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Drinking History: The Virginia Historical Society Throws Its First Craft Beer Festival

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Ever on a quest to make history relevant and interesting, the Virginia Historical Society presented a new craft beer festival, BrewHaHa, on Aug. 5. Scheduled to become an annual event, BrewHaHa featured discussions with beer historians and brewers, Virginia beers — including three inspired by historical recipes — live music, lawn games and food vendors.

The event sold out several days in advance.

Virginia Beer Co. and Center of the Universe Brewing Co. collaborated on a refreshing persimmon-lemon-wheat beer. “It’s not exactly a scaled-up version of any particular recipe, but rather a modern take on the idea of persimmon beer that was so common in Virginia,” says Jonathan Newman, brew master at Virginia Beer. “We used some fruity new hop varieties post-boil in the whirlpool to try to bring out the fruit character from the persimmon even more. A strictly historical beer this definitely is not, but historically inspired and appealing to modern palates we think it will be.”

Petersburg’s Trapezium Brewing Co. contributed a spicy ginger beer. “I was modeling it after an old English superior ginger beer,” brew master James Frazer says. “They didn’t use any malts — they used lime leaves and ginger and let it ferment.” He combined pale malts, lime zest, brown sugar, three ginger root additions and heather for bittering. Hops weren’t used in the original, making it like a historic herb-based gruit.

Chris Rommel and Danny Fain of Ardent Craft Ales brewed a flavorful colonial pale ale spruce beer using ingredients that would have been used by brewers of the time. “The grains and the yeast used were indicative of those used by brewers in the early 1800s,” Rommel says. “The Norwegian spruce [from Snead’s Nursery in Bon Air] is similar to those that would have been indigenous to this part of the country 200 years ago. … I added the fresh spruce tips directly to the boil as a late addition so as to get the aroma and flavor of the spruce without extracting the tannins in the stems. This not only gives a ‘hoppy’ citrusy flavor, but it also adds vitamin C to the beer, which could have been extremely beneficial to those drinking it 200 years ago.”

The society played host to a beer-studded panel: It featured Frank Clark, Colonial Williamsburg’s master of food ways, Lee Graves, a local beer historian and writer, Jonathan Newman, a brewer at Virginia Beer Co., Geoff Logan, owner and brew master at Alewerks, Rian Van Nordheim, senior brewer at Stone Richmond, and moderator Mike Gorman, a National Park Service ranger and historian.

Both panel and audience had been lubricated by the historic beers before the discussion, which contributed to spirited answers and an appreciative audience, in addition to the interesting topics raised: Panelists spoke of ingredients in early American beers, women and African Americans as 18th-century brewers and hop growers, and the fluctuation of brewery numbers in Richmond and American history.

The main event, held on the front lawn of the Virginia Historical Society on Boulevard, served beverages from Alewerks Brewing Co., Ardent Craft Ales, Black Heath Meadery, Blue Bee Cider, Buskey Cider, Center of the Universe Brewing Co., Stone Brewing, Three Notch’d Brewing Co., Trapezium Brewing Co. and Virginia Beer Co.

Despite the sold-out crowd, lines for the drinks were short and moved quickly. The lawn provided enough space for the beer area on one side, tables and food vendors on the other, with the appropriate bluegrass band on the large porch. Ticket holders were granted museum admission, too, keeping the crowd moving.

At the beverage tables, Alewerks and Blue Bee poured storied drinks. Alewerks has worked with Colonial Williamsburg for several years brewing beers based on historic recipes, served at spots in Colonial Williamsburg, including Old Stitch, a nut-brown ale, Dear Old Mum, a golden spiced ale, and Toby’s Triple Threads, a porter made with molasses Blue Bee poured two ciders made from heirloom apples: Harrison, named for its single-apple varietal, and Gold Dominion, made with Gold Rush and York apples.

Historic beers brewed for the event were gone before or soon after. Larger batch sizes, other historical beverages and historic insights for general admission ticket holders could improve next year’s event.

The society has celebrated alcoholic beverages from recipes in its archives at several previous events. Check vahistorical.org for its next installment. S

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