Red, White, and Brew

This year, I celebrated the Fourth of July by re-reading the Declaration of Independence, a document as inspiring today as it was in 1776; and by hoisting a pint of ale--American, of course--to Thomas Jefferson and his friends. Had the Founders been around, I'm sure they'd have approved. And so, I suspect, would Gregg Smith.

Smith, an award-winning beer historian, is the author of Beer in America: The Early Years, 1587-1840. Beer aficionados and history buffs will enjoy this book, which explores the role that beer played in American history. The association between the two began with the Pilgrims: they wound up at Plymouth Rock, not their intended destination of Virginia, because the ship's crew cut their beer ration. Homebrewing was an essential skill even before the first Thanksgiving, and remained so for centuries.

Your history teacher never told you this, but beer helped fueled American independence. Taxes headed the list of grievances against George III, and some of the most-hated levies hit beer drinkers where it hurt. Colonists got even by organizing a "buy American" campaign, shunning British ale in favor of the local product. Some tried more direct action. According to legend, the ringleaders of the Boston Tea Party--who met in a tavern, of course--originally planned to dump ale into the harbor. But cooler heads prevailed.

Beer also helped bring about victory on the battlefield. Lured by free beer, colonial militiamen reported to their local tavern for drills. Over time, they gained the confidence and know-how to fight the British. During the Revolutionary War, General Washington made sure his men were camped near a reliable supply, and one of the first acts of Congress guaranteed soldiers a beer ration. Washington, whose beverage of choice was porter, even gave his Farewell Address over beers at Fraunces Tavern.

After independence, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the nation's brewing capital in those days. After their formal debates, delegates continued their discussions in the city's taverns. An evening of drinking resulted in the famous compromise that resulted in our two-house Congress, and the United States as we know it. Perhaps the Founders were teaching us a lesson: having a few beers together settles differences and lowers the political temperature.

What did our ancestors drink? Smith describes a beverage that, if it were served to you, you'd send back. It was an ale, of course; considerably stronger than mainstream lagers; dark and cloudy; and probably made with improvised substitutes for barley and hops. Bad batches were common, and brewers resorted to Yankee ingenuity to rescue them. "Cocktails" made with hard liquor, eggs, and spices, as well as ale, were the rage; and bartenders were expected to know how to mix the latest trendy drinks.

Our forefathers drank far more than we do, in part because they shied away from water, which was a menace to health back in England. Predictably, public drunkenness and other side effects of drinking were major social problems, and lawmakers confronted many of the legal and regulatory questions we wrestle with today. They knew, for instance, that taverns stimulated the economy but also imposed social costs. The issue, then as now, was where to draw the line.

In the debate over drinking, beer's defenders argued that their beverage was getting a bad rap, and that gin and rum were the real culprits. They insisted that beer was the "beverage of moderation," an argument made a hundred years later when national Prohibition loomed. Many prominent Americans agreed. Congress even considered building a national brewery to help wean citizens off the hard stuff--until Jefferson persuaded lawmakers that businessmen would do a better job of brewing beer.

From the earliest days, morality entered the debate over beer. Early Massachusetts preachers clamored for blue laws to encourage their flock to attend Sunday services rather than drink. (That said, the Puritans deserve a break. Their stance toward drinking was one of moderation, not prohibition). In the nineteenth century, however, clergymen no longer saw beer as part of God's creation and instead railed against it as instrument of Satan. As early as 1836, some temperance groups insisted on a total ban on alcohol, and states soon tried the idea. Early prohibition laws were a flop, but the drys weren't about to admit defeat.

Smith's book ends, appropriately enough, in 1840, when a wave of German immigrants and, with them, lager beer, hit our shores. Smith wades into the "who brewed the first lager" debate, making a case for Adam Lemp of St. Louis, not John Wagner of Philadelphia, who is usually given credit. Regardless of who served the first glass, lager soon became a national fad. American beer, and drinking habits, were about to change radically.