A Brief History of Beer in America

In America, beer making began when the first Virginia settlers in 1587 used corn to make ale. This concoction was not very well received, and many "help-wanted" signs were placed about Britain to entice brewers to come to America to brew beer. The first commercial brewery opened in New Amsterdam, later known as New York, in 1612.

The Mayflower carried beer on board when it made its historic journey to America, because beer was a viable source of water while traveling across the Atlantic. When the beer ran out, the pilgrims made for land in desperate need of water.

Once a colony was firmly established, colonists obtained the necessary supplies to grow the grains, wheat or barley and the hops needed to make beer. Unlike today, beer during America's early history, was considered a food staple.

Beer and the Founding Fathers

Most of the founding fathers enjoyed beer, and whether true or not, Benjamin Franklin is often credited as saying, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had beer made on their estates in their own brew houses and George Washington had his own recipe for beer making. Samuel Adams once owned and operated a commercial brewery, though not affiliated with the microbrewery company known today. Soldiers during the Revolutionary War were granted a quart of beer a day as part of their daily rations.

In 1789, James Madison suggested to Congress that the duty placed on malt liquors be established at 8-cents per barrel. He suggested this low tax in hopes of encouraging beer manufacture in every state. By the 1800s, beer and other alcoholic beverages played an important part of the American economy.


By the 1870's, historical statistics of the U.S. provided by the government show us that there were 6.6 million barrels of beer being brewed in the United States. Harvard University wouldn't open its doors until the undergraduate's brewery was open for business. By the 1900's the number of barrels grew to 39.5 million, 59.5 in 1910 and by 1920, due to prohibition, that figure dropped to a mere 9.2 million barrels, but still up from the 1870's figure. Beer production dropped off during the 1930s to 3.7 million barrels, but grew to 54.9 million barrels in the 1940's.


Prohibition talks began during the term of John Adams, as early as 1796. Though early Puritans opposed drunkenness and not beer, by 1874, the Women's Christian Temperance Union was formed and they would play a historic part in the prohibition enacted in 1920. The Volstead Act in 1919 led to the 18th amendment, which limited the manufacture, sale or distribution of alcohol – but not its consumption. During prohibition, people turned from drinking beer and wine to drinking distilled beverages. Despite its original intentions, prohibition served to have the opposite effect, and it was during this time that the country saw an increase in criminal activity, moonshiners and rum runners.


Prohibitionists were convinced that if they made alcohol less available to the public, the social problems of America would disappear, however, all the evidence was to the contrary. At the time after coming out of World War I, drinking beer was associated with Germans and believed unpatriotic. But once it was realized that the social problems increased as a result of prohibition and the country experienced lost tax revenue, prohibition lost support. The 21st amendment was passed, repealing the 18th amendment, but only allowed the resumption of beer and other alcohol manufacture in limited stages. It wasn't until 1978 that home beer brewing was allowed. Up until that time it was prohibited, but President Jimmy Carter changed that.

Making Beer at Home

Even with an ever increasing variety of beers to purchase at the store, the hobby of home brewing is growing in popularity across the country. Home brewers can try simple recipes, or get as involved as they want.


Beer kits come in a variety of types, with the simple ones just containing hops, yeast, barley, other grains, molasses or other sweetener to help feed the yeast. The contents of the simple kit will vary depending upon whether you are making ale, lager, porter or stout. Beer is typically made 5 gallons at a time at home. The brewing process takes a few hours, and the hops must be steeped and then removed. These are usually placed inside a cheesecloth bag while steeping. The yeast can't be put in while the wort is still hot, because the yeast needs a specific temperature for it to grow.

Whether you're only interested in brewing as a hobby and want just enough to bring to the next party, or you're trying to make the perfect brew to try to take on the big boys, brewing at home is a fun and interesting hobby which will allow you to carry on the American tradition of making beer.

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