One of the worst beers William Bostwick ever made was from George Washington’s recipe.
“There’s this famous recipe … maybe famous is too high praise … there’s a recipe for beer that researchers at Mount Vernon discovered in one of George Washington’s journals,” Bostwick, who is the beer writer for The Wall Street Journal and GQ, explained. “I’d never found anyone who tried to make this thing.”
So he decided to give it a shot. For his family Thanksgiving.
“It seemed American enough,” he said.
But, unfortunately, “it was a complete disaster.”
Bostwick's family members took polite sips of the pumpkin beer and quickly transitioned to another beverage.
“It was just awful,” he said.
The writer wasn’t just providing his holiday guests with a unique brew because of his passion for homebrewing (which is certainly there), or a profound sense of holiday spirit. He made the beer as part of the research process for his book, “The Brewer's Tale: A History of the World According to Beer.”
Bostwick will speak about “The Brewer’s Tale” at a Wisconsin Book Festival event on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. at Madison Central Library.
“I’ve always been kind of historically-minded,” Bostwick said. “ I started looking for inspiration for new beers to make, looking up old, forgotten beer styles … that obsession turned into the book.”
“When you start making these beers and rediscovering old tastes you start discovering these great stories behind them,” he said.
The research process for “The Brewer’s Tale” lasted about two years and took the writer everywhere from London to the Pacific Northwest and several points in between.
One of his fondest journeys, aside from joking with the historians at Mount Vernon about George Washington’s homebrew gone bad, was to a tiny brewery in Northern California, to meet with a slightly eccentric brewer who uses ingredients like yarrow and mugwort to brew beer, instead of hops.
“It’s technically a brewery, but doesn’t really have an address, and I wouldn’t think the owner would want me to give many details about where it is,” Bostwick said.
Bostwick had been trying to land an interview with the elusive brewer for years. His emails were met with cloudy responses like, “Come find me if you can.”
“Finally, he said I could come,” Bostwick said. “These are beers you wouldn’t necessarily think of as beer, it so completely changed my idea of what I thought beer could be.”
Bostwick recounts that eccentric tale, along with many others, in the book.
Another of his favorites is a folklore-esque tale about “a strange little wrinkle in beer history” regarding the invention of pale beer (like today’s staple lagers).
“It was really hard to get what we think of today as the quintessential beer, which is a pale, fizzy, liquid,” Bostwick said. “Most beers were dark, thick, mostly sour, rich and heavy. Pale beer was seen as this high class product, all these breweries were chasing it, trying to figure out how to make this thing.”
In the end, the story involved a hollowed out walking stick and a “spy.” (No spoilers here.)
“A lot of the story of beer is like that,” Bostwick said. “Making beers is at once a science and a secretive, mystical art.”
“There’s a lot of backstabbing and chasing secret recipes and that kind of thing,” he said.
Bostwick hopes his look at the history of beer may be, in some ways, a prediction of where beer is going.
“I’m hoping that, in one sense, the future of craft beer looks more like its past,” he said. “Brewing was, before it became an industrial endeavor, a really local thing. Breweries were there to serve their immediate community.
"Brewers were cornerstones of their neighborhoods and cities — and I really hope we’re moving back to that, where getting beer doesn’t mean going to the store and buying a six pack, but instead buying a beer that was made by your neighbor down the street."