What the Colonists Might Have Quaffed

Written by Greg Kitsock for The Washington Post

Yards Brewing Co.’s Ales of the Revolution are beers with a history chaser. The Philadelphia microbrewery, which opened in 1995 in a building the size of a toolshed and now occupies a former skateboard rink, has attempted to replicate the brews our Colonial forefathers would have downed while talking sedition in wayside taverns.

General Washington’s Tavern Porter takes its cue from a home-brew recipe, preserved in the New York Public Library, that Washington jotted down while he was serving in the Continental Army. It calls for fermenting a “small beer” from molasses, evidently a more common ingredient than barley in that era.

Yards President Tom Kehoe compromised, beginning with a base rich in dark, heavily roasted malts, then adding four pounds per barrel of baking molasses during the second fermentation. The sugar-rich molasses kicks up the alcohol to 7 percent by volume, but enough residual sweetness remains in the beer to balance the sharper, coffeelike flavors.

Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale presented a bit of a dilemma, Kehoe says. Jefferson brewed extensively at Monticello, but in his voluminous records he never recorded a complete beer recipe. Rather, he left the fine details to a slave named Peter Hemings, brother of the more famous Sally Hemings.

Kehoe scoured our third president’s farm records and “used whatever was available at Monticello in formulating the beer.” In addition to barley, Tavern Ale is brewed from 30 percent wheat (a major crop at Monticello), plus small amounts of corn, oats, rye and honey. At 8 percent alcohol, it’s more potent than the porter. “They made them strong back then to hide their mistakes,” Kehoe says with a laugh.

The auburn-colored ale has a caramel-malt sweetness, almost like an English-style barleywine, with a bit of cidery fruitiness.

Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale is the lightest of the three beers, an average 5 percent alcohol by volume. That’s somehow appropriate for Benjamin Franklin, who once upbraided his fellow workers at a London printing house for imbibing too much strong beer. There is no evidence that Franklin actually proclaimed that “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” a quote that adorns about a million T-shirts.

Franklin probably did encounter spruce beer, a Vitamin C-rich drink formerly quaffed during sea voyages to prevent scurvy. Kehoe says he borrowed the recipe from a slim volume called “Ben Franklin’s Book on Food.” He collects “sprigs and twigs” from an organic farm in Media, Pa., then stuffs them into a large muslin bag that is lowered into the brew kettle near the end of the boil. It imparts an evergreen aroma and a juicy, resiny flavor to the beer.

None of these beers has any significant amount of bitterness. “Hops were not a big factor in beers back then,” Kehoe says.

Yards’s Ales of the Revolution are the foamy equivalent of comfort foods, full-bodied and rich. At a Yards beer dinner at Alexandria’s Jackson 20 restaurant last month, chef Dennis Marron paired the beer with a hearty, meat-heavy menu that planters of Washington’s era would have enjoyed (although it’s unlikely they ever encountered the meatloaf sliders or Spam cracklins that were served that evening).

The Ales of the Revolution were originally commissioned by Philadelphia restaurateur Walter Staib, owner and head chef of the City Tavern, a re-creation of a Colonial tavern where Washington entertained when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. Staib featured the beers in a series of cooking demos he did at Monticello for the PBS series “A Taste of History.” “I was the only chef who cooked in Thomas Jefferson’s kitchen since he passed away in 1826,” he boasts. He adds that he’ll be filming shows at Mount Vernon this fall.

Kehoe says it was Staib’s TV appearances that inspired him to expand distribution into the Northern Virginia market last year.

How closely do these brews resemble Colonial beers? If we could transport Washington, Jefferson and Sam Adams (the patriot, not the lager) to a well-stocked modern bar, would they find anything they recognized as beer?

Rich Wagner, a Pennsylvania beer historian who has conducted Colonial brewing demonstrations, says “it’s virtually impossible to make beers of antiquity exactly as they would have tasted.” Barley and hop varieties were different back then; you’d be hard-pressed to replicate them “without going to a seed bank and planting some heirloom variety.”

Maltsters had less control over the roasting of the grains. If they dried the malt over a direct flame, it would have picked up smokiness from the wood.

The key factor, in Wagner’s opinion, is that there were no pure yeast cultures back then. Yeast cells tend to mutate rapidly, and their offspring, over time, can produce widely varying beers. Furthermore, during fermentation, brewers had no way to control the temperature, which can exert a profound effect on the outcome.

Wagner adds, however, that consumer expectations were different as well. “Without refrigeration, beer in the barrel changed from day to day, and if it went sour, they probably didn’t waste it. They may have added some sugar, which seems to be the answer to everything back then. I know they mixed fresh and stale together to get more mileage out of beer that had gotten a little long in the tooth.”

Kehoe concurs: “I wonder if some beer back in those days would have been hard to swallow.”

To Wagner, the Yards beers “resemble what our forefathers may have enjoyed, but in all likelihood they are a lot better.”

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