Somewhere underneath Bryant Park, in the middle of Manhattan, in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, resides one of George Washington’s notebooks from 1757. It is stored with other New York Public Library treasures in the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, on Fifth Avenue, including a copy of the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson wrote out himself.
The slim, cream-colored volume is filled with Washington’s flowing cursive writing and dates to his days as a colonel in the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War. (Oddly, its cover features an almost dainty drawing of a flower.) Most of the pages served as to-do lists, which Washington dutifully crossed out, or contained drafts of letters to be sent and lists of possessions, such as the names of his wagon horses.
But perhaps the most intriguing item appears on the second-to-last page, a simple recipe titled “To Make Small Beer.” A low-alcohol beverage calling for bran hops, molasses, and yeast, the beer would be drunk throughout the day and, according to Mount Vernon, given to children and servants.
While the whiskey distillery that Washington built on his estate after he left office is now well publicized—and has inspired a number of modern rye whiskey brands—our first president’s drinking, brewing, and appreciation of beer is certainly less well-known.
But that is starting to change. The instructions found in Washington’s notebook have been used as the base for several recent craft brews, including Blue Point’s Colonial Ale, which will be served at Monday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University, on Long Island. (If you can’t make it to the hospitality tent, you will soon be able to try the brew at Blue Point’s tasting room starting around, naturally, Election Day.)
Though Blue Point—a brewery in Patchogue, Long Island, that was founded in 1998 and acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2014 for a reported $24 million—is certainly capitalizing on the presidential connection between America’s first commander-in-chief and the current crop of hopefuls, Washington has another connection to the brand. As any Patchogue native will tell you, Washington visited Long Island in 1790 and stopped for a beer and some oysters at Hart’s Tavern, which is just five blocks from Blue Point.
But the Colonial Ale is “not a replica” of Washington’s beer, cautions Blue Point’s brewmaster Dan Jansen, who worked on the project for about two months. For one, Washington’s directions are far from exact and include starting with “a large Sifter full of Bran Hops” and letting the mixture stand until “little more than Blood warm.”
Jansen focused instead on incorporating Washington’s key ingredient—molasses—and keeping the final product low-proof so it could be considered a small beer. His ale is a modest 3.3 percent alcohol by volume, which he thinks is roughly what Washington’s recipe would have produced. “We’re calling it a session American brown ale,” says Jansen.
Traditionally, the point of drinking this type of beer wouldn’t be to get tipsy but to hydrate. During the Colonial period, the drink “would basically be a source of clean drinking water and some nutrition,” says Jansen, since boiling the water, the first step to making beer, would kill common bacteria.
So will Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump have a pint before the debate to take the edge off? While nothing is confirmed, “We certainly hope they come by and have one with us,” says Jansen. “They’ll be more than welcome.”