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Remembering the forgotten (and then drinking it)

Are brewers ready to take historical beers more seriously?
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Photo by Joe Stange

A Lithuanian farmhouse beer made in a historic style; Photo by Joe Stange

Trend-spotting is a rigged game, and in publications like this one it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We write that something could be the next thing, inevitably some brewers read about it and decide to play with it, and … lo and behold, it does indeed become a thing.

In this case, I’m not trying to spot a trend so much as share some encouraging developments. Maybe it’s a semantic difference. But if this prophecy fulfills itself, well … you’re welcome.

I’m referring to a recent spike in news, like blips on a radar, related to the brewing of historical beers and to brewers taking them more seriously.

There are a few reasons this is happening now. The first and most obvious is that our apparently endless thirst for variety has put pressure on brewers to conjure up new things. As it turns out, old things are a nearly bottomless well of ideas for new ones.

Another reason is that the sheer number of brewers—with now more than 4,400 breweries in the U.S.—means that some percentage of them are bound to be wonky about history. The degree of interest varies from “I want to know more about old beers because I’m passionate about beer in general,” all the way to “I am a former history professor who now brews beer for a living.”

Finally, there is a development that stretches well beyond the topic of beer: the rise, via the Internet, of the amateur historian. This is too broad a subject to cover here, but just think of the many people willing to research and write about niche historical topics, often on their own blogs, for little or no money. To use a very broad brush: Their rigor varies widely, but many are shedding light on primary sources and questioning the validity of others—and, I believe, that’s what historians are supposed to do.

So far, so good. But what should we do with all this information? Because, ultimately, we’d like to drink the results.

Here are some happenings—most occurring in the past two months—that suggest much more to come:

At the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia, there was an unusual morning roundtable totally devoted to historical beer styles. New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert moderated the panel, which included Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian, Colonial Williamsburg brewmaster Frank Clark, and Brasserie de la Senne brewer-historian Yvan de Baets.

Audience members participated in the conversation, including several brewers and author Randy Mosher. Suggestions ranged from an open yeast bank devoted to ancient strains to an online depository for primary documents, including guidance on things like obsolete weights and measures, heirloom ingredients and historical method.

“Make sure that everyone knows what the standards are for what qualifies as history,” Mosher said, “because we’re all just sort of winging it. … Some of it’s real history. And some of it’s just stories.”

At the end, Bouckaert collected a pile of business cards from participants interested in forming a sort of committee to oversee the next steps. It looked to me as if most of those cards were from working brewers. 

Make Your Own Beer ad

Advertisement for malt extract, circa 1900. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian announced a new program to document American brewing history. This news might have been missed amid the noise of the CBC in Philly. Through a donation from the BA, the Smithsonian will conduct “a three-year initiative to collect, document and preserve the history of brewing, craft brewers and the beer industry to explore how the beverage and brewing connect to larger themes in American history.” This is part of the Smithsonian’s wider Food History project; the Brewing History page is here. (The image above is part of this collection as well.) 

It’s hard to imagine any objections to this effort, beyond the fact that it will focus only on the U.S. There is at least equal interest in Europe’s longer and richer brewing history—to say nothing of the rest of the world.

Colonial Williamsburg hosted an “Ales Through the Ages” conference in March. Historians, brewers and buffs met in Virginia for three days of talks on beer history. The lineup included authors Mosher, Stan Hieronymous, Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell, plus Stone Brewing Co. brewer Mitch Steele, among others.

As Cornell notes here, the event price was $325 not including travel and lodging, and still it attracted more than 120 people from across the country. Among other topics, Frank Clark—the brewer who also heads Williamsburg’s Historic Foodways program —talked about 18th-century homebrewing. It sounds like there was plenty of interest in another conference. I suspect attendance would grow.

Britain’s own Brewery History Society recently organized a one-day conference on “Re-creating Old Beer Styles,” at the Fuller’s brewer in London. Brewer-maltster-writer Ed Wray shares plenty of details here and here. Topics ranged in theme and era from Tutankhamen to Tesco’s.

And there are lots of books worth reading, and more in the works, from authors both new and established. If you’re not familiar with them, I’d refer you to the works of Maureen Ogle and Gregg Smith, for the U.S., and Cornell and Pattinson, for the British perspective. Generally, though, be careful out there. There are a lot of myths and nonsense out there repeated through the decades by uncritical writers.

Some of the newer North American beer history books, like the American Palate series, occupy specific regional niches. I don’t know how broad their readership is, but based on my reading one of them—Upper Hudson Valley Beer by Craig Gravina and Alan McLeod—the research is deep and thorough. There are other entries for Charlotte, Detroit, Grand Rapids, New Jersey, North Texas, Rhode Island, San Antonio, San Francisco, Washington State. We can suppose that list will grow.

Don’t be fooled by that growth, though. There may be growing interest, but this is not a lucrative field. This is a field where people are writing and publishing because they believe there is something that ought to be written and published, before it is forgotten.

Brewers would do well to look at these sources in their hunt for new (old) ideas. Historical beers, after all, come with built-in tales, which are something that we Americans seem to enjoy with our beers.

Bouckaert alluded to this at the CBC roundtable: “Here, if you make beer, you need to make stories also,” said Bouckaert. “I was very surprised that people drink stories. In Belgium we just drink beer.”

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