Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Point of Brew: What Thomas Jefferson knew about brewing


During the past week or so I have been trying to learn about brewing as Thomas Jefferson might have done. It has proved a fascinating but frustrating experience.

So frustrating, in fact, that I am surprised Jefferson pressed on with his brewing enterprises and, by several accounts, was very successful at it.

In 1804 Jefferson was president of the United States and yet he was able to maintain a busy correspondence about matters unrelated to politics or concerns of state. During that year, one Matthew Krafft wrote to him to ask whether he could dedicate his book titled “American Distilling” to the president. Jefferson not only agreed to the dedication but endorsed the idea of such books in the following prescient words:

“I see too with great satisfaction every example of bending science to the useful purposes of life. Hitherto chemistry has scarcely deigned to look to the occupations of domestic life. When she shall have made intelligible to the ordinary householder the philosophy of making bread, butter, cheese, soap, beer, cyder, wine, vinegar etc. these daily comforts will keep us ever mindful of our obligations to her.

“The art of distilling which you propose to explain, besides its household uses, is valuable to the agriculturalist, as it enables him to put his superfluous grain into a form which will bear long transportation to markets to which the raw material could never get.”

Shortly after this correspondence, Jefferson purchased a book titled “The Theory and Practice of Brewing” by Michael Combrune. The second edition of this book appeared in 1804, so it was doubtless, then, the latest word on the subject.

Jefferson likely grew up in a home where beer was brewed because that was common on such estates and his father, Peter, owned at least one book on the subject. Jefferson’s wife Martha brewed batches of small beer and Jefferson grew hops at Monticello. A letter of 1793 suggests a friendly brewing competition between Jefferson and a neighbor of his in Albemarle County. Plans for Monticello show space for a brewery and a barrel room and, later on, for a maltings. And so on.

So by 1804 Jefferson was a good home brewer and, maybe, a wannabe commercial brewer as many who enter the craft industry are today.

A copy of  “The Theory and Practice of Brewing” by Combrune, brewer, recently became available because The Institute of Brewing and Distilling (London) occasionally auctions off unwanted books from its library. Of course, given the connection to Jefferson, I had to have that book so that I could read the same words about brewing that he undoubtedly read.

Jefferson evidently liked the book because he recommended it to others and by the time he seriously entered brewing practice, guided by a brewer named Miller, he was busy reclaiming the Combrune book that he had lent to others.

Turns out that Jefferson did not learn much useful information about brewing from this text. The book begins unpromisingly with chapters titled “Of Fire,” “Of Air,” “Of Water” and “Of Earth,” which are described as elements. However, Combrune does usefully describes the invention and development of the thermometer (which was recognizably modern as a result of work by Fahrenheit 80 years before this book was published and so hardly fresh news), and he explains clearly how it is useful in controlling the manufacture of malt and particularly its application to calculating mash temperature by mixing boiling water with cold water and malt to achieve the ideal mash-in “striking heat” (although Combrune did not know about malt enzymes). I teach versions of this today.

I have not yet figured out whether Combrune, and hence Jefferson, knew how to measure the specific gravity, and so the strength, of their worts and beers; since the hydrometer was invented long before the thermometer it would be a surprise if that information were missing — but it appears to be so. The strength of beers of various denominations is defined only by how much water should be applied per quarter of malt.

Combrune does measure wort cooling, but does not mention application of the thermometer to fermentation where temperature control is also important. Though, to be fair, brewers in those days knew they could brew with reasonable safety only in the cooler months of spring and fall; this effectively defined fermentation temperature. As they had no other means of cooling a fermenter, it was perhaps pointless to apply the thermometer to that process.

In fact, Combrune sort of throws up his hands when it comes to fermentation; he writes: “It is certainly very difficult, if not impossible, to discover the true and adequate cause of fermentation.”

But then he has a go at describing it thus: “Fermentation is, where the communication of the external and internal air of a must is open, and in a perfect state; when the power of repelling, is equal to that of attracting, air.” This was some 125 years after Anton van Leeuwenhoek first described micro-organisms, which he called “animalcules,” and observed yeast, probably in a sample from a brewery operated by his mother’s family.

It was to be almost 25 years after Combrune published his book that C. Cagniard-Latour and others controversially (!) proposed that yeast was the cause of alcoholic fermentation; and it was not until the 1860s that Louis Pasteur and John Tyndall finally dispatched the insidious idea of spontaneous generation. Only then was it conclusively clear that the leaven or barm of yeast was the living cause of wine and beer and bread fermentation, not the result of it. For Combrune, yeast was an “artificial ferment.”

Well, it was fun anyway. I also had to learn a few new words: spissitude, pellucid and pinguinious, for example, used to describe various conditions of malting and brewing.

Though curious about them, I’m not sure I would have much enjoyed the beers made by Combrune’s instruction, and navigating early 19th century science syntax gave me an 1804 headache. I could have drunk willow-bark tea as a cure for that, I suppose, since we had yet to wait, almost a century, for the invention of aspirin.

— Reach Michael Lewis at Comment on this column at


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