Geneva Historical Society and Lake Drum Brewing team up for history program on beers and bars in Geneva

GENEVA — Picture a hot summer day out in the farm fields.

The kind of day your shirt soaks through with sweat just from climbing out of bed. Boy, you’re thirsty, but this is the kind of thirst that mere water cannot quench.

This is a hankering for beer, the colder the better.

This is well before the time when you could pull an icy Bud can from an Igloo cooler or sit in an air-conditioned craft brewery mulling the citrusy notes of the latest hoppy quaff.

When working a farm in the early 1800s, what you drink is what you made yourself.

And this particular beer from the days of Geneva yore was brewed from the green shells of peas, made “pleasantly bitter” with the addition of a strong decoction of hops, according to an early 1800s beer recipe provided by John Marks, curator of the Geneva Historical Society.

If not hops, then wood sage, if you have it.

“By boiling a fresh quantity of shells in the decoction before it becomes cold, it may become so thoroughly impregnated with saccharine matter, as to afford a liquor, when fermented, as strong as pale ale,” as the recipe reads.

And voila! You have a “cheap summer beer for farmers” that hits the spot.

A pea pale ale, if you will.

“What a hoot,” Marks said. “You could make a beer out of pretty much anything, as long as it has sugar.”

Geneva has a rich history of beer, which Marks will delve into as part of the next History Happy Hour, scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, at Lake Drum Brewing. Besides beer, attendees also will learn a bit about the history of bars in Geneva and enjoy a few old photos during a slide show presentation. 

Obviously, this is a two-fisted topic for history buffs, even Marks.

“I like history and I enjoy beer,” Marks said. “It goes hand in hand.”

This is real history of not only Geneva, but of early American life.

Marks has found information dating back to the 1700s. For instance, a Geneva beer in the Revolutionary War time was made from spruce tips instead of hops.

The use of native plants has always been an interest for Lake Drum owner Victor Pultinas, who is the cider maker, and brewer Rick Morris, although they were unaware of the history of the use of spruce tips when coming up with their Spruce Doggie.

But, Pultinas said he is not surprised.

“There is a long list of herbs and plants that are used in beer in substitution of hops, or rather were historically used in beer before the popularity and necessity of hops grew,” Pultinas said. “I do not consider myself a history buff but have a great interest and curiosity about the past; what was tried and what worked and what we can learn from in today’s world.”

As a historical footnote, Marks said the Spruce Doggie tastes like a really hoppy ale. Forget summer for this one; sip this one by the Christmas tree.

“It’s a great one for this time of year, harvested and collected in the spring but consumed around the holiday season,” Pultinas said.

The holidays are a great time to drop local history trivia during family talks around the holiday table. Here’s a few teasers.

One of Geneva’s first businesses? Given the topic of the column, of course the answer is a brewer, but do you know why?

The process of making beer, hard cider or the harder stuff could be a lifesaver (in more ways than one), as drinking the water at the time could kill you, Marks said.

Marks shares a neat item from 1808 that advertises the services of James Fowle, “Brewer, Hucksterer, &c.” It notes he’s near Mr. Woods’ tavern and “respectfully” informs the public that he keeps on hand a supply of mead and bottled beer. And for brewers and distillers, his supply of 10 barrels of English manufactured hops was “of a superior quality.”

Later on, the Nester Malthouse set up shop, aided by the “ton of grain” grown in the region, Marks said.

“Beer has always been a part of Geneva,” Marks said.

Bars not as much, although as the Fowle ad reads, they’ve been around since the beginning. The bar business really started to take off around World War II time, especially thanks to the proximity of Sampson Air Force Base, Marks said.

Having a college nearby helps. Among the old favorites — Twin Oaks, which operated near the Hobart and William Smith Colleges campus.

“Generations of Hobart students remember the Twin Oaks,” Marks said.

But even when there wasn’t a whole lot of bars or taverns, people still managed to quench their thirst for beer, often right at home with a homemade brew — a craft brew, if you will — especially during the Prohibition years.

“Everyone knew where you could get a drink,” Marks said.

That drink was made in a way that is relatable to folks today, given the popularity of the craft beer scene. You could say history repeats itself, deliciously.

“It’s an experience that has not changed much over the years,” Marks said. “It’s nothing new. We’re taking a step back 200 years.”