The Age of Exploration gave the modern world many gifts, including Thomas Harriott. Known as the British Galileo, Harriott traveled to the New World by order of Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. Sending him from Europe to the Caribbean and the British colonies carved out a place in time of such significance that any arbitrary turn would have forever altered the contemporaneity. society.
As a close friend and confidant of Sir Walter Raleigh, he helped with plans to establish the English colony on Roanoke Island. He drew the first telescopic map of the moon, predating Galileo’s observations. Harriott’s contributions to the sciences resulted in colleges and observatories named in his honor.
But Harriott himself would likely be more moved by how his descendant, Georgia Dunn Belk, chose to honor her 13 years.–great-grandfather of the generation: she named her beer after him.
“I discovered during the research stages of a book I’m writing about my family’s island culture that my father Thomas Harriott was the first to brew beer in North America,” says Belk. “I didn’t plan on being in the liquor business or founding the British West Indies Trading Company, the umbrella company, but little did I know that I would have this ancestral force propelling me forward, making it happen.”
Belk’s family were among the founders of what would become the Turks and Caicos Islands, where they preserved what is known as the White House on Salt Cay, one of the few Bermuda-style architectural wonders that remain. It’s the classic movie location Bahamas crossing starring Sterling Hayden, Madeleine Carroll and Dorothy Dandridge in 1941. Belk’s family was Harriott Salt Co. and drinking refreshing fermented ginger beer – a beer suitable for alcohol – after his long days sweeping up salt for export to the US for food preservation, before the industrial revolution.
Belk was keen to preserve a piece of this culture and started making her own fermented ginger beer. She brewed her first batch in 2013 in Grand Turk after purchasing brewing equipment to share with local bars, restaurants and grocery stores on the island.
“I made 10 cases at a time, fermenting hand-prepared products and packaging them with a portable bottler connected to a generator,” said Belk, who delivered it to an island 16 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide in its beginning. fermentation days. “My husband Bill loved it and asked me to make it for his family and friends in the Southeast.”
Belk stored the equipment in his girlfriend’s garage in Grand Turk and returned to the States in search of a brewery partner that would make it look exactly like those 10 boxes at a time. Shortly afterward, Belk received a recommendation from Bacardi for a brewery a two-hour drive from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Experts say it takes five people two years to brew the first batch of beer for the market due to permit and distribution requirements — not to mention sales and marketing. But within two years, Belk was selling his beer in Harris Teeter and exporting it back to the Turks and Caicos Islands.
“I wanted to preserve as much of our island culture as possible and that included the drinks consumed by my ancestors,” Belk said. “Drinking ginger beer on the islands is like drinking French wine in Paris and this cultural history inspires me.”
Today, Belk has four drinks in retail stores—Harriott’s Islander Ginger BeerHarriott’s Lemon Mimosa, Harriott’s Mango Mimosa and now Harriott’s Orange Turmeric Beer, which she debuted last month in the Mid-Atlantic and Carolinas, including Thomas Harriott’s former stronghold, Tidewater, Virginia.
Spending months on the road, Belk races the roads in her silver Nissan Xterra, which she calls her carriage. She drives from town to town, walking to grocery stores and gourmet markets. Once she arrives at each store, Belk sets up a table, serving 30-gram samples of the amber liquid to the customers she adores.
Belk could have chosen an easier vocation. Having preserved her ancestral home in the Turks and Caicos Islands, she could simply relax, drinking libations every day instead of preparing them. She was press secretary for US Congressman Fred Grandy from Iowa (yes, that Fred Gandy, star of the love boat) and a United Nations postgraduate fellow between her two postgraduate years. Once upon a time, she worked as an assistant chief of staff to the mayor of San Francisco. Her larger-than-life husband is the charismatic William “Bill” Belk, eldest grandson of William Henry Belk, founder of Belk department stores. Carolina’s own iconic lineage is a door opener. This begs the question, why with such familiar firepower would Belk choose to become a brewer?
“At first it was a struggle, and eight years later it still is, but looking back I can see how the pieces fell into place and lined up for me in a challenging industry,” Belk said. “The success came because it wasn’t about me, but about giving my customers a meaningful experience, from the beer aisle at their local store.”
Belk is very hands-on, choosing all the ingredients for the drinks. She makes the trip to sample each batch of beer before shipping it to stores. Belk’s Xterra is a far cry from the ship that Thomas Harriott sailed at the behest of the British monarchy, but it comes in handy when Belk delivers 1000 pounds of fresh ginger to be brewed by hand, replicating the traditional knife and chopping board for his beer.
“I love sharing the Harriott family legacy with my clients, so the long hours to make it happen are worth it,” says Belk. “Beer brings us together a lot after we split up.”
Belk remains fascinated by the origins of ginger when the spice trade connected Asia to the western continents, followed by advances in sea travel that extended trade routes across the Atlantic. This has helped her face pressure from the industry, refusing shortcuts, a la ‘natural aroma’ and instead brewing real ginger beer like the one that nurtured her ancestors.
Those choices were worth it. Historic destinations including Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello and Mt. Vernon, they took Belk’s beer. The head of the US Department of State’s Office of Protocol has served in diplomatic reception rooms as the best of his kind in the country. Belk, a lifelong history buff, even joined the ranks of Martha Jefferson, who brewed beer in Monticello to make the brackish water safe to drink.
“I got teary-eyed when I walked into the State Department and saw Harriott’s Islander Ginger Beer served next to the table where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence,” Belk said.
If only Thomas Harriott could see the culmination of a 500-year-old expedition, because of one woman’s determination to keep her memory alive beyond herself.
“We are all on the shoulders of giants and the motivation for doing this is my admiration, respect and gratitude for those who came before us,” said Belk. “Because Thomas Harriott left such a huge mark on all of our lives, it feels like a fitting tribute.”
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