Colonial-style beer makes a comeback
It was a cold day in Delaware as we stood outside around a fiery kettle, watching as Fred Avila—the young brewmaster at Eataly NYC—prepared a flip cocktail. The flip is an odd mixture of beer, egg whites, rum and spices that was a mainstay among the Founding Fathers (George Washington was among its most ardent admirers), and that I, an aging Gen X’er from Brooklyn, was about to try for the very first time. “Ready?” Avila asked, before I tentatively held out my glass coffee mug. I say “tentatively” because the Medieval iron loggerhead Avila pulled out of the kettle was so hot I could feel it radiating off my face. As he plunged it into my cup, I watched as the mixture inside began to smoke and froth over like one of those toilet paper-roll volcanoes I made in elementary school. “Now take a sip,” Avila instructed, and when I did, it felt as if my shivering frame had just had an electric blanket thrown over it. The drink was spicy and warm, with hints of toffee, cardamom, bread, and stone fruit. Just the thing a person needed while standing around a fire with a bunch of guys in the deep winter.
While the guys I speak of weren’t exactly the Founding Fathers of the U.S. of A., two of them—Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery, and Tom Kehoe, of Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia—could at least be counted among the Founding Fathers of America’s craft beer movement. Since 1995, Calagione has been celebrated as more than just a brewer: He’s an archeologist and an inventor, the Ben Franklin of Beer, whose goal has always been not just to brew great IPAs, pilsners, and stouts (as well as about a hundred other beers), but to incorporate a liberal dose of technique, history, and experimentation into each and every beer he makes. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, about two hours north from Dogfish Head’s Milton, Delaware headquarters, Kehoe, a former wrestler turned brewer, has carved out a name for himself recreating (and vastly improving) Colonial-era beers with names like Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale, and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, all of which are served at the City Tavern, the Philadelphia bar that first opened in 1773. “When you think of historic colonial beer, you think of Yards, and when you think of crazy historic beers, you think of Sam,” Kehoe told me. And while there wasn’t a President Jefferson or John Adams in attendance, our flip beer circle was given some potent political heft thanks to the presence of Delaware Governor Jack Markell—an old friend of Calagione’s—and First Lady Carla Markell, who arrived with a cadre of secret service agents, and who went from an intimidating political power couple to two amiable drinking companions almost as soon as they arrived.
We had gathered on this February afternoon for what was promised to be a Colonial-era feast on the grounds of the Burton-Ingram House, a sturdy early 19th-century residence located in the coastal town of Lewes (Calagione and his wife Mariah live right down the street). On the menu were dishes such as a seafood muddle, buttered radish salad, a vegetable pot-au-feu and strawberry-filled fritters, all of which were taken straight from the pages of Colonial cookbooks the First Lady had provided from the Governor’s Mansion. All of these dishes were to be prepared by Dennis Marcoux, executive chef of Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats. And given he was cooking for both his boss and the governor of his home state, Chef Dennis aimed to please, calling on Zeke and Lisa Zechiel of Washington’s Green Grocer in Washington, D.C. to bring along all of the fruits and vegetables. If the menu wasn’t mouthwatering enough, the fact that Chef Dennis was pairing each dish with a different “Colonial-style” beer from either Dogfish Head or Yards ensured that this would be a meal to remember (or, depending on the ABV of the beers, lost to the ages).
As a person who’s always held romantic notions of America’s revolutionary days, when groups of hardy, occasionally putrid men gathered in dilapidated taverns to conspire and converse by lantern light over mugs of porter and ale, I was more than excited by all of this. And after studying up on Colonial beer making methods, I was pretty enthusiastic about what we would be drinking, as well. The thing with Colonial beer is that it’s something we drink all the time, without ever really knowing it: English ales and porters were both enjoyed by our colonial ancestors, and perhaps the most popular seasonal brew on the market—pumpkin beer—hails from a time when colonists used the gourd, as well as persimmons and molasses, in lieu of sugar in beer making, since it was the only thing they could find.
As the temperature continued to drop, we headed inside to the house’s front parlor, which had been transformed into an 18th-century dining room. Once located on bustling downtown street, the Burton-Ingram house was moved to its present location in 1962 and is now one of several relocated historical houses and buildings that comprise the Lewes Historical Society Complex. Usually quiet, the old house sprang back to life with conversation and laughter, the aromas of food, clattering silverware, and trampling feet. In the dining room, the governor jokingly quizzed DiPaolo about Delaware history as the rest of us gorged on pot-au-feu made with fresh vegetables, sumac, and tarragon, and served with Dogfish Head’s Scurvy Grass, which contained the grass sailors once ingested to avoid getting sick at sea.
Another resourceful option for beer-thirsty colonists was spruce tips, in lieu of hops—an improvisational act I was able to experience firsthand with Sam’s Spruce Tip Rye, a delicious piney beer that was served along a briny stew made with locally caught clams, mussels, shrimp, and rockfish. By the time Chef Dennis arrived with dessert, strawberry fritters served with Kehoe’s chocolaty Washington’s Tavern Porter, the sun had begun to set, and a secret service agent was whisking the governor away to his mansion. Avila had to get back to New York; the Zechiels to D.C.
Afterward, Kehoe, Carpenter, and I joined the Calagiones at their house for a nightcap. Sitting by the fireplace and listening to some old Nick Drake albums, we popped open a few bottles of Jefferson’s Tavern Ale and talked about America’s musical past, instead of its political future. Sam and Mariah’s son came downstairs, asking his dad if he’d procured the Morrissey tickets he’d promised, as his little sister screamed bloody murder from upstairs, begging dad to rescue her from a menacing spider. No, it wasn’t one of those 1776 kinds of moments like I’d imagined. It was just another night in America; Ben Franklin would’ve felt right at home.