While many of us might have majored in beer during our college years, most of us would probably fail a history test on beer. The Darien Historical Society hopes to rectify that with its craft beer tasting, BrewED on the evening of Friday, March 8.
BrewED is a fundraiser for the historical society’s programs and will feature craft beer and brewing experts from Saranac (Matt Brewing Company), Two Roads Brewing Company, 1757 GW Beer, Cottrell Brewing Co., Charter Oak Brewing Company and Berkshire Brewing Company. Hearty pub-style food will be provided by Sails, Coromandal and Michael Joseph’s Fine Foods
Beer and hard cider were the beverages of choice for colonial Americans as both could be made at home from easily accessible ingredients: corn, wheat, oats, persimmons or cornstalks for beer and apples for cider. While devout religious beliefs would be at odds against alcohol consumption today, that was not the case 400 years ago. The Colonial Williamsburg Journal describes the importance of alcohol in everyday colonial life:
“Alcohol could cure the sick, strengthen the weak, enliven the aged — whiskey for colic and laryngitis. Hot brandy punch addressed cholera. Rum-soaked cherries helped with a cold. Pregnant women — a shot to ease their discomfort. Water, on the other hand, could make you sick. Many started the day with a pick-me-up and ended it with a put-me-down — also might enjoy a midmorning whistle wetter, a luncheon libation, an afternoon accompaniment, and a supper snort — ease the day with several rounds at a tavern.”
Beer was an essential everyday beverage in Europe where water pollution was a very serious problem. These beliefs and practices were carried over to the New World despite the availability of cleaner water for many of the early colonists. For example, beer was amply consumed by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Some “beer historians” posit that a dwindling supply of food and beer may have influenced the Pilgrims to settle in Plymouth. Pilgrim leader William Bradford recorded in his journal:
“We came to this resolution, to go presently ashore again — for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer — to set on the mainland, on the first place, on an high ground.”
English history is thick with the importance of beer and ale. Even the Magna Carta carried a clause that specified standard measures for ale and wine. And by the late 1300s, beer was well-established as the national drink of England. Also, beer was not just for the common folk — Queen Elizabeth I drank a potent ale with breakfast instead of juice.
However, the Dutch in Manhattan led the New World into commercial brewing: Hans Christiansen and Adrian Block, a Dutch navigator who discovered the Connecticut River, established the first known brewery in Colonial America in 1612. Their brew house soon served as the delivery room for the birth of Jan Vigne in 1614, who some claim was the first European to be born in North America. As luck would have it for brewing aficionados, Jan later owned several breweries himself. Other breweries followed in New Amsterdam with one built by the West India Company in 1632, and then the first public brewery by Governor Peter Minuit the following year.
English colonists were close behind elsewhere. They had been busy brewing ale from corn in Virginia as early as 1587, received their first shipment of English beer in 1607 and advertised in London for brewers to come to the Virginia Colony in 1609. The Massachusetts Bay Colony finally established its first brewery under the control of Captain Robert Sedgwick in 1637. New brew houses sprouted elsewhere: Providence (1639), Samuel Wentworth in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (1670) and William Penn’s colony established one in Philadelphia on Front Street and one in Bucks County (1683). Connecticut’s first brew house is not recorded but one of our first taverns was in Wethersfield and owned by John Saddler around 1638 or so.
By 1790, annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over 15 amounted to 34 gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine.
In 1787, two days before approving our nation’s Constitution, the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention celebrated at a tavern. The bill of fare from that evening was preserved: 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch. All together, this was equivalent to over three bottles of wine per delegate. Something for a strict Constitutional Constructionist to think about.
George Washington recognized both the pleasures and the moneymaking potential of beer and whiskey. . In 1757, Washington wrote out his personal recipe for “small beer” on a notebook that he kept while serving as a colonel in the Virginia militia. Washington’s recipe does not hold up well by today’s tastes. His recipe called for molasses, which can turn sour and sharp when it ferments. Few brewers use molasses these days, but Washington had no choice as barley grew poorly in the East.
After his Presidency, Washington’s plantation manager, James Anderson, recommended a whiskey distillery, although back then, the end product was more like grain alcohol. Mount Vernon’s whiskey production went from 600 gallons in 1797 to 11,000 gallons in the year of Washington’s death (1799), becoming one of the largest distillers in America.
In 1736, Benjamin Franklin printed The Drinker’s Dictionary in The Pennsylvania Gazette with over 200 expressions that, in Franklin’s words, “signify plainly that a man is drunk.”
Many of Franklin’s definitions of drunkenness are commonly used today: “He’s intoxicated, tipsy, boozy, stiff or in his cups.”
Some of his terms almost express a sympathetic endearment for the drinker’s impairment, such as: “cherubimical, cherry merry, top heavy, hiddey, jolly and lappy” and some seem quite polite, “been in the sun, a cup too much and very weary.”
Some phrases quite accurately capture a drinker’s predicament: “His head is full of bees” or “He’s got corns in his head.”
Geography also plays a role, perhaps as a putdown of foreign locations or aristocratic societies: “Been at or to or going to or seen -Barbados, France, Jericho, Geneva, Jerusalem, the French King, George or half way to Concord.
Sailing terminology seems quite fitting and on target for those lost at sea so to speak: “He’s lost his rudder, got his top gallant sails out, he’s half seas over, he carries too much sail or he’s right before the wind with all his studding Sails out!”