Lecture series: Beer was beverage of choice in Colonial times
Image courtesy of the Russ Hammer Collection TAPPIN INTO THE PAST: This advertising piece for the Portsmouth Brewery, the smallest of the three breweries operating in Portsmouth in the last decades of the 19th century, shows the German influence on many American beer companies by the 1880s. This brewery was known for its Portsburger Lager at a time when ales were king in New Hampshire and New England as a whole.
Ah, there is nothing like kicking back after a long day of colonizing with a ye olde stein of a fresh-brewed ale, because hey, it's half past the sun dial somewhere, am I right?
And back in the old days, when beer was as much a part of life as water, it wasn't just the guys who partook. Kids drank it and ladies made it.
“Today we walk around with our Poland Spring water bottles, and that's sort of our beverage of choice — that or coffee, I guess,” historian Glenn Knoblock said. “But back then … (beer) really was among English colonists and Dutch colonists the beverage of choice. …Back then they were coming from London and Portsmouth (England) and places where the water really was unfit to drink. So they went to these fermented beverages, which were 'safe' to drink and easy to produce. They brought those traditions over with them when they came to New Hampshire.”
Tap Into Tradition
Knoblock, of Wolfboro, is taking his love of history and beer to the streets with a statewide lecture tour derived from his book “Brewing in New Hampshire.”
His Granite State presentations will include: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, at Wiggin Memorial Library, 10 Bunker Hill Ave., Stratham; 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 27, at Hooksett Public Library, 31 Mount Saint Mary's Way, Hooksett; 7 p.m. Monday, July 15, at Campton Historical Society, Route 175, Campton; 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 30, at Fuller Public Library, 29 School St., Hillsboro; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, at the Strawbery Banke Museum's Tyco Visitors Center, 14 Hancock St. Portsmouth.
While the colonists couldn't scientifically suss out the percentage of alcohol each of their brews contained, they knew that the longer it brewed, the stronger it was, which is how they ended up with varying strengths. Children were given the lightest strength, one can only hope.
“Today we have all kinds of age restrictions,” Knoblock said. “Back then there was no such thing. ... Someone very young might drink a very light type beer ... but even up until the late 1800s the Frank Jones Brewing Company was advertising table beers for all ages. Even right up to Prohibition (which began in 1920), they were offering beers to the younger set.”
Beer also was the great equalizer in many respects, since women were often the ones making it.
“It was considered part of the cooking,” Knoblock said. “If you were to talk to a brewer today, brewing is a combination science (involving) cooking and art form. And actually we have many women active in the brewing industry today, so it's once again an example of things going full circle.”
Since brewers didn't always have the flavors they were used to, they improvised. Today we would call them craft beers, but back then it was just resourceful to add pumpkin, spruce tips and squash to flavor their beers.
So they improvised. Beer wasn't just a good time, it was a staple of the colonial diet. Knoblock said he likes to read to audiences a letter a man named Jeremy Belknapp wrote to the leader of the colony in New Hampshire as an example of what the colonial priorities were.
“He mentions that he needs money and clothes,” Knoblock said. “But first he mentions is that he hasn't had enough beer, and that he hasn't had enough for many months prior to that.”
Beer was such a staple of their diets, Knoblock said, that colonists at Jamestown, and very likely in New Hampshire, too, actually complained about having to drink mountain spring water when their beer supply dwindled.
So popular was beer, that in the mid-1700s a Portsmouth reverend tried to encourage his fellow reverends to start a brewery, Knoblock said. Since Portsmouth was a seafaring town, subject to visits from sailors drunk on demon liquor, the reverend thought he could combat the problem by offering them a kinder, gentler, less alcoholic libation: beer.
He never did get that idea to catch on but, said Knoblock, “it gives you an idea how different times were back then.”
Knoblock's lecture will include a slew of brew anecdotes like these, as well as how beer went from home to tavern to brewery brewed. He also will have on hand unusual and rare photos and advertisements documenting the changes in the industry and showing the state's earliest brewers. A number of lesser-known brewers and breweries that operated in the state will also be discussed, including the only brewery owned and operated by a woman before the modern era.
Further, through illustrations Knoblock will track society's changing attitudes towards beer and alcohol consumption over the years.
'Nutcracker' at Stockbridge
Josh Logan at British Beer Company