Drinking on the Last Frontier: Stars, stripes and suds — Early U.S. presidents had varying tastes in tipping back beverages

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Image from the New York Public Library. President George Washington hand wrote his own recipe for brewing his “Small Beer.”

Image from the New York Public Library. President George Washington hand wrote his own recipe for brewing his “Small Beer.”

 

When most people think about holidays in February, they naturally tend to focus on Valentine’s Day. In my column for February 2010, I tackled the question of pairing beer with chocolate, so I think this February we should focus on another holiday. And not Mardi Gras either, though I guarantee there will be plenty of beer drunk in New Orleans on Feb. 12 this year.

No, this time around I want to talk about Presidents Day. Or, more specifically, the relationship our various Founding Fathers had with beer.

Starting with George Washington, it’s easy to see that the father of our country had a very cordial relationship with beer. Washington was an enthusiastic drinker of porter, the most popular beer of the time, and imported substantial quantities from Britain.

Later, when American dissatisfaction with things like the Stamp Act led the colonials to begin a boycott of British imports, he shifted to American brewers and home-brewing to supply his beer needs.
Indeed, besides being called the father of our country, Washington could also justly be called the father of American home brewers, as there still survives a recipe, written in his own hand, for brewing small beer.

Small beer was the soda pop of its day, being a very low alcohol beer that was drunk by everyone, including women and children, as it was much safer than either water or milk, laced as those were with disease-causing bacteria.

Washington knew how important beer was for good health, and during his time as commander of the Continental Army, did his utmost to ensure that his soldiers were well-supplied with it, writing numerous letters to the Continental Congress on the subject.

After independence was achieved, Washington continued to drink porter but never returned to his former British suppliers. In a letter to Lafayette, written during his presidency, he said, “We have already been too long subject to British Prejudices. I use no porter or cheese in my family but such as is made in America: both these articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.”

Based on his letters, it appears his favorite brewer during this period was a Mr. Hare of Philadelphia. Washington placed frequent large orders to be delivered to Mount Vernon during his stays there.
Our second president, John Adams, was not known as a frequent beer drinker. Being a native New Englander, his drink of choice was hard cider.

He drank a tankard of hard cider every day with his breakfast and credited this habit for his long life. Considering he lived to be 90, in an age when most people died in their 40s, he may have been on to something.

Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was extremely fond of wine, but also had high regard for beer. When he retired to Monticello in 1809 after his second term, he built a brewroom in the kitchen under the south parlor. Here his daughter Martha brewed so frequently that in her first year alone, she produced over 170 gallons.

A letter, dated January 1814, from Jefferson to one of his neighbors survives. In it we can read a lament echoed by many home brewers to this day (including yours truly). It seems that while his friends had been eager to take Monticello’s home brew with them to enjoy, they had been less than diligent about returning the bottles.

Jefferson complained that a batch of strong malt beer was ready, but there were not enough bottles on hand to put it in.
Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson viewed beer as a healthy and moderate beverage, particularly when compared to the “ardent spirits” of rum and whiskey that so many Americans were drinking at the time. This belief was also held by Jefferson’s friend, neighbor and successor as president, James Madison.
President Madison believed so strongly in the health and economic benefits of a strong brewing industry that he went so far as to explore the possibility of creating a National Brewery of the United States, similar in concept to the National Bank of the United States which was then in existence.

The historical details are somewhat sketchy, but it appears that in December 1810, Madison received a letter from a businessman and author of a brewing handbook by the name of Joseph Coppinger, suggesting the establishment of such a brewery. Madison apparently passed the letter on to Thomas Jefferson for his opinion, as a copy survives in Jefferson’s papers.

However, before the matter could really be decided either way, the War of 1812 intervened. After peace returned, Coppinger tried to revive the scheme, but Jefferson dismissed it as no longer necessary, due to the growth of private breweries.

With the hindsight of history, perhaps it’s just as well. After all, what would our world be like if we had to get our beer from the same people who deliver our mail?
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. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.
 

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