In his decades-long bartending career, Joe Coryea has served drinks at rowdy dives and college pubs, so it was a bit of a shock when he found himself popping the caps off beer bottles in the dark wood-paneled kitchen of a Victorian mansion.
About 50 guests had assembled at the Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul for a lecture on Ignatius Donnelly, an outspoken 19th-century Populist congressman and early sci-fi novelist from St. Paul who was known for enjoying the occasional brewski. As bar scenes go, this one was pretty civilized.
"Everyone here is very sweet and respectful," said Coryea. "I don't have any problems with having to cut somebody off, let's put it that way."
The event was a History Happy Hour, one of a number of initiatives by the Minnesota Historical Society to blend a little alcohol into its celebrations of yesteryear.
Also on offer by the MHS are historical pub crawls in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It's an opportunity for the organization to cast a wider net and pull in younger people, groups and couples, as well as history lovers.
The happy-hour idea came from a survey asking people what would get them through the door. Adult beverages, said Jayne Becker, program supervisor at the Ramsey House, "scored very high on the list."
At the two-hour event, guests were free to wander through the parlor level of the ornate home of Minnesota's first territorial governor. A woman tickled an old-timey tune on a 140-year-old grand piano in the reception room, while in the foyer, a small buffet contained a vegetable platter and a tray of cheeseburgers. In the library, a sign asked guests to refrain from touching the artifacts, such as the embroidered S-shaped chairs. About an hour in, the group stood in the parlor for a short talk about Donnelly.
Dressed in business casual with drinks in hand, the guests looked natural in the cavernous entertaining room, put to the use for which it was originally intended. The house shed its museum formality and became a homey party venue, with floor-to-ceiling windows and flower-patterned wallpaper.
Sorry, no cabernet
The monthly event launched in April, and each has paired a historical discussion with a particular beverage. At this one, there was the beer (Summit Pilsener), plus white wine, gin and vodka. "We're obviously trying to keep it as clear or light-colored as possible," said Becker, with an eye toward the antique furnishings.
Michele Kerry, 34, brought her boyfriend to the party. A member of the Historical Society, Kerry said she often feels like the youngest person at events, but the mixed-age crowd heartened her.
"To be perfectly honest, if it had just been a lecture on Ignatius Donnelly on a Thursday night, I might not have come," said Kerry. "But I like history, and I like to drink. It's a cool thing."
The night before, she had joined a History Pub Crawl of St. Paul's West End, where six breweries operated within a square mile during the late 19th century. The two-hour trolley tour stops at the Mississippi River, swings by the imposing Schmidt Brewery and shuttles passengers to two historic watering holes.
Guide Shawn Hoffman, an actor and occasional Benjamin Franklin impersonator, enthused about the history of St. Paul's brewing traditions to passengers sitting two-by-two on the trolley's wooden benches. Outside the Glockenspiel, he explained that the 125-year-old Czech beer hall stayed in business during Prohibition by selling milk and soft drinks, although "in the basement you could get something a little stronger."
Between here and the next drinking stop, Mancini's steakhouse, the group got progressively looser, jeering loudly when Hoffman related an incident at the doomed Rausch Brewery, where a worker accidentally fell into a tub of hot beer and was boiled to death.
This is the fifth year of the Historical Society's pub crawls, and the second that Mel Davis and Tina Johnson have tagged along in honor of Johnson's birthday. The pair drank Tia Maria and Cokes at Mancini's, and Johnson won $150 in a pulltab lotto near the entrance to the restaurant's "Mad Men"-style lounge.
Davis said she would have done the tour without the alcohol, "but combining the two together is awesome. It's a good chance to have some nerdy fun."
The St. Paul tour is offered every Wednesday, and most dates sell out well in advance. This month it moves to downtown St. Paul while in August it will crawl Summit Hill.
The Mill City Museum in Minneapolis recently started a pub tour of Washington Avenue. The first dates last month both sold out, and the next is scheduled Aug. 7.
At the Ramsey House, upcoming happy hours will focus on the nearby Irvine Park and W. 7th Street neighborhoods, and vintage bicycling.
Coryea, the bartender, hopes to be there. He said the gig is one of his favorites, even though he didn't know who Gov. Ramsey was. "They didn't hire me because I was historically profound," he said, as he mixed another gin and tonic.
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4260