If sitting atop a barstool many, many times in my life has taught me anything, it’s that most of our disagreements – about sports, about family, about politics – can be solved if we were just to set aside our differences (or even lay them bare) over a few pints of beer. In the 241 years since we officially became a nation, perhaps the exorbitant amount of alcohol we consume is that only proof that “all men are created equally.”
Indeed, as thoughts of a revolution crept into the public consciousness back in the 18th century, so did our forefathers slip out of consciousness on healthy pours of wine, cider, and ale. It is, as the faithful beer drinkers can attest, that special brand of intensity that accompanies that fourth drink that the greatest ideas emerge, and ideas are emboldened with a fiery enthusiasm that’ll put a musket’s gun powder to shame.
History's lessons resonate from our past; they come with overarching themes, but often the minutiae is more fascinating: What did they read? How did they spend their free time?
And, as a drinks writer, what did they drink? My younger brother is a history teacher. And so it is with this in mind that I took time, a week before America’s birthday, to visit the roads in Boston that once housed our forefathers, to walk where they walked, and, of course, drink where they drank on the Freedom Trail Pub Crawl, part of the Freedom Trail Foundation’s various tours.
The beautiful part of American history is that it’s still in its infancy. There are buildings around the world that are older than our entire country. What this means is that our history, to a vast extent, is relatable. The foundation of our country happened on streets upon which we walk every day.
Nowhere is this more true than my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, where the cobblestone streets once laid underfoot of patriots like John Adams and John Hancock, and still house the taverns in which they threw back pints of ales and ciders.
We’re greeted with sample size cups of a Sam Adams beer that was brewed specially for this bar.”
Our tour guide is Josiah Quincy (real name Tim Hoover), a surname famous in the Boston-area. Hoover’s character, of which there are “a few dozen” roaming the Freedom Trail circuit, convinced John Adams to join him on the defense of the British soldiers who stood accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, an obviously unpopular business move. “Legal counsel should be the last thing a man should want for in a truly free society,” is the Adams quote Hoover recites.
Hoover’s been at this for eight years. He’s a player in a few different theater groups and a graduate of Boston College. Playing the role of Quincy was a perfect marriage of his affinity for history and acting.
“I chose [Josiah Quincy] because I was able to tell a more balanced version of the Boston Massacre,” he said, “both the events themselves and the reaction to it.”
He says this to me less than a quarter mile from the site of the actual massacre (for which the British soldiers were found not guilty). We’re at the Union Oyster House, where we’re greeted with sample size cups of a Sam Adams beer that was brewed specially for this bar. It’s brewed with molasses, we’re told, as the oysters come around the corner to our tables. This is the oldest continually-operated restaurant in America, but I suppose the oyster shells are much smaller ones that were hurled at British soldiers back in 1770.
This is, I should add, the shortest walking tour in the history of walking tours. There are, perhaps, 30 steps in between each bar. It’s more like a stumble tour, like the forefathers of America would finish a pint and waddle over to the next stop to see what political battle they were willing to engage in next door. In a very significant way, it’s humbling to be on the same ground upon which these giants walked, but it’s also significant to register that these idols from history books were human.
“'When in the course of human events,'” historian David McCullough reminds us of the famous quote. “Human events. They were not gods, they were not marble idols... They were flawed, they were imperfect, they were vulnerable, they were susceptible to the failings on human nature and the human spirit as any of us are.”
The Sam Adams we know and love is actually Sam Adams II. He spent away his family fortune buying drinks for people he hoped to bring over to his political leanings. This is certainly not dissimilar from what happens now. We literally do this all the time.
Sam Adams also wasn’t good looking enough to adorn the labels on his own beer. The label is actually mostly Paul Revere, though it’s a slight amalgamation of them both, but certainly errs more of the side of the handsome horse rider Revere.
It’s come a long way, though, from the fife-playing days of yore.”
At each bar on this walking history lesson, we’re poured pints of Sam Adams beer. There’s no reason for this other than the historical connotation, I’m told, but I am a firm adherent to the statement that Sam Adams is wildly underrated in the current craft beer landscape.
We’re guzzling beer – this time a full pour – at the Bell in Hand, named so because of Boston’s last town crier, Jimmy Wilson. Simply put, Wilson was the man with the information. Anything gossip-related to the revolution or protests or the comings and goings of the British is information Wilson had. Wilson “was the guy to share all of this with the locals,” Hoover told us.
“He got tired of wearing his colonial outfit in the heat of the summer,” he continued. “And so he thought he could open this place so that people could come to him.”
In other words, Wilson played the exact same role that most bartenders today do: the role of ears everywhere, of opinions and advice, and of sagacity. And because literacy rates were still low in those days, businesses would have logos on the storefronts (a tailor would have thread and a needle, for example), the bar didn’t say, “Jimmy Wilsons.” It had a bell in a hand. Hence, the Bell in Hand.
It’s come a long way, though, from the fife-playing days of yore. Now, alongside our pints and food, we didn’t have the town-crier filling us in on protests, we had a country-music cover singer belting out Eric Church songs for the happy hour crowd.
It’s a 90-minute tour. The weather, torrential downpours, make the mood right for historical quaffing and each tour member – about ten of us in all, including a re-enactor just along for the ride – are drinking at a patriots-pace (a term I made up just now for rapid imbibing).
The third stop, The Point, seemed to be just a holdover spot, a bar that we could go to that overlooks Boston’s historic North End. Hoover, holding another pint of beer (it’s great that the guides join us in a drink. It seems like Josiah Quincy would approve), regals us with stories of protests and inter-Boston squabbles. I ask him about the stories he chooses to tell.
“Every tour guide is going to tell you something different,” he said. “You can take any of the Freedom Trail tours and you’ll get a different series of stories each time. There are different parts of history that we find interesting and I just always end up telling my favorite stories."
“No matter what time in history it is,” he said. “You can always find parallels. My job isn’t to give you numbers and dates and names. My job is to help you contextualize all of it, too.”
And, of course, there’s beer to aid in the flow of conversation.
Our final stop is the Green Dragon is where the clandestine meetings of the Sons of Liberty took place so often that it’s considered the Headquarters of the American Revolution. John and Samuel Adams met here with Paul Revere to plot the course of our independence. It’s also a place that I took a girl to on a first date for drinks. I wound up marrying that woman, which, as all men in my position know, is the complete opposite of freedom. (Ba-zing!)
This is where a teenage boy, an apprentice of Dr. Joseph Warren, overheard two British soldiers talking about their march into Lexington, their boisterousness aided by the spirits of time (I’m speculating). That young man told his boss, who told Paul Revere, who then rode out to Lexington-Concord warning the citizens of what was coming. We had our final drinks... and then one more, each sip inciting a little more fire about human events, past and present.
You won’t walk out the Green Dragon stumbling drunk, but that’s not the point. You’ll walk out feeling a little more patriotic, a little more cultured, and, just maybe, ready to start a revolution.