Brewing and baking and much, much more

Frank Clark and his Foodways staff interpret 18th-century food trades in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.

Learn more: Foodways Trade


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on  This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Frank Clark, who is supervisor of Historic Foodways but is also a brewmaster, I am told.

Frank Clark:  Right, we do that as one of the specialty programs that we do in Foodways. On a normal every day, Historic Foodways is operating one of two kitchens – or sometimes both kitchens – at the Governor’s Palace and at the Peyton Randolph House. We do our daily cooking examples and give folks a chance to see the foods of the 18th century being prepared and being displayed, but in addition to that, we have a number of specialty programs that we do. The first Tuesday of each month, we make chocolate. We start by roasting the beans and crushing them; adding spices and things, and make our own chocolate. Also in the spring and fall, we do brewing programs – “the arts and mysteries of brewing” – and that one is my specialty. I have been researching historic brewing for about ten years now here at Colonial Williamsburg.

Lloyd:  What…dumb question, but I really don’t know…What is the difference between brewing beer now and brewing beer in the 18th century?

Frank: Not a whole lot – the basic processes are the same. The only difference really now  is that everything is sterilized, stainless steel, the beer will never touch human hands, and they have a lot better quality control over the ingredients. But the basic process really hasn’t changed that much. You start by soaking grain in hot water. The grain is usually barley, which has been malted or sprouted, and then it is soaked in hot water. Then you extract the liquid from the grain and boil that with the hops; the hops are going to add bitterness and flavor to the beer; they’ll also help to preserve it. The hops are eventually removed, the whole liquid is cooled down, and then you put in the yeast. The yeast does the hard work for you. It takes the sugar from the grain and turns it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and makes it into beer.

Lloyd: Was beer stronger then? Or the same?

Frank:  Well, there were really a wide variety of beers in the 18th century. The every day beverage for most folks was what they called in Virginia “small beer,” and a lot of the Virginia small beer was actually made with molasses. They would take molasses, and hops and some wheat bran, and boil it all together in a pot; then they’d strain out all the stuff, put in the yeast and ferment it. And we’ve made that a couple of times, and it comes out to be between two and a half to three and a half percent alcohol, so about the same as some of the light beers in this country today, and that was basically the everyday beverage for folks. Some of the strong beers in the 18th century may have been as high as 10 or 12 percent alcohol – so much stronger.

Lloyd: If you go now in this country to get a beer at the local bar, it’s cooled, chilled, all sorts of things…you couldn’t possibly have done that in the 18th century.

Frank: Certainly not. Beer was served at cellar temperature, whatever your cellar was then, probably about 55 or 60 degrees. And if it was served out of wooden casks in the 18th century, it would basically be flat. Wooden casks can’t build up the kind of pressure needed to carbonate beer. Beer that was stored in bottles – you could get your beer either way, really – beer that was stored in bottles, often they would add secondary sugar to it and wire on a cork on the top just like a champagne bottle, and you could build up carbonation in that. So beer in the bottles was typically carbonated, but beer out of a cask or wooden keg would not have been.

Lloyd:  To rapidly switch subjects here, you are supervisor of Historic Foodways, so I am guessing that everybody in the kitchen works for you.

Frank:  (Laughs) yes, that’s correct, but really we all have our own specialties. I’m the brewer, Jim Gay, our journeyman, is a chocolate maker. We have one of our apprentices who is studying the making of gelatins and jellies. One of our apprentices specializes in butchering of meats, chopping of meats and things like that, and then also one who does sort of baking and decorative food work as well, so we all have various specialties within Foodways; that allows us to represent trades that were normally connected to foods but were separate trades.

In the 18th century, you could be a cook, but there are a lot of other food trades as well – there are butchers, there are bakers, there are brewers, there are confectioners who make candied items and jellies and things like that, so we want to try and represent as many of these sort of sub-trades that existed at the time as we can. And that also gives us a chance to have a much broader knowledge as a group, as a department, about food in the 18th century, being able to cover more than just one aspect of cooking it, but also how it is made and also some of the different trades that were connected to food at the time.

Lloyd: What do visitors like to see most?  I’m guessing chocolate.  

Frank: Sure, the chocolate program has been immensely popular – you’re quite right there. And, frankly, I think they just love to see the food being prepared. It’s neat to walk into the kitchen to smell the smells, to see the kinds of dishes that we prepare, have them all laid out there and see people actually involved in the cooking process.

Most of them are surprised at the quality of the stuff that we produce considering the equipment. But really from their view it looks primitive, but let me assure you that the copper pots we use in those kitchens are nicer than any of the ones I might have in my house, because I can’t afford a copper pot in my house, so the equipment really is fantastic, and once you get used to working with it, it allows you to do a lot more cooking. I could cook for a lot more people in the Governor’s Palace kitchen than I could in any home kitchen today, production-wise, and I think that surprises a lot of visitors when they come to that. 

But most commonly what they want to know is what’s going to happen to this food – more accurately can they eat some of it? And unfortunately that is not the case. The department of health here in the commonwealth of Virginia is very strict, and we violate just about all of their health codes. So, legally speaking we could not feed this food to our guests, so what we do is we tend to display it for as long as we can, we’ll keep it out for four or five days, at night we can put it in refrigeration, bring it back the next day, show it as long as we can, so that we get a good display time out of it. And, occasionally we taste it ourselves; we also give some to our co-workers and that sort of thing when we are preparing things that we know are safe, but for the most part, the food really ends up as a display and hopefully helps to educate everyone else coming through about the kinds of things they had to eat and how they were prepared.  

Lloyd:  I can’t help myself, but what eventually happens to the food?

Frank:  Well after four or five days of display, there is nothing else you can do with it, at that point it goes straight to the trash. So, it will be thrown out eventually, but like you say, we get as much “talk time” out of it as we can, until it turns moldy or starts to smell too bad, it’s out there.

Lloyd(Laughs) Other than asking you can they have a taste, which they can’t, what do people want to know – they see a piece of equipment they don’t…is that…?

Frank: Certainly there is a piece of equipment we have in our kitchens that is always asked about, and that is the clockjack, which is a mechanical device run by weights much like a clock which turns meat in front of the spit. It is mounted on the side of the fireplace, and people are always asking “what is that thing on the fireplace there?” So, that is probably one of the more common questions we get in the kitchens about the equipment.

The other thing a lot of folks won’t recognize in our kitchen is the stove. At the Governor’s Palace kitchen, we have a stove that is up against the wall, and it has small burners and square holes beneath it. Most folks think you put the fire in the holes. Actually the holes there are the ash drop. The fire is inside sort of a brick stove surface, and it has a burner on top just like your stove at home. You put your pots on there and you fry or boil or whatever cooking you need to do. But most folks don’t recognize that as a stove, so we’ll often get questions about “what is that?” or “what piece of equipment is that?”    

Lloyd:  Fueled by what?
Frank: …just by them looking around…it’s fueled by charcoal, the stove itself is fueled by charcoal, but as they look around the kitchen and get an idea of the kinds of equipment that we have, that’s one of the pieces they often don’t recognize.  

Another thing that is often asked about is the ovens – “how do you bake?” At the Governor’s Palace, we have two choices, we have a brick bake oven in the wall, but we also have a Dutch oven. And the Dutch oven is the one that most folks don’t recognize as a baking oven. It is just basically a metal pot with a big lipped lid on it, and you’ll put hot coals on top of it and underneath it, and then your pie or cake or bread goes inside it to bake. And those are wonderful bakers, but you tend to find that people don’t recognize them unless they do a lot of camping or were Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts still use them a lot in this country, but that’s about the only people that do, so that one’s a curious question for a lot of folks, too.

Lloyd:  Is that the same Dutch oven that you will still find mentioned in regular modern cookbooks?

Frank:  Basically, yes, today we put our Dutch ovens in our regular ovens and cook stews and things in them…

Lloyd:  (Laughs)

Frank: …but in the 18th century, they actually used them as a separate oven.  And if you go camping a lot or you are in the scouts, or things like that, often you will take the Dutch oven along with you, because you can cook right there with it…do stews and things like that.

Lloyd:  Okay, the other thing…I’ve suddenly gotten curious. People want to know if they can sample the food. Does anybody ever want to know if he can sample the beer?

Frank:  Sure, but unfortunately, beer is not an instant product. When we make it, you would not want to drink it. It’s got to ferment, like any fermented beverage, wine or beer, it’s going to have to take at least a couple of weeks for the fermentation process to be completed. That’s when it really becomes beer and becomes drinkable. So, yeah, we’ll often get requests at our beer program about being able to sample the beer, but at that stage, they really wouldn’t even want to drink it. It’s going to have to take some time to mature and ferment before it’s really drinkable.

Now, once that happens, we do, then, in fact, bottle that beer up, and we’ll often give it out to employees and do taste testing on it. We want to make sure that the recipes that we’re using, we make changes and modifications to as we do more research and find out more details, we want to know what people’s opinions of those changes are. So we have a pretty steady group of taste testers here at Colonial Williamsburg – employees who volunteer their services…

Lloyd:  Any volunteers needed?

Frank: We’re getting to that time. It’s coming up very soon, in fact.  We’ll be getting bottles in probably in a couple of weeks.

Lloyd:  How has it changed, I mean you’ve been brewing it, you sample, you do this, you do that – how have you changed it?

Frank:  Well, one of the recipes we make a lot is a beer called Porter. And Porter was a very popular beverage in the 18th century. It often had a burnt molasses and sugar mixture added to it for color – something they called “esentia bina” – and a mixture made out of licorice root added to it. We’ve just recently found good understandable recipes about how to make those things, so we’ve started adding those to our Porters. That changes the taste and the color of the beer considerably. The other thing that we’ve done recently is we have discovered by looking at some old brewing manuals that we were making the beer – the Porter in particular – just a little bit too strong. So we cut back the recipe in terms of sugar a little bit to bring the alcohol in line with what we think it was in the 18th century, (phone rings) so we’re always getting more and more research and more and more information. Sorry about that [the phone]. 

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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