In February of 2000 we had an interesting email wherein a California gentleman named James Brownlow asked if we had any early recipes for beer. Indeed, we have. We went to John Gaylord Jr.’s recipe book. John Jr. lived in Windsor from 1776-1856, and the Society has his poems, music, and recipes. Old Sturbridge Village museum has used John’s music for the fife.

Our California inquirer selected John’s “extemporaneous small beer,” the only one in the book that included hops as an ingredient, because he thought that a beer with hops would be closer to what we would expect a beer to taste like today, and brewed a 3-gallon batch. The following are excerpts from Mr. Brownlow’s summary of his experience.

Around 1820 when this recipe was devised, beers came in four strengths: small, table, ship, and stout. A small beer was an everyday beer in that it was thinner and lower in alcohol content that the ales of today. In John Gaylord’s recipe, a small beer was made with molasses instead of the more expensive barley malt. A small beer to the Windsor resident of the early-19th century was comparable to a Budweiser today. Mr. Brownlow surmised that small beer was part of the typical diet and use by households on a regular basis. Water was used for cleaning and agriculture; but since beer and tea were boiled, they were the preferred drink. Fermentation lasted a week; and because there was no refrigeration, beer was consumed quickly.

Mr. Brownlow selected the 1820s recipe using hops and included lemon peel, crème of tartar, molasses, ginger, cloves, yeast, and water. Because the recipe came with no instructions, he referred to a recipe belonging to George Washington; so the brew was boiled for one hour (see recipe at the end of the article for more detail). Mr. Brownlow’s final product contained an alcohol content of 3.8% (by volume) while today’s commercial beers contain 5%.

Mr. Brownlow bottled the recipe and allowed it to mature for a week, the fermentation time George Washington gives in his recipe, and about the same as present-day brewing. This week-long wait allows the beer to build some carbonation and to settle (clear). After a week, he sampled it. Unlike American commercial beers which have to be cold to be enjoyed, small beer is just as good at room temperature; and this is how John Gaylord would have enjoyed his beer. Mr. Brownlow’s first impression was that the beer was tart with a faint molasses taste along with ginger and clove but not lemon. The presence of hops was not detected.

Mr. Brownlow scheduled a “brew-o-rama” in California for April 29, 2000, to see how his beer-brewing friends would assess the beer. Along with boneless pork ribs, chicken, and other beers for comparison, John Gaylord’s beer was sampled. The tasters reported:

…the American commercial beer was insipid and thin compared to John Gaylord II’s small beer. John Gaylord’s small beer was perceived to have more body. Some of the tasters were able to identify the molasses and clove taste in the small beer; and comments about the small beer ran from “awful” to “pleasant taste.”

Mr. Brownlow sent us a chart with the taste-test results; and it appears that there was an equal preference for the two beer styles – Gaylord’s and a commercial American beer. The tasters agreed that Gaylord’s beer was nothing special. Historically, this beer was meant as an everyday drink and not meant to be something special.

Mr. Brownlow’s sister delivered several bottles to the Society; and my son Jaeger and I sampled a bottle. It was light brown as opposed to American commercial beers which are straw colored. Jaeger was quick to point out “floaters” (the sediment at the bottom is yeast that dropped out of the brew) in our glasses, and we eyeballed each other skeptically but proceeded with our taste test. Molasses – yes, definitely. Carbonation – yes, but mild compared to American commercial beers. Jaeger and I agreed that we wouldn’t order John Gaylord’s beer at a restaurant, but it was fun to have a taste of old Windsor thanks to our California friend. Thanks so much, Mr. Brownlow!

By Connie Thomas, administrative assistant, 2000.

Image: stock photo

Excerpt from John Gaylord Jr.’s receipt (recipe) book. WHS collections 1962.25.3.

John Gaylord Jr.’s Extemporaneous Small Beer, as interpreted by James Brownlow
(abridged; for the full article, contact WHS)

I scaled down this batch to three gallons:

  • 24 oz. molasses
  • 3 oz. crème of tartar
  • Zest from one lemon
  • ¼ tsp. ginger
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • 5 gallons water
  • Ale yeast
  • Sugar

I brought the water to a boil, added the molasses, hops, and lemon peel, and boiled the mix for an hour. In this hour, about ½ gallon of water boiled off. I added the crème of tartar, ginger, and ground cloves for the last 15 minutes of the boil.

Next I strained the boiled mix (the wort) into a 5-gallon primary fermenter. I let the wort stand overnight to cool to about 70⁰F and then added the yeast. Ale yeasts were more prevalent than lager yeasts in the early 1800s, so I suspected that was what the denizens of Windsor used.

Both batches were primed (given some additional sugar to ferment in the bottle so that the final product was carbonated) by saving about a quart of the wort and re-mixing that with the fermented beer when it was bottled.

I tasted the beer at one-week intervals after it was bottled. Many types of ale, like John Gaylord Jr.’s small beer, condition over time and can improve in the bottle, but this one did not appreciably change over a four-week period.

Were I to make it again, I would probably use less crème of tartar, maybe a little more hops. I’d use one ounce of crème of tartar and two ounces of a mild hops, like Saaz or Kent Goldings. The small beer was a bit tart for my tastes. I suspect that there were very good reasons for brewing it with the amount of crème of tartar that Gaylord prescribed in his recipe; a more acidic wort (sour) was conducive to better yeast activity (fermenting); it probably served to help preserve the beer, and to cover any “off” tastes that may have resulted from spoilage.