Brooke Barbier passed a beer menu around a bartop at the 21st Amendment pub on Beacon Hill. “It’s unlikely you could outdrink a colonist,” she told her seven Ye Olde Tavern tour participants with a grin. “But that’s not a challenge.”
The group had walked in off the street, where the early September humidity sizzled. Inside the 21st, a hobbit hole of a bar, everyone relished the AC near the door and formed a ring around the table, where Barbier doled out ciders and ales alongside factoids about Colonial Boston, like how it was once the number one distiller of rum.
“It was so easy to get drunk here,” she added, “and that’s gonna inform the violent mobs that we’ll talk about in a bit.”
Barbier, who originally hails from San Diego and holds a PhD in American history from Boston College, founded Ye Olde Tavern Tours a decade ago and has been leading groups around the city’s historic pubs since. Alcohol was a pillar not just in everyday colonial life, but in the foundation of the American Revolution — a relationship that features prominently in her upcoming biography of John Hancock titled “King Hancock: The Radical Influence of a Moderate Founding Father,” available Oct. 10.
The tours visit three tavern sites: 21st Amendment, then the former Cromwell’s Head (now an upscale bar called Scholars). Last is the Green Dragon near Faneuil Hall, a replica of the original tavern where Hancock united warring gangs in the cause against royal overreach in 1765. In between beer stops, guests see 10 historical landmarks, including King’s Chapel on Tremont Street and the 300-year-old building that once housed the Old Corner Bookstore but is now a fast-casual Mexican chain.
As is customary along the Freedom Trail, a man in full colonial garb — with blue tails and a black tricorn hat — stood a few feet away, highlighting landmarks to dozens of tourists through a microphone. Barbier, in her white denim skirt and gold hoop earrings, had no mic, so she simply projected: “Now I draw your attention to the historic Chipotle on your left.”
At Scholars, with another round in hand, the group listened as Barbier rattled off genuinely fun Founding Fathers facts, like how Sam Adams was once considered the “worst-dressed man in Boston,” with style so drab his friends held an intervention.
By contrast, Hancock, one of the best-known political leaders of his time, was considered best-dressed. Barbier’s interest in Hancock began with a curiosity about how he sustained popularity across social classes. The fabulously wealthy merchant wore his success on his literal sleeves, but still managed to capture the trust and respect of the lower orders, often aided by his generous supply of alcohol. Barbier writes that, at a time now remembered as purely radical, Hancock was a shrewd businessman who wielded moderation to appeal to people on all sides of the 18th-century political spectrum.
“Not everyone at this time was radical,” she said after the tour. “Radicals demanded a lot. They wanted you to sacrifice your business and turn on your neighbors and families.” Today, commentators imply that “everyone in the founding generation thought the same, got the same results, and rebelled in the same way.” But that wasn’t the case.
At the Green Dragon, over Shipyard Pumpkinhead ales with cinnamon sugar rims, she said one of her goals in writing “King Hancock” was to “humanize the Founding Fathers.”
After the group dispersed, she took a slug from her reusable water bottle (she doesn’t imbibe at work) and acknowledged that some people seek her tours mostly for the beer. They might have hated history growing up, or thought it was all just “dates and facts.” But history is “so much more than that,” she said.
“I like being able to show that on this tour,” she said between sips. “And the beer helps.”
Brooke Barbier and Harvard University Press will celebrate the launch of “King Hancock: The Radical Influence of a Moderate Founding Father” at Chattermilk Distillers on Oct. 11 from 6-8 p.m.