Making George Washington’s Small Beer

Our founding fathers were many things: Generals, philosophers, scientists and, often, brewers. One of the most famous recipes surviving from colonial times belongs to George Washington, and is housed in a collection of manuscripts owned by the New York Public Library. Inside one notebook from his time as colonel in Virginia you’ll find a page with the heading, “To make Small Beer.” Here’s the recipe he scribbled down:

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[hole] open till it is almost done working — Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.

You’ll definitely notice a few oddities in there. It’s not often that we brew with molasses any more, outside of a specialty winter and fall ales. And using bran is almost unheard of. If you’re adventurous, you could try to brew a faithful rendition of the beer using the recipe above. Or you could make this more modern interpretation that our own Paul Camarca whipped up.

G.W. small beer: adapted modern recipe 5.5 g
5# Marris Otter
1# toasted MO
2# Wheat bran
2# Molasses (light) 10 min
1.5 styrian golding 60 min
S-04
Mash 152 infusion biab
6.5 g 160 deg strike water
Raise temp to 165 mash out
2 g 170 sparge (pour over bag)
90 min boil
Add hops at 60 min
Add molasses last 10 min

A few members of the club recently got together to make this recipe. If you missed out on the festivities, don’t worry there will be other group brews to come. But it appears as if it was a rousing success. The crew got an early start and by early afternoon we had made our first president proud by cooking up a batch of his personal brew. (Sort of…)

But experiment! Make you’re own take on ol’ GW’s “small beer.” There’s plenty of variables in the recipe to mess with thanks the to the vague nature of Washington’s notes. What kind of hops and how much should you use? What constitutes a “large sifter full”? And what would happen if you swapped in blackstrap molasses or got real crazy and used sugar beet molasses? The possibilities are endless.

Paul will be representing Pour Standards and serving the club’s take on this presidential brew at a New York Public Library event on June 30th. We’ll update with more details when they become available.

Update: Unfortunately the NYPL event has been canceled. We’ll update with more info about a possible tasting when details become available.