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RETURN OF A RENAISSANCE: A glance at the history of Jethro Thain, Wilmington’s first craft brewer

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Jethro Thain was Wilmington’s first craft brewer.

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In February of 1848, folks could go down to the Wholesale and Retail Grocery owned by J. Boland on South Water Street, three doors down from Market, and buy rectified whiskey, northern gin, domestic brandy, New England rum, and very superior old Monongahela whiskey. Or they could casually stroll two blocks over to Front and Orange streets and see Jethro Thain, the only brewer in town, about purchasing some of his cream and amber ale.

IN THE NEWS:  Old commercial ads and articles, as the one seen above from the Tri Weekly Commerical, tell the story of Jethro Thain, Wilmington’s first craft brewer in the mid-1800s. Courtesy photo

IN THE NEWS: Old commercial ads and articles, as the one seen above from the Tri Weekly Commerical, tell the story of Jethro Thain, Wilmington’s first craft brewer in the mid-1800s. Courtesy photo

Mr. Thain began selling what would now be considered craft beer in December of 1847. He took out ads in the Tri-Weekly Commercial, a Wilmington newspaper, to “respectfully inform the citizens” of his new undertaking. Tragically for Mr. Thain, and perhaps unfortunately for Wilmington, the city’s first brewery wouldn’t last.

Originally from Nova Scotia, Thain moved to New York City from Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, in his early 20s. He married his first wife in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 21 and began to raise a family. In 1838 Thain took advantage of an opportunity, partnering with Adam Collins to lease the High Street Brewery in Newark, New Jersey, from Thomas Morton. At the time Newark’s oldest brewery covered nearly an entire city block. His experience running the brewery almost certainly prepared him to open his own in Wilmington— a town he previously visited with his brother aboard a ship they owned together.

Thain moved to Wilmington in 1842, after the death of his first wife. Possibly coinciding with his arrival in the port city, he married Caroline Hutchings, another native New Yorker. His first appearance in Wilmington’s newspapers is through a lading bill in the Tri-Weekly Commercial for a ship arriving in Wilmington. The schooner R. W. Brown, sailing from New York, brought cargo for Jethro Thain on or before March 15, 1847. Again on July 31, the Tri-Weekly Commercial announced that merchandise had arrived for Thain. These ships may have carried the equipment, mash and lauter tuns, boiling kettle, and fermentation tanks that he would need to begin his brewing operation. However, Thain also worked as a cooper, or barrel maker, and may have built his own fermentation tanks.

Soon after these deliveries, on September 8, 1847, the Wilmington Chronicle announced, “Mr. Jethro Thain is putting up a Brewery in this town, for the manufacture of Ale, Beer [etc.].” Perhaps Thain saw an opening in the market for a locally brewed beer since merchants and wholesalers imported nearly all of the beer consumed in Wilmington.

By December Thain was selling cream and amber ale, brewer’s yeast and animal feed. He also announced his location at the corner of Orange and Front streets, close to where The Little Dipper stands today. On the same page as ads for choice Christmas presents, oranges and bananas, molasses, cider, sugar, timber, naval stores, soap, butter, and cheese, as well as slaves and overseers, Thain offered a beverage comparable to today’s craft beers. Indeed it may have been that Thain had a slave working in his brewery. In 1849 the New Hanover County Jail announced the arrest of Patsey, an enslaved woman hired out to Thain in January of that year. While certain things are thankfully different today, a market for locally brewed beer has returned.

Some items Thain sold are remarkably similar to today’s craft breweries. Of course, the beer is an obvious match. However, the spent grain, sugars already extracted and converted to ethanol—which Thain advertised to farmers as feed—still exists and is given to local farmers today. One modern difference comes with the sale of brewer’s yeast.

Thain sought to sell the abundance of yeast grown while fermenting each batch of beer to bakers. With his hand potentially in so many markets, it is not unreasonable to assume his brewery affected the lives of many Wilmington citizens. In fact 40 years later, when an Elizabeth City brewery claimed the status as the first North Carolina brewery, several of Wilmington’s older citizens wrote to the Wilmington Morning Star with memories of Thain’s “freshly brewed beer.”

It would seem larger breweries that exported their beers to Wilmington might have crowded out Thain’s product. Merchant William Neff, as well as wholesaler Howard and Peden’s, carried porter, stout, pale ale, and scotch ale brewed in New York and Philadelphia—cities better known than Wilmington for their beer.

Thain’s brewery and his life in Wilmington came to a heartrending end when, on April 7, 1848, Mary Thain, Jethro’s 14-month-old daughter, succumbed to Scarlet Fever. The bacterial infection, which usually results from strep throat, presented itself as a bright red rash on her face, neck and chest. Scarlet Fever killed many children before the use of antibiotics became common. The last ad in the Tri-Weekly Commercial for Thain’s cream and amber ale ran on January 16, 1848, just three months before his daughter’s death. The closing of his brewery and the death of his daughter may have prompted his move from Wilmington.

The next mention a newspaper made of Thain was a year after his daughter’s death, in March, 1850. The Wilmington Chronicle carried another death notice, “At Williamsburg, N.Y., on the 12th ult., Mrs. Caroline Thain, wife of Mr. Jethro Thain, late of this town, aged about 35 years.” According to census records, Caroline Thain died giving birth to another daughter, Carrie, named after her mother. Thain lived out the rest of his life as a successful farmer and cooper in Smithfield, North Carolina.

It has been said that history repeats itself but I don’t believe that is true. I’d prefer to quote Mark Twain:

“History never repeats itself, but the kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.”

Since Jethro Thain’s first beverage sold  170 years ago, there has been a resurgence in craft brewing locally. Several breweries—some producing the same styles of beer Thain once brewed—have opened in Wilmington since 2014, with even more expected to launch in 2016. They are part of a larger movement across the country as people trend toward local products, specifically smaller batch craft beers. Over the past few years, brewers have noticed the relatively open market in Wilmington, and like Thain, have sought to fill that hole with beer.

Almost certainly today’s craft beer scene began with dreams similar to those of a Nova Scotian from 1848. Beer lovers can only hope this renaissance in craft brewing in Wilmington will be a much happier rhyme than the attempt by Jethro Thain.

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