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.
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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 …
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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.
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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 …