(Allentown) Morning Call November 20, 2006

It's not Thanksgiving Without Beer

By Kathleen Parrish Of The Morning Call

Germansville pair honors the Pilgrims by brewing their own suds every year.

Some folks toast Thanksgiving with a juicy turkey, green bean casserole and clouds of creamy mashed potatoes.

Roger Latzgo and Rachel Roland pay homage to the Pilgrims a different way.

They make beer.

''It's an American tradition,'' says Latzgo, stirring a simmering pot of home-brew atop a wood stove in the kitchen of the couple's Germansville home. ''We talk about a lot of things, but not [the Pilgrims'] drinking habits.''

Beer, you say? What's that have to do with the early settlers?

Plenty. If not for beer, we might not be here. OK, we'd be here, but cranberries, the flowerings of a hardy northern climate, surely wouldn't be on the Thursday's menu. Boiled peanuts, perhaps.

The Pilgrims dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock not because they thought it was a good place to build a life — they were aiming for a more southern locale — but because they ran out of suds.

Here's what William Bradford had to say about the trip: ''We could not take much time for further search, our victuals being much spent, especially beer,'' he wrote in the ''History of Plimouth Plantation.''

In the 1600s, they didn't quaff mugs of frothy golden beer for fun. They drank it to stay alive.

''Nothing else was safe,'' says Lew Bryson, author of ''Pennsylvania Breweries.''

''Milk was good for four hours. No one drank fruit juices, and the water they collected from rivers was green and full of wiggly things.''

The Colonists didn't know about germs or sterilization, but they knew that drinking water could be deadly.

''No one dies from drinking beer,'' Bryson says. ''It can make you nauseous if you drink too much, but it can't kill you.''

That's because to make beer you have to boil the ingredients, beer historian Richard Wagner of Hatboro, Montgomery County, says.

''By leaching ingredients out of malt, you're making a nutritious beverage'' full of vitamins and minerals, he says. Women were usually the ones who made the beer, and they'd ferment it in a keg or crock for a few days before deeming it ready for consumption. It was considered a domestic craft, as important as cooking, sewing and tending a garden.

Children imbibed, too, but the alcoholic content of the brew was about 2 percent, compared with 6 to 8 percent today. ''You'd have to drink gallons before you got a buzz,'' Bryson says.

But a buzz was never the point. Not at first, anyway.

''It was a staple,'' Wagner says. ''They drank it for breakfast.''

Each Thanksgiving, Latzgo and Roland fire up the wood stove early in preparation for the day's brewing. Latzgo, who's been making beer since his college days at Rutgers University, uses a stainless steel pot to boil the water before adding powdered malt.

After 30 minutes or so, he crumbles hops, a flower grown in the couple's garden, into the roiling tub.

'In olden days, everyone grew hops in their garden, and they stuffed pillows with them because they help you go to sleep,'' he says of the slumber-inducing plant.

Hours later, the couple pours the brew, a malted barley soup called wort, into a yellow bucket to ferment, a process that involves yeast and sugar.

''We don't even go to my mom's for dessert because when you're making beer, you have to be vigilant,'' says Roland, who works in the communications department at Air Products & Chemicals Inc.

The product will be ready to drink in five to six weeks.

Latzgo, a professional musician, comes from a long line of brewers. His grandfather made beer and distilled hard cider in the 1920s during Prohibition.

''The only time anyone ever saw my grandfather cry was when he dropped a vat of apple jack,'' quips Latzgo, who got his start making beer in college. ''It was a great freshman chemistry project.''

He opens his brew log, a faded notebook containing recipes and observations from every batch beginning in 1976.

''Cost was lower for this particular batch because of a bargain price on malt,'' his first entry read.

On Nov. 27, 2003, he wrote, ''Good, zingy bitter feel to this beer.'' Of a batch two years later, he inked, ''Keep civilization alive,'' an adage in line with Benjamin Franklin's own beliefs about the holistic properties of beer.

''Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,'' Franklin wrote in his famous almanac.

The Colonists would have used spruce tips, pumpkin, persimmons or molasses to yield sugar for beer making, Wagner says.

Later, the Indians, who were also beer drinkers, showed the Pilgrims how to use corn in the brewing process.

''This is part of our mystique about the Pilgrims,'' Wagner says. ''You have the image of these people huddled together and starving. You forget that they were coming from an advanced culture in Europe.''

Does that mean the Pilgrims washed down their meal with beer at the first Thanksgiving?

Absolutely, according to Wagner. ''If there were Indians, there was beer.''

Good to know. On Thursday, lift your glass to the Pilgrims and toast our country's affinity for a cold one.

Now, what could be more American than that?

For Latzgo's beer recipe go to