Brewing in Colonial America: Part I

By Gregg Smith

Early colonists of the North American continent had a fairly simple life. The typical immigrant from England had only three things on their mind: where to get food, how to secure shelter, and when would they get their next beer.

The most enduring picture of Englishmen coming ashore is the Pilgrims braving freezing surf to land at "Plymouth Rock". Well documented is their selection of this landfall not by choice, but based upon a dwindling beer supply. They, like those at the other new settlements set their first priorities on survival. With lean resources why did one group after another erect a brewhouse as one of their first structures? It was quite simple. They were Englishmen, and though they had ranged far abroad their thoughts, customs and habits never strayed far from home. Therein lies the answer.

Nearly every citizen of the day knew that drinking water could make you deathly ill. Ale drinkers were somehow spared this affliction and therefore most people soon substituted a frequent imbibing of ale over the dreaded curse of water. The boiling to make beer neutralized most of tainted water's ill effects, but this was long before anyone made the connection between boiling and sanitation. So people merrily went about the practice of drinking beer. Although the new world had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of pristine water, few if any would ever dream of drinking it. So it was that a brewhouse was an indispensable priority in each new settlement.

Most parties landing on American soil would bring with them the equipment and raw materials to begin immediate production of ale. Pity the colonists who didn't bring a brewer with them. Long suffering indeed were the first inhabitants of Jamestown, Virginia who had neglected to include a person skilled in this craft among their company. Their plight caused them to seek relief from England and they placed advertisements seeking "two brewers' to join them.

New York was a different story. Established by the Dutch, England took control in 1664 and found a network of canals which imitated the Dutch homeland. Manhattan island lacked an abundant supply of fresh water and even the brewers had difficulty obtaining enough water to produce adequate amounts for drinking. Surprisingly, despite all their canal digging, the Dutch had not sunk a single well in the village, a situation the new administrators soon remedied. As a resort, brewing rapidly expanded.

Ale and beer was a major dietary staple in the colonies. Literally everyone partook. It was the common item which spanned generations, from cradle to grave everyone drank beer. Infantswere fed beer and it was especially recommended for nursing mothers. Farmers, laborers, merchants, lawyers, and craftsman all drank beer. It was a common thread in all their lives and this democratic beverage would even play a role of mid-wife in the formation of government.

It was not uncommon for drinking to begin even before breakfast and it continued with every meal throughout the day. Seldom did anyone pass on the opportunity to down an ale. It was both the nourishment and refreshment common throughout that period's long work days. The quintessential colonist Benjamin Franklin described his earliest job in a print shop with frequent reference to ale. As a young apprentice, tending to the needs of the journeymen was one of his foremost duties. A right to take a portion of one's wages in ale was another custom these displaced Englishmen brought with them. Franklin's diary repeatedly mentions the times his work was interrupted as he was dispatched to fetch rations of ale. Although this job resulted in his early disdain for the beverage he soon developed a fondness. Even John Adams, first United States ambassador to the court of St.James was a beer drinker.

During the formative colonial years most of the brewing, and drinking was done in the home. Although the young villages would soon witness the establishment of commercial breweries it was in the home where most beer was produced. Until strains and methods for producing American barley were discovered most of the homebrewers obtained supplies imported from England. Hops, however were found growing wild and the transplanted Englishmen needed only a short walk in the forest to obtain them. Of course that would later change as demand far exceeded mother nature's supply.

This homebrewing even had its effect on colonial architecture. Most households added a small brew room onto their living quarters. The heat generated, and possible fires caused by the brewery/kitchen were in this way isolated from the remainder of the house. To this day those additions are clearly visible on the oldest American homes as a lower roof line jutting out from the main building.

A majority of brewing remained in the home for another reason. There was essentially no monetary system in the colonies, a problem which continued well after independence. The lack of money stifled not just commercial production of beer, it retarded most economic development.

It wasn't until decades had passed, and a stream of exports to England brought hard currency to the colonies that breweries appeared. When they did, it was in a form once again borrowed from England. This outlet would in itself stimulate the economy, encourage trade, advance development of the legal system and establish new social customs. But its application in the new world would forever change the face of North America. The next installment investigates the English institution which revolutionized life in North America, and it was because of beer.

Gregg Smith


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