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
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... "...as 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