Many backyard grilling chefs will pop open a chilled, tasty brew to accompany their smoky burgers and sausages in celebration of Independence Day. They may opt for a light commercial lager brewed by an international conglomerate or a more interesting craft brew, possibly produced locally. Back in 1776, at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, beer in the colonies was much different than it is today.

When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, they were off course (intending to arrive in Virginia) and had run out of a very important staple, beer. Water did not travel well in those pre-refrigeration days and became brackish and a potential disease vector. Beer is boiled when made and is generally free of microbes and bacteria. An entry in the ship’s dairy states, “We could not now take time for further search… our victuals being much spent, especially our beer…”

The local Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to make beer from locally available maize (corn), an ingredient that is employed in some very popular commercial brews today, along with birch sap and water.

As the colonies grew, innovative brewers often did not have access to the classic source of fermentable sugars, malted barley. Instead they turned to a broad array of sweet fruits and vegetables, including persimmons, spruce tips, ginger, molasses and pumpkins. The pumpkin brews in those days were devoid of the pumpkin pie type spices that would be found in the modern pumpkin craft brews that are released around October. Instead these brews may have been seasoned with spruce tips, ginger or even ground ivy, a common weed. Since these brews were not delicious, they never caught on in popularity.

During the 1700s, farmers were planting vast fields of barley to meet the demand. Brewers steeped the barley in water until it began to sprout, releasing fermentable sugars. The grains were cracked by hand and boiled, resulting in a substance that resembled oatmeal. It was poured into a barrel that had been sawed in half and the sweet liquid could be separated and boiled with hops. After it cooled, yeast was added so fermentation could begin. Most beers were brewed with dark grains, and warm-fermenting ale yeast was pitched.

When the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, representatives became enamored of a porter brewed locally by one Robert Hare. Hare had arrived in the city the previous year and desired to make a brew as good as an English one. The colonists were furious with King George and had no desire to purchase English goods. Hare’s porter earned a reputation as the best in Philadelphia and was so popular that John Adams wrote to his wife, “I drink no Cyder, but feast upon Phyladelphia Beer, and Porter. A Gentleman, one Mr. Hare, has lately set up in this City a Manufactory of Porter as good as any that comes from London.” George Washington liked Hare’s porter so much that he had it shipped to his home in Mount Vernon as well as his locations on the front during the Revolutionary War.

Hare became a socialite due to the popularity of his beer and entered politics. Just as his career was getting underway, his brewery burned down in 1790 and the recipe was lost. The brew would have undoubtedly been a strong dark ale, as lagers were not practical in those pre-refrigeration days. The book, “The Homebrewer’s Recipe Guide” by Higgins, Kilgore and Hertlien recreated the recipe based on original accounts of what the brew tasted like. The recipe uses amber malt, dark malt, crystal and chocolate malts, as well as molasses, and yields a stout and robust brew.

While Washington was Commander of the Continental Army, he mandated that every soldier would receive a quart of beer with his daily rations. As the war dragged on, beer supplies became scarce and Washington had to fight with the Continental Congress to maintain the supply of beer for his troops.

Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams all brewed beer, though Adams was respected more for his skill with malting barley than beer making. When Washington retired to Mount Vernon, he brewed what was referred to as a Small Beer. In those days, small beer referred to a low-alcohol version that was consumed as nourishment by everyone, including servants and children. Regular beer produced by breweries was known as “strong beer.” Washington’s recipe for small beer was saved and can be viewed on Mount Vernon’s website at The recipe calls for bran, molasses and hops to be boiled with 30 gallons of water and then allowed to cool. When the beer reaches a temperature of “blood warm,” yeast is pitched and, if the weather is cold, the brew should be covered with a blanket. My advice to you homebrewers is to not try this at home.

On Sept. 15, 1787, Washington and his cohorts celebrated the signing of the Constitution and his election as president at the City Tavern in Philadelphia. The guest list included 55 politicians, soldiers, friends and family in addition to 16 support personnel. According to the First Troop Cavalry Archives, 54 bottles of Madeira were consumed along with 60 bottles of Bordeaux, 22 bottles of porter and other potent potables. At the end of the event, the bar tab, adjusted for broken glass, totaled over 89 pounds, or over $17,000 in today’s dollars! Our constitution was signed two days later.

Colonial law decreed that beer was to be served in pint, half-pint or quart portions. Patrons often drank from a tankard fashioned from waxed leather called a “blackjack.” Later, pewter tankards became fashionable, but when tin could no longer be imported from England, existing pewter was melted down and re-formed. Since there was no refrigeration, these dark brews were usually consumed at cool cellar temperature. As you quaff your ice cold light beer, you can reflect on the murky, lukewarm libation that our forefathers enjoyed. Happy Fourth of July!

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