If you’ve always thought of the Puritans who disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620 as dour teetotalers, think again. Dour, they may have been, but teetotalers they weren’t. Their alcoholic beverage was so important to them that their dependence on it probably determined more than anything why they docked in rocky, wintry Massachusetts instead of continuing south to a more pleasant climate.
William Bradford wrote about the historic Plymouth Rock landing in his journal: “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere.”
Their beer! Beer – or ale – to the early colonists was not only food, it was a dietary staple, so central to their diet that it was drunk by everyone from infants and nursing mothers, to laborers, merchants, craftsmen and lawyers. Colonists began drinking ale before breakfast and accompanied every meal throughout the day with it.
To be fair, back in England, they had learned the hard way that drinking plain water was a sure route to illness. Although not understanding the science of bacteriology, they knew that drinking ale, which had been boiled, did not make them sick as tainted water did. So beer, instead of water, made the trip to the New World with the displaced Englishmen.
Once they sampled the New World’s pristine waters, the colonists were amazed that the fresh water did not hurt them. Rather, according to one incredulous colonist, “Those that drink it (water) be as healthful, fresh, and lusty as they that drink beer.”
In spite of that discovery, ale remained the drink of choice. Most brewing and drinking was done at home, since it would be some time before brewhouses were built or taverns were established. You can still see vestiges of home brewing rooms in the small rooms tacked onto surviving colonial living quarters.
The early Americans imported barley from England or used malted local corn to brew beer in several strengths. “Small beer,” which was beer of only slight alcoholic strength, was a standard mealtime beverage meant to be drunk immediately after it was brewed. “Table beer,” “ship’s beer,” and “strong beer” were more powerful brews that could be stored longer.
And, according to university records, drinking beer on college campuses has a colonial precedent. Although beer drinking is discouraged in 21st century schools, early Harvard College students received beer at dinner and supper, and two servings in between. Morning meal was bread with a pint of beer – delivered from the College’s own brewhouses.
The culture built around beer may have been partly responsible for development of the country’s interior. Because English traders found it easier to conduct business in comfortable surroundings, taverns sprouted across the countryside, becoming centers of commerce and critical to expanding trade. Using that experience as a guide, the Crown directed the new Americans to open taverns in their communities to meet travelers’ needs.
And trade did increase, thanks to the explosion of inns across the expanding United States. A “beer monetary system” even evolved, as farmers began trading their produce for a supply of ale. In the southern colonies, an actual rate of exchange was set for the amount of tobacco that could be traded for a barrel of ale.
The onset of “civilization” and temperance-minded citizens eventually censured routine beer drinking and it ceased to be a family activity. But the next time you tip a mug of suds, drink a toast to old William Bradford and his shipmates, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean with a beer supply stashed in the Mayflower’s hold.