DURHAM, N.H. (AP) - Feasting on cattle, fish and even seabirds in a begrimed tavern among smoke and sea spray, colonial fisherman drank dark, molasses-rich beer. It was Smuttynose Island in the 1630s.
Inside the fishing station of the Isles of Shoals settlement, “sailors, smugglers and picaroons,” some associated with lawless conduct like illicit trade and piracy, according to an 1875 “historical sketch” of the isles, processed their remote, anarchic lifestyles through the frequent and copious ingestion of strong ales and porters.
Students at the University of New Hampshire’s Brewing Science Laboratory are using the Smuttynose Island tavern, discovered through archaeological excavations beginning in 2009, and further detailed in a more recent dissertation from a PhD student, as inspiration for a “history beer” project. They’re now in the process of brewing a beer that “would have” been drank at the 1600s tavern, based on extensive research from that time, and using both George Washington and Ben Franklin’s handwritten beer recipes.
After four years of digging on the shoals, in 2014, archaeologist Nathan Hamilton and his students had unearthed more than 250,000 artifacts.
Smuttynose Island, six miles off the coast of New Hampshire, is most known for a double murder along its shores in 1873, where a man strangled one woman, and killed another with a hatchet. The killer was identified as a German-born fisherman.
The beer project is a collaboration between the UNH brewing science program, UNH’s anthropology department, and Strawbery Banke Museum. Anthropology department Chair Meghan Howey runs the Great Bay Archaeological Survey, with much of her work centered around the early Colonial period in the Seacoast. When Cheryl Parker, the brew lab manager, reached out about doing a beer collaboration with the anthropology department, many local historic landscapes came to mind.
“I had just read an article about this tavern on the Isles of Shoals that had been excavated,” Howey said. “These were not spaces that were Puritan. We know how important taverns were in the colonial days, because life was more restrictive, but in the tavern you could be more free and drink your beer.”
The “article” Howey refers to is an anthropology dissertation by Megan Victor of College of William and Mary in Virginia. It examines taverns as centers for maintaining and disrupting cultural norms, and institutions for sociability and drinking, specifically on the activities that may have taken place on Smuttynose Island, based on the archaeological discoveries.
UNH brewing students Jeffrey Baron and Lucas Carroll are also anthropology majors, so the history beer was their brainchild. The “technical brewing” class decided to run with the Smuttynose Island theme.
“I’ve always been a huge history nerd and was interested to simultaneously focus on historical struggles and class structure, as well as beer as an enormous story that is super, super interesting,” said Carroll, of Exeter. “I see the two things as very interlaced, beer and anthropology.”
Baron, of Gilford, focuses more on the archaeology aspect, and “re-creation” of the past to better understand it. “Brewing this beer was a really good way to try and do that,” he said.
The class researched colonial beer recipes, specifically those of Washington and Franklin, which have been well-documented throughout history. Of course, the taste of beer was rather potent in 1600s and 1700s, so some refining had to be done.
“We wanted a beer that really created the experience of sitting out at Smuttynose Island in the 1700s, with the sea salt in the air, sitting in a dark smoky tavern, and then put that in a glass,” Baron said. They essentially wanted to “replicate” the experience, he added.
“This area was a real frontier in the 1600s,” Howey said. “This was the Wild West. We don’t think of it like that, but this was far from Boston, and the people here were very different.”
Baron, Carroll and the rest of their classmates worked closely with Parker, formerly a brewer for Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, to develop a historical flavor profile, and then “make it a little more palatable to modern drinkers,” Baron said.
Carroll said they did a test batch more closely aligned with the original recipe, a taste bud awakening. “It would have been very polarizing and dark and smoky, which would have been authentic back then,” he said. “We took out a lot of the heavily smoked malts.”
When colonial brewers would dry out the barley, they would do it with an actual fire, boiling their kettle over direct flames, and caramelizing a little of the sugar, Baron said.
For authenticity, the students added maple chips to reflect the beer would have been served directly from wooden barrels. Carroll noted how much flavor has been impacted by the development of technology through time, including the now-simple concept of refrigeration.
Molasses was the “energy drink” of the Colonial period, Howey said, and both Washington and Franklin’s beer recipes were saturated with it. If UNH received funding to do so, Howey said they would able to get residue off the pottery discovered at the tavern’s location, using mass spec laser ablation, to really see what the consistency of the beer was.
Howey has pieces of mugs she discovered along the Oyster River, which are likely the same as those used at Smuttynose Island, called Westerwald, a German-style salt glazed grey pottery.
“A beer inspired by my local research,” Howey laughed.
Using ingredients from Strawbery Banke will likely be the final touch before the beer is ready for consumption. Students will work with Erik Wochholz, the museum’s horticulturist and curator of historic landscapes, to harvest spruce tips. “I just love connecting people with ingredients and plants in general,” Wochholz said.
The use of spruce tips, white pine tips and even arborvitae go back to Native American traditions, he said. Arborvitae, for example, was used before citrus and vitamin C were discovered.
“Historic methods of medicinal aspects of native trees certainly segue into enhancing beers throughout history,” Wochholz said. “(The spruce) is really going to change that profile when it comes to flavor, because it is really quite potent. You don’t need a lot.”
Carroll and Baron said their beer is closest to a porter or brown ale, and the state Liquor Commission is labeling it a brown ale. They’re brewing a 31-gallon batch and have yet to determine where the public will be able to get a taste.
Parker said the UNH brew lab has done other collaborations with university departments, and that’s one of her goals for the program. They teamed up with the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture for two beers they previously brewed using kiwi, strawberries and butternut squash. Parker has plans to include the Paul College of Business and Economics and the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.
“When we brew a beer, I want to try as much as possible to bring in another partner to get their expertise,” Parker said. “What’s really cool about the program is beer is so relatable, you can teach anything through beer. Science, history, it’s just fun.”
Information from: Foster’s Daily Democrat, http://www.fosters.com
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