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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Strange brew

One of the many, many reasons I am glad not to live in the time of Jane Austen – right up there with the absence of antibiotics, reliable contraception, and voting rights for women – is the quality of the food. Traditional English cooking, even when employing the farm-to-table ingredients available to the Austens, is best known for its bland heaviness. (As regular blog readers will recall, I established as much a few years ago when I tried out a few recipes from The Jane Austen Cookbook.)

Nevertheless, an intrepid Cincinnati brewer has turned to Austen’s era for inspiration in creating a contemporary version of spruce beer, a concoction that we know Austen herself made: “We are brewing Spruce Beer again,” she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in December of 1808 (letter #62 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.)

No Austen family spruce beer recipe has survived, but Allen Moellmann of Listermann Brewing Company came up with a reasonable facsimile that includes molasses and new-growth spruce tips. (Sounds revolting to me, but I’m not a beer drinker at the best of times.) Although spruce beer can be non-alcoholic, the Listermann’s version – available on tap this month, if you’re in Cincinnati -- will be five percent alcohol by volume, roughly average for beer these days.

Low-alcohol beer (“small beer”) was a common beverage in Austen’s time, when the water was often unsafe for drinking. And Moellmann is not the first person to try his hand at an Austen-inspired version: Back in 2017, when the world was commemorating the bicentenary of Austen’s death, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, created its own Austen brew, as well as a spruce-beer recipe for home brewers.

Brewing was originally a home-based and female-dominated craft, and “Moellmann wanted to honor the tradition of women-led brewing by both reincarnating Austen’s recipe and by brewing it with a woman (this writer),” McKenzie Graham explains in CityBeat, a local independent newspaper. “He hopes to see more female brewers both in the supply store and working as head brewers.”

No word on whether Moellmann is actually a Janeite or just thought Austen’s name would help with this admirable feminist project. Either way, I’m not drinking the result.

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