A Brief History of Beer in Colonial America

A brief overview of the history of beer in Colonial America from the arrival of the Pilgrims through the Revolutionary War.

A Brief History of Beer in Colonial America

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Long before the Europeans colonized the North American continent, the Native Americans were already brewing beer. They crafted their brews made from maize, birch sap, and water. And when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock they shared their own recipe with the colonists.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The First Thanksgiving, 1621, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The Pilgrims and Beer

Those same Pilgrims may never have stopped at Plymouth Rock had their own supply of beer not run low.

The Pilgrims had planned on choosing a settlement that hosted a rich farmland and a temperate climate. But they ended up in New England and faced brutal winters with a land whose soil was too rocky. Why?

They chose to make landfall early due to a shortage of beer.

One of the Mayflower passengers wrote in his diary about their unexpected landing at Plymouth Rock.

“We could not now take time for further search… our victuals being much spent, especially our beer…”

Throughout human history, beer has been produced from various grains, but it’s been barley that’s most valued. (It’s quite possible that the word beer itself originates from an old Anglo-Saxon word baere, which means barley.)

But it was brewing with maize that the Native Americans taught their neighboring settlers and those early Americans probably didn’t run out of beer again. In fact, it wasn’t too long before small breweries began to pop up all over the colonies.

Sea Captains Carousing In Surinam, John Greenwood, 1755, Saint Louis Art Museum

Sea Captains Carousing In Surinam, John Greenwood, 1755, Saint Louis Art Museum

Beer in the Colonies

Almost as soon as the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont had been established, their governors immediately established breweries to meet the demand of their subjects. The first brewery of Colonial America was opened in Manhattan by the Dutch West India Company in 1632.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the legislature met in 1637 in order to set the price of beer. Following their deliberation, the new price was fixed to be “not more than one penny a quart at the most.”

Down south in the middle colonies, William Penn wrote that the beer from Pennsylvania was made from “Molasses… well boyled, with Sassafras or Pine infused into it.”

Vintage Examples of 18th Century English Pewter Tankards

Vintage Examples of 18th Century English Pewter Tankards

Colonial Americans were primarily drinking British-style ales. They used the term “small beer” to describe a home brew which typically had lower alcohol rather than a “strong beer” which was produced by the breweries.

The law in Colonial America established that beer was to be served only in half-pint, pint, or quart vessels. In the early years, the colonists commonly consumed their brews in a waxed leather tankard that was known as a “black jack”.

Later, beer was consumed from pewter tankards but when tin could no longer be imported from England, Americans could no longer produce their own pewter. Instead, they opted to melt down and recast the old pewter mugs that came from England.

The Founding Fathers and Beer

Sure, the framers of American Independence are known for their wisdom, their vision, and their courage. And they were also known to be lovers of beer.

Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and James Madison promoted the brewing industry in the colonies while George Washington operated a small brewery at Mount Vernon.

Brewmasters were being recruited across the pond from London, and by 1770, the American brewing industry was well established.

So much so that a number of our Founding Fathers wanted to boycott imported English beer. Maybe the Boston Tea Party could’ve been the Boston Beer Party.

It wasn’t long thereafter that Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence while knocking back brews at Philadelphia’s Indian Queen Tavern. (Later, after serving two terms as President, he experimented with brewing techniques during his retirement years at Monticello.)

George Washington, the Revolutionary War, and Beer

George Washington was known for many things, including battles with the British. But he also had to fight the Continental Congress… for beer.

George Washington at Princeton, James Peale, 1782, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Washington at Princeton, James Peale, 1782, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As Commander of the Continental Army, one of George Washington’s first actions was to proclaim that every soldier would receive a quart of beer with his daily rations.

However, as the Revolutionary War progressed, the supply of beer to the army was running low. Angrily, Washington fought the Continental Congress to get his troops’ rations restored.

Washington understood the importance of beer as he himself was an accomplished brewmaster. His own handwritten beer recipe is still on display the New York Public Library. Said to be superb by his peers, his recipe called for a heaping amount of molasses.

Once Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, most hostilities ended in North America. Not long after, the Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan served as the backdrop of George Washington’s famous farewell speech to his officers.

Beer in America Today

The Pilgrims, Colonists, and our Founding Fathers established a great brewing tradition in the United States. By the time America celebrated its 50th birthday in 1826, there were hundreds of breweries across the country. And though they all but disappeared during Prohibition, today’s patriotic imbibers sparked the modern craft beer revolution that has seen the number of breweries rise to over 7,000 nationally. It’s safe to say that beer is as important to Americans today as it ever was.

Whether you’re celebrating one of America’s holidays or just the next time you’re enjoying a cold one, give pause to consider those who came before that made the brew possible. And keep a lesson learned in the forefront of your mind. Unlike the Pilgrims and Washington’s thirsty troops, make sure you have plenty of beer on hand.



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