Old Stitch: A Beer for the Ages

Relax with a brew from the past, courtesy of Master of Historic Foodways Frank Clark. Twenty years of study and practice have resurrected the 18th century’s favorite beer: Old Stitch.


Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. The Historic Foodways program has been brewing 18th century beers since 1994 and their hard work is paying off with some special recognition.
In 2014, Colonial Williamsburg’s Old Stitch Brown Ale took first place in the United States Beer Tasting Championship’s 20th Annual Competition. Here with us now to savor this victory is Frank Clark, who is master of Historic Foodways. Frank, thank you for being here today.
Frank: Well thank you very much for having me, Harmony.
Harmony: Talk to us about the historic brewing program and how that’s a part of Historic Foodways. How can we understand beer as part of the colonial table?
Frank: Well, actually in the 18th century, probably many folks got up to half of their daily calories from beer. So beer was an important part of foodstuffs for the average Englishman of the 18th century. This was something that I realized as I first began my apprenticeship in Historic Foodways. Part of our apprenticeship is to pick a particular topic to research and to study, and so as I was looking around at things I began to realize that beer was one of the areas that no one had really made a comprehensive study of.
I approached my supervisor at the time and I told him I wanted to study historic beer and make that my apprenticeship. They kind of laughed and said, “No, you just want to drink beer,” but eventually I convinced them and created the historic brewing program: The Arts and Mysteries of Brewing, as we call it in the Historic Area. As we started doing it we found more and more information and more and more refining of the process over time to create the program that we now present to the public four times in the spring and four times in the fall.
Harmony: I want to talk about refining that process, because it’s tricky enough to home brew today, but you’re using 18th century recipes, methods. How is the science of that tricky?
Frank: Well, one of the problems was that actually that I started it 20 years ago and that was before the Internet came in a big way. That has completely revolutionized the study of historic foods, or frankly any phase of history at this point in time. Now, you know, I can walk over to the computer and flip on brewing records from England in 5 seconds. In the '90s when I was doing this, basically I had to go to England in order to do it.
That's one of the things that really helped my program. I took a trip over there, and while I was there I got to go to some of the actual 18th century breweries that had survived in country homes of England at the time and get a visual view of all this equipment. You know, reading a brewing manual is one thing and they're going through all the descriptions of things, but it really comes together when you see it all right next to each other in the proper place and in proper location. It really starts to make a lot more sense.
So that helped me kind of understand what my equipment needed to be and where it was and what the processes were and all those sorts of things and what they’re talking about when they talk about a "hop bath," or, "underletting," or all these other various terms from the period. Sometimes they're still used by modern brewers, but they’re used on different equipment and in a different way. So trying to figure out the vocabulary of the brewing of the 18th century has been a long process.
And then, there was also a very long process of trying to figure out the actual recipes, because the ingredients themselves have changed a great deal in the last 200 years. The hops that we grow today are far more powerful than the hops in the 18th century. The barley that we grow today is a much stronger variety of barley than they grew then. We discovered this as we started following the recipes. One of the first beers we made came out at 14 percent alcohol and we realized that this was not something that everybody was drinking every day. This was, you know, there’s was something wrong here.
We began to go back through the recipes and try and figure out what the problem was and finally realized that the problem was that our barley is so much better. When I go out and buy malt today it's four times better than what they were going out and buying in the 18th century. So we have to sort of adjust the recipes for time. That was a tricky process, because we never really knew what the alcoholic strength of beers were at the time and eventually we began to discover that as well.
They had invented, in the 18th century, a device they called the sacchrometer. We today call it hydrometer. It allows you to measure sugar and suspension in liquids and thereby figure out the alcoholic content of your beers. The problem was, the treatises and the writings about these sacchrometers in the 18th century used different scales than the modern ones do. And I had no way of translating it until I finally got in touch with a fellow in England who referred to these "brewers pounds." He said he learned them when he was young in the industry and had a formula for converting them into the modern scales.
As soon as we got that, we could then go back through these books and figure out “Ok, this porter was 6 ½% alcohol.” Every porter he’s making is between 6, 6.2 and 6.5% alcohol so we now make our porters in 6.2%, 6.5% alcohol. So, you know, we sort of learned to refine the process that way. So there’s been a lot of changes over time really in terms of the technology in following the recipes and understanding what they mean and the processes that they were using.
Harmony: So you’ve learned about the differences between the recipes and the processes? I’m curious about the differences between the taste, between what the 18th century palate expected and what we expect from a beer today. Was it a very different tasting beer?
Frank: It could be at times. The thing is, there’s a lot of sort of strange styles of beer in the 18th century that really don’t exist any more. Those have faded out because tastes have changed. But the real difference between their brewing and ours is consistency. A modern brewer has the ability to produce the exact same beer every time he brews. The 18th century brewer didn’t. The changes in the ingredients without the science to understand how those were different and to be able to compensate for them exactly make it difficult to make the same batch of beer every time.
So one year’s harvest of barley, one year’s harvest of hops, are going to have different flavors, different strengths than the next. So even if you’re buying from the same brewer each time, he’s not necessarily going to be making the very same beer. Sometimes it will get infected because he doesn’t have stainless steel that he can sterilize like a modern brewer. He’s using wood, which harbors infections. He’s fermenting out in the open and various other problems that modern brewers can eliminate. He can’t come up with the consistency of product that the modern brewer can and so beer went bad. It always will. It still does today, but they can control it a lot better.
So I think in the 18th century, most consumers were understanding of that and were willing to drink beers that were a little bit sour, a little bit weird, a little bit off that a modern consumer would immediately take back to the store and demand their money back. So we have a different sort of taste.
Now there are still some modern beers that may be closer to that, and those would be the Belgian beers. Belgians still open ferment in some of the traditional Belgian breweries, and their beers are very different from the modern American beers which are all clean and controlled. They have off flavors, they have sour flavors, but that’s part of the flavor profile. I think that was true to the beer porter in the 18th century as well.
The porter brewers aged some of this beer for up to two years at a time and there’s no way you can age beer in a wooden container for two years without infection. So we know it was basically souring it. Then what they did was blend some of that sour beer in with the fresh beer and sell it that way. So they could sort of create and control a flavor of a certain sour flavor that they had into the beer. Sour beers are actually fairly popular these days among the microbrewery communities. You see lots of Belgian beers and wood-aged beers coming back into popularity again, but most modern consumers find them a little bit weird and probably our more favored beers have, you know, a little cleaner flavor profile.
Harmony: We’re so proud of this historic brewing program, not only that you built it from scratch 20 years ago, but to the point now where you’re distributing it with a local brewery and you’re winning awards. Tell us about the Old Stitch that you won this award for.
Frank: Well, the Old Stitch is a beer that was sort of hard to track down. I saw a number of references to it in brewing manuals, but no actual recipes for it. The best one was from 1740's manual which was describing making what they call brown stout beer, a strong brown ale, and he was talking about using the second and third runnings. What the English did, when they mashed beer at the time, was take grain and add water to it, mash it, extract the liquid and turn that into beer, but they did this process three times. Each time they did it they got less sugars back than the last time because some of the sugar had already been removed from the grain.
So what they really ended up doing is making three beers of descending strengths: a strong ale, a table beer and a small beer. And these three beers would be all made and brewed at once from the same pile of grain, but would have different strengths and different uses.
The small beer was an everyday beer, the strong beers were kept and stored for long periods are often called keeping beers, sometimes they're called stout beers because they're strong and stout. So this beer was basically a table beer. It's described in the recipe that it’s not as strong as the stout brown ales, but it's stronger than the common beer. So from that description I can figure, “Well, this is an alcohol percentage of somewhere between 5 percent and 6 percent.
So we started to work from that basis and then tried to find proper malts from manufacturers today that would be similar to the ones that were made in the 18th century. That’s a tougher process, because a lot that is trade secret today. So I can’t call up a maltster and ask him what temperature he roasts his grain at. He’s just not going to tell me. So I have to sort of guess based on 18th century descriptions and modern malts, I can get what sort of matches. And that’s how we came up with the old stitch recipe. We wanted to make it a very balanced beer. You can taste a little bit of the hops, you can taste lots of malt and a full malt character and have a very drinkable beer, not something that’s going to knock you out. Something you can drink over time; what modern brewers call a session beer.
Harmony: And why did it win, in your opinion?
Frank: Well, you know, I think because it did those things very well. It balanced quite well. A lot of beers in the American microbrewery in history today tend to be what I call one-note beers. They have one flavor that they emphasize over the others. IPA is a perfect example. Any of the IPAs out there, their flavor profile is geared towards hops. Usually in many of those beers the flavor of the hops completely overwhelms any of the flavor of the grains.
In this case what I was looking for was a balanced beer. A beer that you could taste all the different elements of sort of at one time. I thought we did that very well. I was surprised at how well the recipe converted from the 10 gallon batch that we make to the 25 barrels that Jeff [at Williamsburg Alewerks] made.  I think most of that credit is due to Alewerks and Jeff Logan, the brewer there who’s the one responsible for producing the Old Stitch today. He’s just done an incredible job of making that beer consistent and great quality and a wonderful blend of the best of what we could do here at a small scale.
Harmony: What’s next for you in the Historic Foodways brewing program?
Frank: Well, we’re continuing to work with Alewerks on new beers. The crown of the achievement will eventually be the porter. Porter is an extremely complex and complicated beer in the 18th century. As I mentioned earlier, it was aged for long periods of time for up to two years, but it also had sort of strange ingredients; a burnt sugar mixture they called "essentia bine," and a licorice root extract called Spanish juice that were often added into these beers as flavorings and also as coloring agents to darken the beer.
Reproducing those today is actually quite difficult. It requires burning sugar in a cast iron pot and that’s not something that you can really do in a modern brewery. So we’re trying to figure out ways around this and how to work this process out so that we can eventually do this beer. We’d also like to age the beer in casks made by our coopers here at Colonial Williamsburg and then blend it back in just as the 18th century brewers did.
So this would really be our most authentic beer in the sense of the authentic ingredients, but also in the authentic process in terms of aging and blending of the beer, which was the standard for porters at the time.
And we want to work on a beer as well that has a high hop flavor profile. Not to say that we were just talking about that, but certainly in the 18th century there were also beers that had high hop flavors and profiles and these were beers that were generally designed to be shipped places. Shipped to America, shipped to the West Indies, shipped to India and later they become known as India pale ales. We’re going to work with a sort of a proto-version of that, an earlier version. The ales coming out of Bristol in England where sent a great deal to America. They show up in Virginia a lot. They show up throughout the colonies here and Bristol seemed to be a big brewing and shipping center to the new world so we’re going to try to replicate a beer from that period that represents sort of a hoppy beer for export, beers that were intended to be aged up to a year or so. They're fairly strong in alcohol and have a lot of hops in them to preserve them for the long trip and journey.
Harmony: I’m sure everybody listening wishes they had a pint in front of them right now listening to you talk. Where can we find these beers? You mentioned Williamsburg AleWerks.
Frank: AleWerks produces the beer, but Colonial Williamsburg is the exclusive retailer of Old Stitch. The other beer we produce with them is “Dear Old Mum,” which is a lighter oat and wheat ale with spices in it. That is also receiving good awards and various good compliments as well. Both of these beers are produced by AleWerks, but they’re solely exclusively at Colonial Williamsburg taverns and stores and so you really have to come here to get it.
Harmony: All the more reason to visit. Frank, thank you so much for being here and thanks for all the good work you do in Historic Foodways and with the brewing program.
Frank: Thank you very much. My pleasure.


  1. […] Not only has Clark created a beverage that comes about as close as possible to those enjoyed daily in the 18th century, but he has created a winner by modern standards, too. Old Stitch was recently named best brown ale in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast by the United States Beer Tasting Championship (an award that Clark elaborates on in this Past & Present podcast). […]

  2. […] Not only has Clark created a beverage that comes about as close as possible to those enjoyed daily in the 18th century, but he has created a winner by modern standards, too. Old Stitch was recently named best brown ale in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast by the United States Beer Tasting Championship (an award that Clark elaborates on in this Past & Present podcast). […]

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