Open Call: Historic Odessa takes inspiration from history ... and beer

I am not a beer drinker, but if I were to be transported back 300 years to colonial Delaware, and specifically Historic Odessa, from where I am writing this column, not only would I be imbibing the amber brew on a daily basis, but I would most likely be homebrewing it as well.

As early European colonists avoided drinking water like the plague, beer, considered a healthy alternative to water, was a major dietary staple in the colonies, consumed by everyone from cradle to grave.

The term “small beer” was used to describe a home-brewed ale, made from barley, that was much lower in alcohol and would have been consumed by women and children; commercially brewed beer was called “strong beer,” served in taverns, inns, as well as the home. Making your own beer and cider in the 17th and 18th centuries was as important a domestic craft as hearth cooking, tending a kitchen garden or spinning yarn.

The area of Odessa, or Apequinemy as it was originally known and named by the Lenni-Lenape. Apequinemy means “place where we carried our canoes,” and was first settled by the Dutch (who would have immediately begun producing beer) in 1662, on land purchased from Sachem Mechanksit a Lenni-Lenape chief.

In 1664, the settlement fell to the English, and by the early 1730s had become a fully developed town, bustling grain shipping port and vital Mid-Atlantic transportation hub between the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay.

When we at Historic Odessa set out to establish a fundraising event in 2013 that would support our historic preservation efforts and educational programming, we drew inspiration from the town’s economic, cultural and social history, and the country’s deep roots in beer production.

Pairing that with today’s enthusiasm for craft beer and resurgence of homebrewing, we hit on the idea of creating the Historic Odessa Brewfest — a chance for beer lovers to step back three centuries to a pastoral setting befitting a celebration of grain, hops, fruits, herbs and time-honored brewing methods.

Along with Historic Odessa Foundation’s Executive Assistant Jennifer Cabell Kostik, we approached the Ashby Hospitality Group, which in 2011 opened Cantwell’s Tavern, the farm-to-table gastropub, in the foundation’s 200-year-old Brick Hotel, to discuss ideas for a fundraiser.

It was while meeting with Mark Ashby, president and owner of AHG, and Jeremy Hughes, the company’s vice president and Odessa Brewfest’s lead organizer, that the idea for a beer festival evolved. It was Jeremy who asked, “Would you ever consider a beer festival?”

In partnership with Cantwell’s Tavern, we launched the Odessa Brewfest in 2014. Now in its ninth year, the one-day event annually attracts more than 2,000 craft beer lovers who span the generations.

Despite some natural apprehension, our first year was a complete success, and thanks to Cantwell’s, our staff and crew of volunteers (we’re always looking for more), that success has grown.

We immediately saw how Brewfest was an opportunity to bring an event to the public that would not only support our mission, but also attract a new audience for us, and generate a different vibe that invigorated our status as a historic site listed on the National Register of Historic Places and home to a National Historic Landmark and two National Park Service Network to Freedom sites.

It was an opportunity for us to showcase our museum properties and bring our history to that broader audience, who would appreciate our unique setting.

What people enjoy at Brewfest and beer festivals, is what people were enjoying in the early 19th century, when beer gardens began to pop up in cities and towns.

As our biggest fundraising event of the year, the Odessa Brewfest, which this year will be held on Saturday, Sept. 10, means a significant contribution to our budget that supports our mission and to ensure the legacy of Historic Odessa for future generations.

It also helps us support the various public programming we offer throughout the year that run the gamut from exhibitions, lectures, seminars and workshops to our school tour program, education scholarships, and free public events.

We see Odessa as not only a historic site, but a cultural center. A place where people can learn about the past and embrace the present. A place where on the second Saturday of September craft beer lovers from across the region can make merry among good company.

Debbie Buckson is executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation.