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,
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