Clothed in a costume reflecting colonial Virginia, Frank Clark stirs the mash of brown malt, oats and wheat in a wooden vat, explaining to visitors that he’s making Dear Old Mum, a Brunswick Mum wheat ale spiced with coriander, grains of paradise, long pepper and cardamom. Using re-created 18th-century brewing equipment and processes, he talks of ale-making history, of the molasses beer that women brewed in the late 18th century, and of the “cap,” a layer of grain that colonial brewers added to the mash as insulation.
A historic interpreter for the 18th-century Colonial Williamsburg living-history museum, Clark supervises the historic foodways department, which re-creates the food, dining and preparation of the period. The beer of the period is his primary area of research. Brew days—in spring and fall, as in colonial times—find Clark in the scullery of the Governor’s Palace, heating water in a heavy pot over a fire, ladling the hot liquid into a half-barrel, crushing spices by hand. Every day, he wears the clothing of a tradesman: sturdy white shirt marked by signs of labor, breeches and an apron tied around his waist.
Attention to historical alcohol—to ale, mead, cider and spirits—is common in Virginia, a state that embraces its place in history.
Brewing a historical beer doesn’t begin with a kit. Even after discovering old recipes in 18th-century brewing manuals, Clark explains, “there was a lot of time spent just gathering vocabulary.” Measurements differed—not merely from today’s standards but within the times: various barrel sizes, brewers’ pounds and more.
Next, he had to find grains that matched the grains of yesteryear. “They basically had three malts—pale malts, amber malts and brown malts … none of [which] were standardized. … One guy’s amber is another man’s brown, which is another man’s pale.”
In choosing a malt, Clark explains, “we ended up settling on Maris Otter. It’s only 50 years old as a grain, but that’s still older than just about every variety of barley out there.” He’s also exploring Chevallier Heritage malt, “which is starting to get grown again in experimental groups, and that goes back to the 1840s,” for improved authenticity.
Determining the most appropriate hops to use was easier. “The Kent Goldings were the only [cultivated, common-use] hops in England that really go back that far, and probably further.”
When the recipes initially resulted in amped-up alcohol by volume, Clark realized that to come closest to 18th-century brews he should factor in how much modern agriculture has improved beer’s ingredients. “The new breeds of barley … have much higher amounts of proteins,” he explains, while “the modern malting process more fully modifies the malt.” In addition, hops have increased in alpha acids, and yeast strains have become more efficient.
Like most brewers, Clark endlessly tweaks his recipes. “You never get it perfect, but it’s fun to try and see how many you can get right,” he says.
Like our U.S. forefathers, who grew beyond the original 13 states, Clark feels compelled to expand his creations beyond the demonstration kitchens of Colonial Williamsburg. Nearby Alewerks Brewing Co. brews the Colonial-style beers for public consumption, which are available to enjoy at Colonial Williamsburg taverns and other regional venues: Dear Old Mum, a spiced ale that balances the flavors of grains and spices; Old Stitch, a Northern English brown ale with nutty, toasty notes; Wetherburn’s Tavern Bristol, a heartier ale at 7.3% (historically brewed stronger for export from England to America), balanced with malts and British hops; and Toby’s Triple Threads, an English brown porter offering the palate a burst of burnt sugar, molasses and licorice root.
In hopes of expanding the lineup to include seasonals, Clark has reached out to other Virginia breweries. Since recent research into historical English brewing has indicated the presence of Brettanomyces, he’s looking for a brewery that would be willing to bring the wild yeast strain into its facilities.
Besides seasonal brewing demonstrations, Colonial Williamsburg presents other occasional events to share food and beverage history with visitors, including the three-day conference in March 2016, Ales Through the Ages, featuring beer experts Ron Pattinson, Randy Mosher, Mitch Steele, Martyn Cornell and others.
History on Tap
An hour west in Richmond, the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) presents History on Tap, blending history lessons with old alcohol recipes re-created by local beverages makers. The inaugural event featured Jane’s Percimon Beer, a winelike, low-alcohol beer with a touch of tart, brewed by Ardent Craft Ales from a 1700s Virginia recipe.
For the same History on Tap series, Black Heath Meadery created a mead using an 1802 recipe from The Frugal Housewife: Or, Complete Woman Cook, by Susannah Carter. The dry honey wine was spiced—metheglin style—with nutmeg, mace, ginger, rose hips and bay leaves.
Blue Bee Cider, which includes several heirloom apples in its lineup, presented two historical ciders for the VHS. The first was based on a 1742 Williamsburg recipe from The Compleat Housewife. “We followed the recipe as closely as we could by barrel-fermenting pippin juice with South Carolina raisins,” says Blue Bee owner Courtney Mailey. The second, Hewes crab apple cider, dry and winelike with the distinctive taste of the fruit, was made from one of founding father Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apples.
The Tastes of the Founding Fathers
Speaking of Jefferson, Starr Hill Brewery in Crozet brews Monticello Reserve Colonial-style ale for Jefferson’s historic home, Monticello, showcasing wheat, corn and East Kent Goldings hops, light with a clean, sweet finish. Nearby Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s “retreat home” in Bedford, regularly presents “Barrels, Bottles, and Casks,” examining the beverages of the president and his plantation’s enslaved community.
George Washington was once the largest whiskey producer in the U.S., operating a distillery at Mount Vernon, his Alexandria plantation. Today’s Mount Vernon offers tours of the restored distillery and works with master distiller Dave Pickerell to create spirits to sell.
“Brewing an historic beer is kind of a game you can’t win, in the sense that we’ll never get it perfect,” Clark says. “We’ll never have the same ingredients, the same mixtures, as our 18th-century counterparts, but it’s really fun to try and see how many of the processes you can get right and what the beers are that come out of that.”
He adds, “Brewing history led up to today’s beer.”