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Friday, 04 July 2014 15:00

Happy Independence Day: Ales of the Revolution beckon

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Tom-KehoeIt may seem intimidating to be a steward of a legacy that stretches back to the very moment King George III got served, namely with the divorce papers we celebrate as the Declaration of Independence.

But for Tom Kehoe and his Yards Brewing Company, playing a part in that American Revolution stewardship is an enormous source of pride.

For a decade and a half, the Philly craft brewery and City Tavern , a living-history restaurant in Old City Philadelphia, have been curators of historic beers, brewing and serving a quartet of 18th century ales, made from recipes walked back to heavy hitters in America’s Founding Fathers lineup.

“I love having this on my back,” Kehoe says. “I love the beers.”

The re-created spruce ale, porter, and pale and golden ales – Ales of the Revolution – go well beyond telling us how Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington satisfied their thirst.

They’re a tangible history lesson that puts brewhouse and tavern in the timeline of two of our earliest presidents and two of our shrewdest statesmen. The ales let us have a beer with our Founders, toast our past and future (and the pursuit of happiness) with some folks whose best work – our country’s way of life – still commands a big party every summer and is never far from our thoughts.

Yards--HammerYards began brewing the historic ales for City Tavern, the National Parks-site restaurant that re-creates, in food, drink and period setting, the establishment favored by the Founders and the well-heeled of Philadelphia society. (The original City Tavern was torn down in 1854. The current version is a replica, built for the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.)

For 20 years, executive chef Walter Staib and staff have prepared and served, in painstaking detail, that 18th century Philadelphia experience. The food is made from scratch and echoes appetites from the days when Franklin and his cohorts trod the Earth. Ale, a ubiquitous drink of their day, was important to their table.

And thus to City Tavern.

“The beverage is equally a part, as is the ambience and the food,” Staib says. “It’s all in sync.”

To tourists stopping at City Tavern, the ales are a novelty and make for good souvenirs (all but one are available for purchase in six-packs). But for craft beer enthusiasts and intrepid homebrewers, George Washington Tavern Porter (7% ABV), Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale (8% ABV), Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale (5% ABV) and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Ale (4.5% ABV) are among the many regional milestones in the current craft beer movement. (The Hamilton pale ale is brewed exclusively – and draft only – for the City Tavern taps. It is a composite of the ales common to the period.)

On the trail of ale
City Tavern did the legwork tracking down the recipes, research that essentially got rolling when Staib, an internationally known culinary figure, first approached the U.S. Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior about operating the City Tavern restaurant.

Washington’s recipe for “small beer” was in the New York Public Library. Franklin fell in love with spruce ale while in Paris and wanted the seasonal beer year-round, so he brought the recipe home with him. Jefferson’s blueprint for ale was more elusive, since many different people brewed for him. (The recipes for the ales can now be found in Staib’s City Tavern Cookbook, available at the tavern.)

Faithfully re-creating the beers took some hard work. Staib credits Kehoe and his early partners for their commitment through a lot of trial and error. (Yards back then was “a very small brewery, a bunch of college guys … in a garage in Manayunk, they were brewing,” Staib recalls.)

“Ours are not invented,” Staib says, “ours are the actual recipes, slightly modified” to rein in the alcohol content.

“It took time to do it, and it took research, testing after testing,” he says. “Getting it right wasn’t something that just fell into our hands. It took a long time to get it right.”

Of the beers, now regionally distributed, Jefferson’s ale, made with honey, wheat, rye and maize, is the most popular.

Maybe that’s fitting, especially in July (the 8% ABV notwithstanding). Jefferson, after all, is the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the guy who pushed nouns against verbs and blew up England’s claim on the Colonies.

Kehoe’s favorite is the porter, a roasty brew that draws richness from dark malts and molasses. Washington, America’s preeminent general and first commander in chief, was big on porter.

“I’m not sure if people just like Thomas Jefferson better, or the fact that it’s golden and it’s 8 percent,” Kehoe says. “Other than that, people love Ben Franklin around here.”

Beer and reasoning
Water wasn’t always safe to drink in the 18th century; beer, wine and spirits were, given alcohol’s power to kill microbes that could sicken you.

Yet Franklin, Jefferson and Washington, Kehoe says, brewed for reasons beyond their personal tastes or need for potable drink: Washington’s as a motivator; Jefferson’s as another statement of independence. Franklin, always a fount of advice, was again offering counsel, a de facto prescription for health.

“Washington did it because he wanted (the continental) troops to be able to expand the beer ration they had,” Kehoe says. “Thomas Jefferson did it because he wanted the Americans to say, ‘Hey we can grow crops and be an agricultural force and make beer with the stuff we’re growing right at our homes.’ Everything he grew at (his estate) Monticello actually went into the beer.”

Franklin’s cherished ale was an also observation on nutrition: spruce tips as a source of vitamin C, a nutrient essential to the human body (a lack of it could lead to a case of scurvy). Thus, beer was not only safe to drink, but with spruce essence, it could be made more nourishing.

But like City Tavern, Kehoe finds something civic-minded in re-creating the beers, having past meet present in a pint glass.

“We’re a Philadelphia brewery,” Kehoe says. “This area is where these beers pretty much originated from, and I think it’s right that we’re keeping that thing going.”


Read 2870 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 September 2014 11:08

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