century Oregon beer styles. Probably the most valuable source are the advertisements found in digitized newspapers. Breweries of all sizes made a range of styles, though they all regularly advertised a traditional German-style lager or steam beer, which uses a lager yeast but is fermented at ale temperatures to compensate for the lack of refrigeration. Oregon brewers also sold less familiar styles such as Philadelphia XXX Ale, XX Cream, and Flat. Those county probate records I mentioned sometimes included receipts, which meant I knew details about hops or barley orders, as well as bottling equipment and supplies. Those census records give clues about a brewer’s country of origin and the brewery income.

My most recent research has focused on the women involved in Oregon’s pre-Prohibition breweries, with an eye towards redirecting the need we have for women to be brewers. Since the records don’t indicate that they were, I am working with three female brewers to design a recipe based on the biographies of wives of brewers. Our goal will be to share the brewers’ creations, but also to engage consumers with the stories of nineteenth-century women in Oregon.

I still have hope that I’ll uncover a recipe gem, but I am also a realist. In the meantime, I know that my work in the twenty-first century to collect records will help the next generation recreate our present.