Saturday, November 10, 2001

Few brews hint at Pilgrims' potables

By Ed Westemeier

        Reader Stephen Belanich of White Oak writes: “My wife enjoys preparing an authentic Thanksgiving meal each year so we can experience what was eaten by the settlers and Indians. We learned that the settlers, no matter what age, typically drank beer with meals. What current beer is most like the beer served on that first Thanksgiving day?”

        Great question. You're right. Beer has been part of American meals since the earliest days. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock largely because their beer was running low. They were stunned when a lone Indian walked into the settlement some months later and said, in English: “Welcome. I am Samoset. Do you have beer?”

        Samoset explained he'd learned English (and the fact that ships carried beer) from contact with English fishing vessels.

        But to answer Mr. Belanich's question takes a bit more research. What sort of beer would have been familiar to the Pilgrims of 1620?

        Obviously, it was an ale, since lagering had not yet been invented. It was also amber or brown, for pale ale was rare and expensive at that time.

        Hops were in short supply, so those early colonial beers sometimes used spices for flavoring. In fact, hops were only beginning to become common in England and were costly. The beer the Pilgrims enjoyed would have been made with fewer hops than today, so it was probably similar to some modern Scottish ales.

        Their beer may not have been made entirely from malted barley, either. Wheat and oats were commonly used in England, and when the New England colonists began making beer, they used native corn. Sometimes they had to be creative, due to lack of ingredients, and there are numerous references in 17th century writings to molasses beer, birch or spruce beer (made with twigs and needles boiled in maple sap) and other unusual brews.

        Using today's beer styles, we would call their beer an English brown or mild ale, or possibly a Scottish ale. It would be amber to dark brown, low in bitterness, with a malty and possibly slightly spicy flavor.

        But importantly, this is a beer for Thanksgiving. Our most truly American holiday deserves a beverage that offers something special to celebrate. An ordinary beer simply won't do. Here are my candidates, all available in the Tristate.

        • Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Nut Brown Ale has a smoky, spicy nose, with chewy, toasted malt and toffee flavors and low bitterness. Despite the clear bottle, the beer is dark enough that it's generally fine.

        • Gale's Festival Mild Ale is fruity to the point of becoming spicy. This magnificent dark ale evokes the spirit of the holiday perfectly. I may well be enjoying this myself on Thanksgiving.

        • Goose Island Hex Nut Brown Ale hints of burnt toast in the aroma. It has a medium body, with smoky roasted malt. Complexity is evident, while the balance is just right.

        • Samuel Adams Scottish Ale has just a hint of peat smoke in the nose. The malty balance is perfect for this purpose, and it would fill the bill admirably, but don't serve it too cold.

        • Deep Cover Brown Ale, from Left Hand Brewing Co. is a Coloradan brown ale that goes almost easy enough on the hops to qualify, while offering real depth of flavor. I could easily see this one on the table next to a turkey.

        Contact Ed Westemeier by e-mail:


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