Author Tells Tale of Beer Brewing in New Hampshire

October 17, 2014
by Tom Tollefson

Many people might believe that beer is drastically different today than it was in the early days of America. Glenn Knoblock, author of Brewing in New Hampshire who recently came to Hudson to talk about beer, has a different take on it. Knoblock believes that the popularity of craft brews of beer is as much in demand today as it was several hundred years ago.

Knoblock came to the George H. and Ella M. Rodgers Memorial Library on Wednesday, October 1, to give a presentation on the history of beer and alcohol in New Hampshire. Knoblock took the audience on a journey through the pages of New Hampshire history as he discussed various notable towns and people from long ago. The evening was sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanity Council.

“What we see today was popular in the colonial times like pumpkin ale. It has its roots in colonial times when settlers used whatever they had available,” Knoblock stated.

During the 1950s American tastes changed from craft brew, and large commercial beers become more common and popular. Then in the 1970s a café brewing revolution started in the western part of the country and made its way to New England. Smaller breweries produced craft brews in smaller quantities and became popular once again as they had in the early years of New England. Some bars or restaurants, such as Martha’s Exchange in Nashua, even brew their own beer just as in the colonial era. Knoblock estimates there are 30 to 40 microbreweries in New Hampshire producing handcrafted beer.

According to Knoblock, the main aspect of brewing that has changed is the manual labor. In the 1900s machines began bottling the beer. Before that time the bottles were filled manually and employees had to shovel coal into the fire that kept the furnaces going to brew the beer in a much more “labor-intensive” production.

The earliest settlers to New England did not have the hops flowers used to flavor beer in England, so they had to substitute with additives such as pumpkin and squash that were common in the new world. Beer in New Hampshire was produced mostly in Manchester and Portsmouth during the colonial times.

Knoblock referred to Reverend Samuel Haven as the Patron Saint of Brewing in New Hampshire. Haven served at Portsmouth South Church in the mid 1700s and, despite his clergy status, was a supporter of beer.

“It is the only situation I can find where a man of the cloth would advocate for beer,” Knoblock said.

Haven saw a lot of spousal abuse in his town due to hard liquor, whisky, and harder beverages and saw beer as a safer alternative. In 1789, he proposed that the Piscataqua Association of Ministers sponsor a brewery. Yet this request was denied. Breweries would become popular later on in state history.

While home brewing is currently thought of as a male-dominated activity today, back in the early colonial days in New Hampshire, women and slaves did most of the brewing while the men were at work.

In early New Hampshire, most of the beer was brewed right there in the taverns such as the General Wolfe Tavern in Rochester during 1770s which was operated by Samuel Wentworth in Rochester. This upscale tavern was visited by New Hampshire Royal Governor John Wentworth.

These taverns served as the primary places for socialization among the colonists. They were used as recruiting areas during the Revolutionary War and also housed a meeting of the Sons of Liberty before they went out to take part in the Boston Tea Party.

At the time, there were no age restrictions on alcohol and fermented beer was viewed as safer than water and a part of most colonists’ diet. In fact, law required taverns to serve beer and hard cider and offer feed for horses.

Knoblock also explained some of the changes that the turn of the 19th century brought to brewing in New Hampshire.

“We started to see a slow shift in the brewing style. As people began to move to the cities, local entrepreneurs began brewing instead of just people at home,” he said.

During this era the development of train systems aided the distribution of beer. Many new breweries also sprung into existence such as the Cocheco Brewery in Dover. This brewery was owned by Henry Evans, and was passed down to his wife, Martha Evans, when he died in the 1860s. Evans then owned and ran her deceased husband’s business and, after a few years, it is unknown what happened to it.

Another successful brewery was the Frank Jones Brewery established in 1858 in Portsmouth. This brewery was one of the most successful at that time and was owned by prominent financer Frank who owned other well-established businesses as well. Jones sold the business in 1889 for $6.3 million (this amount would be equal to roughly $140 million in today’s economy). The brewery shut down during the prohibition and reopened when it ended, then lasted until 1950.

In addition to his lecture on the deep history of New Hampshire brewing, Knoblock brought along slide shows to go along with his discussion on beer advertisements. Before the flashy advertising exploits of Budweiser or Miller Lite, there were breweries that used much the same techniques of glamour, high society, excitement, and sexuality to sell to their thirsty customers.

Many of the slides showed ads using beautiful girls. One in particular showed a girl draped in roses and a smile during the Victorian era. Many others showed people in high society enjoying beer.

“They were trying to show that beer was for everyone and not just a bum,” Knoblock said as he explained how the breweries were fighting the increasingly popular belief that beer was for bums and criminals in order to keep their businesses alive.

Here is a little background on the prohibition of alcohol. This negative view of alcohol started in the 1800s and eventually led to the prohibition in the early 1900s as breweries continued to advocate for their drinks. The temperance movement would then motivate citizens all across the county to smash bottles of alcohol in support of sobriety. Those lobbying to get rid of alcohol credited it for many of the increasing problems in society, namely drunkenness, violence, and poverty. “The breweries were fighting a losing fight,” Knoblock added.

One of the ads from Frank Jones Brewery on the slide show depicted children in it and another ad had people drinking while sitting in an early model of an automobile. Today alcohol ads are banned from using children or promoting drinking while driving.

“The (invention) of the automobile came about and there were no rules about drinking and driving. They used to have ads with people driving cars and drinking beer to show how beer could be exciting,” Knoblock said.

One of Knoblock’s 13 published books (most focus on regional history) was Brewing In New Hampshire.

“The way that book came about is that I have a friend who is a home brewer and we got to talking about the history of brewing in New Hampshire. We did some research and found out that not a whole lot had been written about brewing in New Hampshire,” Knoblock said.

Knoblock is an author and historian, currently residing in Wolfeboro. He graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in history from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.