Brewery taps Virginia Historical Society collection to serve up 300-year-old beer recipe

What do you get when you combine water, American persimmons and hops and ferment it with yeast? A beer based on a 300-year-old recipe scribbled in a cookbook kept by Virginia's prominent Randolph family.

Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond recently brewed "Jane's Percimon Beer" unearthed from the book in the Virginia Historical Society's collections from the 1700s that contains food, medicinal remedies and beer recipes. The formula for the Colonial-era concoction is one of thousands of alcoholic recipes in the society's collection that provide a glimpse into what Virginians and others were drinking in the 18th century and other points in history.

"You can feel a connection across time when you're drinking something that maybe hasn't been drunk for a couple hundred years," said Paul Levengood, president and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society, a privately funded nonprofit that collects, preserves and interprets the state's history. "It's a fun way to bring the past into the present."

As one would expect, the process of brewing the beer was dramatically different from the techniques and equipment used in modern-day brewing. Where current recipes include very specific instructions on the amount of ingredients and timing, the handwritten formula of just a few short sentences contains no detailed instructions or quantities. The first trial run using about 17 pounds of persimmons yielded only three gallons of beer.

"With a lot of these recipes, the real fun of it is trying to figure out where the little pieces of wisdom hid in the recipes," said Tom Sullivan, who brewed the beer with fellow Ardent Craft Ales co-owner Kevin O'Leary. "If you're making this stuff for yourself and your family and drinking it all the time, you bet your bottom dollar the end product was good."

And how does it taste? The light peach-colored concoction conjures touches of sweetness and tangerine-like notes from the persimmons and just a whisper of spiciness from the English Golding hops.

The libation is considered a table beer, clocking in at an extremely easy-drinking 3 percent or less of alcohol by volume. That would be pretty typical of alcoholic beverages of the time that were enjoyed with many meals.

In 1790, annual per-capita alcohol consumption for those over age 15 was 34 gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits and one gallon of wine, according to US government figures cited in an article in the "Colonial Williamsburg" history magazine. Unlike alcohol that was boiled and fermented, water at that time included high levels of bacteria that sickened those who drank it.

Sullivan said the brewery hopes to comb through other recipes in the society's collection and create other beers from Virginia rich beer history. And with craft beer gaining consumer interest across the country, Levengood said the partnership presents an opportunity to discuss alcohol production and consumption throughout history.

Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of what is likely an 18th century brewery on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Officials at the nation's oldest college say the discovery will allow them to tell a broader story about campus life in the Colonial era that involved the interaction of slaves, Native Americans, faculty and students.

And beer caves built in 1866 along the James River in Richmond were listed on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year. The brick and granite remnants were from the James River Steam Brewery founded by David G. Yuengling Jr., son of the founder of "America's Oldest Brewery" in Pottsville, Pa., the year after the fall of Richmond to Union troops.

"That's the great thing about Virginia, right? You're tripping over (history) every day and you don't even realize it sometimes," Sullivan said.


Earlier versions of this story incorrectly referred to the prominent Virginia family by the name Reynolds. The correct name is Randolph.


Michael Felberbaum can be reached at