In a town as steeped in both history and craft beer as Richmond, it’s no surprise that yet another historic beer recipe has been resurrected by a contemporary brewery. This time, Garden Grove Brewing and Urban Winery
has connected with Wilton House Museum
for a new twist on an old recipe. The beer will be released at the brewery on Saturday, Dec. 2.
The Wilton House Spruce Porter is based on two historic recipes: a spruce beer recipe from a 19th-century cookbook, “The Virginia House-Wife,” by Virginian Mary Randolph and George Washington’s recipe for a molasses porter from the Smithsonian archives. Mary Randolph’s recipe calls for young spruce tips — in this case, harvested from Garden Grove co-owner Mike Brandt’s yard — molasses, allspice and ginger. “We let these recipes guide our process as much as possible, including fermenting the beer entirely in oak casks,” says Chris Sarnoski, assistant director of marketing and events at Garden Grove.
Though it may seem that the use of eccentric ingredients is an invention of the craft beer movement, early Virginia brewers found creativity to be a necessity. The New World wasn’t planted with fields of barley and hops awaiting the settlers, so they made beer — that necessary beverage — from a variety of ingredients.
“Spruce was widely available, and red or black spruce shoots — or, more often, essence of spruce — were often used in place of hops, contributing bitterness and preservative qualities,” says science librarian and culinary specialist Alison Kelly. “Other substitute flavorants included ground ivy, a common weed, and ginger — not native to this country, but a very popular import through trade. Persimmons, pumpkin and molasses were all used as alternative sources of sugars where they were available.”
Mary Randolph was born in 1762 in Chesterfield County at Ampthill Plantation, now DuPont property and ended up in the Moldavia house in Richmond. The house, at the southeast corner of Main and Fifth streets, was later purchased by John Allan, Edgar Allan Poe’s foster dad, and is says to appear in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Though the Randolph families were quite influential and moneyed, Mary Randolph’s husband, David Randolph — also her first cousin once removed — was cast from his political position by President Thomas Jefferson and the couple’s fortunes fell. To help make ends meet, Randolph opened a boarding house on Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom “for the accommodation of Ladies and Gentlemen.” The couple later moved to Washington and Molly published her cookbook, which became immediately popular.
Like many American colonists, George Washington was fond of beer, which was bought and brewed at Mount Vernon. Porter is generally accepted as his favorite style.
The Partner and the Event
A Georgian colonial manor, Wilton House was erected on the banks of the James River east of Richmond in about 1753 by William Randolph III. In its heyday, it hosted colonial leaders such as George Washington — not sure that he ever slept here, though — Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette. Nearly two centuries later, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America rescued the house from being razed because of the property’s new industrial zoning and moved it to its current location off Cary Street Road between the Huguenot Bridge and Carytown. The organization still owns Wilton House and opens it to the public as a museum, showcasing the 18th-century plantation home and a decorative arts collection of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century silver, ceramics, textiles, paintings, documents and furniture.
“The idea behind the collaboration is to help increase visibility for the Wilton House as well as a fundraiser,” says Sarnoski. Garden Grove will contribute one dollar to the museum for each Spruce Porter sold.
Root Stock Provisions will offer food at the event, pairing classic Southern ingredients with the historically inspired Virginia beer: cheddar, apple grilled cheese sandwiches with butternut squash soup, a ham biscuit with house-made brown sugar ham, pimento cheese, pickles, and a sausage plate with house-made sausage, spruce porter mustard, sauerkraut, brown bread and sweet tea-braised greens.