Why did cave people bother?
How did people know if their beers were made before the hydrometer was invented?
Here is another approach to answering your question. Another perfectly valid and backward-looking way of asking your question would be to ask, "How did people know that a hydrometer is an indicator that beer is being drunk?" The hydrometer really doesn't tell you your beer is "ready". It tells you that the sugar was converted into alcohol and CO2 (by-products, among other things) by yeast. I would certainly not assume that a Russian imperial stout or barley wine is ready the moment the frills dissolve again in the beer and the hydrometer reaches its FG. Every beer is different, just like every brewer is different. Their interpretations of "done" are all subjective and influenced by others providing advice and clarification, as well as previous attempts.
There's no right or wrong way to brew a beer (probably the most overrated piece of advice, according to Papazians, "relax, don't worry, have a homebrew," wear me here). According to this logic, there is no wrong way to describe a beer as ready. Every brewer has his own idea of when his beer is ready to serve. He doesn't need a hydrometer to tell himself that every time. Heck, I didn't bother taking the final gravity readings on two of the five beers in my Keezer. They tasted great, I was excited to get them carbohydrates, and to this day I don't know what the exact ABV of them is, but I'm confident they are done. My measure of "done" is that it tastes how I wanted it, if not better. I'll bet hundreds of years ago brewers used the same methods to determine if their beer was ready or not.
Probably not the most factual answer you would hope for, but hopefully it will take a broader approach to understanding how it worked back then.
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