History of Beer in America


By Michael Carver

Today we think of beer as a luxury item. Something to enjoy during our leisure times and beverage known and imbibed for its intoxicating properties. This was not always true. In fact, beer was once considered the most health drink to give to children and vital to survival. To understand this, you must first understand that centuries of dense urban living had left the water in Europe unsafe to drink. People of the 18th Century did not understand why but they did observe that people who drank water became ill with diseases like cholera and dysentery while those who drank tea and beer did not. We now know that it is the process of boiling during the brewing process that kills the microbes that cause disease.
One of the first buildings erected at Jamestown and at Plymouth was a brew house. In fact, the landing by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts rather
than their intended Virginia is largely attributed to the dwindling supplies of beer on the Mayflower. William Bradford, complained that he and other passengers "were hastened ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer." The reality was that Christopher Jones, the captain of the Mayflower, was keeping a sharp eye on his beer reserves and constantly assessing whether his men would have enough for the return voyage.
Every household in America would have brewed their own beer and this beer would have been consumed at every meal. Typically, each time they brewed, they would two beers: a "large beer" with a robust alcohol content and body for consumption during meals and by the master of the house, and a "small beer," made from the "second running’s" of the malt which have less sugar so this is a low alcohol beer for consumption while working and by children and slaves. Despite this widespread “homebrewing” culture, in the earliest days of British colonization, all the ingredients for beer imported from England. Settlers soon discovered that this was unsustainable and costly so barley and hops were soon cultivated in America creating not just a supply to make our own beer and spirits but also burgeoning export business.
This export business was given a boast by a very unlikely source. In the early 1700’s Philadelphia was a hotbed for pirates. Many notorious pirates freely roamed city streets and Governor William Markham even supported pirates who frequented the city's taverns and conducted business in its marketplaces. This laisse faire attitude ended however in 1717 when Edward Teach, AKA Blackbeard, captured several merchant vessels in the Delaware bay disrupting trade. Seeking an end to the disruption in trade, Pennsylvania Governor William Keith offered an award to anyone who could bring those pirates to trial.
When the Quakers of Pennsylvania choose not to engage in what would ultimately be a war with the pirates, Keith commissioned a warship from his own funds to patrol the coast and Keith issued a warrant for arrest the of Edward Teach in Philadelphia. An arrest was never made. The Royal Navy killed Blackbeard off the coast of North Carolina, and a South Carolina militia captured his first mate, Sted Bonnet, who was hanged. This left Governor Keith with a “white elephant.” The colony of Pennsylvania was no longer willing to support his small navy. Keith eventually traded the ship to the Penn family for an estate in tax arrears – Fountain Low, near Horsham. In order to pay off the rest of his debts, Keith built several malthouse at Fountain Low, the first in North America and began selling malt to colonial brewers who until then had to import their malt from England. Keith seized upon the idea of converting the Pennsylvania barley crop into a stable, exportable, commodity thereby launching a sustainable brewing industry in America. North American brewers would no longer be dependent upon imports from the mother country, something that will be very important in the 1760’s as trade relationships with England began to collapse.
Samuel Colt is credited for opening the first tavern or “ordinary” in North America in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Soon the various colonial legislatures up and down the seaboard, seeing the value of taverns on promoting trade and exchange of critical news, were offering inducements in the form of land grants and selective tax exemptions in order to encourage people to open taverns. Other than licensing, there were relatively few restrictions on who could open a tavern, and many were owned and operated by women and freedmen. Outside the church, the tavern was the most important institution in most towns.
Taverns were especially important to travelers as even a trip of 10-15 miles would demand an overnight stay in the 1700’s. Roads were primitive and travel was slow. Even those privileged enough to ride in a fine carriage could look forward to a bone-jarring, exhausting ordeal when they traveled outside the city. Most travelers needed to stop to rest and refresh themselves every 8-10 miles. This is why you see taverns every 3-5 miles all along the major thoroughfares like the King’s Highway.
With the creation of public taverns, however, the practice of brewing became more consolidated (although most estates still had both breweries and distilleries). Because of the rise of taverns, groups like the Sons of Liberty were able to meet, spread their views on Parliament and the King, and ultimately plant the seeds of rebellion. Little did Parliament know when they enacted the Tavern Act that they were setting the stage for the ultimate dissolution of the British Colonies in North America.
One of the most important beers in Colonial America was Spruce Beer. While many animals produce their own Vitamin C; humans do not. We must ingest our Vitamin C by eating uncooked vegetables and fruits. But these fresh foods are not during long sea voyages and in the depth of winter in northern latitudes. Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of Vitamin C. Early symptoms weakness, feeling tired and sore arms and legs. As scurvy worsens there can be poor wound healing, personality changes, and finally death from infection or bleeding.
When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree knows as “Annedda” or the “Tree of Life” was likely American Hemlock or White Cedar. Later settlers began brewing with the tips of spruce trees to get the same effect.
The British Army in North America learned about spruce beer from the Canadians. British forces in North America kept their troops healthy by issuing them spruce ale which was a brown ale with the infusion of spruce tips. This proved to be not only an effective tonic for preventing scurvy but, like the Huron beer, actually cured the disease in those had fallen ill. John Knox, who served as an officer in North America between 1757 and 1760 with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, remarked “this liquor being thought necessary for the preservation of the healths of our men, as they were confined to salt provisions, and it is an excellent antiscorbutic: it is made from the tops and branches of the Spruce-tree, boiled for three hours, then strained into casks, with a certain quantity of molasses, and, as soon as cold, it is fit for use.” When British troops were again involved in a campaign against the French in Nova Scotia in 1757, their commander, the Earl of Loudoun, had insisted on an allowance of five quarts of spruce beer per man each day.
After Fort Ticonderoga was captured by American forces from the British during the War of Independence, two enterprising sergeants in the 5th Continental Regiment from New Hampshire, William Chamberlin and Seth Spring, crossed Lake Champlain to gather boughs of spruce, brought them back and with two quarts of molasses and a “quantity of spicknard or Indian root added flavour, brewed a barrel of beer.” It was instantly popular with the other troops, and Spring was sent to Fort George to bring back two barrels of molasses to make more beer to sell. After six or seven weeks, Chamberlin recorded, he and Spring had made three hundred dollars
between them.
When George Washington learned of this, he ordered his quartermaster to provide the men “One Quart of Spruce Beer Pr day” and this order stood for the duration of the war. As a result of the Continental Army drinking copious quantities of spruce beer (often brewed only with molasses), scurvy was very rare in the Northern Army.
Beer in the colonies was much different what most people drink today. Being thousands of miles from their home, American brewers often did not have access to the same sorts of fermentable sugars as European brewers, Consequently, they turned to a broad array of sweet fruits and vegetables, including persimmons, spruce tips, ginger, molasses, pumpkins and most importantly corn. This led to American beers developing a character very much unlike their European counterparts.
Whether for health preservation or improved commerce. Beer in early America was consumed by nearly everyone and often considered healthier than water. It nourished our armies, prevented scurvy, may have been the elixir that fomented rebellion. No matter how you look at it, beer was critical to the founding of our great nation.


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