- Historic Sites
America’s most impressive historic survivors just may be our taverns—because they’ve had to do it all on their own, by offering you exactly the same kind of comfort they did your great-grandfather
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
As Colonel Murdock might have done two centuries earlier, and as was common practice among tavern keepers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Wilson brews his own ale for sale and consumption at the inn, although as a concession to contemporary times he also bottles it for take-away. He brews only a handful of styles, none of them anything like our modern lagers, and he’s a one-man band, devising his own recipes, brewing alone, even growing hops on the premises. Wilson’s ales—and his hospitality—make his establishment home to a comradely circle of locals who instinrtively drew us into conversation, bringing the Norwich even closer to its early American roots. As we traded concerns about terrorism, bolstered one another’s hopes for the sagging economy, and shared local gossip, the Norwich felt very much like a twenty-first-century version of the sort of colonial tavern that once spawned governments.
Indeed, the beer itself connects the Norwich Inn to both the earliest days of New England and our modern marketplace. Americans have long been avid consumers of beer, but in the country’s early days, there were no big breweries to supply us with long necks and king cans of lager, so innkeepers were obliged to brew their own ales. In fact, it was the demand for beer from taverns that led to commercial brewing in America, which began when the Massachusetts Bay Colony licensed Capt. Robert Sedgwick as a “common brewer” in 1635.
Ingredients were limited in those early days, and equipment was crude, and Tim Wilson’s porter and ale are surely a fair sight better than anything Colonel Murdock served his guests. And for all the fellowship of the old inns, today’s social intercourse is undeniably more liberated. Now we are free to chat with our fellow travelers and the innkeeper—or not, as we please. In the eighteenth century New England tavern owners were obliged by law to know and report the origin, destination, and business objective of every guest. In addition, we probably would have been besieged by salesmen, for everything from real estate to geometry lessons to slaves was on offer in those early taverns. Had we been fortunate enough to find a good conversationalist, the topic of choice would likely have been politics, and only one of us would have been doing the talking, since a proper woman’s behavior in taverns would have echoed her role in colonial society, as part of the private rather than the public realm.
Then again, notions of propriety are often relative and geographically determined. In earlytwentieth-century Alaska, it is unlikely that many of those who had charted this unforgiving terrain would have been much cowed by old social niceties. Legend has it that at the champagne-drenched 1913 opening of a bare boards alehouse and “unofficial brothel” in Juneau known as the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, the front door key was attached to a balloon and floated out of sight, a signal that the establishment intended never to close.
Many inns have been saved by the new microbreweries.
That Wild West spirit dominated the Alaskan as late as the 1970s, says the current owner, Bettye Adams. Known as Ace’s Place under its then-landlord Ace Burny, this was a raffish operation that closed for just three hours a day (between 5:00 and 8:00 A.M. ) and often entertained locals with impromptu strip shows starring their friends and neighbors. “There was a certain status in getting your clothes off at Ace’s,” says Adams, quickly adding that she of course never participated. Although that frontier spirit has been toned down considerably under the stewardship of Adams and her husband, Mike, the Alaskan still proudly boasts the trappings of a traditional brotheltavern, from oil paintings of nudes on the walls to an ornate winding staircase that one imagines could lead to all sorts of temptations. As for the strip shows, well, locals vouchsafe that the Alaskan is still the kind of bar where anything can happen.
Like many historic taverns, the Alaskan has found its salvation in part from an unexpected quarter. The rise of American craft breweries, or microbreweries, has helped many a flea-bitten mongrel of a tavern begin life anew as a specialty beer bar. A prime example is the Rose and Raindrop in Portland, Oregon.
Built as a mortuary in 1890, the Rose has had a complicated past. Its premises have served as, among other things, a hotel, a nickelodeon, an antiques store, and a Chinese laundry. In 1997, 18 years after its last renovation, the Rose was bought by Mel Hickman. Along with his partner, Don Younger, landlord of one of the finest specialty beer bars in the country, Portland’s inimitable Horse Brass Pub, Hickman turned this ancient brick structure into an endearingly rough-around-the-edges oasis of fine local ales and lagers, simple yet filling fare, and, most important, easy conversation. Today, some 80 years after ticket holders lined up to see vaudeville troupes like the Duffy Players and the Baker Players, patrons gather to talk politics, catch up on local news, monitor the comings and goings of the staff—many of whom have become fast friends—and exchange the occasional homebrew recipe, all over pints of fine craft brews like Terminal Gravity I.P.A., Deschutes Black Butte Porter, and Rogue Brutal Bitter.