Top 5: Strange Brews

History on Tap

Americans annually drink, on average, around 30 gallons of beer. That average isn’t much different from 19th century consumption, but the beer being drunk is definitely in a different class.

Beer is one of the oldest known created beverages, with recipes recorded as far back as 7,000 years ago. Whether discovered by chance or the product of intention, the fermentation of grain sugars into alcohol was a hit – and clearly remains so! Conner Prairie’s annual History on Tap beer festival celebrates this historical beverage, inviting Indiana craft brewers to share their wares across our grounds.

Friday, June 3, Conner Prairie’s Horizon Council invites you to our tenth annual History on Tap. Explore an evening of craft beer at Conner Prairie, featuring tastings from dozens of local craft brewers.

It took some time for beer to become a commercial product. Most beer, up until the 12th and 13th centuries, was made at home, usually by women. Like cookery, it was a skill passed on and recipes were rarely recorded. ‘Cottage’ or ‘small’ beers were consumed by the whole family and clocked in at a much lower ABV than commercial beers.

Image of how beer is a family friendly beer
The American Frugal Housewife, 21st ed. by Mrs. Child, pub. 1839

These home brews were usually drunk ‘green’ – within a few days of fermentation activity. Beer was often a safer drink than water, as the boiling process killed bacteria, so not getting sick after drinking beer (but getting sick after drinking water) made beer seem health some. Especially with added potato, apparently.

Modern Craft brewers often set themselves apart with innovative flavors and conceptual ingredients – like the dandelion infused beer made by Sun King for this year’s VIP experience. Fruits, herbals, even vegetables (pumpkin ale, I’m looking at you) make appearances in contemporary beer recipes. This isn’t so different than brewers of the past. Often, though, these historical ‘strange brews’ were born out of necessity and utility: use everything you have and make do when you don’t have what you need. Ahead of our  June 3  event, let’s take a look at five truly unique and odd historical beer recipes.

1. Beer makes you pee, but peas make your beer?

In the 19th century, people made the most of everything. Absolutely nothing went to waste – as this recipe from Mackenzie’s Ten Thousand Receipts, pub. 1867, for a brew made with the shells of shucked peas can attests. 

Image of how to make Beer and Ale from Pea -shells
The American Frugal Housewife, 21st ed. by Mrs. Child, pub. 1839

2. They say less is more, but more is – apparently – wahoo!

Another example of using pretty much anything you can get your hands on, including a load of foraged plants and herbs, another appearance of the potato, and a loaf of bread. ‘Oh, boy!’ might be a better descriptor for this recipe. At the time of its publication, the common exclamatory definition of ‘wahoo’ didn’t exist. A ‘wahoo’ was a type of wild flowering bush, which is likely where the beer got its name.

Image of how to make Wahoo Beer
From The American Frugal Housewife, 21st ed. by Mrs. Child, pub. 1838

3. What’s up with this recipe, Doc?

It probably doesn’t improve your eyesight, but carrot beer did happen! This recipe suggests using ‘buck bean’ as a hops replacement. Buckbean is the common name for Menyanthes trifoliata, a plant with bitter leaves and bean-like fruit that grows in boggy areas and was long used for medicinal purposes. People often substituted other plants for hops, which can be difficult to grow successfully. Among those substitutes is Creeping Charlie, a common ‘weed’ found growing in most backyards.

4. A beer you’ll be ‘pining’ for…?

Believe it or not, there was a time when an array of indigenous evergreen trees flavored quite a bit in the food world. The most famous and still utilized being Juniper, which brings gin its unique flavor. It’s likely early settlers developed their taste for Spruce after interactions with Native Americans, who chewed the conifer’s sap for medicinal and recreational purposes. Spruce essence was soon after turned into stick candy and more modern chewing gum – and, of course, beer. Historical Spruce Beer will be available for sampling in the Civil War Journey area during History on Tap this year, made with Spruce tips harvested from Conner Prairie’s grounds.

Image of how to make spruce beer
From The Housekeeper’s Guide: Or, A Plain & Practical System of Domestic Cookery. By Esther Copley, pub. 1838

5. Black licorice beer making you feel Swankey?

Perhaps one of the strangest ‘lost’ American beers is Pennsylvania Swankey. It was wildly popular in Pennsylvania among Dutch settlements, but never really caught on – because it tastes like black licorice. The term “Swankey” comes from the German “schankbier”, meaning a beer of lower than usual alcohol content. The brew is surprisingly refreshing in hot weather, and could be drunk throughout the day without becoming intoxicated, because of its low ABV. Pennsylvania Swankey will be available for sampling in the Prairietown area for this year’s History on Tap.

Image of beer and licorice

About the Author

As a Program Developer at Conner Prairie, Kim McCann creates content and helps to implement special events. She is an award-winning storyteller, hobby mixologist, and has been brewing beer from historical recipes for almost a decade. Her favorite to date is a honey beet beer with a perfect pink head.