Keep reading if you want to feel redeemingly patriotic when you grab a beer this American Independence Day holiday weekend.
When history meets technology, and both meet beer, in the nation’s capitol, expect fireworks. Brewers were once the city’s second-largest employers after the federal government, according to the terrific treatise “The Washington Brewery at Navy Yard” by Garrett Peck. At the almost year-old Bluejacket brewery located in an old munitions-building warehouse in the current Naval Yard neighborhood of Washington, Beer Director (best title ever) Greg Engert and his brewing team are recreating the city’s 200-year-old beers.
With war against Great Britain on the horizon in 1812, the Washington Brewery advertised three beers for sale—Table Ale, Strong Ale, and X Ale (which wounds wonderfully like something found in a cartoon growler). According to Peck’s treatise, the Washington Brewery was the first brewery in DC and its coincidental former location near Bluejacket struck Engert as the perfect excuse to recreate its three historic beers.
“Typically, historic brews are based on actual found recipes,” according to Engert, who should know—he is James-Beard-Award nominated, and the only beer professional ever named Sommelier of the Year by Food & Wine Magazine. Just as with any recipe, finding historically accurate ingredients was key but modern technology was used to actually make the recipe. You wouldn’t hunt down a century-old oven to bake your great-grandmother’s Bundt cake, and Engert’s team used current brewing methods to remake the drinks.
So although Engert and his project collaborator Michael Stein didn’t have beer recipes, they set out to find the best ingredients to produce flavor profiles matching the pleasantly sour and complex beers of two centuries ago, when brewing methods allowed in more naturally-occurring bacteria. They located the oldest American-grown hop varietal, cluster hops, and their amber malt, used frequently in period brewing, came from 200-year-old maltster Thomas Fawcett.
Table Ale (light and lowest in alcohol) and X Ale (full-bodied and highest in alcohol) are under development until around August, but Strong Ale has been brewed, using wild yeast to replicate that 19thcentury, almost musty flavor. Because the Washington Brewery advertised itself as a “Beer and Porter Brewery” in 1813, Bluejacket today is creating a porter, a combination of all three brews hit with a strain of oak-bourbon-barrel aged Strong Ale. “Porter in the 18th and 19th centuries were typically blends of various ales, some oak-aged,” Engert observes. The ales will hit the taps this fall.
If Bluejacket-style brews fortified America’s forefathers in the days of our extended fight for independence during the War of 1812, they should certainly do for sipping after a ball game at nearby Nationals Park. And if DC isn’t close by, go ahead and drink up whatever is in the fridge. In the name of patriotism.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.