Hand Brewing Company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, existed from 1898 until the late 1920s. What histories I have found don’t talk much about the beer it brewed, though, apparently, the company attempted to sell regular strength beer as “near beer” during Prohibition. Hand Brewing was not a famous brewery, though it had its moments of unwanted attention from the feds.
Recently, I purchased the book above. It is a small, leather bound notebook, partially filled with numbers and ephemera, such as a business card for an insurance company’s boiler inspector and a newspaper clipping of trivia questions. (Q – Who made the first successful swim across the English Channel? A – Capt. Mathew Webb.) Most exciting to me, however, was the recipe for beer, found toward the back of the book.
Is this a scaled down version of an original Hand Brewing recipe from 1927? I suspect that it is. The volume, 16 gallons, is roughly a half barrel, an easy calculation from recipes designed for a brewery which produces beer by the barrel. Similarly, the suggested aging method of storing the beer in a barrel is far more appropriate for commercial brewers than home brewers, who were unlikely to have barrels sitting around the house. Also, I ran the ingredients through my brewing software, and it showed that the recipe would produce a beer of around 4.6% alcohol by volume – a pretty typical figure.
Frankly, this beer looks difficult and nasty to make. Difficult, because of the effort involved in sprouting barley for seven days, and nasty because of several unorthodox ingredients and processes. That said, I feel absolutely compelled to give it a try. Also, sprouting my own barley will give me an understanding of the malting process, which will help deepen my knowledge and experience as a brewer.
I have been getting very serious about the long festering plans to open a brew pub (6/14?), and this recipe could be a perfect match for the early Kansas City theme I have in mind. If it tastes awful, it may explain why Hand Brewing of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, never revived after Prohibition. If it tastes great, or at least interesting and palatable, it may help launch a new brewery.
Commentary on the recipe: Several elements of the recipe are surprising to me. First is the use of sprouted barley. In a nutshell, this seven day sprouting process looks like a recipe for creating homemade malt. Why would a recipe that includes 11 pounds of malt require 4 pounds of home-malted barley? One possibility is that home or brewery-prepared malt is much, much, cheaper than commercially prepared malt. Without having done the research, I suspect the price difference was as great or greater in 1927. By using a majority of commercially prepared, presumably quality-consistent commercial malt, the brewery could assure itself of relatively consistent quality, while supplementing that malt with its much cheaper self produced malt. Also, purchasing only 11 pounds of malt for a 16 gallon batch is much more consistent with producing “near beer” (if brewed without adjuncts such as sugar and self-malted barley), in case the feds were watching grain purchases.
Another surprising aspect to the recipe is the liberal use of sugar. Contrary to popular belief, brewing with sugar makes a beer drier, not sweeter, because yeast is able to digest sugar so thoroughly. What is left, however, is whatever flavor “impurities” the sugar introduces. Molasses has a lot of flavor beyond sweetness, so I would expect such a large amount of molasses in the beer to produce a strong molasses flavor. By modern standards, the use of this much sugar is unheard of. Even the wonderful Lagunitas Brown Shugga beer uses only around 2 pounds of brown sugar, and no molasses, for a similar sized batch.
Another oddity is the 5 hour boil. Most homebrewers boil for an hour, while perfectionists might go an hour and a half while brewing with certain kinds of malt. 5 hours is virtually unheard of – my brew recipe software doesn’t even calculate for boils longer than 2 hours. When I brew this, I’m going to give it a try, because such a long boil might introduce some interesting flavor affects. Energy costs have always been a major component for breweries, so if they boiled for 5 hours, they must have had their reasons.
1.5 pounds of hops is also a huge amount, even by contemporary hop-head standards. Different types of hops vary wildly in terms of bittering potential, but so much of even an extremely low-bittering hop variety would generate high level of bitterness. Speculating again, I suspect that perhaps Hand Brewing used European hops, some of which which start off with low bitter qualities, and it is also true that the bittering potential of hops diminishes over time. If those low-bittering hops were shipped from Europe on slow boats, perhaps old, weak hops prevented this beer from being quite as bitter as its recipe might suggest. Or maybe the 5 hour boil lessens the bittering impact. Or maybe the bitterness covers up a nasty molasses flavor. Time will tell . . .
The use of ordinary yeast cakes looks odd to contemporary homebrewers, but it makes sense for the time. Yeast itself had only been discovered by Louis Pasteur 70 years before, and the broad selection of multiple strains of lager and ale yeast available to today’s home brewers simply didn’t exist. For homebrewers in 1927, it was ordinary yeast cakes or nothing.
The addition of salt is not wildly unusual in brewing, though I have only tried it once before, when brewing a gose. Similarly, the sprinkling of “Jelliton” over the beer after it has fermented is a way of clarifying it, though most homebrewers these days have moved to other methods.
I will brew this recipe sometime in the next couple months, though I will make some minor adaptations to technique to increase sanitation and I’ll use a nice, pure ale yeast. And, of course, I will scale it down to my 10 gallon batch size. At the very least, it will bring a page of brewing history back to life.