By Ben Swenson
You probably expect that drinking a bottle or two of beer will change your outlook on the world for a while, but you may not know that certain libations can also carry you back in time.
In Virginia’s colonial capital, it’s possible to get a true flavor for old drinks that warmed bellies long ago.
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Eighteenth-century Americans loved beer. Aside from being an affordable alternative to potentially dangerous water, beer was a tasty way to get nutrients—along with the added benefit, for some folks, of softening life’s rough edges.
As part of Colonial Williamsburg’s mission to preserve and interpret the past, Frank Clark, supervisor of Historic Foodways, began efforts in 2007 to re-create beers that would have been familiar to people in the 18th century.
Foodways interpreters have been conducting brewing demonstrations for years, but until recently, they lacked the means to make their product available to the public. For that, Colonial Williamsburg partnered with AleWerks Brewing Company, a Williamsburg micro-brewery.
Concocting old beers was challenging from the beginning. Barley, hops, yeast and water—beer’s essential ingredients—have all undergone natural and scientific changes over the past two centuries.
What’s more, 18th-century drinkers were used to batches of beer that tasted different from barrel to barrel and they were less discriminating about flavors that might be considered off-putting today.
“Modern drinkers of a particular brand want a clean, infection-free beer that is the same every time,” says Clark. “That wasn’t the case in the 18th century.”
Still, Clark felt he could come close to 18th-century beer if he found the right recipe. So he combed through contemporary sources until he found something both he and AleWerks Brewing’s head brewer Geoff Logan could work with.
A 1737 manual from London gave instructions for “brewing strong brown ale called stitch,” and that served as an inspiration for the first recipe Clark created. A few test batches and adjustments later, Old Stitch rolled off production lines.
The malty backbone takes center stage with Old Stitch, providing drinkers with the flavors imparted when barley is roasted a dark brown: bread, nuts, coffee. For a beer so rich in flavor and deep in color, the body is surprisingly light.
Hops, the flower that is the standard spice of beer, is there in each sip of Old Stitch, but barely—just as it would have been in the 18th century. Clark explains he was aiming for a profile where malt was the driver because beers weren’t heavily hopped until the latter half of the century.
Some English brown ales and porters available at retailers today approach the profile of Old Stitch, but too often modern ingredients and practices add dimensions that would have been foreign to the beers from long ago.
Not only has Clark created a beverage that comes about as close as possible to those enjoyed daily in the 18th century, but he has created a winner by modern standards, too. Old Stitch was recently named best brown ale in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast by the United States Beer Tasting Championship (an award that Clark elaborates on in this Past & Present podcast).
Clark’s other creation, Dear Old Mum, is modeled on a style of beer that originated in Brunswick, Germany. Compared to Old Stitch, the maltiness is less robust, as is the amber color. True to its medieval heritage, Dear Old Mum features a complement of pungent spices including coriander, cardamom, long pepper and grains of paradise. The result: A beer that might fall near the category of a Belgian witbier—or white beer—but the cascade of spices sets this historic brew apart from any others now found on store shelves.
As with Old Stitch, Clark tweaked 18th-century recipes to offer modern drinkers genuine but less eccentric flavors. “Some of the spices that were originally used in various Mums are either unavailable or medicinal and not that good,” Clark said. “I also left out another ingredient that every existing recipe called for: 12 newly laid eggs.”
Two more historic beers are on tap in the coming years. First will be a sort of forerunner to the hop-heavy India pale ale called Bristol ale. Following that, a beer that closely resembles 18th-century porters that were aged for long periods in barrels and blended with other styles.
Come by the Revolutionary City to try Old Stitch and Dear Old Mum for yourself. You can find them on tap at any of the Colonial Williamsburg taverns and at retailers in and around the Historic Area, including Williamsburg Revolutions, Tarpley, Thompson & Company, John Greenhow Store and at the Williamsburg Inn and Williamsburg Lodge gift shops. Select stores in Merchants Square also carry the beers.
As descendants of a well-lubricated lot of Americans, it behooves us—purely in the interest of historical appreciation, of course—to raise a couple tankards in their honor. Happy New Year to all!