Brewing in Colonial America: Part II

By Gregg Smith

English colonists in North America had to brew their own beer. There was no other choice. If there was an opportunity to purchase a commercially produced beer it would be from a supply brought over from England. This was out of the question for most colonists, for there was little money available to make such a purchase.

It wasn't until the colonies began exporting goods back to England when beer sales rose to any significant level. It was iron, flour, and fur which brought in both beer and hard currency to North America. But even then both were usually restricted to the immediate area of coastal towns.

Beer drinking within the interior was limited to homebrew supplemented by another transplant from England. Apple trees were not native to the new world but they grew well in the temperate climate. As the trees flourished households took to producing an acceptable alternative to beer, and the cider flowed. Indeed it was an early favorite among the settlers and would remain so into the beginning of the 19th century. Although it was both easy to produce and popular it was, after all, a substitute. For their first love, ale.

As time passed the Royal Governors grew concerned over the lack of economic activity and development in the crown's interior lands. Merchants might be content limiting trade to the coastal region but it was certainly no way to build and hold an empire. Something was needed which would encourage travel and trade to undeveloped, rural sections. They found the solution in English history. Centuries earlier trade in England was accelerated when it became easier for traders and merchants to travel, meet others, and conduct business in comfortable surroundings. This wasn't supplied by any improvement in transport, it was through development of the venerated English tavern. Taverns provided a convenient place to stay when traveling and served as a focal point of trade. Thus people expanded the range of their business and taverns became centers of commerce. As a result tavern keepers were among the wealthiest members of any community.

So well did this work in England it seemed only fitting to apply the same solution to the troubled economy of the Americas. Representatives of the crown soon directed each community open a tavern or inn to tend the needs of travelers. They knew such action would bring new inhabitants to the undeveloped areas and right they were. As taverns were built trade increased, and as trade brought in money more taverns were constructed. Even areas with little currency established taverns to function ascommercial centers in a barter system. There farmers could trade produce for a supply of ale. In some areas of southern colonies there was a set rate of exchange which dictated the amount of tobacco traded for a barrel of ale. Indeed the colonies could almost be thought of as existing on a beer based monetary system.

The colonial administrators must have heartily congratulated themselves over the wisdom of their economic development plan. It was simple to implement, quick to show a return and required virtually no investment from England. If that weren't enough the taverns also provided a side benefit not previously considered by the governors, but instrumental to implementing the policy of the crown. A system to administer law.

There was a only a small budget for public works and government buildings in the colonies were virtually non-existent. Still, it was essential for any effective colony to be firmly rooted in the practice of English law. The method used to bring government to outlying areas was a system of traveling jurists. As they moved from town to town settling disputes and administering justice it became known as "riding the circuit" and the authority of the crown traveled with them. What better way to administer the law than in the center of a community and in a building which could be used with no expense. Thus taverns were used to hold the local court. It made riding the circuit a bit more appealing and further established the tavern as a center of any rural community. Overall it was another triumph for the Royal Governors.

The role of the tavern as both a legal and commercial center had unparalled impact on colonial development. The growth and conduct of a region's affairs were thus tied to the tavern and it was not long until it was also the social focus of a region. Travelers invariably brought news and through this system the colonials maintained contact with the mother country.

All this activity increased the demand for commercially brewed beer. But as the number of taverns increased it became impractical to maintain a supply from England. Colonial breweries filled the void inhibited only by a lack of brewing's raw materials. With time this too would change with barley fields and hopyards appearing throughout the colonies.

As trade with England and the monetary system further developed taverns solidified their standing as a community center. No town of any size would be without one. Though the colonial administrators were pleased with the results events soon turned their opinion.

Gregg Smith


beer in america
[ Order ]

beer drinkers bible
[ Order ]

beer enthusiasts guide
[ Order ]

More stories
by Gregg Smith