A couple of weeks ago, Annette and I attended a kegger on the Mayflower II. Standing by the gangway was Joe Brinkman, a robust, red-haired young fellow wearing a Red Sox baseball cap and a gray Samuel Adams sweatshirt. His day job is acting as tour guide at the brewery, but on this May evening, he was in Plymouth operating a wooden pull attached to a plastic cooler that contained the keg. He drew me a cup of Mayflower Golden Anniversary Ale.
The Boston Beer Company, brewer of Samuel Adams, has generously donated a supply of the ale in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the reproduction of the Mayflower II. Brinkman told me this is a beer like those the Pilgrims might have drunk. I swallowed a sample. It was hearty and fresh tasting, a brew I could stay with, but I wondered about its 17th-century authenticity.
“Isn’t it a little more carbonated than was common in those days?” I asked.
Brinkman said a few improvements have been made in old-fashioned ale to please 21st-century tastes.
I remember the arrival of the Mayflower II 50 years ago. Its crew got less alcohol on the voyage over than the Pilgrims did — a lot less, according to the display that surrounded us on the pier depicting the original shipboard fare. The 1957 seamen were thirsty when they came ashore, but some of them didn’t care for American beer, which in those days was almost entirely light colored and bland. Now they’d have more choice, and I expect a draught of this English style ale would have suited them fine.
I took another satisfying swallow, savoring the sweetness of the grain and the bitterness of the hops. Then I went over to join Annette, who was talking to Plimoth Plantation food and beverage historian Paula Marcoux, who worked with Boston Beer Company to come up with these celebratory suds.
Using recipes from the period, Paula has brewed beer in the Plimoth Plantation kitchens and once in view of the public in the village. She says Dutch painting of the time often shows beer with a foamy head and a way of clinging to the glass today’s beer drinkers easily recognize, but the improvement that allows beer to retain a satisfying sparkle and a nice head after being stored is the metal keg. Wooden casks are watertight, but carbon dioxide may escape over time, causing the beer to develop a different mouth feel. Paula would love to put up some Mayflower Golden Ale in a wooden cask, but so far hasn’t been able to convince the higher-ups at the Plantation that it would be worth the cost.
Boston Beer Company has produced historic beverages before and was excited about the opportunity to make a 17th-century ale. Unfiltered and naturally fermented, it won’t be bottled, but will be served on draft at the brewery and at Plimoth Plantation.
I wanted to try it again, so I met Paula and food historian Kathleen Curtin at the Plantation visitor center for a late afternoon drink. Warm sunshine flooded into the courtyard where apple trees in full bloom were surrounded by violets.
Although Kathleen says many visitors insist on their hot dogs and hamburgers, it’s now possible to get 17th-century foods on a daily basis, and she brought us peasecods. They’re named for their shape, which resembles a peapod, but there are no peas in them. Instead, these tender pastries are filled with small cubes of pork along with orange peel and raisins. The combination of savory meat with nuggets of sweetness reminded Annette of mince pies, but I thought they made perfect bar food.
I’m continually surprised at how well the English ate and drank in those early times. Unusual and tasty food is something I’ll travel great distances to find, and here it is in my hometown. I trust Kathleen Curtin’s scholarship, so I’m comfortable with its authenticity, although I suspect the fare at the visitor center may be better than you’d find if you were a guest in a Plymouth home on an evening in 1627,
As for the ale, Paula Marcoux called it the brew the Pilgrims wished they had. With all the challenges of gaining a foothold in the new world, growing the ingredients and making them into their favorite beverage wasn’t something they could handle. A few of them grumbled about it, but they had to be satisfied with water.