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Beer & American History
Beer was in America long before the first Europeans got lost on their way to India. Native Americans made it from maize, birch sap and water. A recipe they would share with the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock.
The Pilgrims and Beer
If the Mayflower had been carrying more beer, it might never have landed at Plymouth Rock.
When the Pilgrims sailed for America, they hoped to find a place to settle where the farmland would be rich and the climate congenial. Instead, they found themselves struggling with the stony soil and harsh winters of New England – all due to a shortage of beer.
An entry in the diary of a Mayflower passenger explains the unplanned landing at Plymouth Rock: “We could not now take time for further search… our victuals being much spent, especially our beer…”
That may have been the last time America’s settlers ran short of beer. They soon learned from their Indian neighbors how to make beer from maize. Local breweries sprouted up throughout the colonies, and experienced brewmasters were eagerly recruited from London. By 1770, the American brewing industry was so well established that George Washington, Patrick Henry and other patriots argued for a boycott of English beer imports. The Boston Tea Party almost became the Boston Beer Party.
William Penn wrote that the beer in his colony was made of “Molasses… well boyled, with Sassafras or Pine infused into it.” The taste of such a concoction must have been interesting, especially from the popular drinking vessel of the period: a waxed leather tankard known as a “black jack.”
In 1637, the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony met to fix the price of beer. After lengthy deliberation, the new price was announced: “not more than one penny a quart at the most.”
All that, of course, is history. But the enjoyment of beer remains as important to Americans today as it was to our colonial forebears. And America’s brewers are proud to contribute to that enjoyment.
The next time you’re enjoying a beer, you might think about the poor Pilgrims who had to settle for the bitter conditions in New England when they might have sailed on to Miami Beach. The moral is clear: always make sure you have enough beer on hand.
By law, beer in Colonial America had to be served in standard half-pint, pint or quart vessels. When tin could no longer be imported from England, American pewter production stopped. It then became fashionable to melt down and recast old pewter mugs from England.
While beer has been made from many different grains through the ages, barley has proven to be the world’s most valued brewing ingredient. In fact, the word beer itself probably comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word baere, meaning barley.
Beer and George Washington
He fought the British for independence and Congress for beer.
One of George Washington’s first acts as Commander of the Continental Army was to proclaim that every one of his troops would receive a quart of beer with his daily rations.
As the Revolutionary War progressed, however, supplies of beer dwindled. And an irate Washington had to do battle with another opponent – the Continental Congress – in order to have his troops’ rations restored.
Perhaps Washington’s interest in beer had something to do with the fact that he was an accomplished brewmaster himself. The father of our country maintained a private brewery at Mount Vernon. And his handwritten recipe for beer – said by his peers to be superb – is still on display at the New York Public Library.
Inspired by the Boston Tea Party, colonial rebels met in New York’s Fraunces Tavern to plan a similar raid on British ships in the Hudson River. After the surrender of Cornwallis, the same tavern was the scene of George Washington’s famous farewell speech to his officers.
Nor was George Washington the only founding father with a passion for beer. Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and James Madison eagerly promoted America’s fledgling brewing industry. And Thomas Jefferson was said to have composed the first draft of the Declaration Independence over a cold draft at the Indian Queen tavern in Philadelphia.
These great men would no doubt be pleased that the enjoyment of beer remains an American tradition to this day. And America’s brewers are proud to be an important part of that tradition.
We hope you find an occasion to enjoy a beer in the very near future. And when you do, we suggest you gather your friends and drink a toast to George Washington. The man who was first in war, first in peace, and almost certainly first in the esteem of his thirsty troops.
Colonial Americans used the term “small beer” to describe home brew which was generally lower in alcohol than commercially prepared “strong beer.” George Washington’s personal recipe called for a generous measure of molasses.
Founding Fathers and Beer
Celebrate America’s Holidays the way the men who started them did: with a glass of beer.
It is widely known that the framers of American Independence were men of vision, courage and wisdom. Less well known is the fact that they were also great imbibers of beer.
Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and James Madison vigorously promoted the brewing industry in the colonies. George Washington operated a small brewery at Mount Vernon. And during the Revolutionary War, he made sure his troops received a quart of beer each day. In their fondness for beer, these great men were only following an American tradition that was already well established. No sooner had the colonies of Pennsylvania, Vermont and New York been founded, than their governors established breweries to provide their subjects with refreshment. Since the first of these was built in 1623, it can be seen that the practice of enjoying beer in America is older than America itself.
America observed its 50th birthday on July 4, 1826. By that time there were already hundreds of breweries to help the new nation celebrate.
Thomas Jefferson wrote much of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia’s Indian Queen Tavern. Later, after two terms as President, he experimented with brewing techniques during his retirement years at Monticello.
Our founding fathers would no doubt be pleased at the role beer has come to play in American life today. It is as much a part of our Fourth of July and Memorial Day celebrations as the sound of a parade or the smell of a barbeque.
From the eastern seaboard to the Pacific coast, it’s a traditional part of a family reunion, a day at the beach, or an afternoon at the ballpark. And the traditional reward for mowing the lawn, clipping the hedge, or cleaning the garage.
So the next time a national holiday provides an occasion to celebrate with a beer, why not toast the men who made it all possible.
The Beer Institute
440 First Street NW
Washington, DC 20001