Brewing Beer at Home in the 1800s

We’re resurrecting these instructions from the 1800s on brewing small beer, ale and porter. Learn why the tradition of home brewing was so culturally important for the working cottager, according to self-sufficiency’s grandfather, William Cobbett.


| February 7, 2013



Cottage Economy book cover

“Cottage Economy” by William Cobbett is the founding bible of self-sufficiency from way back in the 1820s. Reread this old story still relevant today on the notion that once upon a time, people knew a better way of doing things that should not be forgotten. 


Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

First published in the 1820s, Cottage Economy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000) by William Cobbett was written with the aim of instructing country laborers in the arts of “brewing beer, making bread, keeping cows, pigs, bees, poultry and others” and promoting his personal philosophy of self-sufficiency, which he viewed as the foundation of family happiness. Written with Cobbett’s typical wit — and bulldog curmudgeonliness — it deserves its reputation as the founding bible of self-sufficiency and one of the greatest rural reads of the English language. Stay tuned as we dust off this classic and post, chapter by chapter, the entire Cottage Economy online. The following excerpt on brewing beer at home is taken from chapter 2, “Brewing Beer Continued.” 

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Cottage Economy.

Brewing Beer at Home: Hop Quality

As to using barley in the making of beer, I have given it a full and fair trial twice over, and I would recommend it to neither rich nor poor. The barley produces strength, though nothing like the malt; but the beer is flat, even though you use half malt and half barley; and flat beer lies heavy on the stomach, and of course, besides the bad taste, is unwholesome. To pay 4s. 6d. tax upon every bushel of our own barley, turned into malt, when the barley itself is not worth 3s. a bushel, is a horrid thing; but, as long as the owners of the land shall be so dastardly as to suffer themselves to be thus deprived of the use of their estates to favour the slave-drivers and plunderers of the East and West Indies, we must submit to the thing, incomprehensible to foreigners, and even to ourselves, as the submission may be.

With regard to hops, the quality is very various. At times when some sell for 5s. a pound, others sell for sixpence. Provided the purchaser understand the article, the quality is, of course, in proportion to the price. There are two things to be considered in hops: the power of preserving beer, and that of giving it a pleasant flavour. Hops may be strong; and yet not good. They should be bright, have no leaves or bits of branches amongst them. The hop is the husk, or seed-pod, of the hop-vine, as the cone is that of the fir-tree; and the seeds themselves are deposited, like those of the fir, round a little soft stalk, enveloped by the several folds of this pod, or cone. If, in the gathering, leaves of the vine or bits of the branches are mixed with the hops, these not only help to make up the weight, but they give a bad taste to the beer; and indeed, if they abound much, they spoil the beer. Great attention is therefore necessary in this respect.

There are, too, numerous sorts of hops, varying in size, form, and quality, quite as much as apples. However, when they are in a state to be used in brewing, the marks of goodness are an absence of brown colour, (for that indicates perished hops;) a colour between green and yellow; a great quantity of the yellow farina; seeds not too large nor too hard; a clammy feel when rubbed between the fingers; and a lively, pleasant smell. As to the age of hops, they retain for twenty years, probably, their power of preserving beer; but not of giving it a pleasant flavour. I have used them at ten years old, and should have no fear of using them at twenty. They lose none of their bitterness; none of their power of preserving beer; but they lose the other quality; and therefore, in the making of fine ale, or beer, new hops are to be preferred. As to the quantity of hops, it is clear, from what has been said, that that must, in some degree depend upon their quality; but, supposing them to be good in quality, a pound of hops to a bushel of malt is about the quantity. A good deal, however, depends upon the length of time that the beer is intended to be kept, and upon the season of the year in which it is brewed. Beer intended to be kept a long while should have the full pound, also beer brewed in warmer weather, though for present use: half the quantity may do under an opposite state of circumstances.

The water should be soft by all means. That of brooks, or rivers, is best. That of a pond, fed by a rivulet, or spring, will do very well. Rain-water, if just fallen, may do; but stale rain-water, or stagnant pond-water, makes the beer flat and difficult to keep; and hard water, from wells, is very bad; it does not get the sweetness out of the malt, nor the bitterness out of the hops, like soft water; and the worst of it does not ferment well, which is a certain proof of its unfitness for the purpose.





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