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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Jefferson and ginger beer: brewer, interpreter aim to tell ale tale with taste

A statue of Thomas Jefferson sits in Colonial Williamsburg. (Courtesy ComputerGuy/Wikimedia Commons)
A statue of Thomas Jefferson sits in Colonial Williamsburg. (Courtesy ComputerGuy/Wikimedia Commons)

The Kimball Theatre will offer its guests the chance to drink beer and practice archaeology with their taste buds Friday night.

The doors for “Drinking History: Jefferson and Ginger Beer” open at 6:30 p.m. with a beer tasting. Georgia Dunn, President and CEO of the British West Indies Trading Company, will be offering her signature beer, Islander Ginger Beer.

Dunn descends from Thomas Harriott, the 16th-century English scholar and explorer who visited the lost Roanoke Colony.

According to Dr. Fred Smith, Director of Archaeology at St. Nicholas Abbey Sugar Plantation in Barbados and former William and Mary professor, Harriott was the first Englishman to brew beer in North America.

“He describes this in his journal from his 1587 journey,” Smith said. “One of the first things they did when they landed was take the corn and ferment it and make a beer out of it.”

Islander, Dunn said, is brewed differently than grain-based beers popular today. Islander is fermented with sugar cane, fresh citrus and Caribbean spices- a recipe similar to the style that was popular in the 18th century.

Georgia Dunn, President and CEO of the British West Indies Trading Company, with her brother Michael Dunn.  The two are at Tom Creek Brewery in South Carolina drinking Islander Ginger Beer. (Courtesy Georgia Dunn)

Dunn said her family settled in the Caribbean, where she researched the region’s historic methods of producing beer. She said she hopes to carry on the tradition of brewing beers similar to those her ancestors drank.

“When I walk into Harris Teeter and I see Islander on the shelf, it represents the time I spent with all those wonderful people who shared their way of life with me,” Dunn said.

Only 13 generations removed from Harriott, Dunn likens carrying on the family tradition of brewing to “ancestor worship.”

Dunn has partnered with Thomas Creek Brewing in Greenville, South Carolina to produce her beer.  The first shipment was packaged in 2014.

Such beers spiced with ginger were popular during the day of Thomas Jefferson.  Colonial Williamsburg’s Jefferson Interpreter Bill Barker will co-host “Drinking History,” and will share the importance of beer to Jefferson and his contemporaries.

“Health was based on nutrition and beer was a component of nutrition,” Smith said. “It had a medicinal feel to it. So did ginger. A lot of the early colonists, especially the elite, produced ginger-infused beers.”

Dunn and Smith dubbed drinking Islander beer “sensorial archaeology,” as the beer is brewed with techniques, ingredients and recipes used in the 18th century. For example, Dunn uses fresh rather than dried ingredients, and prepares the ingredients used in the beer by hand.

Island Ginger Beer lines the shelves in the alcoholic beverage section of a supermarket. (Courtesy Georgia Dunn)

“If you take the ingredient list and prepare [beer] with large scale mass production techniques, it will taste very different then using a knife and cutting board,” Dunn said.

In many ways, Islander is an historical artifact. Dunn said her quest to preserve her family’s history parallels Colonial Williamsburg’s quest to accurately portray Williamsburg during the time of the American Revolution.

Dunn said the Kimball Theatre, which is owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, made a natural partner for Friday’s event.

“The Kimball Theatre is kind of the storyteller for the surrounding community,” said Marianne Johnston, Program Manager at the Kimball. “Stories are what hold communities together…Recipes are definitely stories passed down from generation to generation.”

If you want to go…

The admission fee for “Drinking History” is $7, and only guests aged 21 and over will be permitted. Tickets are available here. The beer tasting will begin at the Kimball Theatre at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Barker and Dunn will take the stage at 7:30 p.m., and a question-and-answer will follow roughly an hour later.

If you want to try the beer…

Islander Ginger Beer is available at Harris Teeter and other locations.  A four-pack is available for $13.99.

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