Brewing in Colonial America: Part IV

By Gregg Smith

Officials of the Crown skillfully developed the interior sections of the North American continent through a variety of plans designed to stimulate economic growth. None of these enjoyed greater success than the encouragement of rural communities to open local taverns. The effectiveness was almost beyond what any of the governors could have hoped. The taverns eased the arduous travel of merchants, increased trade, provided a social outlet for the community, served as a distribution center for news, and brought the legal system to formerly isolated "backwoods" areas.

Among the other benefits of having a tavern a community benefitted from its essential role in providing a means of common defense. In colonial times it was the ordinary citizenry which banded together into an armed force. The "militia" was in effect a volunteer army. In times of Indian raids or threats from French Canada the militia was called out to protect the frontier settlements. The problem with relying on a militia was inconsistency in both ability and experience of its members. Regular army officers unfortunate enough to be shuttled off to colonial posts viewed the militia ranks with skepticism at best and usually with scorn. However, with problems of its own back on the continent, the powers in London were reluctant to station a standing army of any size in the america's.

Thus it was up to the colonists to provide their own defense. The plan seemed simple enough, except that when faced with a choice, most militia members avoided the supposedly mandatory training days. Service in the militia didn't pay, so why go drill. The attitude seemed to be an unspoken "Well of course I'll take this serious...when I'm faced with certain death." This was exactly the attitude which nearly drove regular officers mad. An army is ineffective and subject to slaughter if it cannot maneuver with speed and discipline in the field. Neither pleas nor demands to the royal governors could bring about satisfactory conditions. The frontier farmers and traders simply wouldn't show up for training.

Finally, the administrators turned to a solution which successfully solved other colonial problems - - beer. Need to turn out the population of a region? Easy, underwrite a few barrels of beer at the local tavern. It was an immediate success. Able bodied "militiamen" literally appeared out of the colonial woodwork. It was amazing what an effect a little free ale could inspire.

With the aid of free ale it wasn't long until "Drill Day" became a not to be missed social function of the North American frontier. The long days of hard work carving a farm out of wilderness meant isolation and the chance to meet neighbors in arelatively relaxing setting, with free beer, was too much to pass up. Soon the wives and families wanted in on the event and people started to show up early in order to pursue a little extra socializing before the drill. Beer flowed freely, sometimes to the detriment of the next day's drill. Thus, despite initial success in calling out the volunteers to drill, officers of the regular army were once again driven back to near insanity. Was this throng uncontrollable? Eventually they came upon a solution, don't release the free beer until the training was complete. In New York a particularly well conducted drill so pleased Governor Crosby he expressed his gratitude by purchasing 12 barrels of ale for the troops.

While this provided a bit of a remedy, a larger problem was brewing. The citizen soldiers were learning a few things. First, they could function on their own. Second, the militia junior officers were learning to command. They were also learning to both assemble and operate as a unit out of a central point, the tavern. No coincidence the earliest organized protest to English rule came from the tavern room. It was were political dissent was born and from which the activity of disobedience to the crown originated.

Indeed, it was from a tavern that a mob spilled to provoke the Boston's British garrison into what became known as "the Boston Massacre". Fortunately for the garrison, beer drinker John Adams successfully defended their actions in the trial which followed. Later, John's cousin, and revolutionary protagonist, Samuel Adams, directed another group reinforced with the liquid courage of beer. From a planning and command post in Boston's Green Dragon Tavern they launched a protest to taxes which became known as "Boston Tea Party". Their attack on British cargo ships was in the thin disguise of Indians, and once at the docks they ransacked the tea, throwing it overboard. Such disregard for property, at the hands of an organized mob, pushed the crown to the limits of its tolerance and set the stage for military action.

When the two sides met in Lexington, Massachusetts the opening of hostilities took place in exactly the fashion in which the militia was trained. Their leader Captain Parker established his headquarters in the nearby Buckman Tavern.

Thus part of the solution to development of the colonies, by encouraging the growth of taverns, eventually led to the end of British colonial America.

Gregg Smith


beer in america
[ Order ]

beer drinkers bible
[ Order ]

beer enthusiasts guide
[ Order ]

More stories
by Gregg Smith