Issue January 22, 2008

Mug Shots: Ben Franklin was a beer man

You already knew that Benjamin Franklin was a writer, inventor, businessman, statesman, patriot and all-purpose wit, but did you know that the Colonial era’s Renaissance Man somehow found time to drink beer, too?

    In his writings, Franklin referred to various types of my favorite fermented beverage, concluding that it was a healthy drink if consumed in moderation — an observation with which modern medical science overwhelmingly concurs.

    Substantive information about Colonial ales is scant, but prior to the celebration of Franklin’s 300th birthday in January 2006, the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary nonprofit group and the Brewers Association commissioned a competition among professional brewers to formulate a “Poor Richard’s Ale.”

    Tony Simmons of Brick Oven Brewing in Colorado produced the winning recipe, variations of which have been brewed annually throughout the country ever since. Simmons based his Benjamin Franklin birthday ale on these factors:

    Style — Based on Franklin’s own writings, other period references and records of available raw materials, it is likely that he often drank tankards of a libation similar to Old Ale (England) or Strong Scotch Ale (Scotland).

    Malt — “Low” (pale malt, similar to today’s Maris Otter or English floor malt) and “High” (darker malt, perhaps approximating a combination of what we now call Biscuit, Special Roast and Black) malts probably were used.

    Adjuncts — During the Colonial era, imported malt was expensive, and local barley crops were unpredictable, so the use of cracked maize and, especially, molasses was common.

    Hops — Hop production in America did not begin in earnest until after Franklin’s passing, making it likely that traditional East Kent Goldings imported from England were the hops of choice.

    Yeast — Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know very much about 18th-century yeast management, although today’s English or Scottish strains of moderately attenuating yeast probably are similar.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit www.potablecurmudgeon.com for more beer.