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“Drink a good glass of beer.”

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Last night I was ruminating about my ancestors — how they lived, what they liked and what they wanted out of life.

One thing I know for sure about them: They liked a good glass of beer.

When I went back home this past Christmas, I found out that some of them liked beer enough to make it themselves. In her ongoing genealogical research, my mom turned up a recipe for beer, handwritten by one of my great-grandmothers.

For a moment I entertained dreams of standing over a bottling line like the next Jim Koch.

(Koch, the founder of Boston Beer, started his company with Sam Adams Boston Lager — which he says uses an old family recipe left behind by ancestors who were professional brewers.)

I don’t expect to see my beer in bottles anytime soon. But when I think about the recipe, I do long to try it once, even though I’ve never homebrewed. I wonder how it tastes.

# # # # #

Before I get to the recipe, a few words about the woman who left it behind.

Lucilla Jacob was born in New York City in June 1889. She was the youngest of seven siblings born to a father from Saxe-Coburg, Germany, and an Anglo-Canadian mother from Nova Scotia.

Apparently the family tree was not multicultural enough for Lucilla: She married Francesco Iacobellis, an immigrant from Puglia, Italy.  (At some point his last name was Anglicized to Jacobellis, as it remains today on that side of the family.)

Lucilla and Francesco moved to the South Bronx and had two sons — one of whom grew up (fueled by his mother’s beer, perhaps?) to be my maternal grandfather.

After spending most of her life in New York City, Lucilla died in November 1950 in Stamford, Connecticut, where both of her sons had moved. Francesco died there as well, in August 1955.

And now, her recipe …

# # # # #

You can click this to view full-size, though I'll transcribe it below as well.

You can click this to view full-size, though I’ll transcribe it below as well.

How to make Beer

Put two gallons of water on stove and boil, when boiling add malt. Boil for 20 minutes stirring all the while.

Then add hops, 1 tablespoon of salt and 2 lbs of sugar. Let this boil for 1/2 hour, mixing all of the time.

Strain the above into a tub which contains 3 gallons of cold water. Add 1 yeast cake which must be dissolved and stir.

Keep in warm place and remove the foam 3 times a day for 3 days.

Place two tablets of (Lipp? Fipp? Zipp? Li’l help, homebrewers? Some sort of priming or carbonating agent, I assume) into large bottle and pour beer into bottle. Leave for 1 week and drink a good glass of beer.

# # # # #

Even to someone with no brewing experience, this raises as many questions as it answers …

– I believe ale is warm-fermented and lager is cold-fermented; so based on the instructions, I think what we’re making here is an ale. I think.

– Does this recipe predate Prohibition, or postdate it? Did Lucilla learn this from her German daddy, or from some neighbor whose apartment smelled suspiciously of hops one afternoon in 1930 when Lucilla went to borrow a cup of sugar?

– Speaking of which: Two pounds of sugar? Really?

– Note no quantity of malt. I’ll guess wildly that the package of malt included the correct amount, and that “add malt” was just shorthand for “add one bottle of malt,” or “one sack of malt,” or whatever. If I were to reverse-engineer this recipe today, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out the right quantity of malt for five gallons of water, anyway.

– Also note no quantity of hops — a detail that would make it impossible to exactly nail Lucilla’s homebrew today. I wonder how much she used, and where she would have obtained them, and what kind.

(It doesn’t say “add Saaz hops,” or “add Tettnang Tettnanger hops,” or “add Cascade hops” … just “add hops.” I doubt there was much of a selection available back then, anyway, given that homebrew might or might not even have been legal. There’s probably a website that can tell me what hops people had access to, back in the day.)

– I’m trying to picture the “tub” in which Lucilla made her beer. I notice she never said to cover it … maybe she was making some gonzo Bronx equivalent of those open-tank wild-fermented Belgian beers.

OK, I doubt that. I’m still picturing, like, a metal washtub holding the nascent beer, maybe with some dishtowels draped over it to keep the bugs out. Yeesh.

But, for all its humble origins, this recipe must be good. Lucilla told me so herself.

I wonder how it tastes …


10 responses »

  1. Great blog, I shared it on facebook and twitter. I love hearing about people from the past, and about beers from the past. Whether this brew matches up to today’s homebrew techniques is irrelevant, the post is fantastic and very interesting! Cheers!


    • Thanks! Glad you like it.
      I don’t really hope to duplicate it (though I’m tempted to try making something like it.) I’m interested to see what thoughts it inspires among people who know about brewing, though.
      Thanks for sharing it, too.

      • You could adopt it with as few changes as possible, but within modern homebrewer standards. I suspect you’d have a very interesting blog at least, possibly a historically informative beer with modern sensibilities on top of a good story

  2. I believe the surname was Iacobelli before it was anglicized to Jacobellis but I could be wrong.

  3. I’m too lazy to look it up but the Lipp/Fipp/Zipp was probably to clear the liquid before botting. My questions:
    1) Sit only 3 days before bottling? If you are only using a one stage process, you usually let it sit 7-10 days before bottling, where it sits for another two weeks.
    2) The sugar amount is about right. That is what the yeast feeds on to make the alcohol. I’m surprised she doesn’t add a touch more right before bottling for carbonation. Not too much though or you blow your caps off!
    3) I think the open air brews are the lambics. Cleanliness is all important when brewing so I doubt they used the family tub. Probably had a carboy.

    Glad to hear I follow in the family tradition.

  4. OK so here’s my extremely limited knowledge which may be wrong: Definitely an ale. No idea on the date. I believe previously I read that salt can add to the sweetness/fullness of a beer, but also can be used to alter the water chemistry. Sugar seems about right…depending the batch size and how much malt is used that could end up with a really boozy beer haha. Not sure about the hops…if I had to guess it’d be German stuff maybe? I believe that’s what they were mostly using around that time period. If I had to guess about a vessel it’d probably be similar to what most homebrewers use today called a carboy. I’ll pass this along to a historical brewer I know who can most likely shed some far more accurate/professional opinions on the subject.

    • Thanks for passing it along. Any wisdom is appreciated.

      I’ve read online that Cluster hops dominated American production in the first half of the 20th century. I’m leaning toward trying it with those (assuming I do try it, which I lean more and more toward.)

  5. Hi Gentlemen ,

    Great find, and the fact that it’s “in the family” is even cooler !

    I have seen several recipes that look just like this one, and based on the handwriting style(also in pencil), and it’s content, I would guess it dates from the 1920’s -1940’s.

    “Lipp”, is short for Edmond Von Lippmann, a researcher, author and later a manufacturer of beet sugar cubes (table sugar), his name and research has come up before in my discovery of inverted sugar from the last part of the 19th century.- it’s use in this recipe is for carbonation-2nd fermentation – sometimes people would drop a raisin in each bottle as an alternative.

    Malt extract was usually sold in 3lb jars, bottles or in cans , the big one was Blue Ribbon, but Pabst was popular too.

    Cluster is definitely a good hop of choice for this period, since it is still available ,but some extinct varieties included Canada Red, Grape, Palmer or Humphrey Seedling

    below is a modern translation recipe for a 5 gallon batch, it’s a very dry beer- 50% table sugar is the reason, but tasting history is what it’s all about !

    Table Ale 1920-1933
    Brew Type: Extract Date: 5/9/2009
    Style: American Amber Ale Brewer: Blue Ribbon Malt
    Batch Size: 5.00 gal Assistant Brewer:
    Boil Volume: 5.72 gal Boil Time: 60 min

    Ingredients Amount Item Type % or IBU
    3.00 lb Amber Liquid Extract (12.5 SRM) Extract 50.00 %
    1.50 oz Cluster [5.00 %] (60 min) Hops 27.5 IBU
    3.00 lb Cane (Beet) Sugar (0.0 SRM) Sugar 50.00 %
    1 Pkgs Red Star Ale (Red Star #-) Yeast-Ale

    Beer Profile Estimated Original Gravity: 1.049 SG (1.045-1.060 SG) Measured Original Gravity: 1.010 SG
    Estimated Final Gravity: 1.011 SG (1.010-1.015 SG) Measured Final Gravity: 1.005 SG
    Estimated Color: 5.9 SRM (10.0-17.0 SRM) Color [Color]
    Bitterness: 27.5 IBU (25.0-45.0 IBU) Alpha Acid Units: 7.5 AAU
    Estimated Alcohol by Volume: 4.98 % (4.50-6.00 %) Actual Alcohol by Volume: 0.65 %
    Actual Calories: 43 cal/pint

    Carbonation and Storage Carbonation Type: Corn Sugar Carbonation Volumes: 2.4 (2.3-2.8 vols)
    Estimated Priming Weight: 3.8 oz Temperature at Bottling: 60.0 F
    Primer Used: – Age for: 4.0 Weeks
    Storage Temperature: 52.0 F

    • Thanks for sharing your time and knowledge! Much appreciated.

      So my great-grandparents were Prohibition-dodgers?
      Good on them. 😉

      (Although they weren’t dodging it by much, if their beer was less than 1 percent alcohol by volume. Forty-three calories per pint would do a lot to help me keep my girlish figure.)

      I also see you step up the quantity of sugar to three pounds. I never realized it was that big an ingredient in beer (or could be.)

      Thanks again!


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