Making Beer: Homebrew circa 1800

Nelson Goforth,,

Paraphrased from William Cobbett's book Cottage Economy, published 1821. The book actually used was a reprint (London: Peter Davies, Ltd., 1926) with a preface by G.K. Chesterton. Cobbett was a social reformer fighting the then infant Industrial Revolution. The book appears to have gone through at least one other editon, or perhaps the book was initially published as a series of monographs.



A large kettle of at least 40 gallons capacity.

Mashing Tub

A wooden tub which can hold 60 gallons, standing off the floor to allow the underbuck to slid underneath it. It should be a little wider at the top than at the bottom. In the center of the bottom should be a 2" diameter hole. As a plug (which will also serve a valve), a long stick (a foot or two longer than the tub is deep) of 2" diameter which has been tapered over the bottom 8" or so.

When the plug/valve is raised, it will be necessary to hold it in position as the wort is released by degrees. Cobbett recommends a long split stick that reaches across the mashing-tub.

In addition, a stirring stick is required for the mashing. This is made from a long stick, with a few short dowels (8-10"), stuck through at the bottom, 3 or 4 inches apart, at right angles to the stirring stick and staggered around its circumfrence.


A low, shallow bucket that will slip under the mash-tub to recieve the wort after mashing.


The tun-tub holds the wort for the fermentation process. It should hold thirty gallons.


The coolers are one or more shallow containers to allow the wort to cool after boiling.


The recipe given is for a yield of 18 gallons of ale, as well as 36 gallons of small beer, or beer made from sugars residual in the used malt. For ale alone: two bushels of malt, appx. forty gallons of water, a pound and a half of hops, half a pint of yeast and a handful of wheat or rye flour. For both ale and small beer the list becomes: two bushels of malt, appx. eighty gallons of water, two pounds of hops, a pint of yeast and two handfuls of flour. The small beer makes use of the spent malt and hops, adding only an additional half pound of hops for flavor.

Brewing Ale


Fill the copper with water and bring it to a boil. In preparing the mashing-tub, the floor of the tub needs a filter to keep back the spent malt. What is suggested is a small amount of "fine birch"(1) (though, the author notes, straw or heath may do as well). The filtering material should be bundled and tied, and then lain over the hole. At this point the tapered stick is inserted into the hole, through the birch. The difficulty is that the filter will tend to float away as the plug is removed after mashing. Cobbett suggests a lead collar(2) with a hole in it be slid down the length of the stick, and also notes that some farmers use the iron center of a wheel for this purpose.

Pour enough boiling water into the mashing-tub to stir and separate two bushels of malt and, when the liquor has reached 170 degrees F, put in two bushels of malt.(3) Stir with the stirring stick for fifteen minutes. At some point here, you refill the copper and again bring it to a boil. After the malt has set in the original water for fifteen minutes pour in enough to yield eighteen gallons of wort. This may require thirty gallons of water, due to absorbtion by the grain. Better too much than too little. Stir well again and cover the mashing tub with sacks or suchlike, and let set for two hours.

At this point the underbuck is placed underneath the mashing-tub and the plug/valve is slowly raised, making sure that the sediment does not drain out with the wort. By using the split stick mentioned above, or some other means of holding the valve open, drawing off the wort can be done slowly enough to keep the sediment from coming past the filter. Of course, eventually the spent malt itself begins to act as its own filter bed. The underbuck will not hold all of the wort, so it must be ladled off into the tun-tub.

Boiling the wort

Put the wort into the empty copper, along with one and-a-half pounds of good hops, rubbing and separating them as you put them in. Boil the wort uncovered for an hour, and an additional half hour won't hurt. Put the boiled wort into the coolers, straining out the hops.(4)


Ladle the cooled wort into the tun-tub. It should be at 70 degrees F (luke-warm) or near to it.

Put half a pint of yeast into a gallon container, and add some of the wort, as well as a handful of wheat or rye flour(5), mixing it well. Pour this into the tun-tub and again mix well.(6) Cover the tub-tub with a sack or two and allow the tub to stand in a place where the temperature stays about 55 degrees. A head will begin to rise in six to eight hours, and will keep rising for 48. After 24 hours skim the froth and put it into a pan or some other vessel. When the frothing has stopped the beer is made. Put it into a cask when the beer is cold(7).

Small Beer

After the copper has been emptied into the mashing-tun, refill it again and bring to a boil. After the mashing-tun has been drained of wort, stop up the hole again and pour in 36 gallons of the boiling water. Stir well, cover as before and let stand just one hour this time. This makes the small beer wort. While the ale wort is boiling and cooling place the small beer wort into the tun-tub. When the copper is empty, put in the small beer wort, along with the used hops, as well as a half pound of fresh hops. Boil for one hour.

While the small beer wort is boiling, clean out the mash-tub, cleaning also the birch filter. Put the filter back in, and the plug stick, and arrange the filter basket on top, to catch the hops from the small beer wort. After the small beer wort has boiled pour it through the basket into the mash-tub. Let cool and add a pint of yeast.

Small beer will not ferment as long as the ale, and should be ready for casking the day after it is brewed. Additionally the small beer should be put into the cask a little warm, so that some fermentation will take place in the cask.

Casking and Storage

Casking the Beer

Cobbett recommends a temperature of about 55 degrees for storage of ale. Put the barrel on a stand that will get it off of the floor, and which will keep the barrel from rolling during filling. The filling hole should be rolled to a little off the vertical, so that spilling beer will run down just one side of the cask. Great care must be taken to make the barrels as full as possible, else spoilage may occur. It may be necessary to use some of the small beer to top up the barrels in the original filling. The yeast will continue working for a day or two after casking, Cobbett says. A gallon or two of the beer should be reserved for topping up the casks as the yeast blows off beer.

When the beer is finished working right the cask so that the filling hole is vertical. Add a handful of fresh hops and put in the bung, wrapped round with a bit of linen. Cobbett mentions that the bung might be covered with a sandbag as well.

Cleaning the Casks

After the barrel is empty it should be tightly corked, to prevent moulding. Once a cask becomes moulded it cannot be made clean enough for brewing again.

To clean a cask, pour out the effluvia at the bottom, and then scald the interior of the barrel by putting hot stones into it, and then rolling the barrel.


Cobbett recommends an earth bermed cellar for keeping the beer cool. Under a hill is best, deep and dry. Ale should keep for an indefinite period, though he cautions that beer kept for too long may ferment more, and the vent pegs (bungs?) must be loostened to accomodate the pressure, then tightened again. Small beer may be drunk almost immediately, though there was some custom that it should see a Sunday. Cobbett recommends though that the small beer be given a few weeks of aging. But, he says, "...any beer is better than water."

Other Notes

A recipe for Porter

Much of Cobbett's book is given over to fulminating against the laws and practices of the time, with an astonishing amount of space in the sections on beer taken up by protestations against the vile practice of brewing tea. A purist in his brewing(8), Cobbett despises any additional flavoring or ingredient beyond malt, water, hops and yeast. For instance, he gives a recipe for porter, which was in turn taken from a book published in London shortly before Cottage Economy. He does not cite the book, but it would seem to be a book for commercial brewers. Cobbett states that the author avows that these are ingredients used by many brewers.

To make five barrels of porter (180 gallons), use a quarter of malt(9) (eight bushels), eight pounds of hops, nine pounds of treacle(10), eight pounds of color, eight pounds of sliced licorice root, two drachms of salt of tarter, two ounces of Spanish-licorice and half an ounce of capiscum(11).

The difficulty now is finding a book which deciphers some of the measures and contents.


1) There is no indication here if "fine birch" means actual twigs or birch shavings. Cobbett does indicate "about half the bulk of a birch broom", so it follows that finding out how a birch broom was constructed will get an answer.

2) Though this is probably not wise, in light of what we know now of the ill effects of lead poisoning.

3) Of course, the small farmer or laborer of 1821 may not have had a thermometer, so Cobbett recalls a method "by which so much good beer has been made in England for hunderds of years...", which is to look down into the water, and when you can see your face clearly the water has become cool enought to mash with.

4) Cobbett recommend a wicker basket placed over the coolers.

5) The function of the flour is not known, but it is the custom of the country people and, according to Cobbett, it is doubtless of some use.

6) Alternately, place the gallon container at the bottom of the tun-tub and pour the wort into it, effectively mixing the yeast mixture.

7) If the beer is not cold it will be 'foxed', having a bad taste.

8) Though not so strict as the officials of the sixteenth century, before hops were introduced, and ale was made of malt and water, and that is all, except for yeast (also called then barm or godisgood) which is technically a catalyst and not an ingredient. (English Industries of the Middle Ages, L. F. Salzmann)

9) A quarter is a measure of grain equal to eight bushels. It derives from a quarter of a ton (probably of wheat), though malt is not so heavy. In the essay he gives examples of bushels of malt weighing 36 and 45 pounds per bushel. A drachm (dram) is either 1/8 ounce (avoirdupois) or 1/16 ounce (apothecary).

10) Treacle is molasses. If anything, treacle may be cooked a bit. Treacle candy is made by cooking molasses to the hard crack stage.

11) To make a note on the economy of the time, Cobbett states that barley costs 2 shillings eightpence a bushel, malt eight shillings per bushel, and the very best hops only a shilling per pound. (20 shillings to the pound, 12 pence (pennies) to the shilling, and four farthings to the penney in Cobbett's day) He is complaining, in the case of the porter, that what costs fourpence three farthings per gallon (without the despised additives, and less than fivepence per gallon with) is retailed at sixteenpence per gallon. Thus, the cost of the above batch of ale and small beer cost less than a pound. The entire apparatus for the brewing of beer as described above cost 7 pounds 10s (though some of the equipment was used) and that a 'brewing machine' of one bushel capacity was available for only 10s more. In depricating tea drinking, he gives the price of tea at fivepence a pound, and the value of thirty days work at 15 shillings (for a lahorer). The cost for a year's worth of beer for a family (274 gallons, ranging from two quarts per day in the coldest months to five quarts in July and August), as made above he places at 7 pounds 5s, including the wear of ustensils. The cost of a years worth of tea, poison to the body and soul that it is, he gives at 11 pounds 7s 2d, including lost worktime, the cost of fires and money lost by going to the public house to buy it.

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