How to make beer in 1779
Imagine that you are a settler in the Bluegrass in 1779, the year Lexington was established. There is no shortage of game, and wild plants. But what do you do if you want a good beer? West Sixth Brewing was not open yet, so what was the thirsty settler to do? You could make your own, but you would have to use ingredients collected from the meadows and forests.
For nearly 100 years, the most popular beer was made from two abundant fruits – persimmon and honeylocust. Ripe persimmons are sweet and flavorful. Honeylocust fruits (legumes or pods) are packed with a sweet, sticky gum. The gum provided sugar and acted as a thickening agent, and provided some flavor. Although locally made beer became available in the early 19th century, the tradition of making persimmon beer continued until the Great Depression.
The recipe for persimmon beer, as it was called, was very crude by modern brewing standards. Technically, the brew was more similar to metheglin, or flavored mead, where the honeylocust gum substituted for honey.
Here is a recipe from Virginia. It was passed down for many generations and published in The Fruit-Grower in 1908:
Get a clean, tight barrel, and place within it a false head four inches from the bottom. Add a pone of bread made of wheat bran and baked very brown; it takes this bread a long time to cook and it is added to give a good color to the beer. Next put in a small armful of honeylocust shucks (legumes) then put in the persimmons in greater quantity than the locusts, and continue in this way until the barrel is two-thirds or three-fourths full. Weight down and add water until all is covered. In three days, or perhaps a week if the weather is very cold, it will be a sparkling drink that will bite the tongue. A few dried apples or peaches will add to the flavor.
Another recipe from 1872 is similar but uses a layer of straw, then persimmon, then honeylocust along with dried apples and wheat bran.
A third recipe calls for baking loaves of persimmons and wheat bran, then breaking the bread into a clean barrel and adding water and either molasses or honeylocust.
It would be interesting to try to make this brew using modern, hygienic methods. We have the key ingredients: persimmon and honeylocust are common in the Bluegrass.
Note: There are many recipes for persimmon beer dating back to the late 1700s, but most are variations on these.
Sources: The Fruit-Grower, 1908; Hill, A. P. 1872. Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book. Univ of South Carolina Press.