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Ever Wonder What It’s Like to Drink Like a Pilgrim?

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Those pilgrims put back their fair share of suds.

When we think of the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock, we think of them being, well, puritanical—dour, temperate party poopers.

Wrong. Drinking alcohol was a substantive part of life in early New England. Back home in England, a dense population resulted in unsafe drinking water, so drinking beer as an alternative had become a daily routine. It was probably a surprise to settlers that drinking the clean Massachusetts water didn’t kill them.

Beer was drunk for more than health. Like today, the Puritans enjoyed the taste. As soon as they could grow the grain and hops, they were brewing. Those beers would have been lightly fermented homebrews, ready to drink in a week. They also soured quickly. Brewing was domestic work, seen as a woman’s role. Communities that weren’t supplied with enough beer were considered to have sinful, slothful housewives.

Homebrew like a Pilgrim with a thrifty spruce-based beer.

Although drinking was acceptable in 17th century New England, drunkenness was not. Massachusetts had extensive anti-drunkenness laws.

The rules:

  • At one time, beer brewed in the home could only be drunk by family members—not by friends.
  • If you went out for a drink, you could only stay at the tavern for half an hour.
  • As higher-proof spirits like rum became available, laws made them prohibitively expensive to buy.
  • You could never, ever drink on Sunday. (Massachusetts still has famously restrictive “blue laws.”)

Not wanting to be a slothful wifey myself, for this Thanksgiving I made a homebrew to accompany my meal. I based my recipe on an early American drink called Spruce Beer, brewed with real spruce branches, hops, dark maple syrup and no grain. Effervescent and yeasty, it’s dramatically different from modern beer. The Puritans would have downed an impressive two to three quarts of this concoction a day.

Puritan-style beer calls for native red spruce branches.

The hard part? I had to learn what a spruce tree looked like, and then had to find red spruce, the native species that would have been readily available to the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay. Once that hurdle was crossed, I assembled a group of historians and beer enthusiasts (and historic beer enthusiasts) to taste my early-American brew. The beer had an extremely fruity nose and was beautifully carbonated, with a lightness thanks to the lack of grain. It reminded some tasters of a saison or an IPA. The pine flavor definitely came through, but wasn’t at all unpleasant. Because it’s fairly light, you feel like you could drink it all day.

And I did drink it all day, with a variety of 17th century Puritan foods: Samp, a cooked corn porridge topped with maple sugar for breakfast; venison for lunch; and corn and squash for dinner. I thought my homemade spruce beer was great with all of it. But an equal number of my colleagues thought it was repulsive.

That’s part of the fun of re-creating recipes from long ago. You’re never sure what might come out of it. Although giving spruce beer a try was informative—and made me feel a connection to my Puritan forefathers—the recipe itself is too bizarre for most modern beer drinkers. But it also gave me a nugget of inspiration: If you’re making some winter homebrews this year, skip the store-bought “spruce essence” from the brew shop and snip a few limbs from a local tree. The subtle, complex flavors of real spruce will do wonders for your home brew and it’s a cool nod to America’s brewing past.

Get the recipe for Spruce Beer.

(Much of the research for this article came from the new book Alcohol: A History by Rod Phillips and diligent digging by Andrea Cronin of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Dubbed a “historic gastronomist,” Sarah Lohman recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past. She chronicles her explorations on her blog, Four Pounds Flour, and her first book, Eight Flavors, is due to be published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

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