H.L. Mencken On Brewing A Drinkable Home Brew

City Paper

I was taught to brew by Harry Rickel, of Detroit. He was a lawyer but his people had been in the malting business for years, and he knew all about brewing. He sent me not only detailed directions but also my first supplies, and after they ran out he found me a reliable Lieferant in Paul Weidner, of 350 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit. By 1922 I was no longer dependent on Weidner, for a number of dealers in home-brewers’ materials had sprung up in Baltimore. One of the best was a retired brewmaster named Brohmayer, who had set up a shop for the sale of home-brewers’ supplies. He knew the chemistry and bacteriology of fermentation and gave me some very useful tips. Also, he supplied me with the best German and Bohemian hops and very good malt syrup. 

At the start all home-brewers made their beer too strong. It took us a couple of years to learn that we should be sparing with the malt syrup, and especially with the corn sugar that we used to reinforce it. My first brew, put into quart bottles with old-time wire and rubber spring-caps (for the sale of crown corks had not yet begun) was bottled too soon, and as a result most of the bottles exploded. They were stored in the sideyard in Hollins Street and the explosions greatly alarmed our neighbor, William Deemer. As soon as we had mastered the trick August and I made very good beer—or, rather, ale, for that is what it always was, technically speaking. When I was married in 1930 and moved to an apartment in Cathedral Street, I set up a brewery there. I had kept a sort of cellar-book from the start, but the early years of it have been lost. Here are some entries for my last six months in Hollins Street in 1930:

1. One can German light malt; one can German dark; one can Guilford; a pound and a half white sugar; two ounces American hops. Brewed March 9; bottled March 19.

2. Three cans German dark; a pound and a half corn sugar; two ounces Bohemian hops; corn sugar in bottles. Brewed April 20; bottled April 23. Bottled too soon. On opening the first bottle the beer boiled out, and I threw out the whole batch.

3. Five pounds Brohmeyer malt; five ounces German hops; a pound and a half corn sugar; one ounce hops in crock at the end of fermentation; Chattolanee water. Fleischmann’s yeast. Brewed May 28; bottled June 1. A light, somewhat flabby brew.

4. Five pounds Brohmeyer malt; five ounces German hops; two pounds corn sugar; one ounce hops in crock; Chattolanee water; Fleischmann’s yeast. Brewed June 1; bottled June 5. Good flavor. [. . .]

One of my early pupils was Max Brödel, professor of art as applied to medicine at the Johns Hopkins. He knew a great deal about bacteriology and became the best brewer within my range of acquaintance. Some of his brews, in fact, had a genuinely professional smack. He had a summer place in Canada, and one autumn, on returning in his car, he found after crossing the American border that there were three empty bottles of Labatt’s ale in his baggage. There was some yeast sediment in them, and when he reached Baltimore he proceeded to cultivate this sediment at the Johns Hopkins. He soon had it free from contamination, and was presently brewing a really remarkable imitation of Labatt’s ale, which has a peculiar (and very agreeable) flavor. Another time he cultivated a ferment from the wild yeast on grape-skins, and from it produced an ale that had a decidedly wine-like flavor. In 1921 Philip Goodman, who was also one of my pupils, brought home some dried yeast from the Löwenbräu brewery at Munich, and Brödel cultivated and purified it, and in 1925 Goodman brought home a test-tube of Hackerbräu yeast. Brödel labored long and hard over these bootlegged jewels, and finally produced pure strains. He gave me cultures of them and I tried them with success, but getting the cultures from him was some trouble, so I returned to the commercial yeasts, which had been perfected for brewing by 1925. In this humanitarian work Brödel had the aid of various Johns Hopkins colleagues, including Stanhope Bayne-Jones, who was associate professor of bacteriology in 1922 and 1923. The strains that he and they purified and cultivated survived at the Johns Hopkins until Prohibition finally blew up.


From “H. L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition,” edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. Copyright 2014 by The Library of America, New York, N.Y.  Reproduced with the permission of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. All rights reserved.


Further Reading The House that Mencken Built The Sage in Black and White More Mencken Mencken's Music The Mobtown Connection

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