Beer History on Tap

What kind of beer did Americans brew 300 years ago? Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond, Virginia, has part of the answer. The brewery found a recipe for table beer in the Virginia Historical Society’s collection. Called “Jane’s Percimmon Beer,” it was brewed by the Randolphs, one of the state’s more prominent families.

In contrast to modern-day recipes, the formula for Jane’s Percimmon Beer consisted of just a few short sentences, with no detailed instructions or quantities. The brewery’s first trial run used about 17 pounds of persimmons, and yielded only three gallons. What did the beer taste like? “The light peach-colored concoction conjures touches of sweetness and tangerine-like notes from the persimmons and just a whisper of spiciness from the English Golding hops.” It was a table beer, which means it was relatively low—about 3 percent–in alcoholic content.

Ardent hopes to find more recipes in the society’s collection and create other beers from Virginia’s rich beer history, and to use those beers to encourage discussion of alcohol production and consumption throughout history.

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Did the Pilgrims Really Run Out of Beer?

You’ve seen this quote from the log of the Mayflower. We’ve even featured it in our “Worts of Wisdom”: “For we could not now take time for further search our victuals being pretty much spent especially our beer.”

Bob Skilnik, a Chicago-based beer historian, found more to the story while researching his book: Beer & Food: An American History. The Mayflower log said that the next day, the Pilgrims went back ashore and decided what we now call Plymouth was a suitable place: it was on high ground, much of the land had been cleared, and fresh water was available.

Skilnik explains that in 1935, sales of re-legalized beer were flagging. The brewing industry reacted by putting their beer in take-home containers—and by appealing to patriotism and nostalgia. The strategy worked, even at the expense of history.

Widmer Brothers Turns 30

It’s hard to believe that Widmer Brothers Brewery. started by Rob and Kurt Widmer in Portland, Oregon, has turned 30. To their surprise, they’ve become elder statesmen of the craft-brewing movement.

The brewery started out with two beers, inspired by their German heritage. Then something happened: the owner of local pub asked them for a third beer. Not wanting to disappoint a loyal customer, but facing capacity constraints, the brothers improvised. The result was the first American-style Hefeweizen. The beer not only looked and tasted different, but serving it in 23-ounce Pilsner glasses with a lemon on the side made it stand out.

Within 18 months, Widmer Hefeweizen became the brewery’s flagship beer.

What Did Beer Taste Like in 1832?

That was a question Canadian author Jordan St. John asked–and tried to answer–in a column on Canoe.ca. A great deal of speculation is needed because, as he points out, there weren’t any beer critics back then.

That said, St. John recreated a beer from the 19th-century diaries of a Toronto brewer named William Helliwell. The Niagara College Teaching Brewery provided the equipment for his experiment, and the beer was served to students not far from where the brewery once stood.

So what did it taste like? Glad you asked:

It was monstrous! At 9.1% alcohol, the aroma and body were different depths of caramel, toffee, brown sugar and booze. There was some slight intimation of marmalade from the hops and the smoke did put in a brief appearance mid-palate. Mostly though, it had an enormous round body and was suitable for slow sipping.

Less Filling, Tastes Great

Can you believe that Miller Lite turns 40 next year? The beer’s big birthday prompted author Tom Acitelli to tell the story of its origin. One stop on the journey was Munich, where George Weissman, the chairman of Philip Morris–which had recently bought the Miller Brewing Company—asked his waiter to recommend a non-filling beer. The waiter suggested a Diat pilsner.

If you know about German beer, Diat isn’t a low-calorie beer, it’s a low-sugar lager brewed for people with diabetes. Weissman liked the beer, and so did his dinner guest, Miller Brewing’s new president, John Murphy. They decided that America was ready for a light beer.

As it turned out, Miller’s assets included the recipe for a light beer, which originated at the Rheingold Brewery in New York. It was marketed as Gablinger’s Diet Beer, which flopped badly. Meister Brau, which acquired the recipe from Rheingold, marketed it as Meister Brau Lite. That, too, was a failure.

Murphy got the message: “diet beer” doesn’t sell. Instead, he advertised it as “Everything You Wanted in a Beer. And Less.” And, of course, “Great Taste. Less Filling.” He also recruited retired athletes to endorse the beer. Miller Lite became one of the biggest successes in brewing history, and every major brewery responded by rolling out its own light beer.

The “light” movement spread far beyond beer. The makers of everything from soft drinks to barbecue sauce offered lower-calorie versions of their products. Some, such as Coca-Cola, even used the word “diet” in the new products’ names.

As for Miller Lite, one of its recent commercials claims that the beer “changed everything” by making beer drinkers more svelte and thus more attractive. Maybe diet beer sells after all, at least if the dreaded D-word doesn’t appear in the ads.

The Friday Mash (GW Bridge Edition)

On this day in 1931, the George Washington Bridge opened to traffic. This double-decker span over the Hudson River connects Manhattan with Fort Lee, New Jersey–a town now famous thanks to “Bridgegate.”

And now….The Mash!

We begin in Kansas City, where Boulevard Brewing Company will kick off its 25th anniversary celebration with the release of a special ale brewed in collaboration with Odell Brewing Company.

Chef David Chang made enemies thanks to a GQ magazine article declaring his hatred of “fancy beer”. Chang contends that craft beer has too intense a flavor to pair with his food.

Two hundred years ago, in London, eight women and children were killed by a flood of beer caused by an explosion at the Henry Meux & Company brewery. The disaster was ruled an “act of God.”

Why not turn your Halloween jack-o-lantern into a beer keg? All you need is a carving knife, a pumpkin carving kit, a Sharpie, a spigot, and beer—which need not be pumpkin beer.

William Bostwick, the Wall Street Journal’s beer critic, has written a book titled The Brewer’s Tale. In her review, Amy Stewart calls Bostwick “the very best sort of literary drinking buddy.”

In Papua New Guinea, which suffers 1.8 million cases of malaria every year, a brewery packs its beer in a box that contains eucalyptus, a natural mosquito repellent.

Finally, should the Great American Beer Festival give medals for best beer puns? CraftBeer.com’s Atalie Rhodes found these doozies on the list of medal winners. Our favorite is “Dubbel Entendre.”

John Barleycorn Must Die

Jay Brooks recently wrote a column in the San Jose Mercury News about the season we refer to as “fall.” That word is a short form of the 17th-century English phrase, “fall of the leaf.” Fall is also the harvest season—Germans call it Herbst, a derivative of the Old Norse word for “harvest”—and it’s the time of the year to bring in the hops and barley crops.

This is where where John Barleycorn takes the stage. During the 16th century, a folk tale about him made its way around England. Brooks describes it as “an allegorical story of death, resurrection and drinking. The main character, the eponymous John Barleycorn, is the personification of barley, which is attacked, beaten and eventually dies–or as we prefer to think of it, grown, reaped and then malted.”

The most famous modern version of this song was recorded by Traffic, co-founded by Steve Winwood and Dave Mason and featured on their 1970 album, John Barleycorn Must Die.

The Friday Mash (Buffalo Wings Edition)

Fifty years ago today, the first batch of chicken wings was served at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. There are several versions of how this now-ubiquitous dish came into existence, but there’s little doubt that its creator was Teressa Bellissimo, who deep-fried the wings and then coated them with hot sauce for her hungry guests.

And now….The Mash!

We begin in Vermont, where Nancy Warner’s Potlicker Kitchen sells jellies made with local craft beers. She recommends pairing them with cheese or charcuterie, or using them to glaze grilled meat.

Central Michigan University is the latest school to offer a certificate program in brewing studies. The program includes science courses plus a 200-hour internship at a local brewery.

It appears that Washington’s NFL team is serving bad beer along with bad football. Fans have tweeted pictures of bottles of months-old beer that were served to them at FedEx Field.

Drinking beer might improve your brainpower. Experiments with mice suggest that Xanthohumol, a flavonoid found in beer, improves cognitive function. And it’s available without a prescription.

The 2006 film Beerfest popularized the Bierstiefel or boot-shaped drinking vessel. According to Thrillist.com, the custom of drinking beer out of footwear might be thousands of years old.

Emily Price of Esquire magazine offers ten things to do with beer besides drink it. But why would you?

Finally, a group of journalists are playing a brewery version of fantasy football. They held a “draft” of breweries competing in this weekend’s Great American Beer Festival, and will earn points based on the medals their selected breweries earn.

The Friday Mash (Razor Sharp Edition)

On this day in 1698, Tsar Peter I of Russia decided to Westernize his country by imposing a tax on beards for all men except the clergy and peasantry. That tax would have killed Russia’s craft brewing industry, had one existed at the time.

And now….The Mash!

We begin in Texas, whose residents insist that everything is bigger. The Austin Beer Works lived up to that reputation by selling 99-packs of its “Peacemaker Anytime Ale.”

The remains of what appears to be a nearly 300-year-old brewery have been discovered on the campus of William and Mary. It made small beer for the college’s colonial-era faculty and students.

Are beer enthusiasts getting too fixated on ratings? CraftBeer.com’s Chris McClellan, who watched a feeding frenzy ensue when a top-rated beer arrived at a store, thinks they have.

A deconsecrated church, an ex-funeral home, and a military base are among Esquire magazine’s 14 strangest brewery locations in America.

Gizmodo.com’s Karl Smallwood explains why beer is rarely sold in plastic bottles. They contain chemicals that ruin the beer’s taste; and they allow carbon dioxide to escape, making the beer flat.

Archaeologist Alyssa Looyra has re-created a beer from a bottle found near the site of the Atlantic Beer Garden, a 19th-century New York City hangout. It’s “a light summer drink.”

Finally, the Leinenkugel Brewing Company took the high road when it discovered that Kenosha’s Rustic Road Brewing was already using the name “Helles Yeah.” CEO Dick Leinenkugel showed up and bought the name for a few cases of beer, some pizza, and an undisclosed sum of money.

The Friday Mash (Seven Years’ War Edition)

On this day in 1756, Prussia’s king Frederick the Great attacked Saxony, beginning the Seven Years’ War. The conflict, which took place on five continents and involved most of the world’s powers, is better known to English-speaking North Americans as the French and Indian War.

And now…The Mash!

We begin in Germany, where the Mallersdorf Abbey’s Sister Doris has been a master brewer for nearly 40 years. She’s one of Bavaria’s few “ladies who lager”–and Europe’s last beer-brewing nun.

Beer historian Tom Acitelli credits a 2002 cut in the excise tax for the profusion of small breweries in Great Britain. He also credits a 1976 beer tax cut for America’s small-brewery boom.

NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon is a wine lover, but he also has a taste for good beer. Gordon recently showed up at Dogfish Head Artisan Ales, whose 61 Minute IPA really impressed him.

For years, Mexico’s brewing industry had been dominated by two large corporations, but change is slowly coming, thanks to the federal government’s efforts to curb monopolies in key industries.

Iowa officials are pondering what to do with the 150-year-old beer caves underneath I-380 in Cedar Rapids. The forgotten caves were exposed by this summer’s heavy rains.

Barrel-aged beer is becoming more popular, and brewers are looking beyond traditional bourbon barrels. Now they’re starting to age their beer in barrels once used for Scotch, rum, and wine.

Finally, the growth of microbreweries might give rise to a new breed of wholesalers. Yarmouth, Maine-based Vacationland Distributors specializes in craft breweries, especially those that have grown beyond the state’s maximum for self-distribution rights.

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