Colonial Philadelphia: Beer was there

By Gregg Smith

How early an arrival did beer make in Philadelphia? Not surprisingly it was there from the very beginning. Ask most people around the country who settled Philadelphia and the answer is almost uniformly William Penn. However, when the colonists arrived beer was already there. Members of Penn's party were astonished to find a small village spreading along the shore. These were the Swede and Finn survivors of the failed outpost of New Sweden and it was fortunate indeed for the newcomers. Unlike the hardships suffered by the Pilgrims, this group would have crops and beer in reserve during their first winter.

Almost immediately the settlers began making beer out of supplies from the Nordic outpost. Generally, it is William Frampton who is credited as first brewer, his bakehouse doubling as a brewery. Writing of it in 1683 Thomas Paschall noted the quality. He felt he had tasted... " good bread and drank as good drink as ever I did in England." Of course commercial brewing of any consequence was the work of Penn himself, twenty miles upriver at Pennsbury manor. Penn wrote of its workings in 1685. "Our beer was mostly made from molasses which well boyld [sic], with Sassafras or Pine infused into it, makes tolerable drink; but now they make mault [sic]..."

On the arrival of the seventeen hundreds, only 18 years after the colony's founding, Philadelphia was enjoying the fruits of a well established brewing industry. That success was due in no small part to ethnic diversity, mainly a large German population. By 1700 with beer in hand the city surpassed both New York and challenged Boston as the cultural center of North America and later the city would show off its progress at the Continental Congress.

Typical of those attending the first Congress was John Adams. Upon his arrival he made haste for the location he knew all delegates would gather at 'The City Tavern'. We know this from his diary which is full of references to this notable establishment. He mentions the first appearance of Virginia delegates on September 2nd and how he, with cousin Sam, hurried to meet them at the City Tavern. Even then, big wigs, backrooms and beer were an all-American political combination.

When revolution broke out Philadelphia's status was acknowledged when it was named capital. In one of the infant government's first laws, inspired by the comfort of the taverns, the delegates addressed the matter of supplying the army with beer. They directed each soldier to receive a ration of at least a quart a day.

After the war the problem of a more workable government brought delegates back again. In May of 1787 the Constitutional Convention convened, and once again beer would play a major role.

The great diarist of the Constitutional Convention was James Madison of Virginia. His choice of quarters was the India Queen Tavern where there was always a beer at the ready, and it was in the tap room of the India Queen that a new form of government would be created on the evening of June 30, 1787. Up till then smaller states worried they'd be at the mercy of their more populous neighbors, and of course larger states were intent on maintaining their influence. But on that night Madison orchestrated a meeting between Roger Sherman of Connecticut and John Rutledge of Virginia. It was there, in the tap room, that the concept of the legislative branch of the United States was conceived. So it's not incorrect to say that the Senate and House of Representatives were born in an ale-house.

The framers of the Constitution surely realized the significance of what they accomplished. After the members solemnly signed the document, General Washington, who presided over the affair, noted in his diary "The business being closed, the members adjourned to the City Tavern."

Gregg Smith


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