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Virginia Beer Enthusiasts Create Centuries Old Beer Recipe

The ingredients for 24 hour corn beer are simple: corn, water and molasses.
The ingredients for 24 hour corn beer are simple: corn, water and molasses. (Photo: Ian Stewart) Ian Stewart/WCVE

The idea of locally-sourced ingredients may sound like a current trend, but during colonial times it was a way of life. For Virginia Currents, Ian Stewart looks how beer styles and brewing techniques have changed over time.

Learn More: Visit Lee Graves website to learn more about local beer events in Virginia and his book “Virginia Beer. a Guide from Colonial Days to Craft’s Golden Age.”

Find information about re-creations of beer making and other Colonial-era events at Henricus Historical Park.


Andrew Rowand is pouring corn into a two-gallon metal bucket that sits over a fire in a cabin at Henricus Historical Park. It’s from a recipe published in the "Staunton Spectator and General Advertiser" from 1861.

Andrew Rowand: The recipe says to soak one pint of corn until it is soft. Add it to a pint of molasses and one gallon of water. Shake them well together and set it by the fire. And in 24-hours the beer will be excellent.



Rowand: It seems very simple for even 150 years ago.

Making beer in Virginia dates back even further to 1587. An explorer named Thomas Harriet wrote a report to England about the libation. Lee Graves wrote about this in his book "Virginia Beer. a Guide from Colonial Days to Craft’s Golden Age."

Lee Graves: He wrote in glowing terms about how the beer they made with corn in 1587 was just as good as any English Ale.

But he says that raving review might not be true because they were trying to induce investment in Virginia.

Later on when the first colonists came in 1607 they brought loads of beer. But as Graves told a crowd at an event called Hops in the Park, there was one problem.

Graves: Unfortunately they forgot to bring brewers so they quickly ran out.



After requests from the colonists, England sent brewers back to Jamestown. 

At Hops in the Park, Rowand demonstrates 400 year old beer making using the types of tools from back then.

Rowand: What we’re using is much smaller scale, so what you would see is more of a home production using. But all of the same ideas that we use today remain the same.

Those ideas include mash kettles, fermenters and boiling kettles says Rowand. The only difference between then and now is that today’s brewers use metal and plastic, instead of metal and wood.

Back then there was no concept of ‘locally sourced.’ You used what was available and hops was one of the main crops, says Graves.

Graves: Hops are native to Virginia, according to Thomas Jefferson. He wrote in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he listed hops as among the native species of Virginia.

Beer making and hops were so important to the Commonwealth that the 1623 Virginia Assembly required newcomers to bring a supply of malt.

One thing that’s changed in the last four centuries is the volume of beer being brewed. Today there are over 200 local breweries in Virginia.



Gabe Slagel: My name is Gabe Slagel. I’m the head brewer for Fine Creek Brewing Company.

Slagel is about to pour buckets of grain into a large metal mill.

Slagel: Today I’m brewing a golden sour that’ll go through a mixed fermentation with bacteria, wild yeast and age in barrels for over a year.

Slagel says the hops they’re able to grow on their space in Powhatan results in only one batch of beer. Like many breweries, they have to purchase the crop locally and nationally when needed. But...

Slagel: It is, you know, a lot of fun to really be able to make a beer with a bunch of ingredients that you yourself have grown too.

In the cabin at Henricus Historical Park Rowand is ready to taste the 24-hour beer.

Rowand: It’s still warm and now what we’ll do is just pull it away from the fire a little bit. And get ready to pour some glasses out to start sampling this.

Rowand is ready to see if the beer holds up to the lofty expectations of the recipe. Among a small crowd of park employees, he takes the ceramic crock and begins to pour.



Rowand: Probably the consistency of a strong brown ale. And it has a good sweet smell to it.

He puts the mug to his mouth.

Rowand: Alright, well cheers everyone.

He then makes a face.

Rowand: Um, it’s very molasses-y. If that can be a technical term. If you’re a fan of molasses it’s uh, what it tastes like. So it’s not as bad as what you might imagine.

The recipe published over 150 years ago also said yeast could be added to forward the beer. Rowand did just that for a second batch, which he says should taste a lot better. As for this batch...

Rowand: I would definitely prefer this over drinking hot water, that’s for sure.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Ian Stewart