Ales Through the Ages, Williamsburg VA


I was lucky enough to attend the first Ales Through the Ages conference in Colonial Williamsburg Va this past weekend! The brain child of Frank Clark, Supervisor of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, and some of the world’s top beer writers, this event was a good three years in the making. The presentations took place in the Art Museums building, a mind-boggling subterranean bastion of colonial era arts and crafts from quilts to muskets.

The festivities began with a Friday afternoon beer tasting at the Chownings Tavern. Four historical beers from AleWerks were presented: Dear Old Mum Spiced Ale, Old Stitch Brown, Wetherburn’s Tavern Bristol Ale, & Toby’s Triple Threads Porter, all fine and tasty brews. It was a nice sunny afternoon on the Tavern grounds where the presenters, home and pro brewers, and those with a penchant for beer history mingled.

A few hours later beer author and speaker Randy Mosher officially kicked things off with a pithy lecture entitled More Questions than Answers: The Mysteries of Beer History. If you’re not familiar with this guy you’ve been living under a rock! I am particularly fond of one of his books in particular, Radical Brewing, an entertaining and graphics-packed treatsie on beer’s more eccentric manifestations past to present. A warm, funny, and knowledgeable guy, Randy adroitly set the tone for this conference.

The following morning Travis Rupp, adjunct professor at UC Boulder & packaging supervisor at Avery Brewing, presented the Beginnings of Beer in the Ancient World: Greece. His research indicates that the ancient Sumerians taught the Egyptians how to brew, who later taught the Greeks, who later taught the Romans, who eventually taught the “savage tribes” of Britain and northern Europe.

Next was Stan Hieronymus, another beer author and journalist, with In Search of an Indigenous American Beer Style.  The gist of his presentation was about corn, the grain of the americas. He covered Tiswin, a southwestern US aboriginal corn-fermented beverage, as well as Pulque, an agave-fermented drink from Mexico, and my favorite Choc beer, from the Choctaw Indians, which contained hops, barley, tobacco, and fishberries. Stan left out the fishberry part though, so I found him at the break and inquired as to why.  As I thought, he gave little credence to that particular ingredient because it’s native to Asia, not the Americas. Also called Indian berry and Levant nut, my research shows the berries were used to increase the inebriating power of beer in Britain during the mid 1800’s. Seems totally plausable that these berries/nuts could have made their to America for similar use. Not sure exactly what he meant but after the conference he referred to the conference as “pleasantly time consuming” in his blog.

Karen Fortmann, a research scientist with WhitwitchsRinge Labs followed with A Family Tree of Brewer’s Yeast. This was a very interesting microbiotic journey, if not a bit overwhelming! Yeast is a black hole of info and species. Some cool take-homes: Apparently krausen, the thick foam on a fermenting beer, was referred to as “Godisgood,” “Zuckerpils” is German for sugar fungus, and there was a brewing tool called a Witch’s Ring, a later version of the yeast log, used for storing and pitching yeast. A wooden wreath would be submerged into fermenting beer and the yeast would colonize the pores of the wood. The wreath would then be hung to dry and dropped into the next batch of beer to ferment it, YIKES!

My friend Fredrick Ruis from the Netherlands promised some mind-blowing info in his  1000 Years of Brewing With Hops: New Insights from the Netherlands. This rich presentation examined a newly discovered body of beer knowledge regarding recipes, trade, and the use of hops beginning in Viking Age in the larger Low Countries near present day Bremen and Hamburg Germany. Of particular interest to me was his newly developed contention that gruit, or as he said it “grout” was not merely a combination of herbs one brewed with but rather a wort concentrate, like modern day malt extract, infused with herbs and other botanicals. His research further indicates that Gruit Houses were not places to drink gruit beer but rather business that supplied breweries with this herbal concentrate. I look forward to reading his further discoveries!

Things took a turn for the colonial as Andrea Stanley (co-owner/maltster Valley Malt) and John Mallett (Director of Operations Bells Brewery) waltzed out on to the stage both as women, in period dress. They sat at a table and proceeded to have polite and civil conversation over tea and, whist they believed no one was looking, some beer! Maltsterpiece Theater, as their presentation was called, was a vehicle to highlight life in the eras each woman represented, more specifically the life’s of women involved with malting. It was a comedic yet informative romp as both are theatrically talented and clearly experts in their fields. Rounding out the day was Edward Bourke who spoke about The History of Brewing in Ireland.

Sunday began with author and brewing consultant  Frank Clark gaving a fascinating lecture on Home Brewing in the 18th Century: Some Interesting Things They Did with Beer. Beer historian and author Martyn Cornell spoke on Industrialization in the British Brewing Industry 1720-1850: The Rise of the Power-loom Brewers which offered a window into this time period where emergent technologies were shared between the growing fabric and brewing industries.

Stone Brewing Co.’s brewmaster (and former NH resident) Mitch Steele explored The True Origins of Pale Ale in England, Scotland, and the US and author and beer historian Ron Pattinson presented an in-depth account of International Cooperation in the 19th Century Brewing Industry, primarily between German, British, and later US brewers. Tom Kehoe, founder of Yards Brewing Company gave a light hearted and heartfelt presentation entitled Historic Beers for a Modern Market which was essentially the story of his brewery and their penchant for brewing historic beers.

Tanya Brock, manager and brewster at the Carillon Brewery in Ohio, gave a look into the fascinating genesis of Carillon where historic beers are historically brewed in Brewing History by the Pint. Randy Mosher once again took the stage to close the event with The Past & Future of Beer, an exciting look at the various trends and “new” directions our beloved industry seems to be headed in.

I heartily recommend this conference to anyone interested in beer, be you brewer, drinker, writer, and/or thinker. The event rounded up a very warm and social group of people, including the presenters! There is a very good chance that there will be another in the near future to pick up where this one left off and you’d be wise not to miss it! (Special shout out to The Dog St. Pub where most of us enjoyed great food and beer repeatedly during the weekend!)

-Butch Heilshorn