Philadelphia, and Thoughts on Colonial Brewing

My “day job” (i.e., the one that pays me) sent me to Philadelphia this week. Today I was lucky enough to get a chance to venture out of the cozy suburb where my employer has its offices and into the exciting bustle of one of the oldest cities on the continent. I saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, had a cheesesteak that blew my damn mind, and drove in a circle past the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the famous steps from Rocky).

Philadelphia has had a profound effect on me. The city appears to have been designed with the intent of sending a message to visitors: “Hey, you know that place between Canada and Mexico that the entire world has been watching for centuries? The one with the Bill of Rights and the guns and the Coca-Cola? Yeah, the United States of America. We invented that place, bro.” Everything here is named after George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. The city logo is a bell with a crack in it. The shadiest-looking strip malls have words like independence and liberty in their names. And though it may not be the first thought on the mind of every modern Philadelphian, there is a feeling in the ground itself here that the spot you’re standing on is one where something important happened.

Now I’m back at my hotel, packed and ready to board a plane to return to Austin tomorrow. And because sitting alone in a hotel room drinking Yeungling Lager and listening to the Stone Roses would just be too pathetic, I’ve been inspired by my wanderings today to read about colonial brewing. And thinking it’s high time I do something of the sort.

Summer is around the corner, and a low-alcohol historic colonial brew may be just the thing for backyard refreshment in the Texas heat. And since come May it will be very hard to keep fermentation temperatures down in the swamp cooler in the Harry Potter closet, I can rationalize any esters in the brew as part of the “colonial charm”.

The gravity and bitterness should be similar to that of an English bitter, around 1.040 and 16 IBU. But I’ll get there with 6.5 lbs of American 2-row malt mashed at around 153-154°F. In the boil:

  • 1 lb Molasses
  • 0.5 oz Northern Brewer (~9% AA) for 60 minutes
  • 1 oz Horehound for 5 minutes

I could replace the Northern Brewer with East Kent Goldings, an older and certainly more “English” hop, but that would push the recipe closer to an English bitter than I’d like. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters much because the hops are just for bittering. The flavor and aroma will come from the horehound, which I’m using as a thujone-free substitute for wormwood (an attested colonial ale ingredient). For yeast, White Labs WLP 008 East Coast Ale Yeast is the obvious choice.

Earlier this evening, I read a quote from William Penn himself: “Our Beer was mostly made of Molasses which well boyld, until it makes a very tolerable drink, but note they make Mault, and Mault Drink begins to be common, especially in the Ordinaries and the Houses of the more substantial People.” One can imagine the pride Penn must have felt at explaining to his reader how his city, once a town of molasses-quaffing hooligans, was changing into a place where “substantial” people were starting to prosper enough that they could afford to drink real malt beer. I like to think my brew will be one that Penn would be proud of, and a fitting tribute to how far his city (and the nation conceived here) have come since he landed on the bank of the Delaware in 1682: familiar but changed, refined but true to the spirit of improvisation out of necessity.

The plan is to make this my first brew for May, after this weekend’s New Orleans-inspired café au lait stout (details Saturday!). And if I find myself inspired by any other great American cities, who knows what will be next?

For more on Philadelphia brewing throughout history (including the colonial period) see this article by Rich Wagner from the Spring 1991 issue of Zymurgy.

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

One response to “Philadelphia, and Thoughts on Colonial Brewing”

  1. dee marchese says :

    I like what you wrote today Shawn. Sounds like you have some newly inspired ideas for some new brews and new adventures. Cheers!

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