How to make a good and wholesome beer…

The recipe I have chosen is “how to brew good and wholesome beer without any hops at all” from Hugh Plat’s 1653 text, The Jewel House of Art and Nature. My interest in the recipe stems from an interest in how the craft of brewing in early modern europe relates to the proliferation of craft brewing today. Specifically, I am interested in how increasing centralization of power, industrialization, increasingly global trade networks, and the philosophical turn toward the rational and measurable affected brewing as an artisanal practice and larger industry. Through an excavation of this recipe as a text with a particular social historical context, I am also hoping to reveal commentary on the classed and gendered labor of brewing.

The Jewel House of Art and Nature drew my interest in the introduction’s juxtaposition of art and nature, “although Nature appears a most fair and fruitful body…yet the Art, here mentioned, is as a Soul to inform that Body to examine and to refine her actions.” This framing of art and nature as a soul and body is particularly interesting when applied to the huge diversity of recipes found in the text, from speaking in sign language to clarifying honey. I noted that unlike some of the other recipe collections, such as The Queen’s Closet Opened, there was not a clear organizational system to this text and very few repetitions or variations for a single recipe. This suggested to me the authors confidence in the quality of each recipe. The one I have chosen for a “good and wholesome beer” is the ninth recipe in the collection, while other sections of the book discuss aspects of beer like preservation, this is the singular instruction for brewing.  The recipe initially captured my attention because of its length, in total spanning four and a half pages, wherein the author carefully details and defends his thought process. It is also of particular interest because it addressed a specific ingredient of brewing. I asked myself, why would 17th century brewers want to make a beer without hops?

I will reconstruct this recipe by critically analyzing the text and following its instructions, and then rethink the recipe by placing it in the context of current craft beer culture. Many questions guide my exploration. How similar/different are early modern beers to contemporary beers? What can the early modern shift from regional artisanal practice to regulated industry tell us about the current beer industry? Does the current wave of micro-brewing reproduce any aspects of artisanal brewing practices of the past? How does transmission of knowledge affect practice? Why is current beer culture so attached to its four cardinal ingredients (water, malt, yeast, hops)? Do beers without hops have a place in current tastes? What qualifies as good and wholesome? I expect through reconstructing the logic of the author on excluding hops from beer I will be able to learn about the availability of ingredients, friction between traditional and innovative practices, and perhaps economic regulations. Through the brewing itself I will experience what assumptions the author makes of the reader and whether his assertions in the text ring true in practice. By rethinking how this beer was produced and consumed, I can place it in a longer tradition of English brewing and project its place in contemporary trends.

The first step in the process was transcribing the recipe in order to make contextual analysis more manageable (the whole thing is two full single spaced pages). The author begins with a curious assertion about his motivations. “Since my profession in this book is in some sort to anatomize both Art and Nature, without any regard of private mens profits, whom it may either escentially or accidentally touch; I am bold therefore without craving any leave to do good, to renue or rathere to confirm & ratifie an ancient opinion & practise, which long since in the great dearth and scarcity of hops many Brewers of this land have been forced to put in use for the better supportation of their weak & declining declining [word is repeated here] estates.” This first sentence interestingly separates the author from overtly involving himself in “private mens profits.” The purpose of the recipe is to describe and promote the validity of a brewing practice for the greater good to compensate for the scarcity of hops in 17th century England. It is interesting that the author seems to identify beer here as both a commercial good and an artisanal product related to art and nature. However, despite the protests that the text is not meant for manufacturing/industrial purposes, he does speak about costs, scarcity, and economic organization in this recipe.

The issue of material scarcity piqued my interest. Why didn’t brewers in the 17th century have ample access to hops? In modern brewing, beer is comprised of water, malt, yeast, and hops. I took these four ingredients to be essentially immutable. However, in researching I discovered that the use of hops in brewing was not popularized in England until the 16th century (Cornell). Hops and hopped beer were at first imported from Holland, and England did not start growing domestic hops on a large scale until the mid 16th century. It was also during the 16th century that major laws regulating beer production were passed in Europe. The Reinheitsgebot in 1516 limited the acceptable ingredients to water, barley, and hops. This would have created more demand for hops in Europe. In 1603, a law was passed outlawing the import of hops due to concerns about their poor quality (Anderson). All these factors, excluding any environmental blights specific to the author’s time, could have contributed to the “beer without hops” recipe included in The Jewel House. But if brewers weren’t using hops, how were they making beer? The use of gruit or herb mixtures was common before the popularization of hops (Hornsey) and it seems the author is reaching into this tradition is his recipe.  

At this point, I became skeptical, for it seems the author is trying altogether too hard to convince the reader of the recipe’s value and perfection. Why include this recipe for beer if it was expected to be controversial? This leads me to believe that the recipe goes against what mainstream brewing was practicing at the time, and perhaps relates to older traditional methods. It also suggests the authors dedication to the method as valuable, superior, or somehow “lost” to current practice. The author asserts his own role as an expert and also assures the “experience of one of the best experienced Brewers of London.” He is very confident not only in the quality but also the ease of this recipe, stating that an interested practitioner “may easily even in one days practice attain to the full perfection thereof.” I plan to put this assertion to the test, will I be a master of this technique in one day?

My first concern was acquiring the materials. The recipe for beer without hops hinges on the use of wormwood as a type of gruit. The author describes which parts of the plant are ideal for use, but in measurement only advises a “small proportion.” A cursory internet search revealed that I would be hard pressed to find wormwood growing in Rhode Island. While Artemisia carruthii is found in some parts of the state, this is not the Artemisia absinthium the author would be familiar with in Europe. For sourcing I turned instead to amazon, and found they sell wormwood specifically for brewing.

The ingredient of water I sourced from gallon jugs purchased at the grocery store, since there was not a special designation to the source or character of the water required. Counterintuitively, the recipe for “beer without hops” calls for hops, and the recipe itself is a type of experiment pitting hops against wormwood for taste. I was unsure what variety of hops I should use for this recipe, since there are many strains, but tried to choose a native strain to England. I choose the Golding hop, which was first recorded in the 18th century and described by wikipedia as the “quintessentially English hop.”

Once I determined the appropriate ingredients, it became a matter of discerning the process. I do not have any experience in brewing beer, and I wondered what kind of experience the readers of this book would have. I was hopeful that the recipe would provide a complete understanding of the early modern process, so that I would not have to lean on current information about brewing. However, I found the instructions on the actual process to be extremely vague. The quantity of the wormwood is “some small proportion” which I attempted to discern matching the quantity to the four ounces of hops required and then adjusting based on recommendations from current home brewers using wormwood (Quaite) that caution using a smaller amount. The recipe is a scalable affair, starting with nine gallons of water, which I cut in half for the sake of manageability in my own kitchen. The directions to boil the hop/water and wormwood/water until the point “when you have gotten out by ebulition the full strength and vertue of them” is pretty much the only brewing direction. From this I gathered the author expected some previous knowledge of brewing from his audience. It is very difficult to determine what is meant by strength and virtue or determine the appropriate amount of time, or how malt figures into the equation. For these I had to turn to contemporary sources for guidance.

Now that I have familiarized myself with the brewing process and the ingredients I look forward to brewing “a good and wholesome beer” this week for the class. It has surely taken me more than a day to perfect.



Anderson, Adam, John Adams, and Boston Public Library John Adams Library BRL. 1764. An Historical and Chronological Deduction of the Origin of Commerce : From the Earliest Accounts to the Present Time. Containing, an History of the Great Commercial Interests of the British Empire. To Which Is Prefixed, an Introduction, Exhibiting a View of the Ancient and Modern State of Europe; of the Importance of Our Colonies, and of the Commerce, Shipping, Manufactures, Fisheries, Etc. of Great Britain and Ireland; and Their Influence on the Landed Interest. With an Appendix, Containing the Modern Politico-Commercial Geography of the Several Countries of Europe. London : Printed for A. Millar, J. and R. Tonson …

Cornell, Martyn. 2004. Beer: The Story of the Pint : The History Of Britain’s Most Popular Drink. London: Headline Book Pub Ltd.

Hornsey, I. S. (2003). A history of beer and brewing. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Quaite, Calvin. 2014. “Brewing with Wormwood.” Calvin and Hops (blog). January 15, 2014.

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