Area writer toasts Delaware beer

John Medkeff, of Newark, is preparing to write a history of beermaking in the state of Delaware. (Submitted photo)
DOVER — It may be hard to believe now, with so many beer options available in the state, but after Prohibition, brewing in Delaware struggled a great deal. The industry languished until the 1990s, when successful Delaware companies like Sussex County’s Dogfish Head, created a renaissance.
John Medkeff knows all about this. The 51-year-old Newark resident is perhaps the single best source for anyone wanting to know about Delaware brewing over the centuries.
A former home brewer, he said he has been interested in the topic for decades. Now, he’s combining his passions for beer, Delaware and the past by writing a book called “Brewing in Delaware” to be released next year.
“I started about 1996 researching the history of brewing in Delaware with the idea that maybe the topic deserves a book or at least articles or something written about it,” he said.
When he found there was very little in the form of collected materials, he decided to do his own investigation. Several years ago, Arcadia Publishing broached the idea of him turning his research into a book, one of several the company has published on brewing around the country.
Over the years Mr. Medkeff has utilized “every resource available,” going through books, photographs and microfilms to learn how brewing has progressed in Delaware.
What he found may surprise you.
Brewing here began centuries ago, well before Delaware was even a state. After a group of Swedes established a colony in North America, they began creating beer. They were followed by colonists from Germany, England and the Netherlands, all of whom were quick to practice home brewing in Delaware.
“Beer was something important to them culturally,” Mr. Medkeff said. “It was essential nutrition.”
The process of brewing beer killed bacteria in the water, which made it safer to drink. Though people at that time did not know why that was so, they recognized beer was much less risky than water, Mr. Medkeff said.
As a result, it became correlated with good health, and even children drank it.
As time passed, brewing became more important to the area, and by the 1800s, the process had become an industry in Delaware. From that point on, information is easier to find, Mr. Medkeff said.
He noted Delawareans were rather unique for their devotion to local beers.
“Not every region has that,” he said. “Brewers in Delaware could always count on customers to support them.”
Breweries tended to be concentrated in Wilmington, the state’s main population center. However, saloons and taverns could be found all over the state, giving residents of southern Delaware easy access to their favorite beers.
Around the time of the Civil War, three major Delaware breweries were founded. This big three — Diamond State Brewery, Hartmann & Fehrenbach and Bavarian Brewery — dominated the state’s brewing scene until 1920, when Prohibition, which lasted until 1933, brought about a slow but sure decline, crippling the industry for decades.
Over half a century later, the business of brewing began to boom once more, thanks in part to creative companies like Dogfish Head, he said. Founded in 1995, the Milton-based Dogfish Head is — at least in Mr. Medkeff’s mind — one of the top breweries in the world.
And brewing good beer doesn’t just impact beer lovers.
It brings in tourists and helps the economy, he said, and in the past has even led to the founding of towns.
In fact, Mr. Medkeff believes brewing in the state has never been better. There are so many good beers, just one cannot be singled out, he said.
“We’re really lucky,” he said. “I remember you couldn’t get good beer in the United States, let alone in Delaware. Now you don’t have to drive too many miles. We’re very fortunate.”
Mr. Medkeff said he expects his forthcoming book to be about 120 pages, available in many area bookstores and online, and feature a great number of photographs as well as a history of brewing.
He is looking for photos of old saloons and their employees. He hopes some Delawareans have old photos they can send him at
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Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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