A Tasty History Of Beer From Martha’s Vineyard Museum & Beer Historian Christopher Bowen

martha's vineyard museum - edgartownSome of you may know that I worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum (MVM) for a little while a couple of years ago.  During that time, I fell in love with the Museum and its staff.  I am always amazed at the lectures they host, the exhibits they curate, and all the other fun, enriching things they do.  In the last few years, the MVM staff has really raised the bar by offering a lot of fun ways to enjoy our Island history and more.

Pints from the PastNaturally when I found out they were hosting Pints from the Past, the History of Beer, Ale, and brewing in the 18th and 19th Century, I had to go.  Of course to support the MVM, and I wanted to find out a bit more about this beverage I thoroughly enjoy.

Chris Bowen - Historic Beer Brewer From Hammersmith AlesThe host of Pints from the Past was renowned Beer Historian, Christopher Bowen.  Chris lives in Bethlehem, PA where he runs Hammersmith Ales which specializes in historic recipes and recreations of late 18th, 19th, and early 20th century ales.  I should mention that Chris is a gold medal winner from the Great American Beer Festival.

Yes, this is a real job, and I know many of you might be envious.  As a Beer Historian, Chris researches old recipes, ingredients, and techniques from the past.  He recreates historic beers.  It’s sort of like the movie National Treasure, but he’s after all things related to beer.

A Little History About Beer

Some of Chris' beer suppliesSo beer and the art of brewing beer has been around for over 10,000 years.  But let’s focus on more recent times.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, beer was a part of everyday life for people, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, old and young.  The water at the time was pretty contaminated and led to a lot of sickness, so people would drink beer instead.

Malts for brewing beerLuckily for Chris, how beer is brewed has not changed all that much through the years.  There are still four essential ingredients, water, fermentable sugar (malt barley), hops, and yeast.

For the process, there  is still the Malt House, where the malt is ground, the Mash Tun, where the sugars are extracted, the Boil Kettle,  where hops are added, the fermentation tank, and then it’s then bottled or kegged.

Brewing in the pastOf course, the process is a lot more refined and easy these days.  It used to be a very hard, laborious job. Brewers had to grow their own ingredients, maintain there own livestock to help power brewery equipment, and had to act as firefighters, since the water for the Mash Tun was heated over a fire.

Making beer 18th century styleDuring the 18th and 19th centuries, the town brewer was very important.  After all, people were drinking a lot of beer.  The brewers tended to be very smart, well connected, and have a lot of money, and actually it was the brewers that really jump-started the Industrial Revolution.

Who knew?  I didn’t learn that fact in school.  As a matter of fact, before the famous Louis Pasteur worked with milk, he worked as a brewer, who perfected the use of yeast and fermentation in beer.

Early on not everyone or every town had its own brewery or Our Market, so beer brewing was an extension of kitchen work. Surprisingly, it was the women who brewed a lot of the beer consumed, whether in the home or in a tavern.

There were three main types of beer, Small Beer, Table Beer, and Stock Beer (Celebration).  Since beer was being consumed all throughout the day, obviously you couldn’t drink 10% ABV all day.

Chris sharing his knowledgeSmall beer was very light, 2% or 3% ABV.  This was what was consumed during the day and by children and women.  The Table Beer is about 4% to 6% ABV.  This beer was served with dinner, and later in the day.  The strong stuff, the Stock Beer or Travelling Beer was 7% to 12% ABV.  This beer was reserved for celebrations or a special event.

I should also mention that the oldest style  beers were ales, which means they are top fermented, and usually more rich and flavorful.  Lagers and the like came along later, developed by Anton Dreher.  This type of beer is bottom fermented — refreshing and somewhat bland.

An interesting fact — lagers were brought to America during the Industrial Revolution.  A lot of Eastern Europeans drank lager and brought this with them when they immigrated.

India Pale Ale

I could write forever about what I learned from Chris about the history of beer, but it would be the longest post ever.  So, there is just one more historic detail I need to share, since I have been wrong for all these years, about how India Pale Ale came about.

Beer for ships in kegsI have always been told that it came about when English troops were making the long sailing journey to India, and the hops helped preserve the beer.  Apparently that is not the case.

According to the records from the West India Trading Company, the most popular beer was a Porter.  It’s what the common solider drank, and they drank a lot of it.  The officers of the time actually drank what we call IPA.

World's first pale ale?In 1795, a small brewer by the name of Hodgson introduced a high hop ale which was well received.  A larger brewery, Burton on Trent, then began brewing a similar ale, and capitalized on its popularity.

It was originally called Pale Ale for the Indian Marker.  The officers of the time actually drank IPA.  I should also mention that you may have actually had some of Burton’s beer — Bass Ale — yes, the beer that is still popular today.

Beer Today

Over the last 30 years, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of small craft beer, particularly ales.  For decades, lagers really dominated the US beer market.  Favorites like Budweiser, Coors, those of lighter color that are simple and thirst quenching.  However, micro brews are on the rise in popularity.  You even see the bigger manufactures creating Amber Ales or Hefeweizen beers.

This is a trend that I am happy about.  Having brewed with my husband years ago, and working at Offshore Ale for a number of years, I can tell you that I have always enjoyed a fine, handcrafted-beer.

Hammesmith AlesSpeaking of Offshore Ale, Chris went there twice when he was on Island for the weekend.  His favorite?  The Lazy Frog IPA.  Always nice to know that a famous beer historian likes the same beer you do.  I have to say that this MVM lecture shed a lot of light on the history of beer.  I learned so much and had a great time.  Chris even brought samples of his “old world” crafted ales.

To find out more about Chris, including his film Arctic Alchemy, please visit his website or Facebook page.

Katy, Bonnie, & Jessica - amazing staff from MVMAlso, to find out about more fun Martha’s Vineyard Museum events, including the new exhibit, A Taste for the Exotic, Mementos from Around the Globe, please visit their website or Facebook page.

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