As a kid, I had a couple constant daydreams. First, I ached to be invisible. I didn’t fancy being a peeping tom; I wanted to observe human life in microscopic detail — without being called creepy. In certain respects, I’ve achieved invisibility in New York City. Here, you can strut for miles without anyone glancing your direction.
Secondly, I wanted to time travel. Lacking a DeLorean and plutonium, backtracking through the centuries has proven trickier. Though I haven’t mastered the space-time continuum, I’ve still been able to revisit the past thanks to a few Pretty Things.
Based in Massachusetts, Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project is one of my favorite breweries operating on the East Coast. Since launching in August 2008, husband-wife duo Dann Paquette and Martha Holley-Paquette have married creativity and whimsy with DIY grit and peerless beer craftsmanship. To create a beer, the gypsy brewers (they rent space at an existing brewery) begin with an idea—say, Slavic folklore’s kid-eating witch Baba Yaga—then ink labels, pen poems, write songs, and collaborate on the recipe (in this case, for strong stout Babayaga). A tree filled with discarded baby dolls inspired the plumy, Belgian-style Baby Tree. A field mouse’s imagined feast of oats, wheat, rye and barley spurred the rustic farmhouse ale Field Mouse’s Farewell.
While these beers tickle my fancy, I’m most impressed by Pretty Things’ Once Upon a Time… series. In it, the brewers collaborate with brewing historian Ron Pattinson, who writes the blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. He unearths a dusty recipe, then Dann and Martha re-create it. The first effort was for February 27th, 1832, a British mild ale that, despite the vanilla moniker, was made with heaps of whole-flower hops and boasted a dizzying 10.5 percent ABV. Next came November 15, 1901, a massively hopped, London-style “KK” black ale. The beer was as dark and bitter as a widower’s tears — in the best way possible.
And last month, Pretty Things unveiled December 6, 1855, an East India–style Porter that corrects a common misconception. One of the biggest brewing myths is that the bitter, mouth-scrunching India pale ale constituted the lion’s share of beer exported from London to India in the 1800s. (In addition to contributing bitterness, hops act as a preservative—crucial in a hot climate.) Lo and behold, most beer shipments were of a contained porter, which was greedily glugged by officers. IPAs? It shipped in smaller portions, mainly reserved for officers.
So Dann, Martha, and Ron set out to revive this long-forgotten British soldier’s tipple. At first blush, EIP isn’t much different than the typical chestnut-hued porter. As expected, there’s a touch of toffee, brown sugar, and vanilla on the nose, but then there’s that floral hint. Consider it a harbinger: The beer begins malty and nutty, creamy even, before the hops take over with a dry, herbal bitterness.
It’s a taste of the past that I envision myself drinking deep into the future.