Drinking on the Last Frontier: Brewing US history

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Independence Day has always been one of my favorite holidays, even as a kid.

The Founding Fathers, as in John Trumbull’s famous painting depicting the presentation of the draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress, knew how to celebrate with fine, locally brewed craft beer. Craft beer aficionados can do the same this Fourth of July.

Sure, you don’t get presents like Christmas, but the weather’s nicer. No turkey, a la Thanksgiving, but I like burgers off the grill better anyway. No costumes like Halloween, but there are fireworks, which are way more dangerous (and therefore much cooler).

Most of all, Independence Day is a quintessentially American holiday. The other holidays celebrate things that people all over the world also celebrate, even if they do it on a different day. But only Americans celebrate the Fourth of July (unless you count those snarky Brits who observe it as “British Thanksgiving Day”).

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Even today, these words are revolutionary. Our country was born in a revolt against the way things were, by men who dreamed of the way they could be. By rebels with a cause, willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to it and to each other. As with many holidays, I think that too often we are having so much fun with the celebration we forget just what it is that we are supposed to be celebrating.

Lest we forget, we are celebrating that fact that our forefathers, traitors to the crown all, had the guts to declare that whenever any form of government becomes destructive and hostile to the rights of its citizens, those citizens have the right to alter or abolish it, by any means necessary. Then they proceeded to act on what they had declared. They risked it all, and many of them paid the ultimate price. One of my own ancestors, Capt. Benjamin Merrill, was hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor by the royal governor of North Carolina, William Tryon. The freedoms we celebrate were bought and paid for in blood.

As we celebrate the courage and success of the Founding Fathers, we can also remember that, practically to a man, they were beer drinkers. Colonial taverns provided a lively forum for the radical ideas of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ben Franklin and other dangerous revolutionaries. The British called these taverns “hotbeds of sedition,” and they were right. Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty planned the Boston Tea Party at their favorite meeting place, the Green Dragon Tavern.

Let’s focus in on the proverbial father of our country, George Washington. One of his first acts as commander of the Continental Army was to proclaim that every one of his troops would receive a quart of beer with his daily rations. As the war progressed and supplies dwindled, an irate Washington had to do battle with the Continental Congress in order to have his troops’ rations restored.

Washington knew what he was about when it came to beer. He maintained a private brewery at Mount Vernon. His handwritten beer recipe, well-regarded by his peers, is on display today at the New York Public Library.

Washington wasn’t the only one of the founders to enjoy and promote beer. Jefferson is said to have composed the first draft of the Declaration of Independence over a tankard of ale at the Indian Queen Tavern in Philadelphia. James Madison considered beer to be so vital that, as president, he proposed the establishment of a National Brewery, to compliment the National Bank already in existence.

However, there’s one founding father who wasn’t a brewer, even though he’s often called one today. Samuel Adams, he of Boston Beer Company fame, was not, so far as we know, a brewer. He, like his father, was actually a maltster, a person who malts barley to prepare it for brewing then sells it to the brewer. I’m sure the marketing folks decided that potential buyers would respond to “brewer” better, so that is how he is referred to on their label.

So as we all gather to commemorate the actions of the visionaries who fought and died to create this country, let’s do so in the same way they would have — by raising a glass filled with beer, beer that is locally owned and locally brewed.

Happy birthday, America. May the good lord grant that your best days are still ahead.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. Drinking on the Kenai appears the first Wednesday of the month in the Redoubt Reporter.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Drinking on the Last Frontier: Brewing US history

  1. Great article, Bill! Love that other people remember the historical importance of beer to our country. I’ll definitely be raising a tankard or two of my fave ale on the 4th! Cheers! ;)

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