Making Mrs. Cary’s “Good Ale.” Brewing Beer in Colonial Virginia


A version of this article appeared in Brew Your Own magazine in January 2003. See that edited version here:

Have you ever dreamed about digging in the ground and suddenly have your shovel strike a rare ancient treasure? A chest of gold coins, perhaps? Or maybe, even better, a tightly-sealed, well-preserved bottle of beer from the Colonial period? Occasionally archaeologists do recover old bottles of wine or brandy, but beer? I doubt such a find would tell us much about what beer really tasted like two or three hundred years ago.

I am an archaeologist and anthropologist with a primary research interest in the 17th- and 18th-century plantation cultures of the British New World colonies, and with a particular interest in the foodways of these colonial cultures. As a homebrewer and winemaker, I am also, naturally, interested in the nature and role of these beverages in historical societies. Among my various research projects has been the 15-year archaeological study of Curles Plantation, at Curles Neck on the James River in eastern Henrico County, Virginia. The first colonists may have settled Curles as early as 1614, but they were certainly there by 1630. Curles was the home of Nathaniel Bacon, whose revolt against Virginia’s colonial government in 1676 presaged the American Revolution by a century. From 1699 to about 1840, Curles Plantation was owned by four generations of the Randolph family.

Between 1986 and 1988 I excavated remains of a 54’ x 22’ brick plantation kitchen at the Curles site. This building had been constructed (originally as a house) about 1700. The building was razed and its bricks salvaged by Union soldiers during the Peninsula campaign of the Civil War in 1863. The kitchen excavation provided a wealth of architectural details about the building as well as archaeological evidence related to food preparation and service over a century and a half. My earlier excavation of the remains of the 18th-century Randolph mansion house had uncovered a huge colonial basement that had included a warming kitchen and wine-and-beer cellar.

Material-culture evidence of the sort recovered by archaeological digging can be extremely useful in understanding early lifeways, but when we combine these findings with the analysis of historical documents, we have a true treasure-trove of insights into the cultures of the past. And so I was quite excited to find, lurking in the Virginia Historical Society’s manuscript collections, a copy of a an old plantation kitchen cookery manuscript from Curles. Women used to write down recipes passed on by relatives and neighbors and collect these in “receipt” manuscripts. These cookery books were one of the tools of the day for socializing young gentlewomen. There are only a handful of plantation cookbooks extant from early Virginia. The one in question is titled “Jane Randolph her Book,” and it appears to have been begun about 1715 by the mistress of Curles Plantation, and then was passed on to her daughter and, eventually, her granddaughter—all named Jane. The last entries are from the 1790s, so the book covers three generations and most of the 18th century.

As a homebrewer, I could not help but note recipes for “Good Ale,” Small Beer” and “Metheglein” (sic). I also could not help but want to attempt to duplicate these recipes. Here let me talk specifically about the recipe for “Good Ale,” provided to the second of the Jane Randolphs by “Mrs. Cary,” who was her older sister, her aunt, or her sister’s mother-in-law living just across the James River at the Cary’s Ampthill Plantation.*

The “beerology” of Colonial Virginia

Before we get to the recipe and the beer it makes, lets examine for a moment what we know about beer in Colonial Virginia. The terms “beer” and “ale” are commonly found in Virginia records from the earliest colonial period. Beer was brewed in Jamestown from the beginning of the Virginia enterprise. We can assume that the British settlers brought with them the traditions of brewing and drinking that they had known in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Early settlers also included Germans and French, and they, no doubt, brought their own traditions. Of course, enslaved African women, who had their own brewing traditions, would have done most of the brewing at Curles, especially after 1700. Foodways on the plantation, however, were controlled primarily by the senior woman of the household, and we can assume her understandings of beer were descended, through cultural tradition and recipe manuscripts, from the earlier “alewives” of Britain. Cookery manuscripts typically contained very traditional recipes. When we compare them with printed and published English works of earlier years, we often find that identical or very similar recipes—often with the same words and phrases—were repeated over hundreds of years. For instance, the “Good Ale” recipe in Jane Randolph’s book is clearly related to one published in The English Huswife by G. Markham in 1615.

Modifications from tradition came, we can expect, mainly from differences in access to materials, and so it is important to understand what was available to Mrs. Randolph and Mrs. Cary in 18th-century Virginia. We have a notion that early plantations were self-sustaining entities, but nothing could be further from reality. The colonies existed to provide commodities for consumption in the British marketplace (or export from Britain to other European countries), and to serve as markets for goods produced in Britain. The Navigation Acts of the mid 1600s strictly limited the colonies’ ability to trade with other nations, and corollary statutes made it illegal for colonists to produce most goods for themselves. In short, plantations were tied to the world-system economy, especially the trade based in London and Bristol.

So, we might well wonder, was the beer produced in Colonial Virginia made from locally available produce? Numerous records indicate that a small amount of barley was produced on plantations in the 1600s and 1700s, but was this for consumption as a cereal grain or as beer? Early in the history of the colony, barley was probably malted and brewed in Virginia for local consumption. At least one archaeological site—the Walter Aston Site in Charles City County–contained remains of what I believe was a malting kiln. This was probably in use in the decades of the 1640s and 50s.

By the 18th century, the much shorter, much cheaper, North Atlantic passage between Britain and America had been developed. It was now much easier for the colonies to be kept dependent on British commodities—and so they were. Virginia’s plantation wharves and stores were outlets for the commodities of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution of 18th-century England. In the 1700s the vast majority of malt was imported from England rather than produced in Virginia. Hops were grown on Virginia plantations at least as early as the 1680s—probably earlier. They continued to be a minor product throughout the 1700s, but the majority of hops were also imported from England.

What was ale like in 18th-century Virginia?

We need to keep in mind that commercial beers today owe quite a bit to the industrial and scientific revolutions. In the mid-1700s the brewers of Burton began to make “pale ale” for the first time, and this clear, relatively light-colored beverage spread in popularity thanks to technological breakthroughs in malting, mass-production of glass bottles, and in shipping and marketing of the product via newly constructed canals, etc. But these pale beers were extremely expensive. The vast majority of English, Scots and Irish drank ales called “mild,” “brown” or “porter.” All of these were somewhat dark, though not as dark as modern black beers made with roast malts. The very dark malts we know so well were developed primarily in the 19th century, and the crystal and caramel malts came later still. This means that 18th-century British beers were generally lighter in color and in body than the darkest, heaviest beers of the later Industrial Age, but they were darker than the “pale ales” that were to become so popular in Burton, London, and Glasgow.

Hops had been used in German beers since mediaeval times, but hopped ale was a new-fangled notion in England at the time Virginia was settled. By the 18th century, however, hops were universally included in British ales—often at a pretty high rate. Hops, however, were expensive, and they did not ship well. Hoppy beers originated in hop-growing districts of England, just as they did near the hop fields of Germany, Bohemia, and, more recently, Washington and Oregon. Traditional beers from areas without their own hop crops tended to be malty rather than hoppy. The best example I can think of is to compare English ales and Scottish ales—the latter emphasizing malt and using very low hopping rates. It was even more risky and more expensive to ship hops to Virginia than to Scotland, and so we might expect a malt emphasis in indigenous beer.

It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that Pasteur isolated and identified beer yeast, but today nearly all commercial brews are made from carefully cultured selected yeast strains. Even our homebrews have benefited enormously from the recent development of single-strain liquid yeast cultures. While I didn’t happen to excavate a nice sample of yeast at Curles that I could culture for this re-creation, I feel that use of a generic, long-established, dry ale yeast was likely to produce a better approximation to the historical beer than would a modern liquid single-culture strain. Yeast was routinely “made” in the plantation kitchen by harvesting “barm” from ale fermentation, mixing it with flour and hops into cakes, and drying it by the hearth. While the Randolph women and their enslaved cooks/brewers did not understand the biology of yeast as we do, they clearly knew how to select what they called “good” yeasts, and to make potent starters. They also differentiated between “ale yeast” and “bread yeast.” For fermenting my version of this historic brew, I used two packets of Danstar’s Manchester yeast, a variety favored by many brewers for traditional ales.

While these women were without a modern understanding of “germ theory,” they did know that good ale required cleanliness. We should assume they were good at their task of brewing, even though they didn’t have modern sanitizers, stainless steel containers, etc. Boiling-hot water is a potent sanitizer, and we must assume it was used liberally in colonial brewing. Just the same, the use of open wooden fermenters, and storage of ale in barrels probably led to more complex flavor profiles than we tend to get using closed fermentation in glass and steel. Likewise, the advent of refrigeration and air conditioning mean that stored beer can age more gracefully than it did in the cellar of a central Virginia farmhouse.

So now we come to the crux of the matter. What did colonial beer taste like? Did it resemble any beers we now know? Well let’s see if we can figure that out by analyzing, and then brewing, “Good Ale,” as recorded by Jane Randolph of Curles Plantation sometime in the mof-1700s. Here is a transcription of the handwritten “receipt” as it appears in the Curles manuscript:

Good Ale

Take 3 Bushels malt 1/2 high & 1/2 Pail

dry’d let your water boil then & put into your

Mashing tubb, When the Steem is gone

off, so as you may see your face; then put

your malt, & after mashing it well then

cover it with a blanket, Let it stand 2

hours, then draw it off Slow, then boil it

three or four hours, till the hops curdles

when boiled Enough, cool a little, & work

that with your yest, & so put the rest

of your wort in as it cools, which must

be let in small Tubs, let it work till

your yest begins to curdle then turn it up

& stop your Barrel when it has done

working; Note to Every Bushels malt

a Quarter of pound of hops

Let me transcribe this into contemporary English, with comments.

Take 3 bushels dried malt, ½ high and ½ pale, and put it into your mashing tub (or tun).

British malt of the period was all “floor” malted, with direct heat from wood or coal fires, which led to uneven modification and kilning levels in any batch of malt. Presumably the malt was then divided into relatively pale- and relatively high-colored fractions. How pale was pale and how high was high? For the high malt we can rule out anything like chocolate and black malts. Many 18th-century British brewing books and recipes refer to the practice of blending pale and brown malts. To Mrs. Randolph and Mrs. Cary, the “high” was undoubtedly what London brewers meant by “brown.” The high malt could not have been as dark as some modern “brown” malt, however, because this is well roasted and, consequently, has little or no diastatic action due to the high roasting temperatures. Some modern brown malts are as high as 70-100 degrees Lovibond. However, one English maltings produces a brown malt that they claim is meant to approach the darker malt of the 17th and 18th centuries (SRM near 60). This is Crisps, and it so happens that Crisps’ Brown malt is stocked by my local homebrew dealer, The Weekend Brewer in Chester, Virginia.

I chose Maris Otter for my pale malt; it seems to be the malt of choice by those of England’s commercial brewers who produce more traditional beers. While Maris Otter is thought of today as”traditional” English pale malt, even it is made by methods (and with a barley strain) that didn’t exist before the modern era. It is, nonetheless, I think, as close as I can get to traditional malt made by a cottage-industry craftman-maltster of the period.

The recipe calls specifically for “dry” malt. Today’s standard bushel weight for dry malt ranges from 32 to 38 pounds. I found one source claiming that 34 is a good target, and that’s the number I used. So a barrel of Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale required 3 bushels, or 102 pounds, of malt. Mrs. Cary’s recipe is to make a barrel of beer. So what, exactly, is a barrel? That question sent me on a quest! I consulted numerous historical sources, the writings of some other brewers of historical beers and living-history interpreters who work at historical sites in Virginia. In the mid-18th century, there were wine barrels, beer barrels and ale barrels, and these were based on capacities defined in terms of “beer gallons,” versus “wine gallons.” This dichotomy reflected the marketplace in which English citizens enjoyed domestic products (called by the Anglo-Saxon term “ale”) as well as imports from the Netherlands (using the Germanic word “beer”), and these nations measured their brews with different sorts of gallons. In fact, these distinct gallons were the antecedents to our current distinction between U.S. and British Imperial volume measurements.

That said, almost everyone I spoke with agreed that, while the urban taverns of the day would have used statute ale barrels, the most likely containers to be found on plantations were wine barrels that had once held sherry, port, or Madeira. These held the equivalent of 31 ½ English (roughly similar to Imperial) gallons, or about 36 U.S. gallons. Therefore, if I wanted to make a five-gallon batch, I needed a little over 14 pounds of malt, divided equally between pale and brown.

Wood- or coal-fired kilns tended to lend a slight smokiness to the malt. London brewers of the day disagreed with the desirability of smokiness in their malts, but I assume some amount of it was inevitable. I, therefore, added a touch (2 ounces) of smoked malt, choosing to use wood-smoked rauchbier malt rather than peat-smoked malt.

Bring your water to a boil and put it into the mash tun. When it has cooled such that the steam has cleared and you can see your reflection in the water, add your malt to the tun. Mix it up well and let it mash for two hours.

The water I chose for this brew was Richmond, Virginia city tap water, after passing it through a consumer household filter to remove metals, chlorine, and chloramines. This water is not substantially different from the shallow well water used at Curles and Ampthill plantations. As can be seen from a later statement in the recipe, only part of the water is used in the mash; presumably enough to make a proper mash thickness—whatever that was! I would have preferred to have used a moderately thin mash to de-emphasize dextrin, as is typical of British common ales; however, my mash tun is a 5-gallon cooler, and with the quantity of grain called for, a thin mash was not possible. I could get about 3 gallons of mash water in my tun, a bit under 0.9 quarts per pound of grains.

Jane Randolph and her cooks had no thermometers, so they waited until the water stopped steaming enough to see their faces in it as an indication that they should now add the malt. In re-creating this mash, I followed these instructions. I waited until the steam had died down substantially on my boiling pot and then I took a temperature reading. It was about 165 degrees F, about 5 degrees cooler than my normal strike temperature. Jane’s tun was a wooden tub covered with a woolen blanked. I used a cooler. After mixing liquor and grains my thermometer told me we would begin the mash at 148 degrees. Not a bad temperature for maximizing extraction and attenuation, but I boosted it to about 152.

At the end of the mash, draw your wort slowly from the tun into the boiler.

The cooler’s spigot provided the means to accomplish this feat. My boiler is an 8.5-gallon enameled canning pot, rather than a really romantic humongous, ancient, copper or black iron kettle. My fire comes from a propane crab-boil burner that is probably as good at producing BTUs as was a roaring colonial kitchen hearth or large outdoor open fire pit, as was often used for tasks such as laundry and brewing.

Boil the wort three or four hours until your hops “curdle.” Then take some of it aside and cool it to make your yeast starter. Add the rest of the “wort” (liquor) needed to make up your final quantity of ale.

Presumably, the coagulation and settling of the hot break is what “curdling” meant. Setting aside wort for a starter is straightforward, but the instruction to “put the rest of your wort in as it cools” is ambiguous at best. Were the grains sparged? I think not. Instead I believe that they were “re-mashed.”  Several sources suggest that additional hot liquor (brewing water) was added to the grains and allowed to “mash”—actually, to steep—for a while in order to extract more sugars. That is the approach I took in recreating the brew. This procedure tends to extract a bit more tannins from the grain husks than does sparging, but, as far as I have been able to learn, sparging, as we know it, was simply not practiced—at least not by small-scale brewers.

I decided to ignore the recipe in one minor way by adding all the water at the beginning of the boil, rather than adding “the rest of the wort” at the end of the boil. While boiling 36 gallons of wort in an open kettle would be a serious headache, boiling 7 or so gallons in my cooker was a cinch. Adding the water afterward may have helped to affect a “cold break,” but the chance of introducing unwanted microbes unnecessarily bothered me a bit. Throughout the boil I had to replenish the water several times.

Hops? Did she say hops? Well, notice that, at the end of the recipe, she prescribes a quarter pound of hops per bushel. My recipe required 2 ounces of hops, and I chose East Kent Goldings at 6% alpha acid. Goldings were already a favorite hop for British ales in the mid-18th century, and they were undoubtedly among the most popular imports from England in the colonies. The recipe makes no mention of staged additions of the hops, and so I simply added them at the beginning of the boil. There is no doubt that a 3-4 hour boil will extract the maximum bitterness from hops, while leaving behind only minimal hop flavors and, most likely, no detectable hop aromas.

Place your wort into one or more small tubs or other open fermentation vessels.

Why small tubs? The 18th century kitchen was not equipped with pumps or siphons or hoses. The women brewers of the day were no doubt physically strong individuals, but they couldn’t expect to empty 36 gallons of beer into a barrel when the time came. So a series of small wooden tubs was used for the ferment. I decided against my usual closed blow-out system using a carboy and decided instead to ferment in a plastic bucket fermenter. I did cover it with its lid and inserted a lock, so I may have sacrificed some opportunities to introduce a nice component of “house flavors” to the final brew.

When the primary fermentation is over and the yeast falls back into the brew, pick up your tubs and turn them over to pour the beer into your barrel. When it’s full, hammer in a tight bung.

As is still typical of some cask-conditioned ales, the carbonation comes from the last couple days of fermentation in the barrel. In taverns and breweries, we also know that kegs were sometimes conditioned by adding some new ale at high kraeusen; however, the average family would not always have a ready source of kraeusen beer. Some historical documents suggest that they could increase the priming condition of the ale by adding some molasses. Keep in mind, there was no dried malt extract, and sugar was extremely expensive. It would not have been feasible to prime with sugar, while molasses was readily available and inexpensive. My approach was to use the traditional method of waiting until yeast cap fell back into the beer, then racking to a stainless Cornelius keg without any priming sugar. The completion of fermentation provided all the necessary spritz for the beer. I wouldn’t attempt this method if I intended to bottle the beer!

So what’s the recipe in plain English

Grain bill: Seven pounds Maris Otter pale, seven pounds Crisps Maltings Brown, 2 ounces Bamberg-style smoked malt.

Infusion mash with approximately 3 gallons water at 150-152 degrees F for two hours.

No mash out

Drain sweet wort to boiler and replenish mash tun with another 3 gallons of water at 152 degrees. Allow to rest 15-20 minutes, then drain. Add water to boiler to make approximately 7 gallons of sweet liquor.

At boil add two ounces East Kent Goldings hops. Boil 3-4 hours, replenishing water as needed to result in five gallons, or less, of bitter wort. If less, add cold water to make five gallons.

Rehydrate and pitch two packets Danstar Manchester dry yeast. Ferment in 7-gallon food-grade bucket at 70–75 degrees F. until yeast head falls (S.G. approximately 1.025-30), then rack to stainless steel keg. Condition in cool (55-65 degrees F.) temperatures for 2-3 weeks before tapping keg.

Original gravity: 1.066. Final gravity: 1.014

Note: If you don’t want to mash for two hours, feel free to shorten the time to 90 minutes. This may reduce the phenolics and astringency a bit in the final brew, although I found those flavors a nice balance to the sweet malt. If you don’t want to boil for four hours, then try mimicking the flavors of caramelized wort by adding about ½ cup of molasses at the beginning of the boil. Many modern British breweries use molasses (or treacle or dark refiner’s syrup) to provide the slightly sweet caramel notes formed by burning wort in a copper kettle heated over an open flame. It’s a good approximation.


I presented Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale with a talk about its creation to the James River Homebrewers this past April. The beer was a real success. Here is how I described it in my tasting notes:

This beer is fairly clear, deep brown in color, with good condition and head retention. The aroma and flavor are clearly malt-accented, with strong dark-coffee-like tones from the brown malt, and subtle smoky notes. Hops are present solely as a balance to the malt, but they contribute little to flavor or aroma. If this were sweeter, it would most resemble a strong Scottish ale. Instead, it has the dry finish and mouthfeel of an English ale, probably due to the attenuation properties of the yeast, and the lack of a mash-out. This is a fascinating, and somewhat foreign brew. I’ll certainly have to make it again. It is probably best classified as “old ale,” though some Scottish wee heavies come close in style.

Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale is a smoky-dark, coffee-and-toffee-flavored brew and, in its 18th-century incarnation, it was probably embroidered with the “house flavors” of the wild yeasts and bacteria endemic to the Curles Plantation cellar, as well as the distinctive blending of lactic acid, acetic acid, tannic acid and complex esters and oxidation products one expects from open ferments in wooden tubs and storage in barrels. The very foreignness of my approximation to Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale serves well enough to remind me of the distance between history and present experience and expectation, but when I realize that I cannot imagine if the hops available to 18th-century Virginians were fresh, floral, spicy, cheesy or just bitter, then I am forced to admit the impossibility of knowing the past in those nuances which make all the difference.

* I hope to have the opportunity to bring you Jane Randolph’s recipes for Small Beer and Metheglyn (spiced mead) in the near future.


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