9 Historic Brewers Who Were Way Ahead of the Craft Beer Craze


It’s only been in the last 30 years or so that commercial craft brewing has really been picking up steam—er, foam—and setting its beverages apart with unexpected flavors (pizza beer, anyone?) and lesser-known styles. But suds-masters have been getting creative with their products since brewskis first started appearing around 10,000 years ago. After new research published last month suggested ancient Chinese beer makers mixed their own and Western traditions, we were inspired to tap into some other kegs of yore and the historic brewers behind them.


Pottery remains recently uncovered at an archaeological site in China’s Shaanxi province were coated in some very interesting yellow gunk. The residue, it turns out, seemed to be left over from the site’s days as an ancient brewery. By analyzing it, researchers found the beer was made from a mix of wild and cultivated grain, with some extra ingredients like yam and lily tuber that would have made the suds sweeter. The finding suggests the Chinese were brewing barley beer nearly 1000 years earlier than previously thought, and the Chinese only started eating the grain after it was used for drinking.


Might as well call him the Founding Father of craft brewing: Our first president included a simple recipe for “small beer”—a lower quality, lower alcohol content brew typically consumed by soldiers, servants, and children—in the notebook he kept during the French and Indian War. The young colonel’s basic brew called for bran hops and molasses for sweetness. Later in life, Washington added a whiskey distillery on his plantation, too; apparently, after all the stress involved in founding a nation, a beer just wouldn’t cut it.


Ancient Egyptian big shots were known for stocking their tombs with all the treasured possessions they might need in the afterlife, and bespoke booze was no exception. The jugs of sorghum beer found in the tomb of pharaoh Scorpion I, who was buried around 3150 BCE, for example, were flavored with thyme, grapes and coriander. Even the tomb walls echoed the ruler’s penchant for imbibing: A prayer etched into the stone requests “beer that never turns sour.”


Dating back to the Middle Ages, Devon White Ale is closer to something you might bake than the hoppy ale we’re used to today. The drink is made with eggs, flour, and spontaneous fermentation—sounds refreshing, right? English physician and writer Andrew Boorde was the first to write about the unusual brew in 1542, noting it was “whyte and thycke,” but the ale remained popular until the end of the 19th century, when, presumably, people finally caught on to how gross the idea of eggs and flour in beer was.


Brewing was left to the ladies 1000 years ago at a mountaintop brewery in what is now southern Peru. A 2005 study concluded only the most beautiful and noble women were selected to create the pre-Incan society’s “chicha,” a beer made from Peruvian pepper tree berries and corn. And the brewery wasn’t the only place where women took the lead, beer-wise: Researchers think the task suggests that the modern Andean drinking culture, in which women drink just as much if not more than men, therefore has deep—and tipsy—roots.


Briny oysters and malty stout go way back. Accounts of brewers using the bivalve shells to clarify beer date back to Victorian England, but it wasn’t until circa 1930 that anyone decided to try adding actual oysters to the recipe. The craft style, pioneered in New Zealand, lives on today, with dozens of breweries making their own version of the mollusk-laden mix.


Of all the strange ingredients brewers of old tried adding to their brews, henbane is certainly among the stupidest. The herb is toxic, and can even be lethal in large doses. Nordic shamans liked spiking their brews with the stuff so drinkers could experience the hallucinations it was known to cause. The resulting trip was thought to make the beer more of a medicine or even a gateway to the spirit world.


Don’t let the borderline-vulgar name fool you: The English brewed this strange concoction using boiled chicken, though it was also thought to have “invigorating” effects as an aphrodisiac. One 17th century recipe called for a 6-month-old chicken, spices, and dried fruit.


Juniper-heavy sahti beer is so ingrained in Finnish culture that, traditionally, mothers would pass down their own farmhouse-style sahti recipes to their daughters. As they were in Peruvian society and elsewhere, women were the primary brewers throughout Finland’s history and depending on when and where they lived, the classic sahti might have contained raspberries, rye, oats, or other malts.

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84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
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It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.

A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
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Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.

Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.

American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
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With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.

Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.

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Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

Courtesy New District
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]


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