All advice I've seen given here and on other brew sites relies heavily on the use of a hydrometer, which I assume is a somewhat recent invention. However, people have been brewing and drinking for thousands of years - what did they do in the past? Does anybody here brew without the use of measure-reading instruments?

edit: I'm not talking about just beer, I'm wondering about any alcohol ferment (beer, wine, cider, etc).

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    In theory (not very well in actual practice), one could argue that given knowledge of the ingredients used, specifically the grains/extract and yeast, relatively close approximations could be made and you could likely come close (give or take 10-20 gravity points, if that's deemed "close") to determining gravity readings without taking them. That said, I doubt cavemen rented out the tribe's abacus while sitting around the fire place for tea and crumpets and fine cigars while bragging about which yeast strain of theirs attenuated better than the other persons'. – Scott Jan 9 '14 at 20:05
  • I'm not talking about cavemen really (and arguably this is a silly trope)... I was specifically thinking about people 100 years ago or more, and not limited to beer - also wine. Will edit my question accordingly. Thanks though for the input. – tM -- Jan 9 '14 at 20:18

Here's a different approach to answering your question. Another completely valid, and backwards way of asking your question would be to ask: "How did people know that a hydrometer was an indicator of the beer being done?" The hydrometer really doesn't tell you that your beer is "done". What it tells you is that the sugars have been converted by yeast into alcohol and CO2 (among other by-products). I certainly wouldn't consider a Russian Imperial Stout or Barley Wine done the moment the krausen dissipates back into the beer and the hydrometer hits its FG. Each beer is different, just how every brewer is different. Their interpretations of "done" are all subjective, influenced by others imparting advice and education on them and previous attempts.

There is no right or wrong way to brew a beer (probably the most over-stated piece of advice, second only to Papazian's "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew", bear with me here). By that logic, there is no wrong way to call a beer done. Each brewer has their own idea of when their beer is ready to serve, they don't need a hydrometer each time to tell themselves that. Heck, I didn't bother to take final gravity readings on two of the five beers in my keezer. They tasted great, I was excited to get them carbed up, and to this day, I don't know what the exact ABV of them are, but I'm confident they're done. My measure of "done" is that it tastes how I wanted it to taste, if not better. I bet brewers back hundreds of years ago used the same methods to determine whether or not their beer was done.

Probably not the most factual answer you would hope for, but hopefully it allows you to take a broader approach to understanding how it worked back in the day.

  • This is actually exactly the type of answer I was looking for. Thanks! – tM -- Jan 9 '14 at 21:01

As well as hydrometers, carbonating and hopping beer is also a fairly recent trend in brewing, so a long time ago, the wort was brewed (by steeping grain and boiling, no hops), put into a barrel and then stirred with a big stock of wood that provided the yeast.

The beer didn't have anything like the quality we expect today, so it was simply deemed ready after the krausen had fallen or after a suitable period of time had passed, or simply when the brewer felt it was fit for serving (or not!)

  • What do you mean about quality? As in Budweiser vs craft brew? Lots of solids? Not clear to me. – tM -- Jan 9 '14 at 20:21
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    When discussing quality, one has to take into account sanitation practices (they probably had a lot of infected beers), consistency between batches, flavor, aroma, and appearance. Yes, with regards to solids, their definition of oatmeal stout was probably vastly different from ours. ;-) A lot of people preach that there is no wrong way to brew a beer (or wine). By that logic, I'm sure some brewers drank very sweet beer, fresh wine, some managed carbonation, some served nothing but sours, some unfermented sugar water. Everyone could have had a very different measure of "complete" or "ready". – Scott Jan 9 '14 at 20:33
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    @tM-- everything Scott said. Even 150 years ago beer quality was far worse than it is now, and before then you might not even recognise it as beer by today's standards. – mdma Jan 9 '14 at 20:47
  • Something in addition to mdma's response for you to chew on, just imagine 300 years from now when someone asks this exact same question about our present day "God-awful IPAs", "Disgusting lambics", and that "Unimaginably restrictive Reinheitsgebot law". One can't begin to imagine what advancements will be made in the future, but we sure haven't shown any sign of slowing down over the centuries. The addition of hops to isn't all that old of a concept mind you, so what's coming next? – Scott Jan 9 '14 at 21:23
  • I beg to differ on beer quality. I do not have citations for this, but I recently read an article on the Hanseatic League, and city fathers were very concerned about the quality of their city's beers. So much so that it led to the formation of guilds to enforce quality. Likewise, the meticulousness and scientific of brewer's records in the 1700s, such as those cited by Randy Mosher in his book, give reason to believe that quality could have been quite good and consistent. Do not underestimate the ability of man to make quality using primitive tools. We put men on the moon with slide rules! – Chino Brews Jan 10 '14 at 5:47

The hydrometer is known to have been invented by the late 4th century or early 5th century, and to have been used for brewing no later than 1770. Source: wikipedia.

In most cases, we determine whether a beer is "done" by taste, not measurements. We use a hydrometer mostly to determine when it is OK to package a beer, and for our amusement to determine its apparent ABV (the exception is stuck fermentations). A few hundred years ago, beers were not packaged in as air-tight containers as our crown-capped bottles or kegs -- they were packaged in casks as real ale, or in bottles with cork closures. If a bottle refermented, the cork pushing out was likely the worst consequence.


My Guess is that back in the days of old, they depended more on aging than on whether or not it was fermented. their experience taught them that their brew was best enjoyed during a min/max window of "freshness". In my own experience, I brewed 3 or 4 batches (blondes and cream ales) that came out very tasty indeed before I ever bought a hydro. I watched the airlock. After about 4 or 5 days it stopped bubbling and I let it "mature" another week or so. I learned from accidental experience that I preferred when my primary went for 3 weeks instead of the minimum 2 weeks recommeded in the recipe. I also learned that my cream ale was much better after 4 weeks of conditioning in the bottles than it was after only 2.

of course this could all be hog wash as I have no historical research to base any of this on.



  • Thanks dude for the input. Did you ever have any brews that didn't turn out while you were doing this without a hydrometer? – tM -- Jan 10 '14 at 0:44
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    No, but they were all boxed recipes that I got from my local home brew store. they have a lot of different styles and they are a lot like baking a betty crocker cake. If you follow the instructions its nearly foolproof. A friend of mine told me in the beginning, "its really hard to make really great beer, and its really hard to make really bad beer" – Ugly Dude Jan 10 '14 at 17:12

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