We’re Not Alone! Historic Brewing at Colonial Williamsburg


Hello, beer lovers!

We hope that you are enjoying the signs of spring: warmer weather, more daylight, and pale ales and maibocks starting to edge out the porters and stouts on the shelves of the LCBO. (Our Irish Potato Stout is still kicking around though, and we recently saw the Empirical Ale downtown.)

A short-ish note this week, as fate (and ill-positioned tea) have temporarily deprived me of my computer.

There’s only about a month until the Black Creek Historic Brewery begins its 2015 season. While we wait, I grew curious—are there other historic breweries out there?

Sort of. I was fascinated to find that Colonial Williamsburg has been doing work on eighteenth-century brewing. Much as it was for nineteenth century Canadians, beer was a part of everyday life for the Virginians of the 1700s. Frank Clark, historic foodways supervisor at Colonial Williamsburg, notes that beer was the preferred choice of beverage, as the water was often contaminated. If you’ve visited us at Black Creek, you know we usually bookend this statement with many qualifiers and caveats. However, Clark observes that in the case of eighteenth-century Williamsburg, the wells were demonstrably contaminated by sewage, and the water table was only about twenty-five feet deep, meaning that salt water sometimes mixed with the fresh (remember, Williamsburg is pretty close to the coast).

(Check out the video here!)

Much like us here at Black Creek, Colonial Williamsburg has a small brewery onsite, mostly for demonstration purposes. I haven’t been able to find many pictures of it, but based on the clip in the video below, it looks like a fairly similar set-up: small batches, no electricity, everything done by hand. Unlike Black Creek, however, the beer produced onsite is not consumed:

“The beer we make is in such small quantity, and such dangerous conditions, that we could never sell it to the public.”

Well, sure, eighteenth and nineteenth century beers were more likely to go off due to infection. But I think that we’re living proof that you can safely and effectively brew historic beer for general consumption! I’ve watched Ed clean and sanitize before/after brewing: it takes a lot of attention to detail, and a low of elbow grease, but it can certainly be done, if you wish.

Brewing at Williamsburg. Looks familiar. :)
Brewing at Williamsburg. Looks familiar. 🙂

But scale of brewing is certainly another consideration. We make about 70-ish litres per brew (it varies), which equates to about 18 gallons. Colonial Williamsburg’s onsite capacity is about half that, and they are a much bigger site with a much higher number of visitors. I can see why that wouldn’t end well.

And so, like us, they are partnered with a modern brewery. In their case, recreations of eighteenth century brews are produced by AleWerks: a craft brewery in the town of Williamsburg itself. Currently, they’ve got two historic brews sold at Colonial Williamsburg: the Old Stitch (an English brown ale) and Dear Old Mum (a spiced wheat ale). Personally, I love the names—and the beers themselves sound pretty good too!

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Making the pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg has been a goal of mine for a few years now. With brewing dotting their demonstration calendar, and the lure of this Old Stitch (I love brown ales), it looks like I may need to start making more concrete steps to achieve it.

I just need to figure out how to transport a growler over the border…

Cheers!

Katie

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