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Beer And America
It came over with the Mayflower and stayed on to be the unchallenged drink of democracy.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
In the history of American beer, the modern period begins on the spring day in 1882 when the short-lived American Association of baseball teams opened for business. The establishment-leaning National League, aiming for a tonier clientele, had recently doubled ticket prices and banned gambling, Sunday playing, and—most important—beer. Franchise owners in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and other brewing centers refused to accept the new rules and seceded from the league. Several of them were brewers themselves, and they had learned to count on a sizable increase in collective thirst on home-game days. So, banding together, they formed the American Association. Dubbed the Beer and Whiskey League by the competition, it scorned the toffs and made its pitch directly to the average workingman, keeping the ticket price an affordable 25 cents, playing on the Sabbath, his only day off, and serving what had already become his signature drink.
Though there were strange days ahead for the mostly German-born beer barons, here, in this heady mix of beer, baseball, and fun, were most of the elements that would come to define beer’s role in the American living room and the American imagination: its connection to sports and other places men go to escape and to bond; its connection to leisure, especially of the American working class; and its implicitly rebellious, nose-thumbing attitude toward the tastes and rules of social “betters” and other authority figures.
Beer had been part of America from its first settlement by Europeans. Or, more precisely, the lack of it had. The Mayflower, which was headed south, had to make an unplanned stop near wintry Plymouth because, as William Bradford noted in his journal, “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere.” (Their hogsheads of ale, a crucial provision on long voyages since water would not keep, had been maintained by the ship’s cooper, John Alden, who decided to stay on in the New World.) Forced to drink fresh water, always a cause for nervousness in those days, one colonist, with either pride or surprise, found that “those that drink it be as healthful, fresh, and lusty as they that drink beer.” Farther south in Virginia there was more bitterness about being stranded without good English ale: “There remained neither taverne, [nor] beer house,” wrote a new immigrant. “Had we beene as free from all sinnes as gluttony, and drunkennesse, we might have been canonized for Saints.”
But beer was food, and soon the colonists began to brew their own, from malted barley imported from England or from malted local corn. Small beer, weak in malt taste and alcohol and meant for immediate drinking, was a standard beverage at meals. Table beer, ship’s beer, and strong beer were more powerful brews meant for keeping. Everyone drank beer. Gentlemen kept barrels in their cellars next to their wine. Harvard College had its own brewhouses, and students were served dinner and supper and two “bevers” between; morning bever was bread and a pint of beer. In 1648 an ailing niece of Gov. John Winthrop, Jr., praised her husband to him: “I am sory he shold sofer soe much for me he drinks water that I might drink bere.”
Despite all the cultural factors in their favor, Englishstyle ales, as well as the Dutch-style beers brewed in New Amsterdam, were quickly eclipsed by other beverages as the settlements grew. Beer couldn’t keep long, and it wasn’t stable enough to be shipped over the vast spaces and widely variable climates of the New World without going flat and sour, so it was commercially viable only for local consumption in a few towns. Some farmers turned to cider for everyday drinking, but mostly people drank rum, distilled from cheap West Indian molasses, and then, as American grain fields developed, whiskey. Both rum and whiskey, which could be shipped anywhere and kept indefinitely, became very, very popular.
So popular, in fact, that by the late eighteenth century American leaders were actually strategizing about how to promote the making and drinking of beer. One reason was patriotic: England was doing a thriving export business in beer to the colonies, while suppressing the development of American industry. The colonists retaliated by boycotting English beer and buying American. “It is to be hoped,” wrote the maltster Sam Adams in 1750, “that the Gentlemen of the Town will endeavour to bring our own OCTOBER BEER into Fashion again, by that most prevailing Motive, EXAMPLE , so that we may no longer be beholden to Foreigners for a Credible Liquor , which may be as successfully manufactured in this Country.” In 1789 George Washington wrote to Lafayette: “We have already been too long subject to British prejudices. I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America: both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.” (Washington was a steady customer of the Philadelphia brewer Robert Hare, whose porter, introduced in 1774, quickly won a reputation throughout the colonies and the Caribbean.)