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American Beer History through the 19th Century

The first beer brewed by American colonists was at Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke colony in 1587. The beer must not have been very good, though, because Colonists continued to request shipments of beer from England. (Unfortunately, most of the ships’ consignments of beer were drunk on the transatlantic crossing by thirsty sailors.) And in 1609, colonists placed America’s first help-wanted ad in a London paper, asking for brewers to come to America.

Rather than continue on to their destination in Virginia, the pilgrims on the Mayflower made their landing at Plymouth Rock for lack of beer. A December 19, 1620, entry in the diary of a Mayflower passenger tells the story: “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beere.”

Beer was far more healthful than the impure water sources available to American colonists. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a noted physician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “Beer is a wholesome liquor compared with spirits. It abounds with nourishment. . . . While I wish to see a law imposing the heaviest taxes on whiskey distilleries, I should be glad to see breweries wholly exempt from taxation.” (Amen!)

Breweries in the New World were among the first businesses established. American breweries preexisted American government; some of the breweries’ staunchest supporters were also the leaders of the new nation.

In colonial America, the alehouse was second only to the church in importance. Aside from being where the brewer plied his trade, the tavern also served as the unofficial town hall and the social and political focal point of every town. It was here that the townsfolk gathered to deliberate and debate, to socialize and share news and information with the community.

To the colonists, the alehouses were cradles of liberty; while to the British, the alehouses were hotbeds of sedition. As early as 1768, the Sons of Liberty were holding meetings at the Liberty Tree Tavern in Providence; the Green Dragon Inn in Boston was called the headquarters for the revolution. George Washington made his headquarters at Fraunces Tavern in New York, where it still stands and serves beer, now in the heart of the financial district.

Most of the early breweries were small, house-based operations. Traditional ingredients, hard to come by in the New World, were often replaced with maize, molasses, bran, persimmons, potatoes, spruce twigs, birch bark, ginger, and allspice.

The first real brewery in the New World was founded in New Amsterdam (New York) in 1633. Boston’s first brewery debuted in 1637 and was a favorite among colonial leaders, who believed that beer was a moderate alternative to distilled spirits.

The city of Philadelphia got its first brewery in 1685 (but made up for lost time, as Philadelphia has had more breweries in its history than any other U.S. city). This date is confirmed by an entry in the diary of William Penn, who was a brewer himself. Historians have studied Penn’s ledgers and concluded that he ran malt and brewhouses at his Pennsbury mansion in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County.

As the United States became an instant magnet for people looking to start a new life, breweries opened as quickly as each ethnic enclave settled. Throughout the 1800s, most of the arrivals came from the beer belt countries of northern Europe (Ireland, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands — the majority of brewers were of Irish and German origin), and with them came the knowledge of brewing and an appreciation for the craft.

In 1840, about 140 breweries were operating in the United States, at least 1 in each of the 13 original colonies. Annual output totaled about 200,000 barrels. The American brewing industry boasted as many as 1,400 breweries by 1914 and employed more than 75,000 people.

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