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The History of Brewing in the United States

by Sara Doersam

The United States has a deep and diverse brewing history dating back to the Pilgrims' voyage to the New World. In 1620, the Pilgrims curtailed their search for a more suitable harbor when they dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock after two months at sea. "We could not take much time for further search, our victuals being much spent, especially beer," wrote William Bradford in his firsthand account History of Plimouth Plantation [sic].

Indeed, beer was not the diversion of pleasure cruises as it is today, but rather an important staple to the fledgling colonists. Water stored in the hold of ships quickly became rancid, thus beer was of utmost importance for survival. Shortly after their arrival to the new land, the Pilgrims introduced their newfound friends, the Native Americans, to beer, while the Indians introduced the Pilgrims to what would become a common beer ingredient in the United States: corn.

After surviving a critical shortage of beer during first few months of their arrival, the Pilgrims designated the erection of a brewhouse as a top priority. As settlements became established, home kitchens became home breweries and, following with tradition, women were the brewers. When brewing supplies like malt and hops became scarce, colonists began producing beer from corn, birch, and spruce, to name a few substitutions, but they raised much concern over the adulteration of beer. Soon several colonial governments enacted statutes regulating beer's ingredients and the brewing process. Thus, some of the country's first consumer laws were born from beer.

Taverns thrived throughout the colonies, and the government, recognizing profit to be made, soon began licensing them. Through the colonial period, it seemed everyone had their finger in the brewing pot. Even the clergy refused to abstain from the pleasures of beer, partaking in special "ordination beers" to celebrate becoming heads of churches. Beer found its way to college campuses when John Harvard established his college in 1636 and declared an ample beer supply an early priority by planning a brewhouse to service the needs of faculty and students. In the early 1700s beer was as popular as ever, and became an integral part of many employee benefit packages. The apportioning of beer in the workplace continued despite numerous legislative attempts to discourage the practice -- the laws were ineffective and the restorative effects of beer were promoted far beyond the workplace. Court was often held in local taverns, and the brewing process and success of crops were on the minds of many colonists. Even as a member of the Continental Congress John Adams wrote of his concerns about the barley fields in his famous letters to his wife Abigail.

The custom of raising a mug of ale to someone's health began as a good-spirited routine in the taverns, but the practice quickly got out of hand when revelers began toasting to everything from the King and Queen down to their own children and pets. Again the government attempted to regulate drinking and tavern disorder, but encountered resistance. When the British began to tax beer, patriots Sam Adams and James Otis were prompted to initiate a movement refusing the Crown's order. The British acts of retribution served to unite the colonists and elevate them to new acts of resistance.

Beer was among the American Army's authorized rations during the Revolutionary War. The Paris Peace Treaty ended the fighting, and beer faced its strongest challenge. English grains were difficult to grow, and New Englanders saw an opportunity to capitalize on a convenient alternative: hard cider. Apple trees grew well and bore fruit even though they weren't native to America. The production of hard cider was very successful and cider, like beer, became very popular. Ben Franklin, John Adams and John Hancock were all partial to cider. However, cider did not replace ale, secure in its own right. George Washington, the father of our country, was a brewer and his favorite drink was porter. By the end of the 1700s, the brewing communities of New York and Philadelphia were well established and undistracted by cider (like the settlements in New England).

The first American temperance movement occurred in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1800s. But the temperance movement aided the proliferation of beer over cider, because, after being destroyed, barley fields were quicker to re-establish than apple orchards; thus leading to the demise of cider. Despite the temperance movement, Matthew Vassar's Hudson Valley Brewery grew and prospered. However, Vassar had a dream to establish a women's college, so he relinquished the daily operation of his brewery and, using his own wealth, established Vassar Female College in 1861.

Concurrent with a new wave of German immigrants in the 1820s, significant changes occurred in brewing procedures. The German immigrants brought with them not only the already popular ales and porters, but also the alt and weiss beers popular in Germany. At the same time, Yankee clipper ships were breaking transatlantic speed records, enabling brewers to import a new strain of yeast and generate an entirely different style of beer: lager. Innovations in glassmaking replaced old pewter and earthen tankards which hid the floating debris of muddy, unfiltered ales. The new, bright, bubbly lager in a clear glass became a hit.

Although authorized rations of beer to soldiers had been discontinued by the mid-1800s, beer still prevailed throughout the ranks during the American Civil War. Sutlers (entrepreneurs who followed army troops providing services and reaping profits) were the most common source of beer. Struggling to meet the war debt, Abraham Lincoln received authorization from Congress to start the Internal Revenue Tax and levied a one dollar tax on each barrel of beer.

The end of the Civil War brought commercial beer production to new heights as westward expansion forged ahead. Six million barrels of beer were commercially brewed in 1867 and nine million barrels by 1873. Refrigeration, invented in 1850, along with the appeal of lagers ushered in the country's golden age of brewing. No longer would brewers go in search of cool cellars and caves, resorting to brewing lagers only during winter months when lager yeast proliferated; now lager brewers could rake in profits producing beer year round. Vassar's old ale brewery was driven out of business, along with other traditional ale breweries. The results would change the brewing complexion of the country for years to come. The rise of national breweries began, but one brewery -- Anheuser-Busch -- vowed to position itself not only to recover from temperance and the years of Prohibition but to become a brewing giant.

The temperance movement of the 1840s managed to get the country's first Prohibition law enacted in Maine in 1851. The bill called for "the suppression of Drinking houses and Tippling shops." Numerous states followed with similar laws in the ensuing years, but the laws were not enforced and failed. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s temperance was revived and Prohibition gained strength. Andrew Volstead of Minnesota orchestrated a bill that would become the 18th Amendment. Introduced as the National Prohibition Act (the Volstead Act), it prohibited intoxicating beverages containing more than .5 percent alcohol and went into effect in 1920. The experiment was dubbed "The Noble Experiment" by Herbert Hoover. Brewers who had known nothing but success scrambled to stay alive by brewing near beers, soft drinks and even producing food products. Although Prohibition lasted 13 years, until its repeal by the 21st Amendment in 1933, it was never supported by a majority of the population. It spawned organized crime in the U.S. and proved devastating to the brewing industry. When Prohibition went into effect, there were some 2,000 operating breweries in the country; in 1933, only 750 reopened.

Following Prohibition, and especially after World War II, small breweries gave way to big brewing plants and top fermenting ales were a thing of the past. Beers became lighter in color and body and milder in flavor with less hops, and brewing became more of a science than an art. The new breed of megabrewers were using inexpensive corn and rice adjuncts to brew their new American light lagers while they touted bland, tasteless, "wet air" beers to American consumers who bought it hook, line and sinker. The American affinity for bland, tasteless beer continued on the same path until about the early 1980s when a few serious beer lovers with a vision had the foresight to revive flavorful craft brewed ales and lagers.

The Beer Renaissance of today is in full swing, and it's all about choice, flavor and the art of brewing. Homebrewing was nationally legalized in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. Since that time all but two states have ratified homebrewing. Trail blazers from the '60s through the '80s include breweries such as Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, Yakima Brewing & Malting Co. and Mendocino Brewing Co.

Craft beer sales continue to grow at a rate of 50 percent per year while mainstream light lager sales have gone flat. Megabrewers are scrambling to produce and position microbrewery knock-offs next to their American light lagers, while still others are getting a piece of the action by buying into authentic micro- and regional-breweries. With strong indications of a promising future and a return to our strong brewing heritage, the U.S. may see a craft brewery in every community again one day.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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