Brewing In Colonial America. One of the earliest orders of business by colonists to any new land has generally been, once food and shelter have been reasonably secured, the generation of some kind of fermented beverage. Native fruits, grapes, or berries might engender the production of wine, but as malt is both portable and stable, the materials for making beer can be brought along for rapid utilization, especially when the colonists themselves are from lands where beer is brewed. Given a scarcity of evidence by the earliest presumed beer-drinking explorers of the New World, the Norse in the 11th century, and the assumption that Spanish settlements in Florida would likely have centered on the pressing of the local muscadine grapes for such refreshment, we must move first to the English colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts for the dissemination of Old World brewing culture.
Just the same, it seems to have taken some time for the settlers in the Virginia colony of Jamestown to produce their own beer. Following the exhaustion of supplies of the English beer brought along on the voyage of 1606–7, the Jamestown settlers were reduced to drinking only water and even to trading essential tools with incoming sailors for the beer they held onboard. In 1609 the Governor and Council of Virginia advertised for brewers to come to the colony, and even into the 1620s a lack of decent beer was decried. Finally, in 1629, John Smith reported in England that the colony boasted two brewhouses and produced beer made both of barley malt and malt made from the native corn.
In landing at Plymouth on Cape Cod in December of 1620 instead of along the Hudson River as planned, and purportedly because of dwindling beer supplies, William Bradford’s words have become legendary: “For we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer …”
In Massachusetts as in Virginia the self-generated production of beer took time to become established (at least on a scale larger than home or farmhouse brewing), with orders for equipment to be sent from England appearing in the early 1630s, and the licensing of commercial brewers following a few years later. Malt was generally imported, but in 1640 an address of “Maulsters (maltster’s) Lane” was recorded in Charlestown (now part of Boston). It is interesting to note that laws remain active today in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts linking brewing with the cultivation of barley. Hops were discovered growing wild, but were neither gathered nor cultivated in either of the English colonies in quantities sufficient to entirely supplant either importation or alternative.
The incentive to produce beer from scratch in the colonies was great. Beer imported from England took up valuable space aboard ships, and often was not fit to drink after voyages lasting months under less than optimal storage conditions. Actual deaths were ascribed to the consumption of spoiled beer, but given the anti-pathogenic property of any alcoholic beverage—a blessing in areas where water supplies are dubious—it is most likely that the evidence linking bad beer with fatality was circumstantial. Imported ingredients for making beer were also expensive and in short supply. The result was a certain amount of homespun improvisation of ingredients for both fermenting and flavoring. A substantial attempt was made to establish maize malt as an alternative to that of barley; in 1622 John Winthrop Jr presented a paper to the Royal Society on the malting of maize. Molasses figured prominently in the fortification of brewing worts; also employed were peaches, persimmons, Jerusalem artichokes, peas, pumpkins, and even corn stalks. Spruce is often mentioned as a flavoring and preservative.
Modern craft brewers might find familiar—at least in spirit—the list of alternative fermentables ascribed to colonial brewers, particularly pumpkin. As popular and widespread as its use has become in the fall offerings of many brewers, from the smallest to the largest, it is resonant to mark its use in some of the earliest American-produced beers. Contrary to emerging fully formed from the brow of modern ingenuity, today’s “Imperial Chocolate Pumpkin Porter” and “Ginger Pumpkin Pilsner” have their roots in colonial resourcefulness. Pumpkins grew wild in the colonies and when blended with malt, pumpkin starches could easily be broken down into sugars in a mash.
At about the same time as the English settlers were finding their feet in Massachusetts and Virginia, the Dutch were establishing outposts in Port Orange (now Albany, New York), Port Nassau (now Camden, New Jersey), and most notably in New Amsterdam, later to be known as Manhattan. Within several years both breweries and maltings were established in the Dutch towns, employing barley and hops grown in the New World. By the 1640s Dutch brewers and maltsters were exporting their wares to the other colonies, among them Virginia, where tobacco had supplanted other crops as more profitable, and indeed served as a currency alternative to cash. The mid- Atlantic and southern colonies, including Maryland, Georgia, and the Carolinas, also relied on imports of beer and its materials from the north for similar reasons. Such hops as were not imported from abroad were likely to come from New England or what would now be designated upstate New York. More perhaps than the beer produced in the other, more provincial colonies, the Dutch-produced beer of New Netherland was widely praised for its quality.
New Amsterdam, in addition to growing into the first American cosmopolitan city, was the first real New World center of brewing and its culture. Several breweries were established in the 1640s and 1650s, and by the time the English took over the colony in 1664 there were at least ten serving a population of some 1600. A number of these brewers became wealthy and influential men, active in government. Of the so-called nine men that peti- tioned against the autocratic Peter Stuyvesant for municipal government of the city, four were brewers. As the Dutch expanded their territories farther outside of the city, plans for new settlements invariably included a brewery. Brewing families arose, the families Bayard and Rutgers notable among them, the latter producing four generations of brewers.
It is important to note that it was in the cities that brewers made the greatest progress toward commercial viability. A robust tavern culture existed to serve the population in New Amsterdam and in Boston, and since these cities were both seaports, there were ships to outfit with beer. Military garrisons also needed beer.
Philadelphia became the next great American brewing city, presaged by William Penn’s land grant of 1680 from Charles II and his plans for the city, which included facilities for brewing. Not long after his arrival in 1682 Penn chronicled progress in the colony, describing a beer made with molasses, sassafras, and pine; recognizing the growing prominence of malt beer; and making mention of a local brewer, William Frampton. By the century’s end there were several malt houses and breweries, as the population of the city overtook that of New York. Beer from Pennsylvania was exported to the southern colonies, and even onward to Barbados.
It may seem incongruous to the modern sensibility that religious leaders central to the establishment of the earliest colonies of the New World would so heartily encourage the development of brewing. Whether by the New England Puritans or Pennsylvania Quakers—even the Baptists of Roger Williams’s Rhode Island—beer was embraced as a near-necessity of life and culture. Initially it was no doubt viewed as a safer bet than any questionable water supply. But it was largely in contrast with spirits—which of course led more quickly to drunkenness and its problems—that beer’s relative virtue lay. Spirits took up less physical space than beer on incoming vessels and didn’t spoil, and hence were more easily imported. Spirits could also be more readily manufactured from many agricultural bases. Without beer as a moderate option it was feared that drunkenness would become rampant. In fact various leniencies of taxation were employed toward beer in order to favor its production and sale over stronger liquors, as well as to encourage greater independence from foreign sources of supply. This distinction would take on greater importance as the gradually coalescing colonies approached their bid for autonomy from the Crown.
As one of the merely domestic arts, brewing was practiced in the homes and farmsteads of the New World by many who settled there, without distinction of national origin. The commercial breweries that arose were often first established and run by either Englishmen or Dutch, with an occasional Scottish, Irish, or German name appearing. The Germans of course would have their day as the dominant New World brewing immigrants in the 19th century as territories farther west were settled, but prior to the American Revolution their numbers were relatively small. Early on brewers were immigrants themselves, but, as in other apprenticeship trades, arrangements were struck for the peopling of the brewers’ ranks. By the mid-17th century much of the first-hand brewing culture was home grown.
While Philadelphia and New York boasted brewing dynasties and imposing production facilities, the practitioner of the brewing-related arts probably best known to posterity from pre-Revolutionary times is Samuel Adams of Boston. This is for various reasons, not least among them the modern beer from Boston Brewing Co. bearing his name. Variously credited with having been a brewer, evidence suggests that he malted grains rather than brewed beer on his way to a celebrated political career. Adams published remarks in the form of advertisement that served both his callings, urging the embrace and consumption of American-produced beers to the exclusion of foreign offerings. This early version of the now familiar “buy American” refrain carried increasing weight with the sundry indignities of English taxation that began to be heaped upon the colonists.
For in fact the English needed money. The conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 left resources diminished and the American colonists with a feeling of relative safety from the French to the North. They were hence extremely reluctant to submit to the new taxation imposed by the British, some of it having directly to bear on the brewing and tavern trades. The back and forth of the Stamp Act of 1765, the various embargoes on British shipping enacted by the colonists (1765, 1770, and 1774), and other impositions of taxation and dictatorial reaction by the British both encouraged home generation of goods (malt and hops among them) and hastened the onset of war.
With the interruption of supplies of beer and the materials for brewing from abroad, it became even more necessary to brew beer with American-produced agricultural goods. Several recipes have come down to us chronicling the use both of traditional ingredients and alternatives perhaps more readily available. The most famous is a recipe for small (weak) beer transcribed in the diary of George Washington while serving in the Virginia militia (1737), which today rests at the New York Public Library.
Efforts have been made in recent years to recreate the beers of the colonial period. In September of 2005 a judging panel at the Great American Beer Festival selected a recipe by brewer Tony Simmons for Poor Richard’s Ale, a beer to be brewed nationwide by several dozen commercial breweries in celebration of the tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth.
It is to be assumed that the beers produced commercially up to and into the Revolutionary years would have been executed with greater consistency and mastery than these essentially home recipes, which at times call for things such as the use of a blanket to shelter a fermenting brew and keep it warm. It was as true then as it is today that a brewer of bad or inconsistent beer does not long stay in business, and there is ample evidence of continuity where the brewers of the pre-Revolutionary cities are concerned. The beers produced were certainly ales, of varying color from pale to dark, with hopping rates addressing balance and preservative effect rather than strength of flavor. With the use of wooden fermentation vessels it is a certainty that a flavor component derived from resident microflora would have been present alongside that imparted by the pitching of yeast, or “barm,” all the more reason for quick sale and consumption, especially in the case of beers of lesser strength. Spent yeast and grains were also sold by brewers as secondary products, presumably primarily for cattle feed.
Nor were the colonies untouched by brewing fashion imported from the mother countries. Porter as a distinct style began to be brewed around 1720 in London, and while it never enjoyed the degree of popularity in the colonies as it did at home, it was brewed and consumed then as now by its loyal adherents. Perhaps the most historically notable porter brewer of the age was Robert Hare of Philadelphia, an immigrant himself from London, owing to his frequent supply of beer to George Washington, who pronounced it the best porter in that city. Washington procured his beer from Hare by way of Clement Biddle, a merchant whose role as a middleman prefigured the modern use of agents and distributors. So devoted was Washington to Hare’s porter that on hearing of the brewery’s destruction by fire in around 1790 he extended instructions to procure what stores might remain.
Once independence was an accomplished fact, brewers in the various colonies participated heartily in ratification celebrations, held for the most part on July 4, 1788. As professional revelers of a sort their contributions were a natural outgrowth of their wares, but in many cases their political activities prescribed enthusiasm in the triumphs of the fledgling nation. The parade in Philadelphia, for example, included brewers whose hats were decorated with barley sheaves and hop vines, and who bore a standard with the simple motto “Home brew’d is best.”
Smagalski, Carolyn and Rich Wagner. Beer historian brews colonial ale. http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art64142.asp (accessed April 1, 2011). Smith, Gregg. Brewing in colonial America. http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/greggsmith1.shtm (accessed April 1, 2011). Smith, Gregg. Beer in America: The early years 1587–1840. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 1998.
Smagalski, Carolyn and Rich Wagner. Beer historian brews colonial ale. http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art64142.asp (accessed April 1, 2011).
Smith, Gregg. Brewing in colonial America. http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/greggsmith1.shtm (accessed April 1, 2011).
Smith, Gregg. Beer in America: The early years 1587–1840. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 1998.