Beer: What the colonists might have quaffed

By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 4:29 PM

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.

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