To Be A Beer Drinker In Colonial Philadelphia

Did you ever wonder about the history of beer in Philadelphia? Ever thought about the stories behind the brewers and their breweries? If you have, you’re in luck because that is what the Philly Beergrimage is all about!  

Where can I grab a beer in the 1680s?

Imagine Old City back in the 17th century, there were not many buildings or streets and the Delaware Expressway (I-95) was nonexistent. The area encompassed much of the earliest settlement in Pennsylvania between the Delaware River and the low numbered streets. In 1682, William Penn first arrived at the mouth of Dock Creek where he was greeted by the Blue Anchor Inn & Tavern.  

Established in 1881, the Blue Anchor Tavern was Philadelphia’s First public house, located at Front Street and Dock Creek. Image source here

Early settlers would brew beer themselves because they considered the refreshment a necessary part of their diet. During this time, most beers were brewed with molasses that were infused with pine or sassafras. As breweries and taverns arose along the Delaware River, the more knowledgeable brewers started brewing beer with malt. Malt provided brewers the opportunity to produce both lagers and ales that span a wide range of colors, flavors, and boldness. 

The Main Ingredients

  1. Grain: Gives the beer its body and had to be malted before it was used. Barley was the grain of choice but corn, oats, wheat, and rye could be used as well.
  2. Hops: Cones of flowers of a female hop plant, containing an essence called lupulin. Lupulin inhibits the growth of bacteria which prevents the spoilage of the finished beer.
  3. Yeast: Converts the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide during the fermentation process.
  4. Water: Used in various parts of the brewing process and makes up 95% of a beer’s content

The 17th Century Brewing Process

First, water was drained from the liquor (water used in brewing) and placed into a copper tank for heating. Malt is then crushed into the grain and placed in a mash tun as well as the newly heated water. This combination is referred to as mash. After stirring the mash, brewers had a rest period while the enzymes in the grain converted starches to sugar, creating a sweet substance known as wort.

The wort in most cases was transferred back to the copper tank for boiling. As the wort was brought to a boil, hops were released for flavor and bittering. After boiling for one to two hours the wort is drained into the “hop back“, which strains the hops. Once the wort cooled to body temperature, it is drained into the fermenter. During fermentation, yeast is added allowing the sugar in the wort to be converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide. When fermentation was finished, the new beverage would be either be consumed or moved to barrels for storage.

The brewing process in the 17th and early 18th century. Image source here

Fun Fact: Can you guess what animal was used as a power source in 17th-century brewing processes? A horse!

What happens when settlers learn new things?

The infamous London brewer, Michael Combrune was the first to use a thermometer to measure the temperature of water prior to mashing. Many brewers follow his footsteps because it was much easier (and less painful) than original techniques.

In 1769, the hydrometer was introduced. The Hydrometer was able to identify the density of the wort, allowing brewers to know how much sugar had extracted during the mashing process. It also helped them see how the beer had progressed in the fermentation process.

This is what the hydrometer looked like when they would measure the density of the wort. Image source here

Prior to the 18th century, there was a lot of mystery when it came to the brewing process. Many brewers were not using their tools in the most efficient way and even though settlers were hesitant at first, two instruments, the thermometer, and hydrometer,  changed the process of brewing dramatically.

Fun fact: Before incorporating a thermometer, brewers would test the water by seeing how hot they could stand the water without raising a blister. They would say that it had to be hot enough to “bite your finger smartly.” OUCH!

Now, what?

From the year 1685 to 1775, almost thirty breweries opened their doors. There were about seven breweries during the 17th century, plus an additional twenty-two in the 18th century. When the American Revolution started in 1775, at least six breweries were still operating in the city of Philadelphia but no one had high expectations. My next post will cover both the neighborhood of breweries in Philadelphia and the Prohibition era. Cheers to my fellow readers!


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