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Our rants about beer and beer culture.

Drink Beer Like A Founding Father

06.30.2012 15:38 PM

America has been a nation of beer lovers since its very inception. Our founding forefathers were noteable home brewers. This Independence Day, SaveOnBrew will take a closer look at how well these early traditions have been preserved over the years. 

washington recipe

George Washington: A Porter Man

Last year, the NY Public Library shared George Washington's beer recipe:

To Make Small Beer:

Take a large siffer full of bran hops to your taste-boil these 3 hours. Then strain our 30 gall[o]n into a cooler put in 3 gall[o]n molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather draw the molasses into the cooler. Strain the beer on it while boiling hot, let this stand till it is little more than blood warm. Then put in a quart of ye[a]st if the weather is very cold cover it over with a blank[et] let it work in the cask-Leave the bung open till it is almost done working-Bottle it that day week it was brewed.

What Did Early Beer Taste Like?

According to Schmaltz Brewing Company's Jennifer Dickey, the recipe resulted in an "overwhelmingly syrupy and bitter" brew that was more like mead than the beer we know and love. Research Historian Mary Thompson admitted, "It takes two or three sips to get past the shock." Brewer Dennis Pogue said the molasses gives the beer "a different flavor" that "wasn't very good." The Wall Street Journal's William Bostwick said his variation of the recipe tasted "sweet, cloyingly spiced, dull but filling, like fruitcake."  

Brewers Pete Taylor and Josh Knowlton took a few liberties when creating batches for the modern palate. They kept the molasses, but used less. They also added Brown Malt and Northern Brewer Hops for depth and complexity. Saveur Magazine explains, "The resulting porter is a rich cherry-brown with a sweet, roasty flavor, mellow carbonation and a gentle, tangy finish." The original recipe would have resulted in 11 percent ABV, but theirs clocks in at 6.

Unfortunately, they only made 2 kegs for a gala last year. Bummer. Yet, as fate would have it, Schmaltz wasn't the only brewer getting in on the action. Walter Straib, owner of Philadelphia's legendary City Tavern restaurant, commissioned Yards Brewing Company to develop their variations of Founding Father recipes in six-packs and kegs we can readily consume.

General Washington's Tavern Porter


Brewer and Beer Creator Tom Kehoe explained, "Our sweet porter was fashioned after the dessert beers that were made for him [Washington] at different taverns and at Mt. Vernon where he retired and then had the porters brewed on his estate.

He would have just so many barrels made and keep what he needed sending the remainder out to officers and troops in the field during the Revolutionary War on horseback. Along with the barrels he would send molasses and oats so when they finished half a barrel off the front lines they could refill them with the ingredients, let them sit, go back into battle and return to celebrate with a full barrel that had gone through a secondary fermentation." A tasty pairing with this beer is an apple crumble topped with porter-toffee sauce.  

Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce Ale

ben franklin

“Also, as part of the series we wanted to create a beer for Ben on his 300th birthday," said Kehoe. "Every spruce beer I’ve ever tried before we compiled our recipe for Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce Ale tasted like Pine Sol to me. Even our original batch did when we were using essence in the mix before deciding to go to an organic orchard near Philadelphia and grab some of the real thing – twigs, needles and sprigs – which we then steeped into the end of the boil like we would any beer.

We used the spruce instead of the hops, which is what they used to do all the time before hops got introduced in England. They would use whatever spices available to balance out the sweetness." The end result is a sprucey beer with "rosemary characteristics" that lends itself to a nice pairing with garlic / rosemary / thyme marinated lamb, French beans wrapped in apple-smoked bacon and crushed red potatoes.

Thomas Jefferson's Tavern Ale


This auburn ale is full-bodied, malty and caramel laced with a hint of cider fruit.

It was known that Jefferson brewed extensively at Monticello, but he did not leave behind an official written record. However, there is a recipe allegedly transcribed by Peter Hemings (brother of Jefferson's slave mistress Sally Hemings) that Kehoe adapted for the modern taste buds. Yard's Tavern Ale was made from barley, 30 percent wheat (a staple crop at Jefferson's Monticello estate), as well as trace amounts of corn, oats, honey and rye. This beer pairs well curry, grilled pork and camembert or fontina cheese.

...Yeah, But Is It "Authentic?" 

Sure, some beer purists will cry that these recipes aren't "authentic" enough. But Pennsylvania Beer Historian Rich Wagner explains to Washington Post reporters that "it's virtually impossible to make beers of antiquity exactly as they would have tasted."

Not only were barley and hops varieties different back then, but there were also no pure yeast cultures in Colonial times. Early brewers had no control over how the grains were roasted and no way to control the temperature during fermentation. Without refrigeration or air-tight containers, the beer changed taste from day-to-day. They may have added sugar to avoid the sour flavor and records indicate that they mixed stale and fresh batches together to get more mileage out of their brews.


The Bottom Line:

I know it's hard to believe, but their beer was probably pretty gross... and they only loved it because they didn't know any better.

Our forefathers would be proud of how far the beer brewing craft has come over the past 236 years. As Wagner puts it, the Yards beers "resemble what our forefathers may have enjoyed, but in all likelihood they are a lot better."

So, this Independence Day, raise a bottle and toast to the men who declared that this great nation would be a land of freedom -- and beer.

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